The Story of Story 4: Character

The Story of Story 4: Character


Character is revealed by choices under pressure. Character is one of the three main dimensions of story. Often people who write fiction — or developers who write “user stories” add details about the people in an effort to make their characters (or personas) more “interesting.” Adding irrelevant details in something as long as a novel might help the reader get a clearer image of the character. Even in a long novel though, it’s better to add details that relate to something else in the story. In something as short and “to the point” as a “user story” it is worse than pointless. 

Consider these descriptive details: 

“Jill had beautiful blue eyes.” 

“Jill had beautiful brown eyes.” 

“Jill had beautiful green eyes.” 

So what? 

It might be relevant to some story. For example, if Jill were a slave on an antebellum plantation, her having blue eyes might relate to her mother being raped by a white overseer. Maybe Jill finds out and exacts revenge. In that case, her blue eyes might be meaningful. Or, in another story, Jack might insist on dating only blue-eyed blonds. That is part of his “ideal beauty.” Jack pursues Jill because of her striking blue eyes. He shares information all the time about his “conquests” with his best friend, Judy, a woman with black hair and dark eyes. If it’s a romantic comedy, we will know, long before Jack will, that he is falling in love with Judy. The physical characteristics of the women serve to reveal Jack’s true character, which turns out to be deeper than we at first surmised. 


But suppose the story is about how someone might use an Uber app? Is it really going to matter what color her eyes are? Will it matter to someone playing a video game? 

Irrelevant details only seek to distract the reader (or the developer). These details sometimes go by the title “characterization” rather than character. Character should be reserved for deeper things. Sometimes, characterization can be interesting in the way it contrasts with character. In Psych for instance, Sean Spencer pretends every week to be a psychic helping the Santa Barbara police. His aim is to get to the truth. But in the service of getting to the truth, and putting the bad folks in jail, he runs this scam where he pretends to be psychic. 


In the James Bond movies, the character of James Bond is revealed by his choices under pressure. He will give up everything and anything in the service of his country. But on the surface, he seems like a playboy. He drinks martinis. Yet, he is highly disciplined. He wants things his way. Even in his instructions for his martini, his meticulous attention to detail comes out. 

Spock, on Star Trek, plays a character who reminds us time and again about how “rational” he is and how he can control his emotions. Of course, what makes this interesting is precisely because he isn’t always rational and in fact, sometimes has more violent emotions than the humans he critiques for their emotionality. 


If “character is revealed by choices under pressure,” it’s also good to remember that character should be coherently related to setting and plot. Plot advances through conflicts. In The Sound of Music, for instance, Maria has an internal conflict. She wants to be “good” and “follow the rules” of the convent (and later those of the Captain’s household), but she likes joy and music and spontaneity. She also finds herself in love with the Captain. Conflict. She also has inter-personal conflicts with the authorities at the convent, with the children, with the Captain, and with the Countess. She also has conflicts with larger forces in the world – notably Nazism. None of these conflicts is random; they arise quite naturally from the setting that she’s in — and from her own character. 


James Frey, in How to Write a Damned Good Novel, suggests a sequence of increasingly intimate reveals about character that allows the reader to care about the character. First, you say something about the objective, external world that the character exists in. Second, you reveal what the character perceives and does about the situation. Then, you reveal how the character feels about what is happening. Finally, you let the reader “tune in” to the internal conflicts of the character by showing their internal dialogue. Consider: 


“The snow began to fall. The wind began to howl. The “snow” morphed into sharp little knives of ice.”

“Joe began to shiver and pulled his coat tight about him, crossing his arms across his chest.” 

“Damn it! I want to be in a nice warm bed. Grrr.”

“Why do I always let Sally talk me into these half-baked schemes?” 

For me, this order “works” – I am now curious to see what this particular half-baked scheme is and what sort of power Sally has over Joe. Read the lines in the reverse order and it makes only a little sense. It also puts a greater memory load on the reader. 

In some stories, character stays fairly constant and the world (and others) change because of the character’s choices. In the “Hero Saves the World” plot, this is the main emphasis. In the “Growing Up” plot, on the other hand, the most important action is how the character “changes” over time. I put “changes” in quotes because sometimes the “change” is really that the character simply acknowledges their underlying character. For instance, in Sweet Home Alabama, Melanie never really stops being in love with her husband (or Alabama) but consciously, she claims to want a divorce and go back to NY to be a “success.” As always, character is revealed under pressure <spoiler alert> and she “forgets” to sign the divorce papers. In many of the best stories, the character changes (or saves) the world and the world also changes or matures the character. </spoiler alert>.

city man person people

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This may all make sense when it applies to fiction, but how does it impact how we write stories in a business context? This is often tricky because in many business contexts, only the founder or CEO is even allowed to have character. Everyone else is basically supposed to behave the same way: put the company first; follow the rules; do a great job; work together cooperatively; be loyal to the company. As a result, official company stories are bland and two-dimensional. They are basically nothing more than procedures. “If this happens, do that.” Implicitly, this says, “If this happens, do that” regardless of your internal character. 


If you’ve done an excellent job of observing and interviewing potential users of a product or service, you have hopefully discovered some interesting internal conflicts and some related aspects of character that can become a logical part of user journeys. Initially, your target user may be reluctant to use your product. 

Users may be reluctant to use on-line banking, for instance, because of the possibility of hacking or fraud. If this is a genuine concern of 1% of your potential customers, you probably don’t want to make it a concern to the rest, unless it is something they really should worry about. On the other hand, if it’s a genuine concern of 99% of your potential customers, sweeping it under the rug won’t do. The user in your user stories can be portrayed with this concern including internal conflicts and then you can show them overcoming the concern, if and only if it really can be ameliorated through various actions like two-factor verification, password choices, etc. Telling a lie about how safe on-line banking is, will ultimately undo you no matter how well told the story is. But character and characterization of these users should be designed around conflicts that actually are relevant to the product or service. 

“Mary had put all her life savings and all her energy into her small company. Her time had become gold. She was on a path to hire more people, but that took time. Now the bank was offering lower fees if she would switch to on-line banking. She had always wanted to be a soccer player but she knew she wasn’t coordinated enough.” 

action activity balls day

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Yes, that may be something that came out in an interview with a real Mary. And it may even be part of an interesting story. But not this story! The naturally occurring conflict here is Mary’s desire to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible — and yet also to be as safe as possible. Mary may initially see these in conflict, but you may have a legitimate way for her to avoid or rethink the conflict. Mary’s character might be made more intense by having her see her budding business as a legacy she wants eventually to hand off to her daughters. But it doesn’t really matter whether she has blue eyes or brown eyes. You could instead intensify Mary’s desires by making her a success-oriented second generation immigrant whose own parents spent countless hours of hard work so she could get through college. The family still cares about every dollar. It doesn’t matter whether she lives in a small flat in Brooklyn, Chicago, or LA. It does matter that she wasn’t gifted 10 million dollars to start a business by her billionaire parents who live in a mansion in Manhattan. 


It doesn’t matter whether she likes her martinis shaken or stirred either, unless you are making the point, e.g., that she is a fanatic for having things her way and that your software allows more customization than does that of your competitors. In that case, you can introduce a detail that shows, rather than tells, this fact about her character.


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The Story of Story: Part 3

The Story of Story: Part 3 – Good Story, Well Told.

Often in my English classes, (and yours?) we talked about the mechanisms of writing: spelling, grammar, word usage, punctuation, paragraph construction, metaphor, rhythm, and rhyme scheme, for instance. We talked very little about how to tell a story well. And we talked zero about what makes for a good story. 

In the last article, I described some guidelines for soliciting stories from users and other stakeholders. From these, one may gain insight into potential problems that a product or service might solve, ameliorate, bypass, or avoid. Later, I will describe more about how stories may be used in the design and development process. Before getting into that, however, I want to describe more about what makes for a good story. In the following articles, I will also suggest ways to make the story well told. 

What Makes for a Good Story?

You might find it helpful to write down a short list of 5-10 novels, short stories, movies, or TV shows that you really liked. It doesn’t have to be your all time ten best; just something good that springs to mind. Then put that list aside. Read through the criteria I propose and then check back after you’re done reading to see whether or not most of these criteria were met. I’m betting that they mostly were met. 


The Story Cube. 

Imagine a cube of some really nice material that you like; e.g., polished wood, lead ore, malachite, silver. This cube has three dimensions: height, width, and depth. It must have all three dimensions. In the case of a story, there are also three dimensions in this sense: Plot, Setting, and Character. If a story lacks any of these three, it will be “flat” (not so interesting). For example, if you spent time working in a large company or government agency, you were probably given training materials about how you’re not supposed to do unethical things like steal from your company. They may have provided you with scenarios and asked what you would do or what was the “right” response. These stories tend to have people in situations making decisions. The problem with these stories is that, in order for them to be “efficient”, they spend almost zero time on character development.  “Joe wants to impress his boss and make his quota for the fourth quarter so he puts down as sold this-quarter things he is sure he will sell early in January. After all, he rationalizes, calendars are arbitrary.” Of course, the answer is no Joe should not be lying on his sales report. But we really don’t know much about Joe. We don’t know enough about him to really care much about him. Of course, he shouldn’t lie. If he does, it’s pretty hard to feel anything but contempt for Joe. It should have been obvious to him that he shouldn’t lie on a sales report and if he does lie, he should be fired. Good riddance. Let’s replace Joe with someone who follows the rules. 


