An October story

writing

Moon, partial eclipse
Illusions commend themselves to us because they save us pain.—Sigmund Freud

 

grave’s edge

Papua New Guinea.

I knew I was a vampire because I crawled out of my grave.

They piled the dirt over me despite my cries, and eventually I realized I was dead. I had heard stories of souls who died and did not know it. For a brief second I felt myself lucky for having the insight, and then a clod of dirt hit my eye. I covered my face with my arms and my burr-ridden wrap.

They did it at night, which is perhaps why they didn’t bury me too deep. My daughter cried and shooed the children back to the house as her husband shoveled. Shortly after I was covered she broke down completely, and her husband dropped the shovel and comforted her. I heard their footsteps recede, imagining his arm around her as he told her he would finish in the morning. I noticed I was still sucking at the bit of air slipping under the dirt-covered wool. Old habits die hard. I waited a while, hoping I would move on to oblivion. I felt the ground shake as a car passed on a nearby road. I wondered if this was what it was like to live in a cemetery.

I was not in a cemetery. I was in a shallow grave in the woods across the street from my daughter’s home. I expected she would visit at times, and cry, and I would listen and answer and go unheard. I had been unheard for some time, on my pallet in their hut, steadily growing smaller and bonier and weaker.

I had the slims, you see, the wasting disease that brought the foreign doctors with their needles, and the foreign reporters with their cameras, and which they said passed through the blood, or the remnants of love. Perhaps they were right. They came to the southern highlands and were kind, and sometimes even tried to learn our language in addition to the pidgin we all shared, the better to help us. But they were wrong. I think I got it from hating my husband. He was beautiful and blessed with a voice like a growling purr, soothing and predatory, and too many women fell victim to its persuasions. I hated him for it, even after he died wasting as I would, and what god could forgive a mother who hated the man that gave her the loving child of her heart? Obviously not mine.

So I worked until I had to sit down, and sat until I had to lie down, and lay until I died. And now I was in the underworld, beneath footsteps and any other living sound, listening to cars.

My poor daughter. How distraught she must have been to find my body. On the floor, a little stiller than usual. I wondered how long I lay before someone noticed. Probably not too long. Someone was always checking on me: I would feel a palm against my forehead, or my blanket tucked a little more securely, or water at my lips, and I would open my eyes to see my daughter, or her daughter, looking back at me with strained relief.

My body. Oh, what a foolishness—I did not have to stay here straining to hear earthworms. I did not have to remain in my grave. Every ghost story I knew freed the soul from its body. I could rise up, and leave this traitorous shell behind.

So I did. It was very difficult; I was very weak. I lifted my funeral shroud up carefully from my face, trying to make the dirt fall away from me. A little hit my mouth and I began to cough, which seemed terribly unfair. I realized I had to get used to being dead, and laughed while I coughed at how the ghost stories didn’t talk about this. Of course they didn’t. The storytellers were alive.

I sat up with difficulty, then used the crumbling edge of the grave to raise myself up. I had not walked in weeks—months, maybe—and this hurt. If I had been alive I would have said it was impossible. But dead, I knew such considerations were the lying of my mind, and would pass. I stood, teetering, for a moment. In front of me were branches and through them I could see the light seeping past the door of my old home. As I watched it went out, and I was left with only moonlight. I debated looking at my body, behind me. I was afraid. Even though death had come and gone, and I was still moving and aware, something about seeing death written on my features terrified me, made my gut ache and my breath catch like it hadn’t in decades.

But I had to look. Really, who couldn’t? And turning to look behind me, I became a pillar of salt.

My body was missing. Or rather, it wasn’t missing. It was standing.

I stood for some time, absorbing this. I don’t know how long. It seemed there was a very long pause in my mind, and all that occupied it was the empty grave I was trying not to see. Something hovered in my head, demanding my attention, and I tried to avoid it by studying the grave, the bits of brown and roots and gray leaves where the dim light struck, the abyss of the shadows where it did not. But I could not evade it for ever.

