Saturday, July 28, 2012

Match Game

Some people hate hospitals, others hate retirement homes. You know what I think is the most depressing place on earth? The animal shelter—especially the ones where I know they're going to be killed if they're taken. But really, I even avoid the live animal section of Petsmart; I want to save them all.

But now that's been beaten. The most depressing place I've been lately is an online dating service.

I can offer several reasons, and will. One is that I'm surprised at how many of the profile bios, the part people will read so this is where you sell yourself, really make yourself shine, are pre-emptive strikes; the tone bordering on angry. Several people make a point that anyone who contacts them must submit photos. One lady offered a reason I never thought of: if you're willing to put a photo of yourself online, you're probably not sneaking around on your wife or girlfriend.

But there are other missives from people who've clearly been burned and want to avoid past disasters. I understand it, yet some of it seems like doing everything you can to prevent a recurrance of World War I and got World War II instead.

Another is irratation at a physical limitation over which I have absolutely no power to change: my height. I'm not short, but I'm not tall either. I'm statistically average. But I've seen a large number of ads, not just on this site but in classifieds in newspapers and Craigslist and any other place where people try to meet by making requests: I'm not over 6 feet tall.

For one, I don't know how much difference it really makes. I can reach the top shelves of my cabinets and anything I really can't get to, there's this thing I have called a step-stool. Other than that, height is mostly useful for seeing over shoulders in crowds. I haven't found other uses. The drawbacks are that clothes sizes are larger and more expensive, it's harder to sit in some cars comfortably, especially with people in the back seat; you're always folded up in theaters, stadium seats, even restaurants where your legs tend to tangle with others, almost never in a good way. If you're really tall, you have a collection of bumps and scars on your head from things that you've hit.

And there's a double-standard to it as well. Women have no problem specifying a height, and even petite women routinely want men 6' or over, as if those extra couple inches meant anything. But if a man put in a demand for a range of bra sizes, there would be outrage.

Enough about height. There's also an unwillingness to want to sell myself like used car. Like a lot of people, I grew up with the rule that you don't blow your own horn, you don't show off, you don't preen. That's a very, very difficult one to get past.

But finally, the big one, the elephant among the mice I've already mentioned, is guilt and my own double-standards.

I think the root problem, after a lot of soul-searching and analysis, is in the pictures. Most people don't look the same in a photo as they do in real life, and usually the photos aren't flattering. In real life we're typically hit with a flurry of impressions: the person's image—from all angles, not just one; there's the voice, the posture, movement, attitude and behavior from broad to minute.

But when you see a photo, you react just a photo. There could be 10,000 words in the profile that make the person sound like the mate of your dreams, but the photo says run away.

I do this is much as anyone, and I'm not proud of it because I'm much a victim of it as perpetrator. I'm not the male version of Anne Ramsey (pictured) but I'm far closer to Ernest Borgnine's Marty than the Roger Moore photo I use as my avatar. I know that I am judged on my looks. In person I can try and save things with personality, but just a photo would sink me before I even cast off.

But I feel guilty when I do the same thing. The dating company gave me a group of "matches" to sift through, and I immediately tossed out some based on nothing but the photo.

I have met women who are not, shall we say, fine physical specimens yet I found them attractive. But the difference was that I met them in person, where I could see them from all angles, hear them talk and interact and be a full-bodied individual rather than just a (usually poor) 2-D image on the screen.

All that makes me think that this is just a disaster of a system. Things were better when there were ice cream socials and local mixers, where you met other "available" people in the flesh instead of just pixels. Internet dating is the 21st century equivalent of 19th century mail-order brides. Look through the catalog, find one you like and write a letter...

And I suspect the long-term results are about the same.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

I'm Turning Everything On Full Blast

I got this email from my local utility.

Treat Yourself With Savings

Ready to start saving? Tomorrow, Thursday 7/12/2012, is a Save Power Day, which means if you use less energy than you normally do between 2:00 pm and 6:00 pm, you can earn credits on your electricity bill - up to $100 a year.

Gee, thanks. I've already pared things down pretty close to the bone to minimize my bill already. What if my normal use is (to pick round numbers for comparison) 10KW/h per day, and even I unplugged all the non-essentials (i.e. not the refrigerator), I'd only drop to 9.5KW/h?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

It's Not Ignorance, It's Hubris

Another day, another guy gets arrested at the airport for trying to bring a gun.

Another day, another celebrity arrested for DUI.

Another day, another couple's prayers go unanswered because the stick turned blue and the condom package is still sealed.

I was listening to an NPR piece one day (I'd link it if I could remember which) where the reporter was discussing some kind of health issue, I think it was unwanted pregnancies and condom use (and the lack thereof). The reporter began by asserting that was an issue of the lack of education, and then followed it up interview clips with private people who all said "I know I was running a risk, but we had sex without a condom anyway."

