Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The lie I tell myself finally came true

Almost every Sunday, starting around 4 or 5pm, a strong yearning for beer asserts itself. I’m lucky in that there are at least two decent bars nearby – Boo Radley’s and The Three Speed. I’m partial to Three Speed for a variety of reasons, including the fact that I can sit alone at the bar and not appear to be a sadsack extra in an Edward Hopper painting by virtue of the fact that I know a few of the bartenders.

But instead of simply going to the bar every Sunday like a normal person, I start a stupid little argument with myself about mixing pleasure with productivity. Followed by vague Protestant guilt and concerns about eating healthy.

Anyway, last Sunday I decided that I would go to Three Speed, regardless of the physical, spiritual and emotional consequences that would rain down upon me. As always, I brought a notebook and a pen.

The notebook and the pen are the main actors in the lie I tell myself. That being, I’ll sit at the bar and get some creative writing accomplished. Of course, about half the time I might as well be playing Tic-Tac-Toe against myself. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a few ideas that are “Feed the tuna fish mayonnaise” caliber.

Every once in awhile, however, it actually works out, and the lie is not a lie at all. Let me tell you – last Sunday evening was a beautiful thing. Page after page of ideas, dialogue and description.

I’m pretty confident that the reason the ink flowed in magic patterns was due to the simple fact that I haven’t sat down and written for awhile. I also managed to not cram every last chore and to-do into the weekend. Often I want a beer on Sunday because I’m tired and I want to relax. The last thing I actually want to do is write. This time, it was the only thing I really wanted to do, and I happened to have a few beers while doing so.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The UX Detective Episode One: Westjet

A few weeks ago your humble sleuth received an email from Westjet with an exclusive code for Westjet Rewards members:

First I visited the main Westjet site and checked out some flight options:

Then, because I had some Westjet dollars in the bank, I went to the Westjet Rewards booking site:

Do you see my error? It took me at least two minutes to figure out the problem. I now realize I was relying on visual cues to guide me. 

The email provided a visual cue (short code first, long code second).

The main website follows the email format of short code first, long code second. (It also has sample codes to help guide people.)

The Westjet Rewards booking page uses a short and long box.

That’s why I assumed the Westjet Rewards page followed the same format as the email and the main website. But if you look carefully, you can see that they’ve reversed the code order. Which was very confusing to me, especially given the visual cues of the short and long boxes.

In the end I got my flight. But the lesson is: if you’re going to train your customers to use your site, make your UX consistent. Otherwise they’ll think your site was designed by Moriarty himself.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

ReD Associates prefer meaningful over useful or convenient

“Companies, other consultants, they’re often trying to figure out what’s useful or convenient for people,” says Rasmussen. “I’m not interested in what’s useful or convenient. I’m interested in what’s meaningful.” The last decade has seen a profusion of firms that offer similar services—qualitative research is one term for it; corporate anthropology or consumer-centric strategy are others—and companies such as Procter & Gamble (PG)Microsoft (MSFT), and Intel today have in-house anthropologists and sociologists. The best-known of the innovation consultancies is Ideo, legendary for its work with Apple. 

-- Via Bloomberg Businessweek 

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Bermuda Triangle of Craigslist

I have been very fortunate with Craigslist over the years. I once sold a significant amount of musical equipment (guitars and amps) in less than 48 hours during a visit to my parents.

More recently (two years ago) I sold a bunch of furniture over a three week period, including two bookshelves and a small couch. I received a lot of emails and the buyers arrived prepared to cart the stuff away. One guy thanked me five times for the metal Ikea wall shelf I had sold him. One person almost forgot to pay me, and ended up having to give me pennies and dimes, but otherwise a pretty good experience.

But for whatever reason, selling my red desk has been an ordeal. The first time I tried to sell it, I asked too much. My bad.


Now that it’s priced to sell, I’m getting a decent number of emails. But these are not motivated buyers. I’ve had three different emails in a row go like this:

Buyer: Is the desk still available?
Me: Yes it is. When might you be able to pick it up?
Followed By: Complete and utter silence.

