Leading with paper

Me, 2001: Paper. Rock. “You went paper! No one opens with paper—that’s unprecedented!”

Tokyo, 2005: “Christie’s was the winner: scissors beat paper. It will sell most of the major paintings in its evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Wednesday. It hopes the star of the group, Cézanne’s “Large Trees Under the Jas de Bouffan” (1885-1887), will sell for more than $12 million.”

Shows what I know.

I want a bud vase

Matt Linderman nails product emotions with his bud vase feature blog post. The comments and links miss his crucial point: an unexpected feature that recurs is what keeps consumers happy with their products. It’s not a matter of a free prize, as Seth Godin asserts; it’s a matter of the pleasant reminder, the thoughtful “hey wow” that humanizes the product.

Some more examples of this:

  • the happy “do-DOO-do” new-mail beep and the accompanying graphic of a chicken in old versions of Eudora (and the snake when you have no mail; alas, it’s no longer in the app)
  • the game included in the iPod firmware: the design is what draws people to buy, but the game is an item that makes them remember, “hey, I bought a really neat thing”
  • JetBlue’s customer service waiting loop, which includes comments like “Yeah, we know, we hate waiting too”
  • the way luxury car dealers do maintenance: most of them wash your car before returning it, and for a long time, Infiniti left chocolate mints on the seats, luxury-hotel-style

Nearly every product with differentiation can benefit from this kind of positioning, simply by including a little nicety that isn’t part of the typical approach to that particular commodity. Usability has come a long way—personality always has room for more.

I [heart] Ask Metafilter

I read Ask Metafilter twice daily. I contribute far less frequently, and I skip a lot of threads—the site has too many discussions about computer problems and places to drink in New York City—but the sheer breadth of questions is fantastic, especially now that the site has re-introduced anonymous asking.

A sampling from the past 24 hours alone:

God found my wife, now what do I do?

Is there a reason why I pee more when I stay up all night working?

I want to cultivate some good mental exercising habits.

With this level of diversity and sheer randomness, it’s a must-visit.

I’m also an Ask Metafilter user. Here are the questions I’ve asked over the years, which I think are a pretty good introduction to the site on their own.

Dogswalk Against Cancer

Amy and I (and Charley, and Charley’s brother, too) will be participating in the Dogswalk Against Cancer Sunday, May 1 in Riverside Park. It’s a fundraiser for cancer research; the money raised goes to support the work of the American Cancer Society, and 10% of the net proceeds go to the Donaldson-Atwood Cancer Clinic of the Animal Medical Center.

This being a cancer fundraiser, we donated with our registration fee. I’d like to donate more through walk sponsors. Please sponsor me (suggested donation $25) and contribute to a good and fun cause.

Falling from grace

Franklin & Marshall College is my alma mater. I was a proud and notable member of the student body during my four years in school, running the school newspaper and, as an intern, producing a 200-page book on F&M student life that showcased the diverse and wonderful aspects of the college and local communities.

I was a basically happy student as I earned my Bachelor of Arts in English. I also immersed myself in extracurricular activities: the newspaper and internship mentioned above, as well as radio station DJ, keyboardist in a cover band, professional music writer and, rather significantly, member of Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity. My experiences and growth in each deeply affected my maturation and postcollegiate paths—including, among other things, playing in a cover band with classmates in business school. Some things never change.

I graduated just about ten years ago from a school consistently in the second tier of American liberal arts colleges (that nebulous “25-to-40” group behind big guns like Johns Hopkins), one with comparatively brutal courseloads and a vibrant Greek system, an obvious foil to long nights of studying. Tired of its secondary role and work-hard-rebel-hard student body, F&M went outside its universe in selecting its current president, John Fry, who had spent several years at the University of Pennsylvania.

Upon his installation, President Fry spoke at length about improving the quality and stature of the F&M education. He talked of increasing alumni donations, particularly the percentage-of-participating-donors statistic that the college surveys cherish. He advocated re-recognizing fraternities and sororities to improve student-faculty and alumni-administration relations. The school maintained an oral commitment to excellent scholastics and students.

What I have seen in recent years seems like the opposite of this commitment. Most crucially, F&M re-recognized fraternities and promptly took action against mine. Six months after its 150th anniversary, the Phi Kappa Sigma chapter house is now alcohol-free (fine) and in danger of expulsion from the community (pretty damn far from fine). I am curious how such a strategy—regardless of the actions that caused the College’s sanctions—is going to improve relations with Phi Kap alumni.

This isn’t just about my fraternity, though. As an emeritus editor in chief of the newspaper, I receive The College Reporter in the mail weekly, and its quality is atrocious. The paper has gone from 16 pages in an average week to 8, and there is little semblance to journalism in any given issue. The paper has gotten visually sloppy and the writing is worse than what I would expect from a good suburban high school. If the paper reflects the caliber of the current F&M student, I am unimpressed.

