Thursday, August 11, 2011

How Engineers Solve Conversations

There's always that span of time during a night at the bar when you find yourself thinking about things in a much deeper way than you probably should. Last Saturday, during those precious moments of clarity, I found myself talking to a man in sales. As we sat there at the bar and traded stories, my mind started to wander. Follow along.

Successful salespeople always think about how to read people and successful engineers always think about solving problems. As an engineer (with a few drinks in him), I came to the realization that to me, conversations can be thought of as just another problem to solve.

Every conversation has variables: the other people, the topics, body language, social rules, and the number of drinks consumed. These are things that can change at any time during the conversation.  Every conversation has a set of constants: you, the location, news, weather, something funny across the bar or on TV.  A constant in this case can be thought of as a set of facts known or agreed upon by everyone in the conversation. The goal is to solve for the other person or people in the conversation.

When I start to solve a conversation, I normally start with a constant. "Can you believe what happened with at shooting in the Loop today?" Unless I'm talking to the person doing the shooting, I generally know how the others will react. Like most problems, verifying your constants is always a good place to start.  In the process, you will start to see patterns emerge.

When I talk about shooting, I start to hear stories about the family member who was on the police force. Now I have more constants to work with. A problem can't be solved unless you add a little bit of past experience with other problems into the mix, so I share a similar story.  As the conversation continues, I find myself getting closer and closer to turning variables into values you can predict with reasonable certainty.

Normal people solve hundreds of these problems everyday without even thinking about it while engineers fail to solve many of these problems every single day. 

That night, as you can probably already tell, I failed miserably at solving pretty much anything.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Attention People of Chicago

It's July, which means I'm halfway through my first Chicago summer. Everyone I talk to in or from Chicago raves about how great the summers are. I must say that the people in or from Chicago have a very strange definition of great.

I will say that the city itself is amazing in the summer.  You've got the great parks by the water, summer concerts, multiple block parties every weekend, and a beach where you'll find some impressive people watching. There is always something to do in the summer if you leave your apartment.

But let's talk about the white elephant in the room: the weather.  Chicago's weather is mentally ill. When it's happy, it's really friggin happy.  Most of the last two weeks were spent with heat indices topping the 100 degree mark. But when it's sad, it's suicidal.  The last two days, we've had some of the worst flash floods on record. One day it's 90 degrees and not a cloud in the sky.  The next day, or maybe even hour, it looks like the four horseman of the apocalypse have come for rapture. It's a mental patient that they're trying to cure with LSD and cocaine.

Here's what no one here seems to understand. There are places with amazing parks, shopping, swimming, block parties, you name it, and the weather is bearable all 12 months of the year. Yes, that's right, no need to get beat in the face repeatedly for eight months waiting for the psychopath to let you in. I don't really understand why people think they need to bear the winters here, because even the summer weather is some of the craziest I've ever seen.

So here's my description of Chicago weather. The winters are cold, snowy, and there's no decent skiing within a days drive. There will be times when you cannot leave your house for days, so keep some frozen pizzas in the freezer.  The summers are sweltering, and once a week you will stare into the gates of hell when you look out your window, if only for an hour.

But it's all worth it right? RIGHT?!?!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

My New Take on Inception

I just got back from San Juan, Puerto Rico and on the flight home, I got a chance to watch Inception one more time.  I'm sure the last thing the world needs is another interpretation of Christopher Nolan's film, but here's one you might not have heard. WARNING: The follow paragraphs contain spoilers.

I started thinking about totems. Every person going into the dream world has a totem that supposedly only themselves have touched.  Except Cobb.  Cobb's totem is the same as his wife Mal's, a small top. That got me thinking. There are three people who touch the top: Saito, Mal and Cobb.

We learn later in the film that Cobb and Mal both worked as extractors together and began playing with the idea of a dream inside a dream. From Cobb's story, we know they spent almost 50 years in limbo together before Cobb incepted Mal with the idea that they were in a dream.

Now back in the real world, Mal is still obsessed with the idea that the two of them are still dreaming. Cobb tries to reason with her, using the children as proof, but it is no use.

And now the twist. What if Mal was right? Maybe they were dreaming. How can Mal convince Cobb that it was all a dream? She has to use the one thing Cobb believes is real, the children. What Mal does is create a scenario where Cobb can't be with the children.  She kills herself and pins it on him.

Enter Saito. He has chosen Cobb for his special task in part due to the test missions performed in the beginning of the film. But we never see that start of those missions. I believe that Mal and Saito are working together to wake Cobb up from the dream.

In fact, you know from the very first dream sequence where Cobb and Arthur are trying to convince Saito to give them is secret. Mal tells Saito what Cobb is up to, forcing the dream to collapse. In fact, anytime Cobb attempts to go deeper into the dream levels, Mal is there to try to stop him.

