Saturday, June 14, 2014

Top 10 riffs from New Tab by Guillaume Morissette

New Tab is a cross between Shoplifting from American Apparel and Lenny Bruce is Dead, combining the best elements of both. That means funny and poetic observations about Montreal delivered through the eyes of a detached and self-aware narrator. Thankfully Morissette, unlike Tao Lin, seems to tolerate the inclusion of human emotion from time to time. The result is a wisecracking cyborg take on the world, or what I like to call Oculus Riff:

Tab 1
“I am a terrible employee,” I typed. “Sometimes I think I can’t possibly care less but then it happens again. I care less than I was caring.”

“I know that feeling,” typed Shannon. “Two years ago I worked at Fabricland during the summer. It was so underwhelming that it was almost overwhelming.”

Tab 2
“My dad is a business guy,” typed Shannon. “It’s his entire personality. When I was home for Christmas, he lectured me about my romantic life. He said I was open for business but running that business to the ground.”

Tab 3
The entire time I had courted her, she hadn’t figured out that I was courting her. At some point, she had introduced me to her friend Mason, who wore polo shirts and was self-confident and cheerful and didn’t seem to view his own existence as some sort of perplexing burden.

Tab 4
But here’s the thing: Maybe I didn’t want to live in a city so much as observe one from a close distance, like in Sim City. Living in a city was like living multiple lives, each capable of crushing me. It meant forcing myself to meet people, impenetrable three-dimensional emotion factories, being nice to them because I never knew what being nice to them could lead to, parties to attend or job opportunities or collaborating on something or whatever else. The insane number of possibilities a city offered. Trying to compute that number in my head felt like a kind of string theory.

Tab 5
My approach with women was like stacking blocks really high in Tetris while waiting for a straight line that might never come.

Tab 6
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s like, there’s these people on Facebook I’ve never met, but then I see their profiles all the time attending things I want to go to, so I kind of know them from that, and if I see them in public, it’s always weird, like I don’t think of them as people, I think of them as characters, like characters from a sitcom.”

Tab 7
By setting the alarm on my phone for ten, I knew I would get to work late enough for people to notice but not late enough for them to complain. I had slept less than three hours, had a body that felt like a bag of oatmeal, didn’t want to exit the bed. I wanted my pillow to be a supercomputer, allowing me to complete work tasks by rolling my head around on it.

Tab 8
At night, I was either going to parties or hiding in my room. I felt as if my goal overall was to be invited to all the parties, but never go. I was starting to view parties as an infinitely renewable resource, like I could skip one and all that would do is make ten more appear. Still, it was comforting to know that parties were there if I needed them to be there, like a low-hanging fruit.

Tab 9
“I think some people secretly don’t want you to be productive, because if you are, it puts more pressure on them to accomplish something,” I said. “They want you to go out with them all the time so that everyone’s mediocre and no one has to try.”

Tab 10
Unscrew my penis and replace it with a take a penny, leave a penny tray.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A few things to ponder before watching They Live

I read Jonathan Lethem’s monograph on They Live last night in order to prep for a screening of said film at the Revue Cinema on May 29. Here are my favourite bits of insight and observation:

- “One of They Live’s eccentricities is that we know Nada’s name only because of the end credits. No one speaks it in the course of the film. Yet his name is hardly incidental – Nada’s name, with its implication that he’s something of a zero, or null-set, turns out to come directly from the Ray Nelson short story ‘Eight O’clock,’ They Live’s primary source.

- “The discourse of commerce is a kind of quicker-picker-upper, superabsorbent of what happens along, even (or especially) that which presents itself as oppositional to, or critical of, commercial culture. So, much of Barbara Kruger’s and Holzer’s impact was gently naturalized within advertising language. This awkward fact cuts against They Live’s central assertion: that the distance between the ‘lies’ of commercial-ideological speech and the coercive ‘truths’ smuggled inside it is an extreme one, and shattering to cross. Really, the two coexist and even mate with appalling ease … Kruger and Holzer’s non sequitur interventions briefly attained a gallant purity, but they’d always needed the gallery or museum context as a quarantine against recontamination.

- One of the mini-chapters is titled “Vertical City Inhospitable to Horizontal Man”

- “The film’s scenes of routine ghoul intermixing – the beauty shop, the bank, the grocery store, leading up to this pedestrian work environment – have migrated through horror, revulsion, and pointed satire to achieve a kind of drab inevitability: They Live, sure, and so do They schlep, file paperwork, get stuck on hold, and work fifty weeks for a two-week vacation.”

