Category Archives: Idle Philosophizing

“What do I stand for? I don’t know…”

Why am I here? Why do I deserve to exist?

Yes, I’m one of those young guys—now not so young, as I watch the last grains swirl through the hourglass of my thirties—who’s always been given to asking these questions. You know those guys, the ones to whom people give Rainer Maria Rilke quotes on cards for high school graduation. It’s all kind of tedious—but fine, so be it. Aspire to the words of Chuck D: One in one million residents/Be a dissident/Who ain’t kissin’ it.

Professional I’ve tried to translate my hierarchy of values like this:

  • I want to be a good man (to lead a just, meaningful, and useful life)
    • …by helping others
      • …by unblocking the light of their creativity & expressiveness
        • …by building software they love.

Now, though, that’s at best what my lawyer friends might call “necessary but not sufficient.” I catch myself wandering far out on the leaves of that tree, far from the trunk, wondering why I don’t get closer to the action of being good & helping others.

None of this is new to me. Three years ago, for example, I spent a little time in a Guatemalan orphanage, hoping to help others a bit and at least improve myself, deepening my perspective and gratitude. But damn if it all isn’t some abortive feint—some vanity inoculation against the sense of having to do anything material. Back I come into my regular world, which takes hold, submerges me… Never again is what you swore the time before.

But not this time, mofo (I say to the mirror). Not this time. I am not going to blow my life.

The search is on.

“We Don’t Sell Saddles Here”

I just re-read Slack (and Flickr) founder Stewart Butterfield’s essay from two years ago (right before Slack launched), and man, it eats like a meal. If you care at all about product development, you should read the whole thing. I jotted down a few of my favorite observations & am sharing them here:

  • [O]ur job is also to understand what people think they want and then translate the value of Slack into their terms. … [This] something we all work on. It is the sum of the exercise of all our crafts.
  • We should be working carefully from both the product end and the market end: Doing a better and better job of providing what people want (whether they know it or not); Communicating the above more and more effectively.
  • We are setting out to define a new market. And that means we can’t limit ourselves to tweaking the product; we need to tweak the market too.
  • Innovation is the sum of change across the whole system, not a thing which causes a change in how people behave.
  • What we’re selling is organizational transformation. The software just happens to be the part we’re able to build & ship.
  • We will be successful to the extent that we create better teams.
  • The best possible way to find product-market fit is to define your own market.
  • Who Do We Want Our Customers to Become?… We want them to become relaxed, productive workers… masters of their own information and not slaves… who communicate purposively.
  • Be harsh, in the interest of being excellent. [Or as I’ve always put it, “I swear because I care.” —J.]

Of Photography & Bad Wine

I’ve grudgingly come to accept that most people regard photography much like I regard wine: there’s bad wine, and then there’s wine. I know there’s crap (crummy liturgical stuff, etc.), and I know that all the rest tastes pretty good. Sure, I might notice & like something outstanding, but generally good enough is good enough.

That’s how it is with most people’s photos: “Is it way too dark or blurry? Is my head cut off? No? Fine, then.”

No matter how well or poorly I do my job, most people simply won’t edit photos—at all, ever. They just don’t care. And if they do edit photos, it’ll overwhelmingly be to crop & rotate them, and maybe to brighten things up & add a filter. None of this is unique to Google: we saw exactly the same thing with Adobe Revel (built on the world-class—and for its audience, irrelevant—Lightroom engine).

So, on a per-user basis, editing hardly matters, and yet the scale at which Google operates is enormous, so the editor gets used millions of times. “A small number times a big number is still a big number.”

I’m reminded of an observation from Adam Carolla. Paraphrasing my recollection:

Let’s say you loved watermelon. If someone gave you a watermelon the size of a minivan, you’d probably say, “Wow, that’s a ton of watermelon!!” But then if you realized they carved it out of a watermelon the size of the Hindenburg, you’d probably say, “Come on, that’s all I get?!”

I’m proud of the new Google Photos editor—of the way we were able to radically streamline the UI while retaining tons of smarts under the hood (e.g. centering vignettes on faces, treating faces specially when applying midtone contrast, etc.). And I’m proud of the new Snapseed, which puts big power one tap away for nerds like us. I just have to be happy driving my fruity little minivan next to a Zeppelin—or metaphors to that effect.

