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Meet Eliza, the Flashiest Phone Bot Around!

Eliza sits at her desk in her office. She completes ordinary office tasks—she checks her email, she drinks her coffee, she gets up to go photocopy something or talk to a colleague, and once in a while she checks out the New York Times. Little does she know, she’s being livestreamed to the whole world over the web. If someone calls, she picks up. Sometimes she recognizes the caller, sometimes she does not, and sometimes the connection is so bad that she hangs up and calls back.

Eliza lives on a screen in an eddy of a high-trafficked area, say an out-of-the-way elevator lobby in a busy building. A user sees her and after a couple of minutes, his curiosity gets the best of him and he succumbs to the flashing invitation and calls. To his surprise, after a couple of rings Eliza picks up. Phone conversations are ritualized in the first place and the added awkwardness of voyeurism and conversing with a stranger create the ideal situation for Eliza’s black-belt phone jujitsu which with minimal effort wrests control of the conversation from her interlocutor. It’s a bit like a good dancer foxtrotting and waltzing an overwhelmed novice around the floor.

The prototype is rough, but it works, though because of Flash’s arcane and draconian cross-domain security measures, I can only run it locally through the Flash IDE or stream from my machine using a personal broadcasting service like ustream or livestream (in order for it to work properly on the web, I’d have to host all the components I enumerate below on a single box, something I have neither the hardware nor the inclination to do). The main problem is that I’m making XML socket connections from Flash; if I used a PHP intermediary, I could probably get it working, but again, the whole inclination thing is missing and the thing is already mindbogglingly complicated. Maybe at some point in the future. The following video demonstration will have to do in the meantime.

SO HOW DOES IT WORK?

Warning: this is not for the faint of heart.

Eliza has a ton of moving parts:

  1. The Asterisk script: A simple program that answers phone calls and hands them to a PHP script, which connects via socket to the main SWF.
  2. Various PHP scripts: One to handle connections from Asterisk, one to reset connections from Asterisk after a call ends, and one to initiate callbacks when required.
  3. A simple Java socket server: Adapted from Dan Shiffman’s example, this program runs in the background on the Asterisk server, waiting for connections (phone calls). When a call comes in, it connects it and broadcasts call events (new call, hangup, button press, etc) to the PHP scripts and the main SWF and allows them to talk to each other.
  4. The main SWF: This is the brains of the operation. It loads the movies of Eliza and controls the logic of their looping as well as the logic of the audio (via socket connection back to PHP and then to Asterisk via AGI).
  5. The looping movie files (not completely smooth in this prototype, notice the moving phone and the changing light conditions!): These live in the same directory as the main SWF, which streams them as needed (for a web deployment, they’d probably have to be pre-loaded and played back).
  6. The sound files: These live on the Asterisk box (completely separate from the movies) and are played back over the phone, not the web.

NEXT STEPS
UPDATE: I’m presenting Eliza at Astricon in DC in October, so I should have some interesting observations to report soon. There are several things I’d really like to do. First, I’d like to actually get this working somewhere where I can observe lots of unsuspecting folks interacting with Eliza. I never really got to see someone who didn’t know the backstory calling in, partly because I was exhausted from thesis when I had the chance to show it and partly because there were lingering bugs I had not yet located that occasionally caused the whole thing to stop working—there are so many things on so many separate machines that can go wrong, it took quite a while to troubleshoot. A larger sample of reactions would allow me to rework the conversations so that they’re more disorientingly convincing—better pause timing, more realistically intoned, and taking into account repeat callers’ stratagem’s to see if Eliza is real. I could then reshoot the video so it is completely seamless. That would require monitors, good lighting, laser levels, an OCD continuity editor, and several days of shooting.

If you know of an easy way to overcome the cross-domain headaches, leave me a comment! If you want to fund such an undertaking, please do get in touch! Otherwise, enjoy the video above.

As the world Turings…

For two years I’ve flirtatiously circled the Pygmalion myth, toying with human-machine interactions in which it’s not necessarily clear to the human that s/he’s interacting with a machine or human-human interactions in which both participants are convinced that the other is a machine. I can’t seem to get away from this idea of tricking people into adopting mistaken mental models of interactions. I thought it would be fun to create two bots that would follow each other on Twitter. Caleb Larsen, whom I’ve written about before and with whom I’m beginning to believe I share an eerie and otherworldly mental connection (I found this today, compare to my Obama piece) created a script that updated his Facebook and tweeted randomly generated status messages as part of Whose Life is it Anyway, though in the end he abandoned algorithmically generated messages for appropriation of other people’s statuses—which I find conceptually stronger but no longer relevant to the topic at hand.

