How (not) to think like a product manager

July 27, 2016

A Medium post titled Clouseau: A Postmortem has been making its rounds on the internet today. While the title isn’t particularly revealing, the subtitle gives you the gist of the story: “How I vetted and dumped a startup idea in ~20 hours and for under $1000.”

For those who haven’t read the article, here’s a quick summary:

  • A product manager from Google went on a vacation in Europe and stayed in some fancy hotels
  • Those fancy hotels did a poor job of providing rooms dark enough to sleep in
  • The product manager spent time and money investigating a business plan around measuring light levels in hotel rooms
  • This data would be offered as a service and would be a “natural monopoly” in the industry
  • Two light meters were purchased and a logo was commissioned for the project
  • This plan failed because hotels don’t let people barge into their rooms to measure light levels without reserving the room, which was cost-prohibitive

What this unintentionally illustrates is classic “product manager thinking:” marching ahead with a pre-conceived solution set in mind despite having given little or no thought to the problem space as a whole. Instead, they limit themselves to areas where they have existing domain knowledge and try to build a solution around that. In this case, that involved coming up with a data-driven approach built around a technological solution.

But just because someone has a pre-existing toolkit for solving problems doesn’t mean that toolkit is always going to be the best method — or even an adequate method — to solve every problem. As the saying goes, to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

As a software engineer I’ve witnessed this type of thinking in every product manager I’ve ever encountered. No matter what the problem, somehow software was going to be the answer, because that’s what they had to work with. Is the toilet broken? Great! Since the problem is broken toilets, we’ll build an app that lets you hire a plumber. Problem solved… sort of.

So I don’t mean to single out this particular product manager when I point out that his “rapid prototype” was an unnecessary waste of time. If anything that’s the industry norm.

Instead, if he’d only taken a couple minutes to ask someone who travels frequently — or even someone who lives in a neighborhood with a lot of nightlife — he’d know that this was a solved problem. In fact, it was solved so long ago that the solution is offered in thousands of stores from dozens of different companies:

Yup. A humble sleep mask will block out light. And for good measure, buy a couple sets of earplugs. Believe me, if you travel a lot, you’re going to wind up in some loud, bright hotel rooms where you’ll need both.

The message I want to leave you with is to avoid this pitfall. Yes, sometimes gathering data and offering it as a service is a sensible solution to a problem. Or maybe some other type of technology. But unless you’ve fully explored the alternatives, don’t limit yourself with a hammer/nail mentality.

Introducing the VCR Classic Edition

July 24, 2016


 

You may have heard the bad news recently: the last company making VCRs is about to stop production. But worry not, VCR fans: the VCR Classic Edition is here!

No, this won’t play your old tapes. Following in the steps of Nintendo, the VCR Classic Edition is 50% smaller than your old VCR and comes preloaded with 30 exciting tapes some guy in Cleveland recorded from his TV back in the day!

Tapes bundled with the VCR Classic Edition include:

  • A rerun of the final episode of MASH
  • Couple of really funny I Love Lucy episodes
  • News clip about a dead body some kids found down by the lake
  • That one Seinfeld episode about masturbating
  • …and many more!

Don’t run out to the store yet, the VCR Classic Edition hits shelves this November. We’ll update when we hear more, but early reports confirm that it won’t work with your existing remote control, but it does include HDMI output and relies on USB for power.

So much yes!

We’re looking forward to the VCR Classic Edition and can hardly wait to find the right tracking settings on some forgotten old tapes. This is a perfect example of how to preserve everyone’s favorite technology. We can’t wait!

Hiking Mount Sutro and Twin Peaks

July 18, 2016

For the past few years I’ve been aiming for 10,000 steps a day to make my fitness tracker happy get some exercise. Most days I don’t go anywhere special, but on weekends I like to branch out when I have the time and find new places to explore. That’s no easy task when you’ve lived in the Bay Area your entire life or spent the past (checks calendar) nearly thirteen years in San Francisco (holy crap.) So to do something a little different I walked from 17th Street to 23rd Street using the least efficient route possible, starting with Mount Sutro.

Take any map of San Francisco, and somewhere near the center there will be a green patch that’s either labeled “Mount Sutro Open Space Preserve,” or “Interior Greenbelt,” or some combination of the two. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a gorgeous man-made park — the non-native trees are a dead giveaway — with various trails zig-zagging around for hiking and mountain biking.

