After watching Boyle’s new film, Sunshine, I found myself wanting to revert back to focusing on philosophical problems. But before I could really convince myself of this regression I had to again question which was more important: politics (or more broadly, society) or philosophy? The comparison is not much different from rationality versus irrationality.

Since my first course in epistemology I asked myself: so what? Let’s say we, as philosophers, figured out what constitutes practical knowledge. Or for sake of simplicity, let’s say the ethicists figured out definitively that murder was, somehow, absolutely “wrong” in all cases. Philosophers would then have go through this arduous process of trekking through the uncommon and rather irrational and dishonest ground of political rhetoric in order to convince the public and the government of philosophy’s latest and greatest moral discovery: murder by one human of another human is always wrong. Which is to say it is true that murder is wrong. Objectively, universally, absolutely, and any other -ly you can think of.

Philosophers would have to convince religious-leaning lobbyists, “think tanks”, and, in America, the 300 million citizens who generally feel that if you step on their land you without asking first you deserve to be shot.

The beast of politics seems like an unbeatable foe to the mild mannered armchair philosopher. So then what is the point of a philosopher’s job? To convince other philosophers? Unlikely. 99% of a philosopher’s job is to disagree with 99% of what everyone else says. How’s a philosopher going to make a living writing long insightful essays of “I agree”?

As such politics becomes this disgusting behemoth that a wanna-be philosopher would want to defeat before he had devoted his life to a pointless profession. I want to be a philosopher. But I don’t want to be a philosopher if I have to face the current state of politics. The one with the public saying one thing, the media saying two things (in contradiction) and the politicians saying nothing of worth.

That’s why I started reading books on social change, social movement culture, and revolution. However, everything about that stuff is for a weaponized middle class – or enfranchised class. And in America there is no weaponized middle class. The lower class is the most oppressed and the most weaponized, and the lower class constitutes the majority of the military but the middle class is always the class that actually revolts. They’ve got shit to lose while the lower class has everything to gain from conformity.

What then of revolutionary days? You know, the days when the 2nd amendment actually had a point to it? Well, those days are over. But let’s say I’m optimistic of revolution. I’d likely think of myself as a patriot. As such I’d likely think that “exercising” my 2nd amendment rights to buy and own a gun would both be a citizen’s duty as well as a revolutionary necessity. And if I bought the largest gun I could possibly find with the largest and most powerful bullets I could legally buy from the private sector it’d still be dwarfed by the US military’s tank division. And if I hijacked a tank, it’d be dwarfed by the USAF. And if I somehow hijacked a F-Raptor or stealth bomber that’s still dwarfed by the US’s nuclear arms repository – you know, the one that could not only kill me but destroy the entire Earth 50 times.

Violent resistance is absolutely futile. But gosh darnit it was originally the American way. Therou taught us otherwise. But the mere breaking of unjust laws seems futile in an unjust and apathetic political time as today.

And now we’re back at square one. Philosophy seems futile under a political regime such as today. And political and social change seem futile in their own right. I can’t reason my way out of this quantifiably (it’s a word now). As in, “which is the less futile of the two?”

I’m choosing philosophy. I hope that in the future any reverting to the political atmosphere would be a vacation at best. Philosophy is perpetually the more interesting of the two disciplines and the most intellectually rewarding. As long as you relieve yourself of the thumped-in concept that problems demand solutions – as opposed to insight – then you’ll be fine as a philosopher. You won’t be worrying if another philosopher disproves your argument. You’ll not only expect it but be anxiously waiting for it.

Philosophy it is, for now.

I’m deciding to take advantage of “structured procrastination” (I should be studying for a French test) and write about simplicity – again. A recent digg article shot to the front page about webdesign simplicity. It wasn’t particularly insightful or newly informative. But it did practice what it preached: Link. Mirror(png). Noticed how it was technically in the common five paragraph essay format/structure.

This common format is taught around 6th or 7th grade and then internalized throughout high school where it becomes enforced in college and a necessity for intellectual life. A quick google search produces a simple to understand guide for this: JCU.edu

This past year I read “A Hacker Manifesto” and its unusual aphorismic format was immediately appealing. It succeeds in its brevity where the common 5-paragraph system fails. It does this by breaking the monogamy of argument-example. The main argument to maintain this relationship for the 5-paragraph format is to allow for ‘further understanding’ or “support” of the argument. It allows the reader to more appropriately understand the meaning and context of the body’s premise. But, for certain information, this is not a necessity.

Before I proceed: I recognize the irony in having to utilize the 5-paragraph format in my own writing and I also recognize that I’ll have to use an example to further explain my previous statement. This is only a handicap because I haven’t internalized the aphorismic method, yet. So: For instance, in the above digg article the main argument statements in each body is in bold. You may if you need further clarification/understanding read the body’s non-bolded text. But you could read and understand the entire essay’s point by simply reading those short one-sentence arguments.

This setup makes the logic of the essay more explicit. One of the first challenges schoolchildren have in understanding a block of text in an essay is by recognizing what and where the thesis statement is. In the previous example, there is no interconnected logic but rather an abundance of one-liner arguments. But most other essays, particularly philosophical ones, require step-by-step argumentation.

Consider a simple syllogism:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Now, if this logic was to be put under the two structures previously described, then you shall see which has its flaws.

