Posts tagged “new yorker”

Dark Patterns for Interviewing

How to Win at Conversation is a humorous New Yorker article that frames conversation as a competition and offers up strategies (including Seed of Doubt, Barrage of Interruptions, Intentional Mishearing and Unfulfilled Intimations of Actual Gossip) for winning. You’ll likely recognize when you’ve been on the receiving end, or maybe when you’ve done it yourself. The piece can be read as a set of dark patterns for good interviewing.

OPPONENT: We just got some pretty good news.
YOU: I can’t believe it! They finally gave you a five-hundred-thousand-dollar raise, didn’t they?
OPPONENT: Er…no.
YOU: Oh. Sorry. So what’s the good news?
OPPONENT: Our little Jimmy just got into his first-choice preschool.
YOU: Oh. That’s good, too. Certainly nothing to sneeze at!

Strategy used: Intentional Overstatement of Expectations.

The role of a story

Evocative example of stories and flow as elements of problem solving from Town of Cats, a Haruki Murakami story in the New Yorker. Note: emphasis mine.

He had been regarded as a math prodigy from early childhood, and he could solve high-school math problems by the time he was in third grade. Math was, for young Tengo, an effective means of retreat from his life with his father. In the mathematical world, he would walk down a long corridor, opening one numbered door after another. Each time a new spectacle unfolded before him, the ugly traces of the real world would simply disappear. As long as he was actively exploring that realm of infinite consistency, he was free.

While math was like a magnificent imaginary building for Tengo, literature was a vast magical forest. Math stretched infinitely upward toward the heavens, but stories spread out before him, their sturdy roots stretching deep into the earth. In this forest there were no maps, no doorways. As Tengo got older, the forest of story began to exert an even stronger pull on his heart than the world of math. Of course, reading novels was just another form of escape-as soon as he closed the book, he had to come back to the real world. But at some point he noticed that returning to reality from the world of a novel was not as devastating a blow as returning from the world of math. Why was that? After much thought, he reached a conclusion. No matter how clear things might become in the forest of story, there was never a clear-cut solution, as there was in math. The role of a story was, in the broadest terms, to transpose a problem into another form. Depending on the nature and the direction of the problem, a solution might be suggested in the narrative. Tengo would return to the real world with that suggestion in hand. It was like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell. It served no immediate practical purpose, but it contained a possibility.

How a gut feeling becomes a hunch

A bit of inspiration from a recent New Yorker – Tree Line, Kansas, 1934, a story by David Means.

That afternoon, as he crawled back to Barnes, the gut feeling worked its way up his throat and struggled into his head. Note: A gut feeling finally becomes a hunch when it is transmuted into the form of clear, precise, verbal statements uttered aloud to a receptive listener-internal or external-who responds in kind. A hunch twists inside the sinews and bones, integrating itself into the physicality of the moment, whereas a gut feeling can only struggle to become a hunch, and, once it does, is recognized in retrospect as a gut feeling.

The art of a society reflects the society

David Denby deconstructs Knocked Up and the entire sub-genre he calls slacker-striver romance. He considers American culture over the decades and how relationships between the sexes were depicted on screen during those different periods.

Apatow has a genius for candor that goes way beyond dirty talk-that’s why “Knocked Up” is a cultural event. But I wonder if Apatow, like his fumy youths, shouldn’t move on. It seems strange to complain of repetition when a director does something particularly well, and Apatow does the infantilism of the male bond better than anyone, but I’d be quite happy if I never saw another bong-gurgling slacker or male pack again. The society that produced the Katharine Hepburn and Carole Lombard movies has vanished; manners, in the sense of elegance, have disappeared. But manners as spiritual style are more important than ever, and Apatow has demonstrated that he knows this as well as anyone. So how can he not know that the key to making a great romantic comedy is to create heroines equal in wit to men? They don’t have to dress for dinner, but they should challenge the men intellectually and spiritually, rather than simply offering their bodies as a way of dragging the clods out of their adolescent stupor.

Technology evolves with use

I love blog convergence. The discussion on this post fits well with this article in the the New Yorker that I read yesterday. It’s ostensibly a book review, but also a stimulating essay on adoption, evolution, and social construction of technology/innovation. I’ve pulled my favorite pieces out here (it’s not a long article, but the extracts make for a long blog post).

It’s common to think of technology as encompassing only very new, science-intensive things-ones with electronic or digital bits, for instance. But it’s also possible to view it just as things (or, indeed, processes) that enable us to perform tasks more effectively than we could without them. The technologies that we have available substantially define who we are. The nineteenth-century Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle didn’t much like the new industrial order, but he did understand the substantive relationship between human beings and their technologies: “Man is a Tool-using Animal. . . . Nowhere do you find him without Tools; without Tools he is nothing, with Tools he is all.”