In any case, in 1950, Alan Turing wrote a paper about thinking machines. In it he proposed a thought experiment in which a person is asked to converse via teletype with a person and computer pretending to be a person. If s/he is unable to definitively distinguish between the two, goes his argument, the computer is effectively intelligent. People have taken issue with Turing’s conception of intelligence, but nonetheless, over the years, this “Turing test” has spawned doctoral dissertations, colloquia, academic prizes, late-night geek-outs, and many software implementations of computerized interlocutors or “chatterbots.” The first of note was Joseph Weizenbaum’s ELIZA, a Rogerian psychotherapist (you can still talk to her here). She was followed by PARRY, a paranoid schizophrenic. A match made in heaven, I know, but their conversations weren’t nearly as interesting as this exchange between more sophisticated later chatterbots (in this case ALICE and Jabberwacky). Awesome.

There have been a couple of really good ITP projects that riff on what I might call the nebulous interlocutor. Generative Social Networking is my absolute favorite ITP project—in conception, in execution, even in documentation. After using a Bluetooth exploit to download all the contacts on your cellphone, a program calls each number in succession, playing a recording of the last person it called as the other half of the conversation. The most amazing thing when you listen to the demo is the realization that most people have no idea they’re talking to a recording! And some of the “conversations” that develop would easily fool a casual observer too. The ritualized form of phone conversation combined with the latencies and poor connections to which frequent cell phone use have accustomed us make it really hard to tell the difference.

That was part of what made the Popularity Dialer so much fun (and ultimately led to its demise—though creators JennyLC and Cory referred to it last week as “dormant” rather than dead). The premise popular people get lots of phone calls, so what better way to enhance your popularity than by increasing the number of calls you receive? Enter your phone number on a website and schedule a call from one of five characters who think you’re awesome (girl dying to date you being my favorite). At the appointed time, your phone rings and the voice you’ve selected speaks its half of a recorded phone conversation, pausing several beats for you to respond. It seems totally real to onlookers. The problem? It seems totally real to many of the people receiving the calls after their friends entered their number as a prank. Worked great until a humorless FCC lawyer got a call late one night from dude wanting to get some beers.

I love both of these projects. They raise questions about the subjective nature of interaction that don’t get discussed all that much in the literature. So much of an interaction is in our heads. That’s the great lesson of Apple’s marketing—you can take a shitty phone that’s uncomfortable to hold and inconvenient to talk on, but if people are emotionally attached to it, they’ll find using it a pleasure anyway (I think Donald Norman might have said something similar a little more eloquently). In our case, if I think I’m talking to a real person, my experience of that conversation will be radically different from my experience of the exact same conversation if I know I’m talking to a recording—just think of that weird, disjointed feeling you get when a friend’s answering machine picks up and you think it’s him and start talking only to realize a second later that it’s a recording. Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2 deals with this notion of artificial intelligence as deception, and I want to as well.

I propose a film of a woman with her back to the viewer. She is obviously concentrating hard, occasionally tapping a pencil or reaching for her coffee mug but otherwise moving very little. A phone number is displayed beneath the frame. The viewer calls the number and suddenly the phone on the desk next to the woman rings. She picks it up, and the viewer is amazed to hear her voice both on the screen and through his phone. He speaks to her. She responds that the connection is not clear, she can’t hear him well. He tries to gauge whether she is a real video or a clever program. She hangs up in anger and frustration. She looks at her phone and decides to call back. The viewer’s phone rings and when he picks up, she apologizes for the poor connection and asks him a question. When he answers, she asks another. Suddenly, she has to go. She apologizes, turns toward the screen, waves, and hangs up. The viewer scratches his head and calls back. Her phone rings, she looks at the number and sends the caller directly to voicemail with an over-the-shoulder wag of the finger. And scene!

I’ve seen a couple implementations of phone-enabled interactive movies, but they’re infantile choose-your-own-adventure narratives constructed like corporate phone trees (“if you’d like to see the hero die, please press pound now, otherwise, stay on the line for more options”). I want the interaction to be the purpose of the piece, not a means of advancing a canned story, though I do love the bizarro preview man voiceover in this German interactive “horrah” film:

My system works in a similar way, though without all the voice recognition. I’m interested in exploring how much of such an interaction is actually reactive. In Japan, for instance, it’s definitely over 50%, but I’m working on the assumption that it will be similar for the viewer speaking on the phone, that the character in my movie won’t need to respond directly to the viewer’s words because the social inertia that carries people through uncomfortable party conversations with socially maladroit companions will cause him to behave a certain way in this particular interaction—enough that I’ll be able to maintain some doubt as to whether they’re actually participating in a real conversation. Based on several recent interactions with customer service representatives over the phone, I can’t swear that health insurance companies haven’t already commercialized and adopted this system.

