Consider The Cowpath

September 4th, 2014 • permalink

I recently gave a mini PechaKucha-style talk at SVA IxD about habits and cowpaths and such, which I’ve reproduced here:

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One day, when I was about thirteen years old, I decided to bike from my house to Brooklyn Heights for the first time. All was going fine… until I nearly merged onto the highway. (Don’t worry. I veered off, found a payphone, and called my mom for directions. She almost had a heart attack.) Why did I almost make such a boneheaded decision? Well, I was following the route my mom used when she drove us to school every day. She took the Prospect Expressway, so I was going to do the same. It was the path I knew the best, and habit is an extremely powerful force — one that problem-solvers ignore at their own peril.

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In the IT world, we like to blow up bad habits. We have a phrase for this: “don’t pave the cowpath.” In other words, wouldn’t it be nice to come up with an objectively superior solution for a problem, rather than cementing the jury-rigged method that some former employee implemented some Friday afternoon ten years ago? This sounds really good, but it’s shortsighted. If we try to torpedo an existing system, human nature — those bad habits — will still find a way.

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Take, for example, the mysterious case of the client who likes to keep their password on a Post-It stuck to their computer. As an IT consultant, I come in and my eyes bug out. I say, here, let me set you up with a fancy password manager. It’ll solve all your problems, it’s really pretty, and all we have to do is set up a master password so you can use it. So what happens next? (img)

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Of course. My client has simply scrawled their master password onto the Post-It note. Why? Well, zooming out, maybe we weren’t solving the right problem. Their goal was to remember their password and easily access their files. Perhaps instead of undoing the Post-It cowpath and introducing a much larger security breach, we can dig deeper and solve the unspoken problem. So, what is the problem?

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As usual, XKCD has the answer. It turns out, apparently, that we’ve all been crafting terrible passwords for years. Adding complex numbers and symbols is (relatively) easy for a computer to brute-force, but nearly impossible for a human to remember. Choosing a random string of words, like “correct horse battery staple,” is far easier for a human to commit to memory, but far harder to crack. By looking at the root of this issue — convenience and ease of memorization — we’re far more likely to keep the password off the Post-It.

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Getting to the root of the problem involves noticing that some seemingly-senseless paths are intentional — these are known as desire paths. Returning to the parable of my fateful bike ride, it turns out that the best way to get to Brooklyn Heights from my old house is to cut across the Parade Grounds, dart across a long street with heavy, near-continuous vehicular traffic, and walk your bike through a hole in the fence around Prospect Park. No matter how many times the Parks Department puts up a new fence, folks keep tearing it down, because the alternative (biking around half the park to get to the proper entrance) is so onerous. Rather than try to rebuild the fence and correct the behavior, perhaps we can embrace it — by putting up a traffic light, for instance.

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Similarly, by paying attention to what’s going on and trying to withhold judgment, we might (might!) learn that a cyclist biking down a one-way street against traffic is actually not an asshole. Perhaps he’s not even going the wrong way. Maybe he’s made a prudent decision that this route is the safest and most expedient, and maybe instead of giving him a ticket we can design a solution, like a protected two-way bike lane, that would be more effective. (img)

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Sometimes the behavior we must design for is largely invisible, so we have to get creative. Here, looking at the tracks that cars leave after a snowstorm, we can see the desire path developing in negative space. The cars have done the research for us, and now we can identify an obvious spot for a pedestrian refuge. This behavior isn’t accidental, but it does require a well-trained eye to observe it. (img)

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And for another example of nearly-invisible behavior, here’s a closeup of that desire path into Prospect Park. Take note of that string bridging the gap in the fence. That’s part of an eruv, which is a consecrated, unbroken filament strung around entire neighborhoods to virtually extend the borders of Orthodox Jews’ households on the sabbath. Designing for this space requires awareness of many diverse, hidden needs — none of which we can ignore, and all of which will route around any obstructions.

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The moral of the story is that life finds a way. Habits are powerful, and behavior is stubborn. It also usually has an internal logic, even if that’s sometimes hidden on the surface. In order to design mindfully, we have to embrace these “bad habits” and figure out their root cause, rather than torpedoing an existing system in favor of an impossible “objectively superior” solution.

Pixel Perfect

July 9th, 2014 • permalink

Today, I helped bury my dear friend Chloe Weil.

