Where will you be swept off to?

I stepped outside the door last week of August 2011. After 15 odd years of relentless running I had the opportunity to step back and consider the runner, the running and the race.

The Hobbit

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Am yet to be ‘swept off’ but the journey so far has been exhilarating, surprising and challenging. Below I share a little of what I have realized and learnt so far.

  • Context changes everything. Including what you know of yourself and others.
  • What remains after labels are stripped away is character.
  • Not every relationship sprouts.
  • Serendipity does happen!
  • Full-time employment or startup is a question of which challenges you wish to take on.
  • Power unveils character.
  • There is generosity in unexpected places, seek it.
  • Conventional wisdom on anything breaks down at the fine-print.
  • Complete freedom is harder to handle than it appears. Empathize with men who elect to be constrained.
  • What you do when you can do anything is driven by character.

All considered, I feel I should have walked out the door sooner. And yes I do have things other than aphorisms to talk about 🙂 I shall do another update on my startup, progress so far and thoughts on next steps.

And am curious, what did you learn last year about the world and yourself?

Note: The picture above is of The Hobbit.

Go Forth – Levi’s Campaign

Poetry, even when employed to peddle souped up nothing, still carries with it the majesty of the spheres it issues from. Like a flame in the cup of your hand, a thing so fragile, yet so rife with possibilities.

[Read more…]

Aphorisms on Graphic Design–Frank Chimero

John Maeda linked to a post by Frank Chimero via this tweet. The title of the post by Frank is rather innocuous, “What advise would you give to a graphic design student”. But I highly recommend you don’t take it at face value and head over right away and read it.

Some sample quotes, if you are not convinced as yet, or if you do not know Frank.

Most decisions are gray, and everything lives on a spectrum of correctness and suitability.

If you can’t draw as well as someone, or use the software as well, or if you do not have as much money to buy supplies, or if you do not have access to the tools they have, beat them by being more thoughtful.

Think of every project as an opportunity to learn, but also an opportunity to teach.

There is tons more where the above sample came from.

What struck me was this. The points in there were not based on some theoretical framework – with a formal definition for what graphic design is, a set of axioms, a set of theorems built on the axioms and so on. This was like plugging into the mind and heart of a designer who has lived and breathed his craft. What issued from there were not formulae but more aphorisms that have to be encountered, entered into and become one with by the journeyman who wishes to tread the path.

I have already read it a handful of times, and recommend you do so too.

Designing for the End

Often times we value an object based on its durability. Of course aesthetics, utility and usability do play a big role, but even when all these are present, we value an object’s ability to endure contact with and usage by us. In that context I came across this post by Berg about Nike Mayfly shoes, that has planned its own obsolescence with elegance.

What follows is my own musings about the perishability of things, the design of perishable things, our own mortality and god knows what else. You would not miss much if you just read the post about the Mayfly shoes, but my gratitude would be alone without your company of course.

Perishability of Things

Not all things we touch and consume is durable. Much of what we consume for bodily sustenance is perishable.

Expiration

Take any food packaging and you can find its ‘use by’ date firmly stated. Here the utility of this commodity degrades over a period of time.

There is little we can control here, apart from making the package better and control the climatic conditions that would maximize the lifetime of the commodity.

Compartmented Perishability

On the continuum between perishable and near eternal, the next notch would be those of things that can be reused by replacing the perishable component of a product. Think of any common pen or ball point pen. With the ink as a consumable resource, the thing to do after the ink is over is to refill the ink, or change the refill.

As an aside it is interesting to see how the verb re-fill has started playing the role of a noun.

What am thinking about here is how our design choices are influenced by the perishability of things, how we manage to compartmentalize the perishable stuff, maximize the reuse potential and perhaps reduce the cost of the products we create.

Designed Perishability

But what the Mayfly product by Nike emphasizes is a curious take on planned obsolescence, something that wears its supposed weakness(utility for a limited duration only) with pride.

Nike Mayfly

It inverts our subconscious preference for durability and makes one celebrate its arrival and departure in a methodical fashion. It is almost as if this thing was alive, a thing conscious and demanding to be treated accordingly. Perhaps to be named, entered into a relationship with and even mark milestones towards the inevitable end.

