Friday Heh

Why is no more

I was an early and excited user of, as you might remember from this 2007 Extraface post about creating a chart there of the least popular Boy Scout merit badges. That chart is now gone from the internet, as Swivel shut down recently. Via FlowingData today, I found a really insightful interview with the founders about what happened and why it didn’t work out.

One of the kernels I took from this is that perhaps targeting passionate but low-skilled users is a very tough road row to hoe. I excerpted a piece of the interview and wrote a short bit over on Tumblr about this (apologies for the back-and-forth here and there; it’s the best I can do while I figure out how best to overhaul my presence(s) online):

“I think what we learned, like Roseman is saying, that the interface is not that important, that there are analysts who are really good at tools like R, SAS, etc. and prefer to continue to work in those tools to do powerful things with datasets. And people who are not inherently biased towards working with datasets, they are not going to do it. Except for what they see in the newspaper, like USA Today or the New York Times. That may be the end of it.” -Brian Milloy, former CEO of Swivel, from this interview

I think this is another way of saying what I’ve suspected when pondering other projects — that building an app for passionate but unskilled novices in a field that already has solid experts is very difficult. No tool or UI is really going to help a non-programmer/non-designer/non-statistician create compelling data visualizations; it can’t really make up for their shortcomings or lack of experience in those areas other than just giving them a glimpse at what the field is like. This also applies to that “drag n drop your way to an Android app!” tool Google created. If used by experts/intermediate developers as a fast prototyping tool, it makes sense. If marketed to non-developers as a way to make the process more accessible, not so much.

It seems to be that the struggle, sale, and refocus of Dapper, although certainly targeted to a very skilled set of ideal customers in tinkerers like Marshall Kirkpatrick, probably points to a similar lesson. I’d love to hear of spirited counter-examples, if you have them, of small companies that took on the challenge of making something experts do fluidly more approachable by well-meaning but low-skilled beginners, and succeeded for a good chunk of time. Maybe the iPhone photo manipulation apps might be an example. DabbleDB? Y! Pipes, though I’m not sure how well that’s doing any more?

It was there all along!

This past Sunday Molly and I attended the Interfaith Summit on Happiness at Emory University, part of the Dalai Lama’s annual visit to Emory and featuring in addition to His Holiness: The Most Reverend Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church; Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth; and George Washington University Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr. It was moderated by NPR host Krista Tippett.

It was a fantastic panel. Once the video is released on YouTube, I’ll embed it here. :

His Holiness tends to speak in public panels like this more from the perspective of his humanist, personal philosophy than from a strictly Buddhist perspective. As he alluded to in the talk, he believes there are techniques, perspectives, and approaches from his tradition that are useful for everyone to consider, even and especially separately from considering Buddhism itself. He’s not a strong advocate of folks abandoning their own tradition to try to pick up Buddhism whole hog, or even piecemeal. He advocates holding on to your own culture and beliefs but thinking about incorporating what might be useful from the Buddhist approach into one’s way of approaching the world in general. When I met with him in Dharamsala almost 15 years ago, I was told that he recommends against Westerners taking part in the simple ritual where a visitor takes refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha through him, unless one insists.

I think this decision to focus on this particular way of looking at things in public talks is in part because there’d be so much to unpack in order to get an audience of 4,000 to a level playing field where you can meaningfully compare a particular branch of Buddhism (with its own particular cultural, intellectual, and philosophical underpinnings) and Judaism/Christianity/Islam. In part I also think it’s because the former is the helpful agenda he believes in advancing in this world. It’s also perhaps an application of Upaya, or skillful means, to carefully choose his words and explanations to match what would be most useful to a particular audience.

As luck would have it, we were seated next to two monks from Tibet. It always makes me a little happier just to be in the presence of those devoting their lives to advancement along the path – I really look up to them. And it’s also fun to experience the world through their eyes a little bit. One of my best friends when I lived in London for a year was a very accomplished Thai Buddhist monk named Tan Suvit who was experiencing European life for the first time, including attending academic classes on Buddhism from a Western perspective, experiencing his first celebrated birthday and seeing and touching snow for the first time. It was so much fun to see all of these simple things through different eyes.

With this blog entry from Susan Hellein still fresh in my mind, at the Interfaith Summit I kept one eye on the monks and one eye on the dialogue unfolding on stage. At one point as one of the speakers made a particularly insightful point, I noticed the monk to my right rummaging through his bookbag. He pulled out his notebook and layed it on his lap. He then started rummaging through his notebook again, and after what seemed like an inordinately long time, finally pulled out a nice fine point Sakura pigment pen. As he opened up his notebook to write, he started to laugh. Hard. I looked over and saw that there was already another pen sitting in the middle of his notebook, where he must have left it last he left off and forgotten about it. I started to chuckle as well. As he explained with a smile what had happened to the monk to his right, we made eye contact, and he repeated what he had said once in Tibetan and then in English – “it was there all along!” and we both laughed some more.

Friday Heh

Reserves are still a little low – this is hopefully just enough to get you through.