Category Archives: Thoughts

The Myth of the Digital Divide and a $100 Laptop Holy Grail

MIT's $100 Laptop Recently the MIT Media Lab initiative, headed by Nicholas Negroponte, to develop a $100 laptop for distribution to schools and children in developing nations has been getting a lot of press. See articles at BBC News, the Wall Street Journal, and a Wired interview with Negroponte.

This $100 laptop initiative and similar projects before it, are based on the large assumption that there is a “digital divide” and that this divide needs to be closed by the UN, and those of us in first-world nations.

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Analyt-oops: Send it back to Beta

For perhaps the first time, Google has been a victim of its own success and basically failed a product launch. Last week, they released Google Analytics, without the word “Beta” or any invite-only system in place. Like the other 200,000+ web site owners, I signed up and added the code to track my site stats. It politely informed me that the data would be collected and processed within 12 hours. More than a week later… nothing. Other people have reported varying degrees of success, but Google has now closed new signups and is still struggling to deal with the numbers. As they now say in their modified messaging when I log in:

The demand for Google Analytics surpassed even our highest expectations and as a result some customers may temporarily experience report-update delays. All data continues to be collected and no data has been lost. We are currently adding resources to ensure high-quality service. We apologize for any inconvenience.

If the enormously popular Google can’t even predict the success of one of their products (when every previous product has had fanatical following), then I would start to seriously wonder about Google’s sense of a larger vision. Or maybe Google should be a little more careful when rebranding and relaunching one of their acquisitions.

On that long-term vision note, last week’s article from Cringely, on Google’s fiber and data plans was quite interesting. Maybe they should have waited to have that infrastructure in place, before they decided to start processing traffic data for hundreds of thousands of websites. In the case of a stumble like this, we might see more people heading towards the smaller Mint or Measure Map.

And then there’s the question of what Google might do with all the Analytics data it collects. The obvious choice is to start tweaking it’s pagerank algorithms to give us better search results than ever. I have’t read the TOS closely, but I’m sure that option is in there. For that reason, I don’t think many large web companies will spring for the Analytics option, since it’s just too much information to be giving to a potential competitor. And right now, Google has poised itself to be a potential competitor to just about everything on the web.

Or, maybe you’re just tired of searching the web without getting anything back? Well, here’s an odd one: Blingo is a repackaging of Google’s search, but they offer up the chance at prizes with every search you make. Pyramid-scheme goodness, without any drawbacks?

It’s not all dark and drear

The dark wet winter is upon us in Seattle, but something else also happens during these months. After days of Seattle rain (on-and-off drizzle), we still get the meteorologist-defying day of sun and blue sky. Today was one of those days, where rain was predicted (as of yesterday), but there was none in sight. On these increasingly rare days, it is as if a giant burden is lifted from everyone’s shoulders and moods seem to be slightly better. I think maybe it’s the days of gloom that make Seattle-ites appreciate these types of days all the more, and perhaps why they have so much fun during the beautiful summers. Of course it’s frustrating that we can’t arrange to place these nice days on weekends only. We’ll have to make due with the randomness we get. But on days like this it’s certainly a blessing we don’t need to worry about umbrella pokings, wet commutes, or that seasonally-affected/barometric pressure-induced feeling of blah. At least until tomorrow.

I Could Have Made This

I was sitting in a bar with a friend recently, where there was quite a bit of art on the wall. One of the pieces of art happened to be a red canvas with words painted in black saying, “I could have done this.” After a few minutes of pondering it and laughing, my friend said:

I think 3/4 of all art is made for the beginners who see it and say, ‘I could have done this.’

Maybe it’s an exaggeration or oversimplification or a comment on how much of “art” is crap, but I know most of us have looked at a piece of art and thought, “Huh? I could have done this.” A plain blue canvas? A bunch of splatters? A blank, unpainted canvas?! I’d have to say that context is what helps establish these things in some sort of appreciable light, and it can be fascinating finding out why that canvas with a gash in it was so important. Should you have to know a historical context to appreciate art, or is that an unfortunate by-product of ego-driven art critics in the mid-twentieth century? And if anyone could have made it, then why do we give it so much importance? To that, I would respond, 1. You didn’t make it, and 2. You couldn’t have made it. The “I could have done this,” painting isn’t hanging in the MOMA or the Whitney, it’s hanging in some bar in Seattle, being chuckled at. Maybe this context is ironically perfect, or maybe the artist is just 40 years too late. It also has a $1000 price tag, which might be the real statement. Maybe now I’ll start looking at it with a moment’s consideration and think, “I could have bought that.”

