Music is Language. Language is Improvisation

(This article is re-published and re-edited from a previous version written on December 2004)

People are often amazed by musicians who play by ear, such as pianists who can just pick up melodies and play them on the spot, adding chords, accompanying singers who pause or change keys in mid-tune, inventing harmonies, etc.

I have found that sometimes the people who are the most amazed by improvisation are actually professional musicians who are classically trained – very accomplished musicians in fact – but they rarely engage in the art of improvisation. Many classically-trained concert pianists who can sight-read Bach and Bartok with astonishing skill do not improvise. To them, the magic of inventing musical expression on the spot is curious, impressive – even alien.

Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944): Komposition 8 (Guggenheim)

As a person who was figuring out Beatles tunes on the guitar with my brother at age nine, improvisation has always been natural – synonymous with the very idea of music. I never had the patience as a young man to interpret a bunch of tiny black dots on a page. Only later in life did I actually learn to read – and even to this day, I have to mumble under my breath: “every…good…boy…does…fine” before I can produce a single note.

Music is About Ears, Not Eyes
I believe that improvising music is no different than speaking – it is in fact the most natural form of music creation. This is because we are a language species, and therefore, we are improvisers by nature. It just so happens that we practice improvisational speaking a lot more than we practice improvisational music.

Reading A Script To Your Husband or Wife
Imagine coming home from work and walking up to your spouse, opening up a booklet and beginning to recite from page 134, third paragraph: “Good evening dear, and how was your day?” That would be ludicrous. Obviously one does not need a script to talk. We are able to construct sentences on the fly, to fit the situation, to express the mood of the moment, and to respond to what the other person had just said. We are improvisational creatures – and our brains have evolved to allow us to do this very well. Every day of a person’s life, a unique sentence – a combination of words – is generated which that person has never said, and will never say again. And of course, that is just the words – those symbolic units that dance around in abstract space. There is much more to natural language than mere words, operating on deeper levels of brain and society. There is intonation, timing, punctuation, body language – essentially, the musical dynamics of speech.

While I am referring to the musicality of speech as the basis for advocating improvised music, I am not making a negative statement about classically-trained musicians who sight-read and do not improvise. I’m just suggesting to those who are amazed by improvisation that… this is where it all started. It’s not amazing at all! It is the origin of music itself.

Playing Back an Improvisation Preserved for Eternity
It would be totally wrong for me to say that musicians who sight read are not creative, or are not engaged in the spiritual level of music. Classically-trained musicians, as well as conductors, are the ones who have allowed us to enter into the minds and souls of Vivaldi, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Satie. And they are certainly more than just technicians who scan manuscripts as if they were records in a juke box. They are interpreters of the original emotion and meaning that was present when the musical piece was composed. Many a tear shed from the eye of a violinist is the same tear that Tchaikovsky shed when he created the original melody. And the fact is, neither you nor I could ever actually hear Tchaikovsky composing. Because he has been dead for a long time. His music is brought to life by living souls. And each interpreter brings his or her mood, individuality, culture, and the technology of the times – into the experience.

Chopin and Monk Interpreters
I recall hearing a radio program about Chopin’s music in which a musical critic referred to “Chopin interpreters”, classical pianists who specialize in expressing the essence of Chopin (at least as far as critics and historians could tell). I’ve even come across the term, “Chopinist”. This is also used in reference to contemporary jazz pianists who play Thelonius Monk – “Monk interpreters”, as well as musical scribes who preserve Monk’s recordings into notation. Any interpreter of a late jazz composer deals with an extra level of interpretation due to the fact that a large part of the composers art was improvisation – performances of the same musical piece were played differently for each recording. In the case of Monk, with his unique manner of weaving syncopated rhythm and harmony and using silent pauses of “thought”, there is an individual cosmology to be understood – one must enter into his mind to see this musical machinery at work.

The Universality of Communicating with Sound
The history of music is probably as old as the history of human speech itself. Like the earliest examples of “art” we know of, created on the walls of caves, music may have had a functional aspect. It may have been a way for humans to communicate to each other in a more ritualistic and transcendent way than the average grunting of daily life.

