Two Books Worth Reading

Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky. In retrospect, it’s surprising that it took this long for Clay to write a book. Given my past run-ins with his postulations, I approached the book with some skepticism. It won me over, though, because, unlike when he’s addressing issues of information science, when he talks about social software and social movements online, he knows what he’s talking about. In some ways, this is Smart Mobs 6 years later (which I blogged extensively at the time.)

Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely. However much I liked Here Comes Everybody, I actually believe this to be a more important, and fundamental, book. It’s a quick read — a few hours at most. It details a series of experiments that the author, with a variety of colleagues, conducted in order to probe the economic irrationality of humans. It turns out much of our economic behavior makes little rational sense. Thankfully, Ariely doesn’t propose any explanations for this irrationality (many others would be tempted to weave some evolutionary psychobabble)… But he does propose a set of implications, usually having to do with regulating our economy, because if people are simply not going to be rational, a “free market” ends up doing harm, because it inadvertently (or not) takes advantage of such irrationality. Ariely maintains an active blog on this subject.

I enjoyed the insights Ariely provides into understand human behavior. My only frustration with the book is that, because Ariely treats the population as a whole, and he’s interested in how populations behave, he doesn’t provide any insights into classes of people, and I think it would be interesting to know if there are, say, people who *do* behave rationally, and what characteristics do they possess?

UX Week – Programming Complete, Exciting Speakers, Things to Play With

The programming for UX Week is complete. The most recent additions are among the most exciting: Michael D. Robinson from Pixar will share with us their processes for turning story concepts into feature films, August de los Reyes and Dennis Wixon from Microsoft Surface talking about the challenges of designing for large-scale multitouch, and folks from Current TV addressing the idiosyncrasies of designing media consumed both on TV and on the Web.

Each day has a theme:

  • Day 1: Fundamentals of User Experience
  • Day 2: Service and Media Design
  • Day 3: Play and Immersion
  • Day 4: The Future of User Experience

    And you can now sign up for any combination of single days, or, of course, all four!

    I’m eagerly anticipating this event. We’ve aimed to put together the premier event for user experience professionals, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find another venue addressing the distinct challenges UX practitioners face as well as this program does.

    Early registration ends June 30th (5 days!). Use my promotional code FOPM and receive a 15% discount.

  • The Demise of Cody’s Books and the floundering of the independent book store

    (also posted on

    The demise of independent book stores gets a fair amount of coverage in the literate press. In the Bay Area, we’re witnessing the passing of Cody’s Books, a formerly venerable Berkeley institution whose fortunes collapsed over the last couple of years.

    The death knell for independent book stores has been tolling for at least 15 years, beginning with the rise of Barnes and Noble, and then Amazon. Oh, and supposedly, people don’t read.

    I find much of the discussion misleading. While the cheaper prices that Amazon and Barnes and Noble are able to provide are one reason for the demise of the independent bookseller, I would argue that the bigger reason is that independent bookstores misunderstood their potential role in the world of retail. They stuck with an outdated 20th (19th?) century notion of being a collection of shelves filled with books, and didn’t embrace the 21st century reality of providing a distinct experience that connects with their customers.

    I find this frustrating because I love book stores, and I particularly love independent ones. But I find it shameful that the tenor of the discussion around these failing stores places blame on the customers who no longer shop there (or who never did, and not on the owners who aren’t working to figure out how to adapt to thrive. I can guarantee you that Cody’s never engaged in any type of research to understand what their desired audience wanted from the book store experience — I’m sure they believed they understood their customers, because they were their customers! (Of course, this is true only if their desired customers were aging Boomers… Cody’s never bridged to the younger generations that now make up the bulk of Berkeley.)

    Also, Cody’s held on to outdated thinking that a store is a collection of items on shelves. That is simply no longer sufficient — you will never compete with the Web’s infinite shelf space, and the deeper discounts that such volume allows them to provide. Apart from the occasional book signing, Cody’s never took advantage of their physical location to provide a literary experience. Why not learn from the success of Borders or Barnes and Nobles? Cody’s never offered comfy chairs or coffee. It never tried to be a destination. It just did the same thing it always did, which proved quixotic when it was clear the world around them was changing.

