Thursday, April 30, 2009

Too much of a good thing, or not enough?

This morning, I sat in a meeting where the various flavors of Windows and Office were being discussed. Some users like Vista, some hate it, some like Office 2007, others hate it and want to stick with Office 2003. In about a year, we'll get to add Office 14 and Windows 7 to that mix, which will present even more options to the world. Maybe too many.

*side note* I installed Windows 7 on my home laptop and work PC this week and absolutely love it. Where my laptop used to take two minutes to boot, it now comes up in 20 seconds. Windows 7 is much faster, is visually more pleasing and has some really great bells and whistles.

Last night, we watched two TED talks. The first was given by Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice. Schwartz made the point that sometimes, too many choices can hurt us, rather than help. He gives some examples. First, if you go into a supermarket to buy salad dressing, you are presented with over one hundred varieties of salad dressings. You pick one that looks appealing, but when you go home and use it on your salad, you continue to think of the other varieties. No matter how good the one you chose tastes, you are plagued by the notion that maybe, among the other 99 or so bottles you didn't choose, there is a better variety. Therefore, your overall enjoyment of your salad has not gone up, it has gone down.

The second example he gave involved the purchase of blue jeans. Many years ago, Schwartz went to buy jeans and had one option. Today, he is presented with dozens and dozens of options - loose fit, easy fit, slim fit, acid-washed, distressed - the combinations and permutations are seemingly endless. Eventually he found a pair that he liked. In fact, they were the best-fitting jeans he had ever purchased. But - they weren't perfect. A vast sea of choice holds the possibility of perfection, and when perfection is not achieved - no matter how much better the results are than they were previously - disappointment ensues.

The conclusion I gathered from this talk was that too much choice can be a bad thing.

Interestingly enough, the next random talk we decided to watch last night was on the exact opposite of this idea. Malcolm Gladwell used spaghetti sauce to illustrate that more choice is better than less - at least, when it comes to food products. Gladwell tells of Howard Moskowitz, a pioneer in the market research field. Once upon a time, market researchers brought a group of 100 people together, presented them with Spaghetti Sauce A, Spaghetti Sauce B and Spaghetti Sauce C, and asked the group which Item they liked best. If 40% of the group liked Spaghetti Sauce A, 35% liked B and 25% liked C, Spaghetti Sauce A was the winner. While that did represent the most popular vote, 60% of the group wasn't satisfied. Tough luck for them. Moskowitz pioneered the idea that they didn't need to develop a better spaghetti sauce to appeal to more than 40% of the population - they needed to develop better spaghetti sauces. More choices, not less, was the key to satisfying the wants of American consumers. Instead of presenting them with one thin version of sauce (think Ragu), present them with a thin version, a chunky version and a spicy version. This is why there are 36 varieties of Ragu on the shelves today instead of the one that my parents grew up with.

The conclusion I gathered from this talk was that more choices is a good thing.

Are these two talks necessarily contradictory? Not really. I don't think Schwartz's point is that we shouldn't have choices at all, but there is something to be said for having too many. Especially if, in the vast array of choices, you are still limited. Before I got my iPhone, I wanted a cell phone that did nothing but send and receive calls. No camera, no texting, no calendar. Guess what? 1.8 billion cell phones on the market and not one of them is just a fucking phone. Or how about when I go to Mama's on 39th Street. They have 80 omelettes on their menu. Do they have the one I want (ham, onions, mushrooms and cheese)? No. Peanut butter and jelly omelette, yes. To this I say, WTF? Where was I going with this?

Ah yes - We are a society (and workplace) inundated with choice. Some of that choice is great - count me as one who likes chunky spaghetti sauce. But some of that choice is overwhelming, frustrating and/or confusing Have you shopped for women's clothes at a department store? I rest my case. Mr. Awesome feels the same way about MicroCenter (it's still one of his favorite places on the planet, nonetheless). He's gone there to purchase something - a hard drive, for example - and there are so many types and sizes and brands that he literally throws up his hands and walks away empty-handed. And he's a tech-savvy guy.

