High Fidelity, Pillow Talk, The Music Man: on technology and on ideas that rhyme, but then don’t

Hey, this looks like a piece about old movies, and it starts out that way, but it’s also about how to think about technology. I even throw in a little Douglas Adams at the end.

Ideas can rhyme like words do. When words rhyme, the rhyme helps us position ourselves inside a poem: we know we’re at the end of a line when the rhyme happens. Rhyme’s spatial nature makes us pay attention to a similarity that doesn’t mean anything most of the time. “Bed” always sounds like “dead,” but we only notice — we only think it means something — when and where both words come at the end of nearby lines in a poem or song in a rhyme.

When ideas rhyme, the rhyme helps us position ourselves inside a story, fictional or non-fictional. Ideas that rhyme* are building blocks for analogies.

Here’s what I mean: one night some years back on a driving trip with my then-eight-year-old daughter we took in a show at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The classical plays were all too dark (Macbeth) or esoteric (King Henry VIII) to choose as a little girl’s first introduction to Shakespeare, so instead I took her to The Music Man thinking that this 1950s musical set in the early years of the twentieth century would be more approachable for my twenty-first century kid.

Boy, was I wrong. The gap separating her everyday experience from The Music Man was no narrower than if I’d shown her the Thane of Cawdor’s ancient Scotland. River City, Iowa, after all, is so sleepy that when the Wells Fargo wagon arrives the whole town breaks into celebratory song. Try that today and the UPS guy will floor the big brown truck.

Little about The Music Man resonated with H since the plot depends on information paucity: con artist Harold Hill is able to fleece town after town because the towns don’t have ready communications with each other; Marian the Librarian has to send a letter to Gary, Indiana to determine when the music conservatory there was founded… and then she waits for most of the play to get the answer. There may be trouble in River City, but there’s not a lot of information.

In contrast, at eight H had grown up in an information superabundant world with Google, email, hundreds of TV channels, infinite options online, books aplenty, music streaming from every direction, and frequent Amazon deliveries to our doorstep although not yet by drone. Today, with mobile and social media there’s even more.

When you’re working with ideas that rhyme you can understand stories that don’t bear a lot of resemblance to your own life because there are structures buried inside the narrative ecosystems that look a lot like the structures buried inside your own life.

When we saw The Music Man, H had just finished second grade and was about to enter third. The main reason H could appreciate The Music Man at all, which she did, was that going to elementary, middle and high school today is a lot like River City. The shapes of the experiences rhyme with each other: the same people milling about the same claustrophobia-inducing place doing the same stuff day after day… just with the addition of a barbershop quartet.

What interests me is when ideas stop rhyming. As a researcher and futurist, I’m always on the lookout for cultural narratives that stop making easy sense as everyday life changes. I use those transitions to dig into how our lives are changing as technology and culture do an evolutionary dance with each other. 

This isn’t just a matter of having lived your entire life with Batman as a dark movie character (Christian Bale) rather than the sunny TV one (Adam West) your parents remember with happy smiles— the sort of thing that the Beloit Mindset list captures each fall. My kids have no trouble watching the 1960s Batman TV show with me and understanding it, even though they think I’m ridiculous for loving it.

Instead, I’m talking about stories that dwindle into inaccessibility because the audience no longer shares enough context with the story to understand it without footnotes— like trying to rhyme “bed” and “guava.” Indeed, the very presence of footnotes is a clear sign that a story belongs to the past more than the present.**

Pillow Talk is a perfect example of a movie that no longer makes easy sense and that stopped making sense over the last decade. The idea that stopped rhyming is the party line, where multiple houses or apartments share a single phone line because there were more people who wanted phone lines than the phone company had yet built.

Even back in 1959, when Pillow Talk (the first Rock Hudson and Doris Day movie) hit the theaters, party lines were already on their way out.

But growing up in the 1980s the absence of party lines in my parents’ house didn’t stop me from understanding the movie. Pillow Talk made sense because I had to deal with the similarly-shaped frustration of never being able to have a private conversation. It was impossible to chat with a girlfriend and not have other people in both houses picking up the handsets every few minutes. So Pillow Talk was just like my house, only Jan Morrow (the Doris Day character) had to deal with complete strangers interrupting instead of clueless parents and malicious little brothers. The shapes of the experiences rhymed.

But those ideas no longer rhyme today.

It would never occur to now-teenaged H to use the house line to call her friends, and even if she did the likelihood of somebody else picking up the seldom-used house line is small. H has an iPhone, and since she doesn’t know any of her friends’ numbers by heart she would have to look at the address book in her iPhone in order to punch the number into the house line, which is absurd. Moreover, H wouldn’t want to use her mouth to make noises to communicate with her friends in the first place: that’s what texting, Instagram and Snapchat are for. If H does want to chat in real time, she’s more likely to use FaceTime or Skype.

The telephone is for talking with grandparents.

The plot of Pillow Talk revolves around technology barriers, but the technology in question no longer plays a role in the lives of children today. Universal Pictures couldn’t remake Pillow Talk unless the studio decided to set it in the same period when it was written, which would be pointless.

Which brings me to my disheartening realization last night after I stumbled across High Fidelity on Netflix and sank with a happy smile into that delightfully written, perfectly-directed, amazingly-cast film. (And is there a better soundtrack in movies?) 

The realization? My kids won’t understand High Fidelity. Oh, I’ll try to show it to them, and perhaps the charming performances will suck them in, but it’s unlikely because the ideas don’t rhyme.

Want to know why? Just look at this timeline…

1995: the novel High Fidelity by Nick Hornby hits bookstore shelves, which means it had been completed sometime in 1993 or 1994. It’s a love story set in a world of used vinyl record shops run by monkish musical obsessives. It is a world that is about to die because…

1997: the first MP3 player is released.

