The mountain

Start at the beginning.

Tacoma — our partially lovely, continuously unfurling city — is right there, between this water and that mountain.

That mountain has gone by several names. Today, let’s call it by an older/counterfactual name (e.g. not after a dead old dude who was fighting for the other side, and didn’t even do a competent job of it; but I digress): let’s call it “the Mountain That Was God”. What’s the difference between the idea of our mountain and the idea of a god? People take both for granted, accepting them as ideas, or things, without much thought. Gods, and our mountain, are part of the world and part of daily experience, but are also impossible, remote, extraordinary.

Speakers of English will encounter a particular conundrum. There’s a glittering word-hoard of King James’ vocabulary that’d be ideal for describing our mountain if it hadn’t been pounded into a filthy stricken rut through overuse and under-appreciation by generations of spiteful, evil maniacs: “awesome”, “terrible”, “holy”, and the like — we’re forced to back off from these words, still ticking and radioactive from exposure to the creaking murderous Christianist mind control system, and say: “Yeah, you know, this mountain is really big, tremendously big, too huge for comfort, reaching way up into the sky (sometimes, when its peaks are covered by clouds, reaching past the sky and right into whatever’s next), and then crushing down past the horizon. It’s heavy, heavy as hell.”

The mountain is too big, and too close. You know where it is even if you can’t see it. Most of the time most of it’s behind the clouds-rain-fog, but when you can see even a little bit of it, ‘zounds!, you know you’ve seen the entire thing. You can feel it. You know where to sit, on which trains, in order to watch it recede as you travel away or to watch it enlarge as you travel back home (an “awesome” experience). You don’t want to be far from it, but you don’t particularly want to get too close. It’s big enough where it stands.

There’s another old word for this mountain-sense: (a) the sense of knowing it’s there, the center of the earth, (b) the sense of truest love (devotion? gratitude?) for the ecology, the people, the earth and the sky and stars that spiral out from it, (c) the sense of knowing that without the very best and the very worst actions of our species (and we humans have been impossibly cruel, unjust, and awful in this town, among others) you wouldn’t be here to watch, or wait for, the mountain, and (d) the hope that you’ll get to see it again, soon; the word for this sense, a word that might yet be recovered, is “faith”.

Back Camera

The Smile Sessions

While we can all agree that “Good Vibrations” is the best song of the previous millennium, it’s only in “Smile” — embedded in the third movement of a tremendous psychoacoustic laser strike — that it unfolds from a pocket symphony into a pocket universe. Prefaced by a brain-cleansing prayer (rolling up the preceding 45 minutes of urgent, ambling rock), and followed by a warm, perfect farewell, “Good Vibrations” becomes the completest expression of a living world as it was enjoyed, once, briefly, by a few boys: a world now gone, a world not soon forgotten.

Pitchfork’s great review of “The Smile Sessions”. Or just get it on iTunes.

Watch the skies

When you have a question, go watch the sky. Where the sky is the biggest, most dynamic thing (bigger than the mountain, more mercurial than the saltwater) and when you have a question, look up. No matter how perfect and crisp the day, no matter how grey or blue or orange or black the sky, if you watch long enough, you’ll find that it’s moving along. Even when all appears still, it’s constant motion: the earth, the sky, the saccades of your eye. And your brain, incinerating too much precious energy in tremendous, unceasing, uphill fire-&-motion, cobbling together the thinnest, most fragile veneer of the appearance of a world.

When you have a question, go watch the sky.

Ask your question, but as you can see, there is no answer.

Who makes the world?

My first computer was an Apple IIc. Training montage: a child is typing in BASIC listings from magazines, he is playing Pac-Man clones, he is mutating them over and over, endlessly. Green text on a black screen, in the dark.

Now, here we are. Software is eating everything, and I’m making things to help make things that are eating everything. If we can figure out how to keep the lights on for a few more generations and for a larger percentage of people, I believe the species will make it. We’ll keep on seeing, making, and moving along — and we’ll be OK. Not perfect, not great, but OK.

