Release Candidate One with Chris Clark

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.

Welcome Back, Books!

I read a lot more books when I was a teenager. My commute to university was an hour on the bus, so I had a choice of reading books or listening to music. In the days before smartphones and streaming music services, that meant listening to the same music over and over until you grew tired of it. Books don’t burn out so quickly.

As a grown-up you have to make time for books. An hour with a book is an hour you’re not working, or socializing, exercising, doing laundry, or sleeping. I slept a lot more in university, too.

But time is hard to make, and impossible to find, so we divide what we have between the stuff we absolutely have to do and the stuff we truly enjoy. When people tell me they truly enjoy sitting on the couch and reading a book I’m a little jealous. But then I truly enjoy my work, so life’s not too bad.

For the last eighteen months I’ve been walking to work. That’s a story for another day. Three miles each way, two hours a day in the sun and the city. Just me time. Great as it is, my legs are doing all the work while the rest of me is idle.

And that’s where audiobooks come in. I tried podcasts, of course, but there are so few nuggets of genuine gold out there. Listening to a bunch of white guys tell you their opinions about tech gets old pretty fast. But books? Skilled authors exploring topics in depth! With research! And an editor! And professional voice talent! It’s refreshing, and I’m glad to be back on the book train.

Shame for Asshats

Watching Walt Mossberg complain this week that tech consumers are too devoted to their favorite company was a little like watching a sports journalist dismiss a baseball team’s rioting supporters as too fanatical. Or a political reporter complaining the Tea Party’s boosters are unreasonably partisan.

Put in perspective, tech fanaticism is on the extremely mild end of the stupid crap people do when they feel their side is being attacked. But while Mossberg’s gripe might be weak sauce in comparison, he is right. This pattern of behavior sucks. And his attempt at a solution — to use his influence in the tech sphere to shame people who hurl insults, threaten, or otherwise intimidate people with whom they disagree — is maybe the best we’ve got. Everyone should have the courage to do that.

Tablet Photographers Aren’t Idiots

You’ve heard it before, and Joel Johnson wrote the definitive article, but I still hear enough snickers and groans at people who deign use an iPad as a camera that it’s worth repeating.

There’s only one thing you should assume is true of a person who takes their iPad out in public to snap a photo: it’s the best camera they have on them right now.

Whatever situation they’re dealing with today — dead battery, SLR was stolen on vacation, company-provided smartphone has a crummy camera, a mortgage and an income where the prospect of owning a tablet and a smartphone is a pipe dream — whatever reason they have for taking photos with their iPad, it isn’t affected by your disapproval. And trying to shame them because they’re not having as good a day as you just makes you an asshole.

So let’s all go back to the factory to get our empathy chips upgraded — yep, to the new one that’s capable of imagining the circumstances of human beings outside of ourselves and our peer group — and try again.

What’s in a Name

The first iMacs — the ones with the CRT display and hockey-puck mouse — started shipping fifteen years ago today. It was the first new machine of the Jobs 2.0 era and is one of the only Apple sub-brands from the nineties still in production. The name came from TBWA\Chiat\Day, thankfully beating out Phil Schiller’s suggestion of “MacMan”, and the little-i prefix soon became synonymous with Apple consumer products.

And so it spread across the hardware and software lineup: iMac, iBook, iTunes, iPhoto, iDVD, iPod, iChat, iCal, iLife, iSight, iWork, iWeb, iPhone, iPad, iOS, iBooks, iMessage, and a thousand third party coattail riders. A decade-and-a-half meme so pervasive it became tiresome; when Apple named their phone “iPhone” I rolled my eyes so hard I had to see a doctor. It’s hard work to name products, and a strong brand is worth its weight in gold, but every one of those brand extensions stretched credulity.

To me, the products that broke the naming mold were all the more interesting for doing so. Safari and GarageBand were notable for not being called iSurf or iBand. “MacBook” — a word so clumsy it needs to be said a thousand times before it feels right — is remarkable for making it clear that all Apple’s notebook computers are cut from the same cloth. Most recently the retitling of OS X’s iCal and iChat as Calendar and Messages seemed like it might herald the beginning of the end for the i-desktop.

In a post-iPod world, and even more in a post-iPhone world, the “i” has come to mean something different than it did in 1998. It stands not so much for Apple consumer products as Apple handheld products. And it’s slowly become the case that every bit of hardware with “Mac” in the name runs OS X, and every bit of hardware prefixed with “i” runs iOS (or a visual approximation of it). Everything except the iMac, poor old guy, uncomfortably straddling both sides of the nomenclative fence.

Maybe someday they’ll strip the iMac of its prefix and call it simply the Mac: the quintessential Apple all-in-one desktop, recalling its nearly-30-year-old forebear. It’d make my inner taxonomist chirp with glee, but I won’t hold my breath.