Very simplistically, in the 5-paragraph structure you’d have something like this. The obviousness of the supporting statements may come off as stupid but this yet another unnecessary flaw in 5-paragraph sytem.

It is no mystery we humans live and die. Socrates was no different in this distinction. In this essay, I will argue that since men die, and that Socrates is a man, that Socrates has the potential to die.
All men are mortal. This is evidenced by numerous graves and the fact that there are no men who have lived forever. All the decedents of men have died. Since we are living things, we must be vulnerable to death. For example, etc. This manifestation of humanity allows for the analysis of one such man, Socrates.
Socrates is a man. This can be shown in so many ways such as the certain traits that compose “man” which are shared by Socrates himself. For example, he has a beard. Another example, is that he has male genitalia. It is now imperative I describe the most important trait Socrates shares with mankind: mortality.
Thus, because Socrates is a man and that all men eventually die, Socrates will eventually die. It is possible to see the effects of death by his deteriorating health and lack of pulse. The trail and eventual willful execution by poision was the proverbial final nail in the coffin.
I have thus shown the intricate reasons for Socrates’s own mortality. It is taken syllogistically from the major premise that all men are mortal to the minor term that Socrates is a man and finally to the conclusion that Socrates is mortal.

How unbefuckinglievably laborious was it to wade through that dumbfounded essay only to point out the obvious syllogistic logic that Socrates is mortal? This has to be done for virtually every argument presented by anyone. It is beneficial to do this for rather complex arguments and arguments which may require such laborious support but this is only mainly done to cater to the possible stupidity and ignorance of the reader. It is not something that is necessitated by the form or argument itself. In “A Hacker Manifesto” Wark employs a slightly different approach. It is a little synthetic in that it is between the extended form of the 5-paragraph essay and the minimalistic form I’m arguing which would be an Wittgensteinian essay composed entirely of propositions. Wark will have an abundance of propositions in regard to a central idea/subject. He will also support those propositions with sub-propositions which could be separate but are kept within a single paragraph due to their relevance to the main topic sentence. Quote:

In the frontline states of the old cold war, the forces of revolt were most successful. In Tawian, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines; in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and the Baltic States, the forces of revolt pushed the old ruling classes toward a new state form, in which further movements toward abstraction at least have a fighting chance.

Revolt [237]

Two propositional statements. That whole paragraph could be dissertation. A dissertation analyzing the revolts in all those countries described, in support of a main thesis to describe the success of them as a movement toward Wark’s conceptualization of “abstraction.” Wark modeled his writing for “A Hacker Manifesto” on Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle” Debord was influenced by Isidore Isou (here is his manifesto) and his hypergraphology theory and Lettrist movement. Another writer’s style whose relevance is undeniable is Wittgenstein. In his magnum opus, Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein dissolves philosophy by logical atomism through arguments about language and reality. In 80 or so pages it critiques philosophical analysis, language, logic, reality, with some ethical overtones and develops a ‘picture’ theory of propositions. Each theses is numbered (1 through 6, with a 7th and last proposition being his famous dictum: “Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent.” or sometimes translated as “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”) and sometimes has sub-theses which are comments or elaborations on the main theses.

 

In fact, the entire ‘book’ can be simplified into 7 direct statements:

1. The world is all that is the case.

2. What is the case – a fact – is the existence of states of affairs.

3. A logical picture of facts is a thought.

4. A thought is a proposition with a sense.

5. A propositions is a truth-function of elementary propositions.

6. The general form of a truth-function is [p, E, N(E)].

7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

 

That’s it. If Wittgenstein had been forced into the 5-paragraph structure the book would be monumental. His simplicity highlights another flaw in the 5-paragraph paradigm which I consider to be a manifest contradiction. In English writing classes we are taught two things: critical thinking skills and essay writing skills. But, the ideology behind both in regard to the reader-writer relationship is contradictory.

 

The reader is taught to be skeptical and critically analyze the information presented in an essay. They are taught to avoid logical fallacies, and not become victims of persuasion. But, the writer is given intellectual tools which he/she is supposed to utilize to convince the reader that the writers arguments are not only valid but sound and true. Writers are also urged to utilize writing which is not explicitly intellectually dishonest but is just as a persuasive in trying to convert the reader to the writer’s philosophy. This doesn’t make sense. Everyone is a writer and a reader. If you are a writer, you must use as many tools at your disposal to ‘trick’ the reader into adopting your view with the least resistance. If you are a reader, you must use as many tools at your disposal to be critical and open minded so as not to fall into the writer’s ‘traps’.

 

Aphorismic writing is not illusory. It presents a proposition within a logically flowing piece of literature and it is up to the reader to critically analyze it. Analyze it on its own merits and its relation to other propositions in the text. In Aphorismic writing, the potential intellectual dishonesty of the 5-paragraph method is avoided while the information and logic of the argument is maintained.

 

I wrote this entry in part to ‘do’ something today. But I also wrote it to allow myself to synthesize all these thoughts which bounce around in my mind loosely tied together. I didn’t write an outline for this, I just sat and wrote. I feel that I have convinced myself that I want to convert to writing aphorismically. However, first, I’ll have to start internalizing that method.

