Transcript of Panagiotis Michalatos — Slow Down From What (#19)

Please enjoy this transcript. Panagiotis Michalatos on the luxury of choosing to be simple and the emerging trend of simplicity, the power of intuition, questioning our creative interfaces and workflows, and his love for screens. Transcripts may contain typos. You can find the episode notes here.


0:58Nono Martínez Alonso: I want to introduce you today to Panagiotis Michalatos. Hi, Pan.

1:02Panagiotis Michalatos: Hello.

1:03Nono: We're here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, close to Harvard, and I just wanted to say before we get started that I crossed paths with Pan at the Harvard GSD—the Graduate School of Design—when he was teaching, he still teaches here computational design, and he was teaching then structural analysis and optimization. He's been a mentor and advisor for me at my Master thesis, which was titled Suggestive Drawing. Pan is an architect from Athens, Greece, lecturer in architecture technology at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Principal research engineer at Autodesk, and he holds also a Masters in Interaction Design with Art and Technology from Gothenburg, Sweden. Between 2006 and 2010, he worked as a computational design researcher from the London based structural engineering firm, Adams Kara Taylor, where he also worked with Sawako Kaijima and provided a consultancy in design computational solutions for a range of high profile projects, and also helped to develop software applications for the intuitive and creative use of structural engineering methods in design.

1:26 Today, I would love to hear a bit more about yourself and about what you think that led you to where you are today.

1:36Pan: Hello Nono, and thank you for having me here. I don't know where to start. I'm going to say in the beginning that I never planned to be here, and I never plan for more than two years probably. So as you said, I was born in Greece, I went to university there, studied architecture in a very traditional setting but, in parallel, I had an interest in computers and technology that was going back to my childhood. I grew up in the 80s, I was spending a lot of time with my 8-bit computer, then my Commodore 64. And back then, because in Europe we didn't have so many gaming consoles, but mostly home computers, and getting hold of software was difficult, so the way you built new software was through magazines that had listings of programs that you spent hours typing line by line, even machine language, so that you have a little game, a very rudimentary game to play in the end. That was the little carrot at the end of the stick that got us interested, at least my generation in computers, and particularly in the innards of the technology, not just the use of it. So by the time I was at the university, I already was relatively fluent in programming, but I never used any of these skills in my architecture studies. In the five years of architecture studies, I did very little with computation, just because the environment was quite technophobic in some ways.

2:50 Then, I did my Masters in Sweden, because Sweden back then, in the late 90s, was kind of a technology beacon in Europe You have the big companies in Scandinavia and of the Nordic countries, you have Nokia in Finland, Ericsson in Sweden, a lot of new technologies, and a lot of innovation coming from this hub. So that was the reason primarily, I chose to go to Sweden. I did my masters where I focused more on questioning the tools that we were using to design already at that point. In the early 2000s, CAD technologies were pretty mature but we had the emergence of new tools that were more interactive, claiming that you can separate completely design from its material support, that you can resolve this free-form modal link pushed by the industry.

5:21 And for me, my thesis was a reaction to this world, a very simple interface for three dimensional design that was not enabling you to do complex curved geometries because it wasn't my aesthetic. I wasn't interested in doing these things. But I was interested in how we can interrogate and interact with the 3D model in a more fluid way. I was more interested in the construction of the model rather than the complexity of the resultant geometry at this point.

6:00 Then I did a detour again, I also was interested a lot in real time graphics and interaction, and I was working with motion analysis and motion detection and so on. So, I worked for a couple of years with a choreographer in Stockholm called Christina Caprioli and did a lot of interactive installations for her dance performances. That was in a totally different interest of mine, seemingly disconnected from my technical background and my architectural background, but quite interesting to me.

6:44 So, while I was working in Sweden, I got contacted through some friends and there was this position at AKT in London. So I applied there and then I joined the computational research team at the Adams Kara Taylor office. There I met Sawako Kaijima, who was a long term friend and collaborator, and we started, we were the only two that were actually doing computation, and we find ourselves within a structural engineering firm, both with architectural and design background and with computational skills, and we're trying to figure out what we can do with these circumstances.

7:27 At that point a lot of the architects were utilized just to do renderings in this firms, and structural engineering software was very bad at modeling, so it's very counterintuitive, even for engineers, not to mention architects and designers. So we started interrogating, as we were asked to play this intermediary role between designers and engineers: trying to translate information, but also translate content, translate intent, and we started focusing a lot on developing highly interactive user interfaces. But, although yes, there was some some side that had to do with not developing and implementing in structural analysis software in libraries, and there's kind of interesting technical sides to it, for us it was more about how can we use this technology as a glue between the disciplines. Do they both use similar underlined representations for various data structures and their geometric and other kinds of descriptions? How can we use this opportunity to actually improve the communication between two disciplines that were growing further and further apart?

8:43 Again, what was their reaction to the whole idea of the free-form modeling, that the designer can conceive some kind of form in a vacuum and then the engineers will do anything possible to engineer it and dimension it, and the fabricators will do anything about possible not to deviate from this ideal form. So it was a very kind of old fashioned and unreal idea about design and architecture totally disengaged from its material support. We're trying to create tools and workflows for designers that incorporate all this knowledge that was existing in the other sides and in another discipline, and can be directly accessible and usable. At that point for us, software is seen as a way to package knowledge, in a usable form, and a mobile form, and to distribute it. Software is not just a tool, but it's a package of knowledge, of techniques, and methods, and the interest was how to expose this knowledge.

10:03 After five years, working in many architectural projects playing this role and developing a lot of tools, I decided to apply for the position at the GSD, and I moved to the United States. That was back in 2010, where I started teaching at the Graduate School of Design, and with no teaching experience before, I just had to work in a classroom. I left London on the end of August and two days afterwards, I had to walk into a classroom and teach something. I tried to put all my interests and background together and create a set of courses that attempt again to introduce these disparate bits of knowledge: a little bit of technology and computation, combined with engineering, and structural analysis, and all this sort of concrete building related stuff, along with my interest in the arts and performance arts and interaction, and created a set of courses around all these disparate interests. And here I am today, still teaching, still trying to develop new workflows through technology for design. That was a long introduction.

