I remember clearly the night I fell in love with Chicago. On July 16th, 2004, Mayor Richard M. Daley officially opened his much-hyped and long-overdue Millennium Park. The opening ceremony was massive: circus performers, musicians, actors, tumblers and thousands of Chicago residents turned out to experience this place. I got there just before dusk and first spent an hour or so exploring the park. The Crown Fountain and the now-famous "Bean" Cloud Gate sculpture sounded cheesy when described, but in person they were mesmerizing. They were beautiful on their own, but more impressive in context as they seemed to feed off the energy of the diverse crowd who gathered to seem them for the first time.
I strolled slowly, stopping often to admire the people and the space, finally stopping outside the Harris Theatre where This American Life host Ira Glass was going to "perform" an episode of his show live. The story was about a boy who grew up infatuated with Chicago architecture and featured visuals by Chris Ware, which were projected onto the outside theatre wall.
The sun set, the air was warm, and the crowd watched and listened as Ira spoke. His story was about one person, but the awe this boy felt about Chicago was clearly shared by the people in the audience. There was a palpable sense of happiness and contentment with our city and was unforgettable.
Last week, I said goodbye to this wonderful place. I'll cherish the six years I spent there and look forward to, one day, returning.
The next round of singley.org/TRIVIA starts in just a few days! Sign up for the next 3-week round of fun here.
I'm currently reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. It's a Pulitzer Prize-winner and while the science gets a bit detailed, it's a fascinating account.
Check your local art-house theatre listing to see if Once is still playing. It's a film about struggling musicians, friendship, love and great music. It's told semi-musical style, but without any of your current connotations when you hear the word "musical."
I am embracing my inner geek and am enjoying every minute of season two of Battlestar Galactica. Don't let the scary sci-fi name fool you - this is TV drama at its finest.
So, when you're not enjoying the beautiful, if waning, summer, check out these out!
You're sitting in the doctor's office on your first visit with a new physician. He comes in the room, sits down, and begins asking you routine medical history questions: age, weight, height, disease history, sexual orientation, drinking habits, psychological health, etc. You share this information quite willingly with your doctor because one would assume that he or she needs all of that data to treat you most effectively.
Now let's say you go to the dentist and he asks you the same questions. Some are still relevant, but now you're a little bit uncomfortably that this fellow knows you binge drink 1-2 times/month.
Then you're at the bank opening a new account, and they try to ask the same things. Now, of course, you would object. There is no clear reason why your bank needs to know such intimate details about you and your past.
So when it comes to the information we're comfortable sharing, where is the line? If we feel like revealing sensitive info is necessary to the service being provided and will result in a higher level of satisfaction in this service, it seems we're much more willing to share.
Now you're on eBay and they ask you for your name, address, birthday, location and hobbies. Some of this information they need, some they will use to customize your experience on their website. Are you OK with this? So now where is the line? What information would you not share with eBay, even if they claim it will make the service better for you? My sense is that for most people, they are comfortable giving very little information to a web site unless there is a very, very clean benefit for the customer.
But I think this is changing. Younger people today put an incredible amount of information about themselves online: where they are, where they're going, romantic involvements, family dramas, etc. Kids grew up with a greater level of comfort "living in public."
To me, this is a good thing. I have little problem providing somewhat personal information to an organization if I think I'll get some value out of the sharing. However, there is one other important condition: that the organization treats my information with respect. If they use it to put my name on mass marketing mailing lists, then I'm done with them. But if they show me that they'll only use it to provide me with a better service, then I am an open book.
There is a lot of debate on this privacy topic today in many different areas: online, government, medical, identity - and it really comes down to respecting the data. If an organization can instill trust in its participants by respecting the information they've shared with it, then its participants will be much more inclined to share. Respect is a business model. A policy. A necessity. Embrace it, and people will open up.
Everything that can be said about the iPhone has been said elsewhere at this point, but I did want to take a moment to talk about it, and to talk about Arthur C. Clarke. To quote the man: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
There have been only a few times when I've tried something new and had the feeling I think Clarke eludes to. The Tivo, the iPod, even the Furby come to mind. And now, again, with the iPhone. The prettiness of the screen, the intuitive finger flicking to move from place to place and the attention to detail at every stage make this a stunning piece of work.
So how did Apple do it? How did such a product escape the hundreds of cell phone manufacturers, producing thousands of phones for nearly two decades? There are a few reasons: First, Apple is willing to take risks. They entered a crowded market and both added and subtracted features that potentially narrowed its audience. But they were OK with that - their goal is to go after 1% of the market and have that group love the device, not to please everyone.
Also, they tapped into a near-ubiquitous sentiment: people are unhappy with their phones. Certainly not everyone, but the Apple product designers knew there was definitely a lot of negative feeling out there that they could take advantage of.