The Tipping Point… Minus the Point

The Tipping PointIf this book is anything, it fits in this new genre of pop-science backed up by anecdotal evidence, written for pseudo-intellectual yuppies (myself included). It’s hard not to compare The Tipping Point to Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics because it or Gladwell’s other book, Blink, are almost always shelved near each other, recommended in the same places on Amazon, and they deal with some of the same issues. Where Freakonomics succeeded with some actual academic credentials, and clearly explained statistics, Gladwell’s book read like… well, a book written by a New Yorker writer. Anecdote followed by case-study, followed by personal experience. But…

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Lucky: How the Seattle Art Scene Kicked Tobacco With the Patch

Lucky Strike vs. Artpatch What the heck does tobacco have to do with the Seattle arts scene? Almost exactly two years ago, Lucky Strike (Brown & Williamson/ R.J. Reynolds Tobacco) waltzed into Seattle brandishing a giant checkbook, and a curious interest in art. A number of organizations gladly accepted the dollars thrown their way, and even a popular weekly newspaper took advantage of the handouts…

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The Fog

No, not the silly horror movie that came out recently. This morning was one of those eerie, real-life mornings where the fog downtown was so thick, you couldn’t see the tops of most buildings. Looking out from the 16th floor here, you could barely make out the surrounding buildings, and sometimes if the fog rolled around just right, you couldn’t see further than a hundred feet. Of course it’s the one day I didn’t bring my camera with me.

My favorite thing to do on days like this is to try to take as deep a breath as possible when I’m walking outside. For once the stale, fishy downtown stench is gone in favor of the cool, refreshing, moist fog flavor. Even though the West Coast is more known for it’s fog, there’s something about the smell that always reminds me of New England.

At noon the sun finally started breaking through the haze, but looking down Pike or Pine you still couldn’t make out the water. Is Puget Sound still there?

Over or Under Debate

At the end of the work day on Friday, a few coworkers and I were lingering in the office and for one reason or another, we ended up on the eternal debate of “over or under.” Yes, in reference to how you hang toilet paper. Doing a Google search yields tons of sites that have put together surveys and informal polls. This debate has certainly been around for years, and the two sides are equally zealous.

Amongst coworkers I was in the minority with my answer of “under.” It’s my preference, and while it isn’t necessarily standard hotel-practice, it makes more sense to me. Plus, if you’ve ever lived with curious, energetic pets, there is another strong argument for the safer “under” method.

How do you hang your toilet paper rolls? New sheet hanging over the roll or new sheet hanging under? Do you feel strongly enough to actually change a roll’s orientation in someone else’s house? Or do you not really care either way?

Note: There is also the “I don’t want to change the roll right now, so I’ll set it on it’s side on top of the toilet” option, which I’m discounting because that’s just lazy.

The Lamest Generation

A while ago, riding the bus up from downtown I heard a male voice in a conversation from the back of the bus say, “I thought my generation was going to change the world. It turns out we were just a bunch of slackers.”

I’m not sure why it struck such a chord, but it seemed like an incredibly sad thing to say, no matter what age you are. I next wondered what generation this person might belong to, which would elicit such a claim. The voice was a pretty non-descript male sound, and as I turned around, I half-expected (with my bus-riding stereotypes in full-effect) to see a younger, disheveled, bitter, homeless guy mumbling to himself. I then heard someone else ask, “How old are you?”
“I’m 55.”
The older gentleman looked perfectly normal, clean-cut, and nicely dressed. It looked like a younger guy in his mid-20’s had asked his age. I couldn’t tell if the conversation continued after that, but I’m sure it would have been interesting.

I’m sure most of it was frustration with his own life and what he’s accomplished, which is too bad. I’m sure there are a few Vietnam veterans who would have smacked this guy right away for the “slackers” comment. And there are plenty of other Baby Boomers who have definitely changed the world as we know it. You gotta have a little respect.

On Tagging

I’ve been talking with a few people recently about the phenomenon of tagging (not the grafitti kind), or “folksonomies,” if you will. The common opinion seems to be that of skepticism. That organization by user-created “tags” or keywords is inherently flawed because multiple users will tag something differently. What happens when one person tags a photo of a VW bug with “automobile” and another tags it with “car”? To me that seems like the beauty of the system, the diversity of classification. Chances are you’ll get another person, or better yet, multiple people, who end up tagging it with both “automobile” and “car”. The system now has enough information to know that in some ways “automobile” and “car” are related and should maybe be placed in the same group.

Flickr has figured this out with their clusters. Here’s a good example of Flickr’s clusters doing their thing, with the word “beetle.” We get one cluster for Volkswagens and one for insects. But there’s also a third cluster thrown in there with the word “macro” similar to the insects cluster. Is it perfect? No, but it’s not bad.

