Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Littlest Journey. The Greatest Journey.

First, watch this:

Our story starts with cataclysm and a fraction of a mote of tiny:  a quantum of tininess.  There's incomprehensible light, flame, burning plasma and speed - such speed as no can imagine.  A velocity so great that everything is a passing smear, blended colors of burning reds, boiling blues, brilliant white.

And then darkness.

And cold.  Oh, so cold.  The world is black and the numbness of cold is beyond measure.  It is lonely here, speeding in the dark, out into nothing.

But what's this?  Something tugs, it pulls.  Look!  There is another.  What is it?  Is it me?  Am I it?  It is a mystery, but it tugs at me and soon we spin, together, like two lovers joining hands, a hug between a father and his daughter, two pieces of a puzzle joining.

And there are more of us.  First another pair.  Then eight, sixteen, thirty-two, sixty-four, one-hundred twenty-eight, two-hundred fifty-six, five-hundred twelve, one-thousand twenty-four, and so on.  We pull together, finding one another, but lost in the deep endless blackness.

Still we speed through the void, the endless dark.  There is no edge to be seen, just a world of black.  Yet we continue to find more of ourselves, drawing together.  We are a teeming mass and together we generate our own warmth.  Our own heat.  We bump into one another and it is good.  We have a home and that home is with one another.

There are so many of us now, I feel the crush of the others and this excites me.  We spin and twirl, dance and dive, but always with our pairs, always together.  There is no time, just our endless dance.

But the weight!  The pressure.  The gravity, it tugs, it pulls and as it pulls the excitement builds.  The heat, it is nearly unbearable but fulfilling all the same.  We are together, we are one.

We are a dusty mass, I can feel it, pulling together.  Somehow I can sense our shape, a disk, spinning & flattening.

Oh!  Suddenly light - bright, incomprehensible, burning light.  It is everywhere, it is penetrating, it is blazing.

It is me!  I am the source of the light.  It is us!  We burn, we blast forth into the darkness, illuminating the void, shining out onto the dusty disk spreading around us.  We are the bright watcher, the flame in the black, the steward of ourselves.

We can see other masses in the dusty disk, the gradually growing spheres, not as great as ourselves, but our light bathes them in warm, great light.  Some of them are hard, others are wispy like great dust balls.  Some are dark and black, some are bright and red, others are cool blue or dirty tans.  They race around us, colliding, and dancing about.  Soon there is no dust, but just our companions, little worlds, orbiting about us, reflecting some of our light back at us, gently tugging at us, while we greatly tug, swing them about us.

And there!  In the darkness about us, there is another point of light blazing out of the dark.  And another!  Another!  They are everywhere and they are like us!  The dark is not so dark anymore.  The dark is not so cold anymore.  It is satisfying, knowing we are not the only ones in the void, that there are other bright flames in the dark.  My dancing partner and I, we twirl and spin with an excited happiness.

The pressure, it is so great.  It presses and I feel those around me pulling at me.  Their light shining, pouring out of them.  Some are merging, fusing, becoming.... like me, but different.  They are somehow the same, but  bigger.  Different.  They shine different colors than me.

My spinning, twirling partner grows closer, moving ever closer, our dance pressing closer, our dips and dives tighter and then - in an instant - my partner is me and I am my partner.  We are something greater, a combination of what we were, but now different.  We shine a different color.

The others, around us, they too are fusing, merging into one.  And some of them into others, creating yet something else, something new.  Something we don't know, but once we fuse, we feel right.  We balance.  We find others like us to dance with, or perhaps we find two others smaller than us to dance with.  Still we dip and dive, swirl and twirl, exalt in our bright, burning, existence.

But we cannot dance as fast.  We are heavier.  We are slower.

Soon our light changes, our bright, massive, burning dance moves from brilliant white, to yellow, to orange, and now to red.  We are massive, swallowing some of our companions, making them a part of us, breaking them down into smaller pieces.  They fuse with some of us, some of us with them.

Wait - are we falling?  Why are we falling?  What is falling?  We are racing, falling together into a great, massive, heavy, grave heap.  The pressure:  it compresses, and presses, and constricts, and binds.  Our dance!  We cannot dance.

We.  Must.  Break.  Free.

Bright, brilliant, magnificent light!  Everywhere!  It burns, it excites!  It comes from us and we are racing, again, into the dark void.  Reds and blues and yellows echo around us, flaming plasma into the void.

And then it's dark.  Again.  And cold.  Oh so cold.  But I am still me, merged with my partner and our partners after that.  We are not a part of a great whole anymore, but alone, and our dance is slow.  There is no light, except those others out there, flaming in the darkness.

It is lonely, again.

We are falling towards one of those points of light.  It's just a yellow dot, at first.  But gradually it begins to grow and as we approach, I can feel its warmth.  Just a bit.  I dance a bit faster with my partners.  Just a little.  But those little bits become greater, adding up.  The point of light is now massive, I cannot see around it.

Its brilliant yellow light is everything.

I'm... falling, again!  What is this?  It's blue and white and green and tan.  It fills my sight and a I burn, falling towards it, through a sea of pale blue, towards greens and browns and things.  I am whisked about, floating, then falling, then racing.

Things move about below me, around me, above me.  This one, it inhales me.

I am... what am I now?  I dance about, warm, twirling with my partners.  This thing I am a part of, that I am, it has arms and legs.  It  does not just dance about, it moves, with purpose, it does things.  Things I did not know, but somehow... know?

I feel... joy?  Oh what joy!  I did not know that word, but now I know it.  Love!  I feel love, beautiful warm love, like the brilliant sun I was a part of before, shining through this thing I am, this person.  This person has found their partner, their love, like my bond with my partner, who I first found in the darkness.

These people, they move like we, dancing about, twirling and growing close.  A kiss, a hug.  They build things, they work to understand how I work, how we work, and everything works.  And this love, we create something new with it.

Little other people who dance and sing and love and cry.  A part them is like me, a spinning bit of me, sent from a glowing star to this little blue and white and green and tan world.  They are a part of something and that something is a part of me and at the same time just like me.  But different.