Finally, it comes back to Arthur and magic. I really think Apple tapped into something almost primal with the iPhone. When people first use it, their eyes get a little wide, then they smile. It's as if Steve Jobs pulled a quarter out of their ear and handed it to them.
I think anyone building a product can take a lesson from The Great Steve: take risks, look for opportunity in people's frustration, and don't forget the magic.
In last month's Wired Magazine, there was a fantastic article on tasks for which the human brain is still superior to the computer. For instance, selecting words to describe a photo. You can write software to pick out shapes, names of picture files and words used to link to that file, but those often miss the nuances of something as complex as a photograph. So Luis von Ahn, the subject of the article, wrote a game where two players at a time see the same image and generate a list of words they'd use to describe it. The goal is to come up with words that you think the other player would also use. This, apparently, is not only an oddly addictive game but a brilliant way to find the most useful words to describe a picture.
Von Ahn was also the inventor of those groupings of distorted letters, called Captchas, that you'll sometimes see when signing up for an account on a website. Humans can easily tell that a distorted "A" is still an "A," but machines have a harder time.
Captchas are now being used not only for website security, but also to help the Internet Archive's project to scan public-domain books. The idea works like this: you'll see a two-word captcha. The first will be used to verify that you're not a robot to the website you're on, the second is a word that the Internet Archive's scanner had a hard time deciphering. You type in the letters for both words. After enough people type the same thing for that second word, the correct letters are sent to the Archive so they get an accurate scan of their works. Simple, clever and helpful!
It all got me thinking about the power of the human brain. The tasks I just described are simple, but they processing they take are not. How to you describe a flower? Or a CD cover? Or your mom? Simple things for us, nearly impossible for a computer.
The article also hints at the possibilities that could come out of harnessing people's intelligence en masse. I am fundamentally a believer in technology as a way to connect people, and connecting people so they can describe and create things is very exciting. I think that in the coming years we'll start to see more and more ways that collective intelligence evolves with the help of, and in the service of, better technology.
A nice distillation of these ideas and the power of the human/computer connection was captured in a short video by Anthroplogy Professor Michael Wesch: The Machine is Us/ing Us.
A typical wrong number call goes something like this:
M: "Um, hello??"
C: "Ter -
M: "No, this is Eric. I think you have the wrong number."
Just once I'd like to hear something like:
Caller: "Good morning, good mir. May I please speak with Sir Evan Eschmeyer III?"
M: "Oh, I'm sorry, you must have the wrong number."
C: "Oh, gad! I do apologize sincerely for taking time away from your surely busy morning. I shall not trouble you a moment longer. Good day, and God Bless you and your entire family."
I've always been a bit obsessed academically interested in consumerism/consumer marketing. I remember in 3rd grade I was selected to participate in a study on new school lunch options. I sat in a small room opposite a woman holding a clipboard while she watched me sample spaghetti casserole, pizza rolls, and mini hot dogs. In addition to feeling psyched that I was getting out of class to eat snacks, I was fascinated with the process. I was going to decide what my friends would eat everyday at noon? The power! The excitement! The disgustingly chunky marinara sauce!
At home, I was one of those annoying kids who drove their parents nuts every Christmas by asking for 1. the impossible-to-find popular toy of the season or 2. something I read about in a Japanese video game magazine that wasn't coming out in the states for a year. My poor mom and dad. I've been told now that my grandparents drove three hours to Wisconsin to get a copy of the boardgame Fireball Island. Before that it was Star Wars figures, then later the original Game Boy, etc.
Then something strange happened when I hit the age when I could, now and again, buy some of the objects of my consumer lust with my hard-earned summer job money: I found myself just fascinated by the consumers and their consumer lust. I didn't actually want a Tickle-Me-Elmo, but the Ticke-Me-Frenzy was captivating. Then there was the Furby, which I actually did buy, but again I was more struck by the abilty of marketers to make people want, no, need this weird, fuzzy robot. How'd they do it? It is truly a quality product? Genius advertising? An uncanny ability to understand current consumer desires? I started to pay a lot more attention to not only what they were selling but how they were selling it.
Then came the backlash. Being surrounded by angsty, idealistic people in college I went through an angsty, idealistic phase. I subscribed to Adbusters magazine. I built a website on culture jamming. For a while I was the #2 hit when you Googled for "Abbie Hoffman." Advertising was manipulative, and we, the innocent consumers, were victims. Wow, college was hilarious.
I toned it down a couple years later. Sadly, this likely had something to do with my having no cash in school and having at least a wee bit after I graduated. But, I do now look at consumer frenzies through a more cynical, or at least more skeptical lense. I also think of trends more in the Freakonomics sense: what is incentiving this whole process, both on the business and consumer side?