Campus life doesn’t seem to be what I remember, either, and not in a “those were the days” kind of way. The College Center has lost its focal point as a campus center; student mailboxes have moved and the dining option there greatly altered. Weis Hall, once the nicest dorm on campus, endured issues regarding mold that led to disenchantment and calls for room-and-board refunds (and, if memory serves, some temporary evacuations). Most recently I learned that the traditional outdoor barbecue during F&M’s festive Spring Arts Weekend was canceled—the current dining services contractor would neither honor meal plan credits for a main cookout nor waive its “exclusive catering rights” to allow student organizations to hold their own.

In addition, the College has proven fairly inept at alumni communications. I regularly receive emails sent to “David 38221,” belying the concept that I attended a small, people-first institution. The first reunion email I received welcomed me to my fifth anniversary homecoming instead of the tenth. And alumni staff have inexplicably taken to calling me “Dave,” which while not offensive is more than a little confusing.

This is not the school I remember attending.

I write this piece out of disappointment, not anger. I was a proud F&M alumnus when I graduated, and I used to state my alma mater with pride, not caring that nearly half the people I met hadn’t heard of it. Now, however, I no longer feel that pride. I don’t like mentioning Franklin & Marshall, I don’t enjoy reading the student newspaper, I find the alumni magazine impertinent, and I have no inclination whatsoever to donate my time or money to the school. My current feelings are a long way to fall for someone who had to accept going in that his school was tough on students and relatively unknown—barriers I proudly overcame but no longer appreciate.

I will be at my ten-year reunion this fall, to see the campus, rediscover old friends, and introduce my wife to the happiness I found there. But I won’t be giving to the fundraising drive or going to any events. F&M has lost me for now. I truly hope they can win me back.

Ah, nimbyism

I live in a high-profile, high-traffic building in one of Manhattan’s busiest hubs. One would think that the residents of my building had an inkling what to expect, moving as they did into a high-rise buttressed by Union Square Park, a subway station, a bus stop, three bars, a nightclub, a Starbucks and an NYU dorm, not to mention the abundant commerce that takes place in the area.

Instead of rationalization and problem-solving, though, my neighbors are quick and content to dissolve into complaints and nimbyism. I belong to a mailing list (three, actually) for building residents, and this is the discourse that has taken place the past 48 hours:

I live in a high-profile, high-traffic building in one of Manhattan’s busiest hubs. One would think that the residents of my building had an inkling what to expect, moving as they did into a high-rise buttressed by Union Square Park, a subway station, a bus stop, three bars, a nightclub, a Starbucks and an NYU dorm, not to mention the abundant commerce that takes place in the area.

Instead of rationalization and problem-solving, though, my neighbors are quick and content to dissolve into complaints and nimbyism. I belong to a mailing list (three, actually) for building residents, and this is the discourse that has taken place the past 48 hours (emphases added):

Message: “Does anyone have any suggestions about how to stop the breakdancers from their nightly performance – blasting their stereo – at the south end of Union Square Park? I have tried calling repeatedly both 311 and directly to the 13th precinct, only to be told some variant of ‘we’re too busy’ each time.”

Reply 1: “Let me add my exasperation at the noise that those of us facing 15th St hear from the clubs. … Is there nothing to be done?”

Reply 2: “What’s particularly bad (besides the crowd noise and honking taxis) from Irving Plaza on East 15th Street are the tour buses of the performing groups, which are (illegally) kept running for long stretches. I’ve called 311, the police arrive, the crowd disperses, the police leave…and the crowd comes back. The police do nothing about the buses! And they do nothing about the loud bass thumping coming from INSIDE the club, though closed doors and walls! We can’t keep the bedroom window open in the spring and summer.”

Reply 3: “I add my voice to the roar about the buses, diesel fumes, and screaming drunks on the sidewalk, plus the bass from Belmont Lounge on Sunday ‘night’ — which truly doesn’t let up until 4 AM; it’s unreal.”

Now for the reality check. This is New York, and this is a busy, busy area of New York. This city will always have—should always have—clustered bars and jumping nightclubs and hubbub in public spaces. I’m not a bargoer, a clubgoer, or a breakdancer, but I believe in each entity’s absolute right to be and do.

While I’m not a fan of the noise outside my window, I accept it as my home’s burden, and explore solutions for my own personal happiness (City Windows, for example). What I don’t do is whine to 100 neighbors I don’t know, nor do I complain publicly. The last thing I want is for my building to generate a reputation as a bunch of, say, thankless whiners, and have the city’s public servants (police, fire, mail, government) lose interest in currying its favor.

Folks, if you don’t like it, do something about it on a level you can control. And keep my mailing address’s good name out of it.