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Extinction of Experience and Making

“I believe that one of the greatest causes of the ecological
crisis is the state of personal alienation from nature in which
many people live. We lack a widespread sense of intimacy with the living world. Natural history has never been more popular in some ways, yet few people organize their lives around nature, or even allow it to affect them profoundly. our depth of contact is too often wanting…”

— Robert Pyle, Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland

An article in EurekAlert caught my eye this week when it mentioned something coined “the extinction of experience.” Specifically focusing on nature, the piece describes how our increasing disconnect from nature has contributed to the climate and biodiversity crises that we face today. A deeper connection to a thing leads to a stronger desire to protect and preserve it. Growing up in a city or suburb, closed off, indoors, does not engender that kind of connection, and leads to a lack of understanding about what must be done in order to protect and preserve that thing.

It’s easy to apply this idea to other areas of deficiency in our current culture, and the one that immediately leapt to my mind is the experience of making. Similar to nature, an engagement with making helps us connect in meaningful ways to the physical world. Listening to people describe their engagement with nature strongly parallels how we describe our engagement with making; both experiences draw connections to encouraging flow-like states of mind. The extinction of “making” as a popular act has, arguably, exacerbated the consumerist problems that we face today.

Through consumer culture, we lose our ability to connect to the world through the ritual of creation. More than that, we lose our ability to understand how the world around us works and leave that job to an elite few who are left to control and manipulate it as they see fit. The extinction of the making experience, in other words, leads to a lesser understanding of self and self-situated in a larger context.

If lack of experience leads to an extinction of the thing, then it must be the experience with that thing that creates a stronger sense of empathy and bonding toward it. By experiencing nature, or by engaging in the making process, we create personal experiences that connect us to the act and lead to understanding. One of the biggest problems I think we face is finding ways to re-connect people with these experiences so that they can find value and, ultimately, a desire to save the things that connect us to a reality grounded in a tangible engagement with the rest of the universe.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Warren Dunes State Park

I’ve been trying to take more pictures of my family adventures and personal adventures around national parks, state parks, forests, and other places. As my Sierra Club work begins to ramp up, I’ve noticed myself further drawn to document some of these places to help share them with others and hopefully encourage people to get outdoors more often.

I took these pictures on a day when the heat index was 104, so the family stayed behind at the Warren Dunes beach while I went on a four mile hike over the dunes and into a nearby forest. The sand was scalding hot, and all I’d brought were my hiking sandals, so eventually I had to turn around and head back to the lake. Not a bad option on a hot day.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

IRL End of Year Compendium

I’ll be keeping a rolling compendium of articles, blog posts, videos, etc. produced about and for the Idea Realization Lab Year 2017-2018 over at my main portfolio website.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Rocky Mountain National Park

I recently returned from a six day (five night) trip in Rocky Mountain National Park as part of my training to become a Sierra Club Outings Leader. Along the way, I took some pictures with my trusty Sony a5100 camera. Here are a few of my favorites.

More pictures here.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Friday Five Links

The link round-up this week includes a STEM class, odd origin stories, a pretty fun tip on keeping track of the mail coming to you from the USPS, and a cool blog post on hacking the Thotcon 0x9 badge. Enjoy!


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

HAM Radio and Understanding

Yesterday I took an amateur radio technician’s class test and passed it to receive my license. Getting that license has been something on my bucket list for quite some time. There are some less significant reasons I can give for wanting it: being able to use the license to communicate with my near space balloons, or using the radio in the backcountry while hiking with the Sierra Club, but the truth of the matter is that I saw getting a license like this as something of a Shibboleth. A rite of passage, a symbol that I appreciate where we came from, and a way of understanding a system that is vital to our everyday lives.

Amateur radio (HAM radio) is the Ur of modern making. Talk with any HAM radio operator, and you’ll recognize the same spirit, drive, and insatiable curiosity that you find in a maker who’s passionate about 3D printing, or building interconnected objects, or wearable electronics. The drive, I think, comes from the amateur who’s fallen in love with a hobby and brought their outside knowledge to bear on it. It comes from someone who’s taken a passion, and used it as another way to meaningfully connect themselves to the world around them.

Before makerspaces, there were HAM radio clubs in the early-to-mid 20th Century. Organizations that taught people the basics of electronics, Morse code, and radio transmissions. These amateur clubs are still around, and continue to spread the joy of tinkering with your own radio, building your own antenna, and practicing countless other hands-on activities within their communities.

It’s important to remember where we came from, whether that be as a maker, a crafter, an engineer, or anything else. Knowing where you came from helps you further clarify what your values are and map out what your trajectory might be based on past learnings. It connects you with a wealth of knowledge that, if you choose to ignore it and pursue your own interests without respecting the past, is lost forever. I just happen to think that this knowledge, in part, exists in HAM operators.

It exists in the stories they tell. In their sense of humor, the way they so effortlessly approach their craft, and the way an experienced operator reminisces about a world that was interconnected not by fiberoptic cables, but by radio waves traveling through the air. Uncontrollable, wild, and impossible to stop.

