Ode to the Outshot

I’ve been listening to podcasts for a while. Like most people I started with the juggernaut, This American Life, but quickly opened up my catalogue to other shows and ideas. I’m sure if you were to plot my podcast listening statistics you’d see a sharp uptick in hours listened when I started my second round of graduate school almost six years ago in San Diego.

I moved to San Diego with the belief that my girlfriend (now wife) wouldn’t be far behind. I’d find a place to settle, get started with the hard business of academic scholarship, and then she’d come join me. Six months was our guess. Funny thing about guesses, they’re not very reliable.

Fast forward four months and I was spending Thanksgiving day with my girlfriend eating Boston Market takeout while we took a break form unpacking her belongings at her new apartment in Bristol, CT. She’d landed an entry into her dream job. A job that placed her over 2,800 miles away from where I was pursuing my dreams. Not fun, but we preserved.

All of this is to say that I was alone a lot of the time for the four years before we synced back up in the same time zone, found our first apartment together, and got married. Sure I had friends, and work, and classes, but there was also the solo meals I made in a old studio apartment or the long walks I took in the barrio (I moved around a lot). During those moments of solitude my companion was always my iPhone and my podcasts.

Like I said, I’ve listened to a bunch. Other’s have listened to more, some less. I’m probably right in the middle. I stick to comedy and culture mostly. Chris Hardwick and his knuckled head friends, Matt and Jonah, kept me company on a lot of walks, runs, and bus commutes. Jad and Robert were a go to for long plane rides. Marc came and went depending on my mood. Doug was (and is) an entertaining diversion. And of course I can’t forget the two pillars Roman and Ira.

When I was listening to these voices the same name was mentioned time and time again - Jesse Thorn. I also kept hearing something about The Sound of Young America off and on, but never really gave it much thought. Then I started listening to John Hodgman dispense Internet Justice on the Judge John Hodgman podcast. Why? I don’t really remember. Probably a recommendation online. Maybe Roman? Who knows. It doesn’t matter. John was great (still is) and his sidekick, was… you guessed it, Mr. Jesse Thorn.

It took a while, probably about six months of listening to Jesse make funny side comments and endearing commentary for me to finally take the time to check out what this whole MaximumFun thing was all about. I dipped my toes in the water with Jordan, Jesse, Go!. It was great. Funny, smart, irreverent, but sincere and full of truth. I loved it right away. I started listening to the back catalogue. For some reason I went about it the wrong way and just kept going back one episode at a time instead of starting from the beginning. It was a stupid way to do it, but it didn’t matter, each joke was still funny. Each story about getting married, having children, moving, getting jobs - basically becoming an adult - was real and moving and often hilarious. Somewhere along the way in my JJGO historical listening project I decided to branch out again and listen to what used to be the Sound of Young America and is now Bullseye.

Bullseye was scary and odd to me. It wasn’t what I was used to. It was serious. It was interview-based with different segments, but it didn’t have an overarching story like a This American Life episode. Plus, I’ll be honest, some of the guests just weren’t all that interesting to me. But I gave it a try. And I’m better for it.

Jesse likes to say, “Bullseye is at it’s core, a recommendation show.” It’s Jesse recommending bits of culture new and old, through his smart, funny, and engaging interviews with the people that make it. It’s people like Mark Fraunfelder from BoingBoing or the AV Club telling you about the music, books, and games that you simply must try because they love them. It’s also people talking about the music that’s changed their lives.

Stop right here and listen to recent Academy Award winner Bobby Lopez talk about “Pure Imagination” from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Really, stop. Listen.