    As such, I find it hard to feel bad about the demise of Cody’s (or any other independent bookseller). And it depresses me to see them talked about as if they’re charities that warrant “saving.” There are many ways book sellers can evolve to create a desirable literary experience that keeps customers coming, attracts new customers, and moves product. I continue to think a huge untapped opportunity for independent booksellers is to connect customers with one another. As such, I’m curious to see what happens with Indiebound, the next generation of BookSense (the national marketing program on behalf of independent bookstores), to see if they’re able take advantage of “the social” to re-stoke people’s passion for their local independent bookstore.

    Hiking/Walking in the Burren (and other stuff in Western Ireland)

    After leaving Dublin, we spent 6 days or so in the West, first south of Galway, then north.

    The highlight for me was The Burren. It’s a stunning landscape that requires seeing in person to really understand. Still, I’ve Flickrd some photos of our time there. Comprised of a set of sloping limestone mountains, driving and hiking around it provides an otherworldly experience.

    The view from above

    I’ve titled this post “Hiking/Walking in the Burren” because when I did a Google search with that query, very little of value turned up. When, in fact, one thing should have been front and center: hike the trail the begins just a few kilometers south of Black Head (and north of Fanore), and that goes north to Black Head (the northwestern-most point in the Burren) and then curves east. It is a stunning hike, with the ocean on one side, limestone topography on the other, and you’re up high enough that you get a great view. It’s not too taxing (the grade is slight) so even just casual hikers can enjoy it. I wish we had been directed here straightaway — so I’m doing that for you! This is the roadside at the beginning of the hike:

    The trail is just to the left of this.

    Anyway, The Burren was beautiful, and I heartily recommend visitors to spend time there.

    Apart from the hikes, other nifty things we saw in The Burren include the Portal Dolmen (like 4000 years old or something):

    Stacy Beside Portal Dolmen

    And Corcomroe Abbey, originally built in the 1300s or so.

    After the Burren, we did a quick trip down to Lough Gur, an historic site that, well, isn’t really worth visiting. Now you know.

    We finished our time in the West in County Mayo, staying in Westport, and spending one day out on Achill Island, and another day in Connemara. Achill Island was pleasant, and the Deserted Village was kind of neat. Connemara might be beautiful, but the wind and rain prevented us from finding out.

    Driving in Western Ireland

    As I do not know how to drive stick, and car rental companies, being the fuckfaces that they are, charge more than double for renting cars with automatic transmission, Stacy did all the driving. On the other side of the road. And after 5-6 days of driving around the West, my recommendation is akin to what a wise man once said about teenage suicide: Don’t Do It!

    For starters, Ireland, like the UK, still drives on the wrong side of the road. I mean, as an American, I feel like a schmuck every time I leave the country and see the rest of the world happily using the metric system. But I also feel that the Brits and the Irish (and the Japanese, for that matter) are schmucks for still driving on the “other” (read: WRONG) side of the road. Face it: you’ve lost that battle. It’s foolish.

    Second: the “highways” in Ireland rarely have more than 2 lanes, and often afford barely enough purchase for two cars to be side-by-side. Which is particularly daunting when a ginormous tour bus approaches you.

    If we knew then what we know now, we’d have never rented a car. Instead, we’d have researched various Western Ireland walking/hiking tours, something like this, which we only found out about after we were on the road.

    Eating and Drinking Highlights

    Western Ireland, like all parts of Ireland, is not cheap for drinks or eats. We realized that the locals simply don’t eat out much, because every restaurant, no matter where we were, was dominated by travelers.

    In the Burren, our best meal was at the Berry Lodge, where we also happened to be staying. I had a duck entree the memory of which makes my mouth water.