How does handle things? When you add a new bookmark or link to your account, they provide a brief list of suggested tags based on tags that other users’ have entered. This helps with some of the ambiguity, but again it isn’t foolproof. When you’re adding a new site that has never been bookmarked before in, well, you’re on your own. Or head to Tagyu to get some recommendations.

Despite the trouble of relying on imperfect people to classify information on their own, I still think that tagging is where we’re headed in the next big search revolution. In fact, if you think about what Google did with their search and Pagerank, it’s basically a “folksonomy.” Website A links to Website B with the word “automobiles.” Website B now scores a higher pagerank for the word. Who would ever have thought that would make for a good way to search the Internet? For better, or worse, but mostly better, Google has treated hyperlinks as a kind of tag, or descriptor. The flaws in this system are obvious. I mean, look, I just linked to a Wikipedia entry about Google-bombing, using the word “worse.” Does that entry have anything to do with “worse”? It’s a stretch, but not really.

Whichever big internet player grabs an established system like next (I’m rooting for Yahoo!), will have a whole heck of a lot of classified, and categorized websites, ripe for integration with the next generation search. We’ll start to see more blogging software with tags built-in, and photos, links and music all tagged interconnectedly. I can’t wait to see the results. Not to mention the dawn of tag-spam. Spag?

One of Those Days

Nalgene Bottle You wake up extra groggy because you stayed up later than you should have the night before. You head in to work an hour and a half early to get some important stuff done. You cut the roof of your mouth biting into an over-toasted english muffin. You learn that two more people you work with have come down with the same awful flu/cough/throat thing that everyone has had except you. The day is nearly over and some unexpected frustrating stuff goes on, leaving lots of people a bit confused. Said unexpected frustrating stuff will definitely delay the project you came in early to finish, by at least 2-3 months. You realize that the 5 o’clock chimes downtown went off 20 minutes ago, and it’s too late to leave early. You walk out of the building just as the day’s depressing gray sky decides to turn into a pseudo rain. You find standing room only on the bus ride home.

But as always the Summit was open and the drinks were strong.

Designing Emotional, Everyday Things

Design of Everyday Things Originally published in 1988 as The Psychology of Everyday Things, Donald Norman’s book is still every bit as relevant today. Technology has come a long way in 17 years, but we’re still struggling with many of the same fundamental design and interaction challenges (plus a ton more). This book is still considered a “Bible” to many people in fields that even remotely border on design. It was especially interesting reading many of his thoughts on early computers. He predicted almost every challenge in human-computer interaction that designers wrestled (and still wrestle) with, even as computers and software have now become “everyday” things to most people. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has some interest in design, psychology, human behavior, or door handles. Trust me, after reading this book, you’ll never look at a door handle (or water faucet, or telephone) the same again.

Emotional Design The unofficial “sequel” to The Design of Everyday Things, this book, published in 2004, answers many of the questions left over from before. The most prominent of these is simply, “Do aesthetics matter?” They certainly do, and there are many other aspects of everyday things that can greatly affect our perceptions of them. Norman dives into a number of different types of emotional responses that people have to objects. How do we connect with the things we use, and why do we take pleasure in using certain things? I actually started this book before I finished the other (I tend to do that a lot), and in this case it worked quite nice. It was almost as if present-day Norman was having a conversation with his 16-year-ago self, discussing what he had learned, and extrapolating on the strict “usability” subject of his older book. In addition to the case studies and examples in Emotional Design, there is a lot more theorizing and predicting than in Everyday Things. In my opinion, this didn’t work quite so well, and the book jumps around quite a bit between things such as bottled water, teapots, videogames and robots. In particular, I think his videogame section really missed the mark. There was a great opportunity to explore the psychology of “play” and the different emotional investment involved in games. In a lot of ways, my problems with this book were the same as with Freakonomics. There are so many different case studies, and examples, and ideas that are explored around the loose theme of “emotional design” that they rarely went as in-depth as I would have liked. Norman, still has a lot of interesting thoughts, and maybe the ideas that seem far-fetched or off-base in this book, are how his predictions in Everyday Things would have seemed to the audience at that time. I would still heartily recommend this book, especially to anyone who enjoyed The Design of Everyday Things. Donald Norman also has an excellent website full of essays and articles he’s written, and a fun section titled In Praise of Good Design listing products he’s found with memorable and useful designs.