I was the undead. I was the monster. My hatred had been even stronger than I had realized, and had cursed me beyond the grave. The very fact I had crawled from my grave bore witness that I was the blood-sucking terror of the night. Doomed, eventually, by hunger and my curse to hunt the people I had lived with all my life.

What to do? I had to leave, before I lost the habits of life and began to practice the ways of death. My daughter and her husband would be in danger then. My granddaughter! They had no idea such a terrible person had lain on their floor all that time, or the man my daughter married would have removed my head and removed the danger.

I began to totter toward the road, aching with each step. I bit my lip, and told myself not to curse. I blinked a little at the few tears that managed to squeeze into my eyes. I was already thirsty. It was not for blood, not yet, but it would be.

A car came down the road and slowed as it saw me beneath the edge of the trees. It was two of the foreign helpers, a man and a woman. The one on my side of the road rolled down the window.

“Do you need help, mother?” The friendly intimacy of his tone struck me like a slap.

I gathered my voice, carefully. “I need to leave.” Like my legs, my voice was feeble. I would need sustenance soon.

“Are you lost?”

“No, I just need to leave.” I hoped they would take me far enough away that I would not endanger my village. I hoped I would control myself and not harm my benefactors, but if not, better foreign strangers than family and friends. I took a step toward the car, and stumbled. The car door belonging to the friendly voice opened and the young man came out and took my arm.

“Are you all right? You’re covered in dirt—did you fall? Are you hurt?”

“No.” I was anxious to get into the car, before he looked past me.

He looked past me, of course, and saw the man-sized blackness in the ground. “What the hell?” He raised his voice somewhat, to be heard to the car. “Hey, Paula, get over here!”

“Please, no. Just take me away.”

He craned his head down to look into my face. His expression was remarkably like the anxious care of my daughter. “Is that a grave?”

I didn’t speak. A middle-aged woman came up with a flashlight. “Do you need help, Reghu?” She shone the flashlight on me, revealing the dirt covering my shroud. “You poor thing, you’re filthy. Where is your home? Can we take you there?”

The young man spoke quietly. “Paula, take a look behind us.”

The flashlight danced beyond us, uncovering the grave. The woman’s other hand went to the camera around her neck, flipping it on and snapping off the lens cap as if part of herself, even as she gasped.

I sighed in defeat. Now they would know what I was, and would never take me anywhere. I was doomed to kill where I loved.

She handed over the flashlight to the man. “Hold this on the grave. I want to shoot it with the flashlight, and then a couple with the flash.” She glanced at me. “And something with both her and the grave.”

“Paula, she’s right here. You can’t talk about people like they’re elements in a still life.”

“I’m not still. I’m not alive,” I mumbled to myself.

“What was that?” he asked, face even more filled with concern. I kept silent. Maybe they would take me anyway. They didn’t seem to realize the monster I had become. The woman stepped back and took a photo of the young man and myself, with the grave just behind. She leaned in to take a close-up of the earth-stained fabric and my hand, and I shook the dirt off at her irritably.

“Please take me away.”

She let go of the camera, letting it hang, focusing on me. “Ma’am, were you in that grave?” She paused, swallowed. “Did someone bury you?”

“Please, I need to leave. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

Her eyebrows went up. “I’m sorry, but you don’t really look like a threat.”

The man cut her off. “Let’s get her in the car so she can sit down, Paula. Then we can go someplace safe and talk more. I don’t really like standing in the dark near a newly dug grave, do you?”

The woman nodded. “You’re right. You know, I’d heard about families doing things like this to AIDS victims, but I thought it was just a rumor.”

“They buried me wrong,” I explained as the two led me to the car.

“Yes, it was wrong of them to bury you,” the young man—hardly more than a boy—said, correcting me gently.

“No, they buried me wrong,” I repeated. “It wasn’t their fault.”

“It wasn’t their fault they buried you alive?” the woman exclaimed. The boy shot her a warning look.