1999: Napster makes music sharing (and piracy) effortless, and shifts the musical unit of measurement from the physical album or CD to the individual song in MP3 form.

2000: High Fidelity the movie, starring John Cusack, comes out; Pandora Radio launches, bringing streaming radio and music discovery to the world.

2001: Apple iTunes and Apple’s first generation iPod come out, taking MP3s mainstream; H is born.

Some of the key moments in the movie (ahem, spoiler alert… although if you haven’t seen the movie already then how did you make it this far in this post?) don’t make easy sense if you’ve grown up with today’s technology.

Sure, there are still record stores out there that cater to music snobs, but not many, not one in every neighborhood and every shopping mall— and rumbling around the record store with your friends on a Saturday afternoon isn’t an activity for today’s teens the way is was for previous generations. 

In High Fidelity, as they hang around Championship Records waiting for customers to stumble in, many of the interactions among Rob, Dick and Barry concern musical trivia: which group first performed which song, who did what on which record. Today, Google would answer all such questions.

Rob using a stack of quarters to call his ex Laura over and over again from a rain-drenched phone booth outside her new beau Ray’s apartment is dramatic and emotionally charged. Today, good luck finding a pay phone. Rob would simply hit redial on his smart phone while sitting at Starbucks.

Rob making mix tapes for Caroline the music reporter and for Laura were time-draining labors of love in the 1990s, but today the process is instantaneous and not impactful. “Here, I spent hours selecting, organizing and recording this tape for you” becomes, “here, I spent minutes selecting and seconds creating this Spotify playlist for you: it’ll take you longer to listen to it than it took me to make it. Have fun!”

In the vinyl days, when you heard about a new band or a new song you had to find a disc-shaped object somewhere, either in a store or at a friend’s house. When cassettes came along you could copy things, but you could only do it in real time, which was a drag.

Teens today love music just as much as they ever have, but their musical challenges are about filtering rather than access. There’s instant streaming for just about everything, but the challenge is figuring out what to listen to, whether it’s free and where to find the best deal if it isn’t.

High Fidelity — a movie that, sigh, I still think of as relatively new — is more distant from my kids’ automatically understandable experience than The Music Man. How weird.

Watching stories move into the rear-view mirror — when ideas stop rhyming — is the flip side of watching technologies move into the unremarkable mainstream of our everyday lives where of course I can reach my wife with a stupid question about where the charger for the laptop might be hiding because she has an iPhone and I haven’t thought to look under the bed.

Douglas Adams, in a 1999 blog post called “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet” articulated this brilliantly:

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

With rhyming ideas, we can tweak this into a slightly different three-fold story:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that stops being relevant to everyday life between then and before you turn thirty (fax machines, type writers, cameras, VCRs) takes up space in your garage and makes you smile with nostalgia when you run across it;

3) anything that stops being relevant after you’re thirty is a painful sign that you’re going to die sooner than you want to and that your kids don’t appreciate how good they have it until you gradually realize that this is just like when you rolled your eyes at your own parents when they nattered on about black and white TV and wringing out laundry and mixing food dye into margarine and that sort of thing so just relax because it happens to everybody.

Still, though…High Fidelity is a terrific movie. Too bad my kids won’t get it.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

Miscellaneous notes:

* My notion of “ideas that rhyme” is similar to but not identical with my old teacher Stephen Booth’s description of “ideational rhyme,” which he works out in detail in his edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

** Simply putting the words “bed” and “guava” into proximity with each other might provoke readers with too much time on their hands to think about how these two things actually do go together. If this is the case, then for heaven’s sake please share with me how you think they go together because that sounds fascinating, and then please go read Donald Davidson’s 1978 essay “What Metaphors Mean” because it describes how our minds creates meanings out of these sorts of comparisons rather than discovering meanings that are already there.

Stewart, Cosby, Williams: Tough Times for U.S. Comedy

Take heed, sirrah, the whip.
   King Lear to his Fool

Jon Stewart’s farewell episode of The Daily Show last night proved joyful rather than sad as dozens of people whose careers took root and bloomed under Stewart’s watch turned up to celebrate and — despite his resistance — to thank him.

For the under-30 crowd, last night was their May 22, 1992: Johnny Carson’s last episode of The Tonight Show.  Unlike Carson, Stewart has no plans to disappear from public life; yet more dissimilar Stewart is universally reported to be a great guy rather than a jerk.

No reasonable person can fault Stewart for wanting to do something new after brilliant 17 years, but it’s a stabbing loss to nightly political commentary and to comedy. 

Funny people abound in U.S. comedy — and I’ve now reached my tautology quotient for the day — but in different ways we’ve lost three icons in the last year, Stewart the most recent.

Bill Cosby was the second: like Stewart, Cosby is alive, but since Hannibal Buress put the spotlight on Cosby’s history of sexual assault last fall all the joy Cosby had brought to us over the decades tastes sour.  Don’t get me wrong: Buress was right to do it, and it’s a shame on us all that until a man said it nobody took alleged attacks on women seriously. 

And I mourn the loss of the joy.  For most of my life, Cosby’s voice hasn’t been far from my inner ear.  Just this morning I found myself thinking about an early routine called “Roland and the Roller Coaster,” but then frowned as all the stories of his assaults on women rolled into my mind. 

I’ve heard stories of Cosby’s infidelity since I was in high school.  One of the dubious privileges of growing up in L.A. is knowing a lot of celebrities and their kids.  I was in a play with the kid of a famous woman who knew Cosby well.  I don’t know how it came up — I must have been merrily quoting a Cosby routine — but the kid said, “you know he cheats on his wife all the time, right?”  I don’t remember having an intelligent response beyond, “oh.”  Even then, infidelity was something that struck me as being an issue among the people directly involved rather than the public’s business. 