The way we think about technology tends to elide the older things, even though the texture of our lives would be unrecognizable without them. And when we do consider technology in historical terms we customarily see it as a driving force of progress: every so often, it seems, an innovation-the steam engine, electricity, computers-brings a new age into being. In “The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900” (Oxford; $26), David Edgerton, a well-known British historian of modern military and industrial technology, offers a vigorous assault on this narrative. He thinks that traditional ways of understanding technology, technological change, and the role of technology in our lives, have been severely distorted by what he calls “the innovation-centric account” of technology. The book is a provocative, concise, and elegant exercise in intellectual Protestantism, enthusiastically nailing its iconoclastic theses on the door of the Church of Technological Hype: no one is very good at predicting technological futures; new and old technologies coexist; and technological significance and technological novelty are rarely the same-indeed, a given technology’s grip on our awareness is often in inverse relationship to its significance in our lives. Above all, Edgerton says that we are wrong to associate technology solely with invention, and that we should think of it, rather, as evolving through use. A “history of technology-in-use,” he writes, yields “a radically different picture of technology, and indeed of invention and innovation.”

Learning how to make new technologies is one thing; learning how, as a society, to use them is another. Carolyn Marvin’s illuminating book “When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century” (1988) notes that, during the early years of the telephone, there was confusion about what codes should regulate faceless and socially clueless speech. The telephone operator, typically female, often had the responsibility of waking up the master of the house, and so joined the wife as a woman who could talk to the man in bed; Marvin writes that “sweet-voiced” telephone girls at the turn of the century “were often objects of fantasy.” It was also thought that, if just anyone could use the new device, its utility would be completely undermined. Marvin notes the firm opinion of the British postmaster general in 1895 that “the telephone could not, and never would be an advantage which could be enjoyed by the large mass of the people.” He was wrong, but understandably so. The story of how we came to terms with the new technology-how we adjusted to it, adapted to it, domesticated it, altered it to suit our purposes-didn’t come with the technical spec sheet. It never does. No instruction manual can explain how a technology will evolve, in use, together with the rhythm of our lives.

The tendency to exaggerate the impact of technological innovation follows from an artifact of historical consciousness. When we cannot conceive what life would be like without e-mail, say, we correctly note the pervasiveness of the new technology, but we may incorrectly assume that the things we now do through e-mail could not have been done in other ways. Of course, we must know that many things now done through e-mail were once done, and to some extent are still done, by telephone, fax, snail mail, or actually stopping by to see someone. But we can never know how the technologies that existed before electronic communication would have developed had e-mail not become dominant, or what other technologies might have come along whose development was forestalled by e-mail.

In many African, South Asian, and Latin-American countries, used vehicles imported from North America, Western Europe, and Japan live on almost eternally, in constant contact with numerous repair shops. Maintenance doesn’t simply mean keeping those vehicles as they were; it may mean changing them in all sorts of ways-new gaskets made from old rubber, new fuses made from scrap copper wire. “In the innovation-centric account, most places have no history of technology,” Edgerton writes. “In use-centered accounts, nearly everywhere does.” John Powell’s marvellous [sic] study of vast vehicle-repair shops in Ghana, “The Survival of the Fitter: Lives of Some African Engineers” (1995), describes a modern world in which vehicles imported from the developed world initially decay, and then something changes: “As time goes by and the vehicle is reworked in the local system, it reaches a state of apparent equilibrium in which it seems to be maintained indefinitely. . . . It is a condition of maintenance by constant repair.” Much of the world’s mechanical ingenuity is devoted to creating robust, reliable, and highly adapted “creole” technologies, an ingenuity that is largely invisible to us only because we happen to live in a low-maintenance, high-throwaway regime.

Maintenance has implications for the identity of technological artifacts. There’s a traditional conundrum about “my grandfather’s axe“: over its lifetime, it has had three new heads and four new handles, but-its owner insists-it remains his grandfather’s axe. Philosophers have their proprietary version of the axe problem: “Locke’s socks” developed a hole, which he had darned, and then darned again. The socks kept the philosopher’s feet warm, but they troubled his head. Many people make their living repairing things; a very few make their living pondering whether repaired things are the same.

The astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” If he meant that we are unfamiliar with the principles on which the technology around us works, he was right-there’s an enormous gap between the knowledge of makers and the knowledge of users-but this is exactly as it should be. As users, we typically want our technology to be a black box; we don’t want to be bothered with adjusting it, monitoring it, repairing it, or knowing about its inner workings. A sure sign of the success of a technology is that we scarcely think of it as technology at all.

