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LavaCon 2014 Wrap-Up

My first LavaCon, and I was impressed. Great city and venue, engaging speakers both new and known, tasty food at every turn. Jack Molisani operated at next-level super-host speeds, checking in almost every session, making sure folks had everything they needed. Not that he needed to. The execution and attention to detail were top-notch.

There were so many appealing sessions running in parallel (five session tracks) that I vacillated often on which to attend. Competition for attention was fierce. While I appreciate the diversity of speakers, there’s a compelling argument for the simplified experience of single-track conferences like An Event Apart.

For those that sat through my humble presentation: thank you. We had an expansive conversation on taking content global, touching on localization, cultural nuances, and workflows that won’t make you go mad. There’s no faster way to up your game than speak with folks smarter than you, and my game was measurably upped.

If you’re interested, here are the slides:

Going Global Without Going Insane from Kevin Potts

Teaching Myself French

In May, my wife and I went to France and Italy for a few weeks. Besides the amazeballs wine, food, history and beauty, I was humbled by the ease at which our friends in Europe switched between languages. I’m from the States. Multilingualism is an afterthought. A grasp of english and a mouth-breathing ego carry most folks from kindergarten to grave. The European paradigm was humbling. I felt viscerally foreign. American.

But it was also inspiring. So in July, I started teaching myself French.

Besides my own time, this is a straight-up zero-budget project. So without money, books, tutors or oversight, I did what any self-respecting n00b would do: fired up ye olde app store.

First app: Duolingo

  • Immediately useful. You “taste” the language right away.
  • Starts right in with patterns. Word memorization is de-emphasized. Assumes nothing and does not apologize for it.
  • Fluid and zippy interface. Colorful, approachable. Gamey.

Second app: Memrise

  • More traditional approach: memorization, grammar, building blocks.
  • Builds a broader vocabulary from the start. Gets into more complex phrases quicker. Harder.
  • Clunkier interface, but very responsive. More diverse audio samples (a good thing).

Impressions?

Both emphasize audio. I find this critical, because spoken and written French are basically different languages. Little is phonetic, and verb forms written differently are pronounced the same. Dictation, predictably, is a struggle as it’s the crossing of these streams.

The major downside to the app-first approach is lack of human interaction. Both push you right into the weeds of rules without explanation. Time after time my question is not “how do I say this?” but “why do I say it this way?” Adjective placement varies, noun gender feels arbitrary, and question structure continues to confound.

Ironically, the best thing about the apps is their web complements. Both offer a richer, explanatory and contextual web application that provides interactivity and detail not present on the tiny screen. Example: Duolingo provides commenting for every phrase. Like PHP, this community conversation is a trove of useful doofus-friendly detail.

But it’s not enough. I purchased my first helper book to provide the formal explanation the apps lack. And I still wish I had a human over my shoulder.

Progress?

OK, I guess. I can frame short sentences: Bonjour. Le chat a mange une souris. Je suis un americain enneyeux. Etc. But little meaningful writing, and not much reading comprehension, and a live conversation would terrify me.

I’ll keep going. I’m not sure I can ever be fluent without engaging in real-life conversations, but I can at least have a strong academic understanding to, like, read wine bottles and stuff.

Editorially and the Incumbent

Editorially came out of the gate with a vision to change the way content is created. It led with a deep appreciation for the writing process, and provided the writer a sophistegant1 authoring experience. The talent behind it was huge. The focus was 100%. When the curtain lifted, the crowd went wild. But one year to the day after announcing the product, the team announced its closure. One year.

Many, myself included, brayed like vindicated 6-year-olds about the zero-revenue business model. In general, I think giving away a product for free is stupid. But let’s be honest: the inconvenience of not making money has never stopped the tech industry before.

Rather, this line in the post “Goodbye” was telling:

But Editorially has failed to attract enough users to be sustainable, and we cannot honestly say we have reason to expect that to change.

And later:

Even if all of our users paid up, it wouldn’t be enough.

Indeed, revenue is irrelevant without adoption.

The obvious question: why was adoption poor? Editorially had the product, the talent and the exposure to stake a lead position in the swirly market of collaborative writing and editing tools. The prospective customer base is near infinite — besides marketing writers, editorial staff, pro bloggers and authors, there’s a computationally infinite long tail of hacks, wannabes, students and Buzzfeed contributors.

In my experience, the impediment is simple and obvious and painful: Microsoft Word.

Organizations construct communications infrastructure built upon Word, using it and abusing it every time something needs to be written about anything. It’s both scratchpad for CEOs and publishing engine for editorial teams, as embedded as business cards and fake ferns. This isn’t inherently bad. Features like commenting, change-tracking, view-switching, data parsing and visual formatting are chocolate-cake rich. Word is messy and unstructured but its convenience is narcotic.

Writers like Word. Organizations standardize on Word. The world works in Word. So switching away from Word is not like switching to a different car, it’s like driving on the other side of the road. In a hovercraft. Backward.

I learned this the hard way in 2009 when I tried to move my marketing team to Writeboard, 37signals’ collaborative writing tool. I thought it was a lay-up. Built-in version control, live collaboration, native integration to Basecamp. The pilot never got out of the locker room. Within one day, writers fell back to posting Word docs in Basecamp — because that’s what the rest of the organization needed.

Ultimately, that’s the problem. Editorially attracted a legion of early adopters, some graduating into full evangelists, many who would happily pay for the tool. But we’re dealing with a 300 situation: even the loudest, staunchest, feistiest cadre mean little to an institution of millions that regards the most sophisticated writing tool on the planet as a firmware-grade commodity and whose complacency with said tool has settled like concrete.

I’m bummed to see Editorially go. It was a genuinely great product. You can still use Gather Content, Penflip, Quink, Draft, Typewrite, StackEdit, Live Documents, Quip, Texts, Contentful or god help me Google Docs. Author in the cloud, format with Markdown, version with git. The rest of the world just needs to know if you can email them that Word file.

1 Sophisticated and elegant. Just made that up.

Augmented Reality Does Not Have to Be a Douchebag's Wingman

Recently, Infinity Augmented Reality launched a video about the nearish future of augmented reality built upon what they humbly describe as “the first augmented reality software platform to connect universally with digital eyewear, smartphones and tablets, integrating multiple devices into one platform.”

Intriguing. But ultimately disappointing. Instead of augmented reality solving actual problems, their concept video reinforces and exacerbates all of the negative swirl most recently witnessed over Google Glass. Specifically: it’s a creepy product worn by creepy douchebags.

This three-minute joyride of masturbatory “because we can” technology showcases and promotes white entitlement, class elitism, sexism, and cheating. The near-incoherent “script” kneels before the alter of personal gain at the expense of others. It purposefully dismisses humility and privacy. After all, why play fair when you have cheat codes for society? The narrative could only have been devised by an American.

A Missed Opportunity

On one hand, the presentation lands tone-deaf to the current economic and societal challenges the world faces. On the other hand, the presentation fumbles away the product’s actual promise.

Taking a picture? Getting a weather report? Directions? Unlocking a car door? A speedometer? Dictating a Facebook message? That’s not revolution, it’s more interface.

The interesting bits — calculating billiards shots, face-scanning and tone recognition, playing digital dress-up with clothing inventory — glimpse at something more than an iPhone app. But ultimately, real-world challenges are traded away for rich white people inconveniences.

It’s too easy to paint this picture.

What if augmented reality were put to good use? A few ideas:

  • A farmer surveys their fields and evaluates each crop’s growing stage, patches of drought, soil health, evidence of disease. They are fed a prediction of optimal harvest time modeled on current trends and weather forecasts.
  • A hiker instantly identifies the snake that just bit her.
  • A museum provides context to each piece in its collection, including deep magnification of details, the political environment and artist’s life-state at the time of creation, and a public forum about the piece from others currently in the building.
  • A traveler helps someone with a disabled vehicle on the side of the road with real-time directions for changing the tire.
  • A doctor accesses a new patient’s complete medical record — past visits, X-ray images, prescriptions, doctor notes, current insurance — to make an appropriate diagnosis.
  • A first-responder better evaluates wounds while having visibility into the quantity and position of medical supplies en route to the emergency.
  • An architect programs a prospective interior design to a room space so the client can literally walk through a concept.
  • A troop on the ground can better identify legitimate targets to reduce civilian casualties.
  • A foreigner receives translations for signs, signals and speech in real time.
  • A pedestrian passes a fundraiser and makes a donation on the spot.

We Can Do Better

Augmented reality can literally change the world. We can do better than a Day in the Life of a Douche.

2013 Reading Recap

Nonfiction

A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (Suze Rotolo)
Although I have zero interest in Bob Dylan, I do have an acute interest in Greenwich Village and New York City in its 60s heyday, and this memoir dishes lavish detail in larger-than-life characters, the drug-soaked lifestyle, the political temperaments, even the price of a hamburger. Dylan is not the central character of the narrative, but he is the gravity well; even as the author writes her story, it’s clear that in the late 60s, the entire planet revolved around “Bobby”. Mandatory reading for either folk music and NYC culture buffs.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (Nathaniel Philbrick)
In 1820, the whaleship Essex was rammed by a giant sperm whale and sunk in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The ship’s crew were left on three smaller harpoon craft, and ended up drifting through the ocean for 93 days before being rescued. This well-paced narrative collates historical material to give light to the culture of Nantucket, the whaling industry, and oceanography — weaving in the tale of men who were hopelessly lost, their many poor decisions, how they resorted to cannibalism, and in many cases, perished terribly.

The Lost City of Z (David Grann)
Percy Fawcett was a early 20th century explorer famous (at the time) for mapping the innards of Bolivia and Brazil despite other folks routinely failing on similar missions. In 1925, we went in search of a lost city he called “Z” and disappeared. David Grann mashes together reams of historical data with his own attempt to re-create Fawcett’s last journey. More interesting than “Z” is the historical context: the obsession with exploration, the primitive technology, the barbarity of white explorers.

Mad Women (Jane Maas)
A insider-view memoir on advertising from the 60s that details sex and sexism, working moms and their no-win situation, three martini lunches, the inner politics of big agencies and the slow descent of advertising firms from strategic partner to sweatshop. Jane lived through the Mad Men era, and reflects on its historical accuracy and inaccuracy. If you’re a fan at all of the show, or even have a passing interest in agency life from a bygone era, Mad Women is worth every cent.

The Power of the Sea (Bruce Parker)
Last year I read The Wave, a book about giant waves and the folks who ride them and study them. This year: The Power of the Sea: Tsunamis, Storm Surges, Rogue Waves, and Our Quest to Predict Disasters, a sciencey stroll through the complex factors that drive global ocean conditions. From weather patterns to wind direction to crumbling fault lines, Bruce Parker covers rogue waves and storm surges, historical disasters, the trend of climate change, and features a long treatise on the 2004 tsunami that devastated the Indian Ocean.

Seven Days in the Art World (Sarah Thornton)
The author immerses herself in different pieces of the art world each for a full day: a university student work review, Takashi Murakami’s studio, a Christie’s auction in New York, ArtForum editorial offices, and more. It’s a fascinating trip down the economics and politics of a world reserved for eccentrics, crazies, and the super-rich.

Writing for the Web (Lynda Felder)
A welcome guide on crafting smart narratives for the web, with notes on succinct writing, creating good stories, working with motion, and much more. A masterclass in abbreviated, punchy writing, every page is wound tight with practical, applicable wisdom. Well worth anyone’s time.

Fiction

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (Douglas Adams)
I am a massive fan of Hitchhiker. No lie: I’ve read the omnibus five times. I found this book … wanting. Incoherent at times, wandering, lacking the sizzle of his other stuff, Dirk Gently did not live up to my expectations. I’m going to read it again, but the first time through took real effort.

Good Omens (Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett)
Widely compared to Douglas Adams, this relatively funny novel wrings Armageddon through a wry towel and lets Satanic nuns, a bummed angel and a demon who’s pretty cool with the world as it stands take you through the end times as if it were a Monty Python movie. Good Omens is good-ish, but surprisingly for a Gaiman book, a bit draggy and uncaptivating. I wanted to love it. At best, I won’t donate it.

Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion (Dan Simmons)
At this point, I’ll pretty much read a recipe book written by Dan Simmons. This is his early science fiction work, and it still sits twelve parsecs above standard almost anything else in that aisle of Barnes and Noble. Sprawling, rich, page-turning … you’ve read the first 200 pages and it’s 3 am.

Inheritance (Christopher Paolini)
The fourth and final book in the series that started with Eragon. As impressive as the second and third books in the series (the storytelling and creativity were, at times, jaw-dropping), the fourth falls flat. Here, the luster seems forced; there is little mystery, little wonder, just fighting fighting fighting. And then after the fighting is done, literally 100 pages of wind-down and conclusion that make Peter Jackson’s end to The Return of the King feel like a blipvert. If you like good fantasy, read the series. Just don’t expect the conclusion to be the high-mark of the tale.

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart (Jesse Bullington)
As good as Folly of the World was, this is better. The brothers are wretched, unrepentant, plague-surviving twins who cheat, murder and burn their way across the forests of medieval Europe. They encounter witches, pirates, demons, mermaids and dozens and dozens of folks who become mortal enemies within seconds. They are barely anti-heroes; the author does not attempt to apologize for their behavior. In fact, one of the things that will keep you turning pages is to see what absurd depravity comes next.

The Stranger (Albert Camus)
A trippy short novel about a man who finds himself charged with murder after killing a stranger for no apparent reason. It is absurd and dark and does not end well, but the writing (despite being a translation), is razor-sharp and told with a dismissing wave to the world’s sanity.

A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle)
Published in 1963, this is evidently part of many grade-school curriculum (5th grade-ish). Out of pure curiosity, and not wanting to miss out on a classic just because I’m too old, I grabbed a copy and spun through it in a few days. The story itself is pretty cool: a trio of kids get some help from a few stars-who-have-turned-into-people to cross spacetime to rescue their father from a sinister force known as the “Dark Thing”. This “darkness” takes over worlds and forces the inhabitants into rigid life patterns, removing free will. In the 60s, the looming threat to the West was Communism, and that fear is pretty apparent in the story. Today, with civil liberties being undermined by our own governments, the fear is all the more acute.