This story is so flat that it seems to me that the story is constructed, not so much to really educate, but more to prove that you were shown that it’s wrong to lie on sales forms so that, should the court case arise, you will not be to argue effectively that it was a mere technicality that you didn’t know about. If you really wanted to change someone’s mind about what was right, knowing about Joe’s character could make you empathize much more. Maybe he came from a Mafia-type crime family and no-one would bat any eye about lying on a sales report. They would expect him to lie on the report. Maybe even now, he is looked down upon by everyone else in his family for being such a chump and working for “the man” instead of being “the man.” 


Or, perhaps Joe just found out that his wife has serious cancer and is understandably but severely depressed. He desperately wants to bring her some good news. If we reveal, not only what situation Joe is in but also, how he sees that situation, how he feels about it and what conflicts he faces, we will begin to have real empathy for Joe. His choices become real, rather than predetermined.  

TV commercials, like corporate training videos, are typically pretty flat too. But in some cases, the ad agency has gone out of their way to introduce you to some character that is recognizable and re-appears in commercial after commercial. Each time, just a little bit of character is revealed and eventually you find yourself watching the commercial largely because you start to care about the character. In a similar way, one might be able to make the corporate training stories more intriguing & educational if there were a cast of characters that persisted over time. 


Two Paths Diverged in a Yellow Wood…

Typically (but not invariably) the author knows how the story will turn out before he starts writing. But for the reader (or viewer), it is not at all obvious how the story will turn out. For compelling stories, the reader must be convinced to “play along with” the uncertainty of the outcome even if they are sure ‘the good guys will win.’ In good stories, bad things happen to the protagonist, but he or she is not a cork tossed on the ocean waves. The protagonist must want something; they must have a goal that is overwhelmingly important to them. They must react to changing circumstances, overcome the obstacles that are thrown at them. Characters are engaged in battles! Battles test them. If winning the battles is easy or inevitable, the character isn’t someone we can really relate to. 



Superman is basically super-human and invulnerable! But watching someone who is invulnerable and has super-powers win battle after battle is boring. Superman has to have weaknesses. To make it more interesting and allow for more plot variation, he actually had three original weaknesses: kryptonite, friends, secret identity. In one episode, someone will have some kryptonite while in the next, someone will kidnap one of his friends. Recent movies have added a fourth weakness: other super-human and invulnerable beings.  

Whatever the story, your character must have weaknesses. Otherwise, no-one will “believe” the character and you as the writer will be stymied when you try to develop an interesting plot. The weaknesses can be physical, moral, social, intellectual, situational, and so on. But they should not be merely irrelevant weaknesses. Imagine a story where Sue is the main character. She’s tone deaf. She’s also brilliant, hard-working, imaginative, driven to succeed. And, indeed, she becomes a very successful trial lawyer. Eventually, she is made partner. OK. Isn’t this exactly what we’d expect to happen? What does being tone deaf have to do with anything? 


Imagine instead, that Sue was inspired at the age of four when she went to the opera. It was her life-long dream to become an opera singer. Indeed, she was blessed with a beautiful voice. She was also brilliant, hard-working, imaginative and driven to succeed. Unfortunately, she was tone deaf. Now, the weakness becomes interesting. Perhaps she will fail and kill herself. Perhaps she will fail but find another goal that is even more important to her and succeed at that. Perhaps she will fail time after time but eventually develop a career as an improvisational opera singer. She will ask people in the audience to name five things and then and there, she will create a beautiful aria that weaves a tale of some considerable interest about the five things. No-one knows that she is singing out of tune because she is composing on the spot. 

The more improbable the odds and the more horrendous the journey, the more challenge you give yourself to make it work! Blind at birth but wants to be an artist? Surely, that’s just stupid. It’s impossible. But is it? What if feedback were provided in such a way that it influenced her to make unique and beautiful paintings? What if genetic engineering allows her to grow new neural pathways? What if she can be equipped with artificial eyes? If it’s fiction, a magic spell can do the trick. Even if your ultimate goal is a real product for the real world, imagining a magical solution may lead you to a new (and real) path, previously hidden by your own expectations. 

It is easy for a writer to identify with their hero. And that is potentially quite a problem. After all, if you were superman, you sure as heck would not go out of your way to go near kryptonite. You’d quite sensibly stay away from the stuff! But if you are writing about superman, you need to get him near the deadly stuff every third or fourth episode! The “weaknesses” in the character generate interest. The failures, injuries, betrayals, and conflicts of your protagonist provide materiel that allows you to architect a more interesting plot. 


A Garden of Delights, Flashy Sights, or Sword Fights?

Three dimensions of story is a weak metaphor only. The three dimensions of a cube can be manipulated independently. This is not generally true for the three dimensions of story. The character makes a decision, the decision determines the next step of the plot. That will influence the setting for the next scene. In addition, the actions of the protagonist may also change state of the underlying and cross-cutting conflicts. 


 two rival gangs fighting for urban turf and maybe sex,

 two gardeners in a fierce competition for sex with the town “catch” as well as the blue ribbon, 

two rival secret agents vying for victory and maybe sex,

two life long friends now vying for #1 in their Harvard Law class, and maybe sex.

The structure of the underlying plot might look quite similar, but the specifics will depend a lot on how the character is developing. If they develop from ego-centric to altruistic, then they will tend to make different decisions near the beginning than near the end of the story. In addition, the setting will have to be consistently portrayed. 

The four descriptions above would most naturally lead to a lot of the setting for the stories respectively in urban settings, garden settings, foreign settings & dangerous situations, mainly Law School and campus settings. Of course, you could violate expectations in a way that increases interest. Imagine that rather than have another garden scene–

The rival gardeners arrive at an urban parking lot dressed in expensive gowns, fully jeweled in their finest, both fully knowing that they will win first prize (but secretly fearing that they might not). These life-long friends now exchange icy greetings, make back-handed compliments about each other’s appearances. The verbal exchange escalates. Precisely because they know each other so well, they know exactly how the other person’s escalator functions. Soon, they are rolling around on the parking lot in their fancy gear; ruining each other’s clothes and hairdos. At this point, they hear in the distance, the loudspeaker and the chairman about to announce the Blue Ribbon Winner!  In their trashed and ripped clothing, they sneak in together to hear the awards, hanging out together in the shadows so as not to be seen in their tattered clothes. “And the blue ribbon goes to” {drumroll}: 

someone else entirely. 

At this, the two life long friends look at each other, laugh uproariously, hug each other, and then become even more intimate friends than they were before their fight in the urban parking lot. 

The fact that there are “expected” relations among various dimensions of story is wonderful. For every such expectation, you can decide to follow, bend, or break that expectation. The more expectations people develop, the greater the number of variations for creative exploration. One valid reason for the choice of setting is really where you want to spend your time. That goes for an author — but it also goes for any designer or business person or User Experience expert. What kind of setting do you want to be in? What kind of customers do you want to serve? Do you really want to make their life better or just get them to buy more product? What sorts of application areas are really cool to you? Of course, I understand people need to eat and often there is a conflict within us all about what to do. That’s what a good story is really about.


The reason that stories resonate is that, regardless of setting, people face the same kind of dilemmas. We all do. And, how we handle those dilemmas? In life, as in story, 

character is revealed by choices under pressure… 


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The Story of Story, Part 2


This is the second in a series about using stories and storytelling in the design, development, and the deployment of products and services. In each post, I will weave in some advice about what makes for a good story as well as how to use stories. In this first case, the emphasis is on using stories to help uncover customer needs and wants. Needs and wants are not quite the same thing. For an extremely worthwhile discussion on the difference, check out this classic article by George Furnas. 

We Human Beings are not just Information Processors; we are also Energy Processors.


I had just attended a conference on “knowledge management” co-sponsored by IBM consultants and IBM Research. On the plane ride back, after finishing the crossword, I turned the page to find a full page color ad by an IBM competitor that proclaimed: “Knowledge Management is simply [sic] providing the right information to the right person at the right time.” Color me skeptical, I thought. It isn’t simple to do those things. Beyond that, the formulation seemed simplistic even in its formulation.

The image of one of my undergraduate professors flashed into my brain. Professor MacCaw, (as we will call him), taught advanced German, a language which he had learned in a Russian prison camp, which might explain his approach to testing. At semester’s end, he asked, “Who in class wants A?!” 


All two dozen of us raised our hands, of course. At this point, he proceeded to — there is no other word — attack one of the students in the class who had had four years of German in high school and had also lived in Germany for two years. The contents of his questions were not really that difficult, but the manner in which he demanded the answers was horrid. He would ask, for instance, “In first story, main character went where?” (He would always ask the questions in English). 

