The Book of Tea

October 29, 2009

“The Book of Tea” by Kakuzo Okakura is one of my favorite books.  It is, of course, about much more than tea itself.  Here are the opening paragraphs from the first chapter — “The Cup of Humanity”:

“Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion of aestheticism–Teaism. Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.

“The Philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe. It represents the true spirit of Eastern democracy by making all its votaries aristocrats in taste.

“The long isolation of Japan from the rest of the world, so conducive to introspection, has been highly favourable to the development of Teaism. Our home and habits, costume and cuisine, porcelain, lacquer, painting–our very literature–all have been subject to its influence. No student of Japanese culture could ever ignore its presence. It has permeated the elegance of noble boudoirs, and entered the abode of the humble. Our peasants have learned to arrange flowers, our meanest labourer to offer his salutation to the rocks and waters. In our common parlance we speak of the man “with no tea” in him, when he is insusceptible to the serio-comic interests of the personal drama. Again we stigmatise the untamed aesthete who, regardless of the mundane tragedy, runs riot in the springtide of emancipated emotions, as one “with too much tea” in him.”

I had just moved to Portland, Maine, intending to leave my consulting career and open a commercial photography studio.  In those days we didn’t have personal computers with desktop publishing software, and so I hired a designer to produce my business card, letterhead, etc.

Her suggestion: “Your work is so graphic, and so visually strong . . . take pictures of something like dancers, and use these on each printed piece”.  And so I did — set up my strobe lights and a nine foot wide roll of white background paper, invited dancers from a local modern company, and my own dance began!

Making good art can be painstakingly slow, but my first attempt at dance photography was easy, exhilarating, and spiritually fulfilling.  She struck a pose, and I snapped.  I moved a bit, adjusted, and clicked again.  She moved.  Click.  And on  we went.  I found myself drawn into a visual dialog.  Later I would discover that it was actually a dance — although I’ll hasten to say that I’m not in any way a dancer. Read the rest of this entry »

This is my 90 second photography lesson!  Look before you photograph.

In my dance photography class, I note that most people walk into the dance studio, or into the theatre for a rehearsal, pick up their camera, and start shooting right away.  I guess they are looking for the highest leap, or the kmost perfect arabeque, or some other triumph.  That doesn’t work.

Start by looking . . . carefully.  Find something visually exciting, something that tells your story, something that you want to share with us.  Find something too important to miss.

And remember . . . your job is not just to be in the presence of this wonderful dance, or this beautiful landscape, or whatever.  It’s to craft pictures that draw on your vision.  You are translating a three dimensional moving world into flat still images.  They will only be exciting if you are alive, creating passionately, seeing with all your strength.

If I were to ask you what you’re photographing, I hope you just say something like “that beautiful dancer”.  Let me know that you’re photographing a visual rhythm, or a magnificant sweep of energy, or something else very special that you just saw.

Remember . . . before you photograph, look!  Really look.

“What business are you in, and how to you add value to your clients?”

That’s the key question I want to ask of new prospects for my consulting services, and for my commercial photography as well.

For coaching (which I prefer to call “clarifying”), the question is turned around: “How can I help you add value to your life?”

In both cases, what matters is not what each of us does, but how it adds value. “What do you do?” as a question may bring a quick simple answer, but rarely the kind of thoughtful and searching response that, “How do you add value …?” or “How can I add value to you?” can provoke.

A good accountant doesn’t just enter transactions, balance the accounts, and prepare reports.  He or she can keep their client in touch with the flow of money and debt within the organization, enable more accurate forecasting and planning, make the financial realities of the organization visible to all he need to understand them.  (They may be other ways value is added, as well.)

How do you add value?  And how can I add value to you?

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copyright 2009 by Arthur Fink

It seemed odd to me — a brown coffee pot, with a sign that said “Decaf”, while all the other coffee was in orange or red pots.  Decaf usually goes in an orange pot, so this was confusing to me.  “Great subject for a blog” post, I thought to myself, but drinking some of the coffee and reading the morning news felt more important at that hour.

But then an other guest walked into the hotel breakfast room, and asked me if we could trust the “decaf” sign.  Evidently I was not the only one confused!

