Wondering, wandering, and making sense of the world.


Archive for April, 2010

Normal is dangerous

When something becomes normal, we become complacent, expecting normality to happen, normally. We often forget how abnormal the world used to be, and stop questioning how abnormal the world is. We are terrible at seeing beyond normal, because that’s just how the world works.

Inequality is normal. The world has to have rich and poor people. Hunger is unavoidable. Some people in the world will always go hungry even if the world produces more than enough calories for every person in the world to survive. New technology is complicated. People will always have to learn and adapt to use new technologies. Democracy is fair. The collective vote of the people will result in what is best for most people.

None of these things are normal. It’s just the way the world is right now. It is difficult to imagine a world where this isn’t normal. That doesn’t mean normal won’t change.

It used to be normal that you watched your cable subscription only at home (come Slingbox). It used to be normal that you had to pay to advertise your car/home/computer to a wide audience (come Craigslist). It used to be normal that your customer service calls were answered by people in your own country (come outsourcing to India). It used to be normal that kinetic energy of a car was wasted every time you braked (come Prius).

Challenging the normal can lead to all sorts of wonderful results. However, seeing beyond the normal takes a visionary, and acting on that vision takes a borderline lunatic.

Albert Einstein once remarked that “common sense is all the biases you acquire by age 18.” The world needs more people with uncommon senses.


If my funeral today


Sometime I wonder who will come to my funeral if I died today.

My dad passed away at age 52, which maximized the number of people who attended his funeral. Most of the people he knew were still alive and many of them brought their children to the wake and/or funeral. My grandfather passed away four years later at the age of 93 and most of the people he knew had already passed, so the funeral was attended mostly by close relatives.

My dad was also a businessman who grew up, lived, and worked in the same city throughout his entire life, which assured that he had a large local social network. Nearly 2000 people attended the wake or the funeral, shocking My family and me.

I, on the other hand, am still young and have already lived in four countries and seven cities. I have many friends and colleagues around the world, but not many in my hometown of Kyoto where my funeral would be. I have over 1250 friend on Facebook but I doubt many of them would fly to Japan just to attend a funeral or wake.

I don’t mind. I doubt the dead care about who comes to his or her funeral, but I wonder if there should be a new paradigm of funerals for the highly mobile society we now live in. Funerals, in the end, are for the living to say their goodbyes to the deceased.

In a way, Facebook profiles as memorials have come to serve that purpose. Friends can now share their memories amongst themselves on the deceased’s wall. Facebook was never intended for this purpose, but unintended consequences can often be wonderful.

While traditional funerals will not be going away anytime soon, new cultures will be built around new technologies. Let’s all be accepting of it, because people are already doing it.


Starting a company

This is inspired by our conversation yesterday with Frederic Potter, the founder of WiThings (which makes the WiFi Body Scale shown above). He came to our school to talk to the students about entrepreneurship, but this is not what he suggested or talked about, instead something that struck me during the dialogue.

Most entrepreneurs who start companies go through the following order:

  1. Discover the idea.
  2. Assemble the team.
  3. Find the funding.
  4. Find the customers/users.

(2 and 3 are often interchanged)

Instead, my suggestion would be to:

  1. Assemble the team.
  2. Find the customers/users.
  3. Discover the idea.
  4. Find the funding.

You may not always succeed working with the people you want to, but you will almost always fail working with the people you don’t want to. Users are harder to come by than ideas. Ideas are dime a dozen (if that). With the right idea and users, funding will happen one way or another (if needed).


Russian Dolls Packaging

I took this picture over two years ago when I ordered the PQI i810plus USB memory stick. The product I purchased is on the right, which came in the standard plastic enclosure in the middle, which was stuffed in a standard Amazon box on the left. As you can see, the product I purchased was less than 1% of the total volume of box I received (and probably less than 1% of the weight too). The memory stick could have been shipped in an envelope.

I’m sure the problem is systematic. Amazon only has certain sizes for their standard boxes and PQI only ships in those plastic enclosures that are meant for in-store displays. Since I had already made the decision to purchase the product, all the advertisements and marketing displayed on the plastic enclosure was useless to me. I didn’t need to be convinced to buy the product because I already had.

When I used to receive free subscriptions to ESPN the magazine, they would send me the magazine with an extra cover and end page which were advertisements masked as the magazine cover and end page. The real cover for the magazine was on page two, just as you turned the first page. This made perfect sense. As a subscriber, I had already made my decision to purchase the magazine (albeit for free), so the cover page, used to sell the magazine at newsstands and supermarkets, was useless to me. Now there is a business developer getting creative and doing his or her job well.

Getting back to the box, I’m sure there is some financial benefit in creating a better system where over 99% of the shipped volume and mass does not go to waste. However, it doesn’t seem like the benefit was great enough for someone to take initiative and implement a new system. If not for the environmental benefits, I wish someone would have noticed the ridiculousness of the situation and sought some kind of improvement.