But the best part of Bullseye, and my current favorite piece of radio, is the Outshot. Each week Bullseye wraps up with a personal recommendation from Jesse Thorn. These aren’t just reviews of the latest albums or movies. It’s something deeper and more intense than almost anything you’ll hear out there today. Jesse opens himself up the audience to talk about something he really enjoys. It’s sincere and heartfelt, because that’s just who he is. In his wedding announcement in the New York Time nearly six years ago his wife mentions his inability to be insincere, “He is not capable of it,” she says. “He’s so honest and straightforward about what he likes and doesn’t like, and what he’s thinking. And that’s something I admire.” I admire it too. Not just because he’s genuine, but also because he’s unafraid to share the things he finds endearing and delightful even though others may scoff. He’ll to tell you why Babe: Pig in the City is really a heroes tale or why the Muppet Movie is about friends and artists dreaming about how to make the world a better place.

I love the Outshot because Jesse loves these pieces of culture enough to share them with us. And with each segment and his signature sign off, Jesse does what most of use spend our entire lives trying to do, he draws his bow, let his arrow fly and hit the bullseye, again and again. Thanks Jesse.


So I actually recored my own “Ode to the Outshot” and you can go listen to it here. It’s also embedded below.

This week is also MaxFunDrive. The yearly pledge drive for the MaximumFun network and the shows they help bring to the world. This year I’ve pitched in and become a donor. Each week I listen to about 4-5 hours of MaxFun programming and I’m more than happy to chip in what amounts to $1 per episode. That’s cheap considering how much entertainment I’m getting. If you’re a new or old listener you should consider chipping in too. All the cool kids are doing it.

As always, comments are welcome. This post is available on Github if that’s your style, and Medium if you like that platform. Free free to connect with me on twitter or email.

Hardware is Hard

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about stuff I’ve written, but is lost in other ecosystems. I got a Quora notification this evening and it reminded me of something I wrote on that site over two years ago in response to the question, “How hard is it for a startup to design hardware like Jawbone UP, Nike+ Fuelband, Fitbit, etc.?” I really like my answer, but I’m biased (and “me” is a small sample size). I’ve reproduced it here with a few edits and added updates via footnotes. Let me know what you think.

There is a lot of room to improve upon the design, UI/UX, and hardware of physical activity and tracking devices. For instance, I noticed you didn’t mention Basis. They are bringing a great new device to market this year that will integrate optically sensed HR, galvanic skin response, and accelerometery in a nicely designed watch.1

When you talk about designing hardware you have to think not just about what is possible now, but also what will be possible over the next five to ten years and begin designing products that take advantage of new MEMs technology. For instance, there is a lot of great R&D coming out of MIT that is supporting the creation of even smaller sensors.

Another design element to think of is functionality. Not in the sense of does the device work, but rather, how it works around your normal everyday life. My fiancé was considering all three you mention (FitBit, Nike+ Fuelband, UP) and decided to go with the FitBit because she didn’t want to be tied to wearing something on her wrist every day that isn’t a watch (she’s old school).2 With the new class of open-source wearable microprocessors (LillyPad, Flora, etc.) I don’t see why in the next few years we can’t have our trackers embedded in our clothing.3

This is getting long, but I’ll bring up another hardware design that I see really separating the industry - wireless connectivity. I don’t mean bluetooth, I mean true send the data to cloud, kind of connectivity. Qualcomm is pioneering this initiative with their new Qualcomm Life venture and their proprietary machine-to-machine systems. There will be a day soon, if not this year then next, where your FitBit or Nike+ Fuelband or whatever YOU make has a similar chipset to what you find in the Kindle 3G. This is a huge design challenge as battery usage will be altered dramatically, but again nothing that is insurmountable.4

Lastly, I think (and I’m a bit biased as I’m a behavioral scientist)5, is that the technology community tends to overly focus on the hardware rather than the user experience design. Yes, it has to work well as Jawbone showed us. Yes, it has look good - Jawbone showed us that too. But, it also has to be tied to an engaging and worthwhile experience. The importance of good design cannot be overstated. Look at what Aza Raskin is doing over at Massive Health and their Eatery app.6 Design will win every time. If you’re really thinking about building hardware make sure you find an Aza clone (good luck with that) and spend as much if not more time creating, testing, and iterating on the user experience. People will use something because it’s cool and different, but the world will use the thing that works, the thing that makes them forget they’re interacting with 1’s and 0’s (you only need to look at the iPhone for confirmation about the importance of experience design).