The Sound of White Space or Pregnant Pause Parturition

As anyone who’s tried to write fiction knows, the real hurdle is not deciding what to write, it’s deciding what not to write. The empty page, like the empty score or the empty canvas, is white not because there is nothing on it but because everything’s on it—possibility, like light, is additive. The act of putting a word on a page, a note in the air, a drop of paint on the canvas removes a bit of that possibility, revealing a glimpse of what it may actually become. I know I’ve read somewhere that a block of uncarved stone contains every sculpture and that it’s only by chipping and chiseling that an artist collapses the artistic wave function into a singular reality. The result is the interface between the remaining possibility (positive space) and the absence of what has been removed (negative space).

Sometimes, though, that interface is deceptive. Foams, for instance, have voluminous contours, but pressure or heat or vigorous movement reveal their deception, reducing them to a mere puddle. Impermeability between negative and positive spaces in a work of art may well correlate to its quality and perdurance, I put that out there to the turtlenecked Barthes and Foucault-reading crowd to discuss. In any case, designers who find commercial success of the Architectural Digest sort are great fans of drawing rigid lines of Germanic severity to divide what’s there from what’s not.

While I find this hard-edged contrast alienating in architectural spaces (I much prefer the worn edges and threadbare plush of vernacular utilitarianism), I all but require it linguistically. There is no place for diaphanous prose in my bookshelf, nor will I fight you for tickets to any recent mainstream movie. Blurring the boundary between meaning and nonsense purposefully is either comedy or chicanery; accidentally, it’s the sign of mental rot.

I find political discourse in general and American political discourse in particular a perfect example of this foamy, insubstantial nonsense, a populist pastiche of pre-chewed jingoistic pablum that fills heads with bubbles that quickly deliquesce to nothing. I was curious, in exploring notions of positive and negative space, to discover how this discourse is actually constructed.

To this end, I took this year’s State of the Union address, all 69 minutes of it, and reduced it to its negative space, cutting out all of President Obama’s utterances. What remains is a strangely compelling silent dance between the beats. How we don’t speak is as idiosyncratic as how we do. In Obama’s case, the space around his words is punctuated with generous pauses and a constantly turning head (though one suspects this may have more to do with the dual teleprompters than with his oratorical style). His hands are animated while he speaks, but drop with a thud against the lectern as he pauses, fingers interlocked.

The rhythm of his silences follows the rhythm of his speech. Even without hearing a word, we can tell by watching the crowd how his rhetoric moves between introductory remarks, political self-congratulation, and exhortation, before ending on a note of overwrought patriotism. The accompanying silence in the room is mesmerizing, both for its depth and its duration. Here is a man who can hold an audience for over an hour, and, I’d argue, comes pretty close to holding an audience for half an hour without saying a damn thing.

How much of the negative space that we experience do we throw away as soon as we can see where the positive space begins and what do we lose in the process? I think it depends on what it is we’re experiencing, but my guess is regardless, it’s more than we think.

The Measure of Man (and Wife)

sideboob scales

Only once have I ever seriously considered getting a tattoo and it was in a dream, but what a tattoo it was! Almost every surface of my body was covered with some sort of graduated scale: one arm bore a metric ruler, the other its English equivalent; my elbows and knees measured angles and my cheeks were marked in such a way that I could determine the volume of liquid in my mouth by their stretching. When I woke up, I toyed briefly with getting a scale tattooed on my abdomen to measure the aging of my body. A perfectly accurate scale would stretch with the inevitable appearance of a gut and later sag as my skin lost its elasticity and my gut its girth in my later years. What a depressing thought.

There’s something infinitely fascinating about anthropometric graphics, especially historical ones that overlay scientifically and/or proportionally iffy mappings and measurements over the body. Despina made the point this week that everything we create is anthropometric in nature—our sense of scale exists in relation to our bodies, to our hands, to our particular sensory apparatus. No big surprise there. The problem, of course, is that when you mass produce something—say you’re an industrial designer making a table—you do so for the average body. A 60cm tall table might be ideal for the majority of people, but the extremely short and the inordinately tall on either side of the height distribution curve are shit out of luck.