I remained a Cosby fan, and his observations intertwined with those of George Carlin as a running commentary in my head.

Now when I hear Cosby’s voice in my head I change the mental channel with a flinch.

It’s the second time that I’ve found myself dancing across the minefield of my own responses to Cosby: the first was after the mysterious 1997 murder of his son Ennis just a couple of miles from where I grew up.  After that, I couldn’t listen to any of Cosby’s routines about his kids, and particularly his son, without sadness. 

But I still listened. 

Not anymore.

Next week bring the one-year anniversary of the third and most grievous loss, the suicide of Robin Williams. 

A friend stumbled across LIFE magazine’s tribute issue to Williams at a garage sale and bought it for me, as she knew I was a huge fan.  I’ll read it on Tuesday, on the anniversary of his death, but I haven’t been able to open it yet.

I had the privilege of seeing the incandescent Robin Williams perform live onstage three times and saw or listened to him numberless other times.  The speed and depth and genius of his wit will never leave me.  His 2001 appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio with James Lipton was the most astonishing display of mental gymnastics that I’ve ever seen.

Darkness always lives in comedy, and when the light is that bright the simple math of it says that shadows must go deep.  I wish I could have done something for him, even though we never met.  I understand this but I still can’t accept it: the funniest man in the world killed himself.

Dustin Hoffman captured the unfathomable, unacceptable, incomprehensible nature of Willams’ suicide in an unguarded moment during an onstage interview with Alec Baldwin that later became a June episode of Baldwin’s wonderful Here’s the Thing podcast.  Hoffman was talking about Lenny Bruce, and how Bruce didn’t prepare set material.  The only other person Hoffman could think of who was like Bruce was Robin Williams.  As he said the name, Hoffman broke down in a sob that hit him like a lightning bolt from a clear blue sky, and it took him several seconds to collect himself.  I cried too.

Good luck, Jon Stewart, and thanks. 

Bill Cosby, I wish you were as good a man as you are a funny man, although that’s a tall order.

Robin Williams, rest in peace.  You deserve it.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

Michael Wolff’s Just-Released Book is a Puzzler

The dust-jacket of Television is the New Television: the Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age describes Wolff as a man with unparalleled access to powerful figures in media and the book as something that will change the reader’s thinking. Moreover, it frames Wolff as an archly bitchy writer with enemies who would like nothing better than to see his vital organs recycled to serve the more deserving. 

None of this is the case.

The vast majority of Wolff’s writing is a sober and thoughtful (if limited and unsupported) account of the power dynamics in media at the moment.  It’s a useful snapshot of what’s happening right now, which reduced to tweet-length is “Print and digital media companies are all turning to video to create brand advertising-worthy products, but TV is hard to make on the cheap.”  This is not an insight that changes my thinking.

The book has mild flights of interesting speculation. For example, without sports digital media companies like Google or Facebook will never be able truly to compete with broadcast and cable companies, but the digital companies have neither the stomach to write the big checks nor the narrative skills to create the product the right way if they did.  However, I didn’t take a single note or make a single check mark in the margin as I was reading (rare for me). 

The occasional outbursts of temper — heralded on the back cover as one of the book’s guilty pleasures — are mean-spirited cheap shots rather than Oscar Wildean performances of acerbic wit.  Rather than a frightened editor red-lining a bad-manners manifesto to prevent riots, as I read the book I imagined a desperate editor pleading with Wolff to make it just a little bit more cruel, please, Michael, whereupon Wolff, with a fatigued eye roll, would throw in something nasty like adding a dash of salt to soup.

Nonetheless, if you work in the digital media industry, then you should read Wolff’s book immediately for two reasons.

First, old media people — who long for less-complicated days before the arrival of the internet with its staggering complexity (and, yes, these folks are still around and in positions of power) — will wave this book about with a dash of glee and a little Rumpelstiltskin dance.  The book panders to the vanity of television people in a way that should make the team at Merriam Webster update their definition of “sycophancy” with a new example.

Second, if you wait even a week the book will be less enjoyable because it will be dated.  Ben Jonson eulogized his pal Shakespeare by saying Shakespeare was not for an age but for all time.  Wolff’s book is of the moment— just the moment.  With each passing development — such as 1) when the government did not allow the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable or 2) Verizon’s acquisition of AOL, both of which happened as the book was already in press — the picture it paints of the media world becomes more stale.  This book will be on the remainder shelf soon, by which point it won’t be worth reading.

It’s a quick read, and one that pulls a bunch of things together neatly.  Anybody working at the collisions of video and the internet and advertising will find it handy. 

But it’s in the bubble, parochial and like that famous “View of the World from 9th Avenue ” New Yorker cover.  Wolff’s imagination of what is important lacks scope: the internet isn’t important in the history of our species because of what it does for media but because of how it empowers people to communicate with each other— even if what they talk about tends to be television. 

Speaking as a researcher, editor, and writer I have to end this note with frustration.  Wolff is a columnist, not a journalist.  He cites not a single source, gets not a single person on the record, and has not a single footnote directing the reader to where his many assertions can be supported.  Television is the New Television is a collection of long columns: occasionally insightful, informed by numberless conversations with figures in the community, and with a short half life.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

Notes from Bergen 4: the world is less virtual than we think

It’s 8:30am as I begin writing this post.  Just minutes ago Kathi and our son trotted off towards the University of Bergen, where she’ll drop him off for his last day at Nygard Skole — the Norwegian immersion program he’s attended this year — before going to her last day at the University.  My daughter shook a leg in a perpendicular direction to her last day at Rothaugen, where she has been in an immersion class embedded in the local junior high. 