“I’m not alive, but they didn’t know what they were burying. Please,” I said as I sank down gratefully onto the car seat, and felt my legs lifted and placed in the car. “Please just take me away. I don’t want to hurt anyone.” I looked earnestly into the young man’s eyes. “Would you cut off my head, please?”

“What?” They were shocked.

“I’m dead and I can’t leave, and if someone doesn’t cut off my head I’ll hurt someone.”

The woman shook her head, and the young man put his hand on my shoulder. “You’re not dead, mother.”

“Of course I’m dead. My daughter wouldn’t bury me alive!”

“They made a terrible mistake. But you’re alive.”

“It wasn’t a mistake, Reghu, we’ve heard about this before.”

“God, Paula, be quiet, please. You’re not helping.” He paused. “And now we’ve woken up the people across the street.”

I looked at my home. He was right, a light was moving in my old home. “Please,” I said, “let’s go. They can’t know I’m like this!”

“They’ll know you’re alive as soon as they see the grave, mother.”

“But I’m not alive! I am undead,” I said, watching with dread as the door flap opened, “and I am hungry and thirsty. If we don’t leave I will hurt my family.”

My son-in-law emerged, carrying his machete fearfully. He had probably watched the car a few minutes before emerging to see what was happening. He might not have seen me, since I was on the other side of the car. “Please, quick! Quick!” I begged.

The woman walked around to talk to the man who buried me. He tucked his machete at his waist, unafraid of a woman. Initially quiet, voices were quickly raised and my son-in-law began to yell, trying to walk around to my side of the car. I stopped listening. The boy and the woman tried to stand in his way, but too soon he stood before me, his tattooed face twisted by pain and fear.

“I’m sorry,” I said, before he could speak. “I didn’t want you to know. You should’ve taken precautions.”

He stared. Then, to the young man, “She walked here? She stood on her own?”

“Yes.”

I watched comprehension bring horror. “You knew it might happen,” I said. “When my husband got the slims, we all thought it came from the witch in the next village. She had a reason to hate him. Who’s to say the curse didn’t fall on me as well?” I was sympathetic, but angry, too. “Why didn’t you stop this?”

“What was I supposed to do?” he burst out. “Cut off your head? You should have died!”

“Yes, cut off my head!” I was very angry. “I was dead, I was not going to miss it, was I? Now I’m undead, and I’m thirsty.” I leaned toward him. “Thirsty!” The fear in his eyes pleased me; he had not been patient with me the past weeks, I did not contribute and I ate their food and I smelled. “Thirsty…” I said again, and leaned back against the car seat, looking at the woman and the boy. “Take me away from here. Please.”

“No, you can’t!” my son-in-law said. “She will kill you!”

“She couldn’t hurt a fly,” the woman said. “She could barely walk to the car.”

“She hasn’t walked in months! She had the slims, the wasting disease, we buried her. She died! She should have stayed dead! Alive, she could not have walked here!”

“Sir, your mother—”

“She’s not my mother! She my wife’s mother, and she’s cursed.” The noise had brought out my daughter, and he yelled at her to go back inside. Suddenly he fumbled for the knife at this waist. “I should have done this before. I didn’t think it would happen.”

Both the woman and the boy grabbed at him, but he brandished the machete at them and they backed off, protesting.

“Sir, you can’t do this! She’s not some kind of vampire, she’s alive! You made a mistake burying her and she came back.”

“There’s no mistake,” I said. “He’s right. He should end me now while he still can.”

“Mother?” My daughter had come around the back of the car. She was holding a gun, more nervously than my son-in-law carried his machete. It was an old one, hidden in the home for decades, found by my father during the years the Japanese invaded. “Mother?”

And then my daughter was on her knees beside the car, head in my lap, crying and begging forgiveness. I stroked her hair, soothing her. I told her there was nothing to forgive, she had not cursed me, her father had done that. She looked up at me. “I love you, dear,” I said. “But you must let your husband do this thing.”