All the while, shining out of the sky at us, are our brothers and sisters, living in their giant bright burning suns. Watchers in the dark, stewards of everything around them.  It is a happy thing.

We live.  We love.  We cry.  We are angry.  We are happy.  We are sad.  We aspire.  We are rejected.  We destroy.  We create.  Life is beautiful and it is hard and it is easy and it whips us about.  Still, we dance our dance with our partners.  Sometimes they leave, sometimes they return.  But we always find our dipping and diving partners while we experience this life as a person.

What is this?  Someone has... died?  Our partner!  Our love!  What is this, death?  I feel... sadness.  Oh what sadness.  Crushing, black, dark sadness.  It is like the cold, racing darkness.  I am warm, but cold, feeling this.  But those others, like me, they are still there.  They are moving on, no longer a person, but part of this little world.

They are a part of its blue skies, white clouds, green forests, tan ground.

And soon, my person, too, is near death  It is tough to function.  Things don't move like they should and I cannot dance with who I should while inside and moving about this person.  Then it becomes cold, again.

Not like the deep, never ending dark.  But it is cooler here.  The sun still shines in the sky, spreading its warm embrace across the land.  Maybe soon I will be a part of another person and those things that are uniquely living - love, hate, happiness, and sadness - will be a part of me and myself a part of them, again.

It will happen, in time, because I am star dust and sometimes I burn in the brightest star, over flowing with energy, and sometimes I am part of a person, aware.

Monday, April 30, 2012

On Poetry: Against All We Thought We Knew

I figured I'd end National Poetry Month with another of my sappy love poems from years ago.  This was written with the hope in mind that I'd, as a introspective and wanderlust-obsessed teenager, find someone to truly fall in love with.

Enjoy!  & as always, feel free to link to or +1.

Against All We Thought We Knew

How much time do we spend 
Sending prayers to silent skies 
While trying not to give in 
To lonely, desperate sighs

We're always asking when 
We're always asking who 
Thinking of all that's been 
Love that hasn't proved true 

Then water falls on a field 
Barren, where no love grew 
Hard soil that's slow to yield 
Against all we thought we knew 

A smile and a slow, sweet kiss 
A hug and two hands, together 
In those hearts, there's a bliss 
In those hearts, there's another 

Life without and love without 
Another soul and another heart 
Is no life, just more doubt 
Its love tearing itself apart

- Ryan A. Goodwin

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bad business is just about money. Good business is about a great product.

+Mark Zuckerberg wrote in the Facebook prospectus: "we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services."

This is being presented by Nicholas Carlson at Business Insider in his article "The Problem With Mark Zuckerberg" as a problem, that shareholders should watch out. The implication is that the only reason a business exists is to make money. His words:

There is a nagging concern for potential Facebook shareholders: the guy running the company doesn't care that much about making money.
Mr. Carlson goes on to highlight this comment, from a co worker of Zuckerberg's, as a thing to cause concern:
if he had to choose, he'd rather be the most important/influential person in the world rather than the richest.
Doesn't this seem like a tremendous loss of perspective? Companies exist to provide a service - the money comes from the service or product provided. The companies that provide the best services are the ones that make the most money, with the money made a result of the service provided. People pay for a product, they don't just hand you cash.

Mr. Carlson tries to use +Larry Page and +Bill Gates as examples of people who built great services but who are primarily motivated to make money. I would challenge that point of view. It seems clear to me that both of these men have had success because they focused on building the best product in their areas: internet indexing & operating system software, respectively. I'm sure they thought to themselves at various points "I'm sitting on a goldmine with this!". Still, their focus wasn't about extracting cash from people, it was about providing people with outstanding services first.

It's the money-first mentality that has crippled big business for a long time. It's why the greatest companies of today have been founded by young, motivated people, like the Gates, Pages, & Zuckerbergs of the world - they challenge themselves with building a great product.

At what point did American business people suddenly transition from building great products to just making money? The two greatest recent examples of this mentality have been in banking and automotive industries. In one, the desire to make money off of people's poor decisions took the feet out from underneath the credit market. In the other, the desire to maximize profits at the expense of quality and product led to US government bailouts.

What was the motivation in both of these instances? Money. Just money. It wasn't about creating a good service or a good product. It was this mentality that the banks and the automakers were just in existence to make more money for the shareholders. This is not just bad business, it is the worst business.

Why doesn't big business make the connection between the success of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Craigslist, and Bill Gate's Microsoft and their intense focus on product? The disconnect is stark in an article like Carlson's on Business Insider. It's this same disconnect that echoes in our nation's politics around copyright and file sharing.

At what point did the perspective get lost? Is this some artifact of the '70's and '80's notion that business is war? Are we seeing the influence of a widely taught facet of business education? When will we see the influence of Arnoldo Hax and his Delta Model? Business is not about war or your competition or the shareholders.

It's about the product and your product's relationship with your consumer. Business is love. The businesses you love are the businesses you stay with.

Apple epitomizes this to such a great degree that I doubt you could find a better example. On Mr. Hax's Delta Model they have, without a doubt, targeted System Lock In. They want you in their walled garden. And you know what? People don't mind that walled garden because the products are outstanding.

Yes, they make money from those products. Yes, you pay a premium on those products. But the focus is always on the product. This quote from Steve Jobs sums it up best, I think:

Sure what we do has to make commercial sense, but it's never the starting point. We start with the product and the user experience.

You've got it wrong, Mr. Carlson. You've got it wrong, shareholders. It's about product first. Zuckerberg's obsession with building the best product is exactly where it should be. It shouldn't be just about making money - that would be Facebook's demise.

Bad business is just about money. Good business is about a great product.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

On Writing - Excerpt #2 from Darkness Before Light

I've been working to get more scenes built for Darkness Before Light, filling in gaps in the story and fleshing out details that weren't previously included in "part 1".  Here's a short scene after a battle in which Gabriel Rodriguez and Josette Durrant ask some questions of a high-ranking Draconian official they've captured.