Japanese is interesting

This was originally part of the last post but then I realized it should be on its own.

Japanese is almost the same way with Finnish where there are no similarities with English, so I usually don’t  hear Japanese people use English words in the wrong way. However, there are a lot of foreign words that have entered the Japanese language, and they don’t always have the same meaning from their original language. Furthermore, many Japanese people don’t know where the words came from and usually assume English, so you can find them trying to use words like “Castella” (Portuguese) or “Arbeit” (German) as if they were English words.

Foreign words that enter the Japanese language are also changed to fit Japanese pronunciation. I once pronounced “Satan” as sa-ta-nn (think Santa with the n sound moved to the end) instead of the proper say-ten and was promptly made fun of by my high school classmates. Usually, however,  most native English speakers won’t understand Japanese pronunciation of English words in the Japanese language unless they have some basic understanding of Japanese sounds.

Wikipedia has a great list of gairaigo, Japanese words with foreign origins, and wasei-eigo, literally “English made in Japan,” Japanese words that are formed from English and other foreign words like “Free Dial” (furree dia-yall) which translates to “toll free call.” Other examples include “Cosplay” (ko-su-pu-lay) which is the combination of costume and play. My favorite is “Karaoke” which is actually a combination of the Japanese word kara, meaning empty, and the abbreviation of the English word Orchestra.


Same/Different is good, Similar is dangerous

I work with lots of Finns and I am always amazed at how well they speak English, but living in France, I realized something interesting: Finns almost never use English words in the wrong way. My theory is that because their language is so different from English (and almost all other languages), they never mix the two.

French, on the other hand, share many words with English (I read 40% somewhere) and the grammatical structure is similar. The words they share, however, don’t always have the same meaning or nuance.

When I reply quickly to e-mails, I am often thanked for my “reactivity” as if I am nuclear. Some French translate “C’est Bon” literally as “It is good” when in English you would just say “Good!” or “Great!” Agenda in French literally translates to schedule and they use it in English in the same way, even though agenda in English is not related with time. Most adjectives in French come after the noun, and many do that in English too.

Then there is the interesting case where English uses the French word “cafe” to describe where we drink “coffee.” In French, “cafe” is used for both, hence some Frenchmen will accidentally say “let’s go to the coffee.”

The similarity in language is great for basic communication and getting started, but it gets in the way of mastery. I’m sure the opposite is true too, so I probably use a lot of English words in French incorrectly and my word order is very “American.”


A door-to-door transportation service

This is a further brainstorm on my previous post on “how would you redesign the airline experience?

Why do we fly anyway? It’s to get from point A to point B right? If so, why do we have to book our flight, then separately figure out how to get to the airport? And within the airport, navigate through mazes of counters and gates to get to the plane? And then on the other side, figure out again how to get to your destination, often in foreign environments?

Flying is very cognitively intensive. There are a lot of decisions you have to make and information to piece together in order to plan your trip. Even during the trip, you have to pay attention to where the gates are, how long the security line is, and if you’re going to need to get food prior to the flight.

Let’s simplify.

To be honest, the idea of a door-to-door transportation service was brought up by a team during one of the workshops I ran in Colombia (the country) last year. They didn’t quite get to the level of detail I am going to present, but they definitely opened my mind as to how things can be different, very different. At the same time, I’m sure they aren’t the only people who have come up with ideas. Ideas are realized independently all the time.

Imaging going on an airline website and entering your home address, your destination address, and the desired arrival time and the airline automatically chooses a flight and creates an itinerary for you including shuttle services on both ends?

On the day of travel, the shuttle service comes to pick you up outside your home, the driver checks your ID, reservation code, and tags your baggage and hands you your boarding pass. At the airport, you leave the luggage in the shuttle and walk straight to security and then to your gate to board the flight. Once you exit the flight on the other end, you walk to the shuttle platform designated on your boarding pass, check that your luggage has arrived on the shuttle, and get driven to your final destination.

Simple right? Get rid of the queue at the check-in counter and simplify the coordination between different transportation modes.

What if people want to arrange their own transportation to and from the airport? I’m not sure if there are enough people who would want this to justify investing in a traditional check-in counter and baggage claim, and I have a feeling those who would rather arrange their own transportation will use the traditional carriers instead (where the prices are probably lower). I’m also not sure if I would want to discount the ticket prices for not using the shuttle service for the fear that people may start comparing prices of the flight portion of the ticket to the traditional airlines.

In addition to the shuttle service I would probably have a town car service for those who prefer personal delivery to the airport rather than a group shuttle. This could be part of the first class package or an optional upgrade.

How much would this cost? Honestly, I don’t have enough experience in business modeling or the airline industry to come up with realistic figures for such a service. I can intuitively say that it will cost more than the traditional airlines, but how much more? and at that cost, is the value proposition there? Good questions that are very difficult to answer at this stage.