“What thing?”

My son-in-law came forward and took her hand. “Come away from her. She is undead.”

“No, she’s alive! You know she’s alive!”

“No, she’s not! She walked to the car. She walked, do you hear?”

I interrupted them. “Of course I’m not alive. Would my daughter have buried me alive?”

My daughter looked at me, stricken. Understanding seemed to seep into her features, but not the fear I dreaded. The two foreigners were silent now, watching. I looked at my son-in-law. “Will you cut off my head?”

He nodded, and gingerly offered a hand to help me from the car. I stood, a little more easily this time. The boy seemed about to speak, but the woman laid her hand on his arm. Shaking, my daughter pointed the gun she barely knew how to hold at them. I walked back toward the grave with my son-in-law.

We stopped at the edge. He looked at me with compassion. “You are ready?”

“Yes. Should I kneel, or lie down?”

“If you can kneel it would help.”

“You will have to help me do it, then. I have not fed and I’m weak.” He touched me again to help me kneel, then stood back, still afraid of me. I looked at my daughter, who glanced back at me and then looked away quickly. “Stand between us, please.” My son-in-law complied. The two foreigners watched uncomprehendingly, or rather, as if they could not bear what they understood.

I looked down at the grave’s emptiness. I was glad I would be leaving myself behind. Glad I was near my home, glad my family was safe. If my son had not come out, how long would it have been before the monster that crawled out of my grave took over and hurt them?

I looked up at my son. “Take care of my daughter.”

“I will.”

“Thank you.” I bowed my head.

 


 

Grave’s Edge (2nd place, 14th Annual Chiaroscuro Short Story Contest, 2007).

The original BBC article that inspired the story.

Why jargon matters

career, design
A syllabus from one of my UX classes; just the lesson titles are full of jargon! Each column is a week of lessons and events.

A syllabus from one of my UX classes; just the lesson titles are full of jargon! Each column is a week of lessons and events.

My ex-spouse, bless his heart, contributed some good to my life. (I can say this twenty years later, sixteen years into a marriage to the right partner. About the first one, all I can say is that every relationship sucks if it’s the wrong one, no matter how well-intentioned and good the people involved.)

Possibly the most important good he contributed to my tech career was this advice: “Jargon matters.”

Let me say that again, more loudly:

Jargon matters.

Everyone hates jargon, right? It’s used by some to exclude outsiders and preserve territory (lawyers and doctors, I’m looking at you!), or by others to show off being part of the “in” group at work. Sometimes it’s misused, and depending on the likability of the person making the mistake and the empathy of the observers, colleagues feel one of two excellent German concepts: Schadenfreude (pleasure in another’s misfortune) or Fremdschämen (embarrassment on someone else’s behalf).

You cannot

life, writing
Edited version of a painting of a dream: plugged volcanoes with a cresting wave beyond them, poised to fall.

Edited version of a painting of a dream.

End a life, end a world.

Replace the irreplaceable eye, the singular perspective, the experience of
loving joyful bored stalwart fearful brave angry mean kind hateful cool excited passionate
people breaths blinks touches hands grasping music-hearing whispering shouting standing
filled with skies words inmost dreams sensuous interactions and each other’s ideas and the patterns only we see,
replace all that I
with—nothing.

Negative space makes a space, filled by vacuum-abhorring nature with
the attention of more
Worlds.

worlds, not
units in Venn diagrams
tagged by our characteristics, falling into slots as
predictive analysis charts soulless identity probabilities,
pitting us against each other, pitting us against ourselves, because
we are many-layered and our tags are not reasonable, they are us,

each not a unit in a mob of units with concentric permission levels but

a world entire, interacting and seeing and regarding and thinking and reacting and caring,
the appetitive psychosomatic unity a universe entire,
bumping up against and overlapping the worlds around us.

You cannot choke a world
You cannot chase and shotgun a world
You cannot kneel on a world

Without rousing the world of worlds against you.

