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November 2006 Archives

November 2, 2006

HIG Dead?

This one's for Jamison. A nice summary of a talk that John Gruber (of Daring Fireball) gave at the C4 conference.

I got so used to defending the party line for so many years, that I stopped questioning whether it was worth defending. Taking a step back now, I have to wonder why none of us, noticing that Apple was “constantly violating its own HIG,” stopped to consider whether we were the suckers for being so hung up about these problems on their behalf.
Clarification: The above quote is not Gruber's: rather, it is Daniel Jalkut speaking. (Er, writing.)

November 4, 2006

Designers Embrace Your Bugs

This hasn't been on my mind in a while, but it has come up with astonishing regularity in my career as a UI designer, and I feel like I've learned a couple lessons.. so I wanted to write this down once and for all, and share it with others.

This probably isn't as sexy a topic to cover as The Long Tail, emergence, or.. hell, it's not even as sexy as 'controlled vocabularies' (which, to me, have all the sex appeal of a dripping wet, naked Larry King.) So, software and design bug reports may not be sexy, but -- I believe -- they're a necessary and often-overlooked implement in your Design Toolkit.

Continue reading "Designers Embrace Your Bugs" »

November 5, 2006

More Feed Housecleaning

Just a note, in case anybody cares. I've been taking a bit of a new approach to Soldier Ant lately, and I'm trying to clean up some small bits of the site that have been nagging me for awhile. (Rather than doing my usual bit, and endlessly working on a grand 'redesign' that I never actually ship.) So tonight, I spent about an hour tending to the site's feed functionality (again!)

I've known for some time that Movable Type has been generating RSS 1.0, 2.0 and Atom feeds for the site (even though my officially endorsed feed is one that is provided by Feedburner. And it was those feeds that were linked to for autodiscovery purposes, instead of the Feedburner one. And to make matters worse, there were several places on the site (most notably all of the individual archives pages for entries) that pointed to them as well.

Of course, for anyone who had been subscribing to those feeds, instead of the Feedburner one.. well, that's fine. You should've been getting a fairly accurate syndicated version of the site. (The Feedburner version just incorporates more doodads and hoo-ha, like Flickr pictures and - sometimes - my bookmarks.) Anyway, all of the different feed options were really starting to bug me, especially since Firefox 2.0 has improved support for subscriptions: i wanted to make sure that the right feed (the Feedburner one) was featured consistently throughout the site, and included on all pages as the one and only auto-discovery option. So that's what I did tonight.

In addition, I set up some .htaccess redirects, so that anyone who'd previously been getting one of the old RSS or Atom feeds should now (transparently) instead get the Feedburner feed. Why do I care? Because I'd like to start getting a more accurate idea of the number of subscribers. Anyway, this is a pretty rambling and extremely boring entry, so I'll end it now.

Late-night Drunken Music Linky Love

No, I'm not drunk. My friend Gary is up late, "half-drunk" (which half, I wonder?) and feeding me some awesome music links over gmail.

Gary and I became Tragically Hip fans together, when we were roommates in college. I found a used copy of Road Apples at Madhatter Music, gave it a listen or two, and then let it lie fallow on the shelf all semester long.

But, thankfully, Gary borrowed it over Christmas break and took it home for a couple of weeks. By the time classes started up again in January, he was all over it, and encouraged me to give it another listen. I've been a Hip fan ever since (even braving sink-pissing Canadians at shows to feed my addiction.)

Gary informs me that their album is being streamed in its entirety at their website.

And another.. quite possibly the epic musical passion of my college life was the Rolling Stone's Exile on Main Street. I like the Stones in general, but I love Exile, and always have. So Gary sends me the link to this entry on Aquarium Drunkard (which is an amazing blog, btw.) It's a bunch of outtakes from the Villa Nellcôte Exile sessions. I haven't even listened to these yet, but I'm gonna savor 'em.

Change Quicksilver's Web Searches Source?

I'm a big fan of Quicksilver's Web Searches plugin. In fact, for work, I've got a series of custom searches defined: I can search Yahoo's corporate directory, intranet, or any of several properties with a couple of keystrokes. The web searches plugin looks for your search patterns in a couple of different places: you can save your patterns as local bookmarks, and the plugin will also pull in any pattern that's defined on the Web Search List at blacktree.com.