Oh, and I guess to really answer your question. It is very, very, very hard to make physical products that work. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. Fitbit is a great example. They went through many trials after their huge showing at Techcrunch50 in 2008. They missed launch dates, they had some product failures, but they persevered. Now look at them.7

I guess in the end you might be asking the wrong question. Of course it is hard, building cars is hard, doing astrophysics is hard, playing the cello is hard. But here we are with hundreds of cars to choose from, new PhDs staring at the stars every night, and parents enrolling their children in music lessons. Hard will never go away, but being better is always within reach.

As always, comments are welcome. This post is available on Github if that’s your style, and Medium if you like that platform. Free free to connect with me on twitter or email.

  1. The Basis B1 watch/band has since been released. I was lucky enough to get one and have enjoyed wearing it, especially after the new update. I’m still waiting on an API….

  2. She originally bought a Fitbit One, but lost it pretty quickly. Her sister then bought her a Fitbit Zip that she’s been wearing it every day for over a year. She loves it.

  3. This was an easy prediction to make. We’ve already seen some great entries in the wearable sensing clothing from Hexoskin, OMsignal, and others.

  4. Maybe I’m wrong about this given the current ecosystem of Bluetooth Low Energy devices, but this still kind of irks me. I originally wrote this when I was a heavy Garmin Forerunner user. I went on runs without my phone, which I don’t do now, and wanted my GPS watch to automagically upload that data. I still want that, but I’m in a shrinking minority and I’m probably wrong.

  5. I was still full on in my PhD program and this is the most pretentious phrase in this piece. I’m leaving it in to remind me that I am not a behavioral scientist. I am merely an observer.

  6. No surprise that Jawbone acquired Massive Health and has made some amazing strides in their mobile app design.

  7. Seriously look at them. They have a huge market share in the activity tracking sector: 67%. Even with the Force recalls they’re the dominant player. Do you hear people saying they are building the Fuelband for cars? I don’t.

The Data Dilemma: Enjoy Sports in the Age of Analysis

It’s easier than every to measure anything we want, and it’s easier than ever to analyze that data, which means no field of human endeavor is safe from the effects of big data. -Derrick Harris, GigOM

If you’re like me you think this is absolutely the best time to be alive. Our current state of technological progress appears to be at an all time high. We’ve been able to create systems for measuring the radiation after a nuclear accident with open source personal Geiger counters. We’re also able to strap a simple set of sensors to a child’s head in order to better track and understand head injuries in contact sports. These examples 1 are just two of the many that show how data is being intertwined with how we live our lives. This is no more apparent than on the field of professional sports.

With big money at stake it’s no surprise that professional leagues and individual teams are fully embracing the big data craze. Anything and everything “for the win” has been true for centuries. Now, it’s come to include full-time statisticians, data analysts, and, in rare cases (for now), a supercomputer.

The opening quote atop this piece comes from a recent GigOM article based on on a piece published by the Economist 2 that describes a recent purchase of a Cray YarcData Urika Data Graph Appliance by an unnamed Major League Baseball team. From the product brief:

The Urika graph analytics appliance from YarcData is purpose-built to meet these challenging requirements, transforming massive amounts of seemingly unrelated data into relevant insights. […] Urika can discover hidden relationships and unknown patterns in Big Data, do it with an unmatched level of speed and simplicity, and facilitate the kinds of breakthroughs that can give your enterprise a measurable competitive advantage

Why would a baseball team want to have this machine somewhere in the recesses of their stadium? To do real-time in-game analysis of the players and the game. I have no doubt that the unnamed buyer is one of the three teams who have partnered with MLB Advanced Media to install a system of high speed cameras to track, “the speed and efficiency of fielders, based on highly accurate readings on hit balls—batted ball speed, launch angle, distance, hang time—and then how fast and how well the defenders react, capturing 30 frames per second on players and 2000 fps on the ball.” 3 Imagine if you will, a manager being able to interact with live information about the opposing hitter and his history with the current pitcher. What pitches does he typically hit? Miss? Where is he likely to hit a slider with one man on? How far should the left fielder shade towards center? Five feet? Six inches?