We are accustomed to various conventions, color codes, configurations, etc.  Decaf goes in an orange pot, oxygen  in a green cylinder, stop signs are red, and (at least in Europe) the cold water faucet has blue markings.  Violate these, and we leave users confused and anxious.

Dance!

October 23, 2009

copyright 2009 by Arthur Fink

copyright 2009 by Arthur Fink

I’m at St. Joseph’s College for their 5×5 dance festivals — to hang a show, photograph rehearsals, and teach a class on dance photography.

I document the work and energy that goes into dance — not just  the final performance.  Being in the studio as dances are created,  or as dancers prepare themselves, feels like being in a delivery room as children are being born.  Amidst pain or anguish, tempered with rhythm and support, and bolstered with faith, new life emerges.  It’s physical, sometimes sensual, often spiritual.  Too often this process is ignored, as image makers look only at the final result — the dance.

The class might have been entitled, “Seeing Dance like a Photographer”, as it will be much more about the process of seeing than about the technique of actually taking the picture.  We’ll watch short live performances, and share our visions of the still images that tell the story of each dance — its energy, emotion, artistry, and visual pattern, and that might express our feeling on seeing this piece.

Talk to me about bringing this program to other venues.  I believe it’s important for dancers to work at seeing themselves as others might see them.

When people learn that I had been working with the database product “Progress” since it was first introduced (more than twenty five years ago!), they put me in the “technical” box.  Indeed, with my graduate degree in computer science, they might assume that I have a full grasp of this product.

Ten or fifteen years ago, they might have been right.  I could design and build systems, install Progress and my application, tune the whole system for great performance, work with staff to ensure that the system is well utilized, and enhance it so that it better serves its purpose.

But the world now is more complex. Now I do only some of these things — particularly those focusing on interface, usability, and integration into the creative organization. Meanwhile, some of my colleagues focus just on the technical performance issues — everything from configuring the right disk drives and data paths, to stitching together databases that have somehow become corrupted.  I refer to these friends as my “database anesthesiologists” — doctors who carefully monitor the vital signs, and keep the patient alive.

I don’t know why they dislike this name.  It’s a sign of respect to me.  In fact, I’ve an allergy to general anesthesia that could easily be fatal if an incident occurs.  I know that I’m putting my life in the hands of anesthesiologists every time I go into the hospital for elective or emergency surgery!  (The condition is called “malignant hyperthermia”, and I’ve already had one episode).

In this paradigm, I  call myself a “database psychiatrist”.  My job is to keep systems communicating effectively and efficiently, and functioning as part of a social team with people and with other technology. Systems need to be easy to use, hard to mis-use, and they need to do right things with the data they handle.  They also need to come with realistic and helpful expectations.  For example, systems designed to help forecast or plan may be invaluable tools to help staff understand the implications of a model, and of the data that fed into it.  But where the assumptions of the model break down, or where the data is not realistic, the validity of its projections need to be questioned.  I call  work in this area “computer assertiveness training”.  It’s about learning when to (figuratively) turn the computer off, or put it in its place.

Today I’m much more than the “database psychiatrist” described above.  Much of my time is spent listening to other kinds of management issues — typically involving such things as communication and values within organizations, marketing strategy, management of creativity, and general problem solving.  I also spend time “coaching” (I prefer to call it “clarifying””), where I’m offering a helpful process, and not a solution.  But one thing I’m not — the database anesthesiologist!

Years ago a client asked me to write a program to help them deal with credit cards that had been declined for pending shipments.  Operators would use this screen to see what had gone wrong, often speak with the customer, perhaps resubmit the credit card or try to process another credit card.  I listened carefully, designed what I thought was a great tool, and tested it with a number of the staff who would be using the system.  Operators could use the up, down, home, or end keys to scroll the list of credit card attempts, and tab into any of the “buttons” on the bottom line of this screen, and take just about any action that might be required.  In testing it all worked beautifully.

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But as soon as it was installed, I started getting reports that it was no longer working.  I spent some time watching the users, and saw that they were trying to use the navigation keys to move through the browse of credit card attempts while they were anchored on a button.  That was wrong.

And so I instructed the users to first tab into the browser, and then use the navigation keys.  “It’s about getting the right focus”, I explained.  But the users didn’t get it.  They were confused and upset.