This is a problem for me, personally: I use Quicksilver in two different user accounts on my Mac (I keep one account exclusively for work stuff, and another where I run iPhoto, ecto, and some personal non-essentials.) And, heck, were I to use it on two different Macs, I'd really want the same shortcuts to work on either. So I really need host-based search patterns, but (apparently?) the only way to get those it to add my patterns to the huge list linked above. (Which, incidentally, makes them very public and visible -- some of my work patterns, while useless to anyone outside our corporate firewall -- are also things that I wouldn't feel comfortable adding to blacktree's wiki.)

My other problem with the plugin pulling its patterns from the wiki page is just the length and size of that list. I've found this to be a bit of a shortcoming of Quicksilver all-around. It favors flexibility and breadth over specificity and selectiveness. Will I ever want to invoke the LispWorks Search engine? or Ebay.de, for that matter? Track a shipment from 'Purolator'? Nope, nope and nope.. yet, with just a couple errant keystrokes in QS, these searches (and more!) are offered up as first-class citizens in my user experience.

So... does anyone have an idea how I could make the Quicksilver web searches plugin stop looking at the full Web Searches list on blacktree, and instead define a web-source of my choosing, with a small, manageable set of search patterns? (I'd like to host it here on Soldier Ant, and just point to that.) Tolva? Lantzilla? Anyone? There's probably some .plist file that I could alter but I'm hoping the answer is even more obvious than that (some Preference somewhere that I've just overlooked.)

Wrestling with that new 360?

Awesome. My site has somehow become the #1 destination on Google when you search for xbox live customer support. Which I suspect a lot of people will be going this holiday season. I should hurry up and get some Yahoo! Publisher Network ads in place to make my own grab for some of that frustrated holiday cash.

November 7, 2006

World Usability Day in Ohio

Of course, next Tuesday (Nov. 14th) is World Usability Day, and my old Bowling Green pal and (all-around badass IA) Keith Instone has gathered all of the Ohio events into one convenient list. It looks like Keith will spend the evening in Bowling Green. I'll be attending the festivities at OSU with a couple of my old colleagues from AOL.

I'm curious to hear the final panel especially, "Making Life Easy - Simplifying Complexity" for reasons that may become clear in a late-December timeframe.

November 9, 2006

Heart Attack

I did a very stupid thing tonight. On the dogs' last trip out for the night I emptied out our kitchen garbage can, and brought the bag with me. My plan was to take it through the garage and back to our collection can in the alley. Usually when I do this, I let Dozer come with me while Polly and Kirby stay in the fenced yard.

Dozer gets to enjoy this privilege because he's the only one of our three dogs that we truly trust not to run away. (If you know Dozer, you know that he's a big old cautious baby. Never more than 2 steps behind someone's heels.) We don't really believe that Polly or Kirby would, but.. they both did stints as strays, so who's to tell? Let's just say that we usually keep a pretty close eye on all three of them.

Tonight, however, as I was wrestling with the garage door, and the garbage bag, and trying to let Dozer follow me through while keeping Kirby at bay (and he can be brutishly stubborn when he wants his way)...

Miss Polly snuck past my heels and into the garage without me noticing.

And worse yet, when I hit the switch to trip the garage door, she went under (still unnoticed) and out into the inky night. My danger detectors knew that something was wrong, because once I'd finished throwing out the garbage, I called for Dozer. I couldn't see him, but I could hear him thrashing around in the mulch of the condos across the alley. He finally slinked back into the light, with his head hanging low.

Dozer has very expressive ears. When anything is off with his posture, he's usually trying to tell you something. The way he was hemming and hawing around, the way he was dragging his feet to come back into the garage (I was getting impatient with him: “C'MAWN!” I finally barked to get him inside.) He was, of course, trying to tell me that his Miss Polly was still outside in the night. In downtown Columbus. All alone. All 20 lbs of her.

When I couldn't find her in the yard, I thought she was messing with me. Somewhere in the bushes, or between the fence and the garage, where she likes to explore. It was so damn dark she could've been standing at my feet and I would've had to look hard twice to tell. So I called for her. And called. Our yard is not that big. Usually I can hear her walking around if nothing else. My stomach started to sink. Polly was NOT IN THE YARD.

Holy shit. Polly was not in the yard.

After a couple more minutes, I was frantic. I started doubting myself. Maybe she was back inside with LeeAnn. Maybe she didn't come out with us after all! That's it, I'm sure she's still inside.. probably looking out the door of the back patio with her shiny little eyes. But, of course, I was wrong. Nothing inside but a startled, pregnant and now suddenly terrified LeeAnn.

