Category: Technology

August 19th, 2013

A professional photographer might take 1,000 shots over the course of a week, saving only a handful of those for future use. This is the first rule of digital photography: the more pictures you take, the better chance you have that some might turn out.

Life in FoldersI’m no photographer. I’m just a guy with a camera, two kids, and a heart for the sentimental. But I still take a lot of pictures, and I hold each of my photos dear — all 25,000 I’ve taken over the life of my camera, and thousands more over the life of my phones. The portraits, the action shots, the mistakes, the over-edited Instagrams, the fading blurs that my children turn into as they scatter from the sound of the shutter. Click. One more. Click. And another.

This article originally appeared in issue five of Offscreen Magazine.

I save about one of every three pictures I take. I edit a small percentage of those, and I post an even smaller percentage for the public — enough to curate a sort of public account of my family, from our first house to our first kid to our first major accident. In this way, my photos form into a loose hierarchy of archived history. The high points that are captured are strengthened by the white space in between, where no camera was present, but memory continues to cling to some details.

I began organising information not out of boredom or pickiness, but out of necessity. My memory often fails me, so I was driven to construct a sort of scaffolding through the organization fo tasks and terms, lists and calendars, sketches and memoirs. A rough draft of what I should probably remember, if my mind wasn’t so busy wandering through itself.

Because human memory is unreliable, to say the least, we have benefited from the invention of computer memory. Aided by technology’s ability to create a concrete organisation of our thoughts and achievements — files go here, folders go there, organised by date and relevance — we’re able to let our mind wander without fear of losing something important. We can focus on the important details because we have outsourced the process, with each idea safe and sound under several layers of machine technology.

We’ve always done this. We organise our recipes and we alphabetise our books. We go through mental checklists in our head as we invite friends to a summer barbecue, invisibly marking each name as they’re invited. We place similar dishes in the same cupboard to help our minds remember where they’re located. Now, these things are increasingly being handled with us.

Here’s where the great debate rages. Is this auto-classification causing us to lose our ability to remember menial information without the aid of a machine — phone numbers, appointments, even our own thoughts about a restaurant? Are we letting go of this information and allowing it to be filed away because we enjoy the convenience? Or have we stopped regarding personal details like birthdays and addresses as “things worth remembering”?

There was a time when I could tell you the phone number of everyone I knew. Now, I file them way, organised by last name, split into device and used only as reference. Those phone numbers are just details. Individually, they represent a single person’s contact information. Together, however, they represent the story of my social circle. They represent my family. Certain groupings remind me of conferences I’ve attended; other groups bring to mind college life.

My reliance on organisation is constantly battling my attempts to live in the moment. But there’s no way I could do one without the other. My life is organised so I can be free to live it, free from anxiety and disarray. Free to create something worth saving. Worth organising. We often think of organisation — whether through site architecture or classification or simple groupings — as a way of finding things, as a road map toward hidden ideas and actions. But we rarely think of organization as a form of memory, using the connections between items to form a better understanding of the things we’ve already experienced.

I love being a human. I love the emotions, the pain and the unpredictability. But I also love being able to rely on a system. A system that allows me to think lessa bout where my memories have gone, and more on how I can continue creating new ones. Our systems might distract us from living in the moment, but they also help preserve the moment long after we’d have otherwise forgotten it.

Folder by folder. Idea by idea. Memory by memory.

Category: Technology

August 6th, 2012

Curiosity.

From Discover Magazine:

The news these days is filled with polarization, with hate, with fear, with ignorance. But while these feelings are a part of us, and always will be, they neither dominate nor define us. Not if we don’t let them. When we reach, when we explore, when we’re curious – that’s when we’re at our best. We can learn about the world around us, the Universe around us. It doesn’t divide us, or separate us, or create artificial and wholly made-up barriers between us. As we saw on Twitter, at New York Times Square where hundreds of people watched the landing live, and all over the world: science and exploration bind us together. Science makes the world a better place, and it makes us better people.

Science. It rules.

Category: Science, Technology

January 13th, 2012

My daughter is four years old. The other day, as I was leaving the house, she asked me why I needed to go to work. “Why can’t you stay home?” she said.

My simple answer was, “Dear, you see, I need to go to work so I can make money, so we can have nice things and eat nice meals.” She accepted that answer as truth.

What I didn’t say was that I enjoy going to work. That there are days when going to work is a break from the kids, as much as I love them, and that while I would certainly rather spend the day with her and her brother, there are times when I need to get out and think at an adult level.

I didn’t mention that I don’t work for the money, but for the challenge – for the drive, for the thrill of making things, for the rush that comes with collaborating with other people.

