A Discussion on Aesthetics & Engineering

Next week I get to be a panelist at the International Conference on Web Engineering at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The panel discussion is entitled: “Web Page Design- Aesthetics Meets Web Engineering.”

I think that historically (can I say “historically” in web context? I suppose it’s been around long enough by now…) there has always been some kind of a barrier between the “designers” and the “programmers.” The individuals that can bridge that gap, plus get the related disciplines of marketing and library science that are involved with your garden-variety web project, are the individuals that you just can’t pay enough. And yet, no collegiate program seems to effectively take this holistic approach to what is truly the reality of the web business. What is a poor aspiring web developer to do? Read, attend conferences, blog, and participate in the current trends and discussions of web development seem to get most of us there, but the traditional path towards learning a discipline has always been to go to a college or trade school.

Unfortunately, most educational programs I’ve evaluated for the persons that ask me come up short. Either they focus too much on art and multimedia and they miss the technical side, or else they focus too much on the more lofty aspects of computer science, such as artificial intelligence, while completely missing the touchy-feely stuff. And god forbid they should actually discuss things like W3C recommendations, information architecture, or usability. The average college program usually misses the interdisciplinary nature of what most web professionals deal with on a day-to-day basis, and in my opinion tends to steer them in the wrong directions. I can’t tell you how many time’s I’ve been asked to “design” a website, which included a complete visual style and logo, a content management system, shopping cart functionality with secure logins and identity management, and don’t forget the Flash product demo and the initial Apache server setup. Or some combination of those things – it seems no matter how specialized we try to become, at some point one of those things needs doing and someone needs to be able to pick up the ball.

Interestingly, most of the really good web developers I know don’t have computer science degrees or art degrees. Often they come from wherever – an anthropology major here, a marketing major there. They learned what they learned and excelled at what they excelled at out of need and intuition, by absorbing the resources available around them. I know several of my former music colleagues and music school classmates that have transitioned into web careers gracefully. The parallels between music and the sciences are almost too numerous to mention, and have been explored since the days when Pythagoras first wrote about the “music of the spheres.” Indeed music is a perfect bridge between aesthetics and engineering, because certainly the disciplines of music theory, counterpoint, harmony, acoustics, etc., all have direct correlations with mathematics, physics, and computer programming languages. And yet at the same time, music is art in it’s highest form, a thing of pure aesthetic that strikes at the very foundation of the human soul. I am convinced that there is something in the daily routine of practicing music that makes one adept at the sciences. It’s as if the same neurons are getting massaged when you’re doing calculus as when you’re practicing a concerto.

And so, we have this panel discussion. I’m looking forward to this one, because these have always been keen issues of mine.


CrossOver Mac was just announced, and this software should allow Mac OS X users on Intel machines to be able to run most Windows applications on a Mac without having to bother with installing a Windows operating system on your machine.

This is interesting if you don’t need ubiquitous compatability and only need to run a few apps in Windows. Mine are IE6 and Microsoft Project. Really, I don’t see any need to install a full-blown Windows instance if these two items could be satisified by CrossOver.

Slow crawl back to democracy

What we have with the recent 5-3 “Hamadan” ruling in the Supreme Court is the first signs of my beloved country finally crawling itself out of the muck and back towards true democracy:

A President Rebuked, The Nation: Hamdan Decision Reestablishes Human Rights – CBS News

The ruling unambiguously declares that the President may not simply invent trials that conform to no known standard of law, which are not necessitated by urgent battlefield conditions, and deny defense lawyers access to evidence. It also dismantles every element of the Administration’s case, from the conspiracy-to-commit-war crimes charges against the Yemeni national who was Osama bin Laden’s driver in Afghanistan to the necessity of an improvised process governed by no act of Congress. “Any urgent need … is utterly belied by the record,” Justice Stevens writes.

What I find disturbing however is the fact that this is a 5-3 decision and not a 8-0 (or 9-0 if Roberts hadn’t ruled already in favor of the government.) The fact that there are four people on the Supreme Court that would rule in favor of letting the chief executive invent laws by himself — these are Supreme Court Justices mind you — is just mind-boggling. If you’re a judge of any sort, I don’t care if you’re on the Supreme Court or you’re just a judge on American Idol, you lose your place on the bench if you believe that it is OK to just make things up as you go along.