How to operate the shower curtain

The whole New Yorker riff is pretty funny, and a not-so-subtle comment on manufactured complexity

You’ll note that the shower curtain consists of several parts. The top hem, closest to the ceiling, contains a series of regularly spaced holes designed for the insertion of shower-curtain rings. As this part receives much of the everyday strain of usage, it must be handled correctly. Grasp the shower curtain by its leading edge and gently pull until it is flush with the wall. Step into the tub, if you have not already done so. Then take the other edge of shower curtain and cautiously pull it in opposite direction until it, too, adjoins the wall. A little moisture between shower curtain and wall tiles will help curtain to stick.

Keep in mind that normal bathing will cause you unavoidably to bump against shower curtain, which may cling to you for a moment owing to the natural adhesiveness of water. Some guests find the sensation of wet plastic on their naked flesh upsetting, and overreact to it. Instead, pinch the shower curtain between your thumb and forefinger near where it is adhering to you and simply move away from it until it is disengaged. Then, with the ends of your fingers, push it back to where it is supposed to be.

Conversational Layers

I have been running some in-home discussion groups for a design project recently. The ebb and flow of context is just so interesting to me and highlights the challenges of getting “all” the information.

[none of this is verbatim]

Q: If you and your wife own one iPod, how do you determine who is going to use it?
A: Well, for commuting, it’s either the iPod, or the New Yorker.

Two scenarios are likely:
1. She takes the iPod on the train and he drives their lovely car, a New Yorker.
2. Whoever takes the iPod gets music, and the spouse gets to read the most recent issue of the New Yorker magazine.

There’s always the clarification question: “When you say ‘New Yorker’ are you referring to the car or the magazine?” but in this case, we didn’t get to ask that, and I was confused at the time. It’s clearer looking at the video that they are talking about the magazine.

Later on, the same guy (still talking about iPods) tells us “Well, when you do that, it looks more Zen. It actually looks like the competition.” and moments later another participant adds “Yes, it’s like he says, very Zen, very Japanese, very spiritual.”

But that’s not at all what he meant. He meant another type of MP3 player, the Creative Zen.
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I understood what he meant, at the moment, but the other person, didn’t. And it wasn’t possible in the flow of things to clarify (and maybe not even necessary).

I have powerful memories of being in Mr. Collison’s grade 6 class, and seeing him do this sort of thing all the time – missing a word or a piece of context of what someone said and riffing on it, in entirely the wrong direction. It really made me squirm in my seat to see all this miscommunication around me and have to keep quiet, or at best, wait to offer my insight. I wonder if other people notice this stuff and are as stimulated/aggravated/curious as I am?

Netflix process

The New Yorker has a nifty-yet-brief piece of observational research on part of the Netflix process; incoming envelopes unloaded and outgoing ones loaded.

forty employees (“associates,” in Netflix parlance) are ready for work. The majority are women who were born in Africa and in Asia. At 6:30 A.M., they sit down in ergonomic chairs and begin the process known as “rental return.” An associate tears open an envelope that contains a sleeve enclosing a disk, tosses the empty envelope into a recycling bin, removes the DVD from its sleeve, checks the title on the DVD (when “Black Dog” arrives in a sleeve for “The Triangle,” the mismatched sleeve is discarded and “Black Dog” is re-sleeved), checks the condition of the sleeve (those with coffee stains or other evidence of having been used as coasters will also be replaced), checks the condition of the DVD (for scratches and cracks), and extracts customer notes (“THROW THIS DAMN DISK AWAY. IT DOES NOT WORK AFTER EPISODE 2, CHAPTER 4!”). Fingers flying and heads swivelling, the women each open between four hundred and fifty and eleven hundred and fifty returned rentals an hour.

Can I just call you “buddy”?

The New Yorker takes a wry look at the cultural perspectives embedded in information design

When you sign up online for Skywards, which is the frequent-flier program of Emirates, the international airline of the United Arab Emirates, you enter your name, address, passport number, and other information, and you select an honorific for yourself from a drop-down list. A few of the choices, in addition to the standard Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss, and Dr, are: Admiral, Air Comm, Air Marshal, Al-Haj (denoting a Muslim who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca), Archbishop, Archdeacon, Baron, Baroness, Colonel, Commander, Corporal, Count, Countess, Dame, Deacon, Deaconess, Deshamanya (a title conferred on eminent Sri Lankans), Dowager (for a British widow whose social status derives from that of her late husband, properly used in combination with a second honorific, such as Duchess), Duchess, Duke, Earl, Father, Frau, General, Governor, HRH, Hon, Hon Lady, Hon Professor, JP (justice of the peace?), Judge, Khun (the Thai all-purpose honorific, used for both men and women), L Cpl, Lt, Lt Cmdr, Lt Col, Lt Gen, Midshipman, Mlle, Monsieur, Monsignor, Mother, Pastor, Petty Officer, Professor, Senor, Senora, Senorita, Sgt, Sgt Mjr, Shaikha (for a female shaikh, or sheikh), Sheikh, Shriman (an Indian honorific, for one blessed by Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, wisdom, luck, and other.

