I have learned a great deal from my distant acquaintance Bill Buxton, now some kind of research doyen at Microsoft.

I met him while writing about keyboards in the 1990s. Buxton was always at least marginally interested in talking about accessibility. He worked at – headed? – the U of T “lab” that actually invented multi-touch. As he points out, user-interface inventions take 20 full years to be commonly used, even if such a timeline seems incomprehensible in a computing context.

Of his advice, what has served me best is this: Every intelligent person, or every expert, will immediately say “I don’t know” when they really don’t know. And they’ll be fantastically interested in learning everything they possibly can when they meet an intelligent person or an expert in a different field.

I apply this lesson in particular when I shake down people I meet for their nationality, tribe, and language, all of which I can guess accurately 80% of the time. (But getting it wrong is when one learns.) Soi-disant anti-racists cannot understand that true anti-racism requires knowing as much about an individual as possible.

(I dropped Buxton a line to fact-check a couple of these points and did not hear back.)

Getting yelled at by teenagers

Buxton practised what he preached. I remember a short video segment on TVO with Buxton learning to ride a horse. He had set up his own video camera to record himself and his mistakes. (Another of his many projects, again 20 years ahead of its time, was “telepresence.” The best thing you can do to improve an office videoconference is rotate the cameras to portrait orientation, à la the Pet Shop Boys’ virtualized backup singers.) But he found that the telemetry he’d also set up between the camera and him and his horse had a time lag, so he aimed the camera slightly ahead of his location. Sometimes everything really is about usability.

In the process of learning to ride a horse, I also remember how Buxton told me about getting yelled at by an 18-year-old kid. This is the way he described it to BusinessWeek:

[W]hen at age 40 I decided that I wanted to ride competitively (never having been on a horse), I somehow convinced the top Canadian rider from the Los Angeles Olympics to coach me. I stated my desire to see if I could qualify for the Olympics, and then mentioned that I had neither horse nor saddle. She laughed, but she also took me on, and what I learned over the next decade not only got me on the talent squad of the national team, it helped my other work in myriad subtle and unexpected ways….

So, yes, my coach was an Olympian. But on the other hand, some of my most valuable lessons were learned from a 14-year-old girl who, while laughing at my incompetence on horseback, was also generous with her insights. Was she world-class? No, but her feedback was exactly what I needed. Riding in that environment was a very design-like experience in that we critiqued each other. It was a salient reminder: All of those in training are also coaches of a sort.

In my own ways and in my own fields, I have a range of expertise I would love to share. It has, and I have, been entirely shunted aside, and that expertise is set to die with me, to the satisfaction of many. I cannot emphasize enough how much of a hit some are willing to take if it means the blow they seek to land in a presumed enemy might just possibly finally be the fatal one.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2017.12.09 13:27. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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