I grabbed a flashlight and headed back out into the night. With Kirby and Dozer now locked in the patio, LeeAnn was calling her in the yard and I hit the alley behind. A huge gaping hole opened up in my heart, and I could feel it bleeding down into my shoes.

I really don't want to belabor this story. After grilling 2 neighbors a block down (who had just seen a dog, but -- after some clarification -- had obviously not seen my dog) I headed back down the alley toward our garage, just in time to see a little black silhouette come skittering into the light.. that one white sock lit up like a beacon. My baby was back. She was panting and heaving with excitement (or fear - I've seen the same reaction from her in both circumstances.) But otherwise she was fine. Oh, and I think she found something funky to roll in, cause she still smells a little suspect.

She'd only been on her own for.. 8 minutes, 10 tops. But, unless you've loved a teeny, fearless (but ultimately vulnerable) dog like Polly, it might be hard to understand how hard those 10 minutes hit me and LeeAnn. I felt like I'd let her down. At that point, I still had no idea how she'd got out. (I still don't know for sure, but the 'distracted by dogs and trash' scenario makes a lot of sense. Polly's pulled similar shenanigans before.) I know that someday, we'll lose all of our dogs, but not like this, was all I could think to myself. Dear god, not like this.

I think I would have died tonight had she not returned safely. I know I'd still be out there, walking/driving and roaming the neighborhood. I am so glad she came back to us. So glad.

I just walked upstairs to check on her, and give her a peck on the head. She's safely nestled onto her bed, looking out into the alley behind the house. Site of her great adventure. Only she knows what illicit spoils she found out there. What wonderful delights for a tiny dog and her night on the town.

November 13, 2006

One Ruggy Year

In our family, animals have names, and animals have names. All our dogs acquire nicknames at an astonishing pace. Many names, and some of them come and some of them go, but some stick 'cause they're just so right and true to the nature of the beast.

Kirby has been with us for 1 year, now. When Kirby first came to live with us, we weren't even sure he was going to stay. (For the first couple days, I wasn't sure he was going to live.) But we named him fairly quickly, because 'he' 'it' and 'here, boy' got boring quick.

We'd never named one of our dogs before. Dozer's given name is 'Captain Dozer' and he was named by Doug & Marcie, in San Jose years before we ever dreamt of such a wonderful dog. Polly was... god knows what, for ~3 years of her life. She became “Polly” by virtue of some kind soul at Franklin County Animal Shelter after she arrived there as a stray.

Imagine what a heartbreaking job it must be to name dogs and cats at animal intake at a busy public shelter. Many them bound for euthanasia. Whoever named our Polly, we thank you, because the name fits her like a glove. She's a lady, in the classic sense, but she's a good-time gal.

So naming Kirby was not a task I took lightly. I've always had a theory about quality dog naming, and my theory is this: the best, most classic dog names share a common formula. 2 syllables, with the emphasis on the first syllable. That's it.

Lassie, Benjy, Boomer, Dozer, Polly, Hoagie, Brodie.

A friend once told me that they believed the same thing and they believe that it has some foundation in dog psychology as well: something about shorter names being easier for the dog to remember/differentiate from other words. Whatever. I just know what I like. (And my apologies if your dog is named 'Sir Wentworth Duckbutter' or something. I'm not saying you have a lame dog... just a lame name.)

So, following my simple formula, I started playing around with names for our big new arrival. Aside from the construction of the name, it also had to fit his personality. Or at least what we'd been able to observe of his personality after ~48 hours (most of which he spent sleeping.)

So I briefly flirted with the idea of 'Cody.' It fit my formula, and it reminded me of a Kodiak bear. Kirby has always looked to us like a cross between a friendly bear and a wookie. I think he even spent a couple of hours as Cody, but.. strangely enough, two things happened. The first is that I started to feel like Cody sounded like some precocious child actor from a failed early-90s sitcome. (Like, the kid who wasn't good enough to be the next Joey Lawrence.)

The second, more remarkable, thing is that I couldn't remember the damn name. Every time I went to call it out to him, something else entirely came out. And.. 8 times out of 10, that name that came out was Kirby. Ah... Kirby. Perfect. I retroactively invented the rationale: “We named him Curb-ey because we found him on the side of the road!” (groan.) But that's not true at all.

We named him Kirby because that's his name.

I liked the name for other pleasant associations as well. Of course, there's Jack Kirby, who's arguably the most influential comics artist of the late-20th century. And then there's that other big friendly guy that kids love at first sight.