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I first met Chloe thirteen years ago, in an elective high school health ed course called “Death & Dying.” Remembering that makes me laugh now, darkly. There was something dreadfully apropos about it then, and it’s even more devastatingly perfect now.

We rolled our own social media outlets back in the day. She maintained a proto-Twitter feed in which each entry was precisely 101 words long. She documented her teenage life in stark detail online, with the same clarity, maturity, observational prowess and humor that attracted so many to her in recent years. We bonded over our personal websites when we were sixteen. Her site was always better than mine. On April Fools Day, we switched our index.html pages and befuddled our friends.

Chloe was the least sentimental person I’ve ever met — she routinely shredded her ephemera and jettisoned old projects with ease — so I feel vaguely guilty telling you too much about her. But goddamn it, I want to make sure you understand.

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I want you to know that she vibrated at a different frequency. I don’t really know how to put it any other way. Her raw talent just seemed so effortless. Her dark discomfort wouldn’t allow her to see how loved she was, or how incredible, or how talented. But you can see it, and you don’t need my help. Read for yourself. She will stop you in your tracks.

Chloe and I didn’t always sync up, but when we did it always involved a fantastic, hilarious, unreal voyage. She visited me in college and we spent the entire weekend doing nothing but silently typing to each other on our laptops — it was one of the best weekends I’ve ever had. A few years later, we met up in the City and circumnavigated Central Park one evening, staying up sitting on a bench just chatting until 7am. It was one of the best nights I’ve ever had. And a couple of summers ago, we met up with our friend Jon and walked through the wilds of Red Hook, marveling at every dark corner and fortress-like tower and pier to nowhere. It was one of the best twilights I’ve ever had. We’re all lifelong Brooklynites, so none of this should have impressed us, but when you’re walking with Chloe, you’re on the adventure of a lifetime. Every single time.

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I hadn’t seen Chloe in a few months, but I did get to have one more adventure with her recently. I had a dream about her a couple of weeks back. I scrawled it down in the middle of the night and emailed it to her in the morning, and here it is.

Dream Chloe met up after a long time. Walking around. Lots of abandoned carnicerias. There was a time lord. Some guy got sucked into an engine block. Beautiful ethereal bats shadows. Someone waiting for a flight had hacked in and pretended to be you. We talked about our relationships and making time for our friends. You said you only liked my sister. Some people were taking wedding photos in a car, lit from outside. You weren’t sure how to get home from there.

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29:59

February 21st, 2014 • permalink

I turned 29 last week. I entered my thirtieth year.

It wasn’t the easiest of birthdays, but the invisible countdown has actually been extremely helpful for me. I’ve been more productive since January 1st than I had been in perhaps all of 2013. The nagging call of my thirties haunts my every lazy impulse.

I predict that it’s going to get a lot easier after my next birthday. I’ll be able to substitute the guilt of wasting my twenties with the freedom and power of an entire new decade to squander!

To that end, I had these little cards printed. Like me, many of my friends will be turning 30 during the next twelve months — and many family members will be turning 20, 60 and even 90. They could all use a little reminder that once they turn that corner, the pressure’s off — for a while, at least.

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Later Days

February 2nd, 2014 • permalink

I found this post-apocalyptic calendar from the future in an old, dusty, ambiguously-ethnic gift shop down a back alley that was mysteriously bricked over the very next day.

Conveniently, it appears that the 2127 calendar is backwards-compatible with 2014, in case you’re ready to swap out your Twelve Months Of Doge calendar for some bleak futurism.

Just $30, including shipping.

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Smart & Dumber

January 16th, 2014 • permalink

I needed some peaceful, distraction-free time this month.

To that end, I edited my hosts file to filter out unwanted sites. I deleted social media apps and enabled parental restrictions on my phone. I even created a small Safari extension to block access to certain sites unless I accessed them via a Google search (I don’t need to drink from the MetaFilter distraction firehose, but it’s still helpful to filter results to site:ask.metafilter.com when searching for recipes and date night suggestions).

It still wasn’t enough, so I decided to downgrade upgrade to a lovely flip phone. Amusingly, it’s actually my first! (Before the iPhone days, I had a non-flippy Nokia 8210, and I loved it dearly.) It cost me $14.99 on Amazon.

Flippin' it.

 

One big problem. My dinky new phone knows nothing of iMessage! I don’t need to respond all that quickly to most people I text with, but my girlfriend does not always appreciate it when I walk away from my desk in the middle of a conversation. (“But — Wendy! Darling! Light of my life! I consider texting to be an asynchronous form of communication!” Good luck with that one, fella.) To make matters worse, she has to pay per text on her work phone. So, what’s to be done?