Almost a tweet size post

If you want some article to support your point, you could probably find one that does. If you want the data to demonstrate your point, you could probably present it in a way that it does. That doesn’t mean your point is any more correct or true.

Something to think about next time you read an article, listen to a presentation, or get into an argument.

Side note: I almost never publish my blog posts on the day I write them. This is to make sure that I don’t regret the things I publish by putting few days between the writing and publishing. I also have numerous posts that I began but haven’t quite finished yet.


Sum of the ingredients

A good chef creates dishes that are better than the sum of the ingredients. Bad coaches field teams that are less effective than the sum of the individual players on the teams. Great managers accomplish much more with less resources than poor managers.

If the above is a graphical representation of this concept, below is the equation

where for good (insert title here), a > 1 and for bad (insert title here), a < 1.

How would this work if we apply it to designers and design teams?

Do great designers discover more insights with less time, interviews, and money? Do good design teams produce better prototypes than each individual is capable of?

Of course reality is never this simple. Some people are great cooks with few ingredients but clueless when given more. Some entrepreneurs do amazing things with little to no resource but would  be completely ineffective when provided Microsoft-scale budgets. a is really a function of the ingredients, and of course ingredients aren’t things you can quantify with one variable.

When we think of reality so simply, we come to oversimplified conclusions like “good managers could always do more with more resources.” In reality, everyone has their right set of ingredients to be the most optimal.

Modeling reality like this is fun, like dating models. However, you should never get married to either of them.


Life as a prototype

Do people design their lives? I would argue some do.

There are people who let life happen to them. They are the slaves of context, making life decisions through what is available and within reach to them. I call these people acquiescents. Acquiescents may conjure images of lazy couch potatoes delivering pizzas for a living but I would argue that acquiescents exist in all walks of life. Successful business owners who inherited the position from their parents are acquiescents. People who become doctors because their parents told them to are acquiescents. It’s not about working hard through school or jobs but not making the tough life decisions to break out of ones context. Acquiescents swim downstream.

Then there are those who set specific goals in life and focus their entire energy in accomplishing those goals. They know exactly where they want to be and will make all the seemingly right decisions to get there. I call these people engineers of life, not to be confused with engineers, the profession. Entrepreneurs who decided long time ago that they wanted to be their own boss, no matter what the business is, are engineers. Immigrants who leave their poverty-stricken war-torn country no matter what job exists on the other side are engineers. Engineers don’t play around. They set a target and take the shortest possible path. Engineers swim upstream.

In the middle are the third type of people, those who don’t know exactly where they want to go but don’t accept the nearest path either. They are the journeymen of life actively seeking new places to go both physically and metaphorically. I call these people designers of life, again not to be confused with the profession of design. Designers quit their perfectly good jobs and move on to find new adventures. They are the ones whose job has nothing to do with what they studied in graduate school, which had nothing to do with what they studied in undergrad. Designers believe that there is always a better life somewhere, even if they don’t know what it looks like. Designers swim across the stream.

For a designer, every stage of life is a prototype, an experience of a lifestyle. Every prototype can be improved, and no prototype is sacred. The past does not determine what the future has to be, and continuous improvement is the norm.

What I propose above is not an exclusive categorization but a spectrum of the ways we live life. I also believe that people are capable of, and do change from one to the other. The middle aged man who suddenly realizes there is more to life than the job he stumbled onto twenty years ago and makes a drastic career change shifted from being an acquiescent to a designer. The med student who one day comes to an epiphany that he doesn’t have to try so hard to enjoy life shifted from being an engineer to an acquiescent. Designers who finally discover their true calling in life or finally yield to the allures of stability switch to being an engineer or acquiescent.

My father was an acquiescent, although I think he yearned to be something else. As the oldest son in the family, he was raised to inherit the family business. After graduating from highschool, instead of going to college, he went to work for a different company in the same industry to gain experience (common practice in Japan forty years ago). When his father passed away, he returned to inherit the business which he ran for the next twenty-five years. Those that knew my dad tell me that sometimes he would mention that he wanted to go to college and work in a technical field. He was born in a time and culture where being something other than an acquiescent was a big social taboo.

I could easily have been an acquiescent, being raised in Japan and continuing the family business. Instead, from what I can tell, my dad raised me in a way that made me unfit for working in Japan by sending me to international school and then the US. Even in the late 80s and early 90s, such things were unheard of and surely to have caused plenty of criticism. My dad sold the family business couple years before he passed away, freeing me from the easiest of life choices to make.

I would now consider myself a designer of life, not knowing where to go but actively working on and seeking what interests me. I’m passionate about what I do, and I will move on someday. I don’t know what’s next, and I’m sure I  will find it sooner or later.

A classmate once coined he phrase: “Design is never done, it’s just due.” I think it’s the same with life. It’s a a continuous iterations of prototypes, and if I had to give my current prototype a name, I would call it dark horse.