One is a fluke. Three is a pattern. What am I doing wrong? Should I be playing hard to get?

Me: The desk is about to be sold. But if you get here within the next 10 minutes, I might be able to give it to you instead, if you give me $25 more than asking price.

Two days ago (Saturday) I received an email from someone who asked the measurements of the desk. The measurements for the desk are in the ad. I said as much in my reply. My guess is that someone unable to correctly parse my ad is also someone unable to correctly find my place and pick up the desk.

Also on Saturday I received an email from someone who sounded very serious about buying the desk. Kinda. They asked where I was located, even though the major intersection is listed in the ad. In another email, they asked if the desk would fit in a car. I told them the measurements of the desktop, and encouraged them to measure the car they plan to use to pick up the desk.

Followed By: Complete and utter silence.

I really don’t feel like hand holding these people, but at this point I just want the damn thing out of the living room.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- ---- -- -- -- -- -- ---- -- -- -- -- -- --
DATELINE: Monday, March 10, 2014 at 6:34pm

BREAKING: Desk sold to someone who emailed me Sunday afternoon asking if it was still available.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Fancy Videogame Party favourites

Fancy Videogame Party at the AGO was one of the best events I’ve attended in quite awhile. And I’m by no means a video game fanatic. My only regret is ignoring the word “Fancy.” I have a decent suit jacket from Zara I could have worn on Friday. Instead I wandered around like a schmuck in a sweater and jeans. I promise to stop skim-reading event descriptions from now on.

I would have been happy to “play” Panoramical all evening. It’s less game and more interactive art exhibit. I now dream of installing a permanent version of it in my living room.

I didn’t play The YAWHG but it was beautiful to watch and read.

Johann Sebastian Joust deserves a nod for the name alone. As a bonus, it’s a great idea, well executed.

Nidhogg offered a very smart twist on the typical “two guys try to kill each other” duel (dual) player game.

Tenya Wanya Teens was whimsical stupidity. This usually annoys me. Instead it was delightful.

My final favourite thing was not a game, but the highly effective and intelligent use of space. That might sound like a nerdish thing to say, but it was pretty crucial to the success of the evening. The Family Learning Centre spans two floors and a bunch of rooms. Instead of cramming too much into the lower floor main space, the organizers gave each game plenty of room. The arcade cabinets had their own zone upstairs. Panoramical had its own room, as did JS Joust. Nidhogg was projected on a massive screen that was visible from both upper and lower floors. The layout and thought put into display was more typical of video or interactive art exhibition.

This space planning was not a coincidence. I ran into my friend Paola Poletto at the party, who works at the AGO. She mentioned that in the original configuration, they were going to sell alcohol on the lower floor. That would have been a disaster, as the lower floor has an occupancy limit. By putting the alcohol upstairs, along with a good number of games, it ensured that people circulated throughout the evening.

Compare that with The Great Hall at Queen and Dovercourt, which also has multiple rooms. But because they’re only licensed to sell alcohol in the main room, people are forced to wait in huge lines to try and get in. (As a bonus, if you need to use the bathroom, you must exit the main room and then go back in line.) I nearly didn’t get into the main room for the Spacing launch, and ended up on the balcony during Shezeer’s set at the recent Long Winter event.

In summary: Indie video games are fun. Space planning is the final frontier.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

It's funny 'cause it's true

One day, though, when their issues seemed largely resolved and I suggested discussing an end to their therapy, the husband brought up a new concern: His wife now seemed less interested in having sex with him. He turned to her and asked why. Was she still attracted to him? After all, he wondered, why did she appear less interested now that their relationship seemed stronger in all the ways she wanted? 
“I’m very attracted to you,” she said earnestly. “You know when I really crave you? It’s when you’re just back from the gym and you’re all sweaty and you take off your clothes to get in the shower and I see your muscles.”
Her husband countered by saying that this very situation had occurred that morning but that his wife became irritated when he tossed his clothes on the floor, which led to a conversation about his not vacuuming the day before, when she worked late. He had worked late, too, which accounted for the lack of vacuuming, but still — she hated waking up to a messy room, and it was his turn to vacuum.
“Right,” she agreed. “I wasn’t focused on sex, because I wanted you to get out the vacuum.” 
“So if I got out the vacuum, then you’d be turned on?” 
His wife thought about it for a minute. “Actually, probably not,” she said slowly, as if hearing the contradiction even as she was speaking it. “The vacuuming would have killed the weight-lifting vibe.”