Antrhopometric graphics

Vitruvian Man and his French cousin Le Corbusier’s modulor are abstractions and averages of our bodies’ proportions. As our bodies are abstracted, so is our experience of the world. It’s possible that Americans’ totally irrational attachment to feet and inches, an attachment responsible for the loss of a $125 million Mars orbiter as well as my perpetual befuddlement when looking at motors’ torque ratings, is actually an attachment to a more personal way of understanding the world.

While the meter owes its origin to the distance from the Equator to the North Pole (it was supposed to be one ten millionth of that distance), the foot’s origins, as its name suggests, are humbler and closer to home. It makes sense that since we’ve always seen the world as it relates to us, long before platinum-iridium bars we measured it with our bodies.

The wikipedia entry on the history of measurement has this to say:

The common cubit was the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger.

Cubit

It was divided into the span of the hand (one-half cubit),

Span2

the palm or width of the hand (one sixth),

Palm

and the digit or width of the middle finger (one twenty-fourth).

Finger

If Noah had been cursed with short arms, his ark with all its cubits and spans might not have fit all the animals he was responsible for saving. But imagine an entirely bespoke world, where my dining room table was 29 of my inches off the ground and yours was 29 of your inches off the ground. It would be a nightmare to coordinate measurements but it would also transform the world from human scale to this human scale or that human scale.

Which only highlights the utter anachronistic idiocy of the English system, as it is now as much an abstraction as the metric system, only more unwieldy. And it was this that led me to my project for this week.

THE REMOTE RULER

I really have no sense of English length units. My wife has no sense. [Drum hit cymbal crash] Of metric units, of metric units. This has proven a problem on more than one occasion when only one of us had access to a measuring device. For instance, I was out looking for a bookshelf to fit a narrow space and found one on the sidewalk I thought might work but hadn’t measured the space exactly so I couldn’t be sure without calling my wife. Even with the exact measurements of the space, I could only guesstimate the shelf’s measurements by eyeballing, and I didn’t want to carry the thing ten blocks if it wasn’t going to fit.

To make sure this would never be a problem again, I sanded off the scale on one side of a standard yardstick and replaced it with two scales based on separate measurements of three parts of our bodies available in duplicate to ensure ease of use: the length heel to toe of our feet, the width across our palms from index knuckle to pinky knuckle, and the width of the middle segment of our middle fingers (which were identical at 3/4 in. and thus provide us with a common if slightly inconvenient unit of measure). I tried to select measurements that would not vary too much with time or normal wear and tear. The result is a ruler that allows either one of us to easily convey measurements to each other remotely by converting between units of our bodies into standard units of measurement. And my wife thought it was sweet in an OCD kind of way.

Feeling chuffed with this idea and my yardstick, I realized that my system would break if neither of us had access to it, but then I remembered that I’m a high technologist and dutifully banged together an online version:

REMOTE UNIT CONVERTER

ADDENDUM:

Wikipedia also says that the yard may also have come from the measurement of the waist. Note the 36 inches. I’m the fucking Vitruvian man.

Waist

Trust Fund Thursdays

Design an experiment to take you out of your comfort zone in terms of how you relate to your body and space.

That was a no-brainer for me. I hate taking pictures of people I don’t know. I’m not sure why it makes me uncomfortable, but it does. I’ve lived in some of the most bizarre and photogenic (and crowded) places in the world but have frightfully little photographic evidence of anything other than their architecture. I set out on a beautiful spring day to photograph random New Yorkers. My initial idea was to stop in front of people, plant my feet and raise my camera and, without saying anything, take their picture and walk away. This quickly stopped being uncomfortable, especially since no one seemed all that surprised or upset. My body is unexceptional in the space of New York—I’m one of the crowd. In Asia, my face instantly identified me as a foreigner and it was the motivations that I imagined my subjects could attribute to my picture-taking combined with the total unpredictability of their reactions that made me so hesitant to uncap my lens.

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DSC_0785

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I considered forcing an interaction. It might make me uncomfortable to act strangely in front of these anonymous New Yorkers. I could express some emotion or attitude when taking the picture (disgust came to mind, grimacing once the picture was taken and shaking my head sadly as I walked away). That seemed unnecessarily confrontational and with the current state of my back, I didn’t want to risk a scuffle. The threat of bodily harm, whether real or perceived, is a whole different universe of discomfort and I’m no Marina Abramovic. I could also go the other way and be extremely friendly and use the element of surprise to my advantage. This seemed like a better idea, so I stopped random people and asked to take their picture.

DSC_0797

That didn’t make me uncomfortable at all and really didn’t involve my body and space so much as it did my mind. I had a prop (the camera), it was a beautiful day, and the force of my delivery made people almost universally acquiesce to my request. Having a purpose emboldened me to overcome the discomfort of getting close to a stranger, looking him/her in the eyes, and making a request. It was like asking for directions. The only no I got was from a couple of European tourists who seemed to think I was running a scam.