11:39Nono: Well, as you've mentioned already, great part of your work orbits around crafting, like "intuitive experiences," for some reason right? There is something that you gained by making these sort of tools, and I would like to have you define, what do you mean with intuitive interfaces?

12:02Pan: Well, intuitive, it's an overused term, but it simply means that with the average prior knowledge that you have, you can more or less guess what would be the effect of a certain action. And in that case, you don't need a lot of trial and error to figure out the logic of the system. But now, what is intuitive to one person, of course it's intuitive within a particular group of people with a certain educational experience, or certain already immersion into the technology or the discourse of culture. So again, this is contextual, person specific.

12:46Nono: And how do you think those patterns of intuitiveness get established?

12:51Pan: I think educational experience gives us a common language in some ways. There's certain ways we think about things and certain expectations about how things should or could work. I don't think it's a deliberate kind of process, but I think the trivial thing to say is that people with similar experiences, they have similar ways of responding to the world and similar ways of interacting with the world.

13:22Nono: But there are some times that new user interfaces try to create a new paradigm that breaks with things and before, or not?

13:29Pan: Well there is a lot of claims, but I don't know what would be the totally novel user interface. What was new for my generation and in our case, was perhaps the time when the making of the technical tools, of the digital design tools was opened up to the designers themselves. All of the people that were doing this early 2000s, late 90s, into this kind of nefarious world of computational design, had background actually in design and architecture, not in software engineering. So until then, all the CAD tools we were using came from software engineering and with the guidance of the needs of mechanical engineering. So all the CAD software had a lot of concepts and techniques and design workflows that were appropriate for mechanical engineers, and just designers opportunistically appropriated them. But after the late 90s and early 2000s, it was an opportunity to actually build the tools themselves from the ground up to see what is possible, and what kind of design intent already is embedded in the tool before you even start using it.

15:07Nono: In what ways you think that user interfaces made by software architects and engineers, contrast or are different than those made by designers?

15:21Pan: At least in my case, and in many things I have seen, the tools we created were going more towards the specific, going in depth instead of trying to become generic tools that do a lot of things. They were even tools that were project specific, to an extent. Try to create an imminent tool for a particular context, which is trying to encompass a more holistic approach to a very specific problem rather than a very generic approach to a very broad set of problems. I think the specificity gave us different opportunities in terms of how we use visualization, interaction, simulation, all this kind of available techniques and incorporate them into workflows. It's also a way to systematically think about what we used to call design process or design workflow, and to try to encode it and codify it in a way within a software package.

16:38Nono: So we've talked about intuitiveness and in some way it merges with simplicity, but how would you define simple interactions?

16:47Pan: I mean, that is, again, a trivial definition that simple interactions are interactions that don't require a lot of input, hey require the minimal amount of energy or effort in some ways. Whether this is always the best, I just advertised as the best approach from the software and hardware industry. But we had this discussion recently with Sawako, where she said there's some value in decelerating. Once she was using some simulation tools, if you throw massive amounts of CPU power at them, you can have a result very fast, and that means that students tend to do a lot of caothic integrations without thinking. Once the computation, which is not an infinite resource, computation is a finite resource, it's price is revealed. And then running a simulation for example takes six hours, so it has a time cost. And it has also a monetary cost, because these are the energy intensive operations, then students had to think deeply about what kind of model how they would prepare it to ensure that they're asking a legitimate question to the software to be answered.

18:23Nono: So what do you think, on the contrary, are the pros of having real time feedback?

18:28Pan: It's actually training your intuition. Intuition is not a stationary static thing, right? What isn't intuitive one moment becomes intuitive after a while. And that was an early realization we had when we were developing all these structural simulation tools that were giving you near real time feedback. Suddenly, a lot of the structures that I was familiar with from my undergrad in architecture, or some standard solution in certain engineering problems that we know for hundreds of years, emerged in a very clear way about what is the logic that drives them. And even using some of the more advanced optimization tools, after a while of seeing the relationship between design constraints and formal outcomes, you start being able to predict even without the software, what the solution would be. So in that case, the software has this kind of rapid interaction with the software and interrogation of a digital model develops your structural intuition.

19:37Nono: In one of your former talks, I think this is like five years ago on YouTube, you mentioned that designers perceived their discipline in a different way. They perceive their discipline through the user interface that somebody has developed for them, and you posed the question, who designed our interfaces, and why?

20:01Pan: That's related to what I said before. A lot of the software we're using comes from mechanical engineering, and that was the legacy that we inherited even now. A lot of the patterns of interactions, the way the software descriptizes what is a continuous activity of development into discrete actions. The transactional models that live within the software, the ontology is what the software presents to the user. All of these have a legacy that we inherited, and this has become, in a way intuitive part of our intuition, because simply we use it in our everyday work ,but also, we should question it at some point of where its origins lie, and what could change and how.

20:54 So, what are the challenges for designing an interface that some other people is going to use?

21:00 The other people, that's the challenge. I like the idea of an idiosyncratic interface. At least for me, designing and developing a user experience is something that is, in a way: I'm not trying to create a general and generic tool that comes out of asking a lot of people what they would like to do the way we do user experience, or you start this nowadays in commercial software, and trying to use this user feedback. To do it I'm trying to develop a very kind of almost instrual idiosyncratic software that some people might find interesting, some people might find difficult, some people might find useful or useless. But the software itself is a designed object in a way, it has some kind of distillation of my thought process, it has a lot of personnal kind of bias inside. I think that I'm quite interested also, from the tools I'm using when I can discern this mind behind them, instead of discerning this generic, corporate, diffused, kind of driver to see a singular mind, or at least the group of minds that were behind it, and they are reflected in this workflow or interface that I'm using.

22:37Nono: Do you have any application or software interface in mind?

22:42Pan: I don't want to advertise.

22:44Nono: Okay. Would you be able to say any user interface or application that for you is like, joyful to use? Or what kind?