This is the near future of baseball, and more broadly all of professional sports. And to paraphrase Robert Frost, “that is making all the difference.” A difference that not everyone is comfortable with.

What was more difficult for me to grasp was the way that the business of entertainment had really shifted the game and the sport of football in the NFL. The culture of football now is very different from the one I grew up with. When I came up, teammates fought together for wins and got respect for the fight. The player who gave the ball to the referee after a touchdown was commended; the one who played through injury was tough; the role of the blocking tight end was acknowledged; running backs who picked up blitzing linebackers showed heart; and the story of the game was told through the tape, and not the stats alone. That was my model of football. -Rashard Mendehall, Huffington Post

I’ve seen Moneyball a few times and I’ve always enjoyed it. Sure, it’s a only movie based on true events and real people, but I think it’s a good example here for the dilemma that’s arose due to the creeping in of data in sports. There are a few pivotal scenes where Billy Beane, played wonderfully by Brad Pitt, is trying to make his case to scouts and the Atheltics’ manager. They were having none of it. In their minds, data couldn’t match their experience and intuition, their “gut.” These fictional conversations are still ongoing out in the world today.

Simply put, there is a perception that we’re losing the humanity by relinquishing control to the overlord of “big data.” Take Rashard Mendenhall who I quote above. He’s in the prime of his career at only 26 years old and playing for a good team. 4 On March 9, 2014 he announced his retirement by writing a long piece for the Huffington Post. again, I’m probably cherry picking here, but it’s hard to mistake his words as a representation of the general feeling among many athletes and their fans. To them, stats and data are not sports, they’re cold hard numbers. These types feel that a reliance on data takes away from the joy and the magic of the game. That is reduces spontaneity, and the beauty of the unknown.

I think they’re wrong.

This past weekend I was lucky to be a guest at a movie premiere. 5 The movie, Personal Gold, is a documentary about the 2012 women’s track cycling pursuit team that competed at the London Olympics. It was an incredible look at how hard four women pushed themselves to reach beyond their abilities and find that little bit more something, that extra effort, extra inch, that makes all the difference. However, the movie wasn’t your typical Olympic heartwarming tale. A thread that ran through the entire picture was the story of how personal data and intensive physiological tracking helped the riders overcome a limited training staff and budget. Data on their sleep, sunlight exposure, genetic makeup, and their cycling power output was tracked, analyzed, and then used to tweak and fine tune every aspect of their training leading up to the Olympic games. Of course you can look up the results to see what happened, or you can just believe me when I tell you that they pulled off something special.

Data played a major part in their story and how they were able to overcome major adversity. However, data didn’t get on the bike and pedal it at over 30MPH for 3 minutes and 17 seconds. It didn’t know, as Sara Hammer recalled during the Q&A after the screening, “[..] that I had more in me than I realized. That’s what being on a true team is like, having people like Dotsie who know you better than you know yourself.”

Humans are funny creatures. We have this massive amazing brain that can invent things like calculus and the Curiosity Rover. But for some reason we take our inventions, like numbers, and label them as inhuman. Cold. Mechanical. But they’re just a part of us as anything else we’ve birthed into existence with our minds.

Yes, data is coming into all aspects of sports. Soon we’ll be able to watch a football game and see live prediction calculations on who should win. We’ll read more articles that are more data visualization than play-by-play reporting. 6 ESPN has even invested in stats and analysis wundkind, Nate Silver. 7 And baseball will lead the way, as it always has, into a brave new world of analytics. Does this mean that we’ll enjoy it less? See fewer amazing feats of strength and skill? Will be cease to be witness to the beautiful and the inspiring from stadiums, fields, and arenas around the world? No. I think not.

