Saturday, June 10, 2017

Review: Taco Bell Naked Chicken Chips

When you're a moderately healthy person who eats fast food rarely - and occasionally for the whimsy - you feel empowered when you make that order. You know about the poor nutrition and rich additives, and convince yourself that this knowledge is somehow a shield protecting you from its malign effects.

You also feel superior.

"Oh lowly Taco Bell - I'm eating you just for the Lolz. But I'll still invite you to my penthouse soiree."

So, like any arrogant and biased food reviewer, I was writing this review before I even took a bite. I imagined my lead would be: "Scientists rejoice as 4,327 new chemical compounds discovered in Taco Bell Naked Chicken Chips."

But I was wrong.

I took out a hefty triangle from its paper pouch, still hot, and dipped it in the Cheeto-colored Mayo, or perhaps queso.

I took a bite. I expected a rush of MSG, and the desire to drink an ocean of Diet Coke.
But something was happening in my mouth that I wasn't prepared for. The various seasonings and ingredients somehow perfectly repelled each other, as if they were finely-tuned by some virtuoso cook / chemist.

The flavors in the "chip" nullified each other so completely that what I tasted was... nothing. Not the absence of flavor, but a perfectly manufactured emptiness. I was in a crowded mall, and yet I was separated from all living beings. I was totally alone with my cheese sauce. I chewed and felt warmth, but my mind was already distancing itself from my mortal form.

I saw humanity as a net across the globe, each man and woman connected to each other by strands of kindness. I saw the earth as a small ball in the infinite blackness of the universe, rolling through the dark in tireless orbits. I saw time as a pair of hands that pushes each of us forward, without malice or pleasure. I felt removed from all things, and only from that great distance could I, at last, feel true harmony.

My companion said they tasted like Chicken McNuggets.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Maybe the world isn't hellishy terrible after all?

Ethics cannot be quantified. It is perfectly reasonable to have two competing, yet perfectly valid assessments of the world today. You can see goodness in people saving a wounded dog, or rescuing children from a burning building, just as you can spit on humanity when hearing about slavery in Sudan or the starvation of farmers somewhere in North Korea (or somewhere in America, probably).

But when if you COULD measure morality. And what's more, what if you did and you found that the earth - and humans - were getting better every year. There was a famous philosopher (I've been googling for 10 minutes and can't recall which one) who said that man inexorably moves towards morality. And that eventually, all people will be rational.

It seems impossible to believe this with even a cursory glance at the world. Increasing inequality gap in the U.S. ISIS' latest horrific thing. Unaffordable tuition. Billionaires controlling our elections. Plastic in the oceans. Anti-Muslim sentiment exacerbating already terrible refugee crisis.

All bad things. But one thing that isn't bad is that, generally, people agree that they are bad.

To measure something, you need to have a baseline. So let's look back at baseline morality through most of history:
  • Slavery = common
  • Women = few rights, not represented in government, seen as property (see above for that too)
  • Children = Seen and not heard, beatings common. Work in the coal mine, kiddo.
  • Colonialism = common. Kill, kidnap or educate the "savages"
  • Legal protection = Just for white men and / or rich people. I don't mean that rich people had BETTER legal protections (which they still do), but that they had pretty much ALL of them.
  • Gays = Not tolerated.
  • Knowledge = Owned by the few
Nowadays, more and more of these offenses are becoming intolerable. There will always be spikes of fundamentalism, fascism, and other nasties, but there is immediate pressure to stop these trends. They are globally vilified. The standard of morality, overall, may be improving.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Nerd on Nerd hate must stop

Nerds and geeks need to chill out.