What we see at the end of the movie is the failure of Mal to get Cobb to wake up. Cobb is completely lost in his dream world because he no longer believes Mal is real, and she was his last link to reality.

And there we have it. Re-watch the movie and look for the connection between Saito, Mal and Cobb. Also look for clues that Mal was right and that they were living in a dream world when she committed suicide. It's interesting that after a full year, Inception still has the ability to make you think.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Two Prisoners Missing From Classified Guantanamo Files

LOS ANGELES, CA - Wikileaks recent release of classified Guantanamo Bay documents caused even more controversy today as it was discovered that two high profile prisoners were missing from the files.

Harold Lee and Kumar Patel were made famous in the 2004 documentary Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. The success of the first film garnered a second documentary four years later titled Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. According to the latter film, the two men were placed in Guantanamo Bay after Kumar was found with an unknown electronic device and controlled substances on a flight to Amsterdam. They escaped from the facility during a highly publicized security breach involving at least three prison guards and a goat, all of whom where subsequently discharged. One of the guards, "Big" Bob, now runs a flooring outlet in Kansas City.

But the authenticity of both films was called into question today as it was discovered that both men are absent from the classified Wikileaks documents. The files contain detailed information about some 158 men held at the facility along with intelligence summaries and assessments. It is unknown who provided the information to Wikileaks, but Secretary Ron Fox released an official statement earlier today relating to the publishing of the documents:
[Holding up a picture of a little girl] Does NPR and The New York Times see this picture of a cute little white girl? With the release of these documents, it is clear that they want to see her get raped and murdered. It is unfortunate that these institutions want to rape America. [He then threw the picture against the wall]
Harold, Kumar, and NPH were not immediately available for comment.

Monday, April 11, 2011

LinkedIn's Usability Disaster

If you've ever searched for a job on LinkedIn, you may have noticed a feature that allows you to search for jobs near a particular zip code. Now I'm guessing most people don't memorize the zip codes for major cities in the US, but no problem. LinkedIn provides a nice little "lookup" link right next to the box.  All this sounds just fine. Maybe searching by city would be easier, but it's certainly better than nothing.

But here's the issue. When you click the lookup link, you don't get a simple ajax Javascript popup that allows you to enter a city, and get the correct zip code.  You get a new window and this monster:

Even if has the best zip code lookup system anywhere online, this type of user experience is shockingly bad. I have to search for the city on another site, then copy and paste the zip code back to LinkedIn? Someone needs to prioritize this JIRA story and fast.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Apple is Lazy

They have 350,000 app logos to choose from but there are (many) duplicate logos in the latest Apple promo. WTF?

Monday, March 14, 2011

There Is No Twitter vs. Facebook

There was a time not too long ago when my roommate and I would spend hours on a Saturday night drinking beers and debating who would win the battle of the internet: Facebook or Twitter. We came to a few conclusions from those discussions: 1. We really needed more friends, and 2. we were convinced that Facebook was destined to slaughter Twitter.

Facebook was in the middle of introducing incredible new features. The idea of Facebook connect was a single sign-in solution that seemed like it might actually work. The ability for websites to add social context to any page easily with the "Like" button was revolutionary.  Meanwhile, Twitter wasn't doing much.  They seemed to be busy trying to figure out how to make money and get rid of the infamous fail whale.  It seemed pretty obvious that Facebook was the hare and Twitter the tortoise.

Fast forward to a few months ago when revolution began sweeping through Northern Africa. There were many realizations that came from the protests, and one of them for me was that Twitter and Facebook will co-exist because they are used for very different things.  And if I had to live with only one of them, I would choose Twitter every time.

Facebook has been (and still is) in the process of changing the way people use the internet. The ability to bring your friends into your online world and communicate with them so easily is ushering in a revolution and we have only scratched the surface. But the same thing that makes Facebook so amazingly useful is what ultimately limits it: friends and networks.

Twitter is different.  Right now, anyone with access to the internet, can create an account, and join any conversation in the world.  By including a hashtag (#tag) into their tweet, they are instantly connected to people all over the world.  Groups on Twitter are created only when there is a purpose for that group.  As soon as the conversation ends, the group ends.  This allows for a constant evolution of groups as the events or conversations change. Messages can contain multiple hashtags which allow for similar topics to merge seamlessly.

Facebook keeps you in contact with the people you know.  You can instantly get feedback on whatever is going through your head, and that feedback has more value because it is from people you know.  But that's all it is, feedback.  Posts with comments. Twitter does not provide feedback (some might consider retweeting feedback, I don't), it provides a conversation. And a Twitter user with no followers can join any conversation instantly using hashtags. Millions of people being able to discuss any number of topics instantly all over the world. Most of those topics are worthless. But some of them have the power to change the world.

