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Books in Brief: On the Abolition of All Political Parties

Simone Weil’s On the Abolition of All Political Parties talks about how people are pulled either into the light of truth through a sense of unbiased reason, or away into the darkness through the bouts and vicissitudes of passionate desire. But each person’s pull away from the light is in a different direct, and each person’s pull towards it is in the same direction. This is a basic assumption of the goodness of democracy. (If democracy is not good, it is not what we should be practicing. If Hitler had never risen to power but the Weimar Republic still committed the atrocities of World War II through a democratic process it does not make those atrocities somehow less atrocious.) Political parties, on the other hand, serve to focus and align the chaotic desires of darkness and bundle them together into a force with power. It makes no sense, these days, to criticize someone for saying “As a democrat,” or “as a republican,” but these statements are parroted nonsense. It is not interesting or useful to know what a representative’s party stands for when we purportedly elected them for their ability to represent our own or on their views being a close enough reflection of our own. For this and other reasons all political parties should be abolished.

We should replace them with a kind of informal forum, or as she calls them a series of journals, to which one may read or contribute, but to which one would not belong, but orbit, or be a reader of, or a writer in, but never a member, or subordinate, or a parrot of. In that way each person, each representative evaluates for themselves the plans and policies and proposals of the others, asking questions and offering criticism, and each shall cast their votes, when the time comes, in the light of their own reason and the will of those whom they represent.

I basically agree with everything she says. The trouble is that it makes action difficult. One of the ways in which she criticizes political parties is how they develop a binary stance towards or against something, how they drain from the issue all nuance and use propaganda and slander to vie for power. The trouble is that our votes work this way, most of the time. One piece of legislation, arguments for or against. She doesn’t talk about it much, but in an ideal congress there would be a deliberation, proposals sent out and digested, discussion had, amendments made, and the best and most just proposal would succeed. That takes a long time, though. Maybe it should. I don’t know. But I agree with her. And her words are stark and piercing in the firelight of the current political climate.

Books in Brief: Authority

I started reading Authority by Nathan Barry. It’s one of those cheap e-books that’s motivational. But it does get at a point I’ve sucked at: I should teach what I know, and teach what I learn. I’m starting to feel selfish keeping knowledge to myself, as though I’m hoarding it, or when I learn something and don’t share it, or specifically when I don’t reinterpret it through my own lens, that’s when I’m most vulnerable to a kind of guild the educated privileged feel when they encounter someone who doesn’t know that what they do even is something one could do, let alone the specifics of what it is that you do.

I explained skeuomorphism to someone yesterday and got paid to do it. It was fun and easy. I explained it in the context of redesigning a very simple and flat user interface for an educational iPad app. They wanted to have better icons for students who were just starting to read. That makes sense: students might not be able to read what the “Erase” button says. But I had to caution him against his instinct of making it “look like an eraser.” Which eraser, from where, and how do we make that look like an eraser while keeping the rest of the theme consistent. I explained the difference between an iconic representation of something and a realistic representation because they were going to talk to an artist to commission some icons, and I wanted to make sure my app design wasn’t compromised, which tries so hard to be faithful to the physical thing that inspired it.

I could very easily turn around and write a blog post about that. Just to share that little bit of story. Or go deeper, explaining that iconic things ultimately try to evoke affordances, to show what a thing is for, while realistic things focus more on trying to convey the metaphor. Imagine we want an icon to replace a button that says “Erase.” Our choices are between a realistic depiction of a pink gum eraser or a trapezoid with a line underneath it to one side. The former is obvious; we’ve seen erasers before and used them. Their affordances are pretty transparent. As long as I know what to do with an eraser like that, it’s easy to infer what the button does. The trapezoid with a line underneath it, meant to convey the standard gum eraser and its action, mainly dragging across a page to erase, relies on one large hurdle: the user has to infer what the trapezoid is.

If the design is well-done, proportions just so, then maybe it’ll succeed. But children are not the best at focusing in on a single interpretation of an iconic design; this is why our children’s applications tend to have a lot of detail, shading, color, sound, and responsive interactions. I don’t think any of this is necessary. (I see a lot of this as trickery to entice children to stay in your application, a kind of frosting and sprinkles, or as is parroted without much critical thought, “chocolate-covered broccoli.” Make an apple or a carrot. Still sweet, fun to eat with nothing but your hands, more sustainable, and better for those who want to eat more.) To succeed with a minimal design in technology for children indicates good design.