I couldn’t exactly replicate the conditions of the initial discomfort I set out to overcome in New York, so I abandoned the idea and enjoyed the sun.

Several days later, I was lying on a grassy hill in Central Park, reading a magazine after a doctor’s appointment in Columbus Circle. There weren’t a lot of people around. A couple was lying on a blanket to my right, calling frantically to their two dachshunds Dottie and Dixie whom the combination of sun and open space to explore had apparently rendered deaf and impervious to a proffered frisbee as they disappeared down the hill, their collars clinking madly. To my right, two Puerto Rican girls in tight jeans and big sneakers discussed the probable futures of their classmates. Somewhere behind me, a woman with a voice hoarse from a late loud night exclaimed, “That’s soooo fucking funny! Today is sooo fucking trust fund Thursday,” which was met with clapping and hooting laughter. I didn’t turn around.

I read until the people to my right finally corralled their dogs and packed up their blankets and the Puerto Rican girls had run out of classmates with prognosticateable futures and turned separately to attending their cell phones. Another explosion of laughter from caused me to look for its source, which I discovered was three hipsterish white women and a slim and even from a distance obviously gay black man. I found myself disapproving of them, if for no other reason than that they seemed a New York cliché—the girls in leggings, ratty tee-shirts, and oversized sunglasses, the guy snarking comments that would set them all off laughing—and they were having much more fun than the afternoon and their surroundings warranted. I realized I’d found my discomfort.

I stood up, brushed the wet grass off my pants, and walked over to them. “Can I join you?” To my surprise, they burst out laughing, “Of course! We’ve had designs on you all afternoon. Sit, sit. Here, have some champagne.” In addition to a couple bottles of champagne, they were drinking something green out of plastic cups. “Are those mojitos?” Apparently, the Mexican man who had come by an hour earlier selling ice cold water and gatorade had an unadvertised happy hour special hidden in the rolling suitcase he trundled behind him. I sat with them for over an hour, earning the epithet “Ambitious Alex” in the process, receiving several hugs, handshakes, and a lot of playful innuendo that made me terrifyingly uncomfortable while thrilling me at the same time.

I don’t like to be noticed in unfamiliar social situations until I’m confident I understand their dynamics. It took me almost six months to make my first post to the ITP student list. In this situation, however, I made myself the center of attention. I had to talk about myself without a good idea of what sort of tone to adopt or what reaction to expect. I had to shape my first impression, as I could not rely on having months of repeated interactions over which to hone it. I wanted Sam, Michelle, Deb, and Stefan, whom I liked as soon as I sat down, to like me back.

I only performed this experiment once, but I plan to try it again the next time an opportunity presents itself. I learned that what makes me uncomfortable is not how I relate to my own body and space but how my body relates to other bodies. Which is what led me to the idea of measuring those parts that vary most from body to body for my embodiment object.

Matter.

As a kid, I was always a little anal when it came to toys. I never lost a game piece, and somewhere, there are probably still untouched sticker books, rolls of caps, packets of photosensitive paper and countless other long-forgotten expendables that I saved myself out of ever using. Childhood doesn’t last for ever but some of its habits do, and despite missing my calling as an environmental crusader, I still find myself deliberating much longer than warranted before replacing razor blades, changing guitar strings, or “premiering” new shoes.

Looking through the vast online materials repositories (smallparts, matweb, inventables), I found many with surprising properties—translucent concrete, foldable porcelain, memory wire—which made me realize that materials engineering must be pretty fun: in order to achieve X, I need a material with a bunch of properties—physical, chemical, structural, economic. Finding that material requires a combination of research into existing materials and applied chemistry, physics, and manufacturing. Materials engineers are like the Special Forces of the world of stuff (and in this analogy I’m the fat kid on the couch who just watched a be all you can be commercial). Which is all to say that when faced with the challenge of creating my own material, I started out with two goals: that it have surprising characteristics (like silly putty or magnets) and that it be reusable.

Despite years of science instruction from teachers desperate to convey science’s innate coolness, I managed to make it through school without ever encountering non-Newtonian fluids (or “oobleck” in middle school science speak). Quicksand is a good example of a dilatant or shear thickening fluid, ie, a fluid that behaves like a solid when subjected to shear force. Silly Putty, it turns out, also has dilatant properties, which is why it stretches if you pull it slowly but breaks if you yank it quickly. Other more complex dilatants are used in automotive power transmission applications. The DoD has been researching armor applications for years, and I suspect that D3O’s shock absorption technology relies on dilatants. The most readily available and accessible example of a dilatant is a 2:1 mixture of cornstarch and water. I made some to play with, thinking it might be interesting to fill a balloon with it. It wasn’t (it’s hard to subject the entire contents of an elastic sphere to any significant shear stress), but it is fascinating stuff to play with. I took slow-motion video of it turning solid as it pours and of its state changes as I dragged my fingers through it.