And she would begin to answer (necessarily in German), “Er geht…” And after a couple words were out of her mouth, he would scream, “Please to conjugate!” This meant that she would have to think back to the last verb she uttered and then conjugate it. “Ich gehe, Sie gehen, …” Then, he would interrupt again and scream a completely different and unrelated question in English. She would begin to answer; he would interrupt after she uttered only a few words: “Please to decline!” This meant, that she would have to give the various forms of the last noun she spoke according to the case. But once again, she could not finish but only begin declining the noun when he would once again interrupt. After 40 minutes, she was in tears and he looked menacingly around the room and asked, “NOW! Who in class STILL wants A?” 


I have zero desire to go hang gliding or sky diving. But when it comes to the danger of mere social humiliation, I say, “Screw it. Been there. Done that.” I was one of only two of the remaining students who raised their hand. This act won me the next turn on the chopping block. He proceeded the same whip-saw questioning fest with me. The two-period class was almost over when he finished with me and began questioning “Mr. Lepke.” The bell rang and everyone else in the class left. Later that evening, I chanced to see Professor MacCaw in the Student Union. He walked up to me, eyes blazing. “Ha! I had Mr. Lepke after class for two hours! Finally, he said to me, ‘No, No, Dr. MacCaw, no more, I beg you. No more!’” 

This oral exam was difficult (even with my “screw it” attitude). It was much “harder” than my dissertation defense, for example. Again, it was not the information requested but the manner of questioning that made it difficult. People are not emotionless robots, as it turns out.


The next semester, not surprisingly, only about half the class returned. One day in class, as Dr. MacCaw began one of his lengthy digressions on Eastern European history, he stopped himself in mid-sentence to say, “What is THIS!? Someone is passing notes in my class! I will take note and read in front of entire class!” He snatched the note, unfolded it, and indeed read the note in his loud ringing voice: “Doctor MacCaw: your zipper is down.” And, indeed it was. He had meant to humiliate someone in front of the entire class — and he had succeeded. He had the necessary information delivered at the right time to the right person, but — thanks to his own actions — it had not been done in the best manner — at least not the best manner for him. 

Human beings are not just information processors. We are living things and as such, the emotions, the vibes, the manner, the intensity of presentation — these are all vital to how we will react at the time and also how we will feel about the people involved and what we will recall years later. And this fact also means that the atmosphere you create when you interact with various stakeholders will vastly impact the quality of the insights and stories that you receive. If you really care about the people and are really committed to doing something to making people’s lives better; if you are truly open to hear and take in something unexpected or even disruptive to the project; and if you allow your informant to feel that truth about you, you will obtain the gold ring. 

Stakeholder Stories Solicited at their Sites. 

If you use a mechanical method and a mechanical tone and a mechanical manner to ask your users and other stakeholders about their needs and wants, what you will uncover are the most mundane, most rudimentary, most superficial and socially acceptable needs and wants. You can indeed use this information to design a product or service, and you may even have a product or service that succeeds in the marketplace. It will likely be, however, a rather short-lived “win.” Why? Because you are designing to fulfill wants that are subject to the wild winds of passing fashion rather than to catch the fire of an underlying passion. 


What I found for myself was that it typically took about an hour of talking with a stakeholder, and most importantly, listening attentively, before they began to tell me their real stories. Your mileage may differ according to culture, context, power relations, your personality, and so on. I like to use a semi-structured interview. In this type of interview, there are known questions that I want to ask. But I also schedule plenty of time to let them elaborate, tell me what’s what behind the scenes. I know that in the corporate world, there is an ever-present push for being “efficient” and getting the job done as quickly as possible. So, it’s tempting to get the informant “back on track.” I always prefer to interview an informant in their workplace. This seems like common courtesy; it puts them more at ease; and it sometimes reveals their use of other people, references, private notes, etc. as well as what they are dealing with in terms of atmosphere, noise levels, interruptions, desk space, etc. 

John Whiteside, who ran the Usability group for Digital Equipment Corporation for a time, recounts running various usability studies and gathering data in various ways about a product they were designing for manuscript centers (places where human beings, historically almost always women, transcribed the dictation of others into text on a computer so that it could be edited, re-written, stored, etc.). The first time that they visited their users in the field, they discovered that they spent about seven hours a day typing and a considerable amount of time every day counting up, by hand, the number of lines they had typed. So, in one instant, they realized a feature that would improve productivity significantly. 

Guidelines for Soliciting Stakeholder Stories. 

When I managed the storytelling project at IBM Research, I was fortunate enough to hire Deborah Lawrence to help with the project. She thought it would be a cool idea to interview experts in a number of fields whose job, in one way or another, involves soliciting stories. So, she went out and did just that. I believe that her interviewees included medical doctors, policeman, reporters, social workers, and psychotherapists. These various practitioners had very similar guidelines. 

Story Elicitation Guidelines:

  • Provide a “warm-up” period.
  • Tell something personal and revealing about yourself; perhaps tell a story that is a model of the kind of story you’re looking for.
  • Observe an implicit contract of trust.
  • Provide a motivation for the story — why it’s important.
  • Accept the storyteller’s story and worldview.  Don’t resist the story.
  • Reveal who you are, how the story will be used, potential audience and goals, answer questions.
  • Use questions to probe.  Sometimes, a totally “off the wall” question can create space for story to emerge.
  • Empower the storyteller — they are the expert.
  • Avoid threat; don’t appear as an expert yourself.
  • Listen with avid interest.

These may seem fairly obvious such as does a lot of the advice in the book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. (Come to think of it, that might be the single best book you can read if you want a career in HCI/UX). However — back to the guidelines. I think they seem obvious once pointed out, in much the same way that once someone points out the “pig in the clouds” (or the face in the tree) you cannot not see it. 


The above list is not, of course, meant to be the definitive such list. This was based on one study. If you have additional guidelines or disagreements, please let me know. 

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The Story of Story, Part 1

The Story of Story, Part 1



Right around the turn of the century, I managed a research project at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Center on the business uses of stories and story-telling. The project was part of a larger effort on “knowledge management.” One of IBM’s major reasons for being interested arose from their increasing revenue stream from services. However, services such as consulting required a lot of labor; it was competitive. Therefore, the margins on this business were not so high as, for instance, in hardware or system software. IBM has invested a lot in tools so that they can make hardware very cheaply and effectively using relatively little labor. The company wanted to be able to something similar with consulting services. The idea was that we could use knowledge management so that the knowledge assets of top-level consultants could be, captured, organized, and then re-used by more junior (and less expensive) people thus rendering higher margins for the company. The success of this approach was fairly limited partly because the knowledge management methods were geared toward explicit rule-based knowledge and specific facts. Much of what experts “know”, including IBM’s top-level business consultants was tacit knowledge. Stories provided a natural way to capture tacit knowledge. Thus, the story project began. 


My simplistic initial idea was to build a story platform that would enable consultants to write stories about their experiences. After all, sharing stories orally is what experts naturally do anyway. Since I enjoy writing stories, I failed to realize initially all the reasons consultants would not want to share their experiences by writing stories. Writing stories is not so natural or fun for most folks. Partly because of the medium and partly because of higher expectations, it also takes more time. Perhaps, even more importantly, it takes extra time. When consultants share stories, they are often traveling, eating dinner, having drinks together and sharing stories is something done in a friendly off-hand way, but importantly, it does not take extra time in the way that using a computer system to write a story would. Besides, when a consultant says something out loud it is not typically recorded. So, if they misspoke or said something untoward, they have plausible deniability. When someone tells a story live, they also can sense how the story is being received in real time. If the listeners are “into it” the teller can draw things out and make it more vivid. On the other hand, if they are starting to play “Candy Crush” on their phones, you can cut it short. In writing, typically, first you write and then you get feedback. Of course, professional writers often improve things considerably with the help of a copy editor and proofreader. Anyway, over the course of time, we did develop a feasible way to have people tell stories and from those stories, provide information of use to other knowledge workers. 


Three Patterns for using stories. 

Narrative Insight Method describes techniques for gather valuable knowledge from experts through the use of storytelling.

Fostering Group Cohesion through Common Narratives is another storytelling technique: in this case, one focuses on building and disseminating stories that illustrate common values.

Fostering Community Learning via Transformed Narratives. This helps solve a dilemma. For organizational learning, it’s crucial to learn from people’s mistakes. Ordinarily though, mistakes are not just used for learning but to bar one from advancement, raises, and the esteem of one’s colleagues.

Here, however, I want to describe some of the things I found interesting about stories from personal observations and, to a lesser extent by reading. Here are just a few examples of interesting aspects of stories.

  • Good story writing is not magic. It’s craft. Mastery is is life-long quest, but one can quickly learn a few important things that will help you to write better, but also to enjoy more thoroughly the stories you see or read.
  • Stories are memorable and motivating. If you watch people telling stories, they are animated and engaged in a way that is rare when people are discussing facts, pronouncements, or pleasantries. 
  • Business-speak is grey, toneless, neutral, abstract and speaks to the intersection of people’s experiences. Stories on the other hand, can be colorful, concrete, emotional, and speak to the union of people’s experiences.  
  • Although stories are generally presented in a linear sequence, beneath that, the story actually has a hierarchical structure. Most stage plays have three acts. Within each act, there are a number of sequences. Within each sequence, there are scenes. Within each scene, there are “beats.” 
  • The three major dimensions of story are setting (where, when), plot structure (what happens), and character (the people; what they are like and what they want).  
  • Story lives on conflict; it explores the edges of human experience; it’s takes us on an empathic roller coaster ride.

