Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Chicago Ideas Week Day 4 (TEDxMidwest)

Sorry about the formatting and style of this post. Kind of odd, but here goes:

Day 4 was spent almost entirely at TEDx Midwest.  But first...

Groupon Panel

Focus on doing one thing (the core of your product) really well.  Use short iterations to improve rapidly. You never know what people will do with it until you put it in their hands.

Moderated by Matt Moog (Founder of Viewpoints and BuiltInChicago)
Tech will not be in the same place in four years. What you're learning now is irrelevant. Can you learn? Can you hustle? That's what's important.


Brittany Laughlin Founder of G Trot

Don't hide your product behind its features.

Lon Chow Partner at Apex Ventures

I take the same approach [with the companies I invest in] that I do with my kids: if you want help: I'm here but mostly my job is to make sure you don't hurt yourself then get out of your way.
Entrepreneurship is lonely. Absolutely go in with a team [of friends].
 Josh Hernandez Founder of Tap.Me
Get it out fast. Throw it together. Make it shitty, but most importantly put it in front of people.
  TEDx Midwest

At the Oriental Theater in Chicago, IL

Pablos Holman of Intellectual Ventures 

What he does:  Get together a group of scientists to brainstorm technological solutions to the world's biggest problems.

Interesting ideas: 
*Use all the energy in nuclear waste to power a non-critical reactor. 
  -  There is enough energy in spent nuclear fuel to power humanity for the next thousand years.
  -  Spent nuclear fuel is non-critical, so it can never "meltdown"
  -  Not any more dangerous than storing nuclear waste.
  -  Requires extremely minimal new nuclear material to be enriched (allows for nuclear power at the same time as nuclear disarmament)

*Put dust into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight and reverse global warming. 
  -  Simple
  -  Cheap
  -  Geologists know this works (volcanic events)

*Kill malaria carrying mosquitos with lasers.
  -  Stop the spread of the disease at the source.
  -  Automated: requires little continuous human effort

Bottom Line: 
We know so much about different areas, that innovation today is more likely to come from combining people with different expertises.

Edie Wiener  Futurist
see previous blog post

The (Violence) Interrupters Do-gooders

What they do: Go into violent areas of Chicago, and preach nonviolence.
Idea: Violence can be stemmed from spreading the same way infectious diseases can.
Bottom Line:  Watch their movie to learn more (Official Website)

Alexis Ohanian  Founder of Reddit

Closing the feedback loop in charity, and allowing people to see the effects that their donations have can go a long way toward encouraging people to spend more of their disposable income on charity.  Make charitable giving exciting, competitive and rewarding in ways that it usually isn't, because otherwise you will fail.  The "biggest enemy [of a charity website] is the back button"

Dean Kamen  Founder of FIRST

Make engineering as competitive, fun and valued in grade-school as sports by making a competition out of engineering.  A bit of a misquote, but the idea was:  "Most high school athletes won't be able to make it big, but every single one of our players can go pro.  There are jobs waiting for every single one of them.  What is wrong with a country that values hitting balls with sticks over building things that can save lives?"


Ate lunch with a billionaire CEO and a national geographic photographer (among others). They were notable because they planned a trip to the arctic together over lunch.

Also talked at length with an education policy advocate who I actually agree with a lot. His insight is to give kids real problems and real responsibility in school. Learning comes faster, easier and more effectively. Students behave better and focus more and you give them a real sense of accomplishment when they can make something they're proud of. Lastly, when you get students used to thinking for themselves and reward them for taking responsibility and being social actors, you raise a generation of thinkers and designers, and not just knowers and doers.

The other important aspect of education in this sense, and also in society as a whole, is forgiveness OR the freedom to fail. The startup culture is so awesome because failure is expected. What is valued is guts, drive, and vision.  Labels are so important in society because they _generate_ behavior. This, along with negativity bias, causes so many people to fall into a negative spiral.  You get bad grades one year in school because of family troubles, and suddenly you're labeled a problem student.  You get graded continuously on all your assignments in the US, which means you have to do well from the very beginning. How does that allow _learning_ to happen?!  In society as a whole, too, we need to be more forgiving of people with criminal backgrounds. As the Interruptors prove, even murders can have an extraordinary positive impact on society. We need to get over the notion that people are either good or bad, and realize (as Zimbardo says later) that people are (mostly) just people and only become good or bad as the situation dictates.

Wes Craven  Horror Film Maker

Fear is cathartic when shared. There are deep fears that we have buried in us, and horror films bring that out into the open so we can deal with it.  Fears that "there is no God, just predator and prey" or that the human body is, for all we do, actually incredibly fragile. Horrible stories reassure us that we aren't the only ones feeling this fear and also helps us to dig it out, and externalize that fear.

To me, the most incredible part of his talk was a throw-away comment that he expects someone to make a retelling of the Cronus myth. In case you aren't familiar, the story goes that a fortune teller tells the Titan Cronus that one of his sons will overthrow him. So, in order to hold on to his kingdom, whenever he had a son Cronus would be sure to devour them. This terrible story of a father eating his own children to hold on to his fragile kingdom reminds at least Wes Craven of what is happening in society today. Horror stories also have the power to show us the horrors of our own actions, and be a force for social change.

Phil Zimbardo  Stanford Psychology Professor who proved that people are evil

People are (typically) neither inherently good nor evil, but they are guided by circumstance to do good or evil things.  We know, from his own research, what makes people turn evil, but what is the formula for making people do good?  There are factors like lack of stress, feeling of acceptance, and freedom.  Amazingly, when free to do things people are generally good. Having a system of harsh repercussions for misdeeds adds stress and constrains choice and actually makes people less likely to do good deeds.  This is an ongoing area of research that is surprisingly hard to find funding for.