It turns out they were right!  They shouldn’t have need to understand “focus” or any other system term.  It made sense for them to use the navigation keys anywhere, but my program wouldn’t allow that.  And it was the program — not these users — that needed to change.  Pressing a navigation key indicated that an operator wanted to control the browse, and I had to arrange for the program to first get focus there, and then handle the navigation action.

I lecture around the world about user interface design, about listening to users, and about being “user friendly”.  But here I’d violated every principle that I teach — telling the users what they had to do, instead of making the program interpret their very reasonable actions.

This is what user centered design is all about.  Despite our best efforts, we get it wrong much too often.  But no matter . . . watching the users, we can see where they have difficulty or get stuck, and we can design interactions that respond to natural user commands.  And we can learn by watching our own mistakes!

I was given this advice when I first become a hiring manager:

  • Each of your employees gets two paychecks — a regular dollar paycheck, and a “personal paycheck”.
  • The dollar paycheck is simple. We all understand that one.
  • But each employee’s “personal paycheck” will be different.  One person may want to work with the latest technologies.  Another may prefer to work alone.  Some will want to work only their defined hours.  Others may want to throw themselves into their work — working almost around the clock on a development project.  Some want very well defined tasks; others prefer to set their own challenges.
  • You won’t be able to give each employee the “personal paycheck” that they want.
  • But, you’d better know — for each — what their “personal paycheck” is, and whether they are getting it.

I can remember all too well the manager who had no idea about my “personal paycheck”, and gave me a prestigious promotion that included more money, more visibility, and more opportunity –  but that would have denied me every aspect of the “personal paycheck” that I was then receiving.  I ended up leaving that job, working for myself, and never looking  back.

I may sound like a broken record . . . but, trust me, I’m not!  Each consulting assignment begins with these questions — and the answers are always revealing.

A consulting project is rarely just about answering a question, or fixing something that’s broken.  It’s typically about enabling something new, realizing a vision, getting a handle on something that has seemed inaccessible or mysterious.  It may be about empowering staff or management, about building or envisioning a new tool, about creating new relationships with customers, prospects, or staff.

What the goal or goals, they need to be stated explicitly, so that the results can be reviewed in terms of what was really desired.

So …

  • On the way in, what are we trying to do, and how will we know that we’ve done it?
  • On the way out, have we done it?  Any surprises?  What have we learned?

How many of you have experienced projects without these simple steps, and what were the results?

I wish I could copy the entire text here, but more properly I urge you to read the Adam Goipnik’s short “postscript”article about Penn at the New Yorker web site. Here’s the concluding paragraph:

photograph by Irving Penn

photograph by Irving Penn

Penn’s subject—as in “Woman with Long Black Neck” … —is not performance but inner poise, and the dignity of appearances became his central theme. His work is a memorial of a specially privileged era, where the duties of a fashion photographer and the ambitions of an artist could coexist in one serenely realized surface, an age that in retrospect seems to have been one of fine silver, coolly applied

Also on the web site is  a slide show of some of Penn’s best work.

This issue of the New Yorker also has a compelling article by Malcolm Gladwell about the dangers of football.  Gladwell doesn’t call for us to abolish the “sport”, but it’s hard to imagine any other conclusion from the data he presents.

I’ve set out to photograpaph the energy of dance, the culture of dance, the community of dancers.  That might not mean catching the most perfect arabesque, or the highestt leap.  It’s about photographing from within, from the heart, and giving expression to what I saw and felt.

Living at Bates for the whole festival, I was sharing, eating, attending classes and rehearsals with the dancers the whole time Here are just a few of my images from that experience:

All of these dance images, and others on my photography web site, are for sale.  Please inquire.  Also, I have a book, Dance! that is for sale on Amazon, or directly from me.

© 2009 Arthur Fink

© 2009 Arthur Fink

© 2009 Arthur Fink

© 2009 Arthur Fink

© 2009 Arthur Fink

© 2009 Arthur Fink

© 2009 Arthur Fink

© 2009 Arthur Fink

The following query appeared on a technical programming e-mail list to which I subscribe.  My response, which I’ve printed below, is really a discussion about the importance of dance, and about the design process.