I can almost imagine the product designers conceiving this not as a product but a statement about their worldview. And in doing so make this a work of art and not merely a product to serve a mundane function. It takes a courageous organization to put its name on something so ephemeral, more than most consumer products.

Perishability in Digital Media?

So that brings this question in my mind, does digital media perish? Well, by definition digital media is forever since its just a bunch of bytes that don’t degrade with time. Here it is a question of findability, having access to the media in question and its utility to the individual that determines the value of it.

So stuff like movies, songs and all other forms of entertainment are arguably forever, as long as the three factors(findability, access and utility) are taken care of. If only the business models that surround them accounted for this factor and not created an artificial scarcity am guessing they would do much better than they do now.

Relevance to Software Products

Again, a software product does not perish so perishability is an alien concept here. But do note that evolving expectations from users make what was once useful to be less so over a period of time, and in that sense they are indeed degrade over time. Hence the drive on the part of software vendors to continually release newer versions that cater to these evolving expectations. And in doing so come out with abominations like Adobe Acrobat v.zillion and Microsoft Office v.zillion+1, which have drastically lower utility in an online world.

If only software vendors, and consumers, were willing to consider planned obsolescence more frequently, it would create more opportunities for newer possibilities to emerge frequently.

This leads me to wonder how we humans deal with our own perishability.

Immortality by Proxy

As a species that is aware of its own mortality we assign great value to things that outlast us, perhaps as a means to attain immortality by proxy. And that impulse to live forever, they say, powers our culture, relationships, art, literature and science. In contributing to these fields and engaging in these activities, we leave something of us behind for all time.

Take for example the poem Ozymandias:

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

Sculptures that outlast the men and hearts that crafted story out of inert stone.

We are not designed for eternity, at least not the corporeal part of us. Instead we seem to have been equipped with this unique gift to ruminate on this abstract concept of aesthetics while rummaging through the debris of life and fashion out of numberless moments something that we can be remembered by.

Looks like I have wandered off quite a bit here. Anyway, read the article on Nike Mayfly. Drop a comment if this has made you pause and think even if for a moment. And thanks if you have come this far!

A Vision is a Lonely Place

A vision is a curse. The thing not seen sits just behind the screen, coursing through your veins as a fire. Burning down reason and pragmatism in its urgency to be born, to become a material reality.

It is a madness, that excludes the mundane from its consideration. You wish to speak out – to cast in words what is clothed in the mists of possibilities, but no words consent to carry the fire. And you are left holding it in hollow of your breast. Will it burn down the form that bears it, or will the clay of mortality be transmuted by the fire?

Cassandra, The Archetype

Ajax_and_Cassandra

 

Perhaps the best archetype of a visionary comes from Greek mythology as Cassandra, daughter of King Priam of Troy. She is given a boon by Apollo to see the future but, perhaps due to the vagaries of godly nature, also curses her that none would believe her words. The delicious irony of it all, to see and yet not have anyone believe! The helplessness of being unable to guide her kin away from their destined doom.

Of course this is an archetype, an idealized personification of the visionary type. Reality is far away, and diluted many times over, from this essence. But however miniscule the vision, it comes with a proportionate sting.

 

 

The Problem of Reality

The above thoughts will make perfect sense for those who have had an intense creative urge. Not just the artistic or the literary variety but even the more pragmatic and technological variety.

If your vision is sufficiently advanced, it is almost a given that reality will refuse to entertain it, to see the concrete lurking behind the possibility.

This is indeed a hard phase for any creator or visionary. The solutions offered by books on harnessing your creativity, being effective innovators etc. are rather simplistic and offer rational solutions to a state that is beyond reason.

Reality is a complex machinery, there seems to be a method but it eludes any formulation. Those who intuit a method, do so in hindsight but never when in the eye of the storm. The management gurus and their ilk study the cadavers of the past to figure out the elixir of the future.

The Magic Word for Creators

There is no single incantation that will purge the vision into reality. No single act that can be the bridge between possibility and reality.

What is required is a sustained aspiration to hold the vision within and a multitude of numberless acts that chip away at reality. The dream can be made real if fuelled by relentless pursuit. Not the mad rush of the intoxicated, expending a fiery passion on a single lunge. But the unyielding will of a desert nomad moving towards an oasis, or perhaps the will of Yogi seeking to quell thought.