In the next essay, we will begin to see more specifically how to use stories to help us discover problems and issues that a well-designed solution might solve. 


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Don’t Throw Out the Baby with the Bathwater!

On Throwing Out the Baby with the Bathwater. 

adorable baby beautiful bed

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Babies are a pain. Let’s face it. Of course, they are. But they are also a joy. Not only that, they are the future of humanity. Yet, it’s true that they require a lot of attention. And, they have unpleasant by-products, bathwater being one of the least unpleasant. But we say, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater” because we humans do have a tendency to over-emphasize whatever the negative aspects of something are and take for granted the good parts. 

For example, let’s say that your furnace goes out. You are sitting there one cold, wet November evening, before winter’s knife edge of cold is softened by the splendor of a snowfall’s sparkle. No, this is an evening for complete relaxation; it’s the end of a frustrating day at work. Time to settle down with a little Jack Daniels on the minimal rocks and watch the next episode of your favorite TV show. But you find yourself thinking: “It’s cold in here!” So, up you go to see whether someone — certainly not you — has set the thermostat too low. No, you see that it’s set to 72F. But the actual temp is only 67F. No wonder it’s chilly. You put on your slippers and pad down the basement stairs to look at the furnace. It’s not running. 

burning campfire

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You feel that you have been cheated out of your richly deserved and eagerly awaited evening of relaxation. Instead, through no real fault of your own, you find these plans and dreams in shambles and you have to go through a series of hoops, each of which will steal some of your money, and equally important, steal some of your time away from activities you’d prefer. The path in thinking that is tempting to take is to “throw out the baby with the bathwater” and decide that the company or the manufacturer is evil. (They might be, of course; my point is simply that deciding that on the basis of the evidence at hand is not warranted). You might even decide that all heating companies or even all companies or, in extreme cases, everyone else is evil. 

A similar line of thinking, again completely understandable, is something like the following. “Well, when I grew up, we just put everything in the trash. You know. We didn’t have to recycle things. If it was good enough for my parents not to recycle, it should be good enough for my kids.” It really doesn’t seem fair. After all, you were just doing what you had been taught was right and now, all of a sudden, like an infomercial embedded in a sit-com, you are supposed to do something different that does take some extra time. And why? 

assorted plastic bottles

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As the population of earth grows and grows, our own behavior will inevitably be influenced by a greater and greater number of people. That would be true even without the fact that about half of earth’s 7 billion human beings now have access to the Internet. Sometimes, that interconnectedness puts constraints on your behavior or makes you feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, that same interconnectedness is what allows so many people (hopefully you included) to live in far better circumstances than did any Medieval king. 

Because we humans trade skills, and natural resources, and cultural strengths, and ideas, and money throughout this whole diverse world, our standard of living is a symphony of glorious possibilities instead of a tuning fork forever singing the monotone of “Sing Johnny One Note.” But we tend to take for granted the affordable laptop, the central heating and air conditioning, the car now fitted with life-saving seat belts and air bags, the cancer treatment that saved your life, or the pollution regulation that prevented you from getting the cancer you would have gotten without those regulations. You have access, I hope, to a public library and the Internet where you can find out about the world’s great architecture, the world’s great ideas, the world’s great art. Think about that. The world’s knowledge is at your fingertips. Not just the knowledge of your family, or your town, or your state, or your country — the world’s knowledge. And, of course, it isn’t just you. More than 3.2 billion people on earth have this access. And, they can invent, and learn, and dialogue together to create a much better world. 


And that much better world will necessarily be different. Being different means that people such as you and I will need to change; learn; and sometimes we will be uncomfortable. It’s understandable that it’s somewhat disconcerting. But we need to look at this in balance. The modern world gives us many good things. Yes, it has some unpleasant side-effects. If we work together though, with the knowledge of the world at hand, we should be able to find ethical and effective paths forward. 

It isn’t only in terms of world-wide cooperation (or lack thereof) that we need to take a balanced look. It’s easy to get frustrated with an actual baby and temporarily forget how wonderful it is. It’s easy to get frustrated with college courses, or roommates, or spouses, or co-workers, or technology, or stop lights, or —- when what is really causing that frustration is not the totality of any one of those things. Stop lights actually speed you on your way! If you’ve ever been to a busy intersection when the traffic light stopped functioning, you’ll quickly see how much worse off things are without the traffic light. 

black traffic light

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So, please, let’s all have the best 2019 that we can. But when you encounter one of the many frustrations of modern life, let’s try to do a better job of seeing the totality of the system, not just the bothersome part. It’s not easy. When your down jacket, usually so comfortable and warm, happens to send the spiky end of a feather into your neck, it’s natural to focus for a moment on the sharp spike. Okay. We all do that. But let’s also remember that ancestors, not so long ago, would have loved to have a down jacket against the winter freeze. 

beautiful blowing cold cute

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Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! 


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Ring Out the Old; Ring In the New

Here we are again. Or so it seems. It’s true that the planet is pretty much back where it spun a year ago relative to the sun (though the planet itself is a lot sicker). This relative position also affects our seasons so it’s natural that we take some stock-taking, review, and do some planning. There’s nothing wrong with following some of the paths set down by your culture, so long as you’ve taken the time to check in with the larger picture and asked yourself whether those are paths you really want to follow; are they paths that feed the good wolf in you or the bad wolf? Most paths don’t really do much one way or the other, but some paths do. Paths? You know who you are. So, a review and a plan are fine. See below.


But while we are more or less in the same position relative to the sun, our whole solar system is moving around the center of the Milky Way at 140 miles/second (and there are other giant moves beyond that). So, in that sense we are about 4.5 billion miles from where we were last year. Four and a half billion is a good number. That’s also our best estimate of how long life has been evolving on earth. Every individual of every species of life on earth is a cousin or yours and mine. Around 50 to 100 thousand years ago, our ancestors began wandering off in different directions. As explained in this Myth of the Veritas, the fact that humanity proved adaptive, resilient, and successful enough to inhabit regions hot and cold, dry and wet, sunny and cloudy, on islands and mountains and forests and plains — this success, this massive success of our ancestors at populating the earth — this is what our species accomplished! Naturally, enough, as people lived in different physical situations, they evolved slightly different physical characteristics and slightly different cultures. It’s kind of a cosmic joke that we often treat these minor differences as an excuse to “hate on” — instead of sharing congratulatory high-fives all around (and all the other variants of celebration of mutual success) that we’ve survived in all these amazing circumstances. That’s what we should be doing! You survive in igloos! Wow! How amazing! You survive in the desert! Wow! How amazing! You survive in rain forests! Say more! You live at 12,000 feet! That’s so cool!

woman and sheep beside body of water photo

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Honestly, it’s hard for me to believe we are so stuck on that misunderstanding that we cannot yet go on to the next step of collectively determining how we are going to keep from destroying the ecosystem that we all depend on for life itself, both human and non-human. I’m still hopeful that greed and power on the part of the few will not overcome the will to live that our species has. That will to live must exert itself though. And I think it shall.

In the first half of 2018, I blogged about “best practices” in collaboration and cooperation.   I put these in the form of a “Pattern Language” inspired by Christopher Alexander. I wanted to do what I could to improve cooperation and collaboration. That seems critical if we are going to continue to survive and thrive.


Here is a link to an introduction to the enterprise.

Here is a link to an index of all the “Patterns” in the “Pattern Language.”


Starting July 7th, I began recounting some experiences that occurred early in my career as an “expert in human-computer interaction.” These experiences are meant to be springboards to discussions about more general issues. While everyone’s life experiences are very different — they are also very similar! Despite working in different decades in different industries and in different companies within those industries and working in different countries, it is surprising how the same themes seem to come up; e.g., speaking truth to power; the power of allies. Here’s a link to one of the first stories.



At the end of July, I began publishing the myths of the Veritas. I began with their “creation myth” which recounts how being able to mimic the sounds of animals may have helped language evolve. I also wrote “The Orange Man” – a myth meant to show that being untruthful and greedy may have large-scale and tragic consequences for a whole tribe. Eventually, these stories morphed into a life and death struggle between two tribes: The Veritas (who value truth, cooperation, and love) and The Cupiditas  (who value power, greed, & cruelty). This longer narrative begins as the shaman/leader of the Veritas seeks an eventual successor. So, she devises a series of increasingly difficult trials that mainly test empathy. There are twelve candidates for the next leader to start with and each trial narrows down the field. Watch for anagrams in these stories.

In December, I took another direction. The wars between the Veritas and the Cupiditas were over, at least for now. Soon, there may be further translations of these myths available. Meanwhile, I began writing a series of essays on “tools of thought.” I suppose most readers will already be familiar with all of them. Nonetheless, I think it’s worthwhile to have a compilation of tools. After all — plumbers, carpenters, programmers, piano tuners, sales people — they all have tool kits. There are three advantages to having them together in some one place.

Without a toolkit you may be prone to try to use the tool that just so happens to be nearest to hand at the time you encounter the problem. You need to tighten a screw and you happen to have a penny in your pocket. You don’t feel like walking all the way down into the garage to get your toolkit. A penny will do. I get it. But for more serious work, you are going to want to have the whole toolkit there.