Given Time

Our dear old Apple Inc has unveiled iOS 7: a radical overhaul of the company’s mobile design language and a renewed emphasis on how apps feel in motion over how they look on a static screen.

This presents third party software developers with a challenge: since graphical ornamentation has dominated the platform for such a long time, how do we migrate our products to the new world? And how do we migrate our selves? After all, we all liked the old look and spent years learning from it and emulating it. How could we have been wrong to do so?

We weren’t. I hate to say this, but there’s no universal truth in design. The old style wasn’t fatally flawed, and that’s not why it reached the end of its life at Apple. Product design is a tangled nest of features, storytelling, fashion, marketing, and technological constraint. It’s applied psychology. So it’s important to acknowledge where our love for the baubled aesthetic of iPhone OS 1.0 through iOS 6.1.4 came from, where our current displeasure is sourced, and why we need to adapt.

Why did we love the old style? It’s pretty simple: we love shiny, rounded surfaces and bright colors, and the old OS had those in spades. It was one of the most visually decorative operating systems of all time, and our appreciation for it was as natural and universal as our love of warm weather, vocal harmonies, and the smell of ripe strawberries. It looks great in screenshots.

iOS 7 has a lot less of that roundness and shininess. It doesn’t look like the hood (or the interior) of a classic car any longer. In motion and interactivity it’s way cooler and bubblier than the iPhone has ever been before, so you can tell why Apple has pushed video demos so hard on their marketing site, but it’s lacking some of the characteristics we found so appealing. It has fewer bulging surfaces as the old plastic buttons and toolbars are smoothed out. It has fewer rounded corners as more screen elements stretch from edge to edge.

But honestly, of all the changes we’ve seen, how many are contrary to the basic psychology of visual design? Nothing unveiled at WWDC 2013 actually makes you cringe (and don’t make me link to pictures that will actually make you cringe to prove you a hyperbole abuser). It has more of the bright colors we love. The old inner shadows, drop shadows, bevels, and gradients that muted the old aesthetic are gone. It’s the first truly Retina iPhone OS, and more than just allowing the team to use smaller fonts while retaining legibility, it makes each pixel work harder to earn its keep. Color and shape do all the talking now, and the blurred translucency of the interface allows the color to permeate the screen more than ever before.

iOS 7 used a lot of debossing and indentation to convey state. iOS 7 uses color.

Where keyboards, pickers, and action sheets were once imposing screen elements with a lot of personality of their own, they now reflect the personality of their environment. Your bright red app won’t have a dull blue-gray keyboard anymore; it’ll have a light red keyboard as the bits of UI beneath it shine through. If your app uses a lot of wood textures, the standard action sheets won’t look out of character because they’re no longer plastic. No matter what you do with your apps, iOS 7’s default visual language will be a better complement.

But even if you accept my assertion that the new visual style is not inherently ugly, how do you explain the strong gut reaction against it? Why are so many of us calling foul? Why is it going to be so hard for us to adjust?

Familiarity bias. Familiarity bias and loss aversion. We love what we know and we’re afraid of what we don’t, so we don’t want to see our old friend replaced with this new thing. It’s irrational, but it’s human nature. When we look at our parents and grandparents we don’t see a crowd of pudgy gray-haired wrinkle factories… we see our history. We love them even when they start smelling weird and wheezing all the time. We wouldn’t dream of replacing them.

Our mistaking a familiarity bias for inherent superiority is where our gut reaction against iOS 7 comes from. It’s a kind of xenophobia. Apple took our beloved iPhone and gave it back to us a stranger. Still walks and talks the same, still the heart and soul we love; just not the face we knew.

This rejection of the unfamiliar will fade over time, just as the weirdness fades after a friend changes their hairstyle or starts wearing glasses. The casual and uncommitted user, the person who bought an iPhone because their friends all have one, will embrace the change pretty easily. But as people who live and breathe iOS, our transition will be harder.

How do we transition our work? The same way we did it in the first place. The majority of good UI design done in the world is done in service of making something new feel like something familiar. That’s why we follow platform guidelines and idioms: familiarity is intuitiveness. We want to make our customers feel as comfortable using our apps as they do using the ones that came with the phone, so we cater to the platform rather than inventing UI from whole cloth.

Apple just reset the baseline for what is considered native. They’re changing the definition of familiarity. Like a government moving to the metric system or ridding itself of the penny, this change will cause a lot of difficulty for small businesses and piss off a lot of old-timers. But it’s ultimately for the best. iOS 7 is a new platform for us, and it’s time to port our iOS 6 apps.

Best to embrace it, the good and the bad, and get back to work.

Always Be Planning

When I was moving from Australia to North America, a lot of people would say things like “wow, I wish I could do that!” and I would look at them and say “you know you can, right?” They’d shrug off the idea. They had a job. They had a lease. They’d miss their family. As if those things don’t apply to everyone.