Or not. When I was a kid, in our (Montessori) school we had about fifteen computers scattered about our classroom, for a class of 30 kids between 4th and 6th grade. Many of the tasks we were assigned to do every quarter involved progressing through a series of problems about grammar or arithmetic administered through computer programs written by the head teacher (in QBasic, the language we were all taught to program in). The computers ran DOS on old monitors; they were donations, mostly from professors and business people who upgraded their homes or offices or labs. The school was a non-profit so their donations could be written off on their taxes. The programs were simple things, white text on a black field with color here and there, used to represent and connect to other parts of the curriculum. (I still think about these colors and shapes when I think of the parts of speech; the point of the task, which starts in 2nd grade with big metal manipulatives, is to develop a kind of synesthesia when thinking about a sentence and its constituent parts.) They were simple. But they were engaging enough that we played them on our own time, which at a Montessori school is most of the time. We never dreaded them, and only complained about them in the same way that workers in an office complain about any work they’re expected to do. They were enough. And they’d hold up now, though a four-year-old with an iPad is afforded far more complicated, nuanced, and potentially better learning design and spaces than what we were given with a 5lbs steel keyboard in front of a CGA screen atop an 8086.

Anyway. I wrote about something I know about. It felt good. You should do it too.

The Duplicitous Hamburger

The hamburger menu seems ubiquitous. I think it’s symptomatic of a kind of thinking that we need to exercise from design. It gets used by designers to disempower users, and confusing or frustrating people is not the same thing as increasing engagement. Intentionally confusing those two things in a client’s mind in order to misrepresent them is violent.

Developers and companies typically want to increase engagement with whatever they make. It means people have either their application, their brand, or ideas the designing organization wants to perpetuate in the front of their mind, paying them in attention. This arose both from a desire for influence—the more someone uses a well-designed product with good interactions, the more they’ll use it in the future, leading to more money or engagement or user data—and a desire to present ads to a somewhat captive audience. One of the ways this manifests for users is in an effort to isolate them in their task: they’d like to navigate away or leave their screen or task but find themselves without the means to do so. (Apple notoriously solved this problem with a physical and ever-present home button so users always had a way out at their literal fingertips. This is now relegated to a non-intuitive swipe interaction in the iPhone X.)

The purpose of the hamburger menu is to isolate. Ostensibly this nearly ubiquitous icon came about in an effort to hide user interface elements on smaller screens with less usable visual real estate. It has since become a way, even with all the screen area of a 27” iMac, to lower the probability that someone changes screens or moves away from what they are currently doing, what the designer wants them to do. This is usually described as a way to “reduce clutter” or “simplify the design.” It is chickenshit minimalism.

I want to drive a wedge between making it more difficult for a user to change screens and making content more engaging to keep people engaged. The hamburger menu gets used by designers to remove navigational elements of an interface, which drives up metrics like the time on task, and management celebrates. Yes, smaller screens and finger input limit the number of functional touch targets, which lowers the maximum interaction density of a screen. But this is not the same thing as making content more engaging. It’s just making navigation more difficult. It makes it harder for the user to leave.

Constraining navigation is not the same thing as increasing engagement, except in as much as the engagement is frustration, and that frustration gets increased. Many designers do not want to admit that many of their design patterns are hostile to their users or serve to limit them to serve the values of the commissioning company.

Design is a series of tradeoffs between creating and constraining affordances. The hamburger menu is a poor and unjustified constraint, and using it to isolate a user is a kind of violence against that user, and not drawing a distinction between these things for a client or manager is hostile and violent. The alternative is to present the user with the first level of navigational elements, the first level of a nested menu, the main verbs or nouns of the application. Touch targets don’t have to be big, and they don’t have to be foregrounded. But don’t confuse locking a user in a room as increasing that user’s engagement and infer that increase of engagement is indicative of pleasure, or happiness, or usefulness. (This is the same reason most learning analytics are bad.)