I just said I was going to make money. It was the easy answer. Because I didn’t have the time – nor did she have the attention – for me to tell her truth: that it’s much much more complicated than that.

Deforestation

If there’s one thing that fuels today’s grab for pageviews, it’s opinions. Hard ones. This or that. Nothing in between. Nothing that veers into the hazy grey field of compromise.

“Summarize that,” they say. “Give me the bullet point version,” they demand. Time is of essence. Boil it down so it no longer needs thought.

So when we talk about whether the New York Times should be more vigilant in their fact checking, or whether yoga will cause you irreparable harm, we’re predisposed to boil it down to the most simple argument. I know I do this. We all do, in some ways.

Maybe it’s not our fault. Maybe we’ve been taught to believe that the ability to create concise descriptions of complicated things is a sign of success when. Really, it’s the opposite. You’ve succeeded when you can explain a complex subject without losing the nuance. I know: that’s hard to do. So we summarize. So we cut corners. We ignore the complexity.

It’s not a matter of missing the forest for the trees – it’s that we’re cutting down all of the trees and wondering where the forest went.

On Argument

A year and a half ago, during the 2010 South Dakota Festival of Books, I watched Michael Hart – the late founder of Project Gutenberg – and Michael Dirda – Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic – present a panel on “Reading in the Digital Age.”

As one might expect, Hart spoke at length about how the printed book was dead, that all writing should be done digitally for the benefit of mass consumption and for those who may not be able to afford a printed tome. Dirda, on the other hand, spoke about the necessity of aesthetics, of the tactile nature of holding a book in your hand, of the feeling of being that you cannot recreate in an e-reader.

Both made some good points. But the title of the panel is misleading. This presentation was no more about reading in the digital age than it was about koala mating habits. Where we expected some sort of solid discourse on where print vs. digital may eventually compromise, we instead received a kind of ribald sniping. It was a battle between two opposing viewpoints, both refusing to admit middle ground, incapable of giving an inch.

While the answer lie somewhere in the middle of the pitch, these two men fought over which side of the field to enter.

Respecting Complexity

If a single idea has followed me around this year, from politics to art and work to friendships, it’s been this one: “it’s more complicated than that.”

It’s centrally important to seek simplicity, and especially to avoid making things hard to use or understand. But if we want to make things that are usefully simple without being truncated or simplistic, we have to recognize and respect complexity — both in the design problems we address, and in the way we do our work.

Erin Kissane, “What I Learned About the Web in 2011″ via A List Apart

My experience at the South Dakota Festival of Books is no different than any experience one might find watching cable television, or at a political debate, or when discussing which Led Zeppelin album is the best. We’ve been trained to take a side and dig in for battle.

When we go to battle intellectually, we find comfort in absolutes. They afford us a bit of security. There are no holes to be poked in our theories.

Part of the challenge of art and science and rhetoric is in finding the nuances; there is no topic worth discussing that doesn’t hold some grey area, and there is no grey area that is worth ignoring. But grey areas? They’re hard. So we ignore them. And that’s how misinterpretation seeps into our lives.

Naming Things

Take, for example, the industry in which I work: web design, development and strategy. For the past several years, people have tried to put together a simple, concise description of content strategy – what is it, and how do we quickly explain it to our bosses? We understand that there’s a need for that description in a business sense, but our answer is often lacking in nuance. We trade length for clarity; we discard the messy details to gain a certain level of buzzworthiness.

Truth is, content strategy means different things to different people. What’s more, THAT’S OKAY. Just as “web development” means different things to different people, we still have freedom to interpret our work in a way that makes sense to us.

So we stick with “content strategy” – an awkward word that barely captures the extent of what we do. But we’re not alone in this: language is hard, and though we struggle to assign simple words to complex arrangements, and though they may seem trite and inaccurate, oftentimes it’s the best we can do.

Communication isn’t perfect. Again: THAT’S OKAY.

This is not an industry-specific thing, either. Ask someone to explain the scientific method. Depending on their field of expertise, you may hear several variations of the base process. Ask someone to explain something with a clear purpose and structured set of rules – baseball, for instance. Ask a baseball fan. Ask a baseball historian. Ask someone with no connection to the game. To some, it’s a game. To others, it’s a past-time. To the haters, it’s a distraction.

Black. White.

Words allow us to communicate. But they also fail us, in that we’re driven to compress theories that should, in fact, become more robust. We’re taught to say more with less, to edit and edit until there’s nothing left to chance, to push things into a smaller box. So we cut the non-crucial elements. And we lose the nuance. And we wonder why this seemingly complicated theory has been boiled down to a Cliff’s Notes version – all solution, no reasoning.

