Release Candidate One with Chris Clark

For Now a Complement. Later a Replacement.

The Apple Watch has the curious distinction of being the least Apple-like Apple product I’ve ever used. It’s not a creative tool with the engaging intensity of a Mac or iPhone, nor is it a relaxing media player like the iPod, Apple TV, or iPad. It’s neither lean-forward nor lean-back computing; it’s short-burst computing, and the ergonomics enforce it.

Forget browsing, forget composing, forget fiddling, forget flow states; if you try to make it that computer you’ll be quickly frustrated. The Watch is an Internet utility belt. Dashboard Widgets for the wrist. It takes bite-sized tasks, performs them, and shows you the results.

Looking back, the iPhone was the world’s greatest convergence device: in its very first outing it consolidated my cell phone, my iPod, and my digital camera, and it gave me a GPS and a full-featured pants-pocket web browser. Holy shit. Do you remember when they were all separate devices? Besides a Fitbit, I haven’t carried an electronic device other than my phone in years.

But even as it ate all those little gadgets, the iPhone took on more and more of the jobs once reserved for a laptop computer. I now do most of my writing and text editing with my thumbs. Photo management, too. All my social networking. All my gaming. All my spreadsheets! (It isn’t many, but still). The only stuff I do on my Mac anymore is capital-w Work and visit websites that fail on a mobile browser. The iPhone has absorbed more of the Mac’s workload than anyone could’ve imagined in 2007. It is indeed a car, not a truck.

So it’s no surprise, then, that we can’t wake our iPhones without seeing a pile of notifications. It’s equally unsurprising that we sometimes unlock our phones, determined to carry out a specific task, only to forget ourselves and launch Twitter instead. We play Unread Count Whack-a-Mole with LinkedIn and Facebook, and succumb to the casual gaming Skinner Box. It’s the digital equivalent of walking to the kitchen, opening the fridge, and forgetting that you came in to get scissors.

The iPhone’s success, earning its position at the very center of your digital life, is its failure as a personal productivity tool. That’s where the Watch comes in, stealing back a handful of critical tasks from its big sibling. It says: don’t unlock the Monstrous Attention Vortex, just get the quick jobs done here on the small screen.

Funnily enough that’s the same thing your phone was saying about your laptop 8 years ago. And the idea that, a few years from now, I won’t have to carry my phone with me on my commute, or when I’m visiting a friend, or going out on the town… that’s very exciting to me.

This Is Jason Kottke

I realized fairly early on that me and the Jason Kottke who published online were actually two separate people…or to use Danskin’s formulation, they were a person and a concept.

Jason Kottke

There’s an ongoing phenomenon in my life where people who know Clarko On The Internet eventually meet Clarko In IRL and say “wow, you’re much nicer than I thought!” and I don’t ever know whether to take that as a compliment or a criticism.

If you haven’t seen the excellent This Is Phil Fish video, you really ought to. But there’s something about Jason tying it and Notch’s resignation to Erin Kissane’s excellent “ditching” of Twitter (a concept I alluded to earlier) and his experience as an O.G. Pro Blogger that feels familiar.

Leisure, Part I

As I stood untangling kite string with my old man the other day, he mused that it reminded him of taking me and my brother fishing as kids. For him, a three hour fishing trip would go something like this:

  1. Cast my brother’s line
  2. Cast my line
  3. Untangle my brother’s line
  4. Re-cast my brother’s line
  5. Untangle my line
  6. Re-cast my line
  7. Cast his own line
  8. Untangle my line from my brother’s line
  9. Rinse, repeat

Just hanging out, untangling fishing line, not catching anything. He found it relaxing.

As he recounted his experience, I remembered hating those trips. We never caught anything! And I still don’t enjoy fishing to this day. The stuff people seem to love about it—the quiet contemplation, sitting around in nature—has nothing to do with fish. No matter how good you are at fishing, some days you go home empty-handed. That’s utterly insane to me.

But that’s because, in the coarsely-defined language of Bartle’s Player Types, I’m an Achiever. I need to be able to see the results of effort and improve my performance. I need yardsticks. There’s skill in landing a fish, maybe even quantifiable skill, but some days the fish just don’t bite. Some days a few teeny fish bite, and some days you land a whopper. It’s out of your control, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not for me.

Flying kites, on the other hand, I adore. As far as quiet, contemplative leisure activities are concerned, it’s tops. And that’s because flying kites is the whole point of flying kites. You can start out crummy, just barely keeping it aloft, and that still counts as kite-flying. You can graduate to all kinds of cool stunts as you please. You will have setbacks, but you can learn from them.

The only factor outside your control is the wind, but you can check that before you even decide to go out. You don’t put on a special outfit, you don’t go out in a special vehicle, you don’t buy any perishables, nothing smells weird, and ultimately you decide how impressive your kiteship’s going to be that day. You choose to take it easy or take some risks. No luck involved.