Rob Warden  Head of Northwestern Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions

The biggest cause of wrongful convictions (including death sentence cases) is the false confession.  Police use immoral and often illegal interrogation techniques to get confessions from people just trying to save themselves.  The problem could be easily solved if police interrogations were required to be video taped and released to defense attorneys: a no brainer legally that is for some reason still not law.

Deborah Fallows  Author of Dreaming in Chinese

You are never too old to learn a foreign language.  

Your brain is amazing at adapting and can learn new languages surprisingly easily, you just need to learn it at a higher conceptual level than children do.  Don't learn by the Rosetta Stone method, learn by conceptual frameworks, pneumonics _and_ immersion together. Realize that in Chinese, they think of the past as being above them and the future as below (a fact you could guess from their writing direction) and then the word 上 shàng becomes obvious as meaning both above and in the past. This is one example of ways in which it is actually easier to learn Chinese as an adult than as a kid.

Hellen Fisher  chemistry.com

There are 4 basic personality types (explorer, builder, director, diplomat) governed by 4 different hormones. Learn to identify that kind of thinking in others and realize they may not think like you.
Love is a 3 stage process: first our "gut" tells us to have sex with them, then our brain has to agree and lastly we get attached. One third of long term relationships started out as casual sex.
Quote of the day: "Anything that's loose rolls into California"

Daniel Hernandez  Saved Congresswoman Gifford's life
"Every past experience you've had is useful to what you're doing now and has helped make you who you are."

John Hodgeman Millionaire
"Two lonely people can't be un-lonely together"

John Ondrasik  Songwriter for "Five for Fighting"
Just create something, because you never know what will resonate with people.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Future of the Global Economy

The following is an essay of my own composition around some of the ideas Edie Wiener presented in her fantastic keynote at TEDx Midwest. Sorry about the length. She brought up some really amazing points in a very condensed time period that made me think of a lot of other things.

("TL;DR Summary")

  • Technology makes us more powerful and smart than ever before
  • Innovation happens faster than ever before
  • Unemployment will raise as machines continue to replace people
  • We need to change our institutions so they can react quickly to innovation
  • We should use our excess labor to change the world

("The Speed of Change")

We tend to think that things are changing faster now than they used to. The past hundred years seems to have exploded with technological change. If you think back to the end of the last century, however, they would say the same thing: that the past hundred years have brought extraordinary growth, unknown in previous ages.

The wise, thus, say that change happens constantly, at the same rate.  The only thing that changes is that our perspective moves forward and thus those changes that happened most recently seem biggest.

The idea that "change is more rapid now is a fallacy" is actually a fallacy.  

Life on earth was single-celled for 7 billion years. It took just 600 million years from the moment multicelled creatures started appearing for all complex life on earth to evolve, and it took just 2 million years for man to come from early apes.

Similarly, civilization has evolved higher level economies based on the efficient solution to human needs at an ever-quickening rate.  We had an agricultural economy for over 2000 years. Just 200 years ago, we started to have an industrial economy. The information revolution started just 40 years ago. Edie Wiener argues that we are already in a new revolution, the emotile economy that started just 10 years ago: an economy of connecting you with people and things that make you feel a certain way.

("Why Faster?")

There are strong parallels with Maslow's hierarchy of needs.  The progression of these economies represents nothing but the mechanization and efficient "solving" of progressively higher human needs. The agricultural revolution "solved" the food supply problem for civilization. The industrial revolution "solved" our need for physical things and our power for physical change in the world.  The information revolution is currently solving our need for knowledge and the emotile revolution has just begun to change, at a fundamental level, how we feel.

Now, obviously, these revolutions don't happen strictly after each other. They feed into each other and innovations in each effect the others. As fewer workers are needed to make food, more people can make tools. The more tools that are made, the less people there are needed to make food. The more information technology we have, the smarter we become and the faster that innovative combinations of ideas can happen.

This not only explains how change accelerates, but also why it always feels fastest in the last hundred years or so.  The rate of change in the next hundred years will be about the same as the last few hundred combined.

("Social Change") 

Revolutions in economy typically necessitate social revolutions as well to remold the social institutions to better reflect the (for lack of a more inclusive word) economic reality.  The industrial revolution saw social revolutions across the world which did away with the institutions that were better suited for an agrarian society.

Unfortunately we still have institutions that are built for an industrial society. 

We raise kids with more stimulation and curiosity and energy and independence than ever before.  We then stick them in the same schools our great-grandparents went to and drug them when they can't sit still and focus on a stale curriculum taught on a black board.  

We have banks and economists that think that wealth should be concentrated and controlled by as few people as possible. We have a government that mediates the voice of the people through several layers of opaque representation and is afraid of asking its citizens to do things.  We have a tax structure that punishes work and encourages harmful behavior. We have old courts, old jails, old regulatory systems, and old intellectual property laws.  

We are only just starting to feel the tremblings of the social revolution in the West and Middle East that the information revolution must eventually cause.

Unfortunately for us, social institutions cannot change very quickly by their very nature of needing to be resilient to whim.  Now that economic revolutions are happening on the order of decades instead of hundreds of years, it is not clear that social revolutions can keep up with the rate of change.

The careful reader may argue that the free flow of information that the information revolution has facilitated should actually speed up the rate and effectiveness of revolutions and allow more small, nonviolent revolutions to happen now than in the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution, after all, was so tough and bloody because the state had mechanized weapons.

How quickly, though, can a revolution happen in today's emotive economy?  What are tanks in Tiananmen Square compared to think tanks on cable TV? How much harder it is to overcome a state that has emotional weapons of comfort and distraction!