During this morning’s US history class, I had this brief moment of inquiry into what I’m calling “microenvironmentalism” and just how much of a failure it truly can be if we don’t have a larger focus on “macroenvironmentalism” in America, at least. Micro/Macroenvironmentalism is, I think, is already jargon in a few fields already but since wikipedia doesn’t have a definition for it and google only has 19 pages regarding it I’m going to hijack it for my own purposes.

In terms of trying to “save the environment” and thus the world (apparently, nobody is trying to save the cheerleader here… yet…) there are several ad-hoc McGuyver-esque tips and tricks one can use to micromanage there carbon footprint. This is basically what I mean by microenvironmentalism – miniscule ways an individual can “save the environment.” Here is an excellent example of these tricks: 100 ways to Save the Environment

There are several “all-natural” products that have little pro-microenvironmentalist slogans to make it appear you’re ‘doing your part.’ For instance, Seventh Generation is one of those companies that produce “Natural All Purpose” cleaning supplies with two main quotes that reflect their philosophy. First one is from “The Great Law of the Iroquis Confederacy”:

In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.

Hence the name. This philosphy is in no way small – according to Wikipedia groups have proposed this idea to be a “Seventh Generation Amendment.” The problem is that the other quote Seventh Generation puts on their products is this:

You are making a difference. TM

If every household in the U.S. replaced just one bottle of 32 oz. petroleum based all-purpose cleaning with our renewable resource based product, we could save 7,100 barrels of oil, enough to heat and cool 400 U.S. homes for a year!

Far be it from me to figure out how in the hell they trademarked the phrase “You are making a difference” but this quote reveals the absolute short-sightedness of these seemingly pro-environment companies. 400 houses for a year? That’s what, 1 square mile of a residential area if all 300,000,000 Americans replaced there 32 oz. of WD40 with Seventh Generation’s product? Do the math on that. You’re using 100 percent of the population in order to save 0.0000013 percent. That is statistically irrelevant. They say these microenvironmentalist tips and tricks eventually “add up” and pay off. Well, that might be true if by “add up” you mean having every American citizen doing about a million of these short-sighted tricks every day for decade.

And how amazingly naive is it to think that Seventh Generation could somehow monopolize the cleaning products market? “Saving 7,100 barrels of oil” are they joking? We burn through something like 20 million a day for fucks sake.

This type of short-sighted naivete is what is ultimately killing the environmentalists. They aren’t properly proposing a macroenvironmentalist philosphy that may, actually, do some good. Macroenvironmentalists, obviously, being those ways of reducing emissions and “saving the environment” in a massive way. Two great examples of this are the banning of CFCs and the Clean Emissions Act in the 70s (I think) that required cars to get routine smog checks and mufflers that so forth. This tactic worked during the Ozone crisis and still relatively does work.
But why is there the emphasis on microenvironmentalism moreso than macroenvironmentalism. Well, micro-E is more effective on the individual. Just pick and choose of the 100 ways to save the environment that you can do. They are simple and flexible enough for everyone to fulfill. But ultimately, it’s still short-sighted. Everyone could do them but the reason we have a government, on some level, is get us to do things we must do. The ozone was “saved” not because environmentalists said you should for the sake of the environment get your car’s emissions checked. The ozone was ‘saved’ because the government made it a law. This is macroenvironmentalism. Instead of offering ad-hoc solutions to massive problems confronting mankind, use institutions created for the soul purpose of motiving mankind to solve the problem.

Don’t follow some strange instructions you found on the internet to get your car to run on human excrement, vote for and lobby for policies that enact sweeping pro-environmentalist legislation like supporting green gas power plants, emissions and so forth. Ultimately, if the government and environmentalists work together to do the morally right thing they’ll solve the problem macroenvironmentally – At the very least they’ll be closer to solving the problem than a lifestime of microenvironmentalism ever could.

Now I know I’m sort of misrepresenting my position here because I honestly don’t believe microenvironmentalism to be wholly without merit. The issue I take part in is that microenvironmentalism is only useful if it is to compliment a larger philosophy surrounding macroenvironmentalism. There’s no point in saving 7,100 barrels of oil if we a) still have a major dependence on oil and b) are still sucking oil out of the earth at the same rate.

However, the biggest hurdle macroenvironmentalism will have to overcome is the affinity America has with land, particularly its land. John Locke, the great political philosopher, highlighted the fact that during the American Revolution and America’s inception into the world stage as the power in the Western Hemisphere is that land, specifically property, meant – literally for a time being – freedom and opportunity. This philosophy pervaded much US public policy during it’s Frontier days and even much after the historian Turner said the Frontier was closed – instead of being American pioneers “carving out civilization” we decided to try and conquer Cuba, Philipines and so forth. We still have an affinity for land and property (however property has become a little more intangible ala “intellectual property”, stocks, businesses and so forth) Now that all the property is owned now we have an affinity for power over the land.

America likes using its land and its resources. We’ve liked it since before we became a nation and we’ve liked it ever since. The Turner Frontier thesis shed light on the imperitive for the country to rethink it’s land-centric (or Frontier-centric) philosophy simply because we ran out of physical land to pioneer. Our first response to this was along the lines of “well… conquer someone elses land – Cuba, Philipines.” That’s how we got Puerto Rico and Guam and naval bases like Guantanamo on Cuba.