There’s just as much standing around, just as much quiet enjoyment of nature, just as much untangling of knots as with fishing. But it’s a completely different feeling. And I’m glad it lands at an intersection of things my dad and I enjoy.

Kites in Paradise

An hyperlapse.

The September Issue

If you’ve been wondering why the sudden uptick in posts since the start of September, it’s because my old (web 2.0 era) internet pal Colin Devroe challenged me and a bunch of other people to dust off the equipment and do some personal blogging.

I have to admit I work better under deadlines, and the “personal” constraint is very freeing; I don’t feel the need to be sage or timely, though I hope to avoid the inanity of my early twenties this time around. But hey, it’s fun. I’m on vacation right now, which means my brain is totally underutilized, so the challenge is timed perfectly.

When I go back to work, though? We’ll see.

One of the things I love (and yet still find the energy to hate) about my job is that it uses up all my creative energy. I can leave it all on the field, as it were. Even though I don’t blog very much anymore, and even though I consider that a loss, when I compare this reality to my late teens and early twenties—when I worked shitty jobs that left me intellectually unsatisfied but gave me plenty of energy for blogging—I pick the satisfying career. I pick the occasional night on the couch, not being creative, not doing anything. Even though I feel guilty about how much stuff I’m not doing when I go home for the night. Feelings are complicated.

(This entry was written in bed and barely edited, true to the spirit of Colin’s challenge)

Parent Time

I hung out with my dad yesterday. We drove up a mountain. We tried to fly a kite but couldn’t find any wind. We talked about his dad, who we lost a few years ago.

The day after his dad’s passing we flew kites too. My dad loves kites, owns a bunch of them. When his hands are busy and his eyes are on the sky he gets contemplative, and we talk about ideas rather than things. I like being around for that.

It’s rare that I get to hang out with my parents anymore. Just hang out. They live, after all, in Western Australia and I in Northern California. Go and look at the length of that flight if you want to know why I don’t go back for birthdays and long weekends. When I do fly back it’s usually for a wedding, or a funeral. While I’m inevitably taking vacation for those trips, my family and friends aren’t. They have stuff to do. Jobs to do.

But this week, my parents and I have nothing to do. We’re in Hawaii. They traveled all this way for an old friend’s 60th birthday, and I made the comparatively short trip over to see them. We hang out. We drink beer. And though the wind wasn’t there for my dad and me yesterday, the kite’s in the trunk.

The Pronuncinator

As I understand text-to-speech engines (the vocal technology behind Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s Pam [that’s how I’ve come to know her; Pam is Map backwards]), they contain a finite set of rules for how a voice should pronounce things. General rules like “what does the ‘ly’ suffix sound like in American English?” and “what does an ‘eau’ cluster sound like in British English? And French?”

I’m massively oversimplifying of course, but it should be clear a text-to-speech engine can’t contain individual pronunciations for every single word in every language. That’d take too much space, and it’d fail outright on misspellings, brand new words, and unusual inflections of existing words (like redisassembled or unfartingly). A TTS engine needs heuristics, not specific instructions.

But there are some words that rarely follow the rules. Names, for instance. My phone can’t pronounce the surnames of many of my best friends. It can’t pronounce the freeway exit I take into San Francisco (Duboce street, which is pronounced dewBOHss but Maps says DEWbuss). And, since I’m currently vacationing with my parents, in Hawaii neither Siri nor Pam can pronounce a fucking thing.

But we have this expectation now that our devices are always online. Mapping apps certainly expect it. So why can’t special pronunciations be sent over the air to the TTS engine? The Internet has practically unlimited storage, and for applications like mapping where the data is structured rather than freeform text the phonetic spellings would be easy to integrate.

I’m sure people across the world would gladly contribute to a crowd-sourced corpus of correctly pronounced place names, too. They have civic pride. Nobody likes hearing a robot mangle streets in their home town, and the Wikipedia For Saying Stuff Right™ would probably only need a couple of contributors in each city to make millions of people less frustrated and confused with their driving directions.

So somebody get on that.

Build A Little Porch For Yourself

My coworker Jeremiah Lee retweeted something interesting earlier tonight: The End of Big Twitter by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs quotes Frank Chimero’s From the Porch to the Street at length in his central thesis, and you should go read Chimero’s post so I don’t have to quote it again. But let me reformulate it less beautifully anyway: imagine a privacy score (or, rather, an intimacy score) where Twitter dot com ranked a 7 or 8 out of 10 during the first two years you used it. And now imagine, years later, it’s dragged to a 2 or 3 as your list of followers and followees filled more and more with strangers. What was once like a conversation with friends on your porch is now more like a bunch of people with megaphones in Times Square.