I think the key to happiness through choice is finding that sweet spot between not enough choice and too much. When it comes to my workplace computing environment, I think fear of change leads people to reject new technologies without giving them a chance. At some point we need to be able to eliminate the choice of holding on to the old in order to expose them to the new.

Maybe Howard Moskowitz can tackle that problem next.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rediscovering TED.

A couple of years ago, I spent a few days completely absorbed with TED Talks. I watched several of them and really enjoyed them, but for whatever reason (probably one involving my short attention span) I stopped watching and forgot they existed.

Last weekend, we bought an Apple TV unit. Besides letting us watch television and movies via iTunes, it lets us watch video podcasts. And that's how I rediscovered TED Talks. We've been watching one or two before bed. They run about 18 minutes a piece, although some are slightly longer and others are significantly shorter. No matter the topic, be it the nature of humanity in the cosmos (David Deutsch, TEDGlobal 2005), a study of the trickster in culture (Emily Levine, TED 2002), or nerdcore comedy (Ze Frank, TED 2005), the talks are engaging, interesting and inspiring.

Last night we watched two talks. The first, from David Deutsch discussed how we as humans are both typical and not typical. How the primary function of our existance is the search for knowledge, and that all that is needed to create knowledge is, basically, matter, energy and evidence. Even in deepest space, he says, where it seems as nothing exists, is matter, energy and evidence. The only thing that keeps us as humans from being about to turn empty space into, say, a particle excelerator, is that we don't know how to do it.

The second was a talk from Richard Dawkins about how the human size and experience limits our understanding of the universe. He discussed that we humans live in what he described as the "middle world" where we can't comprehend things of very large or very small size. For example, even a dense rock is mostly empty space, but our perception of the particles is a solid mass. To something very small - say, the size of an atom, the rock would appear as mostly empty space. Our perception makes up our reality. He describes us has having "software" that builds the model of the world we live in - a monkey needs software that builds a model to help it climb and swing, while a bird needs software to model a world in which it can fly. He asks the question, is it possible for us to retrain our brains to see the empty spaces? Is it possible for us to intruduce children to the concept of the very small at a young age through the use of computer programs so that they can learn to see the world differently?

Fascinating stuff, really.

Over the weekend we watched a talk on SETI, which inspired me to install it on my computer and help in the search of extraterrestrial communication. On Monday, we watched the creator of Wikipedia describe how the online encyclopedia thrives because of, not in spite of, its "anyone can edit anything" existence.

There are dozens and dozens more talks to see, and more are given every year. The range and scope of TED is incredible, and is (and I know I am in peril of sounding too schmaltzy) a true gift to humanity.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Meme Friday.

Who wants to be creative on Friday? Not me. That's what memes are for - templates for "creativity."

Four Food Questions:

  1. How far would you be willing to travel to satisfy a food craving?

  2. Have you ever eaten rabbit? If so, what did you think? If not, why not?

  3. Have you ever made your own bread? If so, how?

  4. Where do you usually spend Easter and what do you usually eat?


Answers:

  1. I'd probably drive about 30-45 minutes for a good meal. for snack cravings, probably 20 minute drive, tops.

  2. I've never eaten rabbit. The one time it was offered to me was on Easter when I was about 10. My uncle had made a rabbit stew and told us he caught the Easter Bunny breaking into his house. There was no way I was eating the Easter Bunny.

  3. I've made bread in my bread machine. It turned out good. I haven't made any in a while - maybe it's time to break it out again.

  4. Easter dinner is with my mom. We always have a leg of lamb with mint jelly, Mr. Awesome's favorite curry rice casserole, my favorite 7-layer salad, some sort of veggie and rolls. This year, we didn't do Easter dinner on Easter. Instead, we're doing it next Sunday.