It’s the Wild West mixed with technology that, at its time, was well ahead of what anyone else was doing. It still is to some extent, and is certainly less understood and appreciated by the masses — even if the principles it functions on undergirds the technology we all rely on (much as RSS is disregarded as old technology, even though it forms the backbone of the internet).

And so, if we choose not to learn about it, it becomes lost. Another fundamental building block in our systems that becomes a mystery. Something that we build on top of without understanding. Another component in a system that becomes magic.

Or we can choose to study it.

Amateur radio is a part of our history, and if we learn to value the continued understanding of systems around us, part of our future as well.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Subjecting Yourself to Criticism with 360 Reviews

I recently learned about 360 reviews after reading The Right— — and Wrong — —Stuff by Carter Cast, and decided to conduct one on myself. The basic idea of conducting this kind of a review is to subject yourself to the criticism of people who you work with, and who work for you, and discover the weaknesses that you don’t see. Weaknesses are, after all, the things that we’re often ignorant of, and they’re also often the things that cripple us from moving forward and growing as individuals.

A 360 review is typically done in a survey format, with a large amount of Likert scales measuring things like the kind of feedback you give to employees, how clear your instructions are, how reliable you are, etc. There’s also some room for more qualitative forms of data which, for my review, I found quite revealing.

My review revealed a few things that I need to work on. Here are some of them:

  1. I need to work on balancing the amount of work I handle. Or, more importantly, the amount of work I handle and how I let it affect the people around me. I tend to take on lots of tasks and, while I actually handle them quite well, allow the stress levels that I experience as a result affect my management of others and relationships with others. This means, to me, that I need to focus a little more on delegating and taking deeper dives into managing others instead of tackling tasks myself.
  2. While I’m actually pretty good at providing positive feedback, I need to work more on giving constructive feedback on how others can improve. This, I think, is something that I’ve been low-level aware of for a while: I don’t like having to tell people they aren’t doing a good enough job. But, I need to learn how to do that, and do it in a way that doesn’t ruin the spirit or the energy that I try to engender: a positive, forward-looking, get your job done kind of attitude.
  3. I should try to remember why I’m so passionate about the things that got me where I’m at in the first place. While I’ve recently poured some energy in developing custom hardware games, getting a HAM radio license, and other personal projects, very few of these things are “without purpose” like the near space project I worked on a few years back. I need to get back to making things, and to making things without purpose or cause or intent: just for fun. This is a kind of “North Star” statement.

What was interesting about running this review was how revelatory it was about weaknesses I wasn’t aware of, and also, how it highlighted some things that I already knew but had been putting off. Asking others around you what they think you need to work on, and doing it in an anonymous way where they feel they can be honest, is a pretty scary thing to subject yourself to. But it’s also quite liberating to know what people think about you, and if you approach a review like this from an honest angle of self-improvement, can help reveal weaknesses that you’ve never noticed.

It’s also an opportunity to help you get back to the basics: I hadn’t realized that I’d left some of my passions by the wayside in my pursuit of “getting the job done,” but people who work with me had. I also had no idea that it was so clear when I was experiencing moments of high stress, but the interesting thing about this is that it’s a critique of a symptom, and it forced me to look further into what my causes of stress were, and how I might rectify them (through delegation and smarter choices in work).

My takeaways here are that it’s important to solicit honest feedback of yourself. It’s also important to understand what that feedback is truly telling you versus what it says on its face. Finally, if the feedback from a survey like this reinforces something you already knew about yourself, it’s time to get working.

If you’re interested in getting started with your own review, look no further than this free template.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

How Screens Ruin Games

A recent blog post on yours truly’s website dove into the development of the Thotcon 0x9 badges and, amongst other things, touched on the use of the screen with our year 2018 platforms. Screens, I think, really handicapped this year’s badges because they implied a certain kind of interaction. Screens have baggage; people have used them for long enough with video games that they’ve been trained on how they should work, and therefore, believe that anything with a screen on it should work that way, too. Screens are not just a collection of affordances, but of habits: like the habits we develop interacting with the feedback of a vehicle console, or a mobile phone user interface. My conclusion is that screens ruin games.

Or rather, that screens are often overused and have driven the direction of games for long enough. We can do better than screens, but they’re so dominant, that they influence nearly every game that we touch today. So, it’s important to remember some of the problems that they introduce. Here are a few:

1. Screens Demand Attention

Screens demand a tremendous amount of cognitive attention. We might think this is advantageous at first, since the alternative is a distracted game player who’s not focusing on the work, therefore marking the game as a failure. And yet, what would happen with games if we rejected the notion that they should demand our utmost attention? What would happen if games melded with our lives in ways that were meaningful, and yet, unobtrusive.