Also, having worked in user experience design for the last 5 years, I pay much more attention to how a product's design, feel and intuitiveness factors into both its commercial success and and it's advertising. Businesses have gotten better at this recently, and consumers have become more savvy and more demanding about product design and usability.
No where is this more apparent then in probably the biggest marketing/consumer fiasco I've ever seen: the iPhone. When I first saw the thing in Steve Jobs' hand half a year ago, it was Fireball Island all over again. And then they just kept pushing: incredible design, amazingly easy to use. You never needed it before, and now you had to have it. And their TV ads are masterpieces. They make the product seem utterly easy yet also packed with practical features. "Sure, I can see myself looking for sushi in San Franciso. How would I do that without the iPhone? I both love and hate Apple for what they've managed to do with this product because tomorrow, I will shed all culturejamming cynicism and visit the Apple Store on Michigan Avenue not to buy just yet (I'll wait to be sure the first batch is solid), but instead to experience the magic. This is Pop Consumerism at its finest. It's also a cultural phenomenon and a fascinating look at consumer psychology. And, it's completely insane. I can't wait to be a part of it.
I got something in the mail from AARP today. It's a sabbatical. I'm working like mad over here! Sheesh.
An extremely suspicious activity: forgoing the preschool joy of peeling delicious pieces of string cheese, and instead going right for the full-on cheese bite.
The first two projects on the sabbatical agenda are complete. You're looking at the first: a long-overdue redesign and recoding of singley.org. Hey, look! We're in an art gallery...sort of! And there's me hanging out on the right, looking all casual-like. I may look chilled out, but in that black-outlined white head of mine I'm brooding about the next projects to hang on the walls of the room...
The second project is the relaunch of singley.org TRIVIA, a game for lovers of fun. The next round starts this Thursday and will last for 3 weeks (12 questions), so get your sign-up on now!
For the morning reading/study portion of the day, I've knocked out the loose articles and periodicals that were making a mess of my to-read pile. Also to help with the piles, I read David Allen's excellent Getting Things Done and am gradually joining the cult of GTD. My Fischer Space Pen is in the mail.
T-shirt impulse buy: I Appreciate the Muppets on a Much Deeper Level than You.. I love muppets. And in other muppet-fun, I came across this Weezer video last week. Animal on drums is fantastic.
Something about "unemployment" sounds so negative. I guess because the only other time I've been unemployed was due to painful dot-com bust downsizing. So, since this break from official W2-and-health-insurance-style work was my decision, I'm going with "sabbatical." Or, to borrow from Seinfeld, The Summer of Eric (without the blocks of cheese and velvet).
The routine is simple, but awesome: wake up by 7:30 (discipline!), exercise, then read/study for about 3 hours. I've built a stack of books for years now and I am nearly-giddy about making a dent. Some of the reading will be purely recreational, but I will also geek out with books on Ruby, Rails, CSS, usability and entrepreneurialism. It will be fun, honest.
After a lunch break, it's on to the computer phase of the day. I'll work my way through a series of project I've tracked in a little brown notebook since college. Most of them have existed only in said notebook until now, but I'm hoping to change that for at least 3 or 4 educational and interesting endeavors.
When the time comes, I'll hit the kitchen and cook up a storm for my wonderful, supportive fiancee so dinner is waiting when she walks in the door. Look out summer organic vegetables; I have your number.
Sorry to interrupt the story, but I wanted to mention that the long-anticipated next round of singley.org TRIVIA begins next week. If you haven't already, sign up now!
I'm really not a good quitter. It was a decision over which I agonized for some time, but I finally decided a few weeks ago to leave my job as a User Experience Manager. Without going into specifics, the company and I were heading in different directions quickly, and the environment had become, shall we say, unpleasant. So, I cleaned out my desk (note: do not buy an "emergency" can of beef stew and store it at the back of your pantry. That's just asking for trouble.), found clever ways to pack up my desk plants, and said my goodbyes to some wonderful people.
I spent the next two weeks clearing my head amonst my people: the Minnesotans. They are a pleasant breed: blonde, smiling, unassertive in their driving but all around wonderful to see.
First, despite near-freezing temparatures, some of my closest friends and I drove north for 4 days to the Boundary Waters for canoeing, camping, and general relaxation. Fantastic. The next week was spent with dad in his garage, with sister in her fancy new Minneapolis apartment, with mom cooking and interpreting confusing new software, and with friends at a wedding.
When I returned to Chicago, it was time to begin The Next Phase. I'd had time with friends, family and the north woods of Minnesota to think about it, and I had a solid plan...
I realize now that the best way to begin again is to just begin again. It's good to be back.