Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Life is (at least) NP-Hard

We have a very large number of experiences that we can fit into our lives. Certainly many more than is possible to fit in.

Assigning a value of (v) to each of our (n) possible experiences and a cost (t) of how much of our life it would take to gain that experience, the problem of life is to choose which experiences to fill our life with out of the O(n!) combinations that exist.

If we had a solution to this, it would obviously be a solution to the knapsack problem. Therefor life is NP-Hard.


Indeed, if we consider that this is an online problem, with constantly changing opportunities each leading to a different but unknown future set of opportunities and further complicate our model with the exclusivity of certain experiences (cannot be the pope and married, etc) this problem becomes even more difficult. Perhaps it's exp-space. Perhaps it's unsolvable...

The Science and the Humanities Major

First, a stupid joke of my own creation:

A humanities major and an engineering major walk into a bar and each order a pint. They sit down and a bit later a barmaid hands each of them a pint glass that's half-full. The humanities major, enraged, asks his engineering friend to go complain to the cheapskate bartender. The engineer agrees, "Seriously! As if they can't afford to buy half-pint glasses!"

Okay, so obviously the first thing that jumps out is how bad I am at making jokes. (Please inform me of a better such joke if you know one) The point however is not my poor talents at humor, but rather the difference in thinking between humanities majors (hereafter called "anthros") and engineering majors (hereafter called "smiths"). The anthro in this joke sees the half-full glass as resulting from the barkeeper's hesitation to give them the full pint, and the smith sees the half-full glass as being twice as large as it should be.

The difference in thinking is obvious, and much seen, but what precisely is this difference and what can it tell us about how we (as humans) see the world.

The answer is, simply put, that humans have evolved as both users of tools and as social creatures.

As social creatures, whose survival both of our group and within our group depends on effective communication of empathy, we are cursed by a lack of telepathy. If we had telepathy, and could know what each other was thinking and the thoughts of predators and prey in our environment, we would be able to plan around what other agents in our environment were doing because we would know completely what that was. Life would be reduced to a game of complete information, and we would all have evolved to be chess players: the tiger is hiding there and wants the turkey over there, not me, so I don't need to be afraid of walking here.

But this is not the world we evolved in. To determine whether the tiger wants to eat you, you must closely watch its posture and see who it's targeting. The process of making sense of the world by looking for "social" cues (loosely defined here to include the posture of tigers) is roughly one of dividing the world into agents (having goals and desires and the free-will to pursue those goals) and then attempting to understand their desires and infer their internal mental state. This process, of seeing the world as a collection of intelligent, emotional, "human-like" agents, is called anthropomorphism, and this is the way that the "anthro" sees the world.

The world is complex, and is the product of the interaction of many complex things that we cannot understand. The anthro "chunks" the world into easily identified agents and makes sense of the world as the "social" interaction of these elements. The extreme example of this being, obviously, the nature gods.

But as we came to understand the workings of high and low pressure systems, we obviously no longer needed to view "the north wind" as a human-like god. We now understand the wind as a "scientific" phenomenon, rather than a "miraculous" one. The triumph of the smiths!

This transition from deified, anthropomorphic understanding to a scientific one is typically cast as the triumph of god-like human reason over our more animal-like, emotional understanding. This view, however, ignores the fact that our "smith's" scientific view is also the product of evolution.

Humans are, apart from uniquely social, uniquely tool-using. Not only do we use the objects in our environment as tools, but we even design and create tools for future use. To understand how a rock or stick might be used as a tool, we must first be able to predict how this object would affect and be affected in a variety of situations. The goal of science, to make predictions about future observations, is a pragmatic goal based on our evolution as tool-users, not a lofty one handed down by god.

To the black-smith, a hammer is not an independent agent but rather an extension of his arm: he understands its properties and can cause changes in his world by using those properties. To "smiths" the world is the predictable interaction of simple tools: I strike the flint, the sparks heat the twig, the twig catches fire, the fire heats the pig, the pig feeds me.

