On the Changing Positivity of Full

image via Oprah (because Oprah)

A classic optimist describes the glass as “half full”, a classic pessimist decribes the glass as “half empty”.1

I am a convert to a digital lifestyle, “a world of the electron and the switch, the
beauty of the baud”2 . Our lives and our memories are limited only by the containers in which we put them.3 The last thing I want is to run out of space. So now when I refer to something as “full” it is invariably negative.

“My hard drive is too full.”

“I’ve got a full plate this week.”

It’s nothing new to say that someone is full of shit or full of themselves, but the issue in those statements is the contents, not the fullness. To be full was about being sated, about being content. I feel now that to be full is to be constrained, to be confined. These meanings are by no means novel uses of the word, more I feel a general connotational shift. Lexographical musing of the day.

1 My personal favorite answer is that the glass is twice as large as it needs to be.

2 The Hacker Manifesto – The Mentor, Phrack Magazine

3 Like these square watermelons they grow in Japan.

Reflections on Pittsburgh’s Last Steel Factory

A therapist I used to see once compared college to being in an open water race. All around you, people are furiously chopping through the water. It’s hard going – you can tell that they, too are spending a lot of effort to travel. You look at them and try to move your arms, your legs. You’ve moved before, you are certain that you can get to where you are going. But everything you do is slow, cumbersome.  You expend all your effort and travel 1/20 of the distance that they do. Going to college with depression is like trying to run in the water while everyone else is trying to swim.

I have a hard time evaluating my Carnegie Mellon experience. My success and failures here are so intimately intertwined that it’s not going to be possible for me to get perspective on them for a long time. CMU has afforded me with endless opportunities, opportunities that put me in an extremely privileged position. It is without peer in my field, and I’m truly, truly lucky that I was able to find my passion here. There are few places in this world filled with as many bright, motivated people as Carnegie Mellon.

This institution pushes us. It beats us down and makes us into something that is hopefully stronger. Yishan Wong once referred to Carnegie Mellon as “Pittsburgh’s last steel factory.” I think he meant it with pride.

I have no pride in having been through the forge. I have only hardwon shame that I couldn’t figure out how unhealthy the forge was for me. Somewhere between the best times of my life, Carnegie Mellon took in a bright, hopeful boy who wanted to help people and spat out a deeply sad young man who can no longer reconcile the differences between his self and his self-image.

As I write this, I’m studying for my last final at Carnegie Mellon. Or rather, I’m writing this while I should be studying. There’s a scene from one of my favorite novels that keeps coming to mind. The central character of the passage, Will Navidson, is desperate to finish his book in a place of total darkness, with only a box of matches for light.

In the end, Navidson is left with one page and one match. For a long time he waits in darkness and cold, postponing this final bit of illumination. At last though, he grips the match by the neck and after locating the friction strip, sparks to life a final ball of light.

First, he reads a few lines by match light and then, as the heat bites his fingertips he applies the flame to the page. Here then is one end: a final act of reading, a final act of consumption. And as the fire rapidly devours the paper, Navidson’s eyes frantically sweep down over the text, keeping just ahead of the necessary immolation, until as he reaches the last few words, flames lick around his hands, ash peels off into the surrounding emptiness, and then as the fire retreats, dimming, its light suddenly spent, the book is gone leaving nothing behind but invisible traces already dismantled in the dark.

– Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

So here I am, postponing my final bit of illumination. My final act of reading, of consumption, trying so desperately to keep ahead of the immolation, one last time. At least Carnegie Mellon can take some grim satisfaction in dismantling my traces when I fly home, head hung low, slag from Pittsburgh’s last steel factory.