22:56Pan: Well, different kinds were interesting at different points, right. So, I remember the first drawing pockets I used in the 80s, where I spent days editing images, pixel by pixel. I found these really immersive and really rewarding in some ways. This kind of level of, on one hand seeming control over every detail, and the other hand, lack of control because of the limited computational and color resources. You have to express what you want using 16 predefined colours in a very low resolution setting. This kind of both, constraints and control, I found it very appealing. So even the reduced software, that seems to be hampering, you know, this ideal form that you have in your mind, I find it really engaging and productive in some ways. I think even word processors, you know, the first time we use a word processor is an amazing experience, if you have spent years writing by hand or on typewriters. So all these things, at some point, become rewarding experiences.

24:28Nono: What do you think, is the role of automation in the design process?

24:36Pan: That was always the low hanging fruit from the technology standpoint. What computers are pretty good at is accelerating processes, and that is always, not always, but very often, the first approach to how to use digital tools and digital technology in desing. We find the tedious parts of the design, and we automate them, and we accelerate the process. Whether that always has any impact on the quality of the design, it has an impact on the types of designs that are possible within resource, and kind of time constraints. It doesn't necessarily affect the quality of the design. This just opens different opportunites of how you develop new designs. But, for me more interesting than the automation and acceleration is the question of constrained interactions, where instead of saying to the user "look, with my tool, you can do everything, you might be able to do one very constrained thing very well, but also gives you an ability to think a little bit about what you're doing."

26:01Nono: How do you think programming languages influence how software expresses itself?

26:06Pan: Well, it's something that we can already see in a way, there is some part of the lower level data structures and the way things are. Although if you talk to software architects and engineers, they will claim that they have this complete separation, there is a world who operates close to the hardware, close to the metal, that the user never has direct access to. But in reality it's bubbling up, you can see it from the way, I think the more obvious example probably, is the way object oriented programming. When it was introduced into design tools, it enforced certain ideas of ontology, of how you organize hierarchies of geometric objects, how you interact with them, and how you convert from one to another. The whole idea of an object as well, and what constitutes an object was reinforced by these kinds of approaches. We saw this happening more and more, so a lot of the grammar of the tools that are exposed in all the hundreds of toolboxes we interact with, they, in a way, express the underlying decomposition of what is basically a continuous world into discrete actions and discrete objects.

27:01Nono: And can you name something that you have to use, some piece of technology that really bothers you?

27:45Pan: I think technologies are neutral, so I can use, and I use everything in anything. But it's usually what you have to do with a that can be annoying.

28:02Nono: So how's your life different from working at the GSD, working at Autodesk, and working on your own side projects?

28:10 It's difficult to separate these things mentally, and since I work a lot from home, actually, it's not that different. The GSD, or the teaching part, has a lot more intense social and asymmetric interaction with this one to many, that is this is distinctive kind of quality. The research in Autodesk is more collaborative, and my personal project is more kind of solipsistic and idiosyncratic. So it's basically the same tools are applied in within three different social context.

28:53 Can you tell us a bit about your side projects?

29:02 One of my side project was related to teaching, and it was more about developing better and faster libraries for incorporating structural analysis and other simulation and computational geometry methods into design workflows, make this a little bit more accessible.

29:22Pan: I have a few side projects that have to do more with motion analysis and real time interactions, with video based or sensor based information. That goes back to my involvement with the whole performance arts and choreography.

29:40 And a few other tools that I'm interested purely on investigating this idea of, if I make an interface just for developing, designing, an abstract type of object that has not necessarily use, not necessarily connection to real world physics, or not necessarily connection to a particular use case, but simply what this imaginary object that you're trying to design where the design experience itself is the outcome, and not the object that seems like you're building up or interacting with. So,that is one of my interests. Development is kind of very idiosyncratic workflows, where the enjoyment, if you like, comes from the interaction and making of something that has no potential or obvious use.

30:46Nono: So one of your recent applications is Oramata, where you can apply video effects, right, on real time to the stream of your camera?

30:58Pan: Yeah.

30:59 So, why did you develop that one?

31:01 Well, that was basically something, it even contains code that I wrote 18 years ago, or more. I just want to see these things I tested so long ago into a complex format on the mobile, the mobile application and familiarize with the whole process of developing and releasing an app. This was more like a learning experience for me, a side project to get some familiar techniques and code, and develop it within an unfamiliar system so that it becomes familiar too.

31:42 But, the whole idea was not to use the video stream. So when I was developing this motion based filters back in the day, the idea was to create the idea of vision and my scenic vision, but it's not necessarily based on objects and on the way people see the world. So it treats the video stream as a continuum, and looks at movement in a very differential and serial way instead of trying to, yes, recognize faces, and modify the face structure, and recognize objects, and label them, and replace them. So all this kind of more symbolic image operations that are very popular now because of augmented reality, and because of machine learning, were not part of my interest. My interest was not to make computer vision more like human vision, but to actually give an expression to computer vision itself.

32:47Nono: You also developed previously Monolith, which has been named like the "Photoshop of 3d modeling."?

32:55Pan: That was because multi material printers were coming out on the market.That was five or six years ago, and me and Andrew pain, we were approached by some people in strategies, back then it was object that were making the multi material 3d printer, to see if we can design something to test their printers. And, we found out that the technology, the hardware technology was there to print continua, to be able to verify material properties from point to point in space, which was the big promise of the digital manufacturing industry, right. That's, when it started, the idea that you can achieve this control of matter in space. And that was almost there, but there was no software interface, because all of the software interface came from mechanical engineering, from machining, from understanding things as solid homogeneous objects within a void world. So, there is no kind of easy way and easy workflow, or interface, that would allow you to design objects that have distributions of material properties rather than singular, assembled components So the whole idea was, if we do use this technology, ad they'redaware the ttechnology is also wherever on the software sid. So, the biomedical industry has to deal with always kind of data sets that are soft tissues that change from point to point in space. The graphics technique were there for some time now, because the animation industry were interested in smoke effects.. But putting all this together in a coherent design workflow and experience wasn't necessarily tried before Tthe idea was," if we take these kind of technologies, both on the fabrication side and on the simulatio and interaction sid, and put them together in a coherent workflow, what could we do with i?". And the main transition was the idea that you go from a design paradigm, which is based on solid objects and their composition which is discrete, it's based on Boolean operations of some sort, to material continuum, where the designer doesn't think anymore in these terms, but thinks in terms of material distribution in space. And that is the problem, the general problem that I'm trying to solve. So it's not the coherent, compact constructed geometry, but it's a little bit fuzzier, or it can be fuzzier or not fuzzy, then it can change from point in space tpopo

35:53Nono: You also developed the structure analysis and optimization plugin, or library, called millipede. And, from now what I'm interested to hear what was the involvemenrt of other people who've used it? Have you gotten a lot of feedback, people complaining they don't know how to use, or you need to change things, or good feedback of people who like tool?