A hundred years later, our land is threatened again. Now we’re simply not supposed to touch it anymore. We’ve had far far too much fun with it so much so that continuing in a such a way will ultimately be hazardous to us – fatally even. Rome over-extended its empire  and power over Asia, Africa and Europe to the point where it fell. America is over-using its empire to the point where we have to “liberate” countries to impose our political philosophy on so that… hopefully and eventually… America can continue to exist in other forms.

So now, macroenvironmentalism will have to develop a philosophy that either already compliments Americanism or one that must replace it – fat chance though. I see this being it the philosophy’s main impetutus to adoption but also the only way global warming and environmentalism in general are going to surive. You’ve got to convince America of this and do so in such a way that allows for its adoption by even the most hardcore nationalists (or “patriots” as they are sometimes called).  Once that is fulfilled, have as many McGuyver-esque microenvironmentalist tricks you want.

Norman and Spolsky: Simplicity is Out

Been savin’ this. Awhile back Joel Spolsky and Don Norman came out with two articles against product simplicity. It eventually made its way to slashdot.org where /.’s informed users laughed, ridiculed, and analyzed their peices to utter destruction – rightly so. Norman and Spolsky completely missed the mark on both understanding simplicity and why simplicity is implemented – actually they even misunderstood the thing that they supported instead: complexity. Norman was gracious enough to come out with an addendum to his article in order to respond to some of the /. flak he got but, I think, despite his best efforts, he came up short and made the problem a little worse for his arguments.

First, Norman pops out with this:

“Why can’t products be simpler?” cries the reviewer in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the local newspaper. “We want simplicity” cry the people befuddled by all the features of their latest whatever. Do they really mean it? No.

But when it came time for the journalists to review the simple products they had gathered together, they complained that they lacked what they considered to be “critical” features. So, what do people mean when they ask for simplicity? One-button operation, of course, but with all of their favorite features.

No. For those journalists who demanded “critical” features (which essentially means necessary ones) simplicity does not mean “One button to rule all the functions.” It means exactly what they meant: Simplicity means having all the necessary features and no (or the least amount of) unnecessary ones. That’s the core motto of simplicity: necessity. It’s the core of Okham’s Razor – the grand philosophical quote of simplicity. Either quote is applicable be it the technical one: “entities shall not be multiplied beyond necessity” or the colloquial one: “The simplest explanation tends to be the right one.”

Granted, this manifestation of simplicity isn’t always “fair” to the engineer who tries to follow the 80-20 rule (as is discussed in Spolsky’s article) but that’s the very paradox engineer’s deal with. The only thing you, as an engineer or as a product designer, need to be concerned about is if you’ve applied the bare essential features to whatever product it is you’re selling.

Norman, when he suggests that simplicity means “one button” he should mean, or rather intends to mean, minimalism. The difference in understanding minimalism in relation to simplicity is best explained via painting – well maybe that’s just me with my art history background. A painting of one color is obviously minimalistic. A portrait painting of one man sitting in a chair in an empty room is simplistic. Minimalism is the view that tries to cut everything down to the core of expression. Conceptually, this means not merely getting rid of the excess – the unnecessary – but cutting down everything to the “singular” the “one” core peice of artistic expression that exists. Simplicity, although conceptually similar, allows for pluralities. It just must be understood that as long as everything included is absolutely necessary.

For some product designers – I’m guessing here – they’ll employ techniques of minimalizing as well as simplifying. Having one button do the work of two (like a pause/play button on an mp3 player) is minimalizing. Removing the calender nobody uses on an mp3 player – simplifying.

And while were discussing the terminology of simplicity it’ll be appropriate to quote the most worthwhile thing in Spolsky’s article:

If you’re using the term “simplicity” to refer to a product in which the user model corresponds closely to the program model, so the product is easy to use, fine, more power to ya. If you’re using the term “simplicity” to refer to a product with a spare, clean visual appearance, so the term is nothing more than an aesthetic description much in the same way you might describe Ralph Lauren clothes as “Southampton WASP,” fine, more power to ya. Minimalist aesthetics are quite hip these days. But if you think simplicity means “not very many features” or “does one thing and does it well,” then I applaud your integrity but you can’t go that far with a product that deliberately leaves features out.

The gut reaction here should clearly be that he’s leaving out the definition of simplicity of “that which has all the necessary features.” And, well, while I’m quoting Spolsky I did also have this to say.

Spolsky’s article is much more cogent and agreeable. But here I did a double-take:

Devotees of simplicity will bring up 37signals and the Apple iPod as anecdotal proof that Simple Sells. I would argue that in both these cases, success is a result of a combination of things: building an audience, evangelism, clean and spare design, emotional appeal, aesthetics, fast response time, direct and instant user feedback, program models which correspond to the user model resulting in high usability, and putting the user in control, all of which are features of one sort, in the sense that they are benefits that customers like and pay for, but none of which can really be described as “simplicity.”

That last clause of the last sentence through me. To me, the only things that struck me as being non-simplistic factors in 37signals/iPod’s success were “building an audience, evangelism, and direct and instant user-feedback.” Everything else has some direct or indirect relationship to the concept or aesthetic of simplicity. Doesn’t “clean and spare design” literally mean “simple design” and doesn’t “program models which correspond to the user model” refer to a “simple product model”?