The World’s Greatest Google Doc: The Story of Shit Ideas

When I was little, I went through a phase in which I had but one purpose: become an Inventor1. To me, Inventor was a perfectly clear career path, right up there with Train Conductor and Cooker-Man2. Inventors were uniquely qualified to create something from nothing, responsible for dreaming up new and fantastic things. In the way that all kids do, I was constantly inventing — with forts made of the old bricks in my backyard, games generated from the patterns of cracks in the street. Anything and everything around me was used in an ever-evolving series of games, stories, and pastimes. It’s possible that at that time, I had a clearer picture of who I would become as a young man than I did at any other point in my life. It would take another 10 years for me to find that clarity again, during my Sophomore year of college. But this isn’t that story. This is the story of a list. This is the story of a lifestyle. This is the story of The World’s Greatest Google Doc.

My senior year at Carnegie Mellon, I was introduced to a brainstorming technique I’ll call Shotgun Brainstorming. The premise of the Shotgun method is simple: sit down and think of as many ideas as you can, without any evaluation of them. College is incredibly good at teaching you critical thinking: looking at ideas to find their limits and find connections, with an emphasis on reason and logic and value. But Shotgun Brainstorming isn’t about these things — it’s about production. By committing all of the ideas to paper, regardless of quality, you are free to let your mind wander beyond the confines of the prompt, beyond the confines of what you know to be true and what you can implement. In ideation free of critique and free of a value system, you can float from place to place, genre to genre, naturally and comfortably. In short, it helps you create like a child.

For one class, we had to come up with 50 ideas for games in two days. So I made a Google Doc and began listing game concepts. They were, of course, mostly terrible. Eventually, I just titled the whole list “Shit Ideas”. Over the course of the two days, every game concept I could think of went into the list. It seems quite difficult, but you get into a kind of “creative groove”. Conversations you have will reflexively inspire ideas, or iterations of previous concepts. When the two days were up, I just kept going. I decided to include non-game ideas, beginning with art projects, but eventually expanding to pretty much everything that could be made or produced.

snippet out of my doc
A snippet out of my doc.

Recipes, concepts for short stories, software services – the list slowly grew. I would often pause in the middle of conversations I was having as comments sparked new additions. This naturally led to many discussions over the Shit Ideas Doc with those around me. After a time, some of my close friends began keeping idea documents of their own. Our lists grew and grew, and occasionally we’d have conversations where we’d talk through the finer points of some of our concepts.

A year later, I received an interesting email from one of those friends, Jason Paul. He proposed that we put together some kind of group, a forum to discuss all of our ideas. With many of us recently graduated (excluding myself), it was a way to flex our creative muscles. We put out some feelers and began what is now known as the Shit Ideas Greenhouse3. Every two weeks, we have a group video chat in which we discuss anything from ways to improve dating apps to flavor combinations of the Dorita (a frozen margarita with a rim of crushed Doritos). Every member of the group keeps their own Shit Ideas Doc, and each session we create new entries in a shared document (lovingly entitled “Communal Shit Ideas”). In the words of Jason, “…it’s communal because of contribution. Shared ideas, not a list of separate ideas from different people.” The creation of the Shit Ideas Greenhouse is one of the best things to come out of the Shit Ideas process.

Drawing is key.

The title “Shit Ideas” shouldn’t be taken as an implication that all of the ideas on the we discuss are bad. It refers more to the fact that we don’t exclude ideas based on their shittiness. We often spend large chunks of our time discussing one or two really viable ideas, pulling them out of the Shotgun mentality and into values-world, where we look at their limits and their merits. Many members of the Greenhouse are employed in fields that don’t always give them a creative outlet, and it provides some peer incentive to keep ourselves in the creative habit.

It helps, too, that we are ideating for the sake of ideation. So many brainstorming exercises are focused on creating ideas for a product or business, or to address some specific issue. But ideas have a value in and of themselves, and often in our haste to find the “right idea” that solves our problems, we miss some terribly great ideas along the way. So the Shit Ideas Doc and the Shit Ideas Greenhouse provide a way to stop and smell the roses, so speak, on our creative efforts. We are designers, engineers, artists. But above all, we are Inventors — creating something out of nothing, uniquely qualified to conceive the impractical creations of the Shit Ideas Greenhouse.