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Zombie, but not zombie

I recently watched Season 1 of The Returned, after reading this New York Times article. Tremendous television, with visuals that range from tourist-y panoramic to occult nightmare.

What is The Returned? It’s a bit of Twin Peaks mixed with a pinch of zombie. Or, as I like to tell people, “It’s zombie, but not zombie.” I say that mainly because I’m so very bored with the mainstreaming and cultural oversaturation of zombies.

It’s not that I was obsessed with zombies before they became popular. It’s just that zombies are not that compelling: they chase you, they eat your brain, and then they look for more. You can squeeze in a bit of consumer critique, or black humour, but I feel that there’s a limited room to innovate in the zombie genre.

Was I pleasantly surprised by the speed of the zombies in 28 Days? Yes, yes I was. A glimmer of something new. Did I find the po-mo romantic comedy Zombieland charming? Yes of course. Was I surprised at the emergent behaviour of the zombies in World War Z? I was indeed. Seeing all those zombies act like ants in order to scale tall walls was great. Too bad the rest of the movie (except for the airplane scene) was so boring.

And don’t get me started on the Walking Dead. I watched some or all of Season 1 (I honestly don’t remember) before getting zzzzzzzombie fatigue.

So when I tell you that The Returned is zombie, but not zombie, that means something. It means it’s a show worth watching, even though it has subtitles. Yes, the show is that good.

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Update! On April 10, 2014 I received an email about this blog post that began "You're doing it wrong." The rest of the email was a defence of The Walking Dead, which didn't change my mind, but was thoughtful nonetheless.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Twin Peaks and Twin Beaks 20 years later

[Note: I wrote this two years ago and forgot to post it. Images sourced from here.]

Back in 2011 I watched Season One and part of Season Two of Twin Peaks for the first time in about 20 years. (I quit watching after the person who murdered Laura Palmer was revealed in S2E7). You may not know this about me, but I obsessed obsessively about Twin Peaks when it was first broadcast.

Let me be more precise, since good writing is all about the details. I bought a T-shirt, and Laura Palmer’s diary, and the tape recordings of Agent Cooper. I watched the film Fire Walk With Me on opening night. And a few years after the show was cancelled, I visited Snoqualmie to see the waterfall and have a slice of cherry pie at the double-r diner.

Oh, and I memorized Agent Cooper’s dream from S1E3. Something which I can still recite to this day. (This fact terrifies me almost as much as it does you I’m sure.)

Watching the show again brought back a flood of memories, not unlike listening to an album from that time period. (A more ambitious cultural journalist might try and write an essay that links Twin Peaks and Nevermind, but I’m doing this for free, in my spare time.)

I can understand how an album or a photograph, or maybe even a movie evokes concentrated bursts of memory and reflection, but it felt odd for a TV show to be capable of the same thing. Especially since the first season, except for a few now-curious haircuts, was not of its time. Twin Peaks the town felt like it was trying to find the courage to leave the 50s behind, right down to bad boy Bobby Briggs doing his best James Dean impression. So unlike watching Beverly Hills 90210, which is filled with music and fashion and slang from that era, Twin Peaks lacks clear visual and audio cues that would evoke my final years of high school.

And yet it flooded back – especially my unrequited crush on Jennifer Young (now married, with children, and basically un-google-able). Jennifer also really liked the show, and I seem to recall discussing it with her quite often. But the vividness of her, and that time of our lives, is high-definition. I can’t immediately think of an equivalent memory trigger.