Back to Stormin’ Norman.

Norman then comes out with these gems:

Describing toasters, refridgerators, and coffee makers: “all of which had multiple control dials, multiple LCD displays, and a complexity that defied description.”

Describing a Korean car’s dashboard: “A rear view mirror with an on-off switch? The salesperson didn’t know what it did either.”

Great. Now we’ve got products so complex we don’t even know what to call them or what the fuck they even are supposed to do. Supporting product complexity invariablly means that you propose a philosophy where the consumer wants less bang for his buck. Let’s revisit the 80-20 rule. It’s a rule of simplicity – if your demographic is that 80% who use 20% of the features – just implement that 20%. Spolsky’s insight is great when he says that the problem is most of the time it’s a different 20% of the features per consumer.  But if Norman is proposing a complexity situation it ends up meaning that 80% of the demographic will end up using much much less than 20% of the features!

Some are familiar with the recent press releases of Apple’s new iPhone (lawsuit pending). Its main features include mp3 player, camera, video player, web-browser, oh.. and apparently it’s a “cell phone” too. Say I buy that $500 cell phone. Say that most of the time I use it just as a cell phone. Setting aside “real” math, I’m using 1/5th of the phone’s features – ahh – 20%. However, if Don Norman had his say and this iPhone also had features like a scanner, portable video games, PDA, coffee grinder, and an intuitive “widget” engine then I’ll end up using 1/10th of the phone’s features – 10% at twice the price. Granted, I’m probably a stupid consumer for buying a product for one feature I use and 9 I don’t but with Stormin’ Norman on the prowl my money is being wasted twice as fast.

In trying to figure out this rather ridiculous conundrum of why these products were designed in such a way he goes on to say:

“Why is this? Why do we deliberately build things that confuse the people who use them?

Answer: Because the people want the features.”

No. Actually, you already had this question of yours answered just a few lines above your own answer:

“Why?” I asked my two guides, both of whom were usability professionals. “Because Koreans like things to look complex,” they responded. It is a symbol: it shows their status.”

It’s a Korean status symbol. It’s got nothing to really do with whether or not complexity and simplicity are universally virtuous aspects to have in a product. It’s just something of cultural significance. As far as I can tell, Americans on the other hand, don’t view complexity as a “status symbol.” Well maybe they do, but it certainly isn’t a favorable one. The past few years of Apple-crazed products and logo-less clothing lines as well as Tivo and RSS feeds and so forth is that simplicity, not complexity, is what is “in” and rightly so. In fact, I will even go so far as to argue that it is environmentally imperative that we focus on cutting down to bare essentials of living – and that means product design first and foremost. RSS feeds are being used to conglomerate numerous infosites into a singular simplistic interface for ease of use. Tivo cuts out the unessential and rather annoying experience of watching commercials for products I don’t want to buy and food I shouldn’t be eating. Life in Korea may favor complexity but life in America favors simplicity.

His addendum tends to encourage the rather fallacious way humans currently go about buying products based on design. It’s horrific to see someone come out and say this:

“We have to take human behavior the way it is, not the way we would wish it to be.”

…and mean it. It’s a very pessimistic quote is it not? Human behavior, Norman agrees, is fundamentally flawed. But because it is flawed is the reason why “We” (whoever “we” may be) should at least try to improve ourselves from our own flawed nature.

“Haven’t you ever compared two products side by side, comparing the features of each, preferring the one that did more? Why shame on you, you are behaving, well, behaving like a normal person.”

Consumers should be shamed. Perferring the one that did more when it does more than you need it to do is not “behaving like a normal person” it’s behaving like a glutton – it’s consumer greed and it is the great economical sin of the century.

Norman also talks about the consumer predisposition to conflate complexity with power. This, again, isn’t a virtue. It’s a fallacy which Norman encourages:

Sorry: it is the apparent complexity that drives the sale. And yes, it is the same complexity that frustrates those same people later on. But by then, it is too late: they have already purchased the product.

Is there some sort of Designer’s Ethics Committee that can censure this guy? This is the designer’s equivalent of a hooker saying “Hey, want a good time?” You: “Hell yeah!” You spend 200 bucks on a experience where half the time you’re thinking to yourself “I could’ve just gone home and beat my meat for free.” Then, once this horrible ordeal is over you have to check yourself for spots for the next 6 weeks.  You’re lured in and fucked.

Designers shouldn’t be conmen.

Complex things do not mean more power – if anything they mean less power in the realm of electronics. An mp3 player will tend to have a longer battery life if all it does is play mp3s. The new Apple iPhone is a video ipod, camera, phone, PDA, and web browser all-in-one. That is quite powerful. I don’t know if I’ll ever spend the $500 dollars on a phone (hah, and people were complaining about the price of the PS3! It’s a fucking super-computer media hub for crissakes) but if I do, I’ll get the one with the simplistic interface. But this Apple iPhone is not all that powerful after its 5 hour battery life. However, I had never thought of simplicity and complexity in their relation to power before – an interesting relation to consider too.

Norman also wrote the article: The Truth about Google’s so-called “simplicity”:
He comes out with these gems:

Why are Yahoo! and MSN such complex-looking places? Because their systems are easier to use.