Analogy as the Core of Cognition

Since writing the post on creativity I have been trying to make some connections of my own. Something that would explain the mechanics behind creativity and perhaps the nature of the thinker too. And then it struck me, the connections that Steve Jobs was referring to as the origin of creativity is very similar to the processes that Douglas Hofstadter talks about in a lecture called Analogy as the Core of Cognition.

Douglas takes an even more hardcore stand. He considers this ability to see patterns, this analogical mode of perception, as the very basis of cognition. That is to say the foundation of thinking.

If you are sort of missing the point here, let me illustrate.

Ability to see connections –> Creativity

Ability to see analogies –> Cognition

Do you see the parallels now? Good..So seen from that perspective, one could say that the very act of thinking, or just cognizing, is a creative act. And perhaps creativity is just an exalted mode of thinking, something that extends it in ways we are unable to nail properly but still built on the same foundation of thinking. Which is not bad at all and very egalitarian too.

I think, therefore I am, could very well have a corollary(or should I say analogy? Eeks this is getting recursive!) saying I analogize, therefore I think.

Damn, as I wrote the above lines I see possibilities that my feeble mind cannot comprehend fully. Am entering philosophical territory here. I shall come back to this another day!

On Creativity – Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs on Creativity, via Autocatalyst / Wired.

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

That just about nails it, as far as my understanding of creativity goes.

To be focused on a specific domain provides depth but starves the mind of raw material it needs to go beyond the algorithmic mode of thinking. Perceiving connections or parallels between multiple disparate topics leads to uncovering possibilities and opportunities to fuse attributes that would not be feasible if one had considered a topic in isolation. Am sure there is more to it but we could go with this definition.

If that did not make sense let us consider a few examples.

Timeless way of Building by Christopher Alexander, a book on design principles involved in architecture of buildings provided inspiration for the software Design Patterns, authored by the Gang of Four and has fundamentally changed our views on constructing software.

Star Wars was created by George Lucas after being inspired The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, who studied world mythology and the archetypes that influence them.

Steve Jobs aimed for perfect typography on the Mac after being exposed many years before to the beauty of calligraphy. Check the commencement speech here where he speaks about the incident and how it influenced his thinking.

Anyway, do you think these examples qualify? Would like to hear your views either way. Or even better share your examples below in the comments or drop me a line.

Optimized for Scarcity

Two quotes that I had come across recently dealt with our human ability to deal, or not deal, with the excess of anything. Do read through.

First is from Bruce Chatwin, On the origins of human restlessness:

What I learned there—together with what I now knew about the Songlines—seemed to confirm the conjecture I had toyed with for so long: that Natural Selection has designed us—from the structure of our brain-cells to the structure of our big toe—for a career of seasonal journeys on foot through a blistering land of thorn-scrub or desert.

If this were so; if the desert were "home"; if our instincts were forged in the desert; to survive the rigors of the desert—then it is easier to understand why greener pastures pall on us; why possessions exhaust us, and why Pascal’s imaginary man found his comfortable lodgings a prison.

The key points that resonated with me in the above quote are that “greener pastures pall on us” and “possessions exhaust us”.

Second quote is by Clay Shirky as quoted and discussed in Megan Garber’s post on Nieman Journalism Labs:

“Scarcity is easier to deal with than abundance, because when something becomes rare, we simply think it more valuable than it was before, a conceptually easy change…abundance is different: its advent means we can start treating previously valuable things as if they were cheap enough to waste, which is to say cheap enough to experiment with.”

The key points in this quote should be obvious in the very first sentence. The idea is that abundance leads us to devalue something, perhaps to experiment with it as best case, or just to waste in the worst case.

The bottom line for both quotes seems to be that we humans are optimized by design for scarcity. The abundance of anything makes us swim upstream against the natural tendency of our nature. Or perhaps it is a evolutionary vestige that we are yet to outgrow.

The idea that humans are optimized for scarcity appeals to some deep part of me, can’t completely articulate why but I shall let this simmer within for some more time. What do you think?