This is why companies will continue to overshadow governments in power and influence in society. Our governments (as currently imagined) are not flexible enough institutions to change at the pace necessary in todays world. All that governments can hope to do is set the rules by which companies play together.

("The Future of the Economy")

Edie's description of the future economy is that it will be a "meta-space" economy. The important spaces in this economy are physical space (place for all the people in our crowded world), storage space (where to put all our trash and where to get new resources), temporal space (quantifying time as a commodity), cyberspace (creating ways and spaces to live online), outer space (going off our planet), innerspace (biotech and nanotech) and green space (valuing natural spaces and ecologies). These areas are going to be immensely important as the world gets even hotter, flatter and more crowded.

As the world gets flatter, people in progressively poorer areas move closer to the developed world.  This is great news for them, because businesses can move in and provide (for a price) the development that should have happened there already.  Businesses like WaterCredit.org which finance projects to bring basic necessities to populations that don't have these things can be profitable because it costs so little to purify water and people are willing to pay incredibly well for these basic necessities.  Charity becomes easier, as does "exploitation" which here I put in quotes because it is hard to not see providing clean water as a good thing. The future economy may just be the process of bringing the advances of the developed world to the world's poorest areas.

The problem is that the poorest areas on the planet are by definition poor and can't spend money on much more than basic goods. And the incredibly sad, frustrating news is that they never will.

The problem is this: the rich areas of the world don't need the labor of most of the worlds poor and uneducated anymore. The tragic, terrible paradox of the future economy is that because our tools are so good, we don't need everyone on the planet to be working to solve the rich people's problems anymore, and this means that in a greed-based economy such as we have and always have had wealth cannot flow down to the entire population.

It used to take an entire section of countryside to feed a royal family well in the dark ages. As the population grew and farming / tradesmen improved, more man-power could go into providing the rich with art and enlightenment: and we had the Renaissance.

In the modern world however, a few million dollars can build you a home that Louis XIV would have been proud of, and a mere $50 / month can buy you enough internet to keep you entertained (and happy?) for life. There isn't much higher left to climb on Maslow's pyramid! When solving the problems of the rich becomes too easy, unemployment becomes the norm and not the exception.

("The Way Out")

We need another war.  It is what galvanized the nation after the Great Depression and it is necessary now.  I don't mean a war with another nation.  The planet needs to rally together and focus on solving big problems as a whole.  We have the technology and the human resources to educate the entire planet, to solve global warming, to abolish hunger, to make sure that all water is drinkable, to build a spaceship to go to mars, and more.

The amazing thing is that for as much as this would "cost" governments to do, as a society it would actually cost nothing because there is so much unemployment: unemployment that is not caused by inflation or deflation or stagflation but rather by the fact that solving the problems of the rich is no longer a reasonable way to keep the entire world employed.

In a war, when humanity's very survival is at stake, we rally behind one cause and all contribute to making it possible. This employes not just enough of our population to get by, but enlists the help of everyone.  When everyone is contributing, everyone gets back because suddenly every other human being becomes (economically) valuable.

What mankind needs, at both the private level and at the largest, is a cause of existential importance: working toward a goal not just because you believe in it, but because you will perish if you do not succeed.

The good news is global warming may provide us with exactly what we need.

~Alex Madjar

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Chicago Ideas Week Day 3 (Think Chicago)

The day started off with
a panel moderated by Mayor Rahm Emanuel at Google's Chicago office.

The event was super small, just for the 50 of us undergrads and a couple of the Google employees and consisted half of their pitch for doing startups in Chicago and half of answering questions about how to go about doing it.

The Panel:
1. "Find something that frustrates you in the world and just decide one day to fix it.
      ~ Desiree Vargas Wrigley, Founder of GiveForward
2. "You have to quit your job, cause until then your idea is a hobby and not a passion" 
      ~ Matt Maloney, Founder of GrubHub
3. "It isn't just the idea: it's really in the execution. [...] having a talented team is critical."
      ~ Phil Nevels, Founder of Power2Switch

The Tools:
http://www.builtinchicago.org/ <- "networking"  (which means having good, deep conversations with smart people you respect and trust, not just handing out business cards)
Incubators (traditional like http://www.techstars.com/ but particularly http://www.exceleratelabs.com/  and also specific ones like http://www.healthboxaccelerator.com/)
MBA programs at entrepreneurially focused schools like Booth.

Why Chicago:
Chicago has a newer, smaller tech startup scene than the Valley and is more forgiving than in New York. Other entrepreneurs and investors in Chicago want you to succede: there is less of a inter-competitive spirit between companies and more of a mentorship culture in Chicago than in Silicon Valley. Talent in the Valley jumps from company to company every 9 months: in Chicago you can really keep a team together for a few years without making it big: important because most companies take this long to mature and become successful. Talent is cheaper here than in SV/SF and NYC (good for entrepreneurs, if bad for  talented people!).

Chicago is the city that makes no small plans. It raised Obama as a community organizer and generally believes in the power of individuals causing social change through organization and leadership, including through private, entrepreneurial ventures. People in Chicago, from the mayor on down, want you to succeed because they believe in what you're doing. It is a city that thinks of entrepreneurs as agents of social change and not as high-margin, high-risk investment opportunities.

Oddball Point:
The most important policy choice that a mayor can make to encourage a tech scene in his or her city is to make generous, protected bike lanes.

Next we split into groups for company visits.


It was great to talk to Matt Maloney more privately. He's a seriously impressive individual that exudes puissance, knowledge, authority and calm: seeing him with the mayor he was a bit nervous, but back at GrubHub he was the master in his workshop. Below are some of the most interesting things I learned from talking to him.