The world has many materials which the human species has appropriated, all of which produce overtones when struck, plucked, or stroked. Some materials produce more coherent overtone spectra – in which the fundamental frequencies are easily heard: other materials produce complex overtone spectra, and serve a percussive purpose. These overtones are a part of the physical nature of our world, and they are echoed within the language-generating machinery of our brains. Why did dodecaphonic music not free music from the tyranny of harmony? Because the language of music is inherently hierarchical – and this is because of the way physical objects vibrate. And we are physical objects.

I believe that the logic of harmony emerged from two things:

1. physics
2. the need for humans to communicate.

Connect to Your Soul with Music
I would conclude that the joy of creating music is not for the privileged few who have gone through the rigor of seven years at the Conservatory. Music is the underlying sound of our speech. It happens all the time – every day of our lives. To improvise with sound is natural, whether it takes the form of beating rhythms on your knee or cooing to a newborn baby. It is also a way for us to connect to the harmonic logic that resides in the molecular structure of the world. And it’s a way for us to connect to each other with the sounds that lie beneath mere words.


An intelligent car that can’t communicate with its driver is a dumbass car.

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Let’s talk about body language.

DogBodyLanguage.1jpg.jpgA key property of body language is that it is almost always unconscious to both giver and receiver.

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This is not a problem in itself – in fact, it’s actually really good that body language happens mostly unconsciously. Body language is necessarily unconscious. The flood of signals from a talking body is vast, high-bandwidth, high-rate, and highly-parallel. It must bypass the higher-brain in order to do its work. The higher brain is too busy making decisions and trying to be rational to be bothered with such things.

The problem with the backchannel nature of body language is that it is often in competition with explicit, linear verbal language, which is a pushy tyrant. There are too many pushy tyrants in the tech industry that are poor at social signaling. Body language tends to be relegated to a lower priority in many areas of digital technology, including the design of software interfaces, productivity tools, kitchen appliances…and cars. This is just one symptom of the lack of diversity in the tech industry.

High tech culture is obsessed with metrics; seeking to measure as much as possible, to be data-driven, to have tangible results and ways of measuring success. This obsession with data is a mistake. Tossing out what can’t be measured or converted into data is a very big mistake. And the digitally-designed world we live in suffers as a result. Let me try to explain what I mean by all this….

A computer on wheels

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The automobile was invented in the industrial age – an age defined by energy, force, mechanics, chemistry, electricity, and physicality.

We are  now fumbling through the information age.

Apple Inc. has managed to reduce the thickness of laptop computers – they have become so thin that you can cut steak with them. But it should come as no surprise that the surface areas of laptop screens and keyboards have not been reduced, compared to the degree that computer chips have been miniaturized. There is a simple reason for this: human eyes and hands are still the same size. This will never change.

The same applies to communication. The more digital our machines become, the more we have to communicate with them, and they, in turn, have to communicate with us.

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 2.15.32 PM.pngAn old-fashioned industrial-age car comes with natural affordances: communication happens simply as a result of the physical nature of knobs, wheels, wires, engine sounds, torques, and forces. There are many sensory stimuli that the driver sees, feels, hears and smells – and often they are unconscious to the driver – or just above the level of consciousness.

Driving is a very different experience now. It is turning into a video game…a simulation. There is a disconnect between driver and car that seems to be growing wider.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But here’s the problem:

Body language between driver and car has become an arbitrary plaything, mediated by cockeyed displays and confusing controls. It is up to the whims of user interface designers – too many of whom have their heads up their asses. Idiots who call themselves designers live under the illusion that they can invent visual language on the fly and shove it into our long-lived lives, expecting their clever interfaces to fall naturally into use.

Or maybe they don’t actually think this – but don’t care anyway, because they are paid well. I’m not sure which is worse.


According to Matt Bubbers:

There’s nothing wrong with the volume knob. It does not need reinvention, nor disruption, nor innovation. The volume knob is perfect the way it is. Or, rather, the way it was.

Get into a new car in 2018 and you’re faced with a multitude of complicated ways to adjust the stereo volume: buttons or dials on the steering wheel, voice commands that rarely work, fiddly non-buttons on the centre panel, touchscreens that take your eyes off the road, even gesture controls that make you wave your hand as if you’re conducting a symphony.

Cars are too complicated. The volume knob is indicative of the problem. Call it feature bloat or mission creep: Cars are trying to do more, but they’re not doing it all well. These infotainment features can be distracting, therefore dangerous, and they cost money.

