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  • Michael Krakovskiy 11:03 pm on March 30, 2009 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Abnormal psychology, Ada Lovelace, , Asperger syndrome, , , Borat, chair, , computer processor, , defective computer processor, , , , error-checking software, , , Grandin, , Hug machine, , , livestock handling equipment, , , meter maid, multi-level software/hardware combination, Murray Grace Hopper, oil portrait, people get involved in technology, , Psychiatry, , Silicone Valley, Simon Baron-Cohen, Sociological and cultural aspects of autism, software developers, software patch, ,   

    Ada Lovelace Day: Temple Grandin and the True Nature of Nerds 

    People walking by my cubicle often pause and look at a picture hanging on my wall. It’s of an old lady in what looks like a meter maid’s uniform. Who is she? Why is this picture so important to you? – they ask.

    The picture, of course is of one of the two patron saints of software developers, Rear Admiral Murray Grace Hopper. Admiral Hopper is an old school hacker, mother of Cobol, popularizer of the term “bug”. There is a missile destroyer named after her, her personal motto is very close to my heart, and she looks a little bit like my grandmother (who happened to be a mechanical engineer).

    The second prominent woman in software is Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, and a celebration of her life is the reason I am writing this post. Countess Lovelace is famous for grokking what computer programming was all about back in Victorian era, and therefore is often reffered to as the first programmer. If I’ll ever make it out of a cube into an office, I’ll comission an oil portrait of Ada Lovelace and hang it there.

    There aren’t many accomplished women in technology as these two, so someone came up with an idea of celebrating Ada Lovelace’s birthday by getting people to write blog posts that will draw attention to women excelling in technology. I chose to write about Temple Grandin. I would have written about my grandmother, but unfortunately I don’t know much about her life’s work.

    I learned about Temple Grandin from an article in Wired magazine called “The Geek Syndrome“. It was an article about an explosion of cases of autism and Asperger’s syndrome in hotbeds of technology such as Silicone Valley. This article and Temple Grandin’s books, “Thinking in Pictures” and Emergence: Labeled Autistic made me see myself and other techies in a completely different light. I am convinced that some level of autism is what makes people get involved in technology. Being a geek is a bit like having homosexual sex: anybody can do it, very few try it, and only a minority enjoy it and are good at it.

    According to wikipedia “the word geek is a slang term, noting individuals as “a peculiar or otherwise odd person, especially one who is perceived to be overly obsessed with one or more things including those of intellectuality, electronics, etc.”[1] Formerly, the term referred to a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken, bat, snake or bugs.” Indeed, geeks are strange people. They obsess about things, they have unusual interests, they are incredibly detail-oriented. All of these traits are considered by psychologists to be symptomes of Autistic Spectrum Personality disorder or ASD. “Impaired social interaction and communication” – another geeky/autistic trait.

    “The prevalence of ASD is about 6 per 1,000 people, with about four times as many boys as girls” – also, according to Wikipedia. Eerily, this seems to be more or less in line with overall percentage of people involved in technology and the male/female ratio.

    A human mind is a self-aware and self-adjusting multi-level software/hardware combination, and that makes it very hard to talk about the nature of brain disorders. Autism is particularly tricky: it is a spectrum. People with autism range from those severely afflicted and non-verbal through hundreds of different gradations to a geek with strange hobbies and social interaction problems. Yet it is the same basic thing: some kind of overdevelopment of some areas of the brain and underdevelopment in others, as well as a difference in processing sensory input.

    Temple Grandin started out a severely afflicted autistic child, pretty close to the upper end of the scale. She recoiled from being hugged, started speaking very late, had all kinds of behavioral problems. Even with her high IQ nobody expected her to become a very succesful professional. She was lucky in having parents who sent her to a specialized school, and some teachers who channeled her obsessions into productive direction. She describes herself as a “recovering autistic.”

    Her professional success is tremendous. She became a foremost expert in livestock handling equipment. Before her the livestock industry did not pay a lot of attention to the way animals were handled and transported. Existing structures used to shuffle livestock from a place to a place had design flaws that would cause animals to balk and refuse to move. This caused unnecessery use of force, stressing the animals and their handlers, costing farmers and processors a lot of time and money. Temple Grandin’s attention to detail allowed her to figure out very subtle causes of animal’s discomfort (autistic people are frequently bothered by minute changes in their environment) and figure out better ways to handle them. It’s very likely that all of us at some point drank milk or ate a steak from a cow that went through a facility designed by Dr. Grandin.

    Autism seems to be a hardware-based disorder, something to do with neuron distribution and signal sensitivity. The curious part about problems like that is that they sometimes can be fixed with a software patch and changing some external factors. For instance, if you have a defective computer processor that starts generating errors from overheating, you can fix it by writing error-checking software and cooling it down with a fan.

    After seeing a squeeze chute used to calm down cattle, Temple Grandin ivented a so-called hug machine, a device that applies a deep body pressure and through it makes autistic people feel better.

    In his book Jpod, Douglas Coupland describes how one cubicle dwelling game developers builds a hug machine. After some ridicule and a few tryouts the machine attracts a long line of software developers wanting to use it. I wonder if any of the Google offices have one. I, personally, find that taking a long bath or wrapping very tigtly in a blanket always calms me down. Even better is diving: I get an unusual sense of calm from it.