Save a life, save a world.

 


Originally posted on Medium.com on May 31, 2020. Black lives matter.

Evangelical conservatism vs. Christ, an example

career, life

There’s been a lot of coverage recently about the oxymoronic support by evangelical Christians of the current US president, whose actions do not seem to promote Christ in any way. At the same time, many other Christians vehemently oppose that same president. People on the outside might very well be confused.

I don’t want to add to the current debate, but I do want to share an example that might help differentiate between evangelical conservatism and what I would call a more Christ-based approach. Below is an updated version of a 2003 post about the ordination of a gay bishop. In it, I argue that support of the ordination of a gay bishop in the ECUSA (Episcopal Church of the USA) was the more Christian approach, as opposed to the culture-based, anti-LGBTQ evangelical outlook.

Anti-fragile UX

cognitions, design, design thinking, strategy

This is a repost of an idea I’ve dreamt of for nearly a decade (and leveraged to help improve design thinking and approaches, though not to the extent described below). Now, in this time of AI, global audiences, and awareness of accessibility, it seems this could be possible. (Please note: some links now go to the Wayback Machine capture of a site.)


Nobody wants a fragile user experience. The thoughts that come to mind when you imagine such a site are probably buggy, not very usable, difficult to navigate, limited compatibility, and most definitely not user-friendly.

Now imagine a robust web app. This site would work across most if not all browser and devices, “gracefully degrading” when necessary. It would be usable, useful, and user-friendly, fulfilling the promise of site for the user. Bugs would be a rare event.

After reading Nassim Taleb’s antifragility discussion on Edge’s World Question Center, I think we can do better. As Taleb envisions it, an antifragile system is one that is “beyond robustness,” one that not only withstands disorder and change, but loves those things. Taleb provides an example:

Just as a package sent by mail can bear a stamp “fragile”, “breakable” or “handle with care”, consider the exact opposite: a package that has stamped on it “please mishandle” or “please handle carelessly”. The contents of such package are not just unbreakable, impervious to shocks, but have something more than that, as they tend to benefit from shocks.

So let us coin the appellation “antifragile” for anything that, on average, …benefits from variability.

In this and following posts, I’m going to discuss what the characteristics of an anti-fragile web app might look like. These include (but are not necessarily limited to):

  • A self-refining interface. The more browsers, devices, and user preferences it’s exposed to, the better it can refine itself, and predict or suggest the ideal UI for a given user with a given browser or device.
  • Self-refining taxonomy. A content strategy that benefits from variety and size. I’m convinced that in the post-Google, post-UX, post-social media world, semantic information management in all forms will be the next big thing. (Note: by post-Google, post-UX, etc., I don’t mean a world existing without those things. Rather, I mean the world that has thoroughly incorporated these and similar game-changing concepts and is ready to grow from there.)
  • Simplicity of structure, allowing flexibility of response.
  • Loves change. Learns from being used for new and unexpected purposes, adapting the new ability or use to improve or expand existing features.
  • The broader and more varied the audience, the more information there is to develop targeted content and interfaces.

self-refining interface

What on earth is a self-refining interface? A self-refining interface is one that adjusts itself to user needs, either at an aggregate or individual level. Ideally it would do both.

Today we have a plethora of interfaces with which to browse the web. Notepads, smart phones, PDAs, laptops, televisions and more are used to present online information. There are even a few awkward-looking wristwatches receiving online updates, heralding the arrival of the smart gadget. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports a sharp increase in adults using mobile devices to access the internet, as well as other online activities. Cell phone ownership is stable, but using phones for purposes other than phone calls is going up, up, up.

This marks the beginning of the end of pixel-perfect web design. No longer is there a single fold, above which content cues should reside; no longer can a company focus solely on meeting their audience’s needs by designing for the top three browsers across the top two computer operating systems. Graceful degradation is going the way of the dodo. Instead, we need evolutionary designs, adaptable to a variety of niches.