A startup is a way of making society more efficient. You make society more efficient, this adds value to society and that's where profit comes from. The internet is making efficiencies in areas across society not only possible but obvious.  This is why it is exciting and important to go into technology now and why this is actually adding value to society and not just moving wealth around.

You should make your on-boarding process for new-hires slow and hire even more slowly. Make sure that you can instill your vision of your company and of the future of the industry into people as they come in, so that the company's vision stays focused. As a founder, once you start hiring people to do all the actual work for you, the only real control you can retain on your company is to make sure your hires understand the goals and the vision and then trust their actions.

The best way to find great people to do design, marketing, business, etc is to find people whose work in these areas you respect, and then ask them who _they_ respect.  You aren't the best judge of who is good in fields you don't know much about, but people you know in these fields do.

It is important to grow your product and idea as a hobby at first, so you can get a product going, get momentum, and learn about your users and their needs, etc before it becomes a matter of the life or death of your company. It is, however, equally important that at the right time you drop that first job and start to pursue it full time.

Entrepreneurship is about finding the better way of doing something. Be flexible and open to change within your company as you are outside it. Constantly ask yourself "is there a better way to do this" and never be satisfied that you've found the best solution.

Always focus on the value that you add to society right now, on the product as it is right now, and on the current users needs.  Don't get too caught up in the high level plan for social change because the way people will actually use your product is inevitably not going to be how you intended it.

Coudal Partners

Next we headed over to a small design company called Coudal Partners.  A fascinating company, Coudal found itself in the recession of the early 2000's in a crisis of identity: it was an advertising and branding company that was doing a lot of work they weren't proud of.  They started trying to make their own videos and, frustrated at the lack of quality packaging for their pilot dvd's, decided to make their own.  The brand they created is Jewel Cases.  Coming off this surprising success, Coudal has continued to make brands and products in whatever area is interesting to them and frustrates them.  They design products that they are proud of and happy using and typically this results in brands and products that other's like as well.  Their biggest brand at the moment is Field Notes: a brand of very high quality, American, adventurous and nostalgic notebooks and pencils that can be found in a variety of high-end male fashion stores.  Their products remind me a great deal of the best of Japanese design, in minimalism, functionality and style but with a rustic, American touch.

Also check out their layer tennis videos, and "field tested books" (such as Stumbling Unhappiness)

The amazing thing about Coudal is that they just said screw you to doing things they don't enjoy. They make products they're proud of and interested in for themselves, and if other people find those things useful and want to buy them: all the better.  Really an inspiring message.

Chicago Ideas Week Day 2

A quick summary of the speakers I heard today and what they had to say.

eric lefkofsky Groupon

The most important thing in a founder is not the desire to win, but the desire to not lose: the passion to see your idea through to adoption.

"I'm worried that we in the midwest don't honor risk-takers. We only honor hard work."
Eric's advice to entrepreneurs: "Mess up in every way possible" _Try_ to fail. Enjoy the taste of learning from failure.

ted leonsis aol and author of "The Business of Happiness"

What Steve Jobs taught us to do, was to see the highest level narrative of what you're trying to achieve, and then focus maniacly on the details until the product matches the vision. Take technology that is already possible and make it palatable to everyone, not just tech geeks. That is the key to a product's success: from aol bringing the internet to people's homes to Apple bringing it to people's phones.

mitch lowe Redbox (movie rentals)

As technology and tools expand, so too does their complexity.  Innovation is realizing the core functionality of a tool and optimizing it to do that one thing really well. Eliminate everything from your product (and even personal life) that you possibly can.  Only then can you focus 100% on what's important.

bo fishback Zaarly

There are five pillars of commerce: location, logistics, information, payment and [I forgot the last one >.<]  Revolutions in how people buy and sell things happen when one of these things becomes easier. Phones and the internet are transforming commerce on each of these pillars. The next billion dollar companies will be the ones that figure out how. HINT: hyper-local, micro-services markets!! Do it right and get rich!
(note worthy quote: "Ben Franklin was the father of, among many other things, sedentary commerce")

* bruce mau massive change network  (* = I really like this guy so I give a longer summary)

Design is the process of mixing creativity, problem-solving, analytical thinking and detailed execution. Design is, in many ways, living itself. We as a society, particularly in education, ignore design. We sillo art and science into separate bins and never let them play together. "My daughter, in her elementary school, is given 38 minutes to do art. That...How... I don't even need to explain to you what's wrong with that. Who ever heard of art taking 38 minutes?"  Businesses are legal, administrative bodies led by legal, administrative people in a way that stifles creativity and doesn't let design happen.  This must, and will, change because now people are starting to realize the importance of wholistic thinking. Samsung used to be a parts maker for Sony, but realized they could design better consumer products themselves.  Apple, a computer company, now has taken over the record labels in music distribution. Design always wins.  Without design, change and progress are evolutionary and random. Designing change allows it to happen consistently and on target. Governments and people everywhere need to learn the tools of design to begin a revolution of driven, targetted improvement to our lives.

gian fulgoni comScore

Lots of statistics. Here's the interesting ones:
The radio took 40 years to reach an audience of 50 million. Google plus took 88 days.
16% of time on the internet is spent on facebook (1% for all other social sites combined)  15% is spent on all video sites combined. (IM comes in third with 14%)
ecommerce for travel expenses (flights, hotels, etc) is $100 billion annually.  All other ecommerce combined is $160 billion.
One in three people shop on their phone while physically in a real store
Takeaway from his talk: use the internet and social media to establish a _real_ dialog with your customers or they will drown you.

tim westergren Pandora

It took two years, 400 pitches to investors and nearly two million dollars of debt before Pandora got the funding it needed to get off the ground.  If you think your idea is good: stick with it.