Then it's not about education (and the lack thereof), is it?

This is one of those things where I want to throw a boot through the tv screen or toss a radio off a tall building. I'm sick of the "it's a lack of education" excuse. In children that's applicable; in adults it damn well isn't.

It's predicated on the idea that if you present the facts to a person, he (or she) will make a sound (usually obvious) decision. Is that the case? A hell of a lot of the time: no!

How many times do people get arrested for DUI? How many of them really had no idea that drinking might deteriorate their driving skills, and that if only they had known...? Only the Forrest Gumps of the world. Most of the DUIs are from people who honestly thought they weren't drunk and were fit to drive, or they just didn't care and decided to chance it anyway. Education and ignorance wasn't a factor.

Same thing with condom use. If you're an adult and you're capable of functioning on your own in modern society (you can hold a job, pay the bills, etc.), you know what condoms can and cannot do. If you decide to have sex and not use it, you know what the risks are. You've just chosen to accept them. Maybe you want to procreate. Or likely you just don't like them for any number of reasons. Still, it's not a "I had no idea!" situation.

There are plenty of things in the world that go poorly or unexplained: how the government truly works; which laws apply; how tax, spending and lending policies affect the economy both at a macro and a personal level; why the annual global temperature is supposed to be rising yet last winter was especially severe. Education is a valuable tool and it needs to be used. But it needs to be expunged as an excuse for human hubris and poor decision making.

Another day, someone takes the cigarette out of his mouth and blows a huge plume of smoke at the tv during an anti-smoking commercial.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Yin and Yan of Jack Dorsey

I thought this was interesting on multiple levels. By coincidence I read these two articles almost back-to-back, so even I couldn't miss the connections.

We start with a man named Jack Dorsey, the man who launched Twitter. I think Twitter is (like Facebook) overhyped and little understood, but I still found this story in Wired Magazine a compelling read. It's a personality profile of Dorsey; and of course because it's written by a leading-edge tech mag, there's a Cult of (Steve) Jobs undercurrent; much of the article compares him with Jobs and Apple.

As an illustration, there's a discussion of Dorsey's current project, a merchant payment service called Square. For the purposes of this blog post, I'm not interested in Apple, design, or other Revealed Truths. I'm interested in the company itself and what it does:

. . . Earlier this year, Square . . . released Square Register, an app that makes it easy to use an iPad as a full-featured cash register. Vendors can set up buttons for each item they sell, much as McDonald’s lets cashiers simply press Shake instead of entering the price. It can also connect wirelessly to a cash drawer.

But Register’s real value is that it offers sophisticated analytics for free. Its users get data that allows them to identify which products are selling and when, and future versions will be even more powerful. “As a customer enters the vicinity of the establishment, a notification will spring open on the merchant’s screen,” says Megan Quinn, Square’s director of products (who has since left the company). “It will show the customer’s name and suggest their most likely order, based on an algorithm that knows past purchases and things that sell well at the store.”

Henderson, the engineering lead on Pay With Square, points out that the company collects all kinds of information about its users, data that might be invaluable to merchants and customers alike. “First of all, we know your location,” he says. “Second, we have a decent sense of your history. We know the kinds of places you’ve been and what you like. But we also know lots of other things—like if there’s a whole bunch of food trucks that pull up nearby, we’ll see the spike in activity and can point you to those trucks. I think you’ll see us get really good at this.”

Analytics and data-mining might provide Square’s real business model. So far, the company has charged a very small fee for each transaction, and merchants aren’t likely to pay much more. And while Square has been giving participating merchants access to analytics about their businesses for free, it is also aggregating that data, real-time information about what people are buying in every region of the country, complete with detailed demographics. It’s reasonable to think that might be very valuable in the near future.

Square is still focused on smaller merchants, but its executives believe that even tier-one retailers will use Square before long. “The Neiman Marcuses and the Walmarts will want to have an emotional attachment with their buyers, where anybody can walk in and pay with their name and have an electronic receipt,” Rabois says. “That’s what we’re going to deliver.”

In other words, Square aims to provide shoppers with an emotionally satisfying experience . . . .
Wired, "The Many Sides of Jack Dorsey", paragraphs 40-45

I showed this article to a friend and he was thrilled at the prospect. Rooting through the wallet for money, making and handling loose change and such just slows everything down and can be an annoyance (e.g. almost nobody wants pennies anymore, let alone a pocketful).

He also made a point that in some places, like Europe (and probably many parts of the US), a lot of transactions are still in cash, such as cab fare. Cabbies don't take plastic, so you have to have and handle an often unfamiliar foreign currency, which leads to more bills and more coins, and receipts (if you're lucky) to keep for expense reports. Even when you are able to use credit cards, you're still limited to whichever brands or systems they accept; American Express (still a favorite for US corporate travel) is often non grata.