36:15Pan: So, some of the libraries and the ideas in millipede is things we were looking with Sawako to try to bring the simulation techniques that we knew they were there, and they were widely used, but they were not accessible to designers. And it became also a tool to help us teach. So, there is a core library, which is has a very simple API in order to construct structural models, analyze them, do a little bit of form finding, or various types of optimization. And then there's a few kind of interfaces into it, but you can build on top of it. But, most of the development happened within an academic context. It was always tied to some kind of course, and all the development, publicized. I have seen people using it, I've seen, sometimes because of the color schemes we use, I can recognize images generated by it in some publications and so on, without getting any credit ever. But it was always developed in connection to courses, so what was the academic need, what was the concept that we were trying to explain to students? How can we make this more tangible through the software? And it has a lot of experimental and idiosyncratic side things that are not, you know, obviously related with structural analysis, and so on. It's basically a platform which we add functionality that we want to explore with design students.

37:56Nono: So you've mentioned accessibility and ease of learning for students. I can say from my own experience that like, having those tools is super useful. It speeds up the rate at which you can learn and explore with these tools, and build your own things on top of the core library. What's your take on open source?

38:17Pan: Open source is good. But for example, I would have open source maybe, but the investment required, the time investment required to make the code actually useful, to make it you know, well commented and refactored, and all these is something that I don't have the time for. And I think open source generally makes more sense for infrastructural projects, rather than, you know, very specific applications. You can open source an application, and you see a lot of these kind of open source applications floating around that are never really substantially contributed to other than a set of core developers. So I think it makes more sense in the end for foundational and fundamental kind of libraries that a lot of people will use to build upon rather than applications or very specialized tools.

39:19Nono: Can you name some techniques or things that you've realized that help students learn?

39:27Pan: I cannot get into their mind and understand what, they exactly, they learn. I've seen a lot of both, happy accidents and you know, both realizations that can affect negatively, or missrealization and misunderstanding can affect positively design outcomes. So in that sense, there is no recipe or no way to tell what would be the effect on other people. I have this little software that is using this real time analysis to, and plays like a game. You try to read some objects in space, and you have a given set of supports. And that occasionally, I give it as a toy to the students to tell them, okay, "who can make the structure, that with the least weight will reach this object?". lt has no undo, so once; and it breaks very easily; so every time you put too much material, the whole big chunks of the structure will collapse. And it's very interesting to see it through trial and error over the course of half an hour. something The emergent kind of solutions that students come up with are very well known trust-like structures from engineering. And a lot of the students never had proper engineering courses at this level. That's kind of an interesting to observe. The same with some of the topology optimization stuff we have been toying with. But after a while, you don't really need a digital tool to understand how to put things together in space so they are becomming a little bit more rigid.

41:27Nono: Okay, so we've talked so far about your professional career, and we've covered a lot of user interfaces, and programming in design. Let's talk a bit about your life habits. So,how does your day to day look like?

41:47Pan: I don't know, wake up? I don't know, it depends on the day. I don't have a generic answer that will summarize and a aggregate the totality my days.

42:02Nono: Would you consider your life simple?

42:05Pan: No, nobody's life, I think is simple. Even if you live in a white room, eating the same thing every day, your brain will find this, or it will either find and cut on simple variations and minimal variations that will be exaggerated, or will turn inward. So I don't think there is such a thing as simple life.

42:31Nono: And are there any things that you think make your day more complex right now that you could maybe suppress,or avoid?

42:41Pan: I don't know, I think there's always the same amount of complexity that we can deal with. If it's more complicated than this, you just basically ignore a lot of things around the, I think, the main stressful, yes, but that's a different thing. And it hasn't happen to do with complexity, it has to do with intensity.

43:04Nono: Okay! Do you have any daily habits of less than half an hour that you have realized, have a big impact in your life?

43:14Pan: Don't think I have daily habits. Other than, I spend a lot of time in front of my screen. But that's kind of, more like life rather than habit.

43:25Nono: How's your commute?

43:27Pan: I always, because I don't drive at all, I don't have a license, I don't know how to drive and I'm too old to learn, I always lived at walking distance to where I work, or try to. I try to walk as much as possible.

43:46Nono: Do you exercise?

43:47Pan: Not anymore. I used to run when I was living in London and a little bit after I moved here. But then after a few winters in Boston, you get discouraged. I exercised indirectly by doing some more physical projects or DIY stuff at home. But I don't go to a gym or anything like that.

44:12Nono: Do you do any activities that you consider meditation, meditative?

44:18Pan: It's a cliché to say that some of the programming stuff I'm doing that are very repetitive, yes, they have this kind of aspect.

44:32Nono: Can you name any other activities you enjoy? On your non work time?

44:37Pan: I would enjoy to have more time to do nothing, but that doesn't happen that often.

44:45Nono: So, are you comfortable with boredom?

44:49Pan: No, I don't get bored. I mean, I always found things to do in any context, so I don't get bored, I can find something to work with.

45:06Nono: And what about reading, or books,or podcasts, or other media formats?

45:13Pan: One of my hobbies is basically like the Wikipedia radio, which is listening to some of the BBC podcasts. There's this series by Melvin Bragg in our time, where it has hundreds and hundreds of episodes, very good with tidbits of encyclopedic knowledge. So this is my go to, when I want to have something playing in the background and get some information without focusing too much.

45:48Nono: What do you usually do to get focus on working?