Gabriel closed his eyes, hiding the HUD displayed on the inside of his helmet.  For a time he relaxed, letting the UCA’s cocoon embrace him with its shock absorbers.  Electronic whirs and a soft rumble were the only sounds, muted by the helmet.  It was time to watch, wait, and hope for support to move in.  Durrant should be in direct laser communication with the fleet as it passes over the crater and hopefully arranging for some sort of extraction.
The speakers in his helmet crackled.
“Alright, guys, here’s the plan,” Durrant said.  She sounded... resigned.  “They’re pushing several battalions of armor in our direction, trying to open up a corridor.  Draconian air defenses are still too thick to risk extraction by Pelican, so we’re on our own until the sliders get here.”
Gabriel sighed, keeping his eyes closed.
“So we’re supposed to sit here and wait, LT?” Katakana asked.
“That’s exactly it,” Durrant responded.  “We’re going to hole up in the bottom of this crater with the Minister and wait for reinforcements.  It is way too risky for us to try it and get out on our own.”
Gabriel couldn’t hear it, but he imagined Katakana, Neferet, and Biaka all cursing to their AI’s.  The speakers crackled again.
“What do you think, Rod?” Durrant said.
He shrugged, keeping his eyes closed.  “It’s not optimal, that’s for damn sure.  But we have no idea what’s happened since dropping into this hole.  That was a few hours ago and we have, what?  Six hours?  Till dawn?  We have to herd the Minister through all of that rubble.  They’d probably take off as soon as we came under fire.  Yea, waiting is going to be our best bet.”
“Ditto.  Exactly what I was thinking.  It sucks, but we don’t have much of an option,”  Durrant said.
There were a few moments of silence.
“Off the record question for ya, Rod,” Durrant said, her feminine voice introspective.
“Sure, LT.”  Gabriel quirked an eyebrow.
“When we’re off the record, I’m Josette.  Understood?”
“Loud and clear, LT.”  Gabriel smirked.
“As long as that’s understood.”  She sighed.  “You think this is right?”
“What?  Waiting?”
“Don’t be dense.  The invasion.  All of this.  These guys have been on their own for fifty freaking years.  They don’t need us,” she said.
Gabriel nodded to himself.  That was clear.  They’d only bombarded them from orbit.  No one needed that.  “Maybe it’s not about them needing us, but us needing them.  You know how piss-poor things have been on Earth.  Every hunk of rock between Pluto and Mercury has mines and manufacturing facilities constructed on it.  Maybe we need this planet’s resources.  Maybe all of Sigma Draconis?”
He paused and she waited.
“Still, what bothers me the most, Josette, is what we don’t know.  The UTG only tells us just enough and we all know that earth is far too over crowded.  Even with the Mars and Moon colonies.  Those are a drop in the bucket.  Now that I think about it, maybe this is all about expansion and finding places to move people outside of Sol.  Sigdrac kinda sucks, but we have no idea where a gravity wave from here might take us.”
“Yea, so maybe this whole thing is to secure a way out of Sol and to spread humans about?” Durrant asked.
“Pretty much, something along those lines.  Only the corporations pissed the Draconians off so much when they first opened the mining and processing posts here that they threw a monkey wrench in the whole scheme.  They don’t tell us too much about what really happened out here.”
Durrant hummed to herself for a moment.  “Rod, we could ask, y’know.”
Gabriel’s eyes shot open.  Ask?   “What, you mean Mubarak?”
“Sure.  Why not?”
“Uh, well.  Shit-well, I don’t think we could get into any trouble, could we?”  Gabriel stammered.
“There are no standing regulations against the interrogation of prisoners as long as one does not break the UTG Geneva regulations section 1064,” Lucy said into the conversation.
“You hear that, Rod?”  Durrant asked.
Jack must have just told her the same thing.  “Yea, Lucy just shared that bit.  Go for it.”
“Alright, we’ll keep this short, just in case and I’ll keep you patched in,” Durrant said.
Gabriel listened as she communicated with the Draconian convoy vehicles, trying to get a secure channel through to Christopher Mubarak.
“Yes, Lieutenant, what do you want?” said a moderate, tired voice.
“Prime Minister?”  Durrant said.
“This is him.  Make this quick, my arm is throbbing where it is broken, no thanks to you and your men,” he said.
Gabriel quirked an eyebrow.
“I’ll try.  Just a few questions.”
Silence answered her.
“Okay.  Do you remember what happened that caused the rebellion?”
There was a long pause.
“Sir, do you-”
“I heard your question, Lieutenant.  I’m trying to decide if you intend this insult or if you truly do not know.  How old are you?”
Gabriel raised both eyebrows.  Insult?
“I am twenty, sir,” Durrant said.
Quiet moments.
“You truly do not understand then, do you?  You are all drones serving your corporate masters without any knowledge one way or another.  Earth must be in as sad a state of affairs as we all fear.  I am not happy that you have come back to Hydra, Terran.”
“Wait, Hydra?”
“Yes, Hydra.  The planet you’re standing on.  The planet you have dropped kinetic energy weapons on and killed tens of thousands of MY PEOPLE!  Hydra, you incompetent fool!”  Mubarak’s voice strained, the helmet speakers crackling.
“So why did it start?  What happened?  We are taught that the Draconians rebelled over bad pay and questionable working conditions,”  Durrant asked, relentless.
Gabriel could hear a deep breath being taken.
“That is correct.  But the way you say it is understated.  Thousands of people were dying out here.  From exposure, decompression, starvation - it was a nightmare.  Earth, for all the closeness that FTL travel brought us, might as well had been eighteen light years away.  No one cared.  We had no representation in the government.  The companies, they controlled everything and everyone.  It was desparate and we fought back when we felt we finally had enough infrastructure to support ourselves.  No one had fought an interstellar battle before and so we were able to have time to build.”  Mubarak paused.
Gabriel sat, staring without sight at his HUD.  Could it be true?  One had to consider the source.  Mubarak is, afterall, the number one politician on Hydra.  Hydra.  What an odd name.
“And now you have returned and all but destroyed one of our precious cities.  You will bring back your government and your corporations and my people will suffer again.  We are used to hardship, but we would much rather do it on our terms.  Not yours, Terran.”
“Things have changed, sir,” Durrant said after a few moments.  “Regulations have reduced a great amount of the business influence.  There are watchdog groups.  This could be a good thing to have mankind reunited.”
“Maybe, young Lieutenant, maybe.  Is there anything else you want to talk about?  I am a tired old man.”
“No, sir, thank you for your time,” Durrant said.
“Channel closed, sir,” Lucy said.
“Well, that was interesting,” Durrant said to Gabriel.
“Yea, it was.  You think he’s exaggerating?”
“Sure, of course he is.  But there’s almost always some truth behind the exaggeration.  And of course the UTG would downplay the severity of the situation.  We have been at war, after all, for fifty years.”
“I suspect you’re right about that, Josette,” Gabriel said.  “Maybe after all of this is settled we’ll really find out what happened.”  He paused.  “Or not.”
“Agreed.  Alright, Rod, let’s focus and get the watch rotation setup.  Make sure everyone gets at least a few hours of rest.”
“Yes, sir.  Too bad these things don’t have showers.  Plasma swords, but no showers.  Go figure,” Gabriel said.
Durrant chuckled.  “You joined the army, Rod, not the navy.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On SXSW: Don't Shoot The Player