The no-swipe, no card, electronic-wallet-on-your-iPhone world that Square envisions may still not be adopted by cab drivers or small bistros in France, but it's still a welcome step toward it.

That aside, the portion of the Wired article that I quoted above discusses the use of analytics—the analysis of buying habits. Wired's example would be walking into a coffee house and the barristas would have your likely order on the cash register and ready to go as soon as you walked in the door. I used to frequent a chinese restaurant and always bought the same lunch, so they always knew what I wanted as soon as they saw me. That's not a bad thing.

So next I came across an article in The Economist magazine (June 30-July 6, 2012. London's skyscape on the cover). This article never discussed Square in particular, but the part about Square's analytics dovetails in nicely:

The internet was supposed to be the consumer’s friend. By making it easy to shop around, it would drive prices lower. But online sellers of all sorts of goods and services are taking a keen interest in new software that promises to help them spot customers who are well off, or whose money is burning a hole in their pockets, so as to charge them more).

Online shoppers let slip plenty of information about themselves that could be of use to crafty salesmen. Cookies reveal where else they have been browsing, allowing some guesses about their income bracket, age and sex. Their internet address can often be matched to their physical address: the richer the neighbourhood, the deeper the pockets, it may be assumed. Apple computer-owners are on average better-off than Windows PC users, and firms may offer them pricier options, as Orbitz, a travel website, is doing. Your mouse may also be squeaking on you: click too quickly from home-page to product page to checkout, and the seller can conclude that you have already decided to buy—so why offer you a discount?
The Economist, "Caveat", paragraphs 2 and 3.

I know the Wired article wasn't about the dark side of technology, yet there's a little bit of me that thinks it's the "Apple is Good, Steve Jobs is God, this man is obviously the Chosen One so all he touches is good" philosophy springs forth. If Dorsey idolized Bill Gates, I would bet the implications of Square's analytics would have gotten a harder look.

And then finally this cherry on top. Flip the page after the Economist article and you see a full-page ad for SAS's analytic services (see image at top of this post). If I were SAS, I'd be pissed.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Powerpoint Pain

First, you know how people say there are secrets to great presentations (people title books like this all the time. The 7 Secrets of... horseshit). Well, in presentations there really is one. I say it's a secret only because I have yet to see anyone actually say it anywhere (most of my tips below, however, I've seen printed elsewhere).

Secret: it's all about authority. I don't mean power-authority— the ability to flick your fingers and have someone sent to the gulag (presentations would be a lot more interesting, though). I'm talking about credibility, as in the audience believing unequivocably that you know what you're talking about, that you're Revealing Truth. Anything that adds to your authority should be embraced and anything that detracts should be cut out like cancer.

Think about speakers who put on presentations. The best ones never leave you in any doubt that they know what they're doing and that their message is the word of God. Crappy speakers undermine their message, no matter how accurate or relevant, by casting doubt on their own veracity.

With that in mind, some tips:

1. Know what's in your Powerpoint presentation. You are responsible for it. Even if it's a group effort, it's still yours.

I saw presentations where the creator had obviously cut and pasted chunks of prose from the internet (probably Wikipedia) into a slide, and thought no more about it. When it came to present, that person then simply read aloud what was on the slide.

1A. Know what's on the slide. The creator/reader stumbled over sentences and mispronounced words (and I'm not talking about tongue-twisters like paraphenylenediamine or Zapatecas; I mean relatively common words like legume). This gives the impression that the presenter is reading this for the first time, or simply has no idea what he or she is reading. This completely undercuts the presenter's credibility as an authority. How do I really know any of this is true, valuable or applicable when the presenter obviously doesn't know what he or she is talking about? All he's doing is reading the screen.

1B. Just put bullet points on the slide. This is common advice, yet it's common because it's so often needed. People cut and paste a sea of print onto a slide. Nobody in the audience wants to read a page of prose. Think of the Powerpoint text as being like note cards: they're meant to have a few words--just enough to summarize the concept or make a point. You supply the patter to fatten it out.

2. Get your facts right. Reading one source (e.g. Wikipedia) doesn't cut it. If you use the internet for your research, check multiple sites and make sure they don't all site-back to the same single source. If you got the library and read a book, check a couple of other books as well. In some cases there really is only a single source; but very often there are several and one offers insight where another is blind.

2A. Don't assume that because this was new to you, that your audience doesn't know it either.. I'm serious—this will put your head into a noose faster than mis-pronouncing words like noose. I was watching presentations that touched on subjects that I happened to know something about, and it immediately became clear that the presenters had only read a Wikipedia page or a corporate About-Us web page and nothing more; the result was that they would toss out "facts," simple things that didn't have much to do with the bulk of the presentation, that were either flat-out wrong or gossimer-fragile. Either way, it destroyed the authority of the presenter. I know xyz and this isn't even my project! This is your project, why didn't you?