The answer: using Google Voice and my inbox as a bridge, I’ll use AppleScript to sling my SMS messages over to iMessage, and to extract my girlfriend’s replies.

This project assumes that you’re an iCloud user with access to a Mac running Mavericks, and that you have access to Google Voice. Note that this solution only lets you bridge your SMS/iMessages with one of your buddies. I’m sure the scripts could easily be adapted for multiple contacts, but that’s not what I needed to accomplish here.

Step 1: set up Google Voice.

Choose a Google Voice phone number, and enable SMS-to-email. This lives under Settings > Voicemail & Text > Text Forwarding.

Once you’ve been assigned a number, send a text to it from your cell! When it arrives, take note of the custom email address Google sends it from. It will look something like this:

1[GV #].1[SENDER #].[HASH]@txt.voice.google.com

Step 2: sling your SMS messages to the Messages app.

Sender Screenshot

Open the “iMessage Slingshot Sender” script in AppleScript Editor. You’ll need to change two things here:

send theBody to buddy "718-555-1212"
of service "E:you@icloud.com"

“718-555-1212″ should be replaced by the phone number of your spouse, loved one, compatriot, buddy, or other most important iMessage contact. “you@icloud.com” should be replaced by your iCloud email address. (Make sure to retain the “E:” prefix.)

Now save your script, and move it somewhere Mail can find it! That’d be ~/Library/Application Scripts/com.apple.mail/.

You’ll need to create a new rule in Mail to trigger the script every time you an SMS that you’ve sent from your cell lands in your inbox. Mail rules live in Mail > Preferences > Rules. Click “Add Rule.” Give it a fancy name, and set the following as your only condition: From is equal to 1[GV #].1[SENDER #].[HASH]@txt.voice.google.com. Under “Perform the following actions,” select “Run AppleScript” from the first drop-down, then select your script from the second drop-down. Save the script, but don’t apply it to your entire inbox when prompted. Oh, and, before you leave the Preferences window, you might also want to make sure that mail is being checked regularly.

Now test it out! Send an SMS to your GV number from your cell. It should open the Messages app and send that SMS to your loved one as an iMessage.

Now, we just need to slingshot their replies…

Step 3: …slingshot their replies.

Receiver Screenshot

Open the “iMessage Slingshot Receiver” script in AppleScript Editor. This script is triggered whenever anyone sends you a message in Messages. If the sender is your loved one (your very patient loved one, who doesn’t question your need to use a dumb phone for a couple of days until you finally come to your senses), it extracts their iMessage, plunks it down into an email sent to that same txt.voice.google.com address, and sends it.

You’ll need to change two things here, too:

if theHandle = "+17185551212" then
set recipientAddress to
"1[GV #].1[SENDER #].HASH@txt.voice.google.com"

“+17185551212″ should be replaced by your lover’s phone number. The txt.voice.google.com number should be replaced by that email address GV generated for you.

Note that there’s a lot of cruft in that script. In Mavericks, the Messages app has lost its event handling GUI. Instead, every single script needs to define every possible event or AppleScript will throw an error. Sorry about that. Just ignore it. You might also notice that “on active chat message received” is defined separately. I’d recommend ignoring it, or your texts might come through twice. (And if the receiver script is suppressed because you’re actively using Messages? Not a big tragedy.) Again — sorry.

Now, save your script. This one needs to live in ~/Library/Application Scripts/com.apple.iChat/.  To activate your script, head over to Messages > Preferences > General. At the bottom of that pane, select your script from the “AppleScript handler” dropdown.

Congrats! You’re done! Your SMS messages will be routed to your inbox through GV, then slung (slinged? slang!) to your favorite iMessage user. The interstitial email will be summarily trashed. Then their iMessage replies will be emailed back to GV via your Mail app. The best part is, a complete record of your conversation will exist in both iMessage and GV!

Just keep in mind that you should add your GV number to your phone’s contacts. You’ll be texting to that number, not your iMessage buddy’s number.

You can grab the two scripts via github. Please let me know how they work out for you.

Now, to master T9

East Jesus

January 10th, 2014 • permalink

We made it to the middle of nowhere over New Years. Then we drove another twenty miles east.