Companies who have already focused on this typically seek to determine the device being used by a particular user, then serve them content optimized for that device. Unfortunately, with the broad variety of devices in use, it’s difficult to accommodate all of them. Alternatively, they offer a “mobile” or “text-only” link, optimized for users with low bandwidth or smaller mobile devices. Again, we have only a couple of optimizations, and as user trends change, the developers behind a given web application or site must run to keep up.

Built-in design adaptability might work in many cases. For example, a combination of incrementally sized, wrapping modules and liquid layout could flexibly accommodate both broader and shorter resolutions (the Xoom’s resolution, for example, is 1280 x 800). Navigation could be persistent, but fly out on mouseover. Tricky to do, but not impossible. There is no “graceful degradation” because all resolutions are intended to happen. But this is merely robust.

What if the web application itself took this optimization a step further? Imagine these scenarios:

A site that actively analyzes user system demographics and develops UI and navigation options for a variety of interfaces; users can select their preferred default. Depending on the intelligence of the system, these could be based on persona types, or actually customized on a user-by-user basis.

Proactively personalized interface preferences. Based on a user’s interaction behavior, the site infers their content and navigational preferences and presents or suggests an interface matching those. Do they like clicking on tags? Perhaps a tag cloud-driven navigation should be integrated into their UI.

To be honest, I’m not certain what a truly antifragile user experience would look like. But I know we’ll never get there if we don’t think about it; and thinking about it will bring us more robust UX along the way.

references


27 February 2011

Originally posted on UXtraordinary. See the archived original post.

A proud moment at GA: Integrating the highest lesson rubric requirements into the lesson format

Constant learning is constant humility

career, psychology

This morning I shared a bit of what the learning part of design meant to me in an email, and decided to expand on that.

Working in design means constantly learning. You have to make like a sponge and absorb the field you’re supporting, the user’s language and perspectives, the platform your design is being built with, and so much more. In my career alone I’ve supported users in healthcare SaaS, a social network, several technology companies, shoe retail, a veterinary clinic, an advertising/promotional agency - you get the picture. I’m sure there are agency designers and freelancers with an even more varied set of personas.

Sometimes that can be daunting. Many people in this field suffer from imposter syndrome: the sense that they are faking it, and someone will notice someday. The fact that no one has noticed, and that their work is excellent, doesn’t seem to stop them from this underlying insecurity. I would like to suggest that this is less about actual insecurity, and more about the nature of constantly learning things beyond design in order to perform design.

This is my blog. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

nondescript

Seriously, I’ve made many blogs and posts over the years. The demise of old social networks, hackers, and just plain time have ended the usefulness of many of these.

My hope is to make aeoneal.com a place to gather the best of the old and whatever is new under one roof. If you see blogs you previously read on UXtraordinary, aleXfiles, LiveJournal, cognitions.net (no longer mine), offmostcharts, Medium, or anywhere else online, that’s why. Dates are from original posting, or occasionally from the time of an event. Dates after this post are as they happen.

Enjoy!

Beautiful, accessible traffic light colors

design

Cross-posted from my Medium blog.

Gorgeous red, yellow, and green autumn leaves from enneafive of Flickr
Autumn leaves showing off a glorious red/yellow/green palette. Photo by enneafive of Flickr, under Creative Commons by 4.0 license. Links below.

Everyone uses them: Green, yellow (or orange), and red. We use them in data visualization, we use them in buttons, we color text and icons with them and put them into alerts. They are often used in crucial moments, when we are announcing success, or breaking bad news. We abuse them, too, using them to draw attention where they aren’t relevant. What we don’t do, far too often, is make them accessible.

A significant minority of people are color blind, and most of those have red-green color blindness. Since 2011 I’ve had to solve for color accessibility in important interactions, such as alerts for patient vitals, quality of patient care, cloud server status, or executive sales analytics. Here are some accessibility tips I’ve picked up along the way, as well as my personal template for a usable, accessible traffic color palette.