    In Westport, which proved to be a surprisingly charming little town, we ate well at both Torrino’s (Italian) and Mangos (seafood). The most fun we had in Westport was drinking at what seemed to be a venerable institution, Matt Molloy’s, famous for it’s good feel and traditional music. It was one of the only places we went to where you’d mingle with locals. When we got there, a little old man was singing in the back room, attended to by dozens of people crowded around. He sang traditionals and not-so-traditionals, often tinged with racy humor. The crowd would join in (when it knew the words). Definitely worth pushing your way in to hear!

    Thoughts while on a train leaving Dublin

    Stacy and I spent the last three days in the capital and largest city of Ireland, Dublin. In most Western cities, the big wave of immigration is something that happened decades ago. In Dublin I was intrigued to see immigration as it happens — in the last 10 years the city has seen an enormous influx from outside, mostly Polish and Chinese, and even some African.

    The most obvious expression of immigration was in retail — stores devoted to Polish or Asian goods. It was also common to hear languages other than English as you walked down the street. And, perhaps predictably, almost all the service workers were Polish or Chinese. Apart from this, though, immigration seemed, well, an uninteresting phenomenon. I was expecting more tension or chaos or something, and, really, it just was what it was.

    This might be due to Dublin (and Ireland) still recovering from a remarkably poor economic legacy. As such, there’s plenty of room for immigrants to settle, as so many Irish left over such a long period of time.

    This means that Dublin is still, understandably, a second- or third-tier city. Even with the economic revival which has lead to the immigration influx, Dublin doesn’t feel truly essential. You get the sense that many of Ireland’s best are likely to live and work elsewhere to perform at the top of their game.


    Easily our favorite sight was Kilmainham Gaol, a prison used from the 18th to 20th centuries whose history reflects the warp and weft of Ireland, from the Napoleonic wars (the return of the soldiers instigated the first glut of prisoners here) to the Irish famine (abject poverty causes crime of all sorts, and there was a period where Kilmainham had as many women as men, due to prostitution) to most famously the Irish Independence movement, whose early leaders were all imprisoned (and many executed) here.

    The Gaol is an imposing edifice, and the stories of its inhabitants quite poignant. The museum offers excellent interpretation of Dublin history, and if you go, make sure to take the guided tour — walking the grounds is a truly powerful experience.

    The Guinness Storehouse is de rigeur for any visitor, and basically worth it. No longer a functioning brewery, your self-guided tour takes you through a highly designed multimedia experience on the creation of Guinness Stout. Archly crafted propaganda, it still works as an introduction to beer making, and it’s fun to see the old advertisements, bottles, and the like. Also, the view from the Gravity Bar, where you enjoy your “complementary” pint (you *did* pay €12 for the tour), is stellar. Surprisingly, there are very few places to eat near the Storehouse. As Dublin’s major tourist attraction, we assumed the area would be crawling with restaurants… We were hard-pressed to find food, though we ended up at a bakery a couple blocks east that had good sandwiches (and is far less expensive than the dining options in the Storehouse itself.)

    Trinity College is pleasant enough, but we were decided not to visit its premier attraction, as spending €8 to see an old book under glass seemed a waste of money. Instead, we focused our energy on the Chester Beatty Library, a fabulous museum featuring the collection of the man after whom it is named, who was an avid collector of all sorts of things, particularly religious texts and books from throughout the world and time. Separate from the astounding collection, the cafe offered tasty Mediterranean lunch, and the Library’s Zen roof garden provided a welcome respite from our urban hike.

    Before entering the Museum of Archaeology and History, we were hit with the tireds (delayed jet lag, we think), and the museum didn’t help to wake us up. Much of the experience was of the sort that turns people off from museums — confusingly laid out rooms with lots of stuff under glass. I did enjoy one area — Viking Ireland, which illuminated an element of Irish history I hadn’t known about, and, more importantly, featured cool old swords, swords for PILLAGING.