Ogilvy Notes - Don't Shoot The Player
I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Katie Salen about what she's learned from game design in regards to learning.  That sounds simple, but I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of experience she shared with us.  Her talk ranged from experiences in designing learning exercises for children to conversations she's had with various game designers, including Portal.

Here are the key nuggets I hung on to afterwards.

So what does "don't shoot they player" mean?  What Katie is referring to is an experience the Portal game designers had while play-testing an early level design.  While players were trying to learn a new skill introduced by the game, the designers had added some turrets to shoot at the player.  The play-testers literally couldn't see the exit because they were being over loaded by both trying to learn a skill and dodge incoming fire.  They became frustrated and few could get past the level.

The lesson here was this:  when learning a new skill, people need a safe zone to do it in.  They need to be able to fail at the task until they learn it.  Then you test them on the learned skill under fire and allow them to apply it.

That is what games are, afterall, right?  From Chess and Checkers to World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, the game is a series of learned skills and those players who master those skills the best play the best.

Furthermore, that's what work is, right?   It's a set of learned skills applied for the support of a company, business, or group of people in exchange for compensation.  Ideally, those who perform the best on a wide set of skills are the people who are compensated the best.

What we learn from game design can be applied to our workplace.

Also, the game designers found that they could not create a level too hard for two players to solve.  When two people are working together one person takes the cognitive load while the other follows along.  When the first person becomes tired, the second person takes up the cognitive load.  The two individuals alternate, meaning nearly full concentration is always applied to solving a problem.  They learn from one another's attempts and experiences together.

This concept of learning together is key.  In Katie's words:  "learning is social".

But for some reason, we teach in our schools that sharing is cheating.  Does the workplace reflect this?  Do we not share what we've learned with one another?  Sites like StackExchange are built purely around the sharing of lessons with one another.  Opensource theory is all about sharing code and components with one another.  We learn from one another's accomplishments, incrementally improving products in doing so.  We pair the less experienced with the more experienced to share skill sets and bring people up to speed quicker.

Collaboration is key and we should be embracing it in our workplaces and in our schools.  We are social animals that learn best from one another's experiences and mistakes, not just our own.

An intriguing experience Katie also shared was the concept of rewarding good failure.  This isn't meant in the sense of "Dodgeball with no outs".  This is meant in the sense of a person or group of people striving to achieve a goal and missing it, but in missing it they learned some critical lesson.  Learning is more about failure and trying again than it is anything else.  A company Katie was exposed to had an award for the group who had the highest aspirations but missed the mark.  Maybe they failed due to execution or lack of technology or funding or some other thing, but in the end, they learned a profound lesson to be shared with everyone else in the organization.

This brings us back around to not shooting the player.
  • People need safe zones to learn skills in, then chances to apply them.
  • Learning is social.  Remember this piece:  there was no level hard enough that two players couldn't solve.
  • Rewarding lessons learned through failure is as important as rewarding success.  
I had a realization while listening to Katie speak regarding our hackathons here at the office.  A hackathon is a great place to employ all three of these concepts.  As great as that is, I feel there is plenty of room for application in the day-to-day work experience.

What would you apply with your work or children?  Is there a key concept you find that stands out to you?  Feel free to comment below or leave a G+ comment/message!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

On Poetry: Reason to Burn

Did you know?  April is National Poetry Month!  Since I have a past of writing sappy love poetry, I figured I'd share a few poems over the course of the month.  It's been years since I've written with most of what I'm sharing having been written in the mid-late '90's and a few 'round 2004.

This particular poem, Reason To Burn, was written for a young lady I had a crush on who lived quite a ways away.  It was, of course, one of those early "online" romances.  Me, a shy introspective guy, met and talked to a young lady who lived a few states away.  We talked on the phone all the time, mailed pictures back and forth, and generally kept in touch all throughout my high school and college years.  During that time I wrote a few poems dedicated to her.

A note on form:  I was obsessed with iambic pentameter (Shakespearean Sonnet) when I first learned to write something that wasn't just free-style poetry.  This was in my senior year of high school.  Since then, I experimented with various combinations of syllables and rhyming schemes.

Enjoy, +1, & feel free to comment/share!

Reason To Burn

See the sunlight between us
Bringing our hearts closer by day
With so many miles separating us
Not even that will stand in the way

You can bring the best out in life
And show the world how to turn
Bringing joy from the deepest strife
And giving my heart a reason to burn

One day you will see the fire
Bright and glistening behind my eyes
Building with the passion you inspire
Releasing prayers across lonely skies

One night I hope to share with you
In a darkened room, candle lit
Gazing into the starry midnight blue
My heart and what's buried in it

And if your love is the same
Then maybe God will bless us
Guiding with his brilliant flame
Our hearts and the hope within us

Thursday, March 29, 2012

On SXSW: Does Your Product Have A Plot?

Courtesy CNR.
What a curious question.  Does your product have a plot?  Do mine?  Are we talking about a plot in the sense of creative writing with a beginning, complication, climax, and resolution?