    Dr. Grandin’s books opened my eyes to the traits of “engineer’s affliction” and allowed me to better understand myself and my fellow geeks. Here’s a short list of the autistic traits that you might find in most software developers:

    • Liking to create lists
    • Lack of eye contact
    • Stimming: repetitive behaviors like rocking in a chair
    • Strange patterns of speech
    • Ranting, long speeches about obscure topics
    • Excruciating attention to detail
    • Love of routine, dislike of change
    • Love of symbols
    • Obsessions with obscure things
    • Superior pattern recognition
    • Visual thinking
    • Liking things more than people
    • Bouts of anxiety, especially in social situations

    Wired has a test designed by Simon Baron-Cohen (Borat’s brother) – you can see how many typical autistic traits you have. My score is 31.

    The good part is that autistic obsessions can be “cashed in” for professional success in technological fields. Think about the level of obsession or concentration necessary to design a computer processor like this one? On the other hand, Dr. Grandin’s books showed me that it is possible to work on problematic traits, like eye contact and social awkwardness. Human minds are strange loops, capable of understanding, rewriting and fixing themselves.

    Here’s a list of books that I recommend for better understanding of techies, male and female:

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 12:11 am on September 11, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , chair, , , Electrodeless lamp, , , , , , Giancarlo Fassina, , , , , Lamp, , , , Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, Robert Dudley Best, set designer, , , , Winston Churchill   

    The House of Lamps or Lamp Lust 

    I firmly believe that expensive and well designed office chairs like Aeron or Mirra make a very good investment. On the other hand my friend, a very successful entrepreneur, tells me that much cheaper 300 dollar chairs are just as good, and that his most prized employees, when asked what kind of a chair they want said that it does not matter. My friend is very smart, very rich, and probably right.

    People who have chair lust, like me, sometimes have an even more irrational desire – to buy expensive table lamps. When Joel Spolsky visited me at work, i pointed out to him that everyone at my office had a four hundred dollar Artemide Tolomeo desk lamp. Joel, famous for his office architecture fetish, was not impressed — oh yeah, we have a whole bunch of them too at Fog Creek, — he said.

    I noticed that the set designer of the hit show House, MD also has an obsession with lamps. Even more interestingly, I noticed that Dr House’s office has three very interesting lamps.

    Lamp A is a paragon of British design, Bestlite, a lamp that I always wanted, and never bought because it’s crazy to spend that much money on a lamp. Designed by Robert Dudley Best and made famous by Winston Churchill, who had one in his office, it’s the Bentley of expensive designer lamps. It’s just crazy to spend over $600 on a lamp, innit?

    Lamp B is the Artemide Tolomeo, a floor version of the lamp that I have at work. It’s a beautiful lamp that works very well. The desk version is about half the price of Bestlite, but it’s crazy to spend $300 on a lamp, right? Even if it’s designed by Michele De Lucchi and Giancarlo Fassina?

    Lamp C appears all throughout Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital and gets the most screen time. It’s a 25 dollar Antifoni work lamp from Ikea, and the one that I have on my desk at home. Who designed it? I don’t know, it says “Ikea of Sweden”. What does Antifoni mean? According to Nordic Names, a website for translating crazy Ikea names like Bjöberg and Drömma, it means “antiphony“.

    By the way, apparently Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad has a Nazi past and chose to name all the furniture because SKUs were hard for him to keep track of due to his dyslexia. Also Gillis Lundgren, besides being famous for designing the Billy bookcase (I have 12 of these in my apartment) , actually invented the concept of flat pack furniture when he sawed off legs from a table that would not fit into a car.

    Also on the subject of Ikea lamps:

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 3:12 am on May 30, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , chair, , comfortable chair, Good Chair, , , , ,   

    The Importance of a Good Chair 

    When the name Jason Calacanis comes up in conversation and he’s not within earshot, something unflattering is always said about him. Ah, that Calacanis. He’s blah and blah and blah. Not one thing he does is without controversy.

    The reason his name comes up so frequently in conversations is because he’s absolutely brilliant. Take the post about how to save money running a startup for which he caught a metric ton of shit from the rest of the bloggerati. It is one of the best articles on the subject.

    One piece of advice, “buy cheap tables and expensive chairs” ring especially true. Most IT professionals spend an average of 10 hours a day sitting down in a chair. Meanwhile, spending money on Aeron chairs is considered decadent. Decadent my ass.

    At one of my previous employers good chairs were very hard to come by. The usual new-looking $100 chairs were extremely painful to sit on. I developed all kinds of weird leg and back pains for which forced me to see a doctor several times.

    This is the most comfortable chair that I could find (and also the worst looking one). My boss had an Aeron for himself.

    Bobby Fisher refused to play chess without a Herman Miller Time Life chair. By the way, the Time Life building for which lobby the chairs were supposedly designed does not have a single one in it, just a 100 dollar ass-wreckers for the security personnel and a Barcelona chairs in waiting lounges.

    Not buying good chairs for programmers is pretty stupid. The place where I work now has outstanding chairs, and I am very grateful for that.

     
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