1 Capital I. As everyone knows, Inventors make Inventions of a most clever sort.

2 My very first career ambition was to be a Cooker-Man. Chefs are for the bourgeoisie.

3 The Shit Ideas Greenhouse is still growing. If you are ever interested in joining us, shoot me an email at jwbrieger@gmail.com

The Promise of the Stars

There’s a reassurance you can get from looking at the stars.

A sense of scale and wonder, true, but mostly a promise. Centuries passed when mankind guided themselves by the light of these same stars, and for all our failings, there is still something put there that can show us the path when we have lost our way.

I’ve finally realized why it bothers me so much when light pollution grays out the night. My bedroom for most of my childhood had a skylight: a frame for a little slice of tree and sky. That promise hung there for me – waiting.

Tonight, I start my final semester at Carnegie Mellon. The overcast skies glow a soft yellow-gray with the city lights. Tonight begins 4 months under Pittsburgh’s starless skies. And for the first time in my life, I understand how much I need those stars.

People Who Get Me: Chromeo

This post is the first in a series about my influences, entitled People Who Get Me.

Chromeo gets me.

First – just listen to this:

Now, let’s take a moment to appreciate that David Macklovitch and Patrick Gemayel perform under the names “Dave 1” and “P-Thugg”, among my favorite stage names of all time. They refer to their collaboration as “the only successful Arab/Jewish partnership since the dawn of human culture”.

They have a deliciously funky, bassline dominated, four-on-the-floor sound – perfect jams for both clubs and afternoon hangouts.

Let’s take another moment to appreciate their gear store – the aptly named http://funklordz.net They sell shirts that look like this:


– but the thing about Chromeo I love the most is how unseriously they take themselves. They just do them and it turns out great.

Other bands do sponsored tours, Chromeo instead invents a fictional Canadian airline, Mallard Air, to sponsor their White Women tour. They then proceeded to produce a fake PSA for Mallard Air to the tune of their song “Frequent Flyer”.

So yeah. Chromeo gets me.

The Philosophy of Not Work

For the past four years, I’ve participated in Carnegie Mellon’s annual themed entertainment competition, Booth. It’s a rewarding and frenetic effort that culminates in building structures like these:

Each booth features a themed game, and my fraternity typically produces original video games each year. The game team is headed by a game chair, typically with one key assistant and a few other helpers. I was game assistant my Freshman year, game chair my Sophomore year, and worked on various aspects of installation and controller design my Junior and Senior years.

During the development of last year’s Lord of the Rings game, a core team formed of Game Chair Andy Biar, Lead Artist/Producer Eric Mackie, and myself developed the philosophy of Not Work.

It’s exemplified by the phrase:

“Why do Work when you can do Not Work”

It’s a concise, pithy strategy for getting things done on those just-for-fun projects. You can (and should) interpret it in a variety of ways as it applies to project decisions.

Sample uses include answering the following questions:
“Do I use this open source library or roll my own?”
“Should I build all the features for a full product or just a functional prototype?”

Often, the path of least resistance is the correct one for these types of prototype-is-final-product type projects. You can always use more time to focus on making your work great and fun vs wrassling with the technical details.

It’s not always just taking the easy way out, though. The philosophy of Not Work is really about simplifying problems down from large complicated ones into known, solvable ones.

To give an example, when we were looking at the Lord of the Rings booth game, we wanted to have the controller be Gandalf the White’s staff. We looked into a variety of ways to sense the position of the staff. Accelerometers were’t precise enough, CV with a bright dot was too buggy, and it looked like something along the lines of Johnny Lee’s wiimote tracking was our solution. After exploring a lot of different ways, we came to a realization: since players hold the staff out in front of them, couldn’t we just use a Kinect and track the closest point? With about 5 minutes and a quick processing sketch, we had a working tracking prototype.