Lifelens Team

They add a small magnifying lens to a phone's camera, and it can take pics of blood samples with enough magnification and resolution to diagnose infections and disorders like malaria and sickle cell.

travis kalanick uber

"Fear is the disease and hustle is the cure"

Intelligence Squared Debate: Are there too many kids in college?

Arguing "Yes there are too many kids in college" were Peter Thiel, co-founder of paypal, and Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute

Arguing against that notion was Henry Bienen, former president of Northwestern University, and Vivek Wadhwa, a researcher on education and entrepreneurship.

The debate was lively and well informed. All four panelists were excellent speakers (particularly Peter Thiel).  There was a great deal of really solid ideas and arguments, but unfortunately my notes were sparse. The conclusion seemed to be that higher education is generally a good idea, but that there should be some significant reforms in acredation and financing.  Also that America is screwed because China and India are starting to improve their education systems in a big way.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Chicago Ideas Week Day 1

My reactions to some of the Chicago Ideas Week speakers I saw today:

Suze Orman

The Idea: Stop being a child and take charge of your personal finances today!  ALSO: Credit rating should increase if you _don't_ borrow for large purchases.

Best Quote: "Get involved in your own life!"

Worst Quote: "There is nothing wrong on any level with the love of money."

Conclusions: She is an incredibly selfish person who has become successful by telling people what they want to hear.  A charlatan of the worst kind: one who believes her own BS.

What it says about America: We are deeply troubled with our love of money, but are ashamed of that and want someone to tell us it's okay to pursue a materialistic life.  America responds well to parental chiding.

Michelle Rhee

The Idea: Public school accountability. (She's the Washington DC reformer person who came from Teach for America and was featured in Waiting for Superman)

Best Quote: "Teaching is the hardest and most rewarding job on the planet"

Worst Quote: "I use my own two girls as an example: they suck at soccer"

Conclusions: A fairly good speaker and energetic reformer, her "common sense" approach is hard to argue with. I don't agree with her policy positions but she does a great job of getting people to think about the real issues in American education: the opportunity gap.

What it says about America: You can get away with advocating policies that don't adress the real issues as long as you announce those real issues passionately and have a pretty face (see Obama).

Gary White

The Idea: Bringing clean tap water to the worlds 1 billion poorest can be profitable.

Best Quote: "People think the solution to the water crisis will be some 'magic bullet' filter or pump or something, but really we've had the technology for a hundred years [...] There's no reason we can't solve this in our lifetime"

Worst Quote: "... offer a loan at 118%, which is a little exploitative but [at least they can now drink]"

Conclusions: A man offering real common sense. Water is an incredibly simple thing to fix, and potentially very profitable. The free market is supposed to fix this and yet hasn't. Why?

What it says about America: Good ideas that are easy to do are often the hardest to get support for. Charity efforts are more successful if they have sex appeal. Unfortunately problems that have low-tech solutions are generally not sexy.

Daisy Kahn

The Idea: Advocate for Muslims in America.

Best Quote: "If you must compete: compete in goodness"

Worst Quote: "Terrorists use iPhones!"

Conclusions: Muslims are still in a really tough spot in America still. As technology shrinks the world, there is hope that our view of the Muslim world will progressively mature.

What it says about America: We still need an other to fear. Will this need ever go away?

Rob Bell

(Founder of Mars Hill Bible Church)

The Idea: Fear is the root of evil.

Best Quote: "People live with this quiet despair" that there is a big, scary bad world out there and that we, cozy as we are, are powerless.

Better Quote: "Don't deceive yourself with why you don't do the things you think you should"

Worst Quote: "I don't like to tell people about what I'm working on until I've done it" (still not bad: he's a great speaker)

Conclusions: An amazing public speaker who has thought deeply about life and what is wrong with our thinking these days.  I would join his church!

What it says about America: He's actually Canadian, which explains a lot actually =\


Correction:  Rob Bell is actually from Michigan.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Designing for Non-touch Screens in a Touch World

With the dawn of the third generation of “NUI” user interfaces (ie touch, but to a lesser extent gesture and sound) at hand, there has been a great deal of debate, discussion, and theorizing around what these new interfaces will look like. A great many people have focused on the technologies themselves and many more have sought to compare these new interfaces to the old.

Some have been talking openly about the problem of transitioning users used to older interfaces and there has been a lot of work in this area in the private sector. Apple's (of course unannounced) tactic has been to transition users from smaller touch-screens to progressively larger ones (expect touch desktops before long). Microsoft has an exciting and intriguing strategy of re-framing the old interface style (more on this in another post). And Google's new UI seems to be merging the mobile-friendly wide spacing into the desktop experience, as if touch-screen desktops were already here (which, by the way, they are).

Surprisingly few, however, have talked about the opposite problem: how do we design 2nd generation interfaces for users who are used to, and rapidly coming to expect, 3rd generation interfaces?

Even though touch screens are rapidly getting cheaper, many interfaces will stubbornly remain second generation for a long time. Upgrading ATM's, alarm clocks, vending machines, kiosks, telephone booths, industrial machinery, etc is costly and often (heresy, I know!) touch-screens or voice controls are not the right solution.

The problem is this: users are coming to expect screens to be touchable. How often have you tried to touch the screen of an ATM or yelled “speak to a human!” at an annoying, automated telephone system, only to have nothing happen? Did you feel kind of silly?

There is a saying in design: there is no human error, only designer error.

The problem is that these systems were designed at a time when touch-screens were not ubiquitous and when speech recognition was a dream. Users never thought to touch or to yell, because they knew that wouldn't work. So the question becomes, how do we update the design of non-touchscreen interfaces to tell users that they aren't touchable?

For things like ATM's this is actually surprisingly easy: make the labels for the side-buttons text only, and do not put a border around them. This, along with ensuring proper alignment of label to button, clearly identifies the text as a label and not a button proper.