Inventing Purpose

The unhurried ambling. The contemplative discourses at the cafe. Plain old ruminations. Whilst these qualities positively mark out an yogic aspirant or a poet, they spell utter disaster when indulged in by professionals. And I see a lot of them everyday.

For the record I define a professional as one who is relied upon to do a certain job, and is possibly compensated for it.

I see this as a problem of knowing ones purpose. Without purpose one lives as an animal. Works for the food, clothing and shelter. Breeds some, accumulates some wealth, breeds a little more. And leaves the world just as it was before.

Why is it important to know our life’s calling? Well, for starters, it acts like a catalyst that amplifies everything we do. It is a goal towards which we surely move even with the tactical diversions we might take. It is the salt of existence, tying together the various skills we bring together in living our lives and raises us to a higher harmony.

Without purpose one can go through the motions of doing everything but never accomplish anything.

The designer does not choose to think about designing beautiful things after entering office, he mulls about it every waking moment. The painter sees in his mind’s eye a masterpiece in every common view of life. The poet casts his many heartaches into sonnets that outlast the ravages of time.

It could be argued that these examples are beyond the ken of normal humanity, that these are souls that are born into genius. But nothing could be further from the truth.

It is possible to exceed ones station though born with no distinguishing signs that light up the skies, possessing only average skill, buffeted by an average job and backed by an average mind. Life and circumstance don’t have to define our calling, we can choose our purpose. Imperfect it might be, but still better than leading the life of an animal.

We are not required to be the messiah who redeems humanity. A little of ourselves to perfect is enough. Not to be one who stands on the borders of heaven vowing not to go forward until every soul is rescued from mortality. To awaken ourselves and a single other soul to the beauty and compassion and perfection of life is enough.

Purpose can and must be invented if it is not granted unto us.

To build something that makes life a little better for people. To break through the status quo by unceasingly pushing ourselves. To provide hope to a handful of people around. To be the possibility that the less fortunate can look up to. To be one the haughty fear to confront. Anything at all but the mediocrity that is given by default.

Trick is to do all this with humility, while curbing wayward passions and managing the weaknesses of flesh. After all, if the Master does turn up at the end of our journeys, we don’t want to look silly.

Origin of Religious Species

The churn of a storm, the lightning that tears open the skies, the wasted colors to beautify a moment’s horizon. Each, in the mind and heart of perceiving man, gives birth to awe. That unique state where, bereft of understanding, there stands a heightened state mingled with fear. And some might argue a state of perception beyond mind. Religion, poetry, piety and more might have their birth here.

I have always been fascinated by the religious instinct in man. Especially the origins of it. What impelled earliest man to conceive a God? Whence the origins of his impulse to obey and surrender?

I believe I have come across a plausible answer on what could have given birth to the religious instinct. And the clue arrived while watching this movie called the Quest for Fire.

The sequence occurs when Naoh, of the Ulam tribe, is being chased by the Kzamm tribe. While fleeing Naoh comes across a herd of Mammoths, more menacing and imposing than any creature he has ever come across.

Keeping in mind the evolutionary stage of this tribe the typical response would be to flee or fight. Neither of which are relevant or feasible in this scenario. Kzamm tribe outnumbers the paltry four from the Ulam tribe, including Naoh. The Mammoths are in a herd, with the testy bull male right upfront. Again, to emphasize the obvious, neither flight nor fight is feasible.

That is when Naoh does the unexpected. With eyes reflecting a mixture of suppressed fear, or is it surprise?, he does the unthinkable. He moves towards the bull male, slowly inching his way forward, contradicting every instinct he has grown to trust. When close to the animal he bows; head down, arms raised with palms facing forward and bows, kneeling and head touching ground. The near-human animal offers its surrender to the Mammoth, acknowledging its superiority.

And the Mammoth acknowledges that surrender. It protects the near-human creature by chasing away the Kzamm tribe when they try to get close. Naoh and his tribe mates don’t fail to observe this response by the Mammoth.

This  amalgam of emotions – shock, fear and being in the presence of something big and unexplainable is how I perceive awe. Awe becomes the origin of our first religious instinct, inspiring our surrender and the giving of ourselves entirely.

In response, the one who surrenders sometimes perceives the answering grace. And in that specific stimuli-response is the origin of all preoccupations that exceed our sense-filled rationality.