Big changes aren’t easy. They don’t just happen. I worked my ass off for a year to save enough money to move abroad. I had to apply for visas. I had to wait for my lease to expire and move out of my rented house. I had to put my belongings in boxes, or throw them away. I had to work and scrimp and save.

If you want to do something you think will make you happy, you have to make a plan and go for it. And if you aren’t planning to do something you think will make you happy, then what the fuck are you doing?

Joy in the Task

It was the artisan versus the machine, and given how top chefs had already voted with their contracts, the odds were against the result I instinctively preferred.

Julian Baggini

Reading this article actually made me angry. Right off the bat, the entire premise that high-end restaurants all ought to exhibit hipster-level anal retentiveness for their coffee is absurd. Coffee shops show extreme care with coffee because that’s how they exist. They’re only able to stay in business because if you feel like somebody in the world gives a fuck about your coffee, you’ll pay more for it.

Restaurants make food. Their passion, their particular brand of anal retentiveness, is for the preparation and presentation of meals. And they differentiate themselves from competing restaurants by the type of food they produce and degree of care they show for it. They’re only able to stay in business because if you feel like somebody in the world gives a fuck about your meal, you’ll pay more for it.

There’s a trend here: focus on what you’re good at and knock it out of the park. The unspoken assumption is that you have to outsource the rest.

I bet a cool restaurant could take a stand and say “sorry, we don’t serve anything that wasn’t prepared by hand, in-house, from raw ingredients” where they churn their own butter and roast their own coffee beans and brew their own sarsaparilla. I’m sure the food would be exquisite, the meal would cost three grand, and the restaurant would look like a factory.

But if you really want to focus on the importance of craft and ritual then you should be doing it yourself. As an artisan you’ll derive immense personal satisfaction from grinding your own beans and pulling your own shot, the same way you would from dissolving your own heroin in a spoon, building your own PC, or unclogging your own toilet. Paying a plumber, no matter how artisanal they are, just can’t give you that same satisfaction, and paying a plumber to use a machine is… goodness, I dare not contemplate how inhuman a process that would be.

Never mind that the espresso machine is just a machine, too. Never mind that.

Moving Forward Staying Put

I used to move house a lot more than I do now. My dad is a handyman, the literal Jack of all trades, so his weekends (our weekends) were usually spent on home improvements. When you’re not paying for labor you can really do a lot of nice stuff on a shoestring.

But when you’re renovating your house every weekend for three years it becomes your hobby. And when you’re “done” renovating… that’s when you get bored. Some people would find another hobby, but we just moved instead. My family moved every three years from the time I was eight until I graduated from university. It’s not that we were actively trying to flip houses – I don’t think this was a particularly profitable venture – it was just what we did. Move into a fix ‘er upper, fix ‘er up, move on.

And so we wandered the northern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia. Moving wasn’t that much of an imposition when there were no stairs and your dad owned a truck. Perth was a major city, but outside of the downtown area it was flat as a tack: a gigantic coastal plain sprawling with single-story homes, big yards, and double garages. The only reason you’d live in a high-rise apartment building was if you wanted a view of the water from over the top of some other building.

When I eventually left home to live with friends this pattern continued, except now it accelerated. The impetus to move became the termination of a lease rather than the state of a renovation, and I think I moved between rental houses every year until I left for the United States. Moving to the USA though was the ultimate in moving: packing all my belongings into a suitcase and a carry-on, no trucks in sight.

I spent my first summer in Palo Alto, California, in something of a straw hut near Stanford. It was a mother-in-law in the backyard of some student housing. Then on to the Vancouver neighborhood of Kitsilano, where I took a room with a nudist drug dealer and a float-plane pilot. Craigslist is weird. And then to Vancouver’s West End with an Australian friend, to Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood with my friend Brad Ellis, and then back to California. All in less than two years. Moving itself had become a hobby.

But now here we are… living in the same San Francisco apartment for 28 consecutive months.

It turns out your closet gets a little crufty when you stay put. I never realized this before, but if you’re moving all the time you’re given plenty of opportunity to throw away the things you aren’t using. Your medicine cabinet gets purged of expired drugs and ex-girlfriends’ makeup remover. You only keep one pair of shoes around. The pages and pages of notes and doodles you accumulate from work either go into cold storage or they go into the trash, and the shampoo and conditioner you took from that hotel one time are discarded. When you’re relatively stable, the crap just builds up. You have Christmas wrapping paper left over from two years ago and you start looking for “storage solutions”. Of course I could move, but nobody in this town owns a truck and there are a million stairs to climb. And I have rent control. And the cost of rent everywhere else is getting increasingly insane. And I kinda like my apartment.

So I stay. I set an annual reminder on my phone to clean the medicine cabinet, and I found a new hobby. As it turns out, new hobbies are actually kinda fun.