New Yorker profiles Roald Dahl

From a lengthy New Yorker profile of Roald Dahl comes this story of a formative exposure to the notion that the products we experience are the result of conscious deliberate decisions by others, and that this is a process one can engage in.

He and the other boys at Repton also enjoyed a curious perk, courtesy of the Cadbury chocolate company. “Every now and again, a plain grey cardboard box was dished out to each boy in our House,” Dahl writes in Boy. Inside were eleven chocolate bars, aspirants to the Cadbury line. Dahl and the other boys got to rate the candy, and they took their task very seriously. (“Too subtle for the common palate” was one of Dahl’s assessments.) He later recalled this as the first time that he thought of chocolate bars as something concocted, the product of a laboratory setting, and the thought stayed with him until he invented his own crazy factory.

Dahl is brilliant at evoking the childhood obsession with candy, which most adults can recall only vaguely. In his books, candy is often a springboard for long riffs on imagined powers and possibilities. Far from being the crude ode to instant gratification that critics like Cameron detect, Dahl’s evocation of candy is an impetus to wonder. When Billy, the boy in The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me (1985), opens his own candy shop–talk about wish fulfillment!–he orders confections from all over the world. “I can remember especially the Giant Wangdoodles from Australia, every one with a huge ripe red strawberry hidden inside its crispy chocolate crust,” he says. “And The Electric Fizzcocklers that made every hair on your head stand straight up on end. . . . There was a whole lot of splendid stuff from the great Wonka factory itself, for example the famous Willy Wonka Rainbow Drops–suck them and you can spit in seven different colours. And his stickjaw for talkative parents.” The word “confection” has a double meaning in Dahl’s world: candy is a source not only of sweetness but of creativity. On a field trip recently, I sat next to three nine-year-old boys who spent forty-five minutes in a Wonka-inspired reverie, inventing their own candies.

Six Feet Under or Over The Shark


What’s wrong with Six Feet Under? In May 2001, Tad Friend had a long article in The New Yorker (not that I can find online anywhere) about the impending premiere of this show. Alan Ball talked about all the typical TV-writing tropes and how they would stay away from them. I’m pretty sure he mentioned the example of an elderly black or Asian man projecting wisdom, and I’m sure there were others. The point of the writing, he stressed, was to move away from that, into something that was not television. That is the HBO slogan, isn’t it?

Now we watch this week’s episode. A separated wife hires a nanny, and emphasizes that she plans for her to carry in the bottles of water. The nanny arrives and instructed by the wife that the bottles are indeed too heavy for her, so if the nanny could please bring them in when they arrive. Naturally, the nanny doesn’t work out, but the estranged husband appears on the doorstep to drop off the kids, and he’s dutifully carrying the bottled water.

We’ve known these supporting characters for several seasons, through the ups and downs of their relationship (mental illness, meddling siblings, financial struggles, infidelity, lying, etc.) and this particular need – the bottled water – has never been mentioned. It was introduced in the episode purely so it could be wrapped up by the end of the episode. Indeed, the need that the bottled water symbolized was pretty much out of left field as well. Now this kind of lame trickery is exactly what Hollywood is good at. Tell you how to feel, set it up, deliver it. Bang, boom, payoff, done.

Hey, elsewhere in the episode a group of grieving/celebrating women chanted anti-men slogans, but then began to sing. One woman began to sing first, in a quavery and not-very-musical voice. But then others picked up the song, and it gathered strength, musically, as more women joined in, their voices joining together in a lovely and uplifting moment. The voices got better, the initially-quavery singer begins a call-and-response, the camera circles around their candle-lit and Womanly Faces as the song grows.

I think there’s nothing more Hollywood-in-the-past-10-years than that scene.

It seems that they created some founding principles, or a mission/values statement, but they chose not to stick to them. They might have done well to have read Built to Last, a now-classic management book that explains how other business efforts stayed successful, and if I recall, that values statement was part of the common thread.

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