A new generation of digital designer is out of touch with nature. It is infuriating, because here we are, fumbling to bake a cake, turn on the AC, or change a channel on the TV: “Now, which of these 2,458 buttons on this TV remote do I need to press in order to change the channel?…”

“Oh shit – no wonder I’m confused: this is the remote control for the gas fireplace! Is that why it’s so hot in here?”

Driving under the influence of icons

Britania Rescue, a firm providing a breakdown service in England, conducted a survey, interviewing over 2000 drivers. The revelations are quite startling. It revealed that more than 52 per cent of drivers cannot correctly identify 16 of the most common symbols.


Interpreting a bunch of unfamiliar icons invented by out-of-touch dweebs is not how we should be interacting with our technology – especially as technology sinks deeper into our lives.

Just this morning, my 87-year-old mother and I spent about a half-hour trying to figure out how to set my sister’s high-tech oven to bake. To make matters worse, my mother, who is visually-impaired, can’t even feel the controls – the entire interface consists of a dim visual glow behind slick glass. We eventually had to read a manual. WE HAD TO READ A FUCKING MANUAL TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO TURN ON AN OVEN. How long must this insanity go on?

A car’s manual should be the car itself


Dan Carney, in the article, Complex car controls equal confused drivers, quotes Consumer Reports:  “You shouldn’t have to read the owner’s manual to figure out how to use the shifter.”

He says, “The BMW iDrive had a controller for functions like the radio and air conditioning that was so baffling that it forced drivers to take their eyes off the road.”

My Prius experience

services.edmunds-media.jpgMy first experience with a Prius was not pleasant. Now, I am not expecting many of you to agree with my criticism, and I know that there are many happy Prius owners, who claim that you can just ignore the geeky stuff if you don’t like it.

I don’t like it, and I can’t ignore it.

I have found that most people have a higher tolerance for figuring-out technology than I. It’s not for lack intelligence or education; it’s more that I am impatient with stupid design. It makes me irate, because these fumblings are entirely unnecessary.

We all suffer because of the whims of irresponsible designers, supposedly working in teams which include human factors engineers and ergonomics engineers, whom I assume are asleep on the job.

I place the blame for my impatience squarely on Donald Norman, whose book, “The Design of Everyday Things” implored readers to stop blaming themselves for their constant fumbling with technology. The source of the problem is irresponsible design. He converted me profoundly. And now I am a tech curmudgeon. Thanks Don.

I once had to borrow a friend’s Prius because my Honda Fit was in the shop. I liked the energy-saving aspects and the overall comfort, but the dashboard was unfamiliar. My hippocampi threw up their hands in despair. What’s worse: after parking the car in a parking lot, I put the key in my pocket and decided to check the doors to make sure they were locked. The doors were not locking. Why? I tried locking the doors many times but every time I walked around to the other side, the opposite door would unlock. I called the owner, and told her that I am not able to lock the car. She said, “Oh – that’s because the doors automatically – and magically – unlock when you walk up to them. Smart, eh?”

Hello? Discoverability? 

Thank you Prius for not telling me about your clever trick. You are one step ahead of me! Perhaps I should just stop trying to understand what the fuck you are doing and just bow to your vast intelligence. You win, Prius.

My Honda Fit is relatively simple, compared to many cars these days. But it does things that infuriate me. It decides that I want the back window wipers to turn on when the front wipers are on, and I happen to be backing up. It took my car mechanic to explain the non-brilliance of this behavior. Thanks Honda for taking away my choice in the matter. My car also decides to turn on the interior light at night after I have parked the car. I have to wait a long time for the light to go out. My car knows how long. I am not privy to this duration. What if I don’t want strangers to see me – because I’d like to finish picking my nose before getting out?

Whether or not strangers can see me picking my nose is no longer my choice. My car has made this decision for me. Sure: I could reach up to the ceiling and turn off the light – but then I will forget to turn it on again when I actually need it. This never used to be so complicated.

Smart = dumb

I have come to the conclusion that a car without any computers is neither smart nor dumb. It has no brain and so it cannot even try to be intelligent. On the other hand, if a car has computational processing then it has an opportunity to be either smart or dumb. Most cars these days are poor communicators, I call them dumb.