Yes, actually, that is exactly what David Womack, at SXSW, was discussing.  His point of view was curious, and while the analogy makes some sense at a high level, when you start considering complications, it became a bit harder wrap my head around.

So here's what I came away from the talk with.

Every product we construct on the web, every process, follows some sort of plot.  The plots may not be very good in most cases, but there is a plot.  Let's use this model:

  • Someone wants to buy a truck.  Specifically, a used Peterbilt 379 semi.
  • They then proceed to Google and search "Used Peterbilt 379".
  • A link there takes me to CommercialTruckTrader.com.
  • This person then uses the filters in the navigation to narrow down a candidate truck.
  • They view the ad's detail page.
  • They decide to email or call the seller, or not to.
  • They look for more trucks or navigate somewhere else.

Straight-forward, right?  So how does this follow Freytag's triangle?

The consumer story starts with performing the search on Google.  This is the beginning of their story.  The start of my product story starts with the user's arrival from Google.  While I have some control over where my links appear on Google through SEO and social engagement, as far as user experience is concerned, the story starts with their arrival.

The Complication, or rising action, is the user's use of the filters to narrow down results.  It is their looking at certain ad detail pages and considering those vehicles.  The Climax is them deciding to actually make a phone call or send an email lead.  Or their decision not to.

The Resolution is after closing the deal.

And that's the story.  So what, right?  It's just a clever analogy.

Well, maybe not.  There is more to it than that.  Mr. Womack stresses the features that make a good story.  And what makes a good story?  A story with an engaging Complication and a satisfying Climax.  A story that has emotional complications and hooks.

My thought as David dug into this was something along these lines of:  "How in the hell do I make the process of buying a truck emotional?"

He had an interesting example:  Product Reviews.

So Amazon's story wasn't terribly different from mine in the early days of the internet:  search, find, buy or not to buy.  Then they added product reviews and suddenly added a healthy dose of reality, or humanity, to products.  People could review them and write witty stories about their experiences with them, or warn other customers against poor products.  The reviews helped the Climax element, to buy or not to buy, become more emotional.

Mr. Womack used the example of the 55 gallon drum of Passion Natural water-based lubricant.  Here was something that most of us would have no need to view or look at (or would you?), yet there are 64 reviews, some of them with hundreds of "I found this review helpful" thumbs ups.  Because people are leaving reviews, others are viewing the product, if only to read those reviews.  For the product, there are now thousands of folks that are aware that they can purchase a 55 gallon drum of lube.

Helpful, I know.

A better example, I think, is the 3 Wolf Moon shirt.  For three months straight, this t-shirt became Amazon's top selling piece of apparel.  Why?  Because Brian Govern left an entertaining review that went viral.  Wouldn't everyone like to see that story with their merchandise?  (Learn more here at knowyourmeme.com)

If it weren't for Amazon's review process and the emotional engagement it provides, the company that prints these shirts would not have had so much success.  All of this, just because of a customer review.

This happens every day, on a smaller scale for everyone visiting Amazon and every product on Amazon.  They search.  They Find.  They read reviews to assess a product's quality or satisfaction then decide to buy or not to buy.

Not only is this good for the 3 Wolf Moon t-shirt or Passion Natural lubricant companies, it is also good for Amazon.  People come to their site just to leave reviews.  People come to their site just to read reviews.  They might even buy something they normally wouldn't (3 Wolf Moon), just to be a part of the story.

Or they may buy them because of Amazon's suggested items.  The use reads a review of a product and decide not to buy it.  But wait, Amazon has suggested something similar!  This is another example of using additional complication to the rising action of a product story line.  Now there's more to choose from.  All with reviews.

So, how will you make your site more complicated?  How will you engage your users emotionally?  David Womack convinced me this is a part of the puzzle while designing our web and device applications.  Further more, and worth another blog post, is how this plugs in with social engagement and social signals in SEO.

Social signals will become increasingly important and social activity is a very personal, emotional experience.  How will your product fit in?

Monday, March 19, 2012

On SXSW: Toyota doesn't get auto apps

Panel at SXSW "Auto Meets Mobile:  Building In-Vehicle Apps"
At SXSW I sat in on a panel led by Michelle Avary from Toyota and Rich Brand from NPR.  Michelle represented Toyota's "product" arm and Rich had experience in this space during the development of NPR's auto app.

They started with driving a point home about complexity.  Electronics, including car stereo head units, are hardened devices to withstand the rigors of driving and crashes.  Additionally, inside of a single model, different trim levels will have different head units and those head units will each have different operating systems.

So let's take the Lexus LS as an example.  The base 460 trim level will have one head unit, let's call is A with operating system 1.  The 460L and 460H will have different head units, too, B and C, with operating systems 2 and 3.
  • 460: A - 1
  • 460L: B - 2
  • 460H: C - 3
If one is to build an application to run on each of these trim levels for a single model, you'd need to write it to be compatible with all three operating systems and the different head units will have different capabilities (GPS vs. no GPS).  This further complicates when you consider cross-models and cross-brands.  From a software developer's point of view, this is definitely sub-optimal.  You may be able to write for a particular brand and trim level, but to write for multiple brands would likely become unmanageable rather quickly.

There is also a situation where the version of the operating system may not be up to date.  Currently OS updates to in-car stereos is done either by a dealership or by mailed storage like a DVD or thumb-drive.

Their next point was about the development lag in cars.  Typical development lag, according to Michelle, is five years.  I'm sure this varies between brands, but I'll accept it as a general rule.  So this means that a brand new car today began development in 2007.  What else happened in 2007?  The iPhone was first introduced.  Apps didn't really take off until some time after that.

That certainly helps explain why car interfaces with Android devices are lagging.  My Challenger, as an example, seamlessly interacts with an iOS product at a limited level, but my only Android option is the Auxillary jack.

So I follow all of of this to this point.  Lots of head units, lots of trim levels, lots of operating systems and lots of brands.  Being a developer, my first inclination is to simplify the system.  And the best way to do that is to eliminate the head units.  Or, at least, make them dumber.  By dumber I mean they should provide a simple interface to a tuner and an amplifier.  Out side of that, the brains of the stereo should be provided by a tablet.