Final Game Installation

Now that isn’t to say the philosophy of not work always pans out. In the end on LOTR, we had so many sensor jitters from the Kinect we were forced to change our game concept. Still, the core philosphy of not work was helpful for making critical decisions under intense time pressure at many points throughout the process. There’s this overwhelming relief when you face a problem that seems insurmountable and you find that one little trick to simplify it.

So the next time you have some work to do – ask yourself if you can do not work instead.

The Uncomfortable Chair Problem

Last fall, my friend James1 and I were talking about the general state of design and why certain types of bad design exist. This blog post is born out of that conversation.


Good design is not an inevitable future. There is this viewpoint espoused by many designers that the world will be a much better place once companies start paying more attention to design. They often point to the growing appreciation for design in Western countries, and the value that design can bring to products, e.g. Apple. To them, increasing the role of designers in every imaginable sector is the clear next step to improve products and services we use everyday.

There’s an interview with industrial designer Karim Rashid in the documentary Objectified2 where he talks about noticing poorly designed hotel rooms, and sitting in uncomfortable chairs.

He says “there is no excuse” for uncomfortable chairs, given how many are designed year after year, and it appears that he views design as the solution to those moments of unease. While I believe an essential part of being a designer is to be an advocate for the value of design, simply having more producers of goods and services paying attention to design isn’t going to solve the problem of the world’s ever-increasing supply of uncomfortable chairs.

James and I coined the Uncomfortable Chair Problem as this:

If humanity has been making chairs for more than six thousand years, why are there still uncomfortable chairs?3

Now without getting too much into the history of chairs, they weren’t a widespread home good before the 19th century (not counting stools or certain backless asian chairs in this date). We’ve had a little under 200 years to perfect the chair, and obviously, it’s not like we haven’t hit on comfortable designs. Clearly, we know how to make comfy chairs. We know how to make them for a variety of contexts too: big home loungers, relaxing deck furniture, ergonomic office chairs that you can sit in for hours – so the issue is not an open design problem with no solutions.

There are some advocates who claim being uncomfortable can actually make us more productive. Regardless of those niche markets, we’re still looking at a vast swath of dining, outdoor, public, and home furniture where the “It’s intentional that the chair is uncomfortable” argument doesn’t fly.

A chair that is uncomfortable to sit in, in these cases, is not fulfilling one of its core functions. At a broad level, we can say that these chairs are badly designed chairs. So if many chairs are poorly designed, it stands to reason that many4 chair designers are designing poorly. And that’s where we hit the crux of the uncomfortable chair problem:

we have so many bad chairs because we have so many bad designers.

The Uncomfortable Chair Problem presents a dilemma for people who like to think that design is on the verge of ruling every product sector. The uncomfortable chairs provide a contrast to what one of my professors referred to as “The Designed Age”, in which the future is paved brightly with well-designed, functional and aesthetic goods in every home.

Playing into this is the temptation to deem good design as inevitable, as though we naturally converge from bad solutions to good ones. But good design will never be inevitable, because when we talk broadly about design and the future of design, we forget about the bad designers.5 An increased role for design as a whole means an increased role for them too.

When we do talk about broader issues in the industry of design, and the role of design in society, it’s important to look beyond cause-and-effect views, in which products “evolve” from previous states into new, better forms. Evolution branches, and some of those branches are uncomfortable chairs.

1 James is a CMU alumni and close friend who works as a mechanical engineer for stroller manufacturer 4moms

2 Which, while not particularly enlightening, is still a fantastic watch and has some great design/machine porn. Karim Rashid’s interview can be found here

3 Depictions and models of chairs have been found in Romania dating back to 4750-4600BC, other early chairs are evidenced in Egypt and China.

4 There is, of course, a large amount of wiggle room inside this statement, as James pointed out to me: bad design vs company priorities, manufacturing issues, scale of poorly made mass produced chairs, etc. I hope that the word “many” in this context is not entirely disagreeable.

5To get into a specific definition of “good” and “bad” design is not particularly worth it here, as it would likely be longer than the contents of this post