A) No they aren’t. B) “complex” and “easy” are antonyms!

True [Google’s interface is simple], but that’s because you can only do one thing from their home page: search.

What do you mean “but”? Isn’t the point of a search engine to search? He follows up this quote with:

Anybody can make a simple-looking interface if the system only does one thing.

True, anybody can. Very few actually do.

If you want to do one of the many other things Google is able to do, oops, first you have to figure out how to find it, then you have to figure out which of the many offerings to use, then you have to figure out how to use it. And because all those other things are not on the home page but, instead, are hidden away in various mysterious places, extra clicks and operations are required for even simple tasks — if you can remember how to get to them.

Did it ever occur to you that you could just search for something on Google? Fucking Christ Norman. Saying something along the lines of “How do you find something on Google” is about as stupid as looking up the word “dictionary” in the dictionary.

It hides all the complexity by simply showing one search box on the main page. The main difference, is that if you want to do anything else, the other search engines let you do it from their home pages, whereas Google makes you search through other, much more complex pages. Why aren’t many of these just linked together? Why isn’t Google a unified application?

Because Google isn’t an operating system with a desktop. It’s a search engine with peripheral applications its linked to based on its success of buying out innovative companies. You aren’t looking for a search engine – you’re looking for GoogleOS or some massive website that is an amalgamation of all those products you want in one tight website riddled with links to applications you intermittently use. People use Google (lemme pull a statistic out of my ass) 90% of the time to search for fuck-all. Sometimes they need a map, sometimes they need the news and sometimes they want to check mail or their calender. All of this is a click away. When I use Google to search for something, I don’t need the latest information in my calender or mailbox and I sure as hell don’t need to see a map of the US. I need a text box and button titled “I’m feelin’ lucky.” Thats. It. And that’s the point.

Absolutely beautiful.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdUUx5FdySs

It’s practically a constant of human nature to bypass a system of one’s own limitations. Man was born without wings, yet he flies. Not to sound so high and mighty, but we see this all the time in society and political atmospheres. When the social system is insufficient to your needs – you bypass it or take over the system or change it from within. To bypass it is to break the law. Immediately we think breaking the law is inherently unjustified. But it should be no mystery that when a person is in a situation where, despite their best efforts, society does not fullfill their basic needs. When a man has tried the unemployment line, when he’s tried to apply to welfare and financial help, and when he’s tried all the legal recourses at his disposal and when all those attempts fails – he is justified in breaking the law. It is the conundrum that an illegal act against an illegal system is thus, a justified act. It is the conundrum of commiting an immoral act so as not to commit a more immoral act, is thus a moral act – or at least a morally permissible one. For instance, stealing bread (an immoral act) in order to feed one’s family is a morally permissible act because letting your family die is much more immoral than stealing.

When politics doesn’t do what we request of it, we rebel and then we revolt. When nature doesn’t allow us to do what we desire, we build contraptions to bypass those biological limitations. It is our ingenuity and our unrelentless determination to be more than what limits us that makes us human.

Well I sure blitzed through this book. That should be somewhat of an indication of the clarity of Duane Elgin’s exposition. But as usual, I have some curt words to say about it. I just first say how enormously well-written and thought-out the book is and how comprehensive it is as a manifesto for voluntary simplicity. It has its problems, in part due to naiveness and in part due to Elgin’s sophmoric sociological theory of social change. It’s just a bell-curve and a graphically uninformative one at that.

I’ve realized that the spiritual aspect of this movement has much more of a rich history than I had previously envisioned. The “personal”, “spiritual”, and “inner value” that simplicity champions is far too embedded into the movement. Elgin does a great job, however, of not making this aspect a dogmatic one. He illuminates that golden rule and if not universal morality then at least the grand shared belief among Judeo-Christian, Hindu, and Buddist faiths. If I were to write book about this subject, and hopefully I will, I will most likely leave out the spiritual. It won’t be because I have some disdain for spirituality – spirituality and religiocity can be noble insights – but simply because the spiritual aspect of simplicity (the concept itself) is not important nor necessary. You do not need a spiritual backdrop in order to develop an ideology of simplicity.

The reason spirituality is used, however, is because it is a convincing and persuasive counter-part to heathenistic materialist consumption philosophies. Of course “the inner” is more grandly beautiful and truly satistfying (theoretically…) when the alternative is only pointless materialistic consumption of mostly unnecessary things. One of the most poignant examples of this is people who suffer from obesity AND malnourishment.  That’s the real fuckin’ irony.

Spiritualism is being used as the magnate which attracts people into simple lifestyles.  But spirituality is not a necessary virtue of simplicity. So then the problem becomes a question of whether or not simplicity or simple living have enough merit as ideologies in themselves to be favorable alternative views/lifestyles to Capitalist over-consumerism. Essentially, if Elgin and Gregg had believed that simplicity was worthy as an alternative economic lifestyle then they wouldn’t, or rather shouldn’t, have used spirituality as a necessary virtue of simplicity especially when it isn’t.