45:52Pan: Staring at the screen is enough. I think screens are constructed by accident, or intentionally, to be stared at, so you don't have a problem focusing on the screen. I think the problem is, you know, looking away from it.

46:09Nono: Are there any distractions that you have?

46:13Pan: In general, I think distraction is just trying to balance different types of work throughout the day in different times. I think the biggest distraction and the most stressful thing I have found lately is emails.

46:30Nono: How do you deal with email?

46:31Pan: I don.t know it's a lot of emails, with small request piling up. Sometimes I just don't check for days, people get irritated, and then they call me. A pattern that I have found consistent with many colleagues as well. I've seen no phones with 30 thousand unanswered emails, unread emails. Because these are requests emanating from people, so you know that there is some kind of responsibility coming with this little signs that pop up. And they become additively a massive mental burden, even if you don't actually open the email.

47:26Nono: What do you think makes you more creative?

47:29Pan: I found that deadlines are a very effective way to be creative. Unfortunately, I cannot put deadlines on myself. So external deadlines, and really stressful situations are health wise destructive, but also productive.

47:52Nono: When do you get your best ideas?

47:55Pan: Randomly?

47:57Nono: How do you approach work in progress projects? So, things that you're doing that are prototypes, and are not on the finished state that you would like to.

48:06Pan: I enjoy the development problem, so I approache them more like a hobby, rather than an actual work. And I have lots of them, but I don't publish or I don't share. But just testing an idea, you learn something in the process, you discover something, and you might or might not use it sometime in the future.

48:33Nono: Is there any activity that you do for deliberately practicing something?

48:39Pan: I think, at least in the coding world, is implementing something that you know well, something you have done before, for example, an unfamiliar platform or language, but is the easiest way to practice and learn something. So, to do something that you know really well, within an unfamiliar tool kit.

49:04Nono: How do you disconnect?

49:06Pan: It depends on what I'm disconnecting from.

49:10Nono: From work, from the internet.

49:12 Oh I don't. I'm pretty happy, I don't feel the need to disconnect from the internet. I'm pretty happy the way things are, and even if it's, you know, my generation I think in the 90s had this kind of positive approach to these technologies as this kind of endless optimism. So if we were to be glued at our screen and connected 24 seven, that was our utopia not our nightmare.

49:46 Do you self impose any restrictions?

49:48Pan: Only dietary ones, I think. [We live in an], obesogenic environment here. So trying to keep away from too much candies and sugar is difficult. But yeah, that's the only kind of restrictions.

50:03Nono: So you mentioned DIY things, what are other analog things that you do?

50:10Pan: We got a summer house in Maine, and that comes with a little patch of forest attached it. So, as someone who comes from Greece, where the trees are rare and grew up in a city which is basically a giant concrete slab, this is a whole new, unfamiliar, environment to work with. So the fact that you can pick up a tree from your backyard, and, you know, do all these things with the wood that you kind of know, theoretically, but you've never seen in practice, how to go from a tree to an actual object. Thats something that is interesting, right?

50:52Nono: So, thinking about how social media is being offered to people, and everyone's like signing up for all the services, names like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, what do you think, is a healthy relationship with these technologies, and what part of their user interfaces do you think are contributing to doing things wrong?

51:15Pan: I don't know, I don't use social media that much. It's kind of a very, very minimal use of them. So I'm not very, as a person who is fundamentally anti social, and I want to keep social interactions at the minimum, social media was not kind of an interesting part of technology for me. I was more interested in interacting with machines, I was more interested in access to information, but less interested in connecting with people through technology. And that is just a personal thing, that's just my personality. So I don't have a lot to contribute into what would make a better platform for communication.

52:01Nono: Is there anything that scares you from the internet?

52:05Pan: No, I think things that probably we couldn't have predicted was the political implications of the internet. One comment that I heard recently, and I think it was quite on point was that, and I don't remember who said it, unfortunately, but it was like, the internet did to our parents generation, what our parents generation thougt that violent video games would do to us. So it created the generation of aging baby boomers who are angry, and fearful, but also they're using the technology to amplify this resentment.

52:48Nono: If you have, how do you deal with digital clutter and digital storage?

52:54Pan: Well, I dump everything in some kind of folder called backup, or to do or to see or to read. It's an infinite graveyard of information. I think it's kind of interesting that, you know, millennials and younger generation and us to an exte nt, we can claim that we like the simple kind of acquisition driven lifestyles, and so on, and it has become an aesthetic of now. But psychologically, I think it's because we can satisfy this basic urge to acquire and accumulate things in the digital world.

53:37Nono: How do you go about the documentation process of what you do on your computer? And what tools can you highlight that you use and are useful for that?

53:48 Well, I think in terms of documentation, I always wanted the software I make to have a presence and an interface, and even the graphics, and everything to be communicated. So for example, a lot of the software that we developed with Sawako, we took very good care in not to have to use an extra editing program, but just the screen capture itself of the software could communicate everything we wanted to. So that was kind of the idea that the software itself should be communicative. Its presentations should have this characteristic.

54:38 Any other digital workflows that you think are making your work life easier?

54:46Pan: I don't know, pretty much still the fundamentals have always been there from the beginning. So some of the big innovations in using computers, copy pasting and storage, and infinite editability of information is there in all the tools we are using. So I cannot think of any very, very specific thing.

55:13Nono: All right. How would you define success?

55:18 I don't think success is a state. It basically defines the conclusion of something. And I don't think that an action can be successful, but a person, or a life, cannot be successful in my opinion. So there is no kind of state of succes. There might be some problem or something that is solved successfully. Some question that is answered successfully, but I don't think it's a kind of stationary state of things.

55:54 Well, that's super interesting. I many times ask, if you can think of one successful person, butyou just basically said that you don't think that a person can be successful. So, could you name I mean, do you have in mind any thing that has been successful? Any process or activity that you can,I mean, that would be the something that comes to mind?

56:18Pan: I mean, tons of them. It could be from you know, boiling an egg, you can do it successfully. Millions of small and big actions.

56:27Nono: Do you say something to yourself every morning?

56:30Pan: No, I'm too cynical for this.