In the end we’re still human. We’re prone to mistakes 8 and lapses in judgement. We’re not perfect machines no matter how many supercomputers we have hidden in our closets. No matter how many high speed cameras are watching a player there is always that chance that they might jump that extra inch a snag that would be home run that had a 100% chance of leaving the field. We haven’t yet lost our humanity, our ability to improvise and reach new unknowns, and do what sports does best, inspire awe.

That is, until the robots enter the draft.

As always, comments are welcome. This post is available on Github if that’s your style, and Medium if you like that platform. Free free to connect with me on twitter or email.

  1. Cherry-picked, but hey it’s my article and I can do what I want.

  2. Welcome to blogging in 2014, but I guess in the end I’m no different.

  3. Even with all the negatives associated with Deadspin and the Gawker Empire I’m really enjoying their Regressing feature section.

  4. Full disclosure: I grew up in Arizona and consider myself a Cardinals fan. Regardless, they are a good team.

  5. I am so LA.

  6. The New York Times is already all over this.

  7. Five Thiry Eight launches March 17th. Can you tell I’m excited?

  8. And isn’t random error what makes statistics fun anyway?

Living With Data

Earlier this week an old friend of mine sent me a message outlining a request. In an effort to get back to his habit of drawing and creating he was reaching to a few of his friends for some inspiration and ideas.

Simple premise. I’m inviting important people that I admire, respect, and care about to gift me one creative brief—a specific, attainable objective—to complete by my next birthday. Example: Some sort of insight as to why people do something, don’t do something, or another aspect of human behavior. Think, “I want x because y”.

What follow is slightly edited version of my response. I’m sharing it here because a) I too want to be more productive as well b) I want to practice writing and publicly exploring my thoughts and c) sharing is fun.

As you know, I’m very interested and engaged with what it means to live in a world of near ubiquitous personal data. The Quantified Self movement is a key piece of this and we’ve seen some amazing work by individuals and institutions (commercial and not). We’ve observed that the power that drives real insights can be directly traced to informative data visualizations. However, I feel that we are still in the infancy of what it means to really live with personal data. See this talk by Lev Manovich to see how little our data visualization techniques have changed.) (Did you know the bar chart has been around since 1778?)

I’d like to challenge you to explore what it means to Live with Data. The conversation around QS typically centers around the reduction in autonomy and a move towards algorithmically driven lives (e.g. computers telling us what to do and when to do it based on our personal data). I’ve seen this expressed as Living By Numbers (Data). However, I feel this misses a big piece of the cultural shift. What happens when we Live With Data as an piece of our human experience? (Some might say that the difference between “by” and “with” isn’t meaningful, or I’m being pedantic. Words have meaning and how we use them is important.) Data can live, breath, and communicate (listen and talk) with us. But, what form does that take?

I’d like to challenge you to explore this idea. Art and creative design can be a big influence on this concept. Here are a few examples of ideas I’ve been thinking of lately:

  • What if the walls in your home were made of LEDs or screens that could reflect your current mood? Would you want it to reflect or change. How? (Thanks to Laurie Frick for prompting this idea during a conversation in her home studio. You should check out her QS based art here.)
  • What would it be like if you had physical manifestations of your data in your home or place of business. See this project from MIT for inspiration.
  • Data is typically represented as a direct manifestation of numerical information. Explore ideas of data abstraction. Data as art that tells you a story. This has been explored before with techniques like Chernoff Faces and more recently with Chloe Fan’s Fitbit Spark visualization.What if we went further, more abstract and more interactive?
  • This one is a little out there so proceed with caution. In the near future robotics and AI might be advanced enough to create actual human replicas or clones. Imagine this happens. What would it be like to create a clone of yourself and stream your personal data to it? Would you test experiments? Would you watch it (them?) try and learn new things? What data would you not share?

If you’ve read this far I’d love to hear what you think. What are the ideas that come to mind when you hear “Living With Data?” I look forward to hearing your thoughts. 

As always, comments are welcome. This post is available on Github if that’s your style, and Medium if you like that platform. Free free to connect with me on twitter or email.