30 October 2014

Policy violations

A friend who is a nurse just told me this little story:

Medical Records of a hospital in another city
We require a signed form to release patient data.

But this is for continuing medical care. A signed form isn't required by law.

Medical Records
We require it anyway.

I need these records. It's important. You really want me to have an 89 year old patient rush here to sign a form?

Medical Records

I hang up, call the LA hospital main number and request to talk with the charge nurse at the cath lab.

So, I need these reports and I can't get a patient release, can you FedEx me a CD with the echo and cath studies?

Other hospital's charge nurse
You bet! I'll get that out to you today.

Healthcare in this country seriously wouldn't work without the magical-nurse-to-nurse network!

This reminds me of another story, told to me by an occupational psychologist I once interviewed for a project. He told me about how he was doing an project about the housekeepers that work at super-luxury hotels. So he was interviewing one of these super-housekeepers, and he described this dialogue:

So what is the last thing you do before you leave the room?

Um. You said that you won't be telling my boss about what I say in this interview. Is that really true?

That's right. My report will go to people on the executive team, not your boss, and will combine what I learn from you with several other people I interview. Nothing will be attributed to you.

Can you promise that?


Because I could lose my job.

I promise. It's part of my professional ethics and my agreement with your employer.

Okay. The last thing I do is I lie down on the bed.

That's interesting. Why?

Because there are things you see from there which you don't see from anywhere else. And it's often one of the first things the guest will do when they get into the room after a long trip.

I see. How is your boss knowing about this a threat to your job?

I'm not allowed to lie on the bed! There's an explicit rule about that: no employee may ever lie on a guest's bed.

But you do it anyway.

If I don't, I cannot be sure that the room is clean!

Doing design for business process software, I am often told by the sponsors of those projects that the advantage of those systems will be that policies can be strictly enforced. But every organization works, in part, because people violate policy out of their sense of professionalism.


A reader points me to Barry Schwartz writing Rethinking Work the New York Times:

What about the janitor? The phone solicitor? The hairdresser? The fast-food worker?

I submit that they, too, are looking for something more than wages. About 15 years ago, the Yale organizational behavior professor Amy Wrzesniewski and colleagues studied custodians in a major academic hospital. Though the custodians’ official job duties never even mentioned other human beings, many of them viewed their work as including doing whatever they could to comfort patients and their families and to assist the professional staff members with patient care. They would joke with patients, calm them down so that nurses could insert IVs, even dance for them. They would help family members of patients find their way around the hospital.

The custodians received no financial compensation for this “extra” work. But this aspect of the job, they said, was what got them out of bed every morning. “I enjoy entertaining the patients,” said one. “That’s what I enjoy the most.”


bOING bOING has a collection of links to resources showing that healthcare workers prioritize helping people over information security, because of course they do.

More examples.

20 October 2014


We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

You can get that image as a t-shirt. It seems that most people know that quote as Willy Wonka, from the 1971 film adaptation with Gene Wilder.

Through a turn of fate, I never saw the film as a kid. I only discovered it when I was a teenager, the year I was taking English Literature, and I noticed that a lot of Wonka's poetic asides are allusions. Via Christina Wodke, I learn that Thomas M. Brodhead tells us that this did not come from Roald Dahl, but from a script doctor who wrote the screenplay.

When Quaker Oats (yes, the Quaker Oats company!) decided to adapt Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for film, Roald Dahl was asked to write the screenplay. Dahl produced a fairly literal translation of his book that was deemed unacceptable by the studio executives. The young writer and script doctor David Seltzer was then asked to “improve” Dahl's script. The result was a recalibration of Dahl's story with many significant changes (e.g. rival chocolatier Slugworth became a central character in the film as a tempter of the children, etc.) More importantly, Wonka was cast in a darker light, with an ambiguous stance toward the children (as opposed to the sprightly and somewhat avuncular candyman of Dahl's conception.)

In the finished script, Wonka's dialogue is peppered with literary quotations and allusions not found in Dahl's book. They were all introduced by David Seltzer as part of his rewrite of Dahl's screenplay.

Brodhead has tracked down sources for the allusions (including Arthur O'Shaughnessy's Ode, which gives us “we are the music makers”).

17 October 2014


A tweet from Andy Baio informs me that the visual interface style for Yosemite has taken a interesting turn.

In his tweet, Baio complains:

OS X got hit hard by the ugly stick.

The big problem is that Emphasis Blue. Too light and saturated.

I get where it came from. The post-Forrestal visual style introduced with iOS 7 has moved in a more pastel-ish direction, which is obviously carefully considered and likely directed toward the global market. I dislike it, but I recognize that I'm coming from a very particular place in my tastes, so de gustibus.