It doesn’t really have to take much imagination. I have friends who have all but abandoned their Twitter accounts because it’s not fun for them anymore: strangers hassle them about typos, argue with hyperbole, and respond to rhetorical questions. Others have migrated away from actual social engagement and into retweeting news articles; looking to inform (or convince) their followers of their viewpoint on the topic du jour. I’d by lying if I said I didn’t do a mix of these myself. But in short: Twitter stopped being a place for your nerd friends and started being a place for the public.

But where I disagree with Jacobs is that this change is necessarily a bad thing, or is a weakness in Twitter that future generations of social network will somehow solve. I’m not sure that’s true or possible. Moving yourself from the privacy and intimacy of Chimero’s porch to the bustle and loudness of the street is only a bad thing if you lose your porch in the process. But you can have it both ways: you can have a Street Twitter and a Porch Twitter and a Living Room Twitter and a Bedroom Twitter. You just have to have different accounts, and everything that isn’t for the Street needs to be marked private. You might remember we did the same thing with blogs back before Twitter was invented. And with, well, conversations since the dawn of human language.

I’ve discovered so many wonderfully interesting and challenging things over the years thanks to strangers on Twitter, things I would never have found if it were just an echo chamber of my social circle’s values. Its role in breaking news in unparalleled. It’s the pulse of the community, no matter what community it is you’re watching, and it’s not hard to stumble into new communities and discover viewpoints you disagree with. It’s a remarkable tool, and a remarkably flexible tool. I’ve been using it nearly 8 years, and I look forward to many more.

Casually Addictive

Thomas Baekdal breaks down the difference between modern casual gaming and video games of old. It’d be easy to dismiss his cranky sentiments with a “jeez Grampa, the world changes, deal with it” (which is, after all, what I do when people get angry their antique business models don’t work anymore, or when people started complaining about iOS 7). But I honestly think casual gaming is an exceptional case, and I think that Baekdal is on the money.

In the last decade, video games have taken to exploiting the same psychological tricks casino games have been using for centuries. The variable reinforcement schedules and the false impression that skill has anything to do with success, then the the nickel-and-diming until the customer has nothing left. This trend of exploiting addictive behavior for profit, to the detriment of the customer’s health and wellbeing, is diabolical.

Of course I don’t think it’s genuinely evil—nor do I think casino gaming or liquor is evil, I enjoy both of those things a great deal—but I think it’s problematic to be peddling addictive experiences, unchecked, all starting at “free”. Addiction is serious business.

So I have to hope this business of casual gaming will eventually be regulated the same way liquor and gambling are. When your products pull all the same psychological levers, and the unwitting abuse of your products leads to all the same social and financial consequences, you’re asking for trouble. It isn’t that casual games aren’t any fun, it’s that they’re starting to get predatory. That’s a big problem.

Reading the Year

Twenny-thirteen was a lot of reading by my standards, with the psychology of motivation emerging as a big theme. (Not coincidentally, it was also my first year working at a health and fitness company). Tack on a mess of pop science, economics, and celebrity autobiographies and I was firmly rooted in the nonfiction section all year. So, of the metaphorical pile of audiobooks I devoured, here are the five that immediately spring to mind when I ask myself the question “what did I really enjoy?”

Carol Dweck, Mindset

A huge number of research papers and other books I read in the first half of the year referenced Dweck’s work, and for good reason. Mindset is a brilliant investigation into the psychology of failure. Why does failure spur some people into action and leave others spurning effort altogether?

Tom Rath, Vital Friends

I awoke one morning with a hangover and this book’s title on my to-do list. Its origin is a mystery. It’s an extremely short book, exploring the practical roles friends play in each other’s lives and the ways we motivate and support each other. Despite its brevity, it had quite a hand in reshaping my mental model of interpersonal relationships.

Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages

Chapman presents a model of value-communication that’s honestly surprising in its elegance, and preaches empathy as a basic tool for social survival. It’s a little hokey in places, and his view from the trenches of marriage counseling (rather than academia) focuses a lot on the what and how of communication, leaving the why unsatisfied, but it intrigued me nonetheless.

Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth

Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, but he’s best known as a combative (even militant) atheist. This book isn’t about religion. Instead it’s about the facts of evolution by natural selection, and about how shockingly few people understand it despite even religious leaders accepting it as a fact. From dog-breeding to geology and archaeology to embryology, it’s fascinating through and through.

Jim Collins, Good to Great

When I read The Innovator’s Dilemma as a student I was gobsmacked by how the histories of centuries-old technology industries (like steel) mirrored our modern ones (like digital photography). Here, Collins and his team take a similar tack in examining business operations and leadership strategies, with similarly impressive results. They pore over the trials of the very old (from Walgreens to Scott Paper) in search of wisdom for the very new. And we could definitely do with more of that.