Sure, most things should be said in fewer words. But there are a lot of things that should be said in more.

We’re challenged to understand the future in as complete a way as possible. To shy away from absolutes, and to embrace the grey area, charging in full speed and making sense of the fray. There are discoveries there. There is truth. There is completeness.

We can’t take one side or the other – not in good faith – without understanding that, regardless of the subject, it’s often more complicated than that.

War is good. War is bad. It’s more complicated than that.

We should be liberal. We should be conservative. It’s more complicated than that.

We should fight to stay neutral, and we should always look at all angles of a subject, and we should stop trying to sum up incredibly complex processes and concepts and feelings into simple, single-serving soundbites. We should run to the middle and be implicit in our embrace.

Except, let’s be honest.

It’s more complicated than that.

October 5th, 2011

This isn’t about Steve Jobs, except that it is. It’s not about technological advances or sleek design or Toy Story 3, because things like that would have been created eventually, by someone, if not in their current form then at least in a form we’d recognize.

This is about us.

Within minutes of the news of Steve Jobs’ death, Twitter exploded in an outpouring of solidarity. Sports sites posted the story. The President made comments. We all cared in a way that we never thought we would, and a mixture of respect and inevitability pushed any glimmer of snark from the room.

People began tweeting a corporate logo. Speaking large about passion and creativity and death. Making grand claims. Reminiscing. All for a billionaire businessman who none of them had met. During a time when we bemoan the rich and claim our place in the nation’s 99%, we stopped to salute a man who was richer than most and who until recently had helmed the most valuable company in the nation.

Except this time, it felt different.

Because this isn’t about Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs himself wasn’t even about Steve Jobs; after Apple’s phoenix-like rise, Steve Jobs shifted from a normal human to a symbol of impossibility-made-possible.

This IS about passion. This IS about creativity. This IS about death. This is about recognizing innovation, seeing it at work, hoping that the impossible will continue being so damned possible. This is about the aura of creation and the lives we now lead in a shrinking world; barriers broken not through force but through the optimism of modern technology – that bravado that says, “Sure, why the hell not, of COURSE that can be done.”

Today, a man died. We are sad about that and for his family, of course, and we should be. His company has been built to continue on, and the things he’s created will continue to work, and we will spend a week or so wondering how things will change before understanding that nothing’s going to change. We’re all going to continue moving forward. We’re all going to see things we never thought possible and we’re going to marvel at them. Most of all, we’re never going to stop wondering what else can be done. Just as he taught us. Just as the space program taught us. Just as our childhood counselors taught us.

Want a legacy? There it is.

What did people say when Thomas Edison died? Or Marconi? Benjamin Franklin? Eli Whitney? What do you say when someone who you never met, but whose work you touch every single day, stops being a part of our world?

You can say thank you, I guess.

Or, you can strive to make things better. Because this death, and this outpouring, and this sudden swell in solidarity, is not about Steve Jobs. It’s about seeing someone we admire suddenly go away and understanding how short life can be, and how much can be done. You may not like his products, or his attitude, or his politics, but you can’t bemoan the guy’s drive to improve, his inability to waffle and his undying quest to make things perfect in a world that’s long since given up on perfect.

It was never about the products. It was always about the ability to package passion and drive and beauty in a way that exceeded the technology within. It was a conquering of spirit that went beyond a device. The things are just things. It’s the will to improve and stay relevant that shaped our love for Steve.

All that being said, there’s still one thing will never be conquered: time. Even through decades of remission and treatment and healthy living, time was always there.

Steve knew it. And now, we know it as well.

So let’s go make some great things. And use that time while we have it.

Category: On..., Technology

August 29th, 2011

Everyone’s given their thoughts about Steve Jobs, and now we can focus on the fact that Apple is still a company and still making cool things that we all spend lots of money on and they’ll end up doing just fine without him.

That being said, I loved Faruk Ateş’ take on Steve. As a former Apple employee, he offered a list of Steve Job Moments, which included this gem:

While by no means a pleasant memory, it’s one I’ll never forget just the same. It was a few months after MobileMe’s launch, and I’d just joined that product group two months before it. We were all called in for a meeting with Steve, who chewed out the entire department without raising his voice more than once.

I forget what specific things he said during that meeting that struck me so hard, but they had nothing to do with MobileMe’s problems. They simply made it clear how much Steve cared about Apple, about great products, and about all the people at Apple who work their asses off night and day, all to deliver their best work time and time again. Steve seemed personally offended, for himself and on behalf of the rest of Apple, by this one department’s failure to deliver. More so even than he was upset over the tarnished reputation, it felt that our failure was taken as a lack of respect, and that offended him even more.