But aside from taste, as used here that Emphasis Blue is a couple of ticks too strong. This stylesheet makes it look even worse than it is, because there's a greater density of emphasized elements than one would ordinarily use.

More importantly, I badly dislike that the use of Emphasis Blue on selected checkboxes and radio buttons, and on the dropdown and spinner controls. It adds too much strong emphasis to the interface. The more things you emphasize, the less emphasis means and the more it contributes to a sense of interface noise.

But there is something good here, which I almost don't want to point out because when I designed it for a client it was meant to register subconsciously for the user.

I was doing a system that had endless tables and forms full of configurations for a complex technical internet thingy. I'm more an interaction architect / interaction designer than an interface visual designer; I tell potential clients and employers, “My visual design skills are very adequate. I can do icons that are not embarrassing and an interface that reads clearly enough, but there are specialists who can do it twice as well and twice as fast.” But I was the designer on deck for this system, so it was up to me.

So I tried an experiment in a very flat interface language which I'd been thinking about for years. It's obviously parallel to some of the defining patterns of this new OS X interface style:

  • Non-clickable elements have a very light gray background
  • Clickable elements all have a white background, edged in light gray
  • Unavailble clickable buttons et cetera have the very light gray background, edged in gray
  • Text fields have square corners
  • Buttons have rounded corners
  • Data content is in black text, data labels in dark gray text

Here's how my version of it looked:

Looking at it now, it bugs me how cramped that looks. In that system we were dealing with a lot of huge tables of data, so I was trying to make the density as high as possible, plus trying to ring a bit of a “crisp and technical” bell to go with the company's brand. I'm not sure I would do it that way again for that system, and I certainly would not recommend it for a consumer OS.

But I was happy with how it overcame the visual harshness of black text on a white background (which I've also countered in the style of this blog), very happy with how it made it possible to look at the interface and easily pick out what was active and clickable without it adding a lot of visual noise, and delighted with it making form content readable without the usual clutter of text entry box borders.

There was a lot more patterns in the interface system that aren't worth going into here, but I never quite came to a fully satisfactory solution for this principle:

  • Emphasized interface elements all use a consistent emphasis color

Obviously Apple is wrestling with the same thing.

15 October 2014


Samuel R. Delaney reflects on a discussion of Transgressive Sexual Practice he participated in. (There's video!)


Last week at the New School, with bell hooks, M. Lamar, and Marci Blackman, in a conversation on transgressive sexual practices, hooks and the others paid me the compliment of calling me “a sex radical”. I said, sincerely that I didn't think of myself in those terms. (The truth is, at 72 I don't think on my feet as nimbly as I once might have — which is why this elaboration here, a week after the fact.) As I explained, for me, transgression — sexual or any other kind — means there is a line that you have not crossed and that, from somewhere, you must seize the power to overcome the fear of crossing. I have crossed such lines many times in my life — many of them sexual. (And, in many cases, I have decided that it would be better to remain on the side I already was.) If, when I crossed them, what I'd found was five, fifteen, twenty-five or even fifty people there, then probably I would be able to call my own crossing a radical act. But what I invariably found beyond the lines I crossed — and this is what I did not say then — were thousands and thousands of people on the other side, and not only that, they had been there for years and years; in some cases; many of them lived on the far side for all practical purposes. Not only that, but buildings, businesses, whole languages (literary and vernacular) and institutions (legal and illegal) existed and had existed for years to accommodate them. Thus, I never felt I was doing anything unique. In books such as The Motion of Light in Water, Heavenly Breakfast, The Mad Man, and Times Square Red / Times Square Blue, and even Dhalgren, I would write about what I saw or use it as the basis for fiction. But even there, I'm aware that I was never the first to do so. Andre Gide, Bruce Nugent, Paul Goodman, W. H. Auden, James Baldwin, Willa Cather, Wallace Thurman, Hart Crane, Radclyffe Hall, Ned Rorum, John Rechy, Jean Genet, Djuna Barnes, Collette, Henry Miller, Violet Leduc, Sade, Klowsowski, Bataille, Cocteau, Lillian Helman, Wilde and Proust had all preceded me — and many, many others, back to Petronious and Apuleius and Catullus. These were the people who allowed me to do it and without whom I could never have written anything that I wanted to about the world I saw around me. That's why I've never seen my enterprise as radical.

If you are not familiar with Delaney's books: go read them all.

I cannot resist thinking of an old blog post of mine, Swamp, which contains a similar metaphor.

Imagine the world of human experience as a swamp. The swamp has a varied terrain: sandbars, reedy marshy bits, outcroppings of land, shallow rivers, muddy riverbanks, and so forth. Full of interesting stuff, but not entirely hospitable.

Most people live in castles in the swamp. A castle has a controlled environment, defined by the people who live there. It typically has windows and parapets from which the residents can view the swamp, though a few castles are completely sealed off.