But, with a full, given, formal (and soon after, legal) name in place, we could commence with the truly important task. Giving him a good nickname. Or several.

An early one that stuck around for quite a while (it still makes the odd appearance now and again) is 'Galumphagus' (pronounced gal-UMF-a-gus.) I dubbed him this after seeing the odd dipsy-doodle way that he gets up from a lying stance and mopes around a room. Kinda like a big galumph. (It was also inspired by Aloysius Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street.) For a good long while, it fit him to a 'T'. Plus I liked saying it, even though it's a mouthful. It makes me feel like I've got my very own imaginary muppet.

But, of course, Kirby's a real dog, not an imaginary one. And, for the longest time, he had real problems. With his ears, and his balance. And the healthier he got, and the more the infection cleared from his ears, the better his balance got, too. At some point, he stopped galumphing across the room, and started gliding. (Okay, he's still semi-blind, but he's surprisingly graceful if you'd known the oaf that he was a year ago.)

So Galumphagus just started feeling less and less 'right' for him. (And.. to be honest.. once I'd realized what was causing his clumsy ways, it started to feel a little mean to me.)

So Kirby didn't get his real real name until about 4 months ago. And it was LeeAnn that finally struck gold. In fact, I was away on a business trip when it happened. Somehow.. while I was away, LeeAnn and Kirby really hit it off. She's always loved Kirby, but she takes a little longer than I do to firmly bond with a dog. I'm an instant sap... she usually likes to just let the dog's charm win her over.

I came home to find her calling him 'Ruggy' and - once again - it was like a lightbulb going off. Of course he's Ruggy! Early in his stay with us, she used to joke that he looks 'like a Flokati Rug', especially when he does his 'special move' about once a night.

Usually in the early evening, after his dinner, Kirby likes to lie on his back in the living room, all four paws in the air and swing from side to side while snapping his jaws and making the funniest grunting noise. I call this move 'The Snappy Joe.' But he does look like a small area-rug when he does this, with his long and luxurious chest-hair waving to and fro with the motion of his snappy gesticulations.

And he sure does like to lie around a lot, too. In fact, he's lying at my feet as I write this. (Unfortunately, breaking the foulest of winds from the rawhide chew that we gave him earlier tonight.)

So he's been Ruggy ever since. And always will be. J. Kirbicus Galumphagus Rugg-Montague Glass. Or 'Kirby.' Whatta Ruggy.


The Decemberists at Promowest

I refuse to call it Lifestyle Communities Pavilion. (How the hell does a music venue manage to sound like: a condom; a managed-care retirement facility; and a Rennaissance faire all at the same damn time? Even Frank Gorshin is stumped.) But I went there with some friends on Friday night to catch my first Decemberists show.

The Decemberists' Colin Meloy in Columbus, 11/10/2006
Picture by the awesome Kim Rottmayer. See more at Donewaiting.com

I'm not one given to telling people how to live their lives (please ignore the blog category called How To Live Your Life: I haven't put anything in there since 2002 (and most of my blog categories are going away soon, but more on this later.)) But I will tell you this: go see The Decemberists live. Now. Or, like.. next-to-now. Okay, the next time they come through your city will be fine.

I guarantee that you'll walk away pleased. I seriously don't think I've ever been to a more enjoyable rock show in my life.

I've only been a Decemberists fan for a couple of months (I have Rich Fulcher and eMusic to thank, respectively) but I came expecting gorgeous, lush compositions. The smart (on so many levels) lyrics, and the overall emotional impact of the songs. How can a band sing about English boot-blacks and orphaned, seafaring, revenge-seeking waifs and make it all sound so damn contemporary?

But I wondered beforehand if they'd have the same appeal live. Would they come off as too mannered, or affected? Or - god forbid - would they exhibit an utter and complete lack of live chops?

Of course I shouldn't have worried.

Colin Meloy is captivating onstage. He's the coolest geek you'll ever pay money to watch. (“This is what happens when the drama-class nerd becomes a rock star” my friend Rob says right before the first encore.)

He organized an audience dance-off; he pitted left against right in a fist-waving “La-de-da”-down during 16 Military Wives. (Is it wrong to admit that a bands most popular song also just happens to be one of your personal favorites? I swear! My love goes deeper than the one catchy song with a Rushmore-themed video! But it's a great fucking song.) He lifted some dude's cellphone and hit redial midsong to thunderous peals of laughter from the crowd. I can only imagine what the person on the other end of that call experienced.