I think I’m ready for Eliot Sober’s book Simplicity now. The voluntary simplicity psuedo-religious movement has really begun to sound repititious and pedantic.  It’s far too “new age”-ish. Elgin’s book is great, but is overly spiritual and it doesn’t rigorously outline a definition of simplicity or simple. And if you can’t understand simplicity from an objective standpoint (Gregg and Elgin both consider the aesthetic judgment of simplicty to be almost entirely introspective) then it won’t be useful as a collective ideology. If everyone was running around saying stuff is simple because it’s simple “to them” then it isn’t a collective movement at all, it’s anarchy all over again. The malnourished fat guy probably thinks that his 2 mpg Hummer and 15lb box of twinkies are “necessary” to his livelihood either to psychological gratification (which is SO easily confused with spiritual wellness) or to his economic stability. And really, what kind of bullshit is that for a movement of simplicity.

Richard B. Gregg’s 1937 essay that truly breathed life into this movement was excellent. It wasn’t so dependant on spirituality, but it did support spirituality as a necessary virtue, but more importantly, it was a much more all-encompassing analysis of simplicity. The simplicity is very ubiquitious and pervasive – it can be applied anywhere. Because of this, Gregg’s essay fails. John Madea insightfully said that for certain things you cannot and sometimes must not apply simplicity. On ODN (online debate network) I wrote a little counter-argument to Gregg’s application of simplicity to politics. I don’t perfectly remember the argument but I think I first said that it would be unrealistic to apply it considering the fact that a democractic government has to consider the opinions of numerous people. The system is innately complex and simplifiying it might cause injustices but more importantly vulnerabilities. I think my counter-example was something like how a military in a simplistic government will almost always lose a battle. You want and need surplus in an army.

So really, because I’m somewhat fed-up with the naiveness and unecessary spiritualism of the voluntary simplicity socio-political movements I’m going to now start on simplicity in regards to the philosophy of science. It’ll be really interesting to see in what way scientific simplicity might be able to resolve the faults of the socio-political perspectives.

Slobodkin’s Simplicity

October 22, 2006

Here’s a good book: Simplicity and Complexity in the Games of Intellect. However, there is only about 4 pages of written material that would benefit someone studying the philosophy of simplicty (like me). 90% of the book is laborious and overly florid exposition about numerous examples of simplicity. But what Slobodkin truly argues and what he writes in the introduction and conclusion are truly noteworthy and noble insights.

That’s not to say that his examples are unecessary though. They are great examples and there are many of them. They are imperative to an understanding of simplicity but the extend to which he describes and outlines them is unnecessary. Instead of focusing on defending insight Slobodkin is determined to make sure that his examples are pertinent to simplicity or complexity or intellectual life.

The book isn’t deceptive either. Well, maybe the introduction is a little deceptive but the conclusion admits only too late in the reading that a development of a general theory of simplicity was not accomplished. The book only provides the reader with an abundance of examples which aid in understanding extremely vague and undetermined concepts. The title is accurate – the book is really about simplicity and complexity (or rather more accurately “simplistic things and complex things”) in the “games of intellect” (ie. science, art, mathematics, and oddly enough, dinner).

For me, the book uncovers a few paradoxes in the study of simplicity. In one sense, there is an arbitrariness to simplicity. Aesthetically it relies on subjective perspectives – only certain things appear simple to certain people. Is simplicity just a qualitative description of something? A qualitative description that could apply to virtually anything? Is it just an adjective that can be used to describe an object just as easily as the word “green” can be used (his example)? Or is simplicity a symptom?

In the conclusion he says (but doesn’t backup) that it’s imortant to recognize that simplicity can be dysfunctional. Which is true. There can be simplistic things that are themselves uncessary, devoid of purpose or function. I see this as being a great methodological problem. If someone wants to create a universally applicable philosophy of simplcity they must be able to distinguish functional simplicity and simplistic things that aren’t functional. Functionalism, as understood in sociology, had a big slippery slope problem in that it defended everything because everything could have a function. Non-functionalists would get pissed off with functionalists because functionalists would argue how rape, crime, and poverty helped social stability. It was only later when Robert Merton introduced manifest and latent functions and dysfuntions. Now poverty could be examples as helping and destorying society purposfully and unpredictably.

Simplicity might suffer the same fate. If anything can be described as simplistic – or worse yet, everything as a threshold of simplicity (meaning: there is a certain level or value of simplicity that everything has) – under current understandings of simplicity there must be developed a way of suggesting how something can’t be simplistic or ‘shouldn’t’ be.

Nice try Segal…

October 8, 2006

No, not Steven Segal. Well, he tries and fails too but I’m instead talking about Jerome Segal’s book Graceful Simplicity.

Segal attempts to establish a philosophy of simplicity centered around “gracefulness.” It has it’s roots in the Jewish custom of the Sabbath – essentially just a day of inner relaxation -, Epicureanism – which isn’t a new concept in regards to the philosophy of simplicity -, a rethinking of how we view money and success, and so forth in presenting traditional concepts of simplicity.

A lot of this book I didn’t enjoy. He is constantly tripping over his own arguments and often believably and convincingly presents an argument only to subsequently tear it down – leaving the reader with nothing hopeful. He also spends way too much time on money by sprinkling the arguments throughout his chapters.