56:33Nono: Can you think of a person who has influenced your life positively?

56:38Pan: Many people, but I would say, maybe my thesis advisor and my undergrad at the National Technical University of Athens in the architecture school, who unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago. His name was Dimitris Papalexopoulos. He was one of the few people people in this institution who had the more less rigid idea about what architecture is, and a very well founded knowledge and thinking in the relation between technology and architecture.

57:26Nono: If you could send one sentence to the world that they would read tomorrow, what would it say?

57:32Pan: I don't think I would say anything to the world. I don't even say anything to most people, my response is usually silence.

57:41Nono: Okay. So after all these years of your career, and studies, and work, is there anything that you would do differently?

57:49Pan: No, because I don't know what the consequences would be. So the way things relate in time, there were so many trans encounters, and I never planned anything anyway, so I never had any life plan to work off. I don't know, what would be the cause and effect of changing anything.

58:15Nono: How would you define nature?

58:18Pan: Well, on the one hand, I don't really believe in the distinction of nature as opposed to what? And there is a kind of an aesthetic category of nature, or in the way we perceive things as natural. That may be something, otherwise everything is natural, everything we do is natural. Paul Valerie's definition of the natural is something that when you look at it, you don't know who or how it was made. And that is one way to define the natural, but it's more like an aesthetic category. There's nothing unnatural, everything that is, is natural.

59:12Nono: Is there any particular about how you distribute your money?

59:16Pan: No, it's totally random.

59:18Nono: And do you know how much you need to live?

59:22Pan: I don,t know, it depends on where you live. Again, it's all very relativistic and I don't think I'm, at this time of my life, the best person to lecture people about how much they need to live.

59:37Nono: Is there a purchase of $100 or less, that has recently had an impact in your life?

59:43Pan: I'm sure there is. There's probably some kind of tool that I'm using, mousetraps had a very big impact. But all have to do it's very utilitarian aspects.

59:58Nono: What's your take on clothing?

1:00:01Pan: I never wore jeans, and I never wear jeans. And I don't know why, but this even when I was a teenager, somehow everybody was wearing jeans, and somehow I always resisted this particular dress artifact. I think like 90% of my clothes are shades of grey shirts.

1:00:34Nono: What about physical objects?

1:00:37Pan: I always liked, in terms of actual physical objects, collectibles. I always liked miniature animals somehow. I still have a lot of them packed in crates and boxes.

1:00:54Nono: I see that your house both here and in Maine doesn't have a lot a furniture, why is that?

1:01:02Pan: It has as much as we need. I think to an extent, this is the result. I don't know how much is innate and how much is the result of having gone through the architectural education, having interacted with people in this field for 20 or more years, that creates a particular distaste towards clutter, right? So is this kind of an almost automatic response or an automatic aesthetic judgment on things. And I don't know if I had taken another career path, or another educational path, if that would have been the case.

1:01:42Nono: Do you ever have to tidy?

1:01:44Pan: Constantly. I like order, but not necessarily cleanliness. Okay, I would clean a lot but I had a friend who said once than that in my room, even the dust is in order.

1:02:06Nono: Is there anything particular about how you travel?

1:02:14Pan: Lately traveling, the past few years, especially since I moved to the US is just a stressful experience, because of all the visas and things like that. You always have this border control, so travel for me is reduced to this particular moment of crossing a border. And that's an experience that I'd never had in Europe before, but I had heard it and read about it from immigrants in the continent. So now suddenly, travel is not that enjoyable for this specific reason to an extent.

1:02:52Nono: Can you tell us what other work do you do for fun? And what's the role of experimentation in your life or your work life?

1:03:01Pan: I mean, I do a lot of programming for fun and developing software, that no one ever gets to use other than myself. In our line of work, our knowledge cycle is a couple of years, so there is a necessity to always try new things and to be aware of them. But there's also an enjoyment, so this wasn't something that I'm doing because I have to do it to become better at my work is something that I always enjoyed. The discovery of this new gadget, or new language, or new software.

1:03:51Nono: How do you understand art?

1:03:55Pan: I don't know, it's one of these human activities that is easier to define by what they are not, usually. But then the actual content of what is, it kind of changes over time and is contested. It's this some form of creative activity that lies on the side of everyday life and utilitarian kind of considerations. Although art has utility in a way, or anything that people do has utility by the fact that it's been done. I don't have a definition, I have read many different definitions in the history of art, and I'm not any wiser. Something that I considere art is something that I'm ejoying, and I enjoy the discourse around art, and reading more about matters of culture, and cultural theory, and theory of art. But I don't have, and I wouldn't try to define

1:05:13Nono: What do you think about trying to slow down in life?

1:05:18Pan: Slow down from what? I think there is this misconception that our lives have accelerated somehow. Yes, we do some things, we might travel faster. But for someone 10,000 years ago that they didn't have any of the technology, the imminent danger of the environment that we're living in and the struggle for food, it would be an equally constant state of stress. So I don't think that we are particularly at the more accelerated individual level. Yes, societies maybe have accelerated in some way, so social developments have accelerated. Kind of communal aspects of life might have changed, but the way individuals get stressed and respond to their environments, human biology hasn't changed.

1:06:22Nono: Yeah no, I mean, I agree that we have more opportunity to not be stressed than ever before. And that probably even being stressed doesn't compare to as people 10,000 years ago could be stressed. But a lot of times we, I think, add unnecessary stress to our lives.

1:06:42Pan: I don't know if it's unnecessary. I mean, we're trying to find like, always we try to find drives to keep us distracted from the fact that we're all gonna die. That's all we're doing. Stress is a postponement of thinking about your mortality in some ways. So in that way it's probably good.

1:07:02Nono: Well, that's a really nice way to see it- I never thought about it that way. What do you think of slack versus scarcity?

1:07:11Pan: Well, that's a very individualistic way to look at this problem, right. It all comes down to the individual's relations with material things. But the other side of slack is also generosity, where the abundance comes from some other person. I think there was something, even in architecture for example, an argument for generosity, in some ways, of creating attention and opportunities, even in spaces is that very few people will ever experience. You know, the cleaning closet, things that we usually overlook, and so on. I think, this whole idea of "do I need more or less in my life?" is a very individualistic way of thinking about this problem. I don't have a good answer.