First, the toolkit serves as a reminder of all the tools at your disposal. Second, you may only be familiar with one or two ways to use a tool. I may have thought of ways to use a tool that are different from the way you use it. And you have undoubtedly also know useful things about these tools of thought that I have never thought of. We can learn from each other. Third, having all the tools together may stimulate people to invent new ones or see a way to use two or more in sequence and begin to think about the handoff between two tools.

Here’s an index into the toolkit so far.

Many Paths (December 5, 2018). The temptation is great to jump to a conclusion, snap up the first shiny object that looks like bait and charge ahead! After all, “he who hesitates is lost!” But there is also, “look before you leap.” What works best for me in many circumstances is to think of many possible paths before deciding on one. This is a cousin to the Pattern: Iroquois Rule of Six. This heuristic is a little broader and is sometimes called “Alternatives Thinking.”

And then what? (Dec. 6, 2018). This is sometimes called “Consequential Thinking.” The idea is simple: think not just about how you’ll feel and how a decision will affect you this moment but what will happen next. How will others react? It’s pretty easy to break laws if you set your mind to it. But what are the likely consequences?

Positive Feedback Loops (December 7, 2018). Also known as a virtuous or vicious circle. If you drink too much of a depressant drug (e.g., alcohol or opioids), that can cause increased nervousness and anxiety which leads you to want more of the drug. Unfortunately, it also makes your body more tolerant of the drug so you need more to feel the same relief. So, you take more but this makes you even more irritable when it wears off.

Meta-Cognition. (December 8, 2018). This is basically thinking about thinking. For example, if you are especially good at math, then you tend to do well in math! Over time, if your meta-cognition is accurate, you will know that you are good in math and you can use that information about your own cognition to make decisions about the education you choose, your job, your methods of representing and solving problems and so on.

Theory of Mind (December 9, 2018). Theory of Mind tasks require us to imagine the state of another mind. It is slightly different from empathy, but a close cousin. Good mystery writers – and good generals – may be particularly skilled at knowing what someone else knows, infers, thinks, feels and therefore, how they are likely to act.

Regression to the Mean (December 10, 2018). This refers to a statistical artifact that you sometimes need to watch out for. If you choose to work with the “best” or “worst” or “strongest” or “weakest” and then measure them again later, their extreme scores will be less extreme. The tool is to make sure that you don’t make untoward inferences from that change in the results of the measurement.

Representation (December 11, 2018): The way we represent a problem can make a huge difference in how easy it is to solve it. Of course, we all know this, and yet, it is easy to fall into the potential trap of always using the same representations for the same types of problems. Sometimes, another representation can lead you to completely different – and better – solutions.

Metaphor I (December 12, 2018): Do we make a conscious choice about the metaphors we use? How can metaphors influence behavior?

Metaphor II (December 13, 2018): Two worked examples: Disease is an Enemy and Politics is War.

Imagination (December 14, 2018): All children show imagination. Many adults mainly see it as a tool for increasing their misery; viz., by only imagining the worst. Instead of a tool to help them explore, it becomes a “tool” to keep themselves from exploring by making everything outside the habitual path look scary.

Fraught Framing (December 16, 2018): Often, how we frame a problem is the most crucial step in solving it. In this essay, several cases are examined in which people presume a zero-sum game when it certainly need not be.

Fraught Framing II (December 17, 2018). A continuation of thinking about framing. This essay focuses on how easy it sometimes is to confuse the current state of something with its unalterable essence or nature.

Negative Space (December 17, 2018). Negative space is the space between. Often we separate a situation into foreground and background, or into objects and field, or into assumptions and solution space. What if we reverse these designations?

Problem Finding (December 18, 2018). Most often in our education, we are handed problems and told to solve them. In real life, success is as much about being able to find problems or see problems in order to realize that there is even something to fix.

architecture bright building capitol

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Non-Linearity(December 20, 2018). We often think that things are linear when they may not be. In some cases, they can be severely non-linear. Increasing the force on a joint may actually make it stronger. But if increased force is added too quickly, rather than strengthening the joint even further, it can destroy it. The same is true of a system like American democracy.

Resonance(December 20, 2018). If you add your effort to something at the right time, you are able to multiply the impact of your effort. This is true in sports, in music, and in social change.

the piano keyboard

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Symmetry (December 23, 2018). There are many kinds of symmetry and symmetry is found in many places; it is rampant in nature, but humans in all different cultures also use symmetry. It exists at macro scales and micro scales. It exists in physical reality and in social relationships.

2019: Happy New Year!

I plan to continue for a time with “Tools of Thought.” In the next few weeks, I will concentrate on stories and storytelling as tools of thought and tools that are useful in design as well as elsewhere in solving problems, making decisions, and change management.


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{Something went wrong with WordPress the first two times I tried to post this. I tried to track it down. As best I can tell, my problems came from trying to cut and paste pictures from my Pages file. Even though it looked fine in the editing interface, it appeared blank in the actual viewing interface.}



(Original, free-hand drawing by Zoe Colier).

There are many varieties of symmetry. In many cases, symmetry exists rampantly in nature and symmetry is incorporated into many human designs as well. In this short essay, I want to remind people of several varieties of symmetry and then show how symmetry may also be used as a tool of thought to help solve problems by simplifying the space of possibilities that must be considered. 

Symmetry is a concept with far broader application than cutting out paper snowflakes or choosing a nice looking Christmas Tree, Menorah or other Holiday decoration. It is fundamental in logic, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and even in social science. Symmetry exists at many different scales as well. Planets are generally roughly spherical and their orbits are roughly circular. 


The human body, along with most other animals, exhibits rough bilateral symmetry in external appearance. If you examine your own fingerprints or the pattern of your moles, for instance, you will see that one side of your body looks slightly different from a mirror image. If, like me, you are a righty who play tennis, you will find the forearm muscles on your right arm are slightly larger than those on the left. What is remarkable to me is not that there are slight variations between left and right but just how slight those variations are! And, we are not alone. Fish, insects, flatworms, roundworms, snakes, turtles, lizards, horses, dogs, cats, apes, and humans are all roughly bilaterally symmetrical in appearance. I say “in appearance” because our internal arrangement of organs is not at all symmetrical.  

External Appearance and Internal Organs

In general, it seems to me that most animals possess more complete or “perfect” bilateral symmetry than do most plants. I suspect that this is because animals generally move through a physical environment. Since we can move around, the environmental forces are generally symmetrical and so our ability to react to those environmental forces is also symmetrical. A tree, on the other hand, may have a genetic “blueprint” to be bilaterally or (more likely) radially symmetrical, but it may be subject to strong asymmetrical forces such as wind, a water source, or sunlight versus shade. 

Our designed objects are also most often (at least) bilaterally symmetrical, and particularly for those objects which must interact and move through the physical world. Cars, boats, motorcycles, busses, trains, trucks, bikes, skis, surfboards, roller skates, ice skates, snowshoes and tennis shoes all tend to be bilaterally symmetrical. On the inside, however, again just like us, there are often some irregularities. The arrangement of controls of the car, for instance, are asymmetrical. (Each control in itself often does show symmetry. In some cases, this makes it easier to use, especially without looking. I suspect that the symmetry may often be for aesthetic reasons, for ease of manufacturing, for ease of maintenance or replacement or some combination.) The asymmetry of arrangement “works” because the arrangement of displays and controls does not interact with the natural world the way that the car body and wheels do. The controls are designed to interact with a human being. There are also rough conventions for where controls are laid out, how they operate, and what each type looks like. Asymmetry of arrangement is also evident under the hood. However, some of the components such as the engine, the battery, the radiator have symmetry within them. The radiator, which arguably has the most interaction with the outside world, is symmetrically placed though its plumbing is not. 

automobile car customized drive

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In the design of User Interaction and Experience, an argument can be made for certain kinds of symmetry. For example, in the Mac editor Pages, which I am using to write this, if the B for bold button background turns blue when bolding is turned on, I expect the background will turn back the way it was (white) when bolding is turned back off. I also expect that italics and underlining  will behave the same way, especially because all three are in the same toolbar. 

Where possible, it also generally makes sense, I believe, to design so that the functionality of a system is symmetrical. This isn’t always possible. Some actions are necessarily irreversible. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who has toddlers or who has cats as pets. In the real world, if you shoot someone dead, you cannot “unshoot” them. Unlike a computer system who asks, “Do you really want to delete all your files?” before doing so, guns do not ask that. If you are designing what can be done with a toy robot however, if you can make it go forward, you want to make it so it can go back as well. If it can turn right 90 degrees, you would like to enable it to turn left 90 degrees. Saying, “Oh, yes, but don’t you see, you can, in effect, make it turn left 90 degrees by making it turn right 90 degrees three times?!” does not cut it, IMHO. 

