Spherical Cows May Want Wires in Their Wazoo, but Leave Me Out of It

For those who have not had any experience with the naivety of some technological creators and/or researchers, you may not have heard of the term “spherical cow”. In that case, I’ll paste the generic form of the joke that you can find on Wikipedia:

“Milk production at a dairy farm was low, so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking for help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the physicist returned to the farm, saying to the farmer ‘I have the solution, but it only works in the case of spherical cows in a vacuum.’ ”

If you’ve ever been in the presence of academia or some suit without a clue, then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. I’ve tried to circumnavigate around all such stupidity, but I haven’t been able to totally escape it. Even when I ensconce myself with dead animal carcasses, it still uses its superior tracking skills, and it finds me. For example, I’ve changed modes of transportation over the years in an effort to find a more efficient one, switching from bus to train to bus…only to have some bureaucratic idiot follow my every step, using his Pollock-like brush stroke to arbitrarily change the implementation of that route (and, consequently, smear the living shit out of my plans).

Recently, it’s come to my attention that I have developed a habit of snoring. In fact, it comes to my attention fairly often, since it usually comes in the form of being hit with a pillow in the middle of the night. Of course, I don’t mind such a gentle reminder; I’m just glad that the pillow has a cushion in it instead of being filled with nails. However, not wanting to be smacked with nocturnal pillows for eternity, I decided to seek assistance from professionals, and in order to help me, they recommended a sleep study. Then, unknowingly climbing into the spherical cow suit, I ventured forth to my own personal form of hell.

The point of a sleep study is to observe and record your sleep, so that a doctor can create a diagnosis for your particular problem while sleeping. Up until this point, everything makes some sense. The implementation, however, is a whole different animal. Now, I don’t know who designed sleep studies, but I would virtually guarantee that they’ve never actually experienced one, since it actually works against an important goal of the study: to sleep. When my doctor first told me about the sleep study, I envisioned a place which was made entirely of pillows. Yes, even the walls were plush! And you would be fed a full meal with a dessert of marshmallow-flavored sedatives…A place built for sleep. I’ll tell you that it’s quite the opposite. You’re placed in a clean room with minimum furnishings and a hard bed. There are cameras and microphones in every corner, recording your moves and sounds. Just before laying down, sensors with attached wires are glued all over your body and head and into your nose (Wireless? When do you think we are, the 21st…oh right), and those sensors are then wired into a harness (with more wires) wrapped around your body. Finally, as you lay down to sleep, the harness is then plugged into a device next to the bed, which gets pushed and pulled if you move around. So, in order to avoid that and unplugging any wires, just lay still and relax. (And, no, we’re not a pharmacy; we can’t give you anything to sleep. Even NyQuil. It’s a legal thing.) Now, go to sleep, you stupid cow.

Sounds tranquil, doesn’t it? I promise you that it’s every bit as much fun as it sounds and more. So, as I tossed and turned (by only several degrees, since I didn’t to unplug anything) the whole night to a morning devoid of any rest, my anger raced towards the question “how”. How could this have passed as the way of doing this? Who in their right mind would have accepted this form of observation? But, more importantly, who had the conscience to design such a horrible form of torture? I thought about it, and it became clear: probably some of the same people who I went to school with. The same people who build things without relating to their creations and/or users. The people who don’t create or innovate solutions; they only implement them. And that’s the problem: it’s just fun to build things. And it’s so much simpler when you don’t have to really care about them. You just build them and walk away.

After “waking up” (Is it waking up when you start counting down until when the alarm clock goes off?) , dressing myself, and then leaving with a hunger for breakfast and the desire to commit arson/defenestration, I began to grok the nature of bad design and to question myself in the process. Do I build things without some form of attachment and/or emotional involvement? I like to think that I never do that…but that’s not true. Sometimes it is fun to simply build something and then to nonchalantly skip away, sometimes with pigtails. Because I like wigs. But that’s beside the point…In the end, I can still curse out the designers of sleep studies; I’m not forgiving them. Are you crazy? What I can say, though, is that I need to use this lesson to remind myself about being vigilant against distraction, to create things with myself and/or my users in mind, and to make my projects a part of myself. I’ve designed and built things which were both fun to create and which were probably of some use to people…but in the end, it was a halfhearted attempt at creation. I should design things that mean something to me, that I would want to use. In fact, it should be something that I DO want to use! I should build something with the idea in mind that I will use this someday…and I look forward to it. So, thanks, designers of the sleep study…you reminded me to be a better person. Now go back to your favorite activity of engineering a better torture chamber for round bovines.


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