Our adventure is ending: my kids have been in 10 countries in 10 months: USA, Norway, Netherlands, Poland, France, England, Scotland, Denmark, Germany and Italy.  They are closer to being world citizens now, and the travel bug has bitten them.  I wait with fascination to watch them readjust to life in our small town south of Portland after being able to jet off to Rome for a weekend.

Now, I sit on the couch with the kitchen ravages of the morning waiting for me to order them, after which I’ll return to packing, organizing, scanning, pruning and getting ready for our crack-of-dawn departure back to America on Monday. 

Home.  We’re going home, first to visit family and friends in Los Angeles, then up to Portland a few days later.

Already, our 4-story, narrow, weird little 400-year-old house doesn’t look like us.  The books are gone, and a Berens without books is extraterrestrial.  We shipped six boxes yesterday, and this was after I schlepped an extra suitcase and bag of books to New York  with me a few weeks ago on a business trip to UPS westward at lower cost.

Other changes: the quintet resumed being our standard Berens quartet when Jordan, our beloved nanny who also works for me in the business, left on her European walkabout while I was in New York.  The house got a bit quieter. 

We measure in wake-ups: how many more times will we wake up in Bergen?  The answer as of now is three: Saturday, Sunday, Monday wheels up.  Our year-long presence falls from the house fast as an oak shakes off last leaves at autumn’s end… even though Norwegian summer is just starting to peek through the clouds here.

We have so much stuff, even in this pared down year.  We’ll travel to Los Angeles with straining duffles and carryons.  Despite buying digital books and music, being careful about what we acquire, scanning papers and then disposing of the originals… we’re still fleshy beings in a world of plastic, cloth, wood and concrete.  Friends are adopting our houseplants.  We’ve given outgrown clothes to charity.  Still we have to manage things.  Many things.

So the world is a lot less virtual than we think it is, and not just in the sense of “gosh, what a lot of stuff we have.”

When we moved to Bergen back in August I knew I’d be far away, but I thought that with Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn and Skype and Google Hangouts and email and a Vonage/VOIP phone things would chug along. 

In many ways, they did.  Facebook and Twitter helped me to keep an ambient awareness of what was happening with friends, and vice versa.  Many people have told me how they’ve enjoyed watching our European adventure unfold in picture after picture on Facebook.

But a chasm lies between recent-time Facebook updates and live conversations with family, friends and business associates.  Distance shatters immediacy, and the nine-hour time difference between Bergen and Portland is even harder to bridge than the geography.  Numberless times I’ve had to sacrifice either a meeting with business partners or dinner with the family because 9am in California is 6pm in Norway.  The numbers never added up.

After a while, I got used to the distance and forgot how different live could be.

Then, in May, I went back to Brown University for the first time for my 25th college reunion to renew acquaintance with classmates and campus.  I stayed in the dorms, which are no habitat for middle-aged bodies— each morning, the bleary shuffle from dorm to bathroom by coffee-deprived grownups (myself included) was near-slapstick comedy.  We all wandered the campus in endless combinations, trading lifetimes of anecdotes.  Often, I couldn’t recognize an older friend by looking, but when we walked, when the unchanged voice came from next to me, the years fell away.

After the reunion I went down to New York for a week of conferences.  Handshakes, hugs, smiles, meals shared, beer bottles clinked, knowing expressions traded, walks in the June sunlight: these things change, deepen and amplify interaction more than mere adverbs can capture.    

I shouldn’t be surprised by this: I’ve spent more than a decade programming conferences that exist because real relationships require real presence to start, bloom and mature.  The highest bandwidth signal we have is when we’re sitting across a table from others, feeling their bodies shift the air, hearing the crinkle of their clothes as well as their voices, noticing the new haircut, new age line, new cadence or habitual word choice.  Those things aren’t noise: they compose a richer signal.

The world is a lot less virtual than we think.

The dishes await, as do more boxes.  Tonight, friends visit.  More packing over the weekend, a last trek up Fløyen to say goodbye to the fjord on Sunday. 

You only know it’s an adventure when it’s over.

We’re going home.

Daniel Kahneman kicks my ass, or Reading Fast and Slow

Like Moe, the schoolyard bully in Calvin & Hobbes, Daniel Kahneman has taken away my cognitive lunch money for the last four years. 

Moe

To be clear, it isn’t the 81-year-old Nobel laureate himself: it’s his best-selling 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Let me back up.

I read fiction quickly, sometimes gobbling up a novel during a plane ride or a rare quiet evening. Nonfiction, though, goes down more slowly. Even delightfully-well-written nonfiction books (Adam Grant’s Give & Take, anything by Steven Johnson) go into my mind with kidney-stone-passing-out perceived slowness when compared to, say, the latest by Neil Gaiman.  I inhaled Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl so quickly last month that I belched afterward, metaphorically, of course.

But I can speed up my non-fiction reading rate by having a project at hand.  Right now, for example, I’m working on two different, oddly-echoing projects: the first is about the future of technology and user behavior and the second is about Shakespeare as a business innovator.  These projects are my cognitive rudders, helping me sail through non-fiction arguments and implications at higher speed, evaluating their relevance to my own work while making notes about interesting other bits for later.

So getting back to Kahneman, this is my third attempt at Thinking Fast and Slow, his remarkable book about how humans are not nearly as rational as we think we are when it comes to making all sorts of judgments and decisions.  I’m about to start the fifth and last section, and this progress is because of the projects.