    Eats and Drink

    Dublin’s not really a foodie town. As all the guide books will tell you, you can eat well, but only if you’re willing to spend lots of money. For our first night we enjoyed sit-down Polish cuisine, particularly pierogis, borsch, and pork neck fillet.

    Our second night we ate at The Winding Stair, featuring contemporary Irish cuisine, locally sourced and very fancy. It was our most expensive meal (and would have been even moreso if Stacy were drinking), and quite good. We realized, though, that like many foodie restaurants in the States, the better option is to order an array of starters, and skip the mains.

    Our third night we went downmarket to a noodle place on Parnell Street. We wanted to have an Asian hole-in-the-wall experience, and we weren’t above saving some scratch. After some online research, we settled on Charming Noodle. It had one of those menus that goes on for days, featuring a Pan-Asian selection. It was pretty good, though nothing spectacular.

    I never did find a really good cup of coffee in Dublin. Surprisingly, the best coffee I had came with breakfast in our guest house. Everywhere else, the stuff tasted like Nescafe.

    The Queen of Tarts is in all the guide books, and rightly so. If you’re looking for an afternoon pastry (I had a tart, she had a scone), it’s delightful.

    We didn’t pub it as much as probably should have. We did have one truly satisfying pub experience at The Long Hall, an old school establishment catering to a cross-section of ages (though not ethnicities… no Asians or Polish in sight).

    Various and Sundry

    We stayed in unremarkable lodging, The Anchor Guest House, on Lower Gardiner. We chose it for it’s location and price — it’s a quick walk to central Dublin, and we paid €70/night including breakfast. I can neither recommend nor discourage staying there.

    We never found a welcoming neighborhood for relaxing and hanging out. The closest would have been what I read was called “SoDa” (South of Dame Street), between St. George Street and Grafton. Given the weak weak weak dollar, we were disinclined to shop. If we had spent another day there, I would have wanted to head farther south and east than we did, beyond St Stephen Green… It seemed like there are some interesting (and posh) neighborhoods down there.

    Dubliners might be the most aggressive pedestrians I’ve encountered. I’m a pretty fast walker, but I was frequently overtaken, even by little old ladies. I could never figure out where folks were rushing to.

    In all, we enjoyed our time in Dublin. We tired ourselves out walking, we learned about essential Irish history, and had some good meals. If I had to do it again, I would have tried harder to find people to connect with — some of our best time involved dining with locals, getting better context about Dublin and Ireland’s contemporary situation, and just enjoying the company of others. Dublin seems to be a good 3-day town… I think had we stayed another day we would have gotten antsy, so I’m happy that we’ve moved on.

    I’m writing this on a train heading west from Dublin to Galway. We’re spending the next 5 days driving around the west, hiking, visiting historical sites, eating seafood, and drinking more Guinness. So far, the train ride through the countryside has been lovely, and I look forward to more of the same.

    (I didn’t get a chance to post this until a few days later…)

    A blight on the urban landscape

    Yesterday, sitting at a coffeehouse in the George Street Arcade, Stacy and I pored over a map, figuring out where to go. Next to us, a man overheard us, and offered some locals advice. He mentioned Grafton Street, and said that it has been in decline because of all the mobile phone shops.

    It reminded me of something I heard a couple years ago, when visiting Austin. I was drinking coffee (a leitmotif!) at Jo’s on South Congress, and ran into a friend I knew from San Francisco. We talked about how South Congress had been evolving, and she pointed at the (at the time) new Amy’s Ice Cream across the street. She mentioned how a cell phone store had been planning to move in, but that the owner of the Hotel San Jose put a stop to it (somehow, I forget how) and got Amy’s to move in, because she (the owner of the hotel) believed that cell phone stores are a blight.

    And they are. No one likes having to go to a mobile phone store (except maybe, MAYBE, teenagers), but they are like kudzu on the global retail landscape. This is a bizarre phenomenon (do they really earn enough money to pay their rents?) and I’d love to better understand the economics of it.