Even in my dorkiest days, my contentions about what was and was not authentically geeky had limits. No so geek blog Io9's recent "Reminder: The Big Bang Theory Is the Goddamned Worst," article. It's not enough for the nerds of the world that comic book sales are rebounding, Fantasy (Game of Thrones) and computer geekdown (Silicon Valley) are dominating HBO, and the are showing superhero ads during the SuperBowl. Three of them, in fact.
Instead of feeling satisfied with this victory, or beleaguered by the over-saturation, they instead cast stones at the super smash hit, claiming the show goes for the "easy jokes." For example, when discussing the intergenerational hit Saga, which looks at the beauty, horror and comical nature of parenting set in a fantasy-science background, the show rags on the fact that there are boobs on the cover.
I guess their take is, why not use a prime time sitcom to discuss, at length, the impressive literary and artistic merits of Saga, especially in the context of ever increasing powerful, dramatic stories in the comic medium, and how they are receiving attention from the mass media.
Blleeeccchhhhh. What a terrible idea. And a boring one, too. I think a boob joke, if it gets Saga into a conversation on TV, is superb. This is prime time television. It's already a miracle that TV's #1 show discusses quantum physics, Hulk hands and uses a 14th grade vocabulary. Are you really going to push the "You're not going far enough" thing?
I suppose perhaps, it does come back to the "us vs. them" tribalism thing that no one is immune to. I guess seeing someone purporting to be even a little like you, on TV, is reason enough for people to recoil and say "Nay!" Perhaps they want higher standards for their dopplegangers. Or they feel that something sacred and private has become public and profane. Maybe having more people fighting for the future of geek culture is better than having no one.
Let's just not get too carried away with the purism.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Outbaked by the Brits: Great British Bake Off review

My wife and I are avid consumers of U.S. competitive baking culture. And in case you're not, it is a wide field: Chopped, Top Chef, Worst Cook in America, Masterchef, Masterchef Jr., and my personal favorite, Kitchen Nightmares, to name a few.

Recently we had a chance to try something with a bit more crumpets - the Great British Bake Off (GBBO), where a dozen home chefs compete in a baking contest. The setup is exactly what you'd see in the U.S., but the execution is completely different. The more I watched, the more I realized they had outdone us again. And while I still can't tell if the difference is due to editing, production design or just a different crop of people, the end result is no less striking.
Here's what I mean:

It's non-competitive - One of the first thing I noticed is how nicely all the contestants treated each other. There was no scheming, no trash talking, no "I'm the best" bravado. Everyone seemed to genuinely get along, and want to excel on their own merits. Do U.S. producers encourage people to backstab each other to heighten the drama? Or are our British counterparts equally skilled and yet less cutthrough?

It's more honest - Many, many times in the U.S. they show people an incredibly challenging thing to bake or cook, and say "Ready, Set, Cook!" Somehow, all the chefs, even home cooks or kids, all seem to know how to do it without any instruction at all. This always smelled fishy to me. In The Great British Bakeoff, you see people consulting general instructions given to them by the producers on a few challenges. It's no less challenging because the instructions are either vague or don't help with time management, but it's clear how the show works. I appreciated that.

It's cheeky - With the exception of Alton Brown, more U.S. hosts are picked for their knowledge and not necessarily their warmth. But the GBBO splits its hosting duties in half. The shows hosts and voiceover-ers are Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, two delightful, funny and real actresses who aren't baking experts at all. They crack puns, steal licks from chocolate bowls and occasionally even help contestants in a bind. The actual judges,  Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, are equal parts impressive and imposing.

It's about skill, not money - Why do most people compete on U.S. game shows? If you said anything but money, sit down. Yes, the fame of winning Top Chef and being on T.V. are important, but for most it's the big paycheck. Many shows remind people again and again of this. "Is this Crème Brulee worth $50,000?" Etc. But the GBBO has no prize money. None. The prize is to be named the winner, and that's it. To facilitate this, the show doesn't air over a period of back-to-back days like in the U.S. Instead, it's only filmed on THE WEEKENDS, allowing people to keep their jobs and routine! This simple fact was so extraordinary, I tipped my metaphorical hat to the television when it was revealed.

In short, all these pieces together create a competition that is more like a family cookoff. You don't want anyone to go home. Every contestant has something you like, even those with less skill. You learn more when the show is more honest. I'll prolly be catching the other seasons soon.

Thursday, August 13, 2015


"If Content is king, then context is queen."
These sayings are extremely common in the web content and user experience worlds. I find them infuriating, because they sounds impressive but they are fairly opaque and don't really say anything. After all, what kind of context? What does it even mean?
At An Event Apart, they dissected this phrase a little bit.
Image you are planning a conference. You create a website to tell people things they need to know - the twitter hashtag, the address, the registration page, etc. So there's a lot of information here, and you can split it up under tabs or navigation items.
But what if you didn't have to? If you look at the customer journey regarding the conference, there are many phases to attending a conference: the registering, the traveling, arriving and orienting, and then attending sessions. So what if that context - what people were doing at that time - determined what they saw on the website. A schedule of events would be front and center before the conference, but it's much less important afterwards. So the context could be time-based.

