My Problem with Solutions

This is in response to week 2 readings for 'Food Systems.'

I have a problem with “solutions.”

Specifically the ones proposed in articles written by journalists who get home and wash the dirt out from under their fingernails after a couples of hours on a farm or in food start-up accelerator videos that double as business plans or “innovative” Kickstarter products are designed for lifestyle-blog aspirations rather than ecological impact.

It’s an issue with generality and vagueness. If I hear anything similar to the phrase “…we’ll need to feed nine billion people by 2050…” one more time, I’m going to smash an heirloom watermelon, Gallagher-style.  This overused soundbite is supposed to strike fear into the heart of the public?How is someone supposed to grasp gravity of that statement? Most people in the demographic you’re trying to reach have a hard time imagining numbers over whatever their Instagram following is. Good…repeat it, use it in every communication you make. That won’t render it completely and totally meaningless.

It’s fantastic that people are designing $400 countertop aquaponic kits. I love the idea of inspect-based tofu. You eat out of dumpsters? Cool! But these aren’t solutions. They’re not short term solutions. They’re not long term solutions. They’re experiments at best and start-up ideas at worst. Go ahead say it…say “but we’ll need to feed nine billion people by 2050.” Yes. But no one is going to feed 9 billion people with the four springs of basil growing in their glorified fish tank. People still don’t eat regular tofu. And eating waste isn’t going to help anyone who lives where they don’t have food to waste in the first place.

Any of these ideas could be the seed of something great. Something that’s going to save us from what’s coming. But first, we need to figure out HOW the thing gets implemented. Then we can call it a working model. It won’t be a “solution” until it feeds…you know.

Random Thoughts on Organization

The Simple Rules of Everyday Objects

When it comes to computer storage* the hierarchical folder system is the standard. It’s a fine option. Probably not the best option. But ostensibly the only option widely applied.

Folder > (sub)Folder > File

The folder system has simple rules that allow for the formation of complex structures. These four rules define how almost every who uses a computer keeps track of their files:

1. A Folder may contain a Folder

2. A Folder may contain a File

3. A File may not contain a Folder

4. A File may not contain another File

That’s pretty neat.

The challenge is to create a set of simple rules like these that allow for complexity to emerge as needed.

*There’s obviously a difference between storage structures and the visual representation of the storage structure (i.e. user interface vs. low level data storage structure). I have almost no clue as to how the files on my computer are actually, physically and systematically stored. As far as this class and this project goes, let’s assume I’m talking about the representation of a file storage system.

References

  • WinFS (Windows Future Storage): a “rich database” storage schema that is the one thing Bill Gates has said he wishes was fully developed.
  • Notes for a Liberated Computer Language: by Alex Galloway & Eugene Thacker (c. 2006). I’m honestly not entirely sure what this is. But I love it. It seems to be definitions of the parts of a fictional (theoretical?) programming language.
    • E.g. the “Zombie” data type is a process that is inactive but cannot be killed; the “Maybe” control structure allows for possible, but not guaranteed, execution of code blocks.

Piano Tops

“If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top.”

That’s Bucky Fuller. And this idea was the starting point Design Tool Studio.

The discussion centered around questions like: What ideas or tools do we take for granted? What “piano tops” are they based on? Can you imagine a tool not based on a something else?

In the end, the consensus was that most tools are necessarily based on a previous version or analogous tool. It’s easy enough to simplify a tool’s basic function to find a parent. Simply, piano tops exist because things have existed before them.

In fact, they need to exist. If designers continuously went around wholesale reinventing tools we’d see a different tool for every designer, there’d never be enough adoption to make it viable, and replacement would edge out refinement. 

Path Dependency

That being said, we’re lazy. And that’s actually the reason that many of these piano tops still exist.

Take the QWERTY keyboard layout. The popular tale is that Christopher Latham Sholes designed this layout (c. 1870), which separated many of the most common letter pairings, to slow typists down in order to prevent jams on early mechanical typewriters. (Some point to the proximity of ‘e’ and ‘r’ to debunk this theory. Others think it was in response to typists input that the layout evolved as it did.) In any case, this “decidedly counterintuitive” layout became the standard and has remain so for quite a while.

What’s fascinating and unbelievable is there’s been very little competition or inclination to change the layout since. Even Sholes, QWERTY’s daddy, spent the rest of his life refining the typewriter and its layouts. He even patented layouts that he deemed to be more efficient. You’d think that as the keyboard became ubiquitous (and shrunk to the size of a phone screen) someone would have developed a better system. And you’d be right. Of course there are other keyboard layouts. But they’re been almost no adoption of them.

Adoption means relearning how to type. It means changing manufacturing processes. It means switching a massive, intrenched system. It means a lot of work for a lot of people. And at the end of the day most people would rather lay out sunning ourselves on a piano top than get off and build something better.