Typically, you not only want the functionality to be symmetrical, you also want the control functions and appearances to mirror the symmetry of the functionality. For example, if you can issue the command: “MOVE ROBOT FORWARD THREE PACES” you want the symmetrical function to be evoked this way: “MOVE ROBOT BACKWARD THREE PACES” and not, “THREE PACES BACKWARD FOR ROBOT MOVE.” If you decide to give auditory feedback for the first command that says, “ROBOT MOVING FORWARD THREE PACES” you do not want the reverse command to provide feedback that says, “ROBOT THREE PACES BACKWARD MOVING.” (Oh, by the way, if you cannot provide symmetrical functionality, please do not pretend to do so with a facade of symmetrical looking commands that actually behave asymmetrically!)

action android device electronics

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A lack of symmetry (or consistency) in the functionality, command structure, or visual appearance often arises because of a lack of communication within the development team. If different functions of the robot are to be implemented by different people, then it’s important that those various people use an agreed upon style guide or Pattern Language or that they  communicate frequently. Of course, this is not the only cause of asymmetry. Even if your team communicates really well, they can’t design an effective gun with an “unkill” function. 

There are, of course, various types of symmetry. Bilateral (mirror) symmetry is what the external appearance of our bodies has. There is also translational symmetry, where the same shape is repeated along a line. The string ABCCBA shows bilateral symmetry while ABCABC exhibits translational symmetry. Most human factors people now agree that hot water faucets (usually on the left) and cold water faucets (usually on the right) should both be turned off by turning to the right and turned on by turning to the left (translational symmetry) as opposed to having the faucet on the right turn off to the right and the left faucet turn off to the left. But you will definitely experience both types. 

In both music and poetry, at least in the culture I am most familiar with, translational symmetry is more common than mirror symmetry. It does sometimes happen that musical composers experiment with playing a tune backwards or even with the staff turned upside down. But this is far less common than repeating a theme or melody. Similarly, a rhyme scheme like ABCABC is much more common than is ABCCBA. {In this notation, ABCABC means that the first line rhymes with the fourth line, the second line rhymes with the fifth line and the third line rhymes with the sixth line.} 

black and brown millipede on a green and brown branch

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In biology, we also find translational symmetry or something close to it. The segments of a tape worm, the segments of the body of a millipede or centipede, the small legs of a lobster, and even our own vertebrae and ribs show translational symmetry. In social structures as well, we find both mirror symmetry and translational symmetry. For instance, the Golden Rule says to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In addition, as it happens, if we are nicer to other people, then, generally speaking, they are also nicer to us. This is not always true, however. Some people simply take advantage and view all of life as a zero sum game. Whatever you gain, they lose and vice versa. This is a very limited, inaccurate, and self-defeating attitude in most social situations. Most social situations, are, of course, much more complicated. Generally speaking, there are a great many situations that both you and your “opponent” or even your “enemy” would agree are good and a great many others that both of you would agree are bad. If you are playing tennis or golf outdoors, for instance, you may be fiercely competitive but both of you would probably find a game that brings out the best play is better for both of you. Both of you would probably also agree that being rained out is a bad outcome.  

men in black and red cade hats and military uniform

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In the military and in many industrial settings, there is a great deal of translational symmetry. The “ideal” set-up is to have many groups at each of many levels and each group is meant to be as similar as possible to all the other groups at that level. The marching that military groups learn is both symbolic of this translational symmetry and practice in behaving as a unit composed of identical parts. Whether or not this is the best way to run a military is debatable. To me, it’s undeniable that this management style has been imported into a huge number of organizations where it is definitely not the best way to organize. 

The last thing to note is that symmetry also pops up in design. There is often a whole series of information exchanges from people who have quite different areas of expertise. These exchanges can result in mutual learning, solutions that work, and often patents, and occasionally, some really cool, transcendent, game-changing designs. In my experience, it is much better to have a design process based on symmetrical relationships founded in mutual respect than to have a design process based on having someone in a hierarchical power relationship make decisions that are to be implemented by an identical set of “underlings.”  

macro photography of snowflake

Photo by Egor Kamelev on

The Takeaway

Symmetry is everywhere. There are many forms. If you start looking for symmetry, you will find examples in nature, in mathematics, poetry, art, music, machine design, the military and even in design problems and design processes. Thinking quite consciously about the types of symmetry that exist in a problem space and what could or should exist in that problem space, can lead to novel solutions.  


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If you have ever pushed your kids on a swing, you know that timing is important. If you add the power of your next push just as the child reaches the apex and begins to fall back, you will swing your child higher and higher with little effort. On the other hand, if you add the power of your next swing at the bottom of the arc just as the swing is moving toward you at maximum speed, you will nearly stop the swing and likely injure yourself and/or your kid. Please don’t try it.

boy wearing blue shirt sitting on swing

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In sports as well, the timing of when you add your effort is critical. In golf, for instance, many beginners think a lot about their hands, probably because we use our hands for many daily tasks such as texting, flipping burgers, playing video games, etc. While the hands are certainly important in the golf swing, they are the last thing to bring to bear on the golf swing, not the first. If you add your hands and wrists at the last moments right before you hit the ball, you will  be accelerating the club face as you hit the golf ball. You will have greater velocity and also more stability and hence more accuracy for the shot. 

woman playing golf

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The golf swing is a complex athletic move that I cannot describe in detail. Here’s what is important in this context. Some parts of the golf swing (notice the word: swing) are much like a pendulum. The longer parts of the body (e.g., the arms) take longer to swing on their own. The shorter parts of the body take a shorter time to swing on their own (e.g., the hands). In addition, the shortest pendulum (the hands) is at the end of the longer arm swing. This means that for the arm swing and the hand/wrist moves to multiply effectively, you must engage the hands and wrists toward the bottom of the arm swing when the arms are already moving at top speed. 

What is True in Mechanics and Sports is also True in Social Engineering.  

If you work in a highly competitive, even cut-throat sales environment, in which there is a long tradition of stealing commissions, grabbing each other’s customers, etc., having the sales manager say something like, “You know what? Let’s cooperate! Put the customer’s interests first, not your own commission” is pretty much useless. A manager’s exhortation to cooperate is a short term high frequency “push” but it will be just as ineffective as trying to start your golf swing with your hands, or trying to push a swing with all your might when your kid is swinging toward you at top speed. If the cultural milieu is cut-throat, the manager’s statement will not be sufficient to change that culture. What the sales people will do is make sure that they have a semi-plausible story ready about how stealing someone else’s commission was really best for the customer. 

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On the other hand, imagine instead that sales people have shared commissions for years and that the company takes many steps to build social capital and cooperation among everyone on the sales force. Now, the manager may do something publicly to praise an actual instance of cooperation. It doesn’t have to be heavy-handed or over the top. It is a gentle push that adds energy to what people are already doing. This is akin to adding the hands to a good golf swing or adding your swing push just as your kid begins to descend. 

Don’t get me wrong. If your house is on fire, you should leave. Grab your kids and pets but don’t bother with last weeks losing lottery tickets. 

But — you also need to understand why your house caught fire – perhaps faulty wiring – and why the fire was not immediately doused – e.g., your fire extinguishers are out of date. If you don’t fix underlying problems, your next house is likely to catch fire as well. 

If your culture is so materialistic and superficial that a blow-hard sleaze bag who seems to have great material wealth is celebrated no matter how he or she came by that wealth and fame, you may have to deal with the short term problem first, but unless you also deal with the underlying cultural, social, and economic problems, you’ll likely find yourself in precisely the same situation again. The same or other foreign enemies will attempt to exploit those same weaknesses again by finding a different celebrity with deep underlying character defects. Those enemies will push particularly hard during a crisis or an election and they will push particularly hard in the errant directions that society is already trending toward. 

The String’s the Thing Wherein We’ll Capture the Conscience of a King

Next time you have access to a piano, try the following experiment. Gently push down the C, E, and G keys above middle C. Keep them pressed down with your right hand and then strike middle C sharply with your left hand and let it go. What you will hear is that the strings of C major (C, E, G) will vibrate for quite a time after you release the middle C key. If instead, you gently push and hold down the D, F, and A keys above middle C, you will hear very little sound coming from them. Why? Because the harmonic resonance of  middle C is greater with the C, E, and G than it is the D, F and A keys. Similarly, some people will tend to “resonate” with certain messages more than others will. 

close up photo of person playing piano

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This is why, for example, Russian fake news that was meant to suppress the black vote carried false stories to indicate Democratic candidates didn’t care about the “Black Lives Matter” movement, while false stories about how Democratic candidates don’t care about gay rights were targeted toward the LGBTQ community. Of course, even putting Russian election interference aside, candidates typically target their messages to those that will “resonate” with particular voters. For instance, a candidate who believes in an isolationist foreign policy, forgiving student loans, low estate taxes, and better benefits for veterans might focus a speech to a group of veterans on their desire to see better benefits for veterans.  The same politician, when speaking to college students, will tend to focus on forgiving student loans. That has been “business as usual” for my entire adult life. What was really new to me in 2108 was this: an entire raft of Republican candidates promoted the idea that they were concerned about making sure that insurance companies covered pre-existing conditions. In fact, they had always voted against it and were suing to make this provision of Obamacare illegal. 

Prior to the existence of lying news networks and fake web sites who would echo such lies, politicians of either party would be reluctant to employ blatant lying about their positions because, even putting ethics aside, they would be easily discovered. However, if some of their constituents only believe fake news networks, then such politicians feel that they can lie with impunity The news presented on such networks resonates with what the lying politicians say and resonates with what those viewers want to hear and believe about the people toward whom they are already favorably disposed.