By looking at the specific parts of the event, and the time relevance of each, you could shift content based on what priority made most sense during that time.
In addition, you could also alter events based on location. If a person was 50 miles away, geolocation on their phones would give them directions. When they were within the building, it could shift to the wifi password.
The possibilities for events and orientation are limitless.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Accessibility: That high peak

Building any digital product is hard. You need what you THINK is a good idea, the understanding about your customers whether it's a good idea or not, a solid team, resources, timing, and managerial support.
You can do all these things. You can have designs that sparkle. You can user test the hell out of it. You can have a simplified User Interface and a sensible amount of self-promotion. But while you shoot for the 80%, there are always people who fall off the list. And people with disabilities are usually on that list.
It's easy to try not to think about it. Because it's already so hard to do anyway, why add an extra level of complexity? Why pull in another team of experts? Why introduce flaws into something you are so proud of?
There are three reasons:
  1. Legal - If you're the government, making things accessible is the law. Period. I'm still trying to figure out to what extent (if any) this applies to other companies. For us, it's a big deal.
  2. Money - This one should be enough for a lot of businesses, especially e-commerce sites. Disabilities is an incredibly wide term, which covers everything from people with arthritis, to those who can see, sorta, but with terrible eyesight (a.k.a. "low vision") to more debilitating  situations like paralysis. But these folks buy things too. They won't hesitate to go elsewhere, possibly after seconds, if your site isn't accessible.
  3. Public relations - Certainly if you're a government agency and you get sued by a special interest group, that's something you won't to avoid. But those groups can be very vocal towards private companies that exclude them as well. And the converse is true too - to be able to tout your accessibility credentials can have lots of benefits as well.
For most of my career I've focused on the accessibility of desktop websites. And now there is mobile, and responsive design. People with disabilities love mobile devices. They literally can help them navigate the word, or leave the house, or read a cereal box label, or a million others things. But how do you design something on a mobile device for a person who is blind? Or has low-vision? Or can't move their arms? Or who has hands that shake? I'm looking into that right now.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

For a while: Shifting to User Experience

I've written this blog for many years, though not recently. "Blogging is dead," they say. Most people seem to think microblogging and image-based networks have killed long-form blogs. They are right.

At this week's An Event Apart conference, the keynote speaker talked about "blogging like no one is reading" about a field you are interested in. I've got the blog already set up, so I'm going to try blogging about things in the realm of User-Centered Design that are interesting to me.

This blog will be a way to get these ideas down, explore them, and get back into the writing gig. I won't be writing for anyone else. And since all seven(ish) of my readers expected my old amusing banter on random things, this blog will probably not be interesting to you anymore. But if it is, power to you.

Behavioral Science vs. UX

Nothing is more impenetrable to me, and impenetrably boring, than statistics. I'm fairly good at math, but an avalanche of numbers and tables is usually boring unless I'm interested in the subject. I like data in a similar way. But I prefer people to numbers. I prefer to hear their stories, rather than looking at numbers and distilling stories from reams of data. So I've been a qualitative person, and I've left the quantitative to the bean counters, number crunchers and lab coaters.

But sometimes, what repulses is is also alluring. In grad school our Economics specification ("Econ") was said to have the power to transfer the most anti-number, anti-business person into an economics nerd. It usually succeeded to my surprise, but I never gave it a chance.

But perhaps there was something in this world after all for me. As I've learned more about Behavioral Science, I realize it's very similar to the world of User Experience. It's using data to understand human behavior. Often, it looks at hard data - web analytics, email open rates, the number of responses to a question or mail piece. Data, not people.

But there's more than that. They will look at the data - where people are dropping off from a registration process, how much electricity they use, how they respond to a survey - and they identify a "psychology." This is an explanation behind an action, and often fitting into a nice category of human behavior like being exhausted from having too many choices, or not wanting to deal with a difficulty problem. With this data, they propose a technique to change this behavior. And then the measure to see if the behavior was changed. Very interesting, and very similar to the goal-based UX field.

The "it's the same but different" nature of this really set a fire under me. Looking into it more.