The decider

Another gripe: sometimes my door locks when I’m driving, and then I have to unlock it to get out – but not always. There is no rhyme or reason (that I am aware of) for when and why this happens. Yes…I know – some of you will probably offer to enlighten me with a comment. But the fact that this has to be learned in the first place is what bugs me. I would prefer one of two things: (1) My car makes it apparent to me why it is making decisions for me, or (2) it stays out of the way and lets me be the decision-maker.

Am I old-fashioned? If wanting to be in charge of basic things like locking doors and turning on lights makes me old-fashioned, then…yes, I’m old-fashioned.


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Confessions of a MIT luddite

People confuse me for a techy because of my degree. And then they are shocked at how critical I am of technology. The truth is that I am a design nerd rather than a computer nerd. I have nothing against information technology – after all, I write software – and love it. I just want the technology that I rely on to be better at communicating. For example: why do gas pumps still have a one-word vocabulary? ….


Okay, I’m a neo-luddite. There, I said it. And I will remain a neo-luddite as long as the tech industry continues to ignore a billion years of evolution, which gave us – and the rest of the living world – the means to generate signals and interpret signals – the body language of the biosphere that keeps the living world buzzing along.

This natural flow of communication among organisms is a wonderful thing to behold. It happens on a level of sophistication that makes ovens and VCR’s look like retardation in a box.


But then again, the evolution of information technology is extremely short compared to the evolution of natural language, which has kept the social ecosystems of Homo Sapiens running for a very long time.

Perhaps I am thrashing in the midst of the Singularity, and I should just give up – because that’s what you do in the Singularity.

But I would still like to understand what the future of communication will look like. This is especially important as more and more communication is done between people and machines. At the moment, I am still a little hesitant to call it “communication”.

Thoughts on the Evolution of Communication

My dog and I engage in a lot of signaling. But it is not always deliberate, and it is not always conscious, and it is not always a two-way process.

In the morning, Otto licks my bald head. He can probably smell what I have been dreaming. I hold him and we have a nice cuddle. Just one of our many routines. He looks at me and I look at him. He is always checking me out. In the process of getting to know each other over several years we have come to read each other’s signals – our body language, interactions, responses, vocalizations…and smells.

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Semiosis emerges in the process. If there is a coupling of signals – a mutually-reinforcing signaling loop – two-way communication emerges. It is not always conscious – for either of us. Sometimes, a mutually-reinforcing signaling process which I was previously unaware of becomes apparent to me. When this happens, I become an active agent in that semiosis.

Otto is so intensely attentive to me – my routines (and deviations from them). He probably tunes-in to many more of my signals than I do to his. But then again, I am a human: I generate a lot of signal. Does he see this as “communication?” It is not clear: his brain is a dog brain, and mine is a human brain. We don’t share the same word for this experience (he only knows a few English words, and “communication” isn’t one of them).

I can be sure of one thing: we share a lot of signaling. And, as members of two highly-social species, we both like that.

I would conclude from this that communication among organisms in general (the biosemiosis that has emerged on Earth over the last few billion years) came about pretty much the same way that Otto and I established our own little world of emergent semiosis. As life evolved, trillions of coupled signaling channels reinforced each other over time and became more elaborate. Eventually, this signaling became conscious and intentional.

And so here we are: human communication has reached a level of sophistication such that I can type these words – and you can read them. And we can share the experience – across time and space.

Cute Yet Creepy. Animal Yet Human.

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I have been thinking about the uncanny valley for decades. Here are some things I’ve written on the subject:

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The Uncanny Valley of Expression

Uncanny Charlie

How Does Artificial Life Avoid the Uncanny Valley?

Augmenting the Uncanny Valley

Over time, animated filmmakers have become more savvy about the uncanny problem. They are getting generally better at avoiding the creeps. According to this article, Disney learned its lesson, the hard way….

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“And that’s why realism-fetishizing technology like motion capture is much more susceptible to creeping us out than more “primitive” or stylized animation: it’s only when you’re purporting to offer that level of detail in the first place that you can totally, utterly screw it up.”