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Resonance and the Overly Long Time                                                     Lag.

While managing a research project on the psychology of aging at Harvard Med School, I lived in a suburb called Woburn. This rented house had a hot water heating system, and at some point, during a particularly bitter cold New England winter, the furnace stopped working. I could have called in a professional, but instead, I tried to fix it myself. As a part of this system, there was a small gauge that looked a lot like the gauges in a level, but this one was upright and generally half filled with water. I noticed that now, instead of being half filled with water, it was only about 1/10 filled with water. I didn’t exactly understand why this could be problematic but the instructions said it should be half filled with water and there was a valve to let more water in. So, slowly and cautiously, I opened the valve. Nothing happened. I opened it a bit more. Nothing happened. I opened it a bit more. Nothing. I was about to give up and call a repair person. All at once, the little vial began to fill. Yay, me! I turned the valve off because the instructions also said the gauge should not be overfilled. But it kept filling. And filling. Damn! I made sure the valve was closed tightly. It kept filling anyway! Double damn! The gauge exploded! I had been the victim of — well hubris, of course, because I thought I could figure it out — but also a victim of delayed feedback. When feedback is delayed, all sorts of havoc can ensue. 

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You may have experienced a similar time lag issue with hotel showers. You turn up the hot water and the shower water stays cold. You turn it up more. It stays cold. You turn it up more and it still stays cold. And then…all at once you’re being boiled to death in your own shower and you begin wondering who will find the naked body. 

Back in the early days of using LOTUS NOTES, there was a button on my screen that said, “REPLICATE.” And if I clicked on that button, a replication process would start. (Basically, it was downloading my email from the server to my ThinkPad). But sometimes, the mouse click did not register. This might not be a giant issue. In other cases, I would simply click again and this worked for most applications. But in this case, NOTES put up another button, in the same exact spot as the REPLICATE button, that said, “STOP REPLICATION.” The State of the Replication Process, however, was not accurately reflected by the State of the Button on the screen! This was endlessly annoying and could easily have been avoided. There was plenty of screen real estate to put a “REPLICATE” button along side the “STOP REPLICATION” button. Once connection speeds were faster and the computational facilities themselves were faster, this UX issue ceased to be an issue because there was no noticeable time lag between the state of the process and the state of the button. 

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However, I still run into similar issues with Cable TV remotes. Do you? The time lags associated with clicking something on the remote and something happening on the screen is so long, that you begin to wonder whether the battery has gone dead or whether it is aimed wrong or whether the button was not fully depressed. Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether the entire system is truly electronic. I have begun to believe that the button press actually sends an ultrasonic dog whistle to a pack of hungry weasels who hear the whistle. To them, it’s a signal that they are about to be fed. They begin scampering in unseen cages toward their food dishes. The scampering of their feet is picked up by sensors under the floors of the cages. These sensors cause dials to change in a control room staffed by retired school janitors who push a series of buttons that change the channel or the input designation or turn on captioning, but only after they finish the New York Times crossword puzzle they are working on. Then, and only then, does the desired action take place. But if and only if you’ve been patient enough not to hit the button a second time. 

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Of course, if you are the user in this scenario, there is a fix. Push the button once and only once. Now, go outside and run around the neighborhood for fifteen minutes before interacting a second time with the remote. Sure, it takes a long time to get to your program but you’ll be in much better shape after just a few months of this regimen. 

On the other hand, if you are the designer of such systems, you might consider that it would be less expensive in the long run to replace the ultrasonic dog whistles, the weasels and the retired janitors with an actual system of electronics which, after all, is supposed to run at nearly the speed of light.

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The Takeaway

In comedy, timing, as in life, and UX design, and pushing your kid on the swing, and your golf swing, and social interventions, and election interference, and human short term memory limitations, is everything. 


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A Chessboard Full of Rice

According to myth, the Emperor’s wise adviser once did him a great favor. So grateful was the Emperor that he begged his wise advisor to take any gift she might like from the vast treasures of gold or jewels, any lands or gardens, any of the Emperor’s many male children to be her companion. However, the advisor answered as follows: “Thank you for your generosity, oh mighty Emperor. I have no need of great material wealth. My needs and wants are simple. I do get hungry and thirsty, of course, as do we all, and sometimes my household runs short of rice. You see this fine chessboard?”

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“Oh, yes, my wise counselor, it is indeed finely made of gold and silver and I would gladly give you twenty such!” 

“Thank you again for your generosity, but I only wish for a some grains of rice. Give me one grain on this space and tomorrow, two grains on this space and the next day, four grains on this space. Each day for 64 days, double the number of grains of rice you gave me the day before. At the end of the 64 days, I will ask for no more.” 

The Emperor looked puzzled. “Surely, you must have something more valuable than rice! Name it!” 

“No, Sire, that is all I desire. Just the doubled rice will do quite nicely.” 

“Well, it shall be so!” And thus the Emperor told his staff that they were to provide a grain of rice for the first day, two grains of rice for the next day and to double the amount each day until all 64 days had passed. At first, it seemed such a pathetic gift for such a great favor. 

Even after 8 days, the wise counselor only received 128 grains of rice – not even a bowlful. 

Readers familiar with exponential growth realize that on the 64th day, the Emperor has promised to deliver 2**63 grains of rice. This is not only more rice than the Emperor had at his disposal. It is more grains of rice than exist in all the kingdoms of earth. To be exact, the last payment is meant to be 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 grains of rice while the total is one less than 2**64. To put the matter scientifically — it’s a lot of rice! Much more than exists in the world. 

How would you like the story to end? A wise Emperor, to my mind, would thank the counselor after a couple weeks and say, “I see, oh wise Counselor, that you used my gift to give me another gift to enhance my wisdom. For I now understand that what seemed at first an easy thing to do is actually quite hard. Doubling soon undoes even the richest king. I will keep this in mind when I think about interest rates and population growth.” 

A crummy Emperor, on the other hand, might say, “I offer you a gift and you see fit to embarrass me by making me agree to an impossible task? Boil her in oil!”

The Lily Pad Pond Puzzle. 

Beside my house is a pond. In this pond, a lily pad began to grow. Every day, it doubled in size. On day 20, it completely covered the surface of the pond. The surface of the pond is 400 square feet. How many days did it take to cover half of the pond? 

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At first glance, you might think this problem is insoluble because you don’t know how big the lily pad was initially. In fact, you don’t even need to know how large the pond is. It will cover half the pond on day 19.  

The Ping Pong Table Ping Pong Player Population

When I began at IBM Research in 1973, I soon discovered that a fair number of researchers were avid table tennis players. At lunch time, somewhere between six and twenty researchers would show up to play. There were two tables and some small amount of room for spectators to stand on the edges of the two ping-pong rooms and watch. Our rule was that if a person won, they would stay at the table and a new challenger would play. However, if you won three times in a row, you had to sit down regardlessly. I didn’t go over every lunch time, but I went over quite a few times over the course of my first ten years there and there was invariably someone to play with. Sometimes, I had a longer wait time than others, but it was never too long a wait. 

Then, because management wanted to use one of the two ping-pong rooms for other purposes, they repurposed one of the rooms. Now, there was only one ping pong table. In the two ping-pong table case, remember, I never had to wait too long nor did I ever go there and have no-one to play. As I said, the number of players varied between somewhere around six to twenty. What is your prediction about how many players showed up when there was only one ping pong table? 


Here’s what happened. The first day after this change happened, I went over and about fifteen people showed up. I, like everyone else, waited a long time for a game. Our “official” lunch hour was actually 42 minutes and the building was a five minute walk away. So, if you had to wait a half hour for your chance to play, it really wasn’t that much fun. In addition, there were some more subtle effects. All the players were good, but there some substantial differences in skill level. People tried to arrange it so that they played someone at about the same level. WIth only one table, this was trickier. In addition, when a relatively large number of people showed up, it was too crowded for everyone to see the match without interfering with play. It happened that I was too busy to go for a few days. The next time I showed up, no-one was there. Some of us talked about trying to “organize” the ping pong to insure that enough people showed up but everyone was busy and no-one wanted to take this on. Scheduling researchers is harder than you might think. It was hard for people to make a commitment to show up at noon because a meeting might run over, their manager might give them extra work, etc. The number of people showing up swung wildly for about two weeks and then stabilized. 

At zero. 

What had been a vibrant community with two ping pong tables did not stay the same size, or shrink to half when we were limited to one table. It went to zero. 

Warring Positive Feedback Loops. 

We’ve already talked about “positive feedback loops” which are also known as “vicious circles.” Sometimes, there are actually (at least) two positive feedback loops hiding beneath what appears to be a stable system. In the Case of the Missing Ping Pong Table described above, one positive feedback loop was simply that when you went there and had a good time through some combination of watching good matches or playing yourself, you were more likely to go there again. There was also a positive feedback loop that was more of a social nature. The more people who were there, the more likely it was you would find a good or interesting match. It was also more likely to be able to find someone you wanted to have a conversation with although the venue prevented this from being a big part of the adventure. Another way that having more people there increased the chances that more people would be there the next day was that it was kind of exciting to have a larger audience watching, cheering, throwing the ball back when the ball crept under the radiator after pin-balling around for awhile after a decent slam. 


