Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tomato, Tomato

I speak english (or more precisely, the Queen's english) with a slight tinge of Geordie when I get angry. I sometimes say things that other english speakers fail to understand - either I pronounce words in a way they don't understand, or I use words that I think mean a certain thing when my conversational partner means something else.

It never fails to amaze me that we actually manage to communicate ideas and concepts to each other, given the opportunities for vagueness and overloaded meanings of words, both spoken and written. Lead, lead - one's a metal, one's where I guide someone. Edinburgh - but don't say "burg".

At my workplace, we have a set of words that are massively overloaded. Build - what does that mean to you? for me, depending on who I'm talking to and the time of day, it could mean building some code, building some data, the result of a lighting calculation, the latest version of the game, and a variety of other potential options. Pipeline and workflow suffer the same issues, and don't get me started on "Object", "Entity", "Component" or any of the other synonyms for "Thing".

The worst example I saw recently was an MIT video (Introduction to algorithms) where the presenter delves into formal proofs for complexity representation, and midway through one of his equations, makes a quick aside to the effect of "That equals sign - well, that really means definitely not larger than in this context". I have 30-something years of brain mapping that says the symbol "=" means "equal to", and he's using it to mean something different. Surely there's a better symbol for him to use? maybe even "<=" ?

This overloading and confusion crops up constantly, and it's a huge stumbling block whenever people need to collaborate. Sure, some of these issues could be resolved by being more precise when talking or writing, or establishing glossaries when communicating. However, I think the issue is much deeper than that.

Our brains are heavily wired into attaching a meaning (or a feeling) to symbols. Words, mathematical symbols, brand images, even blocks of raw colour evoke a response. Pictures really are worth a thousand words, and look just how important words are. Misusing a word or using a word in a different context is a problem when your brain is trained to respond to that word (or sound, or picture) with a preset response.

Another example that came up during my discussion with Joe was the symbols we use in calculus. When learning to differentiate at school, I had endless problems - not with the concepts, but with the notation. every time I saw "dy/dx" my brain was screaming at me - Divide! Divide you moron! You've done it a thousand times, what makes this time different? This problem never really went away until I saw Newton's notation (dots above letters; more dots equates to higher order derivatives) and Lagrange's notation. Seeing a way of expressing the concept where the very expression itself wasn't already mentally mapped to something else instantly removed that roadblock to how I thought about the process.

The same issues are also prevalent in UI design. Pictures on buttons - or if you drive an american car, english words on buttons - become ingrained from the moment you see them, and if you see a different image mapped to a familiar operation, or the same image meaning something else in a different program - you are instantly confused.

So, next time you strike up a conversation with someone, don't just say what you want to say - say what you want them to understand. If that makes any sense at all. Either you'll confuse the hell out of yourself, or you might just get your point across.

Did I mention that my tomato plant is doing really nicely?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Banging the rocks together

I had a revelation today, one of those moments when your mental jenga stack crumbles, and you have to enter the laborious process of building it back up a few blocks at a time. I was attending an "Inspire and motivate" presentation by Victor Antonov where he was discussing a new artistic project he's working on, and he mentioned using an abstract concept as a tool for defining how to achieve the required end result. I'll get to the details in a minute.

At that point in time, my brain jolted. Abstract concepts as tools? What the hell? My mental picture of a tool is ... well, stuff like hammers, bandsaws, straws, or software tools like Maya - they are tangible things that you interact with. I can grok picking up a hammer, swinging it, and hitting a nail - result achieved. How can I use an abstract concept as a tool? I can hear the jenga stack falling all around me right about now.

Building back up a new mental concept around something as simple as "what is a tool" takes a bit of work, so I'm going to lay out my thought process here.

1. This guy is saying he uses abstract concepts as tools, and he's achieved a result from that - I can see, looking at his presentation, exactly what he's describing as his hoped-for end result. (In this case, He was discussing reduction of scene complexity, including lighting and texturing, to get what he wants).

2. He's talking about using this tool in terms of what he wants - i.e. the end result - not in terms of how he interacts with it - i.e. how you swing it. This is my first disconnect point - my mental picture is normally all about the interaction, and this is the first thing I need to change. After talking to my friendly technical artist Joe, he's quite clear that the best tools are transparent in translating what an artist pictures in their head, and the end result. I've paid lip service to this, but i've never really got it.

3. He's expressing his end result in the simplest of terms - in this case, he's taking a theme ("Lighting defines mood") and establishing a spectrum or gradient ("one end is a single light which gives solid contrast and clear lines between light and dark with lots of shadow, the other end is large numbers of lights and soft ambient lighting which reduces contrast and minimises the clarity of shadow direction").

4. He's then mapping his abstract concept, the theme given above, as the tool that lets you tweak where you lie on the gradient. By tweaking where you lie on the gradient, you end up with a result. Bingo! The process is as simple as a volume slider - how it works is irrelevant, as long as it works.

Using tools is something pretty ingrained in the human psyche. It's been used as a discriminator between humans and animals for quite some time, even if we now know that many animals use tools regularly. As the hitchhiker's guide says, "We’ll be saying a big hello to all intelligent life forms everywhere … and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys." Still, it's a step away from using tools to manipulating your environment using abstract concepts, even though we do it all the time. I'm certainly not suggesting that i've never used an abstract concept as a tool, I'm just saying I've never really thought about it before.

The discussion with Joe lead us into the problems of language dissonance, overloading symbology and user interfaces - but I'll keep that discussion for another post.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Propping up the houses

So, looking at the latest results for Barratt the builders, everything looks pretty rosy. And so it should - given that they're obviously being fed money by you and me, via the council and government, to the tune of a couple of hundred million pounds. Oh yes, ladies and gentlemen - we're not only buying banks so that we can loan ourselves money, now we're buying land and houses directly so we can sell them - to ourselves.

See that last sentence there? "deferred terms"? that's right - it means that they're buying up land on a massive "buy now, pay later" scheme. And where is this land coming from? Correct - greenfield land that presumably must be gifted by councils. After all, they did promise the government they'd build houses, so it all makes perfect sense. Any sane builder knows that brownfield projects aren't worth the fake paper they're printed on these days, just look at how cheap town center 1-bed rabbit hutch apartments go for in these troubled times.

But wait! there's more! not only are we giving Barratt's the land to build on - we're also paying them over the odds for their houses! Yes indeed - while house prices fell around the country to the tune of 20% or so, Barratt sales to councils (social housing projects) increased on like-for-like properties to the tune of 12%. How's that for price inflation?

Well done, Barratt. It must have been a real struggle for you guys this year with all the money we're giving you.