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The Noah Purifoy Foundation, in Joshua Tree. Decades of sunbleached desert art. Though I can’t imagine two more dissimilar environs, it sort of reminds me of Opus 40 in Saugerties, NY. Both examples of a person with a singular, unfinished dream and decades to hash it out. One of the High Desert Test Sites.

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 The Salton Sea and Palm Springs at sunset, as seen from Keys View, Joshua Tree National Park.

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Lauren and Joshua.

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Your best bet in Twentynine Palms.

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Salton Sea State Park. Yet another ecological disaster hiding in plain sight.

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Bombay Beach.

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Lauren is unimpressed by Salvation Mountain.

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East Jesus.

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Still Life With Tilapia.

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Salton City.

A Lever & A Place To Stand

September 19th, 2013 • permalink

New York City’s mayoral primaries were held last week, and I was apparently the only person in my electoral district to get on board for the great populist uprising… but, no matter. The rest of the city took care of everything for me.

2013 Primary

For this primary (and only this primary), The Board of Elections wisely decided to bring back the vintage, 1960s-era, 900lb lever voting machines, which had been mothballed in 2009 after a decades-long effort to modernize the state’s voting machines. Why? The Board wasn’t confident of their ability to perform a recount using the new optical scanners, in the event that a runoff election would be called.

Election 2004

The largest manufacturer of the lever machines, the Automatic Voting Machine Corporation of Jamestown, NY, went bankrupt in 1983, the same year that the City of New York started to consider replacing the then-20-year-old machines with computerized models.

Election 2008

In an effort to upgrade antiquated voting technology and avoid a replay of the 2000 presidential election donnybrook, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002, sealing the fate of the Shoup and AVM lever voting machines. New York’s paralyzed legislature was still unable to act, though, so the Justice Department sued New York in 2006, and the optical scanners were finally introduced in 2009.

Election 2013

And now, after only 3 years, the lever machines are back en vogue. I’d meant to record the dying sound of voting via these machines, but got distracted by the hubbub of the voting process. Fortunately, my girlfriend was willing to help out!

Echo Chamber

August 17th, 2013 • permalink

I visited Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Voice Tunnel, a site-specific installation created as part of the NYC DOT’s annual Summer Streets program, which closes off Lafayette Street and Park Avenue to vehicular traffic from the Brooklyn Bridge up to 72nd Street for three consecutive Saturday mornings each August.

Park Avenue Tunnel fan

Voice Tunnel consists of 300 theatrical profile lights and 150 loudspeakers, set up in the Park Avenue Tunnel each morning and broken down every afternoon before it can be reopened to traffic. There is one microphone in the center of the 7-block-long tunnel, where visitors can record brief greetings, which then get replayed in a loop via the individual loudspeakers. Each loudspeaker plays a different voice recording, and each profile light displays in brightness that’s proportional to the loudness of the recording. Every 30 seconds or so the lights go dark and the recordings fall silent, and then the sound loops move down the tunnel by one loudspeaker, until they are gone.

Voice Tunnel, an extension of Lozano-Hemmer’s earlier Pulse Park in Madison Square Park, has been extremely popular. At 8:35am, I stood in a line that went from Park Ave and 32nd St all the way to Lexington and 34th. The fast-moving line vibrated with excitement.

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What dawned on me only later (around, probably, 36th Street, underground) is that I was already part of the installation. From the moment we were allowed into the tunnel, visitors started snapping portraits and excitedly chatting with their friends as they slowly ambled through the tunnel. As the lights and recordings fell dark and quiet at regular intervals, I realized how hard it was to distinguish the voices of the crowds from the voices in the recordings. As I walked past each loudspeaker I could isolate the sounds (“I need a pie”, “My love to Lauren”, “New York is super incredible”), but they quickly faded into the din.

As we walked back into the open air and my fellow visitors continued yammering about their days, about Citi Bike, about Starbucks, I remembered, with a grimace, that unlike the recordings in Voice Tunnel, our cicada’s song is never hushed.

Park Avenue Tunnel

Millennial Foley

July 12th, 2013 • permalink

I started thinking about a new project recently — a personal database of environmental sounds. I started with a classic tune that will one day be unrecognizable (unless, of course, it becomes the only way we ingest nutrients in the future): the desperate, deeply tragic scraping sound one hears upon reaching the bottom of a Chipotle bowl. I’ll have more on this soon.

The Low Line

October 4th, 2012 • permalink

A bizarre public demo exhibited on Essex Street.

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