Good design — and good game design at that — should focus on the experience. Not necessarily the manufactured experience, but the holistic experience of the individual. Design should fade into the background, because it’s not something most people care about. People do not care about the design of objects, nor should they. Just as a designer shouldn’t be expected to care about everything outside of their own professional field.

2. Screens are a Crutch

When you’re a hammer, everything is a nail. The screen is a tool, and unfortunately, it’s an overused tool that influences the vast majority of art that our medium puts out. If you’re going to make a computer game, how frequently is that done outside of a rectangle? Not very often. This limitation influences how we think about our speech and what kinds of stories we decide to tell because, of course, the medium is the message, and the screen is the medium.

But what if developers were given other options for communicating information (and here we’re talking about those outside of simple controller haptics, for instance)? What if, as mentioned above, game developers weren’t able to rely solely on the screen for conveying data? And what if we then chose to take advantage of those alternative forms of speech in order to communicate stories differently? This would be an excellent shift for game design.

3. Screens have Baggage

Baggage means the history of the object, and how that history influences how we expect the object to behave. Screen-based games have functioned very similarly since the inception of their most basic elements from games like Defender. Points of view (isomorphic? 2D?), movement (platformer?), and object orientation and movement have all remained relatively the same for the last three or more decades.

The medium has simply been around long enough to make it more difficult for designers to conceive of alternative uses, and screen users to easily accept alternative means of interaction with screens. Where a game that focuses on non-traditional forms of feedback are not bound by the semiotics of previous interactions people have had with that feedback, screens are bound by over a century of symbols.

Conclusion

This is not to say that screens are irrelevant, but that they’re overused and problematically implemented in many cases for games. What does a future of games look like where we not only use screens, but perhaps other forms of feedback that obviate a screen altogether? Perhaps, then, then screens will find their appropriate space as a tool in a toolbox of communication, rather than the only way forward.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Sign up for the Margalus Newsletter

Margalus Newsletter #5 is out, and with it, a new bi-weekly format that’ll keep the content coming steadily for the foreseeable future. At the beginning and middle of every month, subscribers will receive a new issue with the latest blog posts from this website on all things making manufactured, designed objects. You’ll also get a list of links to readings, objects, and other oddities around the internet that’ve fascinated me. Possibly even a little nature meets tech guy writing as I go further into my Sierra Club training.

Here’s the last issue for a sample.

If you’re interested in signing up to receive this kind of news, you can do so here. And thanks in advance!


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

808s and Transistors

Developing real, tangible things is a messy process where one must listen to, and work with, the material they have available to them. By allowing the materials to lead the process of development, we imbue the imperfections and constraints that come along with them, which subsequently influences how we interact with the creation. In other words, the materials in the product inform the experience of the end-product.

This has some interesting implications. In the electrical outlet, material considerations lead to the quirks we know today, and that influence millions of devices that require electrical power. In the development of game badges that I’ve written about, the material (antennae, screens, etc) ultimately influences the kinds of interactions that the games on the platform encourage. And in the documentary 808, another case of material informing object is made when, toward the end, Ikutaro Kakehashi, the engineer behind the 808 and the founder of Roland Corporation, describes the development process behind the Roland TR-808.

The TR-808 came out of both Kakehashi’s desire to make an instrument, and Roland Corporation’s inability to compete with larger instrument-making companies like Steinway and Yamaha. So instead of competing on equal ground, Kakehashi created a new kind of instrument: the 808, a kind of programmable board that could output instrument-like sounds.

Because of the limitations in electronics at the time, the 808 could only simulate the sounds of a drum. As obvious as it may seem now, this first limitation led to the creation of a new sound that we now associate with hip hop and the many other musical genres influenced by the 808. This is the first way that materials influenced the creation of the 808, but perhaps not the most interesting one.

As Kakehashi further explains, in order to create the signature sizzling sound that the 808 is known for he bulk-purchased defective transistors that would have otherwise been thrown in the trash heap. Since the production of transistors had not been perfected yet, about 2-3% of those created came with defects that made them unusable for traditional purposes, but perfect for the sound he needed to generate for the 808. Soon after, the development of transistors was further perfected, eliminating the defective components that gave the 808 its sound and consequently, eliminating the production of the instrument. The very origin of the 808’s sound led to its demise.

We don’t often ask questions about the origins of a platform or a system even though it may strongly influence the designed experience (this is something that’s explored quite well in platform studies, however). Yet, something like a defective component produced in a manufacturing process has the potential to influence the development of an instrument, which in turn influences the music made with that instrument platform. Even more, that very component had so much influence over the instrument that it led to its own demise. Material is inextricably tied to platform.

If, then, materials have so much influence over platforms, and platforms have influence over the creations made on them, we should pay close attention to those fundamental building blocks. By understanding them, we understand the decision-making process behind the development of the platform, and can begin to ask new questions about it. Why were these decisions made? Are the constraints that informed the decisions still necessary, or are they extraneous?

Asking questions like these is where we can begin to deconstruct a system, and ultimately, to move beyond its limitations to create something new.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus