Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas in Tennessee

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Merry Christmas! Dean and I are on the road visiting family, so we won't be updating the blog much this week.

We had a little adventure getting home for the holidays this year as United Airlines cancelled our flight and failed to provide us with anyway to travel before Tuesday (Which is um, after Christmas...). The entire story is pretty long and probably boring - the short version is United Airlines has quite possible the worst customer service ever. They also have one of those annoying speech recognition phone systems, which is particular irritating because you feel compelled to yell a string of explitives at it, and then it talks back to you and says "I'm sorry, I didn't understand you..." We ultimate ended up buying a last minute ticket with Delta Airlines and it still took three trips to the airport to retrieve our luggage.

But we finally arrived and Christmas with the fam was fun as always. We wouldn't want you all to miss the experience of celebrating Christmas in Tennessee, so we posted a picture of us hanging with Elvis on Christmas. Cheers!

Monday, December 18, 2006


Dean got to open his Christmas present early this year - a Sonos whole-house audio system, and a new set of Focal/JMLab speakers to play music in the living room.

Having made Dean spend all our hard earned savings on boring furniture over the years, I decided that instead of more uphostery Dean could buy a sweet stereo system for Christmas. I did some research and discovered that audiophile geek was a specific sub-genre of ubergeek - and I was a total n00b. Lucky for me, Anthony was an audio zenmaster in a former life. Sonos, litle grasshopper. Sonos.

Dean InspectingDean and I visited our local stereo geek store (Tweeter) on Sunday and picked out our Sonos bundle. Next we needed speakers, so we could play our music in the living room. Enter the speaker room. Two comfy chairs, an array of CD/DVD players and amplifiers, and a wall of speakers. The sales person gave us a demo - the Polk sounded nice, the Infinity solid but a little crisp.. and the Focals sounded like a glass of expensive french wine. C'est épatant! The speakers were a bit more than we wanted to spend... but as luck would have it, last year's model of speaker was on sale for 40% off - making them the same price as the Polk speakers. Sold! (2006 was a good vintage).

Like all good Chrismas gifts, the best ones are as fun to unwrap as to use. First, we set up the speakers. Did I mention these babies are très magnifique? They weigh a ton. Dean says this is a sign of a good speaker. I say, this is a sign that Dean will be carrying them in from the car.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingHaving set up our speakers, it was time to unwrap the Sonos. As I mentioned before, I am a total stereo n00b. The Sonos was blindingly simple to set up. The entire set comes in a cute little box and setting it up is as easy as plugging cord A into Tab B and pressing the on button. Setting up zones was easy, and the software we installed on our computer was even savvy enough to find our music library automagically. Brilliant.

The Sonos is so well designed, its worthy of its own blog entry where I can rave about it. That will have to wait until another day, I have audio heaven to visit now.

Shyness and eye contact

Dean and I just completed a circuit of holiday parties this weekend (one Christmas, One Jewish - we just have to attend a Kwanzaa festival and I think we'll be good).

So here is my thought for the day - I've always been an extrovert, and I love a good party for the people watching. One thing I noticed this weekend made me want to do more research. Do shy or introverted people make less eye contact because they are shy? Or is it the lack of eye contact that makes someone shy (because as they develop conversation skills, they fail to connect with people because they are not making eye contact?)

The psychology of this fascinates me. Must research. Results will be posted later (probably after New Years)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Simplicity Sells Out

It's a rare occasion when I disagree with such pundits as Joel Spolsky and Donald Norman, but this is one of those times. As covered on Slashdot, they now say that simple designs are inferior to complex ones.

Donald Norman wrote two articles on the subject. The first article makes the claim that simple doesn't sell; given the choice, most consumers will select the product with more features and more options. To his mind, the market has resoundingly refuted the notion that less is more. But is this a matter of common wisdom or market failure?

When you buy a product for the first time, you're never quite sure whether it will do the job. Economists call this situation one of "imperfect information". I'd argue that in cases like this, consumers tend to overbuy. They think, "I'll take the Swiss Army knife over the Petit Chef knife because hey, one of the blades is likely to work." It's called Satisficing. You might not get the right thing, but at least you'll have something.

But you'll find that the opposite is true among experts who know what they're buying. Mechanics and surgeons, for example, will have an array of tools, each crafted to do just one simple operation. They know the right one to use for any given situation. The complexity of a multipurpose thingamajig is likely to get in their way.

You'll also find that folks who are very wealthy -- for whom buying decisions are less risky -- will also choose products that do one thing and do it well. It's why a good watch can command a price of thousands of dollars, when feature-crammed smartphones sell for much less. They both tell time. The accuracy is roughly the same. But less can be more.

Norman's other article takes issue with Google's simple user interface. Google's search interface appears to be a clear case of less is more to most people. Norman feels that the interface is worse, because Google's many other features are "hidden" on other pages, while Yahoo and MSN have their features up front, right where the user can get at them.

Assuming the user can find them, of course. Here, Norman makes a common mistake, and one that should probably be the subject of another blog article. A web site is not a software application. Everything that ends in "google.com" is not part of the same product. Google's philosophy appears to be that each tool should stand on its own, like a of screwdrivers. Each feature is individually addressable through a its own URL. Yes, you can get to these through a menu. But Google's innovation is to put the Google search, the thing most Google users want, front, center and uncluttered. If I want Froogle, I'll go to Froogle.com. If I want maps, then http://maps.google.com is the place to go.

Joel's simplicity article argues that if "simple" means "has less features" then your product is doomed to fail over the long term. I agree with him on this point. But he understates the value of doing one thing well. And adding more doodads to gadgets is not the way into most people's hearts. The humble teddy bear outsells the most amazing interactive storytelling synchs-with-my-computer-using-firewire audio-animatronic stuffed entertainment companion, despite its lack of features.

As one contributor to the Slashdot discussion of the anti-simplicity articles noted (and as Paula commented not too long ago) Joel himself took issue with the notion of more features being better in his article on Choices=Headaches. Simple generally means easier to learn and easier to use. And for most users, that can be a very compelling feature indeed.

Solving what you can't touch.

We're working right now with my government program to try to achieve "synergy" (I hate that word...) between different programs that are working on related goals. For example, getting the collaboration program to coordinate with the network bandwidth program and both to coordinate with the data center hosting program. It sounds easy, but in big organizations the hardest thing to do is to coordinate different groups.

The issues are not technology related at all - they're about program schedules, culture, information exchange, and building relationships. Except, somehow we're convinced what we need is ... more technology. Lets just implement service oriented architectures! that will fix it! How about a search engine? If we could just search better we would work together better!

All silly.

It is not a technology problem we have. If it were, it would be solved. It is easier to solve problems with real, tangible things. Technology problems are tangible, and discrete. I can build a better search engine. I can make all my applications communicate with an XML webservice. That part is easy. The hard part are the non-tangibles. Who gets my priority? What information should I share? How should I communicate?

Abstract thinking is hard. Which is why we should all do more of it.