There’s several entrances, but I started at the one maintained by Parks and Rec at Stanyan near the end of 17th Street. There’s a small staircase and a sign to mark the entrance.

 
Interior Greenbelt sign
 

The hike up Mount Sutro is not one for the faint of heart — the trail is often steep, covered with rocks and fallen tree branches, and can be muddy and wet from the fog. At times it even felt like it was raining due to the fog rolling off the trees above.

 
Interior Greenbelt trail
 

The park has a somewhat surreal feel to it; you know in your mind that you’re still in the city, but for the most part it doesn’t feel like it. Sure, you can see some houses from a few vantage points, or hear sirens in the distance, but there’s little evidence to suggest there’s a bustling city not far below.

To add to the strange feeling, the place was nearly deserted. I could probably count the number of other hikers I encountered on one hand. Some part of me kept expecting to find a group of teenagers drinking or smoking pot in the bushes, but I didn’t even see any litter to suggest that this was a place people had escaped to for such endeavors.

Which is all a fancy way of saying that this place is rather unique. You won’t find crowds of tourists here like Golden Gate Park or Telegraph Hill.

 
Interior Greenbelt
 

By the time I got to the top I was somewhat lost. There were no obvious vantage points to find my bearings thanks to the trees and the fog, and my phone wasn’t picking up enough of a signal to use Google Maps. Fortunately, UCSF was kind enough to put a map there right when I needed it.

Following the map, I took the East Ridge Trail down to Aldea Housing. From there my phone briefly got a strong signal again. I thought about turning back, but figured what the hell — Sutro Tower wasn’t far away. Why not press on?

 
Interior Greenbelt
 

There’s no obvious signs leading you to Sutro Tower from there, and it was so foggy I couldn’t have even guessed which way to go to find it. Fortunately Google Maps had my back and a few minutes later I found what I can only assume is the base of the tower, prodding the underbelly of our dear friend Karl.

 
Sutro Tower in the fog
 

Following my gut, I walked around the reservoir next to Sutro Tower until I found another trail that seemed to be leading towards Twin Peaks. Once again this would have been much easier had I been able to see where I was going. (Million dollar idea: Glasses that let you see through fog. Get on it, hardware startup entrepreneurs!)

Fortunately an older couple heading in the opposite direction confirmed to me that I was on the right track.

 
Trail from Sutro Tower to Twin Peaks
 

After jumping a barrier and heading up a somewhat steep trail that didn’t seemed “official,” to put it mildly, I found a whole crowd of tourists. I’d done it! I’d made it to Twin Peaks!

The fun of Twin Peaks — if you’ve somehow never been — is not the view. In fact, there’s rarely much of a view at all. No, the fun is watching hoards of confused tourists scream about how they’re freezing, watching pamphlets get blown out of their hands by the wind, and seeing them take selfies against a backdrop of fog. It’s really a blast.

 
Twin Peaks in the fog
 

At this point several hours had passed and it was time to head back home. On the pedestrian/bike side of the recently reconfigured figure eight, I jumped another barrier and made my way down a staircase, followed by another, then another, then like maybe two or three more. Yeah, my knees are going to be sore as hell tomorrow.

But at least from here I more or less knew where I was going. If you’re walking to or from Twin Peaks from the Mission/Noe Valley, those stairs lead to a pedestrian overpass over Market Street, which is very handy for this particular part of the hike. The ramp on the other side takes you down to Grand View Ave. near the end of 23rd Street.

 
Market Street pedestrian overpass
 

The fitness tracker says all in all that worked out to just over six miles, though if you follow in my footsteps your mileage may vary depending on your exact route. A word to the wise: bring water with you, appropriate shoes, and full-length pants to avoid poison ivy. You also might consider an umbrella if it’s super foggy.

Finally, here’s a few panoramic photos of the Mount Sutro hike. As with all the photos in this blog post you can click it for a larger view. Additionally, all of these photos are in a Flickr album.

 
Interior Greenbelt pano

Interior Greenbelt pano

Interior Greenbelt pano

Sunset sign scorns dickish tree thief

July 4, 2016

To the person who took our tree
 

“Don’t be a dick” is an excellent rule to live by. Nobody wants to be around a dick because they don’t want to be the victim of a dick move, and yet being a dick is often — but not always — free from consequence. Rather than being a dick in return to a dick move, sometimes you have to break the cycle by turning the other cheek and accepting that life isn’t fair. For that reason, some call this philosophy “the golden rule.”