Whether this is how Steve felt about it I’ll never know. What I do know is that I walked out of there not just agreeing with everything he’d said, but also that, were I ever to run a company, I would make sure to care that damn much about everyone and everything in it.

The biggest thing to take away from this is, indeed, Steve Job cared, and that’s one of the more important things any of us can do to make something work. It isn’t how hard we work, or how much money we put into it, but that we care, damn it.

When we care, we continue working regardless of how hard things get. We treat our co-workers and employees with respect – and we hold them accountable. We hold ourselves accountable. And we foster trust.

When we care, we see things through, and others follow. This anecdote was a good reminder of that.

Category: On..., Technology

August 24th, 2011

I don’t find a quiet room. I don’t grab a cup of tea. Instead, I cram. I think of an idea, I email it to myself to remember later, and I sit down to write when I have time.

Honestly, I’ve never understood the pains some people go to in order to write. The planning. The organizing. The ritual. I’m sure it’s important, and billions of best sellers prove that it’s working for someone, but it just doesn’t work for me.

There’s no routine, for me. This is how I write.

This Is How I Write

I start with an idea. The idea never comes when I want it to. It comes at a random time, and that’s why a routine doesn’t work.

Usually, I jot the idea down. I email it to myself. Then, I put it on my to-do list. If I don’t put it on my to-do list, the idea might as well have never happened.

Next: when I have time, I write.

That’s all.

I know, right? Because writing is this prickly, amorphous tangle of emotion and fear and all of that.

Truth is, I just write. I just start something. If I finish, I finish. If I don’t, I wait until the next day. The issue isn’t the process – it’s about getting over the blank page, starting to write a few words, and ending up on a roll.

The tools

Today is my first day using a traditional text editor to write a blog post. I’m using BBEdit, and I’ve imported my blog’s stylesheet so I can see how it looks in realtime. My goal is to take it one step further, implementing Gruber’s Markdown syntax to create a simple and effective process toward writing my posts in HTML, making transfer to this blog more logical.

Before this, I was an unabashed Microsoft Word fan. What changed? A need for simplicity, first off, and a need for something that I could transfer from site to site. The copy/paste/format/code routine seemed so archaic, as if I was still trying to start a fire with sparks and leaves while a butane lighter sat just inches away.

I jot ideas into Evernote, but typically I use email to remind myself. My to-do list is Things, which I love, and I sketch more complex ideas into a Moleskin.

I used to use ultra-fine Sharpie pens, but they bleed through my current knock-off Moleskin. So I’ve switched to Energel Liquid Gel Ink pens from Pentel. They’re great.

Why does this matter?

It doesn’t.

Seriously. This does not matter.

This routine is mine. It’s not even a routine. It’s barely a list of actionable steps – it’s more like a random list of unactionable drivel.

I write the way I write and you write the way you write. Creativity. Analysis. Creation of any kind. These are not things that can be summed up in a 15,000-hit eHow page, or on a search marketing blog, or even person to person.

I mentioned this in my methodology post over at Eating Elephant: you create your own system by trying and failing and adapting and trying again. Because what I do will not work for you. What you do will not work for me. All we can do with each other is make suggestions, push each other harder, and remember that nothing creative is done in terms of black and white.

By all means, try my method. Try lots of methods. And take the things that work forward to create your own method.

January 5th, 2011

I deleted my MySpace account in 2007. I remember doing it. I remember all of the steps – the ones that said “OMG YOU’LL NEVER SEE THIS AGAIN” and the ones that said “ARE YOU TOTALLY TOTALLY SURE?” and even the one where I clicked the old URL and double and triple checked that it was gone: that nothing showed up outside of a 404 message and a gentle suggestion that “Hey, I should probably sign up for MySpace!”

It wasn’t that I hated MySpace, it was just that I didn’t use it. It was stagnant. I didn’t need it out there floating around, collecting sparkly badges and developing an identity of its own.

So I deleted it. In 2007.

A little over three years later, it’s back. Apparently.

MySpace
Real, live footage of a deleted account that is no longer deleted.

What happened?

I’m going to assume it’s an oversight. I’m deleting it again, naturally. Because I didn’t want it in 2007, and one would assume that means I don’t want it now.

But it makes me laugh – a bitter, angry, spiteful laugh, mind you – to see this message as I attempt to delete the account for what will now be the SECOND time.

Delete

Yeah, I know, MySpace.

That’s what they told me LAST time.