- “Long ago, I used to see Ray Nelson at science-fiction conventions in Berkeley. He was a droll and bright-eyed elf of a man, and known for wearing a propeller beanie, regarded as a high talisman of fannish identification, the equivalent of an IT’S A BLACK THING, YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND T-shirt. I felt in awe of Nelson’s lingering traces of involvement with Philip K. Dick, my personal hero, and he, Nelson, always struck me as a figure of absurd dignity, brandishing his two or three secret accomplishments through an otherwise invisible life – in Berkeley in the 1980s, he didn’t even rate as eccentric, he was apparently too mild. I was terrified of becoming this man.”

Monday, May 26, 2014

How do you make an online-only store more human? Show customers some of the humans that work there

I love how this marketing approach puts a human face on an online-only store and at the same time makes a subtle and smart emotional appeal for Father's Day, instead of just offering 15% off "great ties for dad."

Friday, May 16, 2014

A cheap and attractive DIY standing desk option

About two months ago I looked into buying a wall cabinet standing desk like this:

But it was only available through and the shipping was going to be more than the GDP of Guam. Plus it was a bit too big for what I needed.

Then I realized I could build one, thanks in large part to some blueprints I had for a wall mounted bar cabinet from an ancient copy of Readymade magazine. I had to modify the plans somewhat, but it was pretty straightforward:

I designed the size of the work surface to match an image size offered by Posterjack for peel and stick photo posters (19 x 13 inches). I'm fairly proud of that brainwave. I was going to use magnetic clasps mounted inside the cabinet, but the hinges were too strong. Turns out I had a brand new cabinet clasp in a parts box in the basement that looks pretty darn good.

I remembered to drill a hole for the power cord.

Hinges courtesy of Lee Valley. To my surprise they weren't very expensive and are rated at over 50 pounds. Also bought a very nice and very reasonably priced piano hinge that I was able to cut to size with a hacksaw. The wood itself was cheap too -- Home Depot, less than $20.

I was going to paint the exterior of the cabinet white, but decided to leave it as is. The wood is nothing fancy but looks good, and there's a nice contrast between the shiny modern laptop and the grain of wood.

Not pictured here are the dozens of mistakes, large and small, that I made along the way. Thank goodness I have 100 grit sandpaper and a palm sander. But every time I open up the cabinet, I think to myself "I made this. I made this standing desk." And that's a pretty awesome feeling.

Readymade blueprint:

Writing for Canadian magazines - Bigge data edition

Screengrab from my Access Copyright report for this year:

Thursday, April 24, 2014

How to gauge time

I went to a talk a month or two ago. A panel discussion to be precise.

Does it matter which one? It doesn’t. A lack of identifying details means everyone can retain their dignity. Plus it was a free event, so what right do I have to complain?

The structure of the talk was thus: each of the three guests would speak about their work for 10 minutes. Afterwards, the moderator would toss some provocative questions at the panel.

The first guest spoke for almost exactly 10 minutes. They had 10 minutes worth of material to convey. Good job.

The second guest spoke for a little over 10 minutes. I’m guessing they had prepared at least 15 or 20 minutes worth of material. I was sad when the speaker stopped. I could have listened to the second guest for 40 minutes.

The third guest spoke for at least 20 minutes. Probably closer to 25. They had prepared at least 30 or 35 minutes worth of material. At the 15 minute mark, I began to resent the third speaker for ignoring the time limit. If anyone should have bent the rules, it was the second guest.

The event was scheduled to last 90 minutes, but the question portion of the evening only started at the 90 minute mark. Adding to my delight, the moderator started asking 12-part questions. In short: I wasn’t entirely happy with the event. And yes, it was free. So I should just chill.

But this is a reoccurring problem, and a solvable one.

A few weeks after the great panel failure of 2014, I went to my first Pecha Kucha event. I was curious to see how the guest speakers would adapt to the imposed time limit. (You get 20 slides, and only 20 seconds per slide). Guess what? Everyone did a superb job. The slides advance automatically, nudging the speaker along. And everyone knows that 20 seconds is not a lot of time – it’s less than a TV or radio commercial.