Colin is the most maniacally visible member of the band, but I really got the impression that, musically, they're truly a band of equals. Trading off instruments (bouzouki, plucked violins, organ, squeezebox, banjo, shaken egg) and vocals, and jokes (okay, some really bad jokes, but it was nice to see such easygoing, honest-looking cameraderie.) Their live sound is incredibly tight, but the vibe stayed loose the whole night.

Did I mention that, during the encore, The Decemberist Players staged a reenactment of the 1916 Battle of Gallipoli (complete with audience members as 'the camels and cacti of the desert?')

Like I said, I don't think I've enjoyed a show quite so much ever before. It was also a nice opportunity to catch up with some friends that I haven't seen in a while. My friend Nate, whom I've known since 6th grade, came along. He barely knew the band, but left a fan. And my friend Rob and his girlfriend Kiesha have seen the band 4 or 5 times, so they knew exactly what to expect. (Rob actually promoted their first couple of shows in Columbus. He's special like that.)

LeeAnn stayed home - she doesn't know the band, and we both thought that 'jostling crowd + whisps of pot smoke' wouldn't help her continuing nausea at all. But I'm totally taking her next time. Pregnant or not.

November 15, 2006

World Usability Day 2006 at Ohio State University

As I threatened I would, I did indeed attend the World Usability Day event at OSU tonight. Hosted by the Department of Industrial, Interior, and Visual Communication Design (and ably kicked off by the Department Chair, Professor Wayne Carlson) the night was organized around two talks, with a panel discussion to sum up. The nominal theme for this years Usability Day was “Making Life Easy” and the speakers at OSU kind of.. honed that topic down a bit, to “Making Life Easy: Simplifying Complexity.”

The first speaker was Bob Hale, a User Researcher at Resource Interactive (an interactive agency here in Columbus.) Bob's presentation was an excellent analysis of some of the browsing and decisioning habits of 'Digital Millennials' (young adults, aged 13 to 22.) You might've thought of these kids as 'Gen Y' previously, but apparently that label grates on them a bit. I can't imagine they'd like being called 'Millenials' any more, though...

Resource has apparently just wound up a months-long endeavor to understand the lifestyles, mindsets and habits of this demographic, and used a variety of research methods in the course of their investigations. Bob shared some video clips of users interacting with (what I assume are Resource clients') commerce sites, using a novel (to me, at least) methodology.

Users were brought into Resource's labs and asked to perform some directed tasks. (Pretty standard fare, right?) But then, a researcher joined them and immediately played back the screen-footage of the tasks they'd just performed (using a Camtasia capture), and asked them to provide a running commentary. This is interesting to me... on the surface, it sounds like a type of 'think aloud' protocol, but -- based on the few short clips that Bob showed, it seems to elicit a different kind of response from test subjects.

Perhaps there's something about that minute-or-ten interval between performing an action and reflecting on it, but I heard a couple of more tentative statements from the users about their actions (“I think what I was doing was...”) I also heard a couple of instances that seemed more honest to me than common in-the-moment think-aloud commentary. One user said “I was getting frustrated here..” while watching a clip of themselves trying to interact with some tricky mouseover-flyout-animation thing.

Now don't get me wrong -- I've certainly heard people voice frustrations during standard think-aloud exercises. And god knows I've heard some frank and honest thoughts spoken aloud, but I wonder if - sometimes - we don't ask too much of our test subjects in Usability Evaluations. Standard 'think aloud' protocol requires our test users to simultaneously perform a task, and justify their actions verbally. And worry about how their being perceived by the evaluator. And act as if the artifice of the test environment (and the tasks they've been assigned) doesn't exist.

I know that the stated intent of think-aloud is not for the user to 'justify' his or her actions, but it seems like human nature to me that subjects will naturally be constructing a narrative for their actions that casts them in a favorable light... “I'm looking for x...” or “I think I'd expect to see y...” A 100% 'honest' think-aloud session would probably include a lot more swearing, and a lot more strange & random shifts in attention. (“I'm distracted by this picture of breasts right now.”)

So I thought Resources spin on think-aloud (do the task first, then go back and talk about it) was compelling: a small, small tweak that possibly alleviates some of that cognitive overhead and anxiety of a usability test session.