Despite the fact that animators are more savvy about the Valley, I still can’t help but notice a nagging, low-grade fever of optical realism that has crept into the lineup of popular animated characters (even as the accidental monsters get shuffled off to quarantine). Consumers of animated films may be unaware of it…because it has become normalized. The realism has increased, bit by bit, so that now we have quivering hair follicles, sparkling teeth, and eyeballs reflecting the light of the environment.

Imagine if our favorite classic characters were rendered like this.


But the discomfort we call the uncanny valley doesn’t only occur when the thin veneer of visual realism unexpectedly reveals a mindless robot where “nobody is home”. The phenomenon could be seen in a larger context: it is caused by the clash of any two aspects of an artificial character that operate at incompatible levels of realism. For instance…

Can Animals Become Too Human?

I recently saw Zootopia. I really enjoyed it. Great film. But I must say, I did catch a glimpse of the Valley. There’s no denying it.

I also recently saw Guardians of the Galaxy, with Rocket Raccoon, who exhibits two very different kinds of realism: (1) Raccoon! (2) A tough guy with attitude – and a very human intelligence.

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 9.55.27 PMCan contradictory behavioral realism create a different sort of valley? Technology for character animation has enabled a much higher level of expressivity than has ever been possible, with fine detail in subtle eye and mouth movements. One might conclude that since behavioral realism has caught up with visual realism, the uncanny valley should now be a thing of the past. But then again, that depends on whether the behavior and the visuals apply to the same species!

Nothing abnormal about a cartoony raccoon throwin’ shapes and talkin’ tough. But when this animal is rendered in a hyper-realistic manner, AND evoking high-res human expression, things start to feel odd.

Silvery-marmoset-6Pandas, ants, lobsters, bison, eels … in order for all of these various animals to assume the range of human emotion needed to deliver a clever line, they have to be equipped with a face with all the expected degrees of freedom. The result is what I call “rubber mask syndrome”.


One example is the characters in Antz, whose faces stretch in very un ant-like ways in order to express very human-like things. More and more animals (unlikely animals even) are being added to the cast of movie stars. They are snarky, sly, witty, sexy, clever…and oh so human. It has all gotten a little weird if you ask me.

The Information EVOLUTION

I remember several decades ago learning that we were at the beginning of an information revolution. The idea, as I understood it, was that many things are moving towards a digital economy; even wars will become information-based.

The information revolution takes over where the industrial revolution left off.

I am seeing an even bigger picture emerging – it is consistent with the evolution of the universe and Earth’s biosphere.

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At the moment, I can hear a bird of prey (I think it’s a falcon) that comes around this neighborhood every year about this time and makes its call from the tree tops. When I think about the amount of effort that birds make to produce mating calls, and other kinds of communication, I am reminded of how much importance information plays in the biological world. The variety and vigor of bird song is amazing. From an evolutionary point of view, one has to assume that there is great selective pressure to create such energy in organized sound.

money+gorilla+teeth+omg+weird+primatesThis is just a speck of dust in comparison to the evolution of communication in our own species, for whom information is a major driver in our activities. Our faces have evolved to give and receive a very high bandwidth of information between each other (Compare the faces of primates to those of less complex animals and notice the degree to which the face is optimized for giving and receiving information).

Our brains have grown to massive proportions (relatively-speaking) to account for the role that information plays in the way our species survives on the planet.

Now: onto the future of information…

Beaming New Parts to the Space Station

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Guess which is more expensive:

  1. Sending a rocket to the space station with a new part to repair an old one.
  2. Beaming up the instructions to build the part on an on-board 3D printer.

You guessed it.

And this is where some people see society going in general. 3D printing will revolutionize society in a big way. Less moving atoms, More moving bits.

To what degree will the manipulation of bits become more important than the manipulation of atoms?

Not Just a Revolution: Evolution

My sense is that the information revolution is not merely one in a series of human eras: it is the overall trend of life on Earth. We humans are the agents of the latest push in this overall trend.

Some futurists predict that nanotechnology will make it possible to infuse information processing into materials, giving rise to programmable matter. Ray Kurzweil predicts that the deep nano-mingling of matter and information will be the basis for a super-intelligence that can spread throughout the universe.

Okay, whatever.

For now, let’s ride this information wave and try to use the weightlessness of bits to make life better for all people (and all life-forms) on Earth – not just a powerful few.