Moving on, I returned to online repositories of materials for other inspiration. I realized that not all materials are invented through brilliant accidentsa la vulcanized rubber; many are “discovered” by when existing materials are shaped or applied in new ways. Rather than trying to create a reusable material with unexpected physical properties from scratch, I set out to find one that wasn’t in any of the online repositories. It was, it turned out, readily available at K-Mart.

Moon Sand is a moldable substance that feels and looks like wet sand but is in fact dry (and never dries out). A little research turned up this patent, that along with a detailed recipe for Moon Sand, reveals that it is actually very fine sand coated in wax. This allows it to stick together when molded or sculpted but also gives it some other nifty properties. If you heat Moon Sand for about half an hour in an oven, the wax melts and the sand sticks together a little more permanently.

Armed with this knowledge, I set out to explore some more of its properties. I assumed that the wax’s adhesion to each sand particle must be greater than its adhesion to itself (otherwise heating the Moon Sand should have produced a puddle of wax and a pile of ordinary sand) so I reheated it and while it was hot broke it back apart. When it cooled, it had returned to its original, pre-baked state—reusable! What are some of wax’s other properties? One obvious one is that water beads off it. This seemed promising. What if Moon Sand is water proof, if it keeps its moldable properties even underwater? Turns out it does! Amazing! Unexpected! And as soon as it dries, it’s back to it’s original state with no visible or tactile deterioration. Reusable! The Moon Sand marketing dwells on how it allows kids to bring the fun of outdoors indoors without making a mess that mom can’t clean up with a single swipe of the vacuum cleaner. This seems like a missed opportunity—this is sand you can play with in the bath tub! So, it turns out it’s not a missed opportunity at all, it’s variant differentiation: check out Aqua Sand, a branded version of hydrophobic sand that was developed to clean up oil spills.

For my final material exploration, I ordered a pound of sodium acetate (C2H3CNaO2), a non-toxic salt used to flavor salt and vinegar potato chips and for a variety of industrial chemical applications as well as in hand warmers, which is how I knew about it. When it’s hydrated and heated, a solution of sodium acetate can be supersaturated and then supercooled at room temperature. This means that thought it ordinarily freezes at 58ºC, it stays in liquid form well below that temperature provided there is no nucleation center for crystal formation. This same effect can happen with distilled water (normal water contains impurities for crystals to form around) as this meathead scientist discovered in Thailand:

Sodium acetate comes in two forms: trihydrate (the kind that melts near room temperature) and anhydrous (the fine powder that doesn’t). The stuff I bought for a dollar was labelled trihydrate but I discovered was in fact anhydrous when it caramelized in the bottom of a frying pan. I brought a pan of water to a boil and then turned it off, spooning and stirring in the powder until no more would dissolve. I then poured it into a clean jar and have since “set it off” and “reset” it about twenty times. Reusable and suprising!

There are a number of applications I can think of for this stuff. It’s used in hand warmers because its crystallization is exothermic (which makes sense: if the liquid is cooled way beneath its freezing point, when it freezes, the kinetic energy of the liquid has to go somwhere). A basic application would be to make a waterproof fabric filled with a thin layer of the stuff to make a hand-warming clutch for chilly winter soirees. A more involved application might be as a security measure: keep a diamond in a tank of the stuff and if someone tries to get into it, it solidifies. In that sort of a situation, it might make sense to use another chemical with similar properties but a much higher melting point so that the heat it gave off when crystallizing cooked the would-be thief alive! That’s got to be worth a multimillion-dollar defense research grant.

Designers for Development

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So-called “design for development” toes the line between humanitarianism and paternalism, as tends to happen in any situation where there is a significant power/wealth disparity. The problems of economic disparity on a geopolitical scale are larger and more complex than can be solved in a single human lifetime, and as such, seem overwhelming and irresolvable, as do the environmental crisis and nearly every domestic question that appears repeatedly in the New York Times. Last week, Despina argued that though such problems (she was referring specifically to the environmental crisis) are in a sense unsolvable—at least by us—it becomes our responsibility to change attitudes and model appropriate behaviors to ensure that the following generation is not hampered by the political resistance that hogtied us. What does that mean in terms of design?