Custom iPad dashboard install.  (Source)
The holy grail is the ability to take my tablet, which already has my music library along with my favorite apps and plug it directly into my car transforming it into the dashboard interface.  Sound nice?

This question was asked after the panel.  The responses from Michelle and Rich really missed the mark and the point of mobile applications.  They had these reasons why it wouldn't work:
  • It would look bad against the aesthetics of the car interior.  "Lexus owners expect a certain level of refinement."
  • Trying to design for multiple jacks would be difficult.  (Android's micro-USB vs. Apple's wide-plug)
  • The software would not be in their control and that's dangerous.
So, to get this straight, Toyota and other manufacturers are already designing black 7'' or 10'' screens into dashboards without issue, but designing a dock for a 7'' or 10'' tablet is too much?  Further, designing software for hundreds of operating system and head unit combinations is easier than designing around two different plugs?

The third point has the greatest chance of being valid, but is still a red-herring.  It doesn't matter.  People are already using their docked phones or tablets, and the apps on them, to control their experience in the car.  OEMs have no control over this situation and it falls on the user of the phone or tablet to find applications that are easiest and least distracting to use.

I don't buy it.  There are already aftermarket companies designing iPad docks for cars.  Some going so far as to replace head unit installations with docks that plug into tuners and the in-car speakers. 

Scosche iPad Dock it in a Subaru STI.  (Source)

My Proposal - Open Standards, Open Docks.
The car manufacturers should be working with Apple, Motorola, Asus and others to design an open standard that hardware manufacturers can design against.  This standard says plugs will be in this location, expecting the tablet to be in this orientation.

An open programming standard should also be defined, which allows a measure of control with the "dumb" dock and interface with the tuner, microphone, and speakers.  This open standard describes the API available to programmers.  Apple and Android then develops the necessary updates to their SDK's to give the programmers ability to interface with the dumb terminal.

Further, Toyota and other manufacturers can create a certification system that certifies only the best in-car apps as being safe to use.  This will provide a measuring stick for the public to sort the good apps from the bad.  Additionally, Toyota can partner with Apple or an Android tablet manufacturer to sell a tablet with the car.  Not only are you getting a car, but you might be getting The New iPad or an Asus Transformer Ultra Prime.  The manufacturers can write their own applications, as well, as the only "official" dashboard app for a particular model and trim level.

This eliminates your complexity around operating systems and head units.  It becomes decoupled, focusing on the open standards letting the software be the differentiating factor, not the hardware.  It also gives the car manufacturer a way into the car buyer's home.  Those same apps they build for their cars can also provide additional features for their in-home experience.  There is much to be gained!

What the OEMs need to understand is that this is already happening.  There's already a growing user base installing tablet docks into their cars and there's already a very large user base which has smartphone docks. They use these devices for music, GPS, and internet radio now.  Toyota, and the other OEMS, can either fight against the "tipping point", or they can embrace it and push for the advancement of the in-car experience.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On SXSW - Biggest Take Aways from Sessions

I've been thinking on the general and specific takeaways from this year's SXSW Interactive.  What were the things that spoke the loudest to me?  It's been difficult to narrow down, actually.  There are a number of general things about the event, but specifically?  This will require some thought.

"Tipping Point"
I heard this phrase numerous times, mostly seriously, and a few times jokingly.  It seems that there a few industries looking for that point where they become entirely digital.  This always seemed to use the smartphone as an example:  eventually a tipping point was reached where everyone started to acquire smart phones easily and affordably.

More importantly, are you driving the tipping point or are you fighting against it?

Jokingly, this guy, Dean, that I pal'd around with Monday evening kept using it in the context of when the party was about to get wild.  He had a nose for it.

I attended a talk by Gene Kim about a development philosophy called "DevOps".  It is, at its most basic level, about injecting your operational requirements into your agile sprint processes.  DevOps marries the two normally separate groups into one so that they can more effectively support one another.

This will help you increase your operational/release tempo as well as create more hardened systems with the initial releases.

"Distinction Without Difference"
Ray Kurzweil used this phrase in his keynote conversation with Lev Grossman.  Specifically, he was referring to the idea that we might integrate digital devices into our bodies.  He says we already do, in the form of smart phones.  That they are not inside us is a distinction with out difference.  We already carry them everywhere and interface with them while performing any number of tasks.

Deeper on this topic was the idea that we would, through these devices, interact with a digital cloud that would expand our mind's capabilities.  We are already on the cusp of emulating the human brain's thought processes and so it's foreseeable that we'll use cloud-based data centers to expand our cognitive abilities.

Being a budding sci-fi novelist, that was right up my alley to hear, if not slightly disturbing.

"We couldn't create a problem hard enough"
This quote came from a game developer who Katie Salen worked with.  Her talk was "Don't shoot the player", referencing a game in which a segment was too difficult because the player was just learning and the level designers were shooting the player.

This specific quote was about how in Portal 2, a game with co-op 1st person puzzle solving, they could not create a problem that was too difficult for two players to solve.  They found that one person would take the majority of the cognitive load and when they got tired the other person took over, creating a situation in which there was always deep thought being applied to a problem.

This nugget can translate well (and does through Extreme Programming) to software development.

"Reward Failure"
Katie's talk was mostly about education and building a system in which we don't just reward success, but failure, too.  We shouldn't "shoot the player" while they're learning a new skill.  We should also recognize that failure is a legitimate part of success and speed us towards ultimate goals.  However, we're taught that only success is rewarded through our current schooling systems.

This, too, can translate well to software development.  So much of what we do is creative in nature and involves a whole lot of failure before finding the sweet spot of success.

"Does your product have a plot?"
As a new "product guy" with more than a decade of web development behind me, I was very curious about this talk.  Since I'm also a writer, this definitely spoke to me.  I wasn't let down.  David Womack gave a soft-spoken presentation about plot in products and how we can translate the introduction, complication, climax, and resolution formula of writing to product construction.