The Miracle of My Hippocampus – and other Situated Mental Organs

I’m not very good at organizing.

pilesThe pile of papers, files, receipts, and other stuff and shit accumulating on my desk at home has grown to huge proportions. So today I decided to put it all into several boxes and bring it to the co-working space – where I could spend the afternoon going through it and pulling the items apart. I’m in the middle of doing that now. Here’s a picture of my progress. I’m feeling fairly productive, actually.

10457290-Six-different-piles-of-various-types-of-nuts-used-in-the-making-of-mixed-nuts--Stock-PhotoSome items go into the trash bin; some go to recycling; most of them get separated into piles where they will be stashed away into a file cabinet after I get home. At the moment, I have a substantial number of mini-piles. These accumulate as I sift through the boxes and decide where to put the items.

Here’s the amazing thing: when I pull an item out of the box, say, a bill from Verizon, I am supposed to put that bill onto the Verizon pile, along with the other Verizon bills that I have pulled out. When this happens, my eye and mind automatically gravitate towards the area on the table where I have been putting the Verizon bills. I’m not entirely conscious of this gravitation to that area.

Gravity Fields in my Brain

What causes this gravitation? What is happening in my brain that causes me to look over to that area of the table? It seems that my brain is building a spatial map of categories for the various things I’m pulling out of the box. I am not aware of it, and this is amazing to me – I just instinctively look over to the area on the table with the pile of Verizon bills, and…et voilà – there it is.

Other things happen too. As this map takes shape in my mind (and on the table), priorities line up in my subconscious. New connections get made and old connects get revived. Rummaging through this box has a therapeutic effect.

The fact that my eye and mind know where to look on the table is really not such a miracle, actually. It’s just my brain doing its job. The brain has many maps – spatial, temporal, etc. – that help connect and organize domains of information. One part of the brain – the hippocampus – is associated with spatial memory.


User Interface Design, The Brain, Space, and Time

I could easily collect numerous examples of software user interfaces that do a poor job of tapping the innate power of our spatial brains. These problematic user interfaces invoke the classic bouts of confusion, frustration, undiscoverability, and steep learning curves that we bitch about when comparing software interfaces.

This is why I am a strong proponent of Body Language (see my article about body language in web site design) as a paradigm for user interaction design. Similar to the body language that we produce naturally when we are communicating face-to-face, user interfaces should be designed with the understanding that information is communicated in space and in time (situated in the world). There is great benefit for designers to have some understanding of this aspect of natural language.

Okay, back to my pile of papers: I am fascinated with my unconscious ability to locate these piles as I sift through my stuff. It reminds me of why I like to use the fingers of my hand to “store” a handful of information pieces. I can recall these items later once they have been stored in my fingers (the thumb is usually saved for the most important item).

Body Maps, Brain, and Memory


Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 9.03.46 PMLast night I was walking with my friend Eddie (a fellow graduate of the MIT Media Lab, where the late Marvin Minsky taught). Eddie told me that he once heard Marvin telling people how he liked to remember the topics of an upcoming lecture: he would place the various topics onto his body parts.

…similar to the way the ancient Greeks learned to remember stuff.

During the lecture, Marvin would shift his focus to his left shoulder, his hand, his right index finger, etc., in order to recall various topics or concepts. Marvin was tapping the innate spatial organs in his brain to remember the key topics in his lecture.

My Extended BodyMap

18lta79g5tsytjpgMy body. My home town. My bed. My shoes. My wife. My community. The piles in my home office. These things in my life all occupy a place in the world. And these places are mapped in my brain to events that have happened in the past – or that happen on a regular basis. My brain is the product of countless generations of Darwinian iteration over billions of years.

All of this happened in space and time – in ecologies, animal communities, among collaborative workspaces.

Even the things that have no implicit place and time (as the many virtualized aspects of our lives on the internet)… even these things occupy a place and time in my mind.

Intelligence has a body. Information is situated.

Hail to Thee Oh Hippocampus. And all the venerated bodymaps. For you keep our flitting minds tethered to the world.

You offer guidance to bewildered designers – who seek the way – the way that has been forged over billions of years of intertwingled DNA formation…resulting in our spatially and temporally-situated brains.