At least based on this week’s readings, it seems like no one is too sure. Drawing on Amartya Sen’s formulation of welfare economics, Martha Nussbaum lays out a philosophical framework for thinking about people’s basic needs separately from any cultural considerations. She identifies ten different basic “capabilities” as prerequisites for a full and dignified life. Designers and development professionals wax equally enthusiastic about the capabilities model’s applicability in developing world contexts—especially as an alternative to more value-laden functional and economic approaches that lead to many children with one laptop but no food. The universal applicability of this particular approach, however, comes at the cost of vagueness. Economic and functional models are prescriptive: make a bicycle generator to save on electricity costs; build a water pump to cut the time spent collecting water from 5 hours a day to just 2. Makes perfect sense. Justifying the same technology in terms of its user’s dignity is a little trickier.

In the case of the water pump for instance, who’s to say that our hypothetical user doesn’t enjoy the five hours spent collecting water, that those five hours provide him/her with a great sense of accomplishment through physical exertion and communal collaboration that the pump, which landed in the community like the Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy, an alien artifact that disrupts years of harmonious if hardscrabble living? To someone living in the West, it makes intuitive sense that something that is hard to do and takes five hours is less desirable than an alternative approach that accomplishes the same result with less effort in two hours. Increased productivity! More time to do more things!

But is or should productivity be a universal goal? It was the search for increased productivity and decreased effort that led to mercantilism, colonialism, and most of the developing world’s problems to begin with. Well-intentioned and empathetic professionals devote themselves to the arduous and often thankless task of “developing” their less fortunate brethren only to then fantasize in writing and in film about a return to an Edenic state of nature. Avatar is just the latest in a long tradition of white man’s guilt stories in which a nature-worshiping indigenous race collides with an advanced techno-capitalistic race that threatens to obliterate it until one of its more enlightened members switches sides and fights to save it or at least delay its destruction. But this is the same sort of hubris that I objected to in environmental discourse last week: the market can’t fix what the market caused.

Design is not inherently capitalistic. We have been inventors for our entire history. People use and make objects and tools in every culture. Making tools that work well and objects that are beautiful (whatever the local definitions of good and beauty) is a natural species-wide compulsion. The reasons for doing so, however, are culturally (or economically or politically or socially) determined and have changed—placating angry Gods, saving time, increasing market share, sounding luxury cues. As many of the readings we looked at this week noted, the world’s wealthiest countries are the principal consumers of contemporary design, so design educations are tailored to addressing their needs. The market reduces design to applied aesthetics on the low end and conceptual misanthropy on the high end (talk to any MIT student who’s lived in Steven Holl’s Simmons Hall).

That kind of design does not work in the Chinese countryside or in a remote Bolivian town or in an African village for the same reason that democracy will never work in Afghanistan. That doesn’t mean that designers shouldn’t work to improve people in developing nations’ capabilities any more than it means that statesmen should abandon seeking peaceful relations between nations. It does mean, however, that both should be more sensitive to the problems they are seeking to solve from the point of view of the people who ultimately will be living with their solutions.

DESIGNING THE DESIGNER

Design for development. I readily admit that each assignment has caused me mild insomnia and that the constant thought stymied my ability to make anything until the day or two before its due date, but never as badly as this week. I lived in the developing world for nearly seven years, several of which I spent creating products for developing markets, but I couldn’t think of a single need I might address in a manner consonant with all my grandstanding above. I thought about creating passive solar heaters for the parts of China where Mao’s enlightened policies dictated there be no central heating, but then I remembered that southern Chinese think it’s unhealthy to be warm when it’s cold outside. I thought about anti-corruption devices of different kinds, but realized that no sane Chinese person would ever believe that a whistle-blowing device was not part of an elaborate entrapment ploy. Nussbaum’s capabilities were little help generating other ideas.

But I easily came up with a handful of products almost certain to fly off the shelves in Chinese supermarkets. Why? Because I spent years talking to Chinese consumers, working to understand their needs, no matter how bizarre they seemed to me. Nabisco, for instance, was not selling nearly enough Oreos to meet its targets. The reason, it turns out, was simple. The Chinese have never eaten cookies. There is simply no occasion in which to eat them. They’re too sweet and fatty to eat for breakfast, too heavy to snack on, and too cheap to serve to guests for dessert. Once they realized this, Nabisco created a snack-sized Oreo wafer that was less sweet and much more familiar in form to Chinese snackers. It was an instant hit.