Removing tactile affordances from older interfaces may seem like a step backward because much of the 2nd generation style was built on physical metaphors. As natural user interfaces attempt to more directly embrace these metaphors, we must be careful that the old ones (buttons, layers, shadows, edges, etc) do not take on new, unintended meanings. This is one very important reason to keep touch in mind while designing non-touchscreen artifacts, but there is of course another: the limitations of the touch-screen have taught us important things about interfaces that we didn't know before.

As the Google redesign is demonstrating, there is much to be learned from NUI's. Making UI elements less dense, a necessity for pudgy-fingered touch users, also improves the readability and focus of “traditional” interfaces. Using motion to both react to users moving through the space of the interface, and as a guide towards discovering actions could similarly be brought to “traditional” UI's (as indeed it is in Windows 8).

While “user intent” is still a poorly defined concept, great strides have been made in the domain of the touch keyboard. By clearly narrowing the range of user input to what users “intend” (eg, typing real words) touch keyboards have become amazingly resilient to typos and spelling errors. Older UI's can learn well from this example. To continue with our ATM tutorial, ATM's have a very narrow range of valid amounts to withdraw: auto-correct and verify for cash withdrawals could speed up erroneously typed transactions and prove a less frustrating experience. There are many other such areas in which 2nd generation interfaces can learn from advances in touch.

In pondering the switch from 2nd to 3rd generation interfaces, I am reminded that we've already made this switch before: from terminal (text) interfaces to GUI (2nd generation). After GUI, problems of discoverability, modality, context switching, etc etc started to become visible (literally) and only after being understood at the GUI level did these issues get names and solutions. Terminal applications didn't disappear or die, but they had to adapt and to abandon any hopes of trying to be psuedo-graphical once truly graphic applications became common.

Gone are the old psuedo-graphical MS-DOS apps. Gone (hopefully soon) are the old psuedo-physical screens.

Long live the touch-screen.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

In Defense of Growing Up

In Defense of Growing Up
On the Relationship Between Happiness, Fear, and Innocence


In his survey of religious views on the search for happiness, Richard Schoch concludes with the "paradox" that "happiness feels like growing up." He argues that the process (for it is not a destination) of living a happy life is in fact the process of carefully and deliberately shaping how our lives unfold, and realizing whatever potential it is that we imagine we have. Transforming your life from potential to reality is, he argues, like growing up and is the way to live a good life.

This remains, however, somewhat paradoxical. Happiness (as some classic philosophers would argue) derives from a lack of stress and worry. What could be more stressful than the realization that any action we take now cannot be undone: that in making decisions we collapse the infinitum of possibility into just a single reality? If the choices we make are wrong, then the world becomes wrong and can never be corrected.

Growing up often feels like waking up. The fears of your childhood seem so trivial and surmountable when compared to the things that stress you now that it is no wonder that the poet cries: "what would you give for your kid-fears?" Like the dreamer awaking to the difficulties and horrors of real life, it is tempting to long to go back to sleep: to desire a return to innocence.

Since human experience is what really matters, it is only these experiences of fear or happiness or stress or bliss that are truly real. The idea, then, is that if fear and stress are real, any means to avoid them are ethical: including to ignore them. The simplest and best solution is to just never know that there is anything to fear: to reject from your world-view those things that strike dread in the heart and to thus avoid the barrier of suffering on our path to happiness. To put the idea in three words: "ignorance is bliss"

Even the best attempts at avoiding suffering, however, are doomed to fail. Even as children we had fears. Perhaps these fears seem trivial now, but I assure you that at the time they seemed very real. And here is where this line of thinking runs into a sticky point: if fears are real, than even the most childish of fears is actually the equal of the most "mature" of fears: for what matters is not what is feared but the experience of fear itself.

But this is not to ignore the very real catharsis and "bliss" that comes with falling asleep or contemplating ignorance. Where this catharsis comes from is not from an exchange of fears as we grow up, for one is equal to the other, but rather from the relinquishing of fear. We romanticize our life as children because we have outgrown the fears and troubles that we had then. It is the process of coming out of ignorance, of trivializing our suffering, that makes it blissful; not the original state of ignorance itself.

As we come into adulthood, we are faced with an odd realization: we are "grown up" (as a kid would say) and yet we don't really _feel_ grown up at all. It is hard to pick a day and say "on that day, I woke up and was an adult." This is because the process, like any kind of growth, is gradual and barely perceptible. We are uncomfortable saying that we are grown up, however, not just because it happens gradually, but because we know in our hearts that we are still not grown up.

To say that you _can_ grow up is to imply that you can "graduate" from life, knowing everything there is to know. You can hardly reach the state of being grown up, just as you can't reach the state of being happy: while there is life in you there is unhappiness and there is ignorance also.

The process of growing up is that of relinquishing our attachments. As we grow up we overcome our fear of the bed-monster, desire for the pacifier, and need to know everything. We learn to control ourselves: to sleep at regular hours, eat our vegetables, ignore pain we cannot control and shit in a toilet instead of our pants. It is this process of overcoming our attachments to the physical world and learning to temper our behavior that allows us to judiciously shape our lives, and is thus both the marker of maturity and of happiness.

Even for as far as we have come in controlling our desires, tempering our fears and directing our actions, there is still a very far way to go. The bliss of childhood lies not in our naivety or lack of restraint but merely in the extraordinary progress we made down the path of maturity.

What I offer here is a modest correction of an idea popularized by Peter Pan: To retain the happiness of childhood throughout your life you must not refuse to grow up, but rather you must refuse to ever stop growing up.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Toiletpaper Problem

A Toiletpaper Problem

To truly let this blog live up to its name, I propose the following toiletpaper problem, inspired by real life:

I'm on the toilet (number 2, if you must know) and, because the paper is rather thin, I tear off a good long section to be able to double it over. Upon folding it in half, however, I realize that the piece I tore off is still too long to use! What to do?