We must not let the no-place, no-time, any-place, any-time quality of the internet deplete us of our natural spacetime mapping abilities. In the future, this might be seen as one of the greatest challenges of our current digital age.


Failure and Recovery – an Important Concept in Design..and Life

I have observed that good design takes into consideration two important aspects of use:

  1. Failure Rate
  2. Recovery Rate

Well-designed products or software interfaces have low failure rates and low failure amounts. This is related to the concept of fault tolerance. A well-designed product or interface should not fail easily, and failure should not be complete.

“If its operating quality decreases at all, the decrease is proportional to the severity of the failure, as compared to a naively designed system in which even a small failure can cause total breakdown.”

A well-designed product or interface should also be easy to recover from failure.

81oCqPfe5wL._SX522_I recently bought a set of headphones. These were good headphones in most respects…until they broke at the complicated juncture where the ear pieces rotate. Once these headphones broke, there was really nothing I could do to fix them. But I decided to try – using a special putty that dries and holds things into place.


photoIt took a long time to figure out how to do this. When I finally repaired the broken part, I realized that the wires had been severed inside. There was no sound coming through. I had no choice but to put them into the garbage bin where they will contribute to the growing trash heap of humanity. Bad design is not just bad for consumers: it’s bad for the planet.

While most people (including myself) would claim that Audio Technica headphones are generally well-designed, we are usually not taking into account what happens when they break.

13687716887463pSometimes the breakdown is cognitive in nature. There’s a Keurig coffee machine at work. It uses visual symbols to tell the user what to do.

As I have pointed out in another article, visual languages are only useful to the extent that the user knows the language. And designers who use visual language need to understand that natural language includes how something behaves, and shows its internal states, not just what kinds of icons is displays on its surface.

The Keurig coffee machine is a nice specimen in many respects. But I had discovered that if I apply the necessary actions in the wrong order, it fails. Namely: if I add the little coffee supply and press down the top part before the water has finished heating up, it doesn’t allow me to brew the coffee.

So…after the water finished heating up, I saw the buttons light up. “Cool” – I said.

But nothing happened when I pressed a button to dispense the coffee. “WTF” – I said. Then I decided to open up the lid and close it again. That did the trick. The lights started blinking. But I was not satisfied with the solution. The discoverability of this bit of behavioral body language ranks low on my list.

Hint: “Blinking Lights” Means “You Can Press a Button”

I have to say, though: I have experienced worse examples of undiscoverability with appliances – especially appliances that are so simple, sleek, and elegant that they have no body language to speak of. This infuriates me to no end. It is not unlike the people I meet on occasion who exhibit almost no body language. It makes me squirm. I want to run away.

Now, thanks to YouTube and the interwebs in general, there are plenty of people who can help us get around these problems…such as this guy who has a solution to a related blinking light problem:

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I realize there are not many people who are bringing up this seemingly small problem. But I bring it up because it is just one of many examples of poor affordance in industrial design that are so small as to be imperceptible to the average user. However, the aggregate of these small imperceptible stumbles that occur throughout our lives constitutes a lowering of the quality of life. And they dull our sense of what good design should be about.

Tiny Rapid Failures and Tiny Rapid Recoveries

148159580_GeneralBicycleNow consider what happens when you ride a bicycle. When riding a bike, you may occasionally lose balance. But that balance can easily be recovered my shifting your weight, turning the wheel, or several other actions – many of which are unconscious to you.

Think of riding a bike as a high-rate of tiny failures with a high-rate of tiny recoveries.

Taken to the extreme: a bird who is standing on one leg has neuromuscular controls that are correcting the balance of the bird’s center of gravity at such a high rate and in such tiny amounts, that we don’t even notice it (and neither does the bird).


Natural Affordance: Perceived Signifiers

User interfaces (in computer software as well as in appliances) should use natural affordances whenever possible so that users can make a good guess as to whether something is about to fail, whether it is failing, how much it is failing, and how to recover.

The best design allows for rapid, and often unconscious correction while using the product. Good design is invisible!

Donald Norman brought some of these ideas to the fore when he wrote the Design of Everyday Things. We still have a lot to learn from his teachings.

Design is a way of life. If you design your life with resilience in mind – with the ability to recognize failures before they happen, and with the ability to recover from those failures, you will live a better life. The same goes for designing the technology that increasingly fills our lives.