My first try was on the iPad, but what that copy of the book taught me was that I read, metabolize and retain nonfiction better on paper, with pencil in hand, underlining, annotating and making notes in the back of the book.  If I let you borrow a copy of any of my nonfiction books, then I must trust you a lot because I’m giving you a voyeuristic window into my mind, and you’ll see any number of checks, asterisks, “yeahs,” and longer marginalia.

Susan MacDermid, my then-boss and now-business partner, then gave me a hardback copy of Thinking Fast and Slow.  I attacked it, pencil in hand, but that was around the same time that I was jetting all over the planet on business, and the hardback copy was greedily taking up most of my precious briefcase space, so I stopped lugging it around.

Over the last few weeks, though, my thoughts have returned to Kahneman time and again as my two projects have come into focus, so on a weekend jaunt to England from Norway I picked up a paperback copy at Waterstone’s and dug back in. 

Now, with projects in mind, I’m now able to place Kahneman’s arguments in context, tweak them into different directions, and think through what the book isn’t talking about as well as what it does claim.

This is great news, and a good rule-of-thumb for difficult books in the future: projects speed progress.

On the other hand, it’s bad news for when I’m between projects, as general reading without the frame of what I’m trying to do with it will slow back down to my normal molasses pace with nonfiction.

I expect I’ll finish Thinking Fast and Slow tomorrow.  It’s a magnificent book— and also laugh out loud funny in many places.  It has been a pleasure and a privilege to read it, and I expect to read it again. 

With luck, the next reading won’t take four years.

[Cross-posted with Medium.]

“Change Your Life” Productivity Apps & How to Use Them— Updated!

I first wrote about the suite of applications, services, products and gadgets I use to keep my head above water almost three years ago.  In the intervening time things have changed (Smartr/Xobni, for example, has gone away), hence this fresh list.

Here are my 14 “Change Your Life” apps and how I use them. Please share yours in the comments.

Artefact Cards: Not all productivity apps are digital.  The Artefact Cards are a new entry on this list, one developed by my friend John V. Willshire of Smithery.  These cards are deceptively simple: small, blank playing cards with a bright color on one side and white on the other.  Add a fine-point Sharpie and you have a playful, tactile medium for ideation, iteration and collaboration.  The physicality of the cards is what makes them so useful: I have the sense that when you touch something you own it, at least in part.  When John and I met for coffee in London a few weeks ago, he brought me a couple boxes.  When we opened them up and started writing and drawing the ideas came flying fast.  The cards are different than Post-Its at least in part because of the slide-around quality… it’s easier to ideate, rearrange and juxtapose.  Use these cards, and you’ll find that group think-it-out sessions become more interactive— I keep a few with me in my pocket Moleskine notebook all the time, and just ordered a Desk Set because I’m almost out!  John is eloquent on how these things came to be here.

(Smithery has created a companion app for scanning and organizing the written-upon cards, but I haven’t used it yet.) 

Blank Index cards: I’m a fan of writing things down on pieces of paper rather than just taking digital notes, although I’m also a passionate scanner and tagger (see Evernote section, below).  The Artefact Cards are great for taxonomy and exploration, with one idea per card in atomic style.  But when I need more space to write down or organize more information, I use blank 5 x 8 index cards like these.  These are always in my backpack, and they also make handy entertainment for kids when trapped in boring grownup environments (my kids both love to draw).

Cozi: A shared family calendar that divvies up activities in columns by family member, so, for example, if my wife and son are doing something together it’s easy for me to see that I’ll be the one to pick up our daughter.  Cozi is my least favorite daily productivity app because the UI is cluttered (the iPhone app is just icky).  Another ding is that Cozi has zero interoperability with other calendars, but it’s in the cloud, easy for either me or my wife to update and keeps the different strands of family activity separate but juxtaposed.  The ads are intrusive on the free version, so I pay $5 per month.  Wayne Yamamoto, the CEO of Charity Blossom, once quipped to me that calendaring technology is the hardest problem in computer science, and I think he’s right.

Dropbox: Drop dead simple file sharing across my two computers, iPhone, iPad and the web.  It’s also fantastic for sharing big files, so you don’t have to cripple your correspondent’s email with that 1.3GB video.  It’s a better interface and user experience than Google Drive (see below).

Evernote: One of the two “you can take my left leg but spare me THIS” productivity services.  Evernote isn’t an app, it’s a movement.  It’s my prosthetic memory, storing brainstorms, receipts, flight and car rental reservations, PDFs, articles, account information… all sorted and tagged and searchable.  The free version is enough for most people, but I happily pay $45 per year for premium because that lets me keep full copies of all my notes on all my devices– rather than just one copy on one device and the rest in the cloud. When you’re on as many planes as I am, this is necessary.

Evernote is for asset management rather than task management: its focus is on nouns (information to keep track of) rather than on verbs (actions to be performed).  If I had one wish for Evernote, it would be that it should acquire ToodleDo (see below) and integrate it.

Guy Kawasaki is a fantastic apostle for Evernote, so go run “evernote guy kawasaki” through your favorite search engine to see his helpful posts on this.

My love for Evernote became even more profound (hard though that was) when I added…

ScanSnap Evernote Edition Scanner (by Fujitsu):  Small, fast and powerful, this scanner integrates seamlessly with Evernote: I shove all business cards, receipts, PDFs, notecards, Artefact cards and the like into Evernote.  If you buy this, then get in the habit of sorting and tagging things daily: it will only take a couple of minutes, but when you later need to find that thing that happened that time, you’ll be glad you did.  Evernote released the Scannable app a few months ago for on-the-fly scanning via a smart phone.  It also integrates with the ScanSnap.