1:08:23 There are different kind of cultural systems that value; so for example in Europe, you know nordic protestant countries; they have all this legacy of an austere aesthetic, and the value of austerity in everyday life, and having just enough, and so on. Again, this comes from a very individualistic approach to your relationship to the world. In some ways, it was about this idea of, "You can only control yourself, and you're only interested in what yourself can do." In the south of Europe there is this aesthetic regime of superfluousness and abundance, that is not very much in sync with a lot of approaches to modern living, and modern design, and has trouble articulating itself. But it also comes from a culture of generosity and giving, which sometimes can be ostentatious. But this also creates a particular different approach to what is enough. You need more because you want to share also this more somehow. But I wouldn't say that I belong on either.

1:10:06Nono: What role do repetitive activities that you do every day, or many times, that are in part of your life, and what do you think about those?

1:10:17Pan: I think 90% of our lives is repetitive activity, right?

1:10:21Nono: Yeah, how do you how do you approach those? How do you approach the repetitive parts of your life?

1:10:27Pan: I just do them.

1:10:29Nono: We tend to give for granted everything that is repetitive. And we don't acknowledge that, at some point in our lives, a lot of those repetitive things might not be there. We don't we don't have a point to enjoy them right now, because they're so, I mean, they're so abundant, right? Like, we have them day after day, and we don't pay attention at them, as much as, I mean, we could.

1:10:58Pan: The question is, should we? Because in the sense, they form a kind of baseline for life. Life, I think can not be a series of non stop exceptional events. For something to be exceptional, there has to be the repetitive, and the regular. We can examine them, we can document them now. I have this friend, Alberto Fredo, who's an artist, and for 10 years now he has been photographing every single object he touches. So you can see this vast database of images of all the times he ever held a toothbrush, right. You can dissect the daily life in all these different ways. This is possible nowadays, because of the ubiquitous recording. We can have the protestant dream of the fully examined life, whether this elucidates anything else that another question. And I don't know what the answer is, just to keep the repetitive with a minimal attention as a baseline in your life without trying to actively even bring this into your conscious effort to make everything meaningful,

1:12:18Nono: Right, and I would ask, is there anything that was repetitive in your life in London, or in your life in Greece, that now you miss in some way? Or at least some happy memories of things that were repetitive?

1:12:35Pan: I cannot think of anything that I would say I missed. I miss regular interactions with certain people, maybe. But, actual activities...

1:12:50Nono: Ok, I always think of this. Imagine that, let's theorize of this a bit, so imagine that you live in an alternate reality, right? Some other reality, and you have the chance, or maybe, I don't know, after death or something, you have the chance to go into a virtual reality, or like a simulation, and experience, you know, a mundane experience of somebody just going into the tea, or somebody walking on the street, or something like that. And it might be because, I don't know, you're on a deathbed and you're in comma. It's a really weird thought, right? But don't you think that people would want to experience even just the feeling of being hot on the middle of the street walking, that could be a joyful experience.

1:13:40Pan: Perhaps, but in the right context, any experience that is not part of that context. For example, any experienced that is unexpected, no matter how mundane. It's the same thing, right? When Nintendo makes WarioWare, all these games, I think this is a pretty good example in that sense, that if you take the mundane and put it in a context that highlights it, it can become enjoyable, and it can become engaging. For example, they had this Wii U or Nintendo Wii game, the warrior moves, I don't remember, but every five seconds you play in different games, which involves like cutting your nails, and then picking up the phone. So you switch from one interaction situation to another, and you see moments of life. And I think that was very interesting and very successful, and very enjoyable of taking this. But in my personal life, maybe the reason why I don't have this kind of routines that are associated with geographic locations might because a lot of my daily life for many years, even when I was a kid, was around computers, which is a mobile experience. So it's not rooted in any particular geographic location. So maybe taking my computer away and blocking all my access to any kind of computer, that could be problematic.

1:15:21Nono: Do you have any book recommendations or other content that people might want to check out?

1:15:27Pan: The last book I read and I really enjoyed was "The voices of Chernobyl" by Aleksiévich. Just because it gives you a different perspective on an event that I lived through, in a way. It was in our neighborhood, I could see the panic and the news and all these things. And suddenly, you see all these minute everyday details of this world changing so dramatically, from within, that I find very, very elucidating.

1:16:01 I read mostly lately, history and mathematics books. One of the ones that I'm trying to finish right now is the one called "Red plenty". I don't remember the writer, but I got to it because I had an interest in optimal transport theory. This book is about Kantorovich, which was the mathematician who started this field of mathematics. His knowldege was put in use in the Soviet Union as a way where mathematics would be used to organize this perfect society in some ways, and the idea, and the discrepancy between what is possible through planning, and how much mathematically, the technological tools we use now, to what extent can organize and regularize life, and economies, and so on. That's kind of an interesting topic. And it goes to the role of science and technology in human affairs, in some ways, which in our field, is a very kind of current topic.

1:17:29 What about news?

1:17:31 I read the news incessantly. But I think it's just this because it's reading without difficult content, so it's more of a pastime, rather than a real interest in a lot of the news I'm reading. This is the closest to killing time basically.

1:17:56Nono: What's the most exciting thing you did this year?

1:17:59Pan: I spent days stripping the bark of a tree that had fallen in our yard, so that I can have a pristine tree shape.

1:18:16Nono: What is other stuff that you like making?

1:18:19Pan: I like making little computer games, very fundamental ones. It's more like the equivalent of painting for me of a very very reduced system, where I can experiment with graphics and animation a little bit more. This is my kind of creative hobby, if you'd like.

1:18:55Nono: So before I forget, where can people find you online?

1:19:00Pan: Google, and I have some accounts here and there on Facebook and Instagram, but I never almost use it.