We are testing out a product which sits over our character product and give it a GUI [Graphic User Interface] look and feel as well as most of the important GUI functionality.  Has anybody had experience in doing this and , if so, what are the pitfalls I should be looking for.

So far the results are phenomenal. With very little change to our character code we have been able to generate a gui application that does not kill the network resources. Instead of looking at one – two years of development to get our software . . .  we are looking at one – two months.  . . .

Tell me I’m dreaming!!

You are dreaming.  Definitely.

You can certainly get products that will put GUI objects on the screen.  People may take a quick look, and say that you’ve a “GUI” application.  But conversion to GUI is much more than just GUI objects!  It means enabling different kinds of work flows, allowing users to move through the screens in different ways.  It means providing parallel tracks, so that most applications can be run either by mouse or by keystroke commands.  It means conforming to well accepted GUI standards, so that users accustomed to products like Microsoft Word and Excel will find themselves at home in your application.  The result should include more efficient use, easier training, higher accuracy, less user stress.

Also, the process of moving to GUI can be a time of re-thinking how your product enables users to do their jobs better, and to re-think some of the core functionality.  A plug in product that transforms the visual appearance of screens does not invite that important re-design step.

So dream on … or invest in a constructive process of really transforming your application.  (Or … re-think what advantage you believe GUI offers.  If it’s just marketing — being able to say, “We’re GUI” without being better for it in any way — then the whitewash product may be just what you need!).
.  .  .
I use the word “Design” in the new subject line above in its broadest sense.  Design starts with listening to users, and includes building mockups, having real users test and critique them, re-working the interface to accommodate this user feedback, and iterating on this process.  “Design” does not just mean drawing pretty pictures or screen layouts!

When our daughter was in high school, the school organized an evening program for parents on “resiliency theory”.  The lead speaker pointed out — as all the parents present already knew too well — that our children were at risk getting hooked on alcohol or on illegal drugs, that they may be in a crash with a drunk teenage driver, that our daughters  could get pregnant.  Indeed, there were perils at every moment!

All this is true, but not helpful, the speaker explained.  What was more helpful was the fact that our kids had been navigating these dangerous waters for some time, and had mostly been making good decisions.  We needed to identify the strengths that led to those decisions — such qualities as character, judgement, integrity, and courage — and find ways to highlight and support those strengths.  We needed to empower our children, reminding them of the positive qualities that they have to draw upon — rather than focus primarily on the risks that they face.  The risks were real and important, but they were not a key to safety and positive action.

What he was talking about, we learned, is “resiliency theory”.  There’s an excellent summary of these ideas at the WestEd Health Kids website:

At its foundation, a resilience based approach to youth development is based upon the principle that all people have the ability to overcome adversity and to succeed despite it. Resilience is a strengths based model meaning its focus is on providing the supports and opportunities which promote life success, rather than trying only to eliminate the factors that promote failure.

Research has consistently shown that the presence of these developmental supports and opportunities provide a better indicator of whether youth will grow up to become successful well-adjusted adults than the presence or absence of risk-factors (i.e. poverty, drug-use, etc.)

I’ve found this a helpful approach with people of all ages.  Recently I took on a new ‘coaching” client, a manager who came with a list of goals reflecting difficulty in social skills, a sense that he was managing short term operations but not visioning or achieving long term goals, and a concern that he was in some significant way a disappointment to his staff.  Indeed, when I had him complete an inventory of strength and weaknesses, and of the parts of his work and personal life that were working well or that were lacking in significant ways, I could see the same judgements and concerns reflecting in his answers.

We could have wallowed in those negative perceptions.  It might have been cathartic, and perhaps satisfying, but I doubt that it would have been empowering.  Instead, I suggested that we start by reviewing all the areas where he had given himself the highest ratings — to see what innate strengths, and what positive actions had made those parts of his work and personal life function so well.  That was the beginning of a healthy coaching relationship that has seen him energize his staff, spend more time envisioning and working for needed changes in his organization, and feel better about himself and his contribution at work.  Our focus is on what we can do, rather than on what might have eluded him.  He’s in control of the coaching sessions, and I believe he’s more in control of his life.

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