In the end, however, I am left with an unrealistic and old philosophy of simplicity and worse yet absolutely no substantive methodology of how to implement this philosophy into my lifestyle. After I had finished Social Change I realized that a philosophy of simplicity had to meet several criteria. Namely, it had to be globally acceptable or at least acceptable by the US and Europe – the biggest reason is because they are both the largest consumers and the largest polluters. The philosophy has to coincide with the already established norms. Think of it this way, most philosophies of simplicity are attempting to stop American opulence and turn it around – like stopping a car on a highway and turning it around. That isn’t going  to work and never will. You may get a few thousand people to jump off the American consumption bandwagon but you aren’t going to stop the problem. What a philosophy of simplicity needs to do is first coincide with American consumption – take the wheel and turn it.

On the other hand I also realized that a critical criterion for an American-centric philosophy of simplicity is that it must not be adopted by the majority. It either has to apply and be adopted by the rich and opulent or give the impoverished the capabilities to live successfully without over-consumption patterns or keep up with the Joneses (or keep up with the Gates’ if your a Juliet Schor fan) behaviors. Simplicity has it’s benefits but it purposefully has its vulnerabilities. There is simply no way we are going to have a simplistic military or simplistic foreign policy or arguablly a simplistic tax system.

I’ve only read this one book on simplicity so far but I will not be surprised if Journey’s of Simplicity, Walden, and Voluntary Simplicity all use the same argumentative techinique to persuade people towards their philosophy. Essentially the argument is this: Stop materialistic worshiping and instead favor the immaterial.   This is basically a religious or spiritual argument and not an economic one. It is Aristolean, Epicurean, Spinozean and so forth. If this is the running trend in the philosophy of simplicity (scientific simplicity excluded) then maybe I need to change gears and instead focus on a philosophy of economic minimalism.

A Facial Change

September 18, 2006

I’ve decided to use a custom image header as you probably have noticed. The astounding artwork can be found, among other astounding artworks, at VHM-design: http://vhm-design.com/

You may also notice a peice by Bristol street stenicilist Banksy – an another artist who I’m interested in.

The piece spurs memories of Calvin from Bill Waterson’s comic Calvin and Hobbes. It also reminds me of a quote from a book I’m reading now – Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder: “The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder.”(page 15) And when have we been more filled with wonder than when we were children?

Social Change

September 3, 2006

Well, I just finished a textbook that I read for intellectual pleasure. I took it with me while I was on a mule trip on the High Sierras of Yosemite. That was weeks ago and I originally thought of bringing A Hacker Manifesto instead but I felt it would be a little too weird to be reading about techno-politics while being completely isolated from that entire atmosphere. Then again, reading about society was probably just as silly. Either way, both books were enlightening.

After reading this textbook on interdisciplinary studies of social change (albeit with a an emphasis on sociological studies, obviously) I wonder just how hungry the US is for change. However, I bet non-US citizens are hungry for the US to change its ways than its citizens themselves. “Terrorists” surely, but Europeans, Venezuelans, and surely those in the Pacific theatre.

Right now there are accusations against the administration in regards to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The people seem to want an impeachment. But I think that the Clinton impeachment proceedings pretty well established that the impeachment process is not a process that involves “the people” anymore. It’s a closed-circuit process completely contained within those in power. The republicans impeached Clinton. Not the people. Since the democrats make up 50-60% of the people but hold only 10% of the power, the chances of a Bush impeachment or any kind of transitory organizational change is just not going to happen.

Besides, who the hell wants Cheney to have more power than he already does? The guy wants to ban homosexuality (note: not just homosexual marriage) even though his daughter is one.

If I were to give a forecast of the possibility of some dramatic planned (or at least “conscious”) social change at the hands of the American people I’d say “fat chance.” Political apathy is greater than it’s been in decades, the iron cage of rationality is exploding (remember hearing about the passenger mutiny? – granted that was Australia but the irrationality is everywhere), a gross misunderstanding of the Islamic faith (and when coupled with irrationality the conclusions people make are absurd: “We value religious freedom. Islam does not value religious freedom. Therefore, we must control Islam.” – What the fuck?) and the fact that since there is also a rise in paleo-conservatism and paleo-liberalism (and neo-liberalism too) people are just waiting for social change to “happen” come election time.

But screw that. The programmer admitted to electronic tampering (even though his book was coming out at the same time he testified). We shouldn’t have to wait for society to change. That’s not how it works. Get up. Stop being apathetic and unnecessarily patient and ask for change. If they don’t answer your request. Demand it. If they don’t obey – make the change yourself. You’ve gone through the system and the system failed. Secondly, when the system is considered a failure and when the system is viewed as illegal then illegal actions are permissible.

Like the guerrilla artist Banksy says (actually, it might be the other guerrilla artist, Simon Munnery):

The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It’s people who follow the orders that drop bombs and massacre villages [and uphold holocausts].

And what is really gross is that guerrilla art is more offensive to people. It “destroys property”, “ruins the beauty of the city”, and in some ways affects people’s intellectual property. And yet, guerrilla art is just non-violent civil disobedience. Since civil disobedience exists in all civil atmospheres, I’d much rather have graffiti than the L.A. riots. Maybe they don’t view graffiti in the way that I do – urban folk art; modern civilian calligraphy; and something that simultaneously makes a statement about branding through art and a statement about art through branding.

ahh… pessimistic sociological rants are so healthy.