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:

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 12.04.09 PM

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.


(This is a re-posting from Self Animated Systems)


Artificial Life (Alife) began with a colorful collection of biologists, robot engineers, computer scientists, artists, and philosophers. It is a cross-disciplinary field, although many believe that biologists have gotten the upper-hand on the agendas of Alife. This highly-nuanced debate is alluded to in this article.


What better way to get a feel for the magical phenomenon of life than through simulation games! (You might argue that spending time in nature is the best way to get a feel for life; I would suggest that a combination of time with nature and time with well-crafted simulations is a great way to get deep intuition. And I would also recommend reading great books like The Ancestor’s Tale :)

Simulation games can help build intuition on subjects like adaptation, evolution, symbiosis, inheritance, swarming behavior, food chains….the list goes on.

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 7.48.02 PMScreen Shot 2014-10-19 at 12.24.54 PMOn the more abstract end of the spectrum are simulation-like interactive experiences involving semi-autonomous visual stuff (or sound) that generates novelty. Kinetic art that you can touch, influence, and witness lifelike dynamics can be more than just aesthetic and intellectually stimulating.

These interactive experiences can also build intuition and insight about the underlying forces of nature that come together to oppose the direction of entropy (that ever-present tendency for things in the universe to decay).

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 7.58.33 PM

On the less-abstract end of the spectrum, we have virtual pets and avatars (a subject I discussed in a keynote at VISIGRAPP).

“Hierarchy Hinders” –  Lesson from Spore

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 8.18.59 PMWill Wright, the designer of Spore, is a celebrated simulation-style game designer who introduced many Alife concepts in the “Sim” series of games. Many of us worried that his epicSpore would encounter some challenges, considering that Maxis had been acquired by Electronic Arts. The Sims was quite successful, but Spore fell short of expectations. Turns out there is a huge difference between building a digital dollhouse game and building a game about evolving lifeforms.

Also, mega-game corporations have their share of social hierarchy, with well-paid executives at the top and sweat shop animators and code monkeys at the bottom. Hierarchy (of any kind) is generally not friendly to artificial life.

For blockbuster games, there are expectations of reliable, somewhat repeatable behavior, highly-crafted game levels, player challenges, scoring, etc. Managing expectations for artificial life-based games is problematic. It’s also hard to market a game which is essentially a bunch of game-mechanics rolled into one. Each sub-game features a different “level of emergence” (see the graph below for reference). Spore presents several slices of emergent reality, with significant gaps in-between. Spore may have also suffered partly due to overhyped marketing.

Artificial Life is naturally and inherently unpredictable. It is close cousins with chaos theory, fractals, emergence, and uh…life itself.


alife graphAt the right is a graph I drew which shows how an Alife simulation (or any emergent system) creates novelty, creativity, adaptation, and emergent behavior. This emergence grows out of the base level inputs into the system. At the bottom are atoms, molecules, and bio-chemistry. Simulated protein-folding for discovering new drugs might be an example of a simulation that explores the space of possibilities and essentially pushes up to a higher level (protein-folding creates the 3-dimensional structure that makes complex life possible).

The middle level might represent some evolutionary simulation whereby new populations emerge that find a novel way to survive within a fitness landscape. On the higher level, we might place artificial intelligence, where basic rules of language, logic, perception, and internal modeling of the world might produce intelligent behavior.

In all cases, there is some level of emergence that takes the simulation to a higher level. The more emergence, the more the simulation is able to exhibit behaviors on the higher level. What is the best level of reality to create an artificial life game? And how much emergence is needed for it to be truly considered “artificial life”?

Out Of Control

Can a mega-corporation like Electronic Arts give birth to a truly open-ended artificial life game? Alife is all about emergence. An Alife engineer or artist expects the unexpected. Surprise equals success. And the more unexpected, the better. Surprise, emergent novelty, and the unexpected – these are not easy things to manage…or to build a brand around – at least not in the traditional way.

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 9.04.07 PMMaybe the best way to make an artificial life game is to spread the primordial soup out into the world, and allow “crowdsourced evolution” of emergent lifeforms.  OpenWorm comes to mind as a creative use of crowdsourcing.

What if we replaced traditional marketing with something that grows organically within the culture of users? What if, in addition to planting the seeds of evolvable creatures, we also planted the seeds of an emergent culture of users? This is not an unfamiliar kind problem to many internet startups.

Are you a fan of artificial life-based games? God games? Simulations for emergence? What is your opinion of Spore, and the Sims games that preceded it?

This is a subject that I have personally been interested in for my entire career. I think there are still unanswered questions. And I also think that there is a new genre of artificial game that is just waiting to be invented…

…or evolved in the wild.

Onward and Upward.


The Unicorn Myth

I was recently called a “unicorn” – a term being bantered around to describe people who have multiple skills.