 

From Friday5.org:

  1. When did you last sleep in a tent?

  2. What comes to mind when you think about relieving yourself in the great outdoors?

  3. Where’s the best place you ever went camping?

  4. What’s your favorite camp food?

  5. What’s your sleeping bag like?



    Answers:



    1. I think the last time I slept in a tent was when I was about 10 years old, at my grandparents' lake house at lake Pomme de Terre. We set it up in the front yard. About halfway through the night, it started to pour down rain. We had to run inside and spent the rest of the night on the living room floor.

    2. I had to pee outside exactly twice, and each time I hated it. 

    3. I haven't gone camping since I was a kid, and it wasn't camping - it was summer camp. A couple of years ago we met some friends for breakfast at their campsite just east of Kansas City, and that was really, really fun. At the end of May, those same friends have convinced us to go camping when them on some private land. With working bathrooms.

    4. I love burnt hot dogs and s'mores. I also love camp breakfast with cheesy eggs and meat.

    5. I don't have a sleeping bag (yet). The last sleeping bag I owned had My Little Ponies on it. Yeah, I roll like that.



     

    I'm on a roll - one more set from Friday5.org:

    1. What’s something you know how to draw?

    2. Who’s someone you could get away with impersonating?

    3. Where’s the stapler?

    4. Why will this be a great weekend?

    5. When are you going to make that phone call you’ve been putting off?



      Answers:



      1. I can't draw. I can doodle during meetings. Usually trees and flowers. Or snowmen.

      2. I can do a pretty decent Tracy Jordan impression.

      3. Behind me on my desk, next to the tape dispenser, on a Hard Rock Cafe London mouse pad that my sister brought back for me from her trip to Europe several years ago.

      4. Let's see... if it doesn't rain later we're taking Finnie to play with Taigan. I don't know what we're doing tomorrow - maybe the Pet Expo, definitely the bookstore at some point. Sunday it's me and my mom going to see Phantom of the Opera preceeded by brunch someplace spiffy. And sleeping in Saturday and Sunday morning. All the makings of a great weekend.

      5. Probably in about 30 minutes.


      Tuesday, April 14, 2009

      I don't want to make this post.

      Maltoodle. Royeo Pooster. Punky Pooster. Rooster Pooster. Stinkbug. Poodleface. Poodle Noodle.



      Roy.

      Sunday afternoon he started yelping whenever we touched his abdomen. We called the vet and he said as long as he wasn't throwing up (he wasn't) that we could bring him in for a check-up Monday morning. Roy was lethargic Sunday night, but I sat him in a chair next to me and petted him, and gave him water, and he started to look like he was feeling better. Monday morning he seemed much better than the night before. He was wagging his tail and running around (albeit a little slower than normal). We dropped him off at the vet and figured he just had a stomach ache and a little rest would help.

      Instead, he had cancerous tumors in his abdomen, and one of them had burst and he was bleeding internally and there was nothing they could do for him. We had to have him put to sleep yesterday afternoon.



      I guess it's better that it was so sudden and not long and drawn out. Even so, he was wonderful and I miss him and can't believe he's gone. He was only nine, and never showed any other symptoms.



      It's been a really tough year for pets. In June, Schroeder, my 14-year old golden retriever, passed away.



      He was a big, slobbery goofball who loved nothing more than lying next to someone he loved with his head on their lap.

      In October we lost Rags to complications from diabetes. I got him from Wayside Waifs in 1998. He was, without a doubt, the greatest cat I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.



      Rags would come when called, fetch, meow on cue and sing with me. We had to give him insulin shots for a year and he never, ever complained. In fact, he would remind us to give him his shot by standing in front of the refridgerator (where we kept the insulin) and meowing.



      He was big and furry and awesome. Check out his guide on how to shave a cat to see just how awesome he was.

      Schroeder, Rags and now Roy. It's been really, really hard.



      I hope death is through with us for a while.



      We still have Ralphie...

      And Finnie...



      But I still miss the others. I miss my poodle face.