1:19:09Nono: So one question I forgot to ask you before, when I asked you about the healthy relationship with technology, whose responsibility do you think it is to teach people who are new to technology on how to actually they should use it? I always see like, we access Facebook, and Facebook is the one that actually teaches us how to use the tool. Or you have Dropbox and they kind of indoctrinated on how to use the tool. You know, we're kind of left out to accepting some terms, and we're out in the wild.

1:19:53Pan: Technology evolves and becomes more multi layered, becomes also more opaque. We saw a lot of unexpected political consequences of technology, a lot of things that most people cannot really understand or not understand. But also predict, for example, we had the a hint early in the 90s, when the internet appeared that there will be some kind of privacy issues and personal data and all these things. This was already surveillance, all these things were already there, but we could never anticipate the extent of this. In the end of the day, I think the only way to address these issues of the right use of technology, is government, is legal. I think what Europe did with the new regulations for what companies are allowed and not allowed to do with your personal data and how they should be transparent, so you need a really bland regulatory framework that won't allow any kind of halls for misuse of technology. For this kind of serious thing; all the rest is like people find their way in terms of how they relate technology; for the serious stuff, it won't come from the technology, from the industry itself, or from the people as a political body. It has to come from government.

1:21:43Nono: Can you mention any future work that we can expect to see from you?

1:21:47Pan: I have some confidential work, and I'll release some kind of mini games at some point that I'm working on. I never plan these things, and I don't know from personal projects or from professional projects what will come out when.

1:22:04Nono: Okay I mean, Oramata is already on the App Store. That's an iOS app, so you can get that one. Well, I think we can finish here. It's been a pleasure and a super great opportunity to be able to talk to you today. I guess this episode will have a lot of ambient noise from birds, and people playing golf, and cars passing, but we're here on the on the outside, surrounded by trees. Yeah, is there anything you want to talk, or you want to say?

1:22:38Pan: Thank you for having me here, it was a pleasure talking to you. I don't have any grand statement.

1:22:45Nono: What's your message?

1:22:47Pan: I don't have messages.

1:22:49Nono: The only last thing I would say.. What do you think about this whole project? And this might not be on the podcast, but what do you think of the whole Getting Simple project?

1:23:01Pan: Well, I think it captures a particular.. It tries to interrogate a particular emerging trend, especially with youth culture, with this kind of recurrent cultural moment, right, this idea that the world is becoming unbearably complex, and we have to simplify our lives

1:23:32 This is kind of very current, I think, cultural situation. And there's some truth to it right? There is the whole idea of the who's the anthropologist who wrote the collapse of complex societies, that as the societies are subjected to different types of shocks, whether its technological or natural, they create more and more regulations and systems to cope with it. And then at some point, they become so complex, that the cost of management overtakes the resources available and that is something that could happen also to individuals to an extent. So I think, that is somehow where this kind of cultural movements come into play, and they have both positive and negative kind of connotations, because this idea of self purification to an extent, it might be half connotations about criticism towards consumerism, and reduction in terms of waste. This kind of ecological implication can have psychological kind of benefits. It can also come from an extreme right perspective, which is about regularising and policing, or self policing, life and desire too much. I'm always ambivalent about this. I'm never a believer, I think.

1:25:21Nono: Yeah, no, I completely agree. I recently searched on, I don't know if you familiar with Google Ingram?

1:25:28Pan: Yeah.

1:25:31Nono: For those of you who don't know what it is, it's a search engine that Google has made where you can see all the appearance of any word or sentence and literature over the years. I was surprised that the sentence simplify your life, or like, simplicity, they're like hype right now. They're almost exponentially growing, so it seems in some way that it's a recurring topic in our days, and it's not something isolated, but it seems like for some reason, a lot of people are, I don't know.

1:26:04Pan: It's presented as an anti consumerism, but it's solely and solidly situated within a consumerism. You need to have the luxury to choose to simplify your life, right? If you don't have anything, then anything that comes your way, you want to hold on to it, because you can lose it, immediately. So the hoarding kind of approach to life comes also from the place of insecurity. It's not accidental that this kind of discourse, primarily emanated from the kind of affluent tech workers in the Silicon Valley, it's a luxury to choose to be simple, in some ways. There's a higher cost in a lot of things that present themselves austere, they're actually more expensive, even monetarily, or in terms of time. There's always this kind of tension between the stated intent, but the context within this intent has emerged.

1:27:25Nono: Yeah, and I heard an interesting idea on a podcast that talked about, what if big tech a companies told you that you don't need to work anymore? That you supply your money and you don't need to work? Right? What will you do? I feel in some ways that we reach a level where we reach a level where our main concern is being comfortable with what we're spending our time with. You know, our responsibility ends up being, what can I do with my time that is worth my time? That's a luxury to even have to ask yourself that question, right?

1:28:06Pan: Yes. Also, there's this kind of almost Protestant ethic of "Oh, I'm going to resist the temptation of consumption, I'm going to rain in my desire", but there is also a pleasure for principle in there as well. These new forms of skepticism, Slavoj Žižek has written a lot about this idea of going to the gym, and the diet, and all these things are new forms of self denial and the skepticism in some ways. And the extreme end of this idea is, for example, severe pathological conditions like anorexia. There's the book again, I don't remember the author, but it's called Holy anorexia, where it examines the lives of teenage girls from the early to middle Christian church where they became Saints because basically, they starved themselves to death, denial of anything of the flesh. It's this this kind of resonances, this kind of extreme religious, extreme manifestation of religiosity, it has some resonances, if not parallels with modern manifestations of anorexia in specifically young women. I think there's kind of a pathological side to these things always.

1:29:53Nono: Yeah, I could spend hours talking to you here, but yeah, thank you so much again. This was one more episode of The Getting Simple Podcast with Panagiotis Michalatos. I hope you enjoyed it, and as always, you can see a detailed list of episode notes and episode links at gettingsimple.com forward slash and the number of the episode. You can join the mailing list at gettingsimple.com, it will help a lot to rate the podcast on iTunes, because that's the best way for people to find it. This was again, your host Nono Martínez Alonso, and this was The Getting Simple Podcast with Panagiotis Michalatos.

1:30:38Pan: Thank you.

1:30:39Nono: Bye!

May 30, 2019


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