Here’s a quote from

“Dear outsiders,

Silicon Valley calls us unicorns because they doubt the [successful, rigorous] existence of such a multidisciplinary artist-engineer, or designer-programmer, when in fact, we have always been here, we are excellent at practicing “both disciplines” in spite of the jack-of-all-trades myth, and oh yeah – we disagree with you that it’s 2 separate disciplines. Unicorns are influential innovators in ways industries at large cannot fathom. In a corporate labor division where Release Engineer is a separate role from Software Requirements Engineer, and Icon Designer is a separate role from Information Architect, unicorn disbelief is perfectly understandable. To further complicate things, many self-titled unicorns are actually just programmers with a photoshop habit, or designers who dabble with Processing. Know the difference.”

Here’s David Cole on the “The Myth of the Myth of the Unicorn Designer“. He says:

“Design is already not a single skill.”


There are valid arguments on either side of the debate as to whether designers should be able to code. What do you think?


Programming Languages Need Nouns and Verbs

I created the following Grammar Lesson many years ago:

grammar lesson

Like many people my age, my first programming language was BASIC. Next I learned Pascal, which I found to be extremely expressive. Learning C was difficult, because it required me to be closer to the metal.

computer-memory-2Graduating to C++ made a positive difference. Object-oriented programming affords ways to encapsulate the aspects of the code that are close to the metal, allowing one to ascend to higher levels of abstraction, and express the things that really matter (I realize many programmers would take issue with this – claiming that hardware matters a lot).

Having since learned Java, and then later…JavaScript, I have come to the opinion that the more like natural language I can make my code, the happier I am.

Opinions vary of course, and that’s a good thing. Many programmers don’t like verbosity. Opinions vary on strong vs. weak typed languages. The list goes on. It’s good to have different languages to accommodate differing work styles and technical needs.


if you believe that artificial languages (i.e., programming languages) need to be organic, evolvable, plastic, adaptable, and expressive (like natural language, only precise and resistant to ambiguity and interpretation), what’s the right balance?

Should Programs Look Like Math? 

Should software programs be reduced to elegant, terse, math-like expressions, stripped of all fat and carbohydrates? Many math-happy coders would say yes. Some programmers prefer declarative languages over procedural languages. As you can probably guess, I prefer procedural languages.

Is software math or poetry? Is software machine or language?

I think it could – and should – be all of these.

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 6.04.00 PM

Sarah Mei has an opinion. She says that Programming is Not Math.

Programming with Nouns and Verbs

First: let me just make a request of all programmers out there. When you are trying to come up with a name for a function, PLEASE include a verb. Functions DO things. Like any other kind of language, your code will grow in a healthy way within the ecology of human communicators if you make it appropriately expressive.

Don’t believe me? Wait until you’ve lived through several companies and watched a codebase try to survive through three generations of developers. Poorly-communicating software, put into the wrong hands, can set off a pathological chain of events, ending in ultimate demise. Healthy communication keeps marriages and friendships from breaking down. The same is true of software.

Many have pontificated on the subject of software having nouns and verbs. For instance, Matt’s Blog promotes programming with nouns and verbs.

And according to John MacIntyre, “Take your requirements and circle all the nouns, those are your classes. Then underline all the adjectives, those are your properties. Then highlight all your verbs, those are your methods”.

When I read code, I unconsciously look for the verbs and nouns to understand it.


When I can’t identify any nouns or verbs, when I can’t figure out “who” is doing “what” to “whom”, I become cranky, and prone to breaking things around me. Imagine having to read a novel where all the verbs look like nouns and all the nouns look like verbs. It would make you cranky, right?

The human brain is wired for nouns and verbs, and each is processed in a different cortical region.


There are two entities in the universe that use software:

(1) Computers, and (2) Humans.

Computers run software. Human communicate with it.



Disappearing UI Elements – I Mean, WTF?

I recently noticed something while using software products by Google, Apple, and other trend-setters in user interface design. I’m talking about…

User interface elements that disappear

baby_peekabooI don’t know about you, but I am just tickled pink when I walk into the kitchen to look for the can opener, and can’t find it. (I could have sworn it was in THIS drawer. Or….maybe it was in THAT drawer?)

Sometimes I come BACK to the previous drawer, and see it right under my nose…it is as if an invisible prankster were playing tricks on me.

Oh how it makes me giggle like a baby who is playing peekaboo with mommy.

An open male hand, isolated on a white background.

Not really. I lied. It makes me irrational. It makes me crazy. It makes me want to dismember kittens.

Introducing: Apple’s New Disappearing Scrollbar!


According to DeSantis Briendel, “A clean and uncluttered visual experience is a laudable goal, but not at the expense of an intuitive and useful interface tool. Making a user hunt around for a hidden navigation element doesn’t seem very user friendly to us. We hope developers will pull back from the disappearing scrollbar brink, and save this humble but useful tool.”

It gets worse. If you have ever had to endure the process of customizing a YouTube channel, you may have discovered that the button to edit your channel is invisible until you move your mouse cursor over it.



I observed much gnashing of teeth on the internet about this issue.

