Hamlet and hesitation

Good post yesterday on Signal vs. Noise about when knowledge makes us hesitate. I’ve always thought that this is an idea at the core of Hamlet. Hamlet is smart, meditative, philosophical – all traits we would admire – but it’s exactly those traits that prevent him from making a decision about revenging his father. His hesitation leads to 8 corpses (Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, and finally Hamlet himself).

At each stage of the play he gets new information which causes him to reassess his position, but nothing is actually done.

It’s counterintuitive to think that more information could be bad for you or that acting quickly and with conviction could be anything but rash. And yet in some situations this is exactly what is needed.

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What the world needs now is another to-do list

There’s nothing makes me wince more than hearing that someone is making another web-based to-do list app. There are about a gajillion already and none of them seem able to keep up with my pen and A4 pad.

So that said, I’m making a to-do list app.

You see it occurred to me that a piece of paper can’t tell me to stop writing, but a web page can remind me that I need limits. This isn’t true of the web apps I’ve already used. I tend to add more and more things until the list is very long. The longer a list becomes, the less inclined I am even to look at it, never mind do any of the tasks. So it has to be short. Restrictively so.

Putting a deadline on things can be useful, but I find that I don’t feel any guilt when they zip by. So marking overdue items doesn’t change my behaviour. But I do like to split tasks into chunks – usually of about 30 minutes or an hour. So it might be good to only accept tasks that are substantial enough to warrant writing down but small enough that they can be completed easily within an afternoon.

So what I’m doing is making a to-do list that will work for me, not one that will necessarily work well for other people.

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This Website is an Elephant

Metaphors are a great way to improve the way you think about what you’re working on. But they can also limit the way you think about something.

I overheard someone describe their website as being like a brochure for their company. Personally, I think that’s a big mistake. Brochures are something you deliver to someone, websites are something that you visit. I don’t know many people who go out of their way to hunt down a brochure.

But it’s not a good idea to throw out the brochure idea without knowing what the website was made for. Maybe being a brochure is exactly what it needs to be.

The difficulty comes in when you start thinking that your website is always something. Because then you stop yourself from ever imagining that it could be anything else. Different sites fill different needs. And a metaphor is only useful if it makes things clear. If it doesn’t serve its purpose, be ready to throw it away.

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Quick! Redesign the logo!

Here is Steve Jobs talking about Paul Rand who designed the logo for NeXT computers:

Steve makes the point that companies have to spend 10 years and a hundred million dollars to associate a logo with a company in the customer’s mind. And this is the key thing that is overlooked in most discussions about logos. It’s there to create an association.

Paul Rand’s approach was not to provide different choices that could be judged on their aesthetics but “to solve a problem”. The logo serves a purpose, it is not there for its own sake. It is not there because it looks good or is visually witty or at least not only for these reasons.

Changing a company’s identity is a way to refresh its image, but it also leaves behind the associations that customers have with the company. Every time you change, you reset customer expectations. This was useful for Windscale which became associated with the word “disaster” but can be harmful if you want to preserve your image.

Redesigning your logo is rarely the answer to any problem. The logo is only the sign you hang on your reputation. If the sign is ugly it doesn’t make a terrible company. Conversely, a terrible company can’t change by hanging a new sign.

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Too Many Gurus

Guru Thongdrol

Why do so many web recruitment ads ask for gurus? CSS gurus, Rails gurus and so on. Gurus are fine, if you can get them, but where are the jobs for beginners? For intermediates?

A good indication that someone is using this term too loosely is when it is accompanied by a low salary offer. Why is someone who has transcendental knowledge in their field going to work for what you’re offering? Firms are bad at selling themselves, at the simple act of making an offer, often because they think they are in a seller’s market, but the true gurus are not scrabbling to take any offer.

One of the interesting parts of Zen Buddhism is Shoshin or Beginner’s Mind. This idea is that an expert will treat a subject very much like a beginner, with an open mind and an eagerness to learn. In this aspect, beginners can be as useful to a company as experts. In fact, an expert can be stuck in a routine way of thinking, resistant to new ideas and not the kind of person you want to hire.

In practice, recruitment is a kind of witchcraft, producing wildly unpredictable results. But it is worth thinking about the qualities and values you want to invest in and not be so quick to demand a high level of knowledge or experience.

(photo by Bhutan-360 on Flickr)

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What does it mean to be professional?

When companies don’t know how to act, they choose to be “professional”. It’s assumed that we know both what this means and also that it is the correct way to act.

When I hear this word, the speaker usually means something else. It’s a lazy word, used when the reasons have not been fully thought out. It’s a word that needs to be expanded upon. Often it only means to act seriously, with serious intent. It is not childish, it is not fun. It indicates to others how seriously you take things. Companies that try to be professional without first figuring out what exactly that entails quickly become companies where it is not fun to work.

The idea we have in our heads of professionalism is a group of signals that indicate that someone can be trusted. But like any easily replicated mark, it’s not reliable. It’s just as easy to be taken in by someone in a t-shirt and jeans as someone in a suit.

Trust and reliability are built up over time, there is no shortcut. So think about what you are sacrificing when you try to be professional.