Everyone seems to agree that economic development is the road to, if not salvation, then at least improvement, for former colonial countries. I’m not sure that in the long run encouraging local entrepreneurship through micro-finance and other community-based economic schemes is anything more than a way to polarize communities and delegate the problems of doing business in developing economies to local lieutenants, especially in resource-rich countries we will need to plunder in the future. But I do know that the tools of capitalism—of marketing in particular—are the most efficient way of uncovering people’s “unmet needs” and tapping into their desire to own and use things.

My question then shifted from how can I possibly design for development when I have no idea what problems I’m trying to solve to how can anybody? The answer most of the time is that NGOers solve problems they take as givens and those solutions aren’t adopted. Mosquito nets get used on parents’ beds or put away and saved because according to local lore children don’t need them. What if instead of tackling solutions, designers focused on using their critical thinking to uncover the problems?

Rather than a specific product or design to solve a problem established a priori, I am proposing using marketing principles to design a process that uncovers problems with a likelihood of successful solution, guarantees community involvement and investment in the outcome, and can be carried out by design teams with minimal local experience in relatively short (six- to ten-week) timeframes.

A couple of important pointers:
– Small multi-functional groups work better both on your side and the “client” side;
– Momentum is crucial. Work as hard as you can as fast as you can;
– This process will be trying and tiring. It’s a Navy Seals approach to local innovation;

STEP 1: IMMERSION

Be them, with them, about them

Be them, with them, about them is the credo of consumer insight. It basically boils down to “do your research” but proves especially useful in developing world contexts. Talk to people who have some perspective on your challenge. If you’re trying to help African farmers, don’t just talk to experts on small-scale African farming—if you talk to the same people as everyone else, you’re going to have the same ideas as everyone else. Learn about farming and growing things. Talk to farmers of all scales in different climates and conditions, to African urbanites who’ve never farmed, to agronomists, to the ladies at a garden club, to Africa scholars, to grizzly Africa hands, to meteorologists, to entomologists, to local food wholesalers, to children and their grandparents. Visit greenhouses and farms and markets and irrigation projects.

Once you’ve got some idea of the context of these farmers, learn to see the world as they do. Spend time farming in a variety of settings. Plant a garden. Use the tools they use. Live with them and shadow them until they stop paying attention to you. Try to sleep as they sleep, work as they work, bathe as they bathe, eat as they eat, and drink as they drink, and, holiest of holies, think how they think. Ask questions constantly. Don’t assume anything. Laugh at your own ignorance. This sort of research, if conducted with an open mind and a genuine desire to experience another’s world, leads to a volume of insight that’s simply not available to people who go home to their air conditioned tents at night. It also lays the groundwork and relationships for the next step.

STEP 2: IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM

Having spent the bulk of your time being, shadowing, and talking about your target “consumers,” you should have a good idea of the things they consider troublesome or problematic. You should also have identified the people within the community that will make good brainstormers and thoughtful discussers, as well as the stakeholders whose buy-in will be necessary to ensure any sort of lasting solution.

When you’re ready, make a bit of a spectacle when they’re around, signal that something out of the ordinary is happening, and recount observations of your troubles living with them (long hours, back-breaking lifting, not enough coffee), soliciting input and encouraging them to discuss how to solve your problems. Since you are an outsider, they will consider all sorts of solutions they wouldn’t normally for your problems and more often than not start bringing their own experiences to bear. It’s at this point that the addressable problem you’re looking for should boil to the surface.

STEP 3: ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM

Now comes the familiar iterative design process. Try to use locally available materials and techniques that are within reach of the community in which you’re working. Enlist local helpers. Credit them with all progress and good ideas. Try out your design and get them to try it out. What don’t they like about it? What could be better? Iterate. Repeat.

Once a working solution is in place, see if you can get your community to show it off to another nearby community. Once they do, the idea has become theirs and you can leave, knowing that knowledge has been transferred and that you’ve earned a hot shower.

Black Hole Box

Black Hole Box

I was supposed to create something that responded to my relationship with energy. I use energy, selfishly. Like any other creature, I think about my needs, not about how those needs impact the larger systems of which I’m a part. I wanted to make an unnatural, inorganic living thing, an exceptionalist machine.

Black Hole Box is a black box connected to the internet that uses up batteries by continually checking the charge remaining in the batteries. When it drops below a certain threshold, the onboard microprocessor orders more batteries online. The batteries, which it orders from a local supplier, arrive within four days and the Black Hole Box’s owner must change them. The system’s survival depends on money that it doesn’t earn, energy it doesn’t produce, and processes it can’t control.

Black Hole BoxBlack Hole BoxBlack Hole BoxBlack Hole Box

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