R: Set Font Based on Output Device

Ever had a troublesome font in R that doesn’t want to render to ggplot in RStudio, but will render just fine in knitr? Do you use extrafont but sometimes it just doesn’t work? Trying to look like Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information but ETBembo is being uncooperative? Try setting your font (globally) to this.

myfont <- ifelse(is.null(knitr::opts_knit$get("rmarkdown.pandoc.to")), "serif", "ETBembo")

This sets myfont to serif if the code is being rendered in anything but knitr. If it is being rendered by knitr, say, by pressing the “Knit” button in RStudio, then it sets it to ETBembo.

I found it on StackOverflow.

Warren Ellis on How to See the Future

Let me try this on you:

The Olympus Mons mountain on Mars is so tall and yet so gently sloped that, were you suited and supplied correctly, ascending it would allow you to walk most of the way to space. Mars has a big, puffy atmosphere, taller than ours, but there’s barely anything to it at that level. 30 Pascals of pressure, which is what we get in an industrial vacuum furnace here on Earth. You may as well be in space. Imagine that. Imagine a world where you could quite literally walk to space.

That’s actually got a bit more going for it, as an idea, than exotic red deserts and canals. Imagine living in a Martian culture for a moment, where this thing is a presence in the existence of an entire sentient species. A mountain that you cannot see the top of, because it’s a small world and the summit wraps behind the horizon. Imagine settlements creeping up the side of Olympus Mons. Imagine battles fought over sections of slope. Generations upon generations of explorers dying further and further up its height, technologies iterated and expended upon being able to walk to within leaping distance of orbital space. Manufactured normalcy would suggest that, if we were the Martians, we would find this completely dull within ten years and bitch about not being able to simply fart our way into space.

Now imagine a world where space travel to other worlds is an antique curiosity. Imagine reading the words “vintage space.” Can you even consider being part of a culture that could go to space and then stopped?

If the future is dead, then today we must summon it and learn how to see it properly.

This is very, very good.

Minimalist Stuff Mantra

When I find myself wanting something, or holding something, or wanting to get rid of something, this helps.

  1. Do I love it?
  2. Do I use it?
  3. Does it work?
  4. If I were to buy the item right now how much would I pay for it?
  5. If I sold it now how much would I get for it?

(Source. Not sure where that came from, though.)

Books in Brief: The Oresteian Trilogy

Get the book.

The Oresteian Trilogy is the foundation of tragedy. You need to read it just like you need to read The Odyssey. This was my first time through even though I was familiar with the tropes and scenes through references from other works. The plays are a lot of things, but at its root it’s a metaphor for the ascension of society’s motivation for good from fear of reprisal as embodied in the Furies, to duty (and fear of its retribution) as embodied by Apollo, to a kind of holy rationality, as embodied by Athene and her counsel. It is ultimately a Whiggish work, convinced society moves ever forward in progress towards harmony.

The one thing that shook me as a modern reader coming to the book in 2017, and a reader who knows the connotations of “maleness” and masculinity in ancient Greek and Roman writing, was that in the climactic scene of The Eumenides, Athene says she sides with Orestes, saying that killing a man as his mother killed his father is a worse crime than killing a woman, as Orestes killed his mother, because of “male supremacy in all things”. It’s kind of a shit explanation, especially coming from a woman written by a man.

Anyway, read the book. It’s embedded in many works of tragedy and worth knowing how the building was built these 2400 years later.

Books in Brief: The Lichtenberg Figures by Ben Lerner

Get the book.

The stars will be adjusted for inflation
so that the dead can continue living
in the manner to which they’ve grown accustomed.

– p. 18

Perhaps what remains of innovation
is a conservatism at peace with contradiction.

as the sky transgresses its frame
but obeys the museum.

– p. 22

Ben Lerner’s The Lichtenberg Figures is a bit of a tough book of poetry. It’s a sonnet sequence ostensibly about growing up in the midwest, but it’s frustrated, as many of us were in the early 2000s, with the way the world seemed to work. Reading it now made me almost nostalgic for a kind of frustration that now seems so okay, so naïve, so less harmful to the fundaments of society, rather than to the bodies of people across the world. It’s not funny in the way Patricia Lockwood can be, nor is it particularly melancholy. It’s more abstract than that, more systematic. I enjoyed it, and I’ll need to come back to it and his newer book The Hatred of Poetry.

© 2020 Jordan T. Thevenow-Harrison, all rights reserved.