WELL: I could tear this folded over peice in half, but this would lead to the unfortunate situation in which the one section would have two layers, unconnected by a fold. As we all know, the layers of this cheap toiletpaper would seperate in such a case.

The problem becomes: how to tear this piece in half such that the two halves end up folded in half and of the same size.

The solution for this was pretty obvious: I ended up unfolding it, tearing it in half, and then folding each half in half.

BUT this gave rise to the question: what if the piece you tore off originally is 3 times the length you want? 4 times? N times?

The algorithm above takes N folds and N-1 tears. But you can do better than this.

Give an algorithm that takes:
N folds and one tear
1 fold and O(log(N)) tears
O(log(N)) folds and one tear

NOTE: O(log(n)) means "order of log(N)" This means that the number of folds grows roughly logarithmically but may be slightly different from what your calculator would say for "log base 2 of N" For example: f(m) = log2(m) + 4; O(f(m)) = O(log(m)). The constant goes away.

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Antithetical Scene

An Analysis of Vernon God Little and Water

The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his work on the subject, proposed that the optimal experience is a state of “flow.” (1) According to Csikszentmihalyi, a state of flow is characterized by the loss of the sense of self and the merging of the emotional and intellectual towards the task at hand. Flow is only achievable if the task is challenging but satisfying.

In the 1930’s Antonin Artaud set out to establish an absurdist theatre of cruelty. This cruel theatre made as its aim the unsettling of the audience to dispel the “shroud over our perceptions” (2). To shatter the audience’s illusions, Artaud argues, the play must bring the audience into the emotional scene and then “cruelly” destroy that false reality.

Bertolt Brecht’s Dialectical Theatre was opposed to this emotional embrace of the audience. Watching the Brechtian stage, the audience is constantly aware that they are watching a play. They are never allowed to enter the world of the play because it is the dialog between the play and the outside world that allows the performance to speak.

To the modern audience, however, neither of these forms of theatrical scene is likely to provide a very satisfying experience, and is through analysis of “flow” that we understand why.

While the typical West-End musical certainly creates an enjoyable experience, it is unlikely to challenge the audience. Absurdist theatre, while certainly challenging, remains unenjoyable. Brechtian theatre, meanwhile, prevents the audience from ever losing its sense of self. For Csikszentmihalyi, and sadly for many of us, this prevents a state of flow.

Today’s audiences expect and deserve to be put into a state of flow: to be challenged, provoked and to still enjoy the experience! To ensure a play’s success in today’s competitive cultural economy[1] and within the audience’s own mental economy[2] a play must do this.

The scenography of two recent productions in London, Vernon God Little (3) and Water (4), merge the gap between the dialectic and the absurd, allowing the audience to experience a state of flow, leaving them both shocked and entertained. Their scene is the creation of a theatrical space that runs directly against the narrative of its story. This contradictory scene derives its voice from a sort of Brechtian Dialectic, where instead of leaving one voice to the audience, it instead presents both voices. One voice comes from the plot that is unfolding onstage and one voice comes, as it were, from the theatre or ensemble itself through a series of strong scenographic choices that directly contradict the voice of the story. This is the essence of the antithetical scene.


Water is a play of missing connections. Graham is separated from his father by space and from his brother, Chris, by time. Claudia separates herself from Joe out of fear and both isolate themselves from the world in their pursuit of greatness[3]. Claudia’s isolation drives Joe away, despite the fact that she carries his child. Joe’s isolation and ego cause him to go on a suicidal dive, and Chris is left with no real family despite the social status he’s carefully cultivated (a fate all the characters share).

The separation and isolation continues on the meta-narrative level, where the parallel plots of Graham and Claudia never intersect. Both characters stay at the same Canadian hotel and at one point they both board the same lift. The audience fully expects the transcendent moment of suddenly intertwined narratives that the production has been careful to set up. The plot, however, denies the characters even that connection and the audience feels cheated and empty when the play ends with neither character ever becoming aware of the other.

However, even as Claudia is unable to work with the international community towards a higher goal (combatting global warming), her actress is busy dashing about the stage becoming in turns a receptionist, a stewardess, even a breathing apparatus, in a highly choreographed meta-scene.

What Water does, in a seemingly Brechtian move, is lay bare the process of theatre-making. There are no curtains hiding the stage crew, no hiding the actors as they deftly switch roles, and the sound effects (an intricate, rhythmic and meaningful music) are not created remotely but are made on stage, in plain view.

Critic Ian Foster noted that the inventive soundscape was created “in the most varied of manners … finding connections in the most disparate of things.” (5) Indeed every sound arising naturally in the scene eventually found its way into Tim Phillips’ music, finding connections with other sounds, other characters and even other scenes.

In a marked contrast to the disjunction of the plot, the scenography of the performance itself is very connected. The very embodiment of Baugh’s “scene-as-machine” (6) each scene gives way to the next as easily and powerfully as the tide. Yet even as we see these wondrous, fluid transformations of space and hear Phillips’ beautiful music this image of effortless power is grounded in the production’s flaunting of the human hands and effort which run that machine.

The story of Water presents a rather bleak narrative of man’s inability to connect and the suffering that surely awaits him. The scene around that story presents the audience with an antithetical narrative: the beauty and puissance that comes from the successful collaboration of the people running the theatre. It is in creating a dialog between the story and the scene that Water finds its voice and simultaneously disturbs and consoles. The story leaves the audience shaken by a sense of futility, but the scene offers the chance of redemption: if only the characters could come together and see (or perhaps hear) the beauty and connections in the scene around them.