Swamp travellers are interested in the swamp, and often are also interested in the different swamp denizens. They may stop in to visit folks in the various castles, carrying news and information around the swamp, picking up supplies, and occasionally deciding to settle down in one for a while, or even forever. They also tend to know the locations of ruined castles where a few eccentric holdouts are living and working.

Terrorism explained

Chainsawsuit explains terrorism in six cartoon panels:

(FYI, I also have my own explanation.)

10 October 2014

It is the soldier

There's this poem you have probably seen or heard before.

It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.

It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.

It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.

It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

The poem was written in 1970 by a guy named Charles M. Province.

It's a well-crafted little poem. It has that plain-spoken American voice that Robert Frost exemplified. The cadences and use of repetition give it a flow that makes it easy to recite.

Let's take a look at what it says.

Those repetitions are interesting. What is important in the eyes of the poem? The Soldier is mentioned seven times, freedom and the flag four times each, rights twice. This is about the Soldier, who gets a capital S to emphasize being an archetypal figure, unlike everyone else in the poem. The poem also concerns the flag, and freedom, and to a lesser degree rights.

What does it tell us about freedom and rights? They are not a product of civil society — ministers, reporters, poets, campus organizers, protesters. They are not a product of democratic institutions — lawyers, politicians. They come from the Soldier. They come only from the Soldier.

When contrasting the Soldier with the protester, we learn more about the Soldier, exploring their virtues. The Soldier's virtues reflect deference to the state and its symbols: saluting, serving, dying ... and in that last, demonstrating specifically martial service, in warfare. Other forms of service have already been dismissed as irrelevant. The protester, in contrast, is described only in their disrespect for the symbol of the state. Not only unimportant relative to the Soldier, as the other figures in the poem, but acting in direct opposition to the Soldier's deference to the flag.

We see that the protester's freedom is something the Soldier “allows”. The implication is that the Soldier might withdraw that allowance at any time.

Perhaps even should withdraw it.


  • Rights and freedoms do not come from democratic institutions
  • Rights and freedoms come from the Soldier
  • The Soldier defers to the state, and to its symbol the flag
  • The protester is the Soldier's opposite
  • The Soldier is the true legislator of society

A military junta would love this poem. But it has no place being repeated in a democratic society, much less engraved on our public monuments under the title “Freedom's Flag”.


In How The Heroes Die Jim Wright at Stonekettle Station explains why this kind of romanticization of military service is unwholesome.

We are a free people, we are Americans. For us there should be nothing glorious about war.

We should honor the soldier, certainly, but we should honor the peacemakers to a far greater degree.


While it’s certainly true that, as Orwell and Churchill both said, the nation sleeps snug in its bed only because rough men stand ready to do violence on its behalf, to paint us all as generic “heroes” leaches the word of meaning and power and diminishes those acts that truly are heroic and worthy of great respect.

But it’s much, much worse than that.

To paint all veterans as heroes, superior above other citizens, worthy of worship and compulsory respect, gives lie to the equality of democracy and makes such status enviable ....

01 October 2014


Jenny Trout is conducting a Big Damn Buffy Rewatch. She has some provocative observations:

  1. Sex is the real villain of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer universe.
  2. Giles is totally in love with Buffy.
  3. Joyce is a fucking terrible parent.
  4. Willow’s magic is utterly useless (this one won’t be an issue until season 2, when she gets a chance to become a witch)
  5. Xander is a textbook Nice Guy.
  6. The show isn’t as feminist as people claim.
  7. All the monsters look like wieners.
  8. If ambivalence to possible danger were an Olympic sport, Team Sunnydale would take the gold.
  9. Angel is a dick.
  10. Harmony is the strongest female character on the show.
  11. Team sports are portrayed in an extremely negative light.
  12. Some of this shit is racist as fuck.
  13. Science and technology are not to be trusted.
  14. Mental illness is stigmatized.
  15. Only Willow can use a computer.
  16. Buffy’s strength is flexible at the plot’s convenience.
  17. Cheap laughs and desperate grabs at plot plausibility are made through Xenophobia.
  18. Oz is the Anti-Xander

I don't entirely agree or disagree, but it's very sharply observed.

Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan is a lively writer, and occasionally people pass along him saying things I agree with and saying them well. I'm not above enjoying them.

But I've also followed his blogging and journalism career for too long to praise him. He's a bad journalist and a bad judge of policy and a cheerleader for some truly odious ideas. When friends pass along links to his articles, I grumble.

Finally, Mark Ames has assembled the full brief against him: If Andrew Sullivan Is The Future of Journalism Then Journalism Is Fucked. Even worse than even I knew. Of course.

Update: A tweetrant.