When I mentioned the memory burst of Twin Peaks to a friend of mine, he noted that high school was a time when you saw the same people all the time, almost every day. And with that came opportunities to discuss and obsess and debate a particular cultural entity in a way that is no longer possible in my current adult life. I’ve talked with friends about The Wire and 30 Rock, but we have neither the time nor the focused passion to discuss these shows endlessly. Back in high school, one had a lot more free time to spend re-watching episodes on VHS in order to try and to solve the mystery. And/or memorize the backwards talking of a dancing midget.

While watching Twin Peaks, I was also surprised at how much of Season One I remembered. After 20 years I could anticipate and recall most of the scenes, key moments and minor asides to degree of vividness that shocked me. I know that I watched Season One more than once back in the day, but that was over two decades ago. In comparison, when I watched The Wire for a second time I was surprised at some of the things I had already forgotten.

Season One of Twin Peaks has aged quite well. It’s well shot, consistent in tone, the writing is strong, the acting solid to brilliant (e.g. Albert the coroner). The soap opera elements are well contained (and even mocked on the show-within-the-show). I also feel vindicated about my crush on Sherilyn Fenn, but that’s the topic of another essay entirely.

The debilitating flaw of Season Two is inconsistency. According to my cursory Internet research, David Lynch and Mark Frost were less involved in the show on a day-to-day basis. Watching the second season reminded me that sometimes it was only a single scene in an episode that would misfire. But later it was entire episodes that went off the rails. Too many unnecessary new characters, slow pacing, dumb u-turns and tangents, blah, blah, blah.

As anyone familiar with the show knows, the network put enormous pressure on Lynch and Frost to reveal the killer of Laura Palmer much earlier than they had planned. This ruined the show – the scene where Agent Cooper figures out who murdered Laura was so weak I had forgotten it.

In general I remember far less of Season Two. I scrubbed through the final 15 episodes in an hour or two on my laptop. Of course, I stopped to watch the last 15 or 20 minutes of the final episode, which takes place in the red room where the dwarf (little man from another place) lives. Or whatever – he doesn’t live there, but you get the idea. (Even now I have no desire to be attacked by aging Twin Peaks fanatics.)

There is something absolutely hypnotic to me about the set design and mood and pacing and style of the dream sequence from S1E3 and the final portion of the final episode. On a visceral level, I love watching the dwarf and the giant. It’s mesmerizing and taps into the surrealist pleasure centre buried inside my brain. When David Lynch is successful, it’s a singular type of rewarding.

Watching those final few minutes also reminded me of what it was like to view a television show in real time, knowing that millions of other people were doing the same thing, right down to enduring the excruciating commercial breaks. And watching with the knowledge that the show was going to end at 10pm. (As compared with sitting in a theatre and watching a film that you know will eventually end, but having no clear gauge of when exactly that might be).

Seeing Twin Peaks again also served as a valuable reminder of the cruel disappointment a true fan experiences when their investment and passion is abused through bad writing and crappy creative decisions. When your investment in a show is mismanaged by the creators, you feel an enormous letdown, something I was reminded of repeatedly during S2.

This helped me understand why there are so many aspects about the work of Henry Jenkins that annoy me. I used to be a superfan, and the experience left me jaded. Fool me once, etc. Investing too much of yourself into any form of mass marketed entertainment almost always means ending up in the same sad place. (I’m looking at you, Lost fans.)

In defense of Jenkins, since completing the CFC Media Lab’s Interactive Art and Entertainment program, I was able to appreciate something new about Twin Peaks – the degree to which they successfully implemented the elements of transmedia way before it was a popular notion. I’m not the first person to notice this, but this aspect of the show remains quite impressive 20 years later, when almost everyone still struggles to do transmedia correctly.

This is already tl;dr, but I have two concluding things. The first is that the Twin Peaks parody on Saturday Night Live was actually funny. I’m sure people in 1990 were already saying that SNL had stopped being funny years ago, but that sketch remains pretty airtight. It even features Conan O’Brien as Officer Brennan (Andy). The second is that the Sesame Street parody is almost as funny as the SNL skit. That being Twin Beaks.