Bob went on to talk more about Millenials, including the variety of influences and competition for their attention: advertising, mobile devices, gaming, search, email, social networks, blogs and the like. He demonstrated some 'heat maps' of websites formed by combining Eye-tracking with click-data, and described some very helpful patterns that they've noticed through their research: (I believe that these findings are directed at the Millenial demographic, but they sure seem generally applicable to me)

  • Straight text = Dead Zone. Long, uninterrupted blocks of text meant that the whole got ignored. Some bullet-points and chunking did better. Many bullets did best.
  • Promotions that look incongruent with the rest of the page are often ignored. (Especially if they look like they'd lead offsite.)
  • Millenials process info 3-5x faster than GenX or older. This led to some audience reaction -- mine included -- and some discussion around definitions of 'processing.' Bob clarified that, in this case, processing meant 'observing the available options and making a decision'. It didn't necessarily imply anything about retention or understanding. Basically, GenY scans a hellofalot faster than we do. (I'm sure they drive a hellofalot faster too -- doesn't make them a better insurance risk!)
  • Also interesting was a recurrent pattern in the eye-tracking: gaze was consistently drawn to human faces in page designs (Paging Scott McCloud!).

The second speaker was Chris Murnieks...

This entry will be finished later, at a more civil hour of the day... stay tuned.

Feed woes

If you subscribe to my feed (the one that I can't seem to shut up about lately) then you may be noticing some weirdness with it, particularly if you subscribe through Bloglines. All the line breaks are stripped out.

Despite my best intentions to set the right defaults, this continues to happen: it's either a problem with Ecto (what I write blog posts in); Movable Type (that powers my blog) or Feedburner (that 'burns' and serves my feeds.) Or some combination of the three.

I hope to have it fixed as soon as I get a spare hour to dig deeper. My apologies

November 16, 2006

Life as an Umbrella Brand

My friend Mikol and I kinda sorta snuck into the Ted Conference a couple of years back (2001, I think it was.) Okay, we didn't exactly sneak, we got temporary guest passes (a friend of ours was presenting that year.) But.. and this is how stupid I was.. I didn't really realize what a big deal THE TED CONFERENCE was.

Hell, it was in Monterey. I'd been to a couple crappy ThunderLizard conferences there before, and I guess I just assumed guilt by association. (In my defense, our friend who was presenting is notorious for downplaying the extremely effin' rad achievements in his life... all that Mikol and I knew was “yeah, I'm speaking at a conference in Monterey. Come on down and we'll get Indian food or something.”)

As I recall, we got quite a skeptical reception by the organizers when we showed up to sign in for our guest passes. I suspect that guest passes are not a request that the TED conference typically humors. Hell, attendance is northwards of $4,000 and, even then, they have to screen people out. (And we were probably looking a little scruffy, too.)

But I suspected that this was no crappy thunderlizard production when I saw people totin' some pretty high-powered schwag around. Gift bags with Palm Pilots and decent cameras and, and... real stuff. Like, crap you'd want to get at a conference! I wish I could remember in more detail exactly what attendees got, but.. as you can guess.. my guest pass might've gotten me through the door (for the morning only, did I mention that?) but it sure as hell wasn't gonna score me one of those sweet goody-bags.

We finally knew something was up when we found our way to the main auditorium.. it was right in the middle of a break so we grabbed some decent seats. Our friend would be on later, so we settled in. I'm talking to Mikol as the crowd returns to their seats. I casually turn to my right... and say 'hi' to Jeff Bezos.

As Martha Stewart takes the podium.

WTF? Awright, this is one weird technology conference. I came expecting Dori Smith and 'OOP in Javascript' and instead there were singers. And jugglers. And captains of industry! It was like.. Bohemian Grove, only with none of the gay stuff. And no Concrete Owl, or at least none that I saw.) Anyway, all of this is prelude to what I want to talk about, which is Martha's talk.

She spoke about 'Life as a Brand.' Martha, at the time (this would've been about 2 years for the DOJ investigation, and 3 years before her prison stint) was one of a handful of persons in the world who's also recognized as a multinational brand, Martha Stewart Enterprises. (Which has since been renamed 'Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc.)

She spoke of the realities of living life in the public eye, when her life - and the way that she chose to live it - could have such an impact on the bottom line of her company. Does your company suffer for opinions you might have? Actions you might take? How will the company go on once you're no longer able to? (I'd like to say that she ended her talk by defiantly waving her fist at the crowd and shouting “No comeuppance, d'you hear me? There will be no comeuppance!” But of course she didn't. That was Homer Simpson.)