While his examples were very broad in scope, this can scale down to a web page.  I often refer to the "climax" as "the therefore" for any particular product.  But this concept of applying setting, seeing the user through the process and engaging them is an elegant metaphor.

A side note from this is emotional complication and engagement, with an example being Amazon's reviews.  The reviews provide emotional investment, characterize a product, and help lead to the climax - which is the decision to purchase or not purchase - the product.


"Austin is awesome"
Technically, this wasn't part of any specific session, but I have to say I've really enjoyed Austin.  Even with the weather really making it difficult to get engaged the first couple days, I met some very interesting, engaging folks.  Several of them work with Green Mountain Energy here in Austin.  Others were just relaxed locals who I met through the Google+ HIRL community.

I was able to listen to music of a type I'd never heard before - Noise Revival Orchestra.  Think rock/punk meets orchestra.

The food has been great, if fattening, and once the sun started shining, the weather was fantastic.  I travel back to Virginia tomorrow, but I think I may try to come back when Austin is "normal", although from what I understand, it's all about "Keeping Austin Weird".

Friday, March 2, 2012

You have lost my vote, Republicans

It seems that as this year moves on, the more reactionary the Republican party becomes. I used to call it home, but in the last year or so, it has gradually pushed me away - a moderate college educated male.

We've seen a bill in my home state of Virginia requiring invasive ultra-sound for women before abortion. The amendment swapped it to "jelly on the belly", but it still requires an ultra-sound before an abortion. Purportedly to gauge the age of the fetus.

We've read about the attack on contraceptives, last week led by Rush Limbaugh's calling a law student from Georgetown a "slut" because she wants access to birth control pills through her medical insurance. Never mind the numerous medical reasons why a woman would want them or perfectly valid reasons a married couple may use them.

We've seen Wisconsin also working to repeal a law that requires equal pay for women.

It seems that Romney is particularly out of touch with most Americans, coming from a very wealthy background that has taught him not to worry about the less privileged.  Let's not forget, either, who his top campaign contributors are:  Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse Group, & Citigroup.  It is hard for me to expect someone backed by big banks to want to fix the campaign financing situation.

Then there's Santorum's comments about wanting to "throw up" while reading a JFK speech regarding the separation of church & state.  Mind you, JFK was just echoing the Constitution.

There's wide denial inside the party regarding climate change, despite what the non-cherry-picked data shows.

There was the bill introduced in the Senate which would give health care providers great lee-way in denying contraceptives, or other elements of care, because of a moral contradiction.  Thankfully the Senate defeated this.

Now this: a law proposed in Wisconsin which would say that being a single parent is child abuse.

Once upon a time, 45% of scientists claimed to be conservative and/or Republican. Now a mere 6% do.

Why is that? The party is fading & will vanish if it doesn't find a way to embrace the social & scientific progress that has happened in the last 50 years. It's time to put religion back in the church & leave it out of the government. It's time to be rational.  It's time to work on the real issues in front of the nation: dependence on foreign oil, the concentration of wealth to a very few people, a shrinking middle class, over flowing jails, government & campaign corruption, a sustainable economy, green technology, & perhaps most important:  education.

Education is not the enemy of a democracy, it is its greatest ally.  It does not make people snobs, it shows one's desire for self-improvement.  These bills and statements have alienated me, a conservative leaning college educated male.  The Republican party is seemingly out to discredit science, rewind the social clock for women, and is willing to gamble with the the world, through the denial of climate change, in order to maintain a status quo for a small, very rich group of lobbyists and campaign fundraisers.

While I don't think the President is a great choice, either, I cannot stomach putting someone into the White House who is willing to rewind the social clock, willing to ignore science, & who will put their own religious values ahead of others.  This is our nation's future, and the world's, which is at stake.  Why are we talking about abortion, contraceptives, gay-marriage, and college education when we have sky-rocketing oil, a lagging economic recovery, potential war with Iran, and a degrading climate?

If the party doesn't switch its focus & find people to champion true conservative approaches to issues, then the Republican party will be irrelevant in a much shorter time frame than I think they realize.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

UPDATE: SOPA/PIPA/ACTA and the movie industry

Quick update today, readers, regarding the ongoing discourse between the technology culture and the recording industry.

Taylor Hackford, of the Director's Guild of America, went on a lengthy rant on radio with quite a few distorted "facts". The deeper analysys is over at techdirt.com. It's a short read so take a moment to breeze through it. I'll wait.

So I'm going to attempt to read the tea leaves.

First, SOPA/PIPA have been defeated in the United States. Second, if you've been watching internet news outlets/blogs, you'll know that ACTA, the super-secret international treaty for preventing sharing (& even individual internet connections), is being halted by members of the European Union. Unfortunately, the United States has already signed it. Third, there's the success of the Great SOPA/PIPA blackout of 2012. It was, without doubt, very successful.

These events must be rather disconcerting to individuals like Mr. Hackford and the other media-magnates.

It's really a simple situation. Technology is evolving the way new artists create music, movies, or any other thing. The web makes sharing these new artists extremely easy. Technology allows us to quickly make copies of these new discoveries while not diminishing the copy we own.

The distribution system is evolving.

It's evolving right out of the hands of the middle-man. Publishers have owned the distribution channel with lock and key for a few hundred years. Someone had to print a book, CD, or a DVD. High speed internet makes all of those formats moot.

The Amazons of the world can launch digital e-readers and distribute works to anyone who owns a device. iTunes can distribute a single song to millions and millions of people with out anyone ever buying a compact disc again. The middle-man's roll is evolving to digital distribution methods but the Old Media folks don't want to change.

This is a battle against change. That's why you don't see new movie releases on your on-demand list. They want to keep the huge profits from printing a cheap disc, putting it in a cheap plastic container, and selling it for twenty-five dollars. Maybe fifty if it's a Blu-Ray.

It's as simple as that.

The more individuals like C.K. Lewis create and distribute their own work through these new distribution channels, the less there is a future for Old Media. They must adapt or they will fade away. They must embrace the opportunities for exposure world-wide digital distribution provides if they want to survive.