This is the primary distinction between our humanities and engineering majors: how they make sense of a complex world. The engineer views the world from the bottom up: as the vast interaction of simple elements. He predicts the future, by extrapolating from the simple to the system. The humanities major attempts to view problems from the top down: assigning goals and personality to a system, and making predictions from their understanding of humans (themselves a pretty complex system!). While in today's secular society science is often touted as being superior, in fact these two understandings of the world are equally flawed, just in different ways. The scientist may fail to take _every_ interaction into account, and often the wholistic approach misses the crucial detail.

Eeastern and Western Medicine as Exemplifying this Difference

The primary difference, as I see it, between Western and Eastern medicine, is the difference between an anthro's and smith's approach.

In western medicine, we see the body as a completely intelligible interaction between simple components. Naturally, to correct a problem one simply needs to correct for the component of the machine that is missing or repair it. Is you kidney failing? Let's put you on dialysis! Is your heart stopped? Restart it! Are you sad? Take this serotonin supplement! This approach is fantastically successful at saving lives in seriously threatening situations. To some degree, your body is a machine and to keep functioning each part (each "tool") must fulfill its responsibilities.

Where this breaks down, however, is in unintended consequences. For as much as we would like to compartmentalize our understanding of the body, it is a fundamentally more interconnected, complex artifact than can be understood completely. Drugs have side-effects, and while the body is usually resilient enough to balance them out, it is today's "body as machine" methodology that results in serious (sometimes fatal) complications. This leads to the bizarre, completely insane yet all too common practice, of taking one or several drugs just to combat the side effects of another drug. For example, millions of people today are taking Advil to combat the aches and pains caused by Allegra and Lipitor, and it isn't uncommon for psychiatric patients or patients with liver problems to take cocktails of dozens of drugs to remain stable. The nearly endless stream side-effects comes from this erroneous notion that we can have a targeted effect on one part of the body, without it effecting others.

Chinese medicine, far from discarding these inter-relations, relies on them. It views the body as an anthropomorphic relationship between parts, and in attempting to "please" the body they get a fuller understanding of the body-system as a whole. It is this understanding that makes Eastern medicine "wholeistic" and (in many ways) far superior to Western medicine, particular for non-specific ailments and long-term health. Have a stomach ache? Drink this tea, and let me poke your foot! You feel sad? Let's fix your diet, and meet regularly for a massage, de-stress and talk about your life. You heart has stopped? Let's put some needles in your back!

My point is: Give me western when something is seriously wrong: give me eastern the rest of the time. It is a mistake to think that a logical, tool-based understanding is any more valid or any less a product of our animal heritage than a perceptual, anthropomorphic understanding. Both ways of understanding a complex world are equally valid and important.

Application to Computer Interfaces

The problem with computers today is that without presenting a good understanding of how it works to the user, then you cannot think of it as a tool. Yet without presenting itself as a social creature, giving clues and working "with" the user, you cannot understand it as an agent! It's easy to see how many claim to "not get" computers! The challenge to designers of all kinds of tools is to create something whose function (and therefor use) are obvious and appeal to our existing understanding of the world.

The challenge (and perhaps opportunity) with computers is that they are so complex and abstracted away from our typical (physical) understanding of the world, that only very nerdy computer scientists can understand how they work. The opportunity here is that this means that computers are _already_ anthropromorphised, and that it shouldn't be too difficult to "play up".

While many consider "clippy" (Microsoft Word's paper-clip assistant) to be a laughable failure in the history of interfaces, this is (I claim) more from its failure as an agent, than a failure of approach. The problem with clippy was that for as helpful as he tried to be, he never quite understood what you actually wanted. He was, in this way, too ambitious for his time. Despite his complete lack of utility, he (see the anthropomorphism here?) became a well-loved (if oft mocked) mascot of technology attempting (and failing) to be helpful.