At the same time, there were other feedback loops, sometimes of the same factors but in a different range. For instance, beyond the point of having the periphery of the playing field covered one or two deep, additional spectators added only a little excitement and they were more likely to infringe on the needed space around the table. In addition, while the first ring of spectators felt very much a part of the action, the experience for the second ring of spectators was far less engaging. While I mentioned above that more players meant a better change of finding a good match, it also meant that one had to wait longer between matches. The worst case scenario, of course, is that you are the only one who shows up. 

Behind Every Abstraction are a Host of Personal Stories. 

Yes, you can practice against the wall, and I did this a few times, but it is significantly less fun than a real match. I love to serve, for instance. I have a raft of difficult serves. Just to give you one example, with most set-ups, I can hit the right side of the ball so thinly that I put enough side-spin for the ball to appear as though it isn’t even going to hit the table on the second side, but it does; it curves radically back around the left. Sometimes people are so surprised that they miss it entirely. Even if they get there, the sidespin often makes them hit it off the table or the curve causes them to mis-hit the ball on their thumb or finger. I can also add a fair amount of top-spin or under-spin as well. Anyway, I didn’t get to do any of that just hitting the ball against the wall. The wall was not perfectly smooth either. So I might hit three of four shots and then the ball would hit a little imperfection in the plaster and careen off to scribble scrabble along the floor and then crawl under the radiator. It’s the kind of annoyance that everyone has experienced. And if someone else is there, you can kind of glance at your friend who nods nearly imperceptibly as you get down on your hands and knees and stretch your fingers into the territory of God-knows what spiders or broken glass and feel around through the grit and dust until you retrieved the ball. And that little glance and that little nod actually make quite a difference. If you’re on your own, it’s not any fun at all. It’s just an annoyance. The only reason I even bother to hit against the wall is to learn to keep focus for extended periods of time. For this, it is good practice and a good challenge. But, if I’m interrupting this to go fish my hand into a pile of dust every couple minutes, it isn’t so likely I’ll come back. 

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These various factors were all in a dynamic balance so long as there were two tables. When the tables went from two to one, however, what had been a stable equilibrium became a very unstable one. Eventually, of course, it did find a new equilibrium point and that was zero. To crawl out of that, one person might show up. But most of the time, they were the only one. So, they would be less likely to come again. Even if two showed up, since no-one could play every day, you might still find yourself wondering whether someone would be there the next time. 

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You might have read this whole story and wondered why the hell this building full of Ph.D.’s couldn’t get their act together and arrange some matches. It’s an interesting question and here is my personal opinion. When it came to these brilliant scientists and engineers, they came from every part of the globe and they came in all shapes and sizes. Some were vastly overweight and others were ultra marathoners. But the ones who liked to play table tennis were, by and large, athletic and “hyper” – an impatient lot. What all of us really loved was working to find out the truth. And, these truths that we sought were ones the company that we worked for wanted us to seek. True enough, but by the same token, that meant the truth found and utilized would make people’s lives better in some way in the not too distant future. But working in a corporation also meant doing a bunch of administrivia. So, the ping pong set in particular, wanted to get up from their intense sedentary mental and administrative work and play hard at something completely physical and different. The last thing any of us wanted to do was add more administriva to our lives. 


The Takeaway

 It’s easy and common to assume implicitly that the systems you deal with are linear.

They often aren’t. 

Things can go out of control extremely quickly (into a dominant positive feedback loop) once the dynamic equilibrium is disturbed. 

Would the invention of the iPhone have kept the ping pong community going? 

Another takeaway: there are two quite distinct ways of analyzing that are going on in the essay above: a fairly abstract one (even if it uses concrete examples like rice and lily pads) and a very concrete and experiential one. In my experience, both of these modes are useful and valid and if taken together give a fuller picture of what’s going on. My experience in this was mainly in human computer interaction but I think it is equally true for many in law, medicine, management and many other fields. What’s your experience? 


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Problem Finding


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Problem Finding


Today, I googled “problem solving” and it returned 287,000,000 results. In most of our school life as well as most people’s work life, we are given problems and asked to solve them. “Problem finding” only returned about 2.5 million or fewer than 1/100th as many hits. Solving problems can make processes more efficient and more effective. Solving problems can even save lives. We generally reward people both at school and at work for being good problem solvers. We seldom train people in problem finding. In fact, the reaction of many teachers and many managers when someone finds a problem is to dismiss it as being a non-problem. 

I can understand this sentiment. As a teenager driving my dad’s car home from a date with my girlfriend, somebody beside me tried to make a right turn from the left lane and ran right into my dad’s blue Dodge. I heard what sounded like the voice of God say “NO!!” loud and clear. It was actually louder than the sound of crumpling metal. For a split second, I was in complete denial. Even some moments later, when we pulled over to assess the damage, it looked minor enough to ignore in my mind and just drive off. A more experienced guy from the corner gas station near where this happened said that while it may look minor, it would cost hundreds of dollars to fix and we therefore needed to trade information. I was stunned.

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In many cases, it is a human tendency to want to deny that a problem really exists. If you can get past that tendency however, and embrace problems and indeed, even learn to seek them out, you may be able to create tremendous value for yourself and for those around you. Problem solving can make your bookstore more profitable. Problem finding lets you invent Amazon. Problem solving lets you build a better internal combustion engine. Problem finding leads you to a Tesla.

What might you do to discover problems? First, you might take your own negative emotions as a jumping off place. If you find yourself angry, or anxious, or depressed, to the extent that you can trace back what is going on to the initiating event, you may be able to be consider whether that event is unique to you — or, more likely, that event is likely to trigger a negative reaction in many people. 

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If you found waiting even 48 hours to have your photographs developed and printed — and you thought others might also be impatient to see the results, you might invent Polaroid instant photos. If you found cooking a casserole too time-consuming and messy for your taste, you might invent frozen dinners. If you drove a lot in hot, humid climates, you might be motivated to put air conditioning in cars. 

Of course, you do not have to limit yourself to your own misfortune. If you read about someone having a miserable time, you could dig a little deeper and ask yourself how a tragedy might have been prevented or how an accident could have been avoided. You can also look at a change that seems minor and ask yourself what will happen if this change becomes widespread. 

For example, if you read in the newspaper that a robot has been invented that harvests tomatoes, you might extrapolate to a more universal situation. What if all crops were harvested by machine? This might make groceries cheaper. But what else would it mean? Tomatoes are rather delicate, after all. You might wonder whether growers using a machine to harvest tomatoes would harvest them early to avoid them being mashed by the machine. You might wonder whether they would even genetically alter the tomatoes so that they were easier to harvest by machine (even if they were no longer as tasty). You might wonder what will happen to the tomato pickers? Politicians may tell you that they will all be retrained for higher paying jobs as machine inventors, machine programmers, and machine maintenance folks. But this makes no sense. If there were an equal number of IT jobs as there used to be tomato pickers but each of the new jobs came with a higher salary, why would the growers use robots? There will be fewer jobs after automation and in some cases, far fewer. 

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You might look at the global temperature trends and ask yourself what will happen if they continue. What will happen if global temperatures continue to rise? What can be done about it? Of course, once people start seriously mapping out the consequences, some people will react by saying, “Oh, it isn’t really happening!.” Why do they think that? Because it’s too scary to contemplate the truth; or too inconvenient to take the necessary actions. There are vested interests in old energy sources who will be happy to help you along in your fantasy of denial. In the short run, it’s often easier to imagine that problems do not exist, or are not that bad, or won’t get worse, or that there is just nothing to be done. 

Even most of the people who rail against what most of us think of as sensible gun regulation (requiring a license, showing ID, getting at least some training and testing the would-be gun owner’s knowledge, competency, and eyesight as we do with cars) don’t think that mass shootings of innocent children is a fine thing. They see it as a problem — just one that cannot be solved or one that can only be solved by adding cost and inconvenience to the potential victims. After such a tragedy, they may even send “thoughts and prayers.” 

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There is a possible “down side” to problem finding. The greedy may decide that they can make a lot of money by generating a solution to a problem that isn’t really a problem and making you believe it is a problem. My favorite, and so far made up, example is “Elbow Cream” for those unsightly skin wrinkles that appear on the back of your elbow when you straighten your arm. But that made up example is not too far off. You eat spicy food and it upsets your stomach? We can fix that! Of course, you could too by not eating spicy food! But nobody makes money that way. So they will sell you something that supposedly fixes the “problem.” While it might be fantasy to imagine “Elbow Cream” that will “fix” your “unsightly elbow wrinkles” it is not fantasy to imagine that people have been hoodwinked into spending money on “fixing” their faces and bodies. 


Americans spent 16 billion dollars on cosmetic plastic surgery in 2017. There are 50 countries who each have a lower GDP than that. The beauty industry in the USA overall was supposedly around $445 billion in 2017. That’s more than the GDP of each of 151 countries! Both figures are also less than the federal government spends on reducing climate change. Or cancer research. 

Do you see that as a problem? I do. 


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