December 07, 2004

Methods and Masters

An ongoing discussion between JJG and I concerns the value of methods in design practice. At Adaptive Path, our "classic" workshop provides two days of presentation and hands-on activities. I'm a believer in the value of such methods and teaching as a "rising tide that lifts all boats." JJG has been less convinced. In his ia/recon essay, he wrote "Research data and formalized methodologies don't guarantee better architectures. Better architects guarantee better architectures."

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Atul Gawande writes an excellent piece on the quality of medical practice. One would think that, considering the quality of tools and technology, the fast spread of information, and the ability of the physicians, practice would be fairly uniform across treatment centers. Treatment of cystic fibrosis has been closely watched for decades, and the results show a bell curve of quality -- some places do very well, most places are average, and a few are poor.

What the article mentions is that while the "best practices" in cystic fibrosis treatment have been widely disseminated, leading to average hospitals performing much better now than they did 10, 20, 40 years ago, those average hospitals are still average, and the best hospitals continue to far outpace them.

The reason? Driven, brilliant individuals who improvise, take risks, challenge conventional thinking, and are simply unwilling to settle for anything other than perfect.

In short, JJG and I are both right. The dissemination of successful methods does a lot to raise the average level. But the better practitioners will always far outpace the average.

Posted by peterme at 05:43 AM | Comments (1)

December 05, 2004

A 21st Century Affliction: Media Obesity

The obesity epidemic is, in part, blamed on our evolutionary background. Our bodies favor high-calorie foods, which are now too easy to consume. (Obviously, there are other contributing factors, such as sedentary lifestyles.)

Obviously, not everyone succumbs to obesity. Personally, I have no desire to eat myself fat--I'm thin not because of willpower, but just because I have no inherent drive down that path.

But, that doesn't mean I don't have my weaknesses. And perhaps my strongest weakness (ha!) is the media.

I've been thinking about this because I was invited to a discussion predicated on this thesis:

As television moves from a linear broadcast experience to an on-demand one, we will soon be able to access 10,000's of choices at a time. However, viewers already have a love/hate relationship with TV content: they want lots of options, but can never find anything they "want" to watch buried in the 100's of channels and 1000's of programs.

I realized that the "problem" in this thesis has it almost exactly wrong. Any new TiVo owner will tell you that they've got a long list of saved programs that they're having trouble getting through. Not only can we find things that we "want" to watch, we have far far too much stuff we want to watch.

When I combine this access to desirable television with all the other forms of media, I'm awash in options: DVDs from Greencine (which I typically have for 1 or 2 months before I get around to them), books from the library (I often return them only partly read), RSS feeds from 149 websites ("Mark all as read" is becoming my friend), magazines, journals, web pages, and other books piling up.

It's too much.

The problem is, I want it all. There's good stuff throughout all this, informative, compelling, thought-provoking, entertaining.

It made me wonder if there's an evolutionary precedent to media consumption the way there is to high-calorie consumption. I suppose that information gathering and processing could have been a valuable survival tool. There's also the Media Equation aspect -- with engage with media as if they were other people... and we are social beings... so this kind of media consumption might be tapping into our social nature.

Anyway, whatever the root causes, I'm feeling media obese. And obesity, in any form, is Not A Good Thing. I'm realizing I have to treat media with far higher discrimination than I do currently -- and that this will mean ignoring that which is only good and relevant, and focusing only on the very good and very relevant. As a media junky, this restraint will be difficult. We'll see how it goes.

Posted by peterme at 05:46 PM | Comments (9)

Free Parking Isn't

People, Parking, and Cities[PDF] is an essay from the latest Access magazine, published by the University of California Transportation Center. It's an insightful look at issues of parking, density, and the urban experience. To whet your interest:

THE POP CULTURE IMAGE of Los Angeles is an ocean of malls, cars, and exit ramps; of humorless tract homes and isolated individuals whose only solace is aimless driving on endless freeways. From Joan Didion to the Sierra Club, LA has been held up as a poster child of sprawl.

This is an arresting and romantic narrative, but also largely untrue. To the extent that anyone has a definition of sprawl, it usually revolves around the absence of density, and Los Angeles has since the 1980s been the densest urbanized area in the United States. This would make it the least sprawling city in America. Compared to other US cities, LA also does not have inordinately high rates of automobile ownership.

Posted by peterme at 12:14 PM


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