Of course, Martha thought that these were all rhetorical questions at the time. How could she know that, within a span of months, she'd find out the very real answers to all of these questions, and then some.

But I remember being kind of vaguely... turned off by the whole thing. It all seemed so vain at the time. But I wonder now if the strain of carrying that responsibility around wasn't starting to wear on Martha. Did it lead her to make some questionable decisions in the months ahead?

Then, as now, there were a handful of other 'living brands'.. Oprah Winfrey. Donald Trump. Maybe Richard Branson, although .. really. What exactly does that guy do anyway? At least Martha can make wonderful little boxing gloves out of broccoli florets. Rosie O'Donell made a stab at it, until the whole 'lesbian haircut' incident shook some sense into her.

But Martha's observations then are, I think, just as relevant now. If anything, the notion of the 'Personality as brandable commodity' is only growing, and whole rank of 'Junior brands' are swelling the ranks: Ty Pennington (for Sears!); Rachel Ray; Dr. Phil. All out there pushing to build not just notoriety but whole dang enterprises around themselves and their winning personalities.

But the latest trend? The Personality-as-Umbrella brand. Oprah excels at this, and has actually spawned second-and-third-order 'spinoff brands.' So here's how it works...

Oprah basically created Dr. Phil. Took some hiccuping hilljack from Texas, called him 'Doctor' and made him a star. But I wonder to what extent Oprah's promotion of Dr. Phil made sense to her business, from a brand perspective. What market or demographic does he appeal to, that enhances their connection to Oprah by proxy? Isn't his brand a little too close to her own for comfort?

I know the tabloids like to make much of the 'Oprah is feuding with Dr. Phil' thing, but.. when I look at the semi-cool nature of their public relationship today (Oprah hasn't, for instance, appeared on his show like she did her new ingénue, Rachael Ray recently) I wonder: is there too much overlap between their brand appeal? Self-help, uplifting, 'get real' bladdah-bladdah... Oprah manifested her tulpa and -- as these things do -- it's now turned to threaten her.

But all is not a loss! No indeed: she still makes an ass-ton of money off of his show (which is, after all, a Harpo Production); and she's learned. That she can make a star, and launch a brand. Even from the crudest of materials.

So she's working on a new crop.. These ones seem better-chosen. More junior, less seasoned than the wiley ol' snakehandler Phil McGraw. Less likely to put up a fight (and carefully chosen to enhance the primary Oprah-brand:

  • Handyman Nate Berkus is hunky-but-gay (but.. did I mention, handy!) He appeals to all demographics: straight, gay, male, female, or anyone who aspires to handle a hammer or hang a piece of wallpaper. And he is definitely Oprah's bitch, no worries there.
  • Rachael Ray is being groomed to eventually knock Martha off her domestic throne, but I worry that Rachael's unrelenting abrasiveness will be her undoing. Her daytime show makes me pine for Tony Danza.
  • Recently I've noticed that Lisa Ling has somehow entered Oprah's orbit. She provides some much-needed 'authority' to Oprah's lineup (with her 'real newswoman' aspirations -- here she's (barely) covering the Golden Globes.) Late of The View, Lisa seems to be a bit of a perpetual “brand-intern”, first nurturing at the teat of grand-dame news-brandie Barbara Walters.
  • And finally... the one potential troublemaker in the bunch is Oprah's longtime BFF Gayle King. It seems that Oprah is finally taking some steps to push Gayle's brand into the spotlight lately (first with that “um... okay?” press conference to announce their, like total not-gayness, then with the frito-feet smells and chilly radio-control stare-downs of their cross-country Big Adventure.)

Oprah has, thankfully, eased up a bit on the literary brand-brokering, after the whole James Frey debacle.

And what's Dr. Phil been doing while all this is going on? Why, of course, he's building out his own little sub-branded umbrella empire. With Phil, though, it's all about the nepotism. First his goony son had a couple of books and, I think, a show of his own. (He seems to have settled for a Playboy playmate trophy-wife.) Now Phil's wife Robin has a book out ('Inside My Heart') and is poised to extend the brand even further. Ah, there's so much more to cover here, but it's late and I'm tired...

November 17, 2006

Sam's Second Life

Ha. John Tolva is at it again. His team at IBM was behind Sam Palmisano's recent appearance inside Second LIfe.

Says John:

You just try corralling talented, curious, script-wielding colleagues in Second Life to serve as virtual extras. It is like arranging toddlers for a photo shoot. Everyone wants to show off their latest set of wings or ability to make it rain.
Which makes me wonder... which of John's 3 kids have wings?

