Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Our (possibly) scary future: two data points

In my RSS reader today, I came across two (seemingly) unrelated posts that ended up colliding in my mind and making me feel, well... a bit troubled about certain aspects of our glorious, technofuture.

The first is a video, "What is a browser," (by way of where a guy from Google asks if people know what a browser is. At the end of the day, 8% did. [As an aside, I wonder what the percentage of people who know what a carburetor, the ground wire, pasteurization, the Fifth Amendment, the treble clef and oxidation are.]

The second was a post at ArsTechnica about the re-trial a woman being charged with file sharing. I don't know much about the case. But what struck me about the defendant's testimony was that she had very poor recollection of what she did to/with her computer, when, what caused certain issues, when she was contacted by various organizations and law firms, and -- in general -- lots of stuff connected with her case.

What struck me was not that she had uncertain and (in some cases) conflicting memories of all that stuff. What struck me -- especially in light of the browser Q&A video -- was the realization that *nobody* could ever have really adequate knowledge of what went on with their computer several years ago.

Our computers -- and especially the Internet -- have become appliances. We use them every day for a variety of things. And we, mostly, don't understand them. 92% of us don't know what a browser is. That's OK... I'm not claiming super-genius status because I do; it's related to my job, and I'm a huge techno/computer geek. I don't really know what a carburetor is, yet I use one (I think) every day in my car. I'm not pointing blame or recommending that people "shape up" and learn about their computers. They don't need to, often don't want to, and shouldn't have to.

But imagine somebody asking you, "What did you buy at the grocery store three years ago?" Or, even better, "What items did you launder together on June 19, 2008?"

The defendant's testimony is confused and contradictory? Hell, my memory of what I did *last month* would be confused if you asked me a year from now, and then again a year after that. If you went back and looked at my credit card receipts or phone bill or invoices from a certain company, you'd have a *way* better picture of what I did (relative to those areas) than I do.

We simply don't document our lives. And we're living more of them on the Web. A place that, in some cases, provides a scary level of fingerprint evidence of our behavior, much of which is beyond our understanding.

Did you dowload XYZ on a certain day? Did your friend send you an email with an attachment? Did you back-up files from your iPod onto a hard-drive and then switch to a non-Apple MP3 player? Were you aware that the EULA didn't allow you to have files on more than one computer? Etc. Etc.

Our tools aren't smarter than we are. But they do have better memory.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The path of success is paved with failure

Will Wright is, I think, one of the most important and visionary designers in the video game industry. Years ago, he basically invented the "Sim" genre with the creation of SimCity and, eventually, The Sims, two of the most popular franchises in history. Most recently, he's published "Spore," which, while not as successful as the others is, in some ways, equally important. Or will be, I think, when we go back and look at the history of games in another couple years.

The NYT has a nice interview with Will. Read the whole thing, as he's an interesting and well-spoken guy. The part that I enjoyed the most was where he discussed failure:

When I’m managing creative people, the way they relate to failure is very important. Because there are certain types of failure that you really want to celebrate. I personally learned a lot more from my failures than from my successes. And if you look at it that way, then all my failures, you know, in some sense brought me to my larger successes, because I recognized why I failed, and I learned from it. And so, at that point, you can even argue that it’s not a failure. It’s part of your learning process.

And so, even with interns, it’s kind of interesting to see how they relate to failure. Does it motivate them, do they go a different direction, do they give up or do they learn from it and get some insight and add it as part of their tool chest? In some sense it is an award that they’ve earned.

This parallels a very basic belief of mine that I try to model for myself, and encourage in any team I manage, and in my students. The way I put it, in short, is a simpe, zen-like statement:

The path of success is paved with failure.

Note: not the path "to" success. Success is a path, a journey, not a destination. And, in some senses, the definition of any path is what "paves" it. We talk about dirt roads, cobblestone streets, paved highways. What is a path except that which we utilize to differentiate it from the "stuff" on either side?

Which begs the question... if success is paved with failure, is it possible to fail and not move towards success? I would say, "Hell, yes." A path has a direction and purpose. The act of paving it defines it. So while a particular failure may look the same when reviewed as a stone on the path or a stone in the field nearby, it is differentiated by being placed, in context, with others.

This closely relates to the concept of "The Beginner's Mind," which states that a person who knows they know nothing, that they are a beginner, is going to learn much more than someone who thinks themselves an expert. It also describes a state of mind where one is comfortable being ignorant and making mistakes. Not because we don't care about doing well, but because we understand that to improve, it is necessary to recognize our current limitations. If you think you know something, you don't try to learn it. If you believe you've reached the end of the path, any stones you find will be litter for the roadside rather than building blocks for the future.