Biloxi Blues and the Drenched Quarter

Insensitive title puns aside, this hurricane Katrina was truly a terrible disaster. As with any natural disaster, no matter how much news coverage we watch or read about what happened, we can’t possibly know what it is like for the people going through it. Thankfully we have the mayors of the affected cities, such as Biloxi, Mississippi telling us what it’s like. Numerous times on CNN yesterday afternoon, I saw his quote, “This is our tsunami.” Phew, thank goodness we have our own “tsunami” now. We certainly wouldn’t want the US to be out-natural-disastered by the South Pacific and Indian Ocean. Just how much like the tsunami was hurricane Katrina?

Death toll: “In the hundreds,” with roughly 250 confirmed, last I read. Let’s go with what seems like the current worst case, say 1000.
Homeless/displaced: “Experts say as many as 1 million.” Current totals are about 1/3 to 1/2 that.
Warning: At least 2 days with known landfall on the Gulf states, with hurricane tracking for a full week prior.

Indian Ocean Earthquake/Tsunmai
Death toll: Somewhere in the range of 200,000 – 300,000
Homeless/displaced: Roughly 1.3 million+
Warning: None (big wave on the horizon is too late)

I’m sorry, Katrina is definitely tragic, but this was not “our tsunami.” To jump to an illogical conclusion, the Mayor of Biloxi seems to imply an American life is worth 250 South Asian lives. I know that’s not at all what he’s saying, but why the need for any comparison at all? Why do we feel the need to equate the relative scale of disasters to one another? As if that weren’t enough, on the news this morning, I heard another quote saying, “it is like Hiroshima.” I can’t remember for sure who it was, but maybe it was the same Mayor of Biloxi. For comparison sake:

Death toll: 80,000+ outright (double that, due to radiation over time)
Homeless/displaced: 150,000 – 300,000
Warning: None (although war could be considered warning for some possible form of destruction)

On top of that, the circumstances of Hiroshima (civilian vs. military casualties, lives saved by ending the war, etc.) are so entirely different from Hurricane Katrina, it is almost ridiculous to associate the two at all, let alone claim that one is like the other. In this comparison, one American life is given the value of 225 Japanese. There are already claims of racism in regards to the disaster coverage, so I won’t continue to go down that route. But why do we have this need to one-up existing disasters? These comparisons are like apples to… no, not even oranges… more like, paper-clips. Yeah, like apples to paper-clips.

I just couldn’t help getting this sinking feeling in my gut after I saw those quotes. At first they seemed like simple, but misguided, attempts to humanize an unspeakable tragedy. In reality they’re just dehumanizing these historical disasters, and at the same time dehumanizing this event. The news organizations already do an excellent job of senseless desensitizing, we don’t need to homogenize every disaster into the same historical pile of generic “bad things.” Katrina is like the tsunami, which is like the Holocaust, which is like 9/11, which is like Hiroshima. No. Not at all. Embrace the shittiness of each one of these tragedies. Let them stand on their own life-altering, jaw-dropping merits, and pitch in.

We’re all sell-outs

After my last two posts, where I skipped around the idea of a “sell-out,” I thought I’d now try summarizing my thoughts on why I think the concept “selling-out” is bullshit. Before writing this, I decided to throw some terms at Google and see who else had already ranted in the same way. Well, lo and behold, I found a rant that mirrored my thoughts and was written more eloquently than I could pull off. The author himself has been called a sell-out numerous times (in fact, I just had a long conversation about him the other night), and is none other than David Eggers… Continue reading

Moral Dilemmas 101

Since morality in itself is a big question mark, how can we learn anything about it except by asking more questions? Here are a few moral dilemmas I’ve witnessed recently…

1. The classic example we witnessed at the Summit a couple months ago. A guy and his girl sitting at the bar, both incredibly drunk. The girl is so drunk, in fact, that she can no longer hold her head up on her own and half-collapses, half-rests on her guy’s shoulder and appears quite passed-out. The guy is now left with two half-full beers, hers and his own. Does he stay and finish the beers he paid for, or does he take his drunk, passed-out girlfriend home?

2. Tipping or giving hand-outs? I’ve seen people who tip quite poorly, but freely give spare change, or the odd bill to panhandlers. Personally, I never give change to people on the street, but I almost always tip close to 20%. Sure, the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but are they even comparable on a moral scale? Is either more admirable than the other?

3. Livestrong bracelets or taking care of yourself? I suppose a lot like #2, this is more a case of “choose your battles.” In the past few days I’ve seen a handful of obese (no, not just overweight) people wearing yellow Livestrong bracelets. Yeah, the Tour is approaching, Lance is going for 7, but part of the idea of the bracelet is also to… um… live strong. OK, fine, this is more a case of irony (and me being rude and insensitive) than anything else.

4. Lastly, there’s the question of people who just finished school… Do you buy them drinks during the busy and tiring work week, or do you save your energy for the weekend blow-out?