November 18, 2006

Snappy Joe

Snappy Joe, originally uploaded by soldierant.


The simple recipe for holding my wife's attention for hours on end:

  1. Count down 100 of anything. (Greatest songs of the 80s, Worst Celebrity Haircuts, etc.)
  2. Intercut talking b-list celebrity heads against greenscreens.
  3. Repeat

The other night, she was crestfallen when Barbara Walter's 30 Mistakes in 30 Years was (a) only 30 items long; and (b) extremely lame.

November 19, 2006

Greasemonkey for User Research Prototypes?

So, I'm up a little late, picking through Mark Pilgrim's Dive Into Greasemonkey and cobbling together some simple scripts. (Here's a small peek into my tattered psyche.. I take great joy in following along with "Hello World"-type examples, but changing the customary greeting to "Hollow World.")

So what has me looking into all of this? The realization that Greasemonkey may have huge potential for lightweight prototyping for User Research purposes. (Did Lance suggest just such a thing to me a couple months back? Sometimes good ideas take awhile to really take hold themselves in my brain.)

It seems especially appropriate for those prototypes that just add elements or functionality to an existing site. If a prototype requires a bunch of new and novel interoperating features, then I'm thinking you'd be better off coding it up as a standalone entity.

But for that first type of prototype... the 'test out a new feature' kind, GM could be pretty cool. This type of prototype would really benefit from having an as-close-as-possible user experience to the real, live site or app. Which, of course, is what Greasemonkey is all about -- it allows you to insert arbitrary code into real, live, running pages.

I've got some potential prototyping work coming up that could be pretty focused. Just some small, discrete 'badgey-type' elements that would appear in a listing of search results. Maybe with some 'load a div on hover' kinda stuff, too.

In this instance, going "low-fi" (paper prototype, or static JPEGs of screen designs) could actually be more work: I'd have to recreate all of the elements that the existing app already possesses (and remember, we really just want to know what attitudes and acceptance of the new stuff is.) And, of course, it would be low-fi. So searches wouldn't 'really' work. And we'd have to do a lot of hand-holding and 'imagine if'-ing with the test users.

This would have a subsequent effect on the quality of the data we'd get back from them -- the more artifice and interruption we interject into the prototype, the more we run the risk of negatively impacting their perceptions of the stuff that we want information about. (I guess, put more simply, it would be better if the experience of using the prototype matched the experience of using the real application.)

It would criminally cool to let our test-users just interact with a live, running version of the site: perform searches that they select (and that are relevant to them); comment on an experience that already feels familiar to them; and get reactions mostly to the stuff that we've added via Greasemonkey.

Anyway, I'm sure there are folks out there already using Greasemonkey for similar purposes. Glancing at the Usability tag on userscripts.org (community repository for hundreds of helpful Greasemonkey scripts) is no help. (Thanks a lot folksonomy! What if folks' idea of Usability is different than mine?!)

Anyway, anyone trying this, or heard of any success stories?

Update, the next night: My early noodlings are showing great promise: Hacking Answers

November 21, 2006

"Why Not?"

Kerouac reads from Visions of Cody on the Steve Allen show. I think this is wonderful - really brings across Jack's humanity and .. fragility, I guess. Be sure to watch to the end, to see Steve's reminiscence about the last time he saw Jack alive.

November 27, 2006


MOON!, originally uploaded by brian glass.

One complaint I hear often about this blog is.. "Not enough dogs!" (I am, of course, kidding. I realize that most people aren't nearly as doggy-obsessed as I am.) But this is exciting stuff... My brother Brian and his wife Lisa has just adopted this adorable girl, Moon, from the Humane Society. I think she's beautiful.

November 29, 2006

5 of my baby-name ideas that my wife has rejected

These are all for boys (perhaps my girl-name selections will be forthcoming...)

  • Solomon Grundy Glass (later amended to Solomon Kane Glass, still rejected)
  • James Buchanan "Bucky" Glass
  • Jonah Jameson Glass
  • Andrew Sipowicz Glass
  • Wesley Wyndham-Glass (I actually thought she'd go for that one)
I think my name-selecting privileges are in serious danger of being revoked altogether.

About November 2006

This page contains all entries posted to Soldier Ant in November 2006. They are listed from oldest to newest.

October 2006 is the previous archive.

December 2006 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.


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