Unfortunately, a lot of folks are dicks, making dick moves whenever the mood strikes them. One such dick is whoever chopped down someone’s tree on Judah near 14th Ave. The victim put up the sign in the above photo to plead with the dick in question.

The sign features a drawing of an ax chopping, presumably to indicate how the tree was taken rather than as a threat, as well as the following text:

To the person who took our tree:
Please return it as soon as possible and all will be forgiven.

Let’s hope the dick takes heed and returns the tree to its rightful place.

Microsoft Windows Enterprise Edition

June 30, 2016

The other day I got to thinking: what would happen if the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek: The Next Generation was built with modern software? If it ran on Microsoft Windows, its own operating system might be bigger a danger to the crew than the Borg. Here’s how I suspect it would play out.
 

 
…and roll credits:

More relics from The Jejune Institute on the web

June 26, 2016


 

I have no idea what my brain does when I’m asleep. Occasionally it leads me to some strange discoveries. For example, up until today I’d always assumed “Nonchalance,” the name of the studio behind The Jejune Institute, was something they’d made up for the game’s second chapter. My own dreams proved this to be incorrect. How? We’re getting to that.

Far too early this morning I woke up after a dream, grabbed my phone, and typed something into Google. I can’t remember the dream nor the search keywords, but the results included this music page on Nonchalance’s website. (Why some of the music is listed as by “JBH & Bobby Peru” is beyond me, since those are the same person.)

To me the most interesting part about the page wasn’t the music itself, it was that it represented some relic from a previous version of the Nonchalance.com website I’d never encountered before — it predated The Jejune Institute. Needless to say, I couldn’t get back to sleep; I’d stumbled down this temporal rabbit hole and needed to know more.

While many links on the page now redirect elsewhere, Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine came to the rescue. For those unfamiliar with the service, they’ve been capturing publicly available websites for decades and storing them online. You can go back and see how your favorite websites looked back in the day, even if they’re long since defunct.

After poking around the archives of Nonchalance’s website, most of the content on early versions of the site covers their other activities, including art installations, musings on design, and related projects like Oaklandish. Only later versions of the site make reference to the “game” project they’d become best known for (click the hyperlinked word “the” in the previous sentence to see what I mean.)

The most unexpected revelation hidden in these forgotten pages is the first entry in the website’s blog (scroll all the way down) in a post from 2007, about a year before The Jejune Institute opened its doors to the public.

The post reads in part:

Picture in your mind a cartoon character sleepwalking. Observe as they stutter, step, and stumble blindly out of bed, down the stairs and out the front door on to a busy street. They narrowly dodge impending danger without effort or awareness. Cars race by, they are turned around in a revolving door, and after the languid adventure they are somehow returned to bed unharmed. It’s a certain attribute the cartoon character possesses: to be able to stumble through life with nary a care, prodigiously protected and provided for by the invisible hand of good fortune. This ability is called Divine Nonchalance.
 
And so; our titled is lifted from this phrase, which may have its origins in modern Tarot: it appears on the card of The Fool. It signifies a certain blessed carelessness, a freedom from inhibition that sparks and inspires creativity. Long ago our local clique adopted the phrase to describe certain peoples who possessed the gift. If you possess it, as visionary artists often do, than you too may be one of the Divine Nonchalants.
 
BUT BEWARE: like any other gift, it comes with a price. The special power of Nonchalance is not found on the card of the King, or of the Sun… it is found on the card of The Fool. Clowns, wise guys, drunks and musicians are the salty sort of down-trodden folk who usually possess this super power in spades. And of course; cartoon characters. This special breed of people all share the wonderful attribute. It’s a shame they’ll never quite know what to do with it. By definition the Nonchalant is wonderfully scattered, and lacking in all direction. The ride is fantastic, but it only leads back to where we began.
 
It is appropriate then that we put the title to use. Nonchalance.org is a small looking glass into the creative lives of a few east bay souls. Here is where we document our works, make audacious statements of purpose, post exhibit schedules, engage with theory, trade intelligence, and celebrate our love for the past, present and future of this glorious lifetime.

A slightly different version of the Divine Nonchalance definition can be found on this page from a 2008 snapshot of Nonchalance.com

If any of this definition sounds familiar it’s because “Commander 14,” played by Harry S. Robins, read a nearly identical script on a certain pirate radio station in Dolores Park in the second chapter of The Jejune Institute. You can listen to the full broadcast here. The part similar to the above quote starts at about 1:20. But really, you should listen to the entire thing; it’s less than an hour long and it’s quite funny. Listen to it at Dolores Park if you want the most authentic experience.