One frustrated user on the Google Product Forums was looking for the gear icon in hopes to find a way to edit his channel. To his remark that there is no gear icon, another user joked…

“That is because “the team” is changing the layout and operation of the site faster than most people change underwear.”

…which is a problem that I brought up in a previous blog about the arbitrariness of modern user interfaces.

There are those who love bringing up Minority Report – and claim that user interfaces will eventually go away, allowing us to just wave our hands in the air and speak naturally, and to communicate with gestures in thin air.

Bore hole

In Disappearing UI: You Are the Interface, the author describes (in utopian prose) a rosy future where interfaces will disappear, liberating us to interact with software naturally.

But what is “natural”?

What is natural for the human eye, brain, and hand is to see, feel, and hear the things that we want to interact with, to physically interact with them, and then to see, feel, and hear the results of that interaction. Because of physics and human nature, I don’t see this ever changing.

OK, sure. John Maeda’s first rule for simplicity is to REDUCE.

But, by “reduce”, I don’t think he meant…

play hide and seek with the edit button or make the scroll bar disappear while no one is looking.

Perhaps one reason Apple is playing the disappearing scroll bar trick is that they want us to start doing their two-finger swipe. That would be ok if everyone had already given up their mice. Not so fast, Apple!

Perhaps Apple and Google are slowly and gradually preparing us for a world where interfaces will dissolve away completely, eventually disappearing altogether, allowing us to be one with their software.

Seems to me that a few billions years of evolution should have some sway over how we prefer to interact with objects and information in the world.

I like to see and feel the knife peeling the skin off a potato. It’s not just aesthetics: it’s information.

I like seeing a person’s eyes when I’m talking to them. I like seeing the doorknobs in the room. I like knowing where the light switch is.


Apple, please stop playing hide-and-seek with my scroll bar.


Bucky Fuller, Where are You? (On the Boxiness of Corporate Employment)


“Okay, but…if you had to choose between calling yourself a designer or calling yourself an engineer, which would you choose?”


Specialists and Generalists

I have often needed a specialist to do a specific task for me. This is normal. Specialists have a role in the economy and one could argue (along with Adam Smith) that specialization is the very basis of economy.

But too much specialization comes at a cost to innovative tech companies…and to creative individuals. Especially now, and increasingly – into the future…

Here’s an article in the Harvard Business Review on that topic:

Screen Shot 2014-11-02 at 10.43.34 PM

Nourishing My Inner Bucky

Interviewers have often asked me how I rank myself in terms of software engineering skill. As if there were a one-dimensional yardstick upon which all engineers can place themselves.

When one is evaluated with a one-dimensional yardstick, one usually ends up with a low grade.

For the same reason that there are multiple dimensions to intelligence, why not use more than one yardstick to evaluate an engineer?


The space that lies between all these one-dimensional yardsticks yields great connective knowledge. This is the domain of the COMPREHENSIVIST.

I lament the boxiness of the standard company recruiting process – even within companies that claim to employ people who think outside the box (like Google). Here’s a Google employee admitting to their deplorable interview process); “Pablo writes that his best skill is product design, but that his Google recruiters only showed interest in his ability to code.”

Screen Shot 2014-11-02 at 9.17.30 PMWe hear of how generalists and right-brain thinkers are in such demand these days.

Bullshit. When it comes to finding employment in companies, we are still confronted with an array of boxes, and we are still expected to show how well we fit into (one) of them. Consider Linked-In.

linkedinMy Linked-In profile has the following as my “industry”:


Why did I choose Shipbuilding? LinkedIn REQUIRES that I choose ONLY ONE of the industries from its list, and it DOES NOT allow me to choose more than one industry. Shipbuilding was the furthest thing I could find from what I do. Instead of trying to use a single box to characterize myself, I prefer to go in the opposite direction.

Linked-In = Boxed-In

Now I want to say a few things about being an older person who has faced difficulty fitting into the workforce.

We Are All Multi-Dimensional – Increasingly as we Age

Experienced (i.e., older) programmer/innovator/designers should be contributing more of those intangibles to the tech industry that Google is so bad at seeking out.

The tech industry has a fundamental problem: software plays an increasing role in people’s lives. The world’s population is aging. Young engineers who know the latest buzzwords of the last five years are hired quickly and eagerly. An aging population tries to keep up with fast-changing software interfaces. And more and more of this aging population consists of software engineers who have something the young programmers don’t have: wisdom, experience, perspective.

We are exactly what Silicon Valley needs.

Screen Shot 2014-11-02 at 9.01.40 PM

No one in particular is to blame for ageism in high-tech startups. The problem does not stem from any particular favoritism of young people: it is due to the short-sightedness of the tech industry, and the emphasis on the quick-thinking, risk-taking attributes associated with youth.

People who are professionally multi-dimensional should play a key role in human-centered software design. The cultural divide, identified by C. P. Snow in 1959, is still with us. Boxes breed boxes. That’s why we’re in the box we’re in.