[OT] Bird On A Wire

My central existential tension living in Silicon Valley, as captured by Leonard Cohen…

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch.
He said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?” 

…and voiced by Willie Nelson.

[YouTube]

“Magic meets honesty”

What the hell am I doing at Google, anyway? Why am I here, specifically?

I like what Neven Mrgan had to say about an ambitious screenshot/OCR app (emphasis mine). The last paragraph resonates with what we’re trying to do here (composing movies, stories, and more that you can edit):

Now here’s where magic meets honesty: OneShot shares its uncertainty with you. If it’s not totally sure about which article you want to highlight, it has you choose it.

Easy enough for you take it from here, right? OneShot tried, and shaved off some work from this task, and that’s helpful enough. If it got it wrong, oh well, no harm done. My instinct says Apple wouldn’t ship a feature like this—they’d want it to work 100% of the time, or not at all.

I’d like to see more software try to do a good job of a fuzzy task, let you help it with the last mile, and give you a fallback option. That kind of magic can be more delightful than behind-the-scenes, guess-and-stick-with-it magic we’re often promised.

A great quote on Apple vs. Google

I love this bit from Khoi Vinh, occasioned by Google’s recent Smarty Pins map/trivia game:

Apple fans like myself often criticize Google for doing things that Apple would never do, and Smarty Pins is a prime example of that. Aside from being an unfair criticism, it’s pointless. The fact that Google endeavors to produce silly things like this is on the whole a positive thing, I believe. It’s acting according to its own compass, which is what every company should be doing.

At Adobe I used to say, “We’ll never out-Apple Apple. We’ll never be more mysterious & magical, so let’s be ourselves—conversational and down-to-earth.”

Or as Steve Jobs said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

Integration fights bloat

Thus I’m delighted that in iOS 8 Apple is adding the ability for apps to provide one another services. The news reminded me to re-read what I wrote three years ago when requesting just this:

Poor integration leads to bloated apps: if jumping among apps/modules is slow, customers gravitate towards all-in-one tools that offer more overall efficiency, even if the individual pieces are lacking. […]

Remember the promise of OpenDoc? Despite all its well documented faults, I still love the idea of assembling a dream team of little parts, each the best in its class for doing what I need. […]

Why did Photoshop 1.0 succeed? It offered excellent (and focused) core functionality, plus a simple extensibility system that enabled efficient flexibility (running a filter brought no need to save, navigate, re-open, etc.). The core app could remain relatively simple while aftermarket tuners tailored it to specific customer needs. 

With this support coming to iOS (and already on Android & Windows), I think all our lives (as app users) and my life (as an app developer) are about to get a lot more efficient & interesting. We shall see.

Secret & Whisper vs. The Paradox of Choice

tl;dr: In text apps just as in photos & video, limiting choice gets more people across the goal line.

Lately I’ve had text-upon-image apps on the brain. Notegraphy promises “beautifully designed writing;” Pictual offers to “turn your words into visual statements; and Overgram can “add beautiful typography to your Instagram photos.” They’re all nicely done, but how many people have cared?

Compare that to the highly popular Secret (current $40M valuation) and Whisper ($24M in funding). Both share captioned images anonymously. Secret only lets you set text (no control over font or positioning), then use a colored background or image. Whisper looks at your text & offers matching images, then offers a rudimentary set of fonts & the ability to slide a text block.

In both cases the essence is to make something that you’ll want to share, without giving you enough creative options that you’ll get lost en route to doing so. You can’t go too far wrong or be judged for not getting the look “right.” Immediacy whomps visual control. It’s Instagram all over again.

By the way, speaking of fun text/image projects, Nathan Ripperger makes fun art from the weird things his kids say. To help parents do something similar, JibJab has released Kid Quoter, but I haven’t seen it take off. See also Linzie Hunter’s Spam One-Liners, “a gorgeous, colorful set of hand-lettering based on spam email subject lines in Linzie’s inbox.”

Keeping my head on straight

It’s really been an extraordinary week, with such a crazy-generous outpouring of support from friends, colleagues, and readers. A guy could get pretty high on his own supply. That’s why I like remembering bits like this (quoted once previously):

In 1983, advertising pioneer David Ogilvy summarized his mission as follows: “When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product. When Aeschines spoke, they said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, ‘Let us march against Philip’.”

Note to self: People say you’re great; now let’s show, not tell.