Vernon God Little

Vernon God Little presents the opposite relationship between the scene and the story. While in Water the scene contradicts the plot, in Vernon God Little it is the story that undermines its scenography.

Vernon is a play of manipulation and perception[4]. Before the action of the play, Vernon’s best friend, Jesus, doubly outcast from Texan society by being Mexican and gay, goes on a murderous rampage, killing sixteen of their classmates before turning the gun on himself. As the town looks for someone to blame, they turn on Vernon: a move facilitated by the opportunistic sleaze-ball Lally. In a cycle of injustice, Vernon is forced to run, each step incriminating him more in the media-informed eyes of the spectacle-hungry public. Vernon is eventually caught in Mexico when his own sexual desires are manipulated by Taylor, and it isn’t until, on death row, when Vernon decides to “give the people what they want” that his tragedy ends and he can return home exonerated.

Such a story could easily become pathetic melodrama were it not continuously undermined by antithetical scenography. While the story asks us to pity Vernon, a raucous blue-grass band stomps about stage celebrating Vernon’s pain. In the grossly unfair mistrial that condemns Vernon, glittering beads and a gospel singing judge exuberantly endorse this spectacle of justice. And when Vernon’s triumphant resurrection and return home is undercut by his mother’s new fridge, the scene legitimizes her inhuman selfishness by allowing the radiant symbol of consumerism to literally upstage Vernon.

Clearly the production is not asking us to exchange our empathy for Vernon for a fridge. What this antithetical scene presents us with is the story through the eyes of the story’s society. A caricature of mediatized sensationalism, populist blood-lust and rampant materialism, the scene mercilessly reminds us how we would feel about the story had we not the advantage of Vernon’s perspective.

It is the cognitive dissonance between the story as we know we should experience it and the story as we are asked to experience it by the scene-as-society that allows Vernon God Little to act as an intervention. In true Artaud fashion the audience’s normal view is made grotesque and disgustingly false, disturbing the audience both with the distance between perception and reality and by the knowledge that we often do perceive the world in this way.

Foil Characters and achieving Flow

Clearly the antithetical scene has opened new vistas of theatrical expression for these productions, but how does this antithetical scene achieve a state of flow? A naïve but partially correct explanation is that in both Vernon and Water the smooth, unbroken, dreamlike transition from scene to scene helped the productions to flow[5].

In the Csikszentmihaly model, viewing a play is the task of coming to a clearer understanding of the world by grappling with the conflicts and contradictions the play presents. To experience a play in a state of flow, the audience must engage with the task (with both sides of a conflict) at both the reflective (intellectual) and visceral (emotional) level: empathizing with and projecting onto both sides so strongly that the sense of self is lost.[6]

Plays that achieve this typically do so through characterization. In Frankenstein (7), the foil characters of the scientist and the monster as well as the opposing forces of the individual (as represented by both characters) and society as a whole (as represented by the rest of the ensemble, particularly Elizabeth) are each so identifiable and understandable that we cannot help but be moved and absorbed by the conflict between them.

In Water and Vernon God Little it is the representation itself and its opposing presentation that provide us the “foil characters” on which to project our views. In Water we identify with the plight of the characters, and with the hopeful beauty of its soundscape. In Vernon we identify not only with Vernon and Jesus, but unfortunately with the dehumanized, sensationalist presentation which has come to be all too familiar today.

Using the idiosyncrasy of Artaud’s absurd and Brecht’s awareness of the dual layers of representation and presentation, the theatre of antithesis turns its own theatricality into its vehicle of expression: able to simultaneously disturb and console; inform and delight, all the while maintaining its sense of flow.


1. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York : Harper and Row, 1990.

2. Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and its Double. 1938.

3. Norris, Rufus. Vernon God Little. Young Vic, London : s.n., February 2011.

4. Farr, David. Water. Tricycle Theatre, London : Filter and Lyric Hammersmith, February 2011.

5. Foster, Ian. Review: Water, Filter at Tricycle Theatre. There Ought To Be Clowns. [Online] February 5, 2011. [Cited: March 29, 2011.] http://oughttobeclowns.blogspot.com/2011/02/review-water-filter-at-tricycle-theatre.html.

6. Baugh, Christopher. Theatre, Performance and Technology. New York : Palgrave MacMillian, 2005.

7. Dear, Nick. Frankenstein. The National Theatre, London : s.n., 2011.

8. Boorstin, J. The Hollywood Eye: What Makes Movies Work. New York : Cornelia & Michael Bessie Books, 1990.

9. Norman, Don. Emotional Design. New York : Basic Books, 2004.

[1] Plays are competing with cinema and other art forms that already do this very successfully. See footnote 6

[2] What I’m suggesting here is that a play’s goal is to be long remembered by those who see it. A play that is enjoyable but not profound will be quickly forgotten for more recent, pleasant experiences. A play that is profound but not enjoyable will not long be contemplated because of its negative emotional associations. Only the play that is both enjoyed and disillusioning will be long remembered.

[3] In this way the fate of Claudia and Joe parallels that of Dr Frankenstein: damned by their individualist pursuits of greatness; while Graham’s parallels that of the creature: doomed to separation from his bookish progenitor. (7)

[4] As such, it seems to be almost obvious that they should choose to present these themes at the meta-theatrical level.

[5] In this sentence I use flow in both Csikszentmihalyi’s sense and the more quotidian sense.

[6] This is a connection between the work of film critic J. Boorstin and psychologist M. Csikszentmihalyi that I came across in cognitive scientist Don Norman’s book Emotional Design. Its extension into the theatrical realm is, I feel, obvious. (1) (8) (9)