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Primer is a virtually no-budget movie about a pair of friends who stumble on a technological breakthrough that has some drastic unforeseen consequences. It’s not a film for everyone and from reading online reviews, I can see that it has a strong polarising effect. Personally I loved it and although it’s from 2004, I only discovered it a few months ago and it is my favourite film of the moment.

Primer is hard to follow. The characters speak to each other as friends and engineers, there is no exposition. There are also events which are reported and not depicted. I imagine this was a necessity of budget, but also it’s a narrative device. As the film progresses, scenes seem to be shorter and more chopped up; as the stakes increase, we are told less and less and I felt my sense of frustration grow. But this is a film about things that get out of hand, about people who think they are smart enough to figure things out but ultimately give up. So it makes sense that we as viewers give up as well.

For such a small budget I found the cinematography and acting very strong but I know that this is not a universally held opinion. The negative reviews seem to follow a common thread: I didn’t understand what was going on, therefore this is a bad film. This is an offensive argument to me.

There are plenty of films and books that I haven’t understood and subsequently didn’t enjoy but I would never say that they were bad for that sole reason. This reminds me of the tabloid reaction (year after year) to the Turner prize. It makes no sense to me, therefore it must be worthless to everyone.

One reviewer claimed that anyone who claimed to enjoy or understand the film was lying and trying to avoid appearing stupid. While this is possible (even if it seems to me strangely paranoid) it precludes the possibility that the film is coherent to anyone. How can anyone make such a blanket claim about a film they, by their own admission, do not understand?

So many expect films to entertain, but by “entertain” they seem to mean something that doesn’t in any way require them to think, or to reason, or to question their prejudices. Why do we require only one kind of cinema? Why do we crave escapism to the utter exclusion of all other sensations? For me, this film was great for the very reason that it did engage me, that it asked something more than passive acceptance. This is a rare thing today, something to be encouraged, not vilified.

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Design that helps nobody

The most striking thing about this bench is that the seat is angled towards the ground. To sit here, you have to brace yourself with your feet, which causes strain and discomfort. The seat is also very narrow and has a back that offers very little support.

If I was designing a bench, my main consideration would be providing comfort. From that perspective, this design fails. In fact, it is perverse.

Was the bench designed to prevent loitering? Then why have a bench at all? Was it designed to prevent the homeless from sleeping there? Why?

In trying to solve some particular problem, the design has been mangled so much that it no longer functions well as anything.

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Everything About Your Customer Service Is Wrong

It’s the morning of Monday May 19th and it’s been a long weekend. My girlfriend and I are waiting for a train to take us on a six-hour journey back home. We’re coming back from a festival and there are many other people like us waiting on the platform with suitcases and rucksacks. I’ve booked the train even though it’s more expensive than a plane because of a vague concern for the environment. In truth, I have no idea if the difference is substantial.

We don’t know it yet, but about half an hour ago a train was cancelled. And instead of putting on another train, or adding more carriages to an existing service, the train company has unloaded all those passengers onto our train. I’ve reserved tickets for this train about three months in advance, but it no longer matters because you see, in these circumstances, all reservations are cancelled. That’s right. It’s time for a double disappointment: no reservations for the people on the cancelled train and no reservations for us either.

I’m reminded of Seinfeld: you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation.

So how do we find out? We find out from the passengers on our train. Somehow the infrastructure of tannoys and station staff have been rendered ineffective. In fact, this is a lie. I have already assumed that my reservations are cancelled because this is not the first time this has happened to me. (A rough estimate would be that out of 20 reserved rail journeys in the last three years, I have lost my reservation 6 times.)

The train is full when we board. This means standing room only. In fact, there are already people standing in the aisles so I can only get as far as the automatic doorway between carriages. This doorway has been designed to close every ten seconds or so but open again if it encounters an obstacle. Now I know what you’re thinking, that would mean that someone standing there would be struck by the door every ten seconds or so, and standing there for three solid hours would be akin to some kind of water torture.

An old woman tries to get past us on her way to the buffet car. She harasses us for taking up room in the passageway. We’re all in this thing together, but some of us are more in it than others.

Standing outside the toilet is not as bad as it sounds, over the years I’ve grown used to the terrible smell of train carriages. Certainly it’s faeces and urine, maybe vomit; my girlfriend says sauerkraut. I am convinced this is what hell smells like: mediocre, like someone who couldn’t be bothered.

Later, when we manage to get a seat, I head along to the buffet car for a hot drink. I know these places are expensive and I understand the economics behind it: you’re paying in part for convenience. My girlfriend has her own teabags – she doesn’t take caffeine – so I ask the cashier for hot water only. But I can’t have this unless I pay £3 for a full cup of tea. So what else can I do?

In her defence, she lets me have the teabag for nothing.

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Google Chrome launched

It’s only been a few hours but I love Google Chrome. Right off the bat I noticed a big improvement in speed and stability over the other browsers.

For work, I’m using Firefox because I rely on its web developer extensions, but despite it being in beta I expect I’ll be using Chrome for regular browsing from now on.

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