2B. Try to do a little independent research. Some people think if you're assigned to do a story on, say, Apple, Inc., that everything necessary can be gathered from or Wikipedia. Try doing some searches that take you farther afield. Do some searches on your own--don't just follow links from one person's bibliography; if only because you may stumble across something great that you would have found otherwise.

3. It's better to have two interesting facts than ten dull ones. I recently saw a presentation about Starbucks, and the presenter had the typical list of uninteresting trivia about the company; how many stores are open, how many employees they have, how many pounds of coffee beans they roast every day.

By coincidence, I had a book with Starbucks trivia, but it had "3 Things You Didn't Know About Starbucks." One was about using the foam on a latte as a way of keeping the coffee hot (it's not as efficient as a thermos but it does help), the second was that there really is a "short" size even though it's not on the menu, and the third is that there's a Starbucks barrista blog (actually there are many) which had the blogger's idea of the worst custom frappuccino ever (it included pomegranate).

Those three items were far more interesting than the dry facts. If he had tossed those out, it would have woken the audience up. People respond to the unusual and unexpected; it forces them to pay attention.

4. Care about how it looks.

4A. Powerpoint looks different when its projected on a wall than it does on your monitor. Typically the color is washed out and loses its vibrancy. At best it just looks drab, but you want to check that colors don't blend. I see this a lot—a colorful chart that looked great in Excel and even in Powerpoint on the computer becomes meaningless when it's presented because you can't tell the line colors apart. The fix for this is to use colors that contrast more strongly than you might otherwise use, and to use other visual indicators, like dash patterns, to differentiate lines.

4B. Simplify the Charts. A great chart can convey a lot of information, but again, what works on the computer or in a printout can quickly get confusing on the wall. It also goes back to the sea-of-print advice from 1B. Strip your charts down to the bare minimum of information. If there's too much info, consider making separate charts.

4C. Don't Be Lazy. I recently saw the single worst Powerpoint slide evar [sic]. The presenter wanted some info from a website but did not want to recreate the chart, so he just took a photo of it with his iPhone. The result was a blurry, ugly mess. The only message that slide conveyed was that the user was more interested in Tweeting complaints about making this presentation than in actually making the presentation.

5. Get away from the God-damned lecturn! People who are uncomfortable giving presentations, which is most of us, and even people who do it often, use the lecturn as a form of armor against the audience. Speakers will plant themselves squarely behind it and not budge for fear of being killed by stray gunfire if they step to either side.

If you have notes, put them on the lecturn and walk away. Stand to either side of it if you need to consult your notes, but walk away from it completely when you don't. If you're projecting your presentation onto the wall, stand on one side of it for a slide, then cross over to talk about the next slide. Don't be afraid to point to things on the screen directly.

Dynamic movement is visually interesting, even if it's just you traversing eight feet of floor. If you want to see this in action: turn on the local TV news and watch the weather and traffic casters--the people who have to stand in front of the local maps and point out things. They move back and forth from one side to the next. Same thing with good public speakers. If you ever see those motivational poeple that pollute PBS these days, they typically don't stand behind a lectern; they stand by themselves on the stage, and move back and forth across it.

6. Loosen up. This is easier said than done, and the hardest piece of advice I have. But it's also the most important if you don't want to bore your audience to death. Even if you're fundamentally shy (I am), you can fake it for the length of the presentation.

A few suggestions:

  • If you have props, use them. A prop can be something interesting that's related to what you're talking about. Is your presentation about the history of Starbucks? Bring in a bag of coffee, and open it and show off the beans. Get green (unroasted) beans if you can. And quakers. Anything coffee related is fair game, it will add visual interest, and it will give you something to do with your hands.
  • Give away stuff that's related to your presentation, like mini-bags of coffee beans. Or dixie cups of beans. You don't have to give something to everyone, just toss a few out among the spectators. Especially people you want to distract, because they'll be paying more attention to the freebie than what you're saying.
  • If you have a sense of humor, use it. You don't need to tell jokes, but if you have a wry comment or a funny anecdote that fits, use it. If you can find a cartoon (preferably a one-panel) that fits your subject, stick into the presentation somewhere at the most opportune time. Humor wakes people up.

And a last bit of advice for those of you who got this far—another secret that never gets mentioned but it's absolutely true:

Nobody knows what you meant to do.

This means that you actually have more freedom of movement than you think; you can change the order of slides on the fly; you can ad lib; you can go off the presentation completely to make a point. Unless your audience has seen you do this before, they don't know what to expect and what not to. It also means that you don't have to get rattled if something doesn't work as planned; steamroll over it and keep going.