Follow Up Then: Such a simple and helpful idea.  When you need a reminder as you’re sending an email, simply BCC this service with when you want the reminder and it will send you a message at that time.  So, if I ask a client or colleague to make a decision on something by Tuesday, I’ll BCC “tuesday@followupthen.com” and at that same time on Tuesday I’ll get a message back.  You can also use 11amtuesday, or 1week or 1month, et cetera.  The free version is robust, and at $2 per month the lowest level of the premium service is probably all you’ll ever need.  From my friend Adam Boettiger.

Google Drive: Formerly Google Docs, Second of the two “you can take my left leg but spare me THIS” productivity services.  While the capabilities of the word processor and spreadsheets aren’t as good as Microsoft’s, Google gets collaboration better than anybody.  For example, their simple, easy and clear cloud-based spreadsheet got me back 50% of an employee’s time a few years ago, and the ever-better integration with Gmail and Google+ make this a killer.  Google is trying to eat Dropbox’s lunch, but I still use them both: sometimes I don’t want everything to go through Google.  On the other hand… 

Google Voice: I’ve been using this since it was Grand Central, which Google acquired.  Call me and all the phones I’m associated with ring (home, cell, work) and I can pick up the one want.  Missed calls get transcribed and emailed to me, domestic calls that I make are free, international calls are cheap, I can TXT from the computer and receive TXTs, and a virtual concierge announces calls when I pick up the phone so I can screen easily. Another benefit is that if I have multiple cell phones I don’t have to think about which one to carry because all calls get routed through one number.  Google Voice now integrates nicely with Google+ and Gmail.  During my time in Norway, I only wish that it would forward to my Norwegian mobile number, but at least it goes to my Vonage VOIP number, which is virtually in the USA.

Instapaper:  A Niagara of information and links come at me every day via email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn (I sometimes think of those as un-productivity apps) and general surfing.  Often I don’t have time to dive into something right then and there, but Instapaper’s handy “Read Later” button on the browser toolbar saves the article, makes it easier to read, and queues it up for later absorption.  If you ever see me squinting at the iPad while on the elliptical machine, I’m probably looking at Instapaper. Smart phone and Tablet apps are must buys.  I also recommend upgrading to Premium, as it gives you quicker and better access to the archive of things you read once and are now trying to remember.

Moleskine Volant Mini:  I have one of these cute little notebooks in my pocket at all times.  It’s rude and distracting to whip out a smartphone, tablet or computer to take a note when I’m meeting with somebody (after all, I could be looking at Facebook), and despite my inhumanly fast typing speed on a conventional keyboard my thick fingers make tapping on a virtual keyboard a slow process.  Old fashioned paper and a nice pen help me to capture ideas and convey the truth about what I’m doing: engaging with what the other person is saying.  The detachable sheets at the back also make it easy to write something down for a person and then hand it over.  Find these in a lot of bookstores, art supply stores and online.

Rory’s Story Cubes: These are more of an insight pump than a productivity app.  Nine six-sided dice have pictograms on each side.  Roll the dice and see what combination of icons and images come up.  The dice are handy for changing your perspective on a situation that might have become sclerotic, or help you break through a barrier in your thinking.  Along these lines, just yesterday I saw a real copy of Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck of cards, and I may buy a set since the iPhone app I’ve tried is unsatisfying.

The Story Cubes have helped my son in a regular battle with his Daily Journal assignment from school.  He’s a talented writer, but sometimes has trouble coming up with something to write about.  Tossing the cubes and then selecting a few of them helps him get started.

Randomness has its uses.  Way back in college, I stumbled across my friend Karen Schiff throwing Tarot Cards and nearly passed out in judgmental shock.  Karen, serene, then explained that she didn’t think the cards had mystical properties, but that throwing them made her think in directions that she wouldn’t think natively.  It was a powerful moment that stuck with me, so I look for implements of controlled chaos like the Story Cubes.

Toodle Do: This member of my daily web services was introduced to me separately by Kevin Doohan and Adam Broitman.  Don’t let the stupid name fool you, this is a robust to-do-lists service with easy filtering, sorting and prioritization.  The free service is probably enough for most users, but don’t Scrooge out and neglect to buy the smart phone and tablet apps: that’s $5.98 that will accelerate your use and organization.  Fans of GTD will love this.

As I mentioned above, Evernote should buy Toodle Do and integrate it.

Trello:  Another from my friend Adam Boettiger: it’s a digital index card bulletin board of tasks, who is doing them and how close something is to done. Trello is great for a shared set of tasks or when you’re closely tracking somebody else’s work.  I think of it as a light form of project management, since it lacks the necessary history functions (who did that and when?) of a true deliverables matrix. Inside the Trello space, it’s easy to absorb and prioritize tasks and manage assets. The iPhone app is handy, if a little squished.

So what killer productivity apps have I missed? Please leave comments!

Vonage = a Practical Tip when Moving Abroad (Notes from Bergen)

From the “Department of Things I Wish I’d Taken Care of Faster” Department…

Executive Summary of this post: if you’re moving out of your home country, then get a VOIP line that lets your relatives call as if you’re down the street.

The Story: Before we left Oregon at the end of last summer for our school year in Norway, I asked Vonage — I’ve been a customer for years — to upgrade our ancient box to the new model that has a more nimble power source that can work just about anywhere in the world.  They did.

Then we got to Bergen and the wifi in our rental house sucked.  I worked with our landlord over the next few months, raising the bandwidth, replacing the physical modem/router, adding a repeater, and eventually more than one person could be online at a time.

During those months, we used Skype to stay in touch with family, colleagues and friends, and I love Skype.  As a Skype Premium subscriber, I can use Skype to call any telephone in the USA as part of my membership… all for just $7 per month.  It’s wonderful.

But it’s hard for my parents and in-laws to use Skype to call us.  It’s also hard to pass a computer around the way you can pass a cordless phone around.