All this to say: there are only a few things that are truly fantastic. Things that are too good to be here, but are here; things that don’t just change the rules of the game, but let us change what games are; things that put people at the center of the world, instead of fields, rivers, mountains, or wolves. Things that answer the question, “Who makes the world?”

sunset

And one of those fantastic things was that Snow White wedge with Millenium Falcon pieces hanging off the back. It had a handle, but you weren’t going to carry it anywhere; it performed a duet for disk drive and keyboard; it smelled of burnt plastic after it ran for too many hours on a hot-as-hell Michigan night; and, finally, it opened a path for you to walk as long as you wanted, forever — ancient worn-down cobblestones, paved over and over, pavement weathered and pot-holed back down to the original bricks — an entire box full of floppy disks. You could do anything, given time, determination, and electricity.

So: thanks, Mr. Jobs.

Turns out you folks were just getting started.

But even that was so much more than enough.

Surface

canal01a

An organization creates a layer of engagement and abstraction that allows owners, stakeholders, and employees to move along,

canal01b

sharing assumptions and repertoire, though many interesting things are going by, unnoticed, beneath the face of the waters.

canal01c

That’s why, when you’re working inside an organization, you see surface area, but when you’re on the outside, you see volume.

canal01d

What I saw

On Hood Canal this weekend I saw the perfect thing in a cloudy blue hour’s sky, at the tail end of a deep blue day, before the fireworks started; at the moment when there was just a little light left, as much from the water as from the sky.

When I looked towards the sunset, way out there past the Brothers, which were completely black, along with everything else across the canal: hills, mountains, houses, bridges, forests and the clear-cuts, all uniform black except for the minutest contrast in the snowcaps; twilight on the water and in the fading sky, with a ragged black stripe of the world across the middle —

When I looked towards the sunset I saw the crescent moon, tiny and low, a faint white on the faintest blue-gold twilight and not more than a degree or two higher than the Brothers. Distances compressed along a line of sight: two miles across the canal, another ten or so to the Brothers, two hundred thousand and some to the moon, and somewhere in between an ocean, a planet, the scrambling futility of life on earth. The perfect thing, and then the blue hour ended and I went back to my own life.

Seattle LeanCamp

I’ll be participating in Seattle Lean Camp over the weekend of July 16 & 17, and am really looking forwards to the event. At my current job, I spend time doing software development, but almost none reflecting on process (“the” process, as well as my process).

Thinking back, turns out I’ve only been involved in one (1) Big Design Up Front metacolossus software project. Not much to note about that one except that:

  1. we wasted a big amount of time up front;
  2. the software is still in use 6 or so years later;
  3. the best parts of it are those which were unplanned; and
  4. never again.

Generally, agile/haptic/emergent/no design has been the norm in my work. This is probably due to my age and the fact that I didn’t get into serious software-as-deliverable gigs until grad school (about 02006). I’m one of the lucky ones.

Point being that, in software, as in design, and as in life, you make it up as you go along. At the beginning of a project you’re making something from nothing. Later, you’re making something with quality/utility/beauty out of that first something. How you’re making it up, and why, is all that matters. Specifically: these are the only things you have control over, so you’d damn well better make them the only things that matter.

That’s the lesson of the independent practitioner. You spend a lot of time saying “yes”, and a lot of time saying “no”, and most of your time saying “maybe” (which means “no”) — but all of that time needs to map onto getting paid doing valuable work. The work of reversing entropy, delighting clients and customers, creating complexity that can be taken for granted.

This is why I’m fascinated by the intermediary artifacts people use to generate, contain, and communicate design (oratory, reports, explanations, wireframes, maps, e-mails, drawings, scale models, whispers in the night, extended metaphors, etc.) and bored beyond the vale of tears by the professional identities and associations the same people wrap around themselves (information architect, user interface designer, user experience designer, researcher, product designer, librarian, futurist, urban planner, etc.). I get it: you need a professional identity to get paid situate your self and your work. It’s useful language.

So let’s treat the language of identity and association as damage and route around it.

Let’s try a roomful of people, each doing different things in different ways, with different teams and to different ends; fill that room, and say: great, now that we’re all here, take a weekend to listen and speak about how to make the things which, in turn, let you make the things you actually care about.