It's not that people want to "pirate" material. It's that it's easier to obtain music, movies, and books online. Make it easy to get movies the day they come out through fast, simple interfaces and I bet your movie "pirating" problem begins to vanish quickly.

The future is dark for the Old Media folks. They want to keep making money the way they have and try to hang on to that lock and key. The solution they see is to spend gobs of cash on lobbyists and campaign financing. This is where SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA have come from.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On Writing - Realization & Change

I had... well, I had thought I was pretty close to complete w/ Part 1 of Darkness Before Light - the current title of my story.  Upon reflection and some recent feedback, I think I've been aiming far too grand for my first story.

Originally had I planned a series of "short" stories to form an over all story, similar to the Bolos! novels.  But I think that was an artifact of my own impatience and now I am refocusing on telling the entire story behind Part 1.

Previously I had a climactic battle between my two main groups, the Terrans and Draconians.  It ended with a scene many years later of a worn out character.  The story after the battle is missing.

Reading _The Hunger Games_ last week helped with assimilating this, too.  Collins does such a good job of beating the snot out of her protagonists, but still making them challenged & likable, that I realized I was missing much of that.  There wasn't any characters that really had meat to them, although in my mind, I felt that they did.

The problem was that none of the meat is written.  The last scene had the most emotion in it and it was probably one of my favorite scenes to write.  But what of the 20K words before it?  Lots of action, giant robots, rail cannons, laser beams, plasma, and people dying - but not much character.  Those scenes have merit and I'm keeping them, but the story around them is missing.

So now I'm going back to fill in the blanks between Chapters 3 & 4 of Part 1, Darkness Before Light.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

SOPA = Dead [UPDATED 01.20.12] On Activism: Did the SOPA / PIPA blackout succeed?

Well, yesterday was interesting and exciting all at the same time.  It was the first major virtual protest that the internet created and organized, largely through the efforts of Reddit.com and Wikipedia.com.

But did it succeed?  The fall out from this is going to be very interesting.

Here are some bullets:
Wired.com's homepage during the blackout, January 18th, 2012.

And what are some of the responses?
Meanwhile, after the Obama Administration posted a note leading up to the black out on January 18th saying it would not support any legislation which limited Rights, brought out the ire of the moguls in Hollywood.
“God knows how much money we’ve given to Obama and the Democrats and yet they’re not supporting our interests. There’s been no greater supporters of him than we’ve been from the first day and the first fundraisers continuing until he was elected. We all were pleased. And, at its heart institutionally, Hollywood supports the Democrats. Now we need the administration to support us. This is a very important time for Hollywood."
If this doesn't illustrate the dangers of unlimited campaign funding, I'm not sure what does.  They give a politician a bunch of cash then they expect that everything they want to do is done.  That is bought politics.

The goal of the protest was to raise awareness about legislation that could change the way the internet operates.  In that, it was very successful.  From my own Facebook news feed and Google+ stream, quite a few people seemed to find out about SOPA and PIPA yesterday.  Quite a few friends on Facebook also contacted their Senators and Congressmen/women to voice their dissent.

That backlash apparently swayed more than a quarter of the Senate to come out in opposition against these bills.  That is no small feat.  It should make the lobbyists on Capitol Hill worry, too.  New Media is changing everything, and that is truly the heart of this battle.  It's not copyright versus illegal sharing.

This is Old media versus New media, the print publication vs. the internet, the record label vs. self distribution, the middle-man vs. the consumer.  This is about adaptation versus stagnation.

We're seeing New media start to stretch its muscles, realize that it can organize people into a cause, illustrate the impact that lobbyist-written legislation can have.  It can demonstrate who is bought and who isn't.  If this is just the first crash of a series of waves, than I would expect some rough seas coming up in this year.  It's an election year with many hot-button issues - from campaign finance reform to the wealth gap between the ultra rich and the shrinking middle class.

The internet is going to continue to influence and press politics.  People have to realize that as much as my generation, the 20 to 30-somethings, are ingrained in the internet, we are nothing compared to the generation behind us.  As they move from college into the world and politics begin to become a focus for them, the old method of lobbyists in DC controlling the strings will start to turn.  They will be raising money through sites like Reddit, educating through Wikipedia, and fact-checking for themselves, not buying what mainstream media is telling them.

This battle will be the first in a long series of confrontations.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On Government: Response from Scott Rigell regarding SOPA.

So I've contacted Representative Rigell twice regarding SOPA, once in November and again in early December.  I was initially a bit excited & curious to see his response when I saw it pop into my email, hoping for a "I'm going to argue against SOPA" type of message.  Unfortunately, I was disappointed as it is just a canned response.

The email follows:

Dear Mr. Goodwin,

Thank you very much for contacting me to express your views on the issues facing our country.  I value and give careful consideration to the good counsel that I receive from you and all those whom I have the privilege to represent in Congress.  I refer to that good counsel as the "wisdom of the district."

As you may know, each session, Congress considers approximately ten thousand bills involving a wide array of issues. As your Congressman, it is my duty to ensure that your views and those of everyone in the 2nd District of Virginia are represented here in Washington. It is the ideas, opinions, and personal stories that you share with me that allow me to be a successful Representative. 

It is truly an honor to represent the people of Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Hampton, and the Eastern Shore, and I greatly appreciate your feedback.  I will work hard to bring the values of the 2nd Congressional District to Washington.

It is important to me that I keep you fully informed regarding how I am representing you in Congress, so please visit my website Rigell.house.gov and sign up for my e-newsletter.  I also encourage you to join me on Facebook at facebook.com/RepScottRigell. Both sites feature timely updates on the votes I am taking on the House floor.

In closing, please know that I consider it a high honor to serve and represent you and your family in Congress.

Mindful that I work for you, I remain
Yours in Freedom,

Scott Rigell
Member of Congress

Mr. Rigell doesn't say, one way or another, what his view is on the bill.  I'm going to interpret this, however, as implicit support.  If you do not say you are in opposition, then I think the only safe course is to assume support and to continue attempts to influence.

Other information:
 A quick search of reddit reveals the views of quite a few Representatives and Senators, both in support or opposition.