A “figure out the Vonage line” reminder kept popping up in my To Do list, and eventually I dragged out the wireless phones that our landlord had abandoned using years ago.

Early experiments yielded a dial tone but only for a few seconds.  I deduced that the rechargeable batteries inside the handsets were fried, trotted off to Clas Ohlson (the everything store here in Bergen), switched out the batteries, and SHAZAM! we had a phone with an Oregon number with a handset in the kitchen just like at our home in the USA.

It’s a slight exaggeration to call the impact of this phone “transformative,” but only slight.

My parents and in-laws are now just a quick call away, and we’re not tethered to the laptop when we talk with them.  Chatting is now more casual, and we feel closer.  My niece’s 91-year-old grandmother will never figure out Skype, so it’s great for her to be able to call directly, too.

Moreover, the base of the Vonage box is wired directly into the modem, and then the phone base is wired directly into the Vonage box, and then the phone base uses a different set of frequencies.  The result is that if I’m talking on the Vonage phone then another person can stream a video or talk via Skype or Facebook Messenger without the bandwidth battle screwing up everything.

If you have super-strong wifi in your home (we don’t here in our 400-year-old retrofitted and extremely vertical house), then there are other options than Vonage.  Skype has a series of phones, for example, and my friend Shelly Palmer just profiled a coming-real-soon service from Cablevision called “Freewheel” that combines wifi and smartphones in a cheap way that might work just as well.

If you’re moving abroad for more than a month, Vonage is a great solution for bring home just a little closer.

Applications vs. Appliances

Although this post is mostly a how and why exercise, on the more theoretical side the physical presence of a phone in the kitchen has taken up a nice little slice of cognitive space for the family.

When all activities go through the same screens or suite of screens (phones, tablets, laptops), then no particular activity rises to the surface of consciousness.  Having a dedicated device for voice communications focuses our attention on voice communications because the appliance extrudes into our meat-space environment.

For example (and hilariously), when I was at the supermarket and had a question about something on the list and couldn’t raise anybody on Instant Messenger, I used Skype Out to call the Vonage line.  In other words, standing just blocks from a fjord I used a Skype number virtually in Beverly Hills to call a Vonage number virtually in Portland.  My not-virtual family members flipped out because they’d never heard that phone ring before, but they answered the phone when they’d ignored all the screens.

There’s a growing body of thought about “the voice as app” over the last few months (Shelly talks about it eloquently), but I’m talking about something different: having an appliance for an activity rather than an application.

Applications sink below the surface of awareness in everything-devices.  Appliances remind us of their existence simply by taking up space.

Daniel J. Levitin — in the “Organizing our Homes” chapter of his remarkable book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload — talks about how in an ideal world we’d have one computer for work, one for hobbies, one for taxes and the like.

In other words, we’d sort activities by appliances rather than by programs because as we move from appliance to appliance (rather than from application to application on one device) our brains refocus, recharge and reengage.

In our ever more-virtual, more-digital world, there is a powerful efficacy in dumb old matter: taking notes on paper, talking on a phone, reading a pulp-and-ink book (a “book book” as my friend Peter Horan says).

Turns out, the old AT&T “reach out and touch someone” commercials were right.

Thanks to the Kindest of Strangers

Dear Reader, please help me get this post to Charlie, my hat rescuer, so that he knows how grateful I am.

The Story: If you’ve seen me or photos of me the last few years, then chances are you’ve seen me wearing this cap:

MenWithHatsThe cap is from the Goorin Bros shop on NW23rd Street  in Portland, and I loved mine so much I got one for my boy so that we could be hat twins.

Then, last week, as I was getting onto the Tube in London, I looked around and realized that my beloved cap was gone!*  I thought I’d dropped it before I’d stepped onto the train, so I stepped off. Then the doors closed and a man with a distressed expressed knocked on the glass from inside… holding my cap.  I dropped it inside the now-departing train.

A mime dance ensued in which, I hoped, I realized that the man was going to stop at the very next tube stop with my hat.

The train bearing my hat disappeared. Two minutes later another train appeared.  When I got to the next stop and the sea of embarking and departing bodies settled to a trickle, there he was with my cap in hand.

When I thanked him, offered to pay him, asked him if I could do anything in recompense, Charlie’s answer was a bold-faced lie: “anybody would do the same,” he said.

Not so.

Most people wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t notice when another person dropped the cap in the first place, wouldn’t pick up the cap and signal to the hat dropper, and certainly wouldn’t take 15 minutes out of their days to return the hat to the dropper.

I managed to snap a picture with Charlie:

HatRescuer

(What do you call a selfie with two people? An “Us”ie?)

And I gave Charlie my card and the promise of dinner if he ever makes it to Oregon.

Now I’d like to get him my repeated thanks, so let’s play the Six Degrees of Separation game.  If you would please be so kind as to share this post on your Twitter or Facebook feeds, I’m confident that my thanks will reach Charlie soon.

And the Good Samaritan award goes to…

 

* By the way, the moral of this story is, “don’t try to scan a picture of a receipt into Evernote while you’re boarding a train or risk losing your beloved cap.”  Sigh.

 

Looking Back on “The Fall Guy” — an Aria of 80s Sexism

The Lee Majors-crooned theme song from his old TV show “The Fall Guy” snuck into my head this morning.  It’s a stumper as to why or how this happened, and it proves only that I watched way too much TV in my youth.

The series (about a stunt man who is also a bounty hunter with two young assistants) ran 1981-1986 with a staggering 19.9 rating.  The theme song (which ran for a staggering minute and forty-one seconds) got stuck deep enough in my cranium that some odd collision of neurons brought it back up to consciousness.