But modelling intelligent agents, using machine learning to identify user intent, and even the theory of designing lovable mascots and modelling emotion have all progressed significantly in the past 15 years. Computers are not becoming less complex, and people's conceptual understanding of computers as tools is progressing slowly. Perhaps the time has come for the PDA to truly try to be your friend.

Friday, 18 March 2011

What a Juicer Taught Me About Love

A reaction to Don Norman's "Emotional Design" book

Don Norman's goal in Emotional Design is to answer the question he puts as his subtitle: "Why we love (or hate) everyday things". Besides being a throw-back to his earlier (highly successful) book on design, the choice of the phrase "everyday things" suggests something of the breadth of his analysis.

In one section of the book he draws analogies between products and other things that surround us: views from our window, pieces of music, and even our spouses (for those of us that have them ^^). He is attempting to answer a most tricky question: what is it that separates products that have only immediate appeal and those that (like a favorite strain of music) remain compelling over a lifetime. To summarize the answer he takes from Khaslavsky and Shedroff: it is about seduction. And for as enigmatic as the notion of seduction and life-long appeal seems, they proposed the following (straightforward) process for an object to seduce:

  • Entice - it should be be beautiful: demand attention by transcending the ordinary
  • Go beyond the obvious - this extra-ordinary thing gives us questions about how and why it is so. these questions must have equally surprising answers
  • Appeal to Instinct - it should be instinctively respected, usually by being dangerous or powerful
  • Espouse Personal Goals - it should be the manifestation of what it is that you would like to be
  • Promise to help reach these goals - it promises to transform ordinary actions into extraordinary expressions of the attainment of these goals
  • Teach by Example - By embodying personal goals in an unexpected place or way, this object teaches you something deeper about these goals and can serve as a reminder to expect wonder in the everyday
  • Fulfill these goals and promises - By serving as a reminder and example of personal goals every day, this object helps you attain these goals and serves as a reminder of your progress towards them

In her poem "Siren Song", Margaret Atwood proposes that it is by saying
Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique
that a Siren seduces the wayward sailor. I would add to the above list that an object must express a "need" for you (the particular user). In their example of Philippe Starck's juicer (link), they insightfully point out how the object's dangerous look and unique method of juicing surprise, delight and intrigue. What they fail to point out is that this creates a barrier of entry which prevents strangers from using it.
When a friend sees this juicer in your kitchen, they are unlikely to use it on their own without your help. In this way the product "values" its relationship with you. By having a relationship with and knowing the product, only you can use it. You alone know how to handle it and you alone realize its true value. By presenting a barrier to interaction to the uninitiated and to those that don't value the object, it states its preference for those that "understand it" and thus gives you a sense of pride for being uniquely able to understand (and use) this symbolic object.

Don Normand does take the analysis further in this social direction: you prefer others to associate you with an object embodying your goals, and you like to use this object to explain your values and goals to others. It is this desire to associate yourself with these goals _through_ ownership of this object that makes you so compelled to own it and (upon owning it) to cherish it as a prized possession.

What I found so extraordinary about this analysis is its easy and equal applicability to products, places, and art. Certainly in analyzing the juicer, one can imagine how it explains Don's love of it. Not limited to quotidian objects, however, this analysis explains why music fanatics love the music that they do.
Let us consider death metal (for example). It is obviously very unique, standing out from other more common types of popular music. It has a certain dangerous aura arising not only from the music itself which is frightening and repulsive but also from its surrounding culture's affinity to drugs and violence. To true fans however, metal (many sub genres at least) represents a return to spiritual simplicity and an ability to embrace the emotional reality of life (however dark that may be). It's unpalatable nature is a statement that life isn't easily enjoyed but has order under the surface of unpleasant chaos. It takes time and dedication to appreciate metal, and thus it rewards those who take the time to understand it. It is easy to see how some can fall in love with metal!
The same analysis can be done for lovers of classical music, lovers of certain painters or even lovers of particular sculptures, buildings or mobile phones. Merely ask: to the viewer/user what is unique about this, what is its visceral response, what does it symbolize about life and the person that the user/viewer/listener wants to be, and how does it reward a deeper relationship?