But 10 minutes? That’s a small yet undivided chunk of time. If you’re the organizer of the event, you might need to ask the speakers to pick three projects that best exemplify their work, creative approach or philosophy, and then spend about three minutes per project going into more detail. That leaves each speaker with a minute or so to introduce themselves. Or give them 15 minutes and ask them to do the same thing (best three projects). Anything that segments that chunk of time into something more meaningful and manageable.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Take this employee and shove them

A few months ago, someone I know decided to leave one company and take a job at another company. Happens all the time.

On their final day of work, this person ran into someone from upper management. And what happened next was one of those juicy, teachable moments that would make for a perfect Harvard Business Review blog post.

A bit of back story. The individual in question worked for the same company for a few years. Not only that, they recently participated in a couple of company-sponsored extra-curricular creative projects on their own time. Not only did this bonus work demonstrate initiative, but it served as evidence that the company was taking a new approach to problem solving. (In fact, one of the creative projects this person developed was prominently featured on the company’s website.)

So when this person ran into Someone Important From Upper Management (SIFUM), they assumed that SIFUM would A) be aware they were leaving the company and B) would have something pleasant to say to them given their years at the company plus the aforementioned bonus work.

As it turns out, SIFUM acknowledged that it was the person’s last day at the company only after being prompted. And then silence. The SIFUM failed to wish the person well in their new role, or thank them for their time and contributions to the company.

This made the person I know angry and disillusioned. You can bet they will tell this story to many, many people. And if someone asks her or him if they should work at SIFUM’s company, she or he will tell the above story as way to illustrate the significant blind spots in the company’s culture.

A quick compliment would have cost the SIFUM nothing. Their silence, on the other hand, might turn out to be very expensive.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Let the Great World Spin Without Brand Names

I recently finished reading Let The Great World Spin. It’s a big, ambitious novel that is also pretty fantastic. (By way of comparison, Franzen writes big, ambitious novels that are exhausting as often they are fantastic.)

The novel is set in the early 1970s. But it wasn’t until the 100 or 150 page mark that I realized Colum McCann wasn’t mentioning (m)any brand names. The novel is clearly a product of exhaustive research, but McCann manages not to bludgeon or otherwise punish the reader with everything he knows. As Jonathan Lethem noted an interview with Hazlitt, “I also had to throw out a lot of what I learned—novels are quite intolerant of information; you actually can’t stick too much in or you’ve started to do something else.”

Now details aren’t the same as information, but I basically stopped reading The Ice Storm by Rick Moody after a half-dozen pages because of this passage:

He headed for the Williamses’ bathroom. One last look. A survey of the medicine cabinet. He wanted to see if there was a diaphragm in there at all, to see how deep the slight ran. He wanted evidence.
Where would Janey have gone? To the A & P to find something to go with turkey leftovers? To purchase beauty aids in preparation for the Halfords’ party that evening? Maybe she had gone to his house, to rifle his own medicine cabinet?
Hood set the bottle of vodka on the speckled, beige, faux-marbleized countertop and poured some more ambrosia. Then he began to peruse the remedies on the other side of that mirror: Cover Girl Thick Lash mascara, Revlon Ultima pancake, Max Factor lipstick (chocolate), Helena Rubinstein Brush-on Peel-off Mask, Kotex tampons, Bonne Bell Ten-0-Six lotion, Clairol Balsam Color (blond, although she frosted her hair). Summer’s Eve disposable douche, Spring Breeze. Valium, Seconal, tetracycline, the first of these in a renewable prescription.
No diaphragm case.
In a tiny space at one end of the top shelf, Jim Williams apparently kept a few things. The Dry Look, Old Spice deodorant, Noxzema Shave Cream, Water Pik teeth-cleaning system. Vicks VapoRub.
It was an L-shaped bathing suite. Hood drained his glass and ducked into the alcove where the toilet and shower were shrouded in darkness. On top of the toilet, Janey had piled Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo, Clairol conditioner, and Tegrin medicated shampoo.

It’s only 240 words, but that medicine cabinet suffocates the novel before it has a chance. Here are the brands mentioned above as a list:

- Cover Girl Thick Lash mascara
- Revlon Ultima pancake
- Max Factor lipstick (chocolate)
- Helena Rubinstein Brush-on Peel-off Mask
- Kotex tampons
- Bonne Bell Ten-0-Six lotion
- Clairol Balsam Color
- Summer’s Eve disposable douche, Spring Breeze
- The Dry Look
- Old Spice deodorant
- Noxzema Shave Cream
- Water Pik teeth-cleaning system
- Vicks VapoRub
- Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo
- Clairol conditioner
- Tegrin medicated shampoo

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.