So I went to YouTube, repository of all video ephemera, and found the theme song in seconds:

The first two lines (four seconds) of the “Fall Guy” theme song reveal a lot about the show:

Well, I’m not the kind to kiss and tell,

But I’ve been seen with Farrah.

Nobody under 40 will get the reference: Lee Majors was married to Farrah Fawcett in 1976, when she hit it big with “Charlie’s Angels.”  He was already a big hit with “The Six Million Dollar Man.”  They separated in 1979, divorced in 1982, but apparently remained on stable enough terms for him to include the reference and for her to cameo in the 1981 pilot.

What’s interesting about the reference is that in the first moments of the series (and each episode) the viewer is reminded that the star of the show — not the character, the star — has  been famous for quite a while, played other characters, had a famous marriage to another star.  From the first moment, in other words, the series deliberately blurs the line between star and character.

This is somewhat rare for movies and television.  Ordinarily, our default definition of “immersion” is to think of losing ourselves completely in a story where we forget that the character is played by a person with a life.  Instead, “The Fall Guy” credits — and the series’ habit of getting celebrities to make cameo appearances — articulated a different sort of immersion that included both characters and performers.

Back to the theme song: this morning I sunk into my chair to watch the opening credits on YouTube… and found myself surprised by an aria of sexism across at least three dimensions. 

Dimension #1: the theme song, “The Unknown Stuntman” (lyrics by series creator Glen A Larson, Gail Jensen, and David Sommerville) talks about how the singer performs deadly stunts with actresses, only to then watch as the actresses fall into the arms of their leading men rather than into those of the brave stuntman.  But the singer is a chauvinist, saying that he has “never been with anything less than a 9” and brags that “I never spend much time in school, but I taught ladies plenty.”  It’s not a surprise that the ladies decline to spend time with him.

There’s also a weird anti-logic in the song in which the male actors are valuable enough to merit stunt doubles but the actresses do their own stunts.

Dimension #2 isn’t about the theme itself, but about the history of the performers named in the song: Farrah Fawcett, Bo Derek, Sally Field, Cheryl Tiegs, Raquel Welch, Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood. Of them all, actor-directors Redford and Eastwood still have vibrant careers, while the actresses are all either dead or largely retired.  Career longevity for women is criminally shorter in Hollywood than it is for men.


Dimension #3: in the opening credits, there are many, many images of Lee Majors and co-star Douglas Barr in various action sequences, but only one image of the third stunt person cum bounty hunter, Heather Thomas, who wanders through swinging doors in a tiny bikini.

While “The Fall Guy” was never my favorite show, I did have fond memories of it… memories now complicated.  Allegedly, there’s a movie version in development with Dwayne Johnson attached. 

I wonder if they’ll keep the song.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

I Want to be my own Big Brother: an App Daydream

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” (Gwendolyn Fairfax in Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”)

I’m skeptical about how much corporations benefit from the data I generate.  If tracking my every movement worked, then Facebook would not keep trying to sell me the icky Peloton Cycle — “The only bike with LIVE and on-demand classes streamed to your home” — about which my lack of interest is complete.  To put it plainly, I’d rather have a prostate exam with no lube that ever get on an exercise bicycle to do a spin class anywhere, let alone one where I have to grunt and sweat alongside virtual neighbors. 

Companies use my digital ramblings to try (and usually fail) to sell me things that might have interested me in passing but do so no longer.  The butterfly net of big data swooshes past me and captures who I was, not who I am now.

But golly I’d like to have access to that data.  I spend time (loads, too much) searching through three different email archives, Evernote, Facebook, old Tweets, pictures on my camera phone and journal entries trying to dope out variations to recurring questions about what I was thinking or doing, when I was doing it, where, and why I was bothering in the first place.  Sometimes I even look into my web browsing history across different browsers on different machines.

Little of this includes other information about where I was geographically, who I was talking with, and what was going on in the background as all this was happening.

Big companies and governments have access to this information… sometimes under the pretense of not linking all the bits and bobs of Brad-shaped data to my personally identifiable information (PII), except in the case of government where it’s all me all the time. 

My friend Renny Gleeson calls this a “data contrail,” with my activities carving a big slash through the world like a jet leaving a visible white cloudy line in its wake.

But why don’t I get access to my own information?  I’d like all my traces bound up in a tidy dashboard that I can see at my leisure… sort of like Apple’s Time Machine but for my whole life.  Data visualization please, stat!

In my daydreams, I think of this as an App, called “Diary” or maybe “iDiary,” that hooks up all my activities and makes them easily seen on my phone or tablet. 

Beyond just trying to catch the string of a passing thought, if I suddenly find myself thinking of pizza, then I’d like to know that I walked by 13 pizzerias, saw three ads for Domino’s, and that the episode of “The Most Popular Girls in School” my daughter showed me was sponsored by Pizza Hut.

Everything should be in my Diary: where do I drive?  Who do I talk with as I’m driving?  Include emails and notes, what I post and view on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google searches, where my GPS-enabled phone has been (with me along with it, presumably), what I watch on TV or Netflix, what sounds are happening in the background where I am (because if Arbitron knows, why shouldn’t I?), what am I listening to on Spotify, and what billboards are in my peripheral vision. 

The creepy thing isn’t my having access to this information, although it could quickly lead to Narcissism At Scale (oh look, a new acronym— NAS!), it’s that this information is already out there, just disorganized, owned by disparate competing corporations and governments, and it’s easily misinterpreted to my disadvantage.

At the minimum, the price of corporations tracking me and recording my movements and actions in laundry pen for the rest of time should their sharing what they have written down about me in a way that is easy to access and manage.

I want to be my own Big Brother.  

[Cross-posted on Medium.]