As I said before, friends and networks are Facebook's greatest assets. But they are also what will keep them from ever conquering Twitter. People post on Facebook because they have friends and want feedback.  People Tweet because they want to be heard.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Academy Awards of Kevin Bacon

The winners from last night night's Academy Awards were all 2 degrees or less from Kevin Bacon (thanks to for doing all the legwork):

The other nominees and their degrees:
Best Actor:
Best Actress:
Best Supporting Actor:
Best Supporting Actress:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

You and Everyone You Know Is Crazy

Not just crazy, fucking insane.

When I was younger, I remember staring at my friends and classmates, how they acted, and thinking about why they did crazy things. I was thinking about how normal I was acting, and nuts the people were around me.  Sure, it might have been a little pompous, but it worked for me, and I'm sure it worked for many others as well.

I am a bit older now. I've had a few more relationships, and I've come to the realization that I'm just as crazy as everyone else, and I have been for a long time. Crazy is all around us. Men think women are crazy. Children think parents are crazy.  You think that guy in the car ahead of you is crazy. And it turns out, we're all crazy.

That's because everything I do in my day to day life is normal to me.  And I bet you have the same feelings about what you do.  But it's not. I think what you're doing is insane. And you should be thinking the same about me. Knowing that everyone around you is mad as a hatter keeps you on your toes.  It keeps you from predicting what will happen next.

There's nothing wrong with our crazy. It's there, so we should figure out a way to deal with it.  In fact, I enjoy talking and hanging out with some of the craziest people I have ever met.  What I've come to realize about every relationship I've had is that in order for it to continue, I need to keep three things in mind:

  • I'm crazy. And I need to recognize that fact, and use it to my advantage.
  • The other person is crazy.  They think about things in a crazy way and will act in an even crazier manner.
  • The other person either doesn't know that either of us is crazy, or knows that everyone is crazy.  Most people I meet fall into the latter category.
When I think about all my relationships, the ones that I still have seem to flourish on these three basic principles. And like I said before, all of this lunacy is a good thing. Because the main reason I think you're crazy, is because your ideas are so completely alien to me.  When you let your crazy out, I begin to see and understand things in a very different way.  It is a way I would never see in my normal life. And that's the irony of it all.  The people from our relationships make us more crazy, which in turn makes us all feel a little more sane.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My First Google Chrome Plugin

I have been playing around with Google Chrome Extensions lately.  Here is my first attempt at a simple extension (5 hours of fiddling, no error checking) that will search IMDB for trivia for the movie you have selected.  Just highlight a movie title in any webpage, right-click and you should see the option to find JooTrivia for that item.

Get it here and leave feedback.  Obviously this only works in Google Chrome.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Your Business Sucks at Using Social Networks

Have you noticed more and more people "liking" companies and products on Facebook than ever before? I have.  And every contest I try to enter online start with the words, "Just click the 'Like' button."

After talking to a friend, I had the reason.  At the end of November, 2010, Facebook decided to make a major change to their promotion guidelines. The change made running a contest or giveaway much easier.  In the past, promotions had to be approved by Facebook and able to spend at least $10,000 in advertising on Facebook.  Those restarints were dropped and now it costs you little more than the time involved in making a simple canvas application.

But before you Google, maybe you should think again. Right now, companies look at social networking sites as a way to spread brand awareness and drive traffic to their main site.  And yes, in the short term, social networking is good at both of those things.  But what about the long term?  I venture to guess that most traffic graphs following the opening of a contest on Facebook look pretty spectacular.  Large increases, and high-fives all around.  And the week after the contest ends, it's like nothing happened.

What people (and companies) don't seem to understand is that in order to be successful in using social networks, they need to think about things completely different.  It's not about driving traffic, it's about creating value for the customer.  Use social networking to do something people couldn't do in the past and you will be successful.  It will take more time, and be more expensive up front, but the rewards are worth it.

For example, if you're a travel site, don't have a giveaway to send you and three friends to Mexico.  Make it easier for friends to travel together through your site.   Look at what social networking sites allow you to do that wasn't possible before.  Suddenly, I have instant access to private information on everyone I've ever met.  Figure out how to use that in a product related to your brand, and build it.

Integrating social networks into your product isn't about finding the right strategy and following it.  It's about finding the right idea and pioneering it. Now that's something to click the Like button for.


Saturday, January 01, 2011


I don't understand these new "waterfree" toilets. Originally weren't all toilets waterfree? Am I supposed to be impressed because they figured out a way to go back to how things were?

Wait, I have an idea. I'll invent a paper towel that you don't throw away. Amazing!

The green revolution: companys finding ways to charge more for technology that's already been replaced once.