If you are anywhere near as concerned with your love life as I am at the moment, then you will have started reading this essay in such a light long before this paragraph. For the rest of you: I suggest taking a glance back at that list above while contemplating your most recent crush. Please. Do it. I'll wait.

Have a fond smile on your face? Maybe it's a sardonic smile. But no matter how this relationship (if there even was one) turned out, hopefully you too see the truth in this list that struck me when I read it.

As a list that captures something interesting about the art of seduction and its applicability to product design it makes an interesting enough point for an essay but I was not quite satisfied with this. At the risk of becoming angsty and giving away too much of my personal problems, here were some of the questions that this list brought up in me:


Does this process establish love or infatuation or both or neither?
Because this form of seduction and attraction can be applied to objects as well as people, it is obviously infatuation: love must be a two-way street. A full discussion of this is _well_ outside the scope of this already lengthy essay, but I will say that this kind of infatuation, mutually shared, is in fact necessary (if not sufficient) for love. Love is comfort, company and resolve: difficult to have without finding your partner inspiring.

If this is a component of love, and can be applied to objects, does this mean that love is objectifying?
It is a very interesting question (and the one that I was originally writing this essay to answer). I believe that it is in equal measures objectifying and humanizing. It can be applied to objects, and in the most vulgar sense it awakes in us a desire for ownership. This desire to own the object of our infatuation is a potentially catastrophic form of objectification and is unfortunately visible in many people's attitudes towards marriage.
As the language used to describe this makes clear, however, it can be a powerfully anthropomorphic feeling as well: complicating our view of objects by prescribing human goals to them, and enriching our view of other people by establishing our desire to transform ourselves into them. This desire, to _become_ the other, actually helps to make them more human than they were before, even if it comes at the potential cost of projecting ourselves onto them. At the risk of straying too far into a different essay I was going to write, I feel that this reflects the necessary evolution of views we have of other people.
When you first encounter someone, they are an object devoid of all but the most basic humanity and life in your eyes. They are merely an obstacle or an aid on the way to getting something you want. Once you start talking to them, you begin to see their personality. At this stage you project yourself and the people you've met before onto this person, seeing them as a combination of your experiences and desires. As you get to know them, this view gets richer until your knowledge of them can no longer be contained in this limited view. Your idea of them then transforms into seeing them as the product of _their_ experiences and desires.
This is the process by which we go from an objectified to a humanized understanding of another, and while objectification can be harmful I believe that it is in some ways necessary.
Infatuation with an object as the symbol of an ideal does prevent humanizing it, and therefor can actually be a barrier (as much as a stepping stone) to a healthy relationship. So to answer the question more straightforwardly: love shouldn't be objectifying and shouldn't contain a sense of or desire for ownership, even though it sometimes does.

Should I avoid this kind of attraction?
Absolutely not! It is by surrounding ourselves with the objects, art and (yes) people that embody our goals and desired states that we establish and project our identity and that we work to become the people that we desire to be.

If this is infatuation and not love, can this form of attraction last?
As long as the personal goal underlying your attraction doesn't change, and as long as the thing being admired stays true to its promise of helping you realize and project that goal and its values, then the attraction too should last. If the goal is core to your personality (as desiring to be a better friend, or a more charitable person etc) than this kind of connection is likely to be one that lasts for a very long time indeed. If, however, the goal underlying your attraction is temporary or concrete (as desiring to speak a language more fluently or desiring to win a particular contest, etc) then the attraction too will be equally fleeting.

The Self Help Portion - Read Here for Trite Advise
I want to be seductive! How can I use these insights to be more attractive?
Be enticing, beautiful, surprising, mysterious and dangerous; espouse, embrace and embody worthy goals; promise to help those around you reach those goals, teach by example; fulfill your promises to help, and reward those who invest in you: with exclusivity, intimacy and love.