It’s amazing what mind-blowing mysteries we can accidentally unlock in the middle of the night. Assuming there’s no microwave harassment, of course.

Birdhouse for rent in Dolores Park

June 17, 2016

Birdhouse for rent in Dolores Park

While the plan to rent sections of Dolores Park to humans ended almost as soon as it began, birds now have the option to rent this lovely apartment dangling from a tree in the park, located at the corner near 20th and Dolores Street.

The sign on the apartment doesn’t reveal the price or list a phone number, it simply states:

Achieve Realty
For Rent
Renovated

Interested parties should note that this is more of a micro bird apartment than a full-size birdhouse. It would be well suited as a starter home for a small songbird, but wouldn’t be large enough for an adult pigeon or a family of birds.

No word on whether this apartment is covered by rent control.

Breaking down San Francisco landmarks in the Watch Dogs 2 trailer

June 10, 2016

This week Ubisoft launched a trailer for their upcoming game, Watch Dogs 2. While I wasn’t particularly impressed by the first entry in the series, a 3rd person action/hacking game, the sequel immediately interested me due to the setting: San Francisco and the Bay Area at large.

You can watch the trailer below or here. For those unfamiliar with the world of video games, this is a “cinematic” trailer, which means it’s CGI concept art intended to advertise the game — in other words, this isn’t gameplay footage, but rather what producers intend the game to look like when it’s finished.

How many local landmarks did you discover in the video? Here’s what I spotted — click any image for full size.

Golden Gate Bridge, Karl the Fog, and the Transamerica Pyramid:

The Ferry Building and the Embarcadero Center:

Alcatraz:

A cable car working its way up a hill:

Not technically a landmark, but a guy wearing Google Cardboard on Muni is good enough IMO:

Again, technically a homeless guy with a shopping card isn’t a “landmark” but it had might as well be:

Lombard Street, which someone’s taking a photo of on their phone for the sake of accuracy:

Sea Lions at Pier 39, complete with tourists utilizing a selfie stick:

3D printing a gun — okay so again this isn’t a landmark at all, but I imagine there’s more 3D printers than guns in San Francisco so I’ll let it slide:

Chinatown chase scene:

AT&T Park, or whichever phone company it’s named after right now:

“Nudle” is clearly a stand in for Google’s Mountain View campus:

The Bay Bridge serves as a backdrop for a chase scene:

Hangar One at Moffett Field in Mountain View:

Well there you have it. I’m sure there’s a few I missed, feel free to e-mail me an angry rant if that’s the case. Regardless I may have to buy the game when it comes out in November to see how it portrays the Bay Area.

Strandbeests at the Exploratorium After Dark

June 3, 2016

Strandbeests at the Exploratorium

Strandbeests at the Exploratorium Strandbeests at the Exploratorium Strandbeests at the Exploratorium Strandbeests at the Exploratorium Strandbeests at the Exploratorium Strandbeests at the Exploratorium Strandbeests at the Exploratorium

Last night I attended the Exploratorium’s After Dark series. While there were not any flying toasters present, there were numerous Strandbeests from Dutch artist Theo Jansen.

The Strandbeests range in size from not much bigger than a human to stretching across a large room. Some of them are relatively simple contraptions that can be pushed around by humans or sails, whereas others operate on a system of a wind-powered compressed air mechanism. All the “beests” on display at the Exploratorium are built from PVC pipe — which is a yellowish color in the Netherlands for some reason — though Jansen has experimented with wood in the past.

If you’d like to check out the exhibit yourself it runs through September 5th. And you’ll have a chance to revisit your favorite Exploratorium exhibits while you’re at it, of course.

3D advertisement

June 1, 2016

3D advertising

3D advertising

Spotted at 12th and Folsom
 

Oculus Rift? Microsoft HoloLens? Samsung Gear?

Nah, who needs those? Old school red/blue 3D is where it’s at, as this somewhat illegally placed ad goes to show.

Before you ask, yes — I put on the 3D glasses and tested it out. While the 3D effect does work on this ad, unfortunately it barely makes use of the medium. What a shame. I’d love to see a similar “stunt” 3D advertisement that fully took advantage of the format. Maybe a secret phrase that jumps out at you that gets you something in return, like 10% off drinks or discounted entry to a club? Hey I’m just making suggestions here. Get on it, guerilla advertisers.