The line in Wright's interview that struck me the most was that failure becomes "an award that [interns] have earned." That's exactly right. Creative people need to be given opportunities to screw up without fear that the failure will be regarded as a loss. You will never go beyond where you are now, never experience glorious, new, surprising results if you expect the work of your creative team to succeed based on your current definitions.

Often times, in the teams I've managed, we create this situation by coming up with multiple design drafts for a particular project. Three seems to be the magic number. There's usually the "safe" design, which is what you'd do if you had to whip something out quickly that you know won't be vetoed by anyone. Then there's usually a more "high concept" version, and a more "down and dirty" version, both of which accomplish the goals, but with different and (usually) riskier design and/or copy elements. It's a good exercise.

The best creative folks I've worked with (and that includes my current situation) never resent the time taken to come up with the "alternative design drafts." It helps us think. It helps us grow. It gives our internal customers options, and it encourages everyone to think about the process of creativity as a process, not and endpoint.

Kudos to Will for bringing it up and supporting the idea.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

For a brief, shimmering moment... we're spam free

After my recent WordPress kerfuffle, my old spam filtering plugin went away for a few days. During four days' time, I received almost 300 spam comments/trackbacks on the blog. Fun!

I got the blog fixed (for the moment), got rid of the new spam, and went back and cleaned out about 1,200 old comment/trackback spams that had been sitting around on various pages, just waiting for me to get around to yanking them.

In doing so, I crawled through the all the legit comments I've had over the past (almost) four years here. It was a fun hike through virtual memory lane. Some of the posts were related to timely issues, so they were nice snapshots of something linked to a particular date. Some of the comments were about posts where I tried to flesh out thoughts and ideas, and it was nice to be reminded of a state-of-mind that, in some cases, I have now changed. Polaroids of my younger brain. Neat.

I set a goal, about a month ago, to try to blog at least once a day. That didn't happen. I did blog more... but some days, when you add "tired from work," "stuff to do at home" and "not really turned on by any random concepts," you get no postings.

I also blame Twitter. I've been tweeting both as myself and for work (@OCLC), and something about that process feels enough like blogging to kind of scratch that itch.

I've also been entertaining dark thoughts of dumping this blog entirely. It serves as an interesting vent for me... but I see less and less personal blogging out there these days, possibly because of said Twitterishness + Facebooking. The blogs I read tend to be more professional (BoingBoing) or comic (DinosaurComics) or related to specific topics (TechCrunch).

Going through the comments, though, made me feel like the endeavor as a whole still has value. So I'll keep it up, even if I'm not being as profound as often as I'd like (to think).

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Here is why, eventually, Microsoft is doomed

Yesterday, I discovered the lovely new "not-a-dictionary" word site, Wordnik. Simpy delightful for a verbaphile such as myself. Now, I use the drop-down search engine thingy that comes with Firefox. You know... that little box in the upper right where you can add all kinds of search engine type sites and then choose from the drop-down to search many, many services. I have more than too many on mine. Examples include IMDB, RhymeZone, WorldCat, YouTube, Metacritic and about 10 more. I thought it would be nice to add Wordnik, so I went to the drop-down to choose the "manage search engines" option at the bottom.

Well, lo-and-behold, "Add Wordnik" was available as an option, too! Somehow, Firefox "knew" that I was on a site that had a search engine option that would work with their wee little drop-down, and Wordnik had done whatever it needed to -- on its first day of live service -- to make that happen. I'd never seen it as an option before, and was quite pleased. It saved me from having to go to the Mozilla site and search/add the option. Not a big deal, but I was pleasantly surprised at not having to go through the bother.

So... today I decide to try out Microsoft's new search enging, Bing. I go to the site and play around. OK... it's nice. Kinda different than Google. Not sure if better or worse. Will use a bit more then decide. So, remembering my Wordnik experience, I think, "Hey! I bet there's an auto-add option for Bing in that drop-down thing."


Tiny little start up? Day one of operation? Pass.

World's largest software company? Been doing this for decades? Fail.

I now believe Microsoft is doomed. Tiny markers in the stream, my friends. Tiny markers...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Once again, WordPress has borked

In the words of Tina Fey, "What the what?!"

The good news is I'm getting much better at completely tearing down WordPress and putting it back in again. Bad news is that "better" still means 2 hours of funnin' around. For a blog that's almost entirely something lower than "hobby" on my scale of importance, yet higher than, "whim," that's a bit much.

I am considering porting the blog, old posts and comments and all, to Google's Blogger platform. We'll see how that shite goes.