What the First App Says about Us

MG Siegler believes the first app you open in the morning says something about you.

I see the first app you turn to in the morning as the new homepage. Some might argue it’s your entire homescreen of apps, but I don’t think that’s right. It’s the one service you care most about, no matter the reason, and want to load immediately upon hitting the web. The delivery device has changed, but the concept has not.

What I find interesting is not which app people are choosing to open first thing in the morning, but the fact that apps are the first thing so many of us choose. Siegler traces back his own first app from Twitter to Path to Facebook to Email. For me it would be Twitter to Reeder to Email.

And I think Siegler’s right that before smartphones, it would have been a favorite website on my laptop, something like Slate or Pitchfork or the New York Times. And if I go further back (like a hypnotist regressing the patent to remember former lives), before we even had the internet, it would have been a book, or a copy of The New Yorker, or (even further back) cartoons on TV.

The difference between apps and everything that came before is that the apps we choose now (Twitter, or Facebook, Flipboard, RSS readers) tend to gather and serve up content from myriad, disparate sources. Before apps, we had to choose one source at a time. What I find intoxicating about the apps I open in the morning is the possibility of surprise. As Ben Thompson says, it’s so much more delightful to get the gift I didn’t know I wanted.

But, like Rands and Alexis Madrigal, I agree that this stream of brief interestingness might not be entirely good for me. Perhaps it’s time to try a new first app.

Misunderstood or Double-edged?

A lot of people are writing about Apple's latest commercial for the iPhone. Gruber thinks it's their best ad of the year, Kottke calls it one of their best ever. Nick Heer compares it to Don Draper's carousel pitch for the slide projector. But Ben Thompson's take is my favorite because he responds to the ad's critics, who say that Apple is "promoting recording your family over actually spending time with your family."

This criticism is indicative of the recent conventional wisdom that these devices are making us stupid, lonely, and disconnected from the real world. Thompson sees the ad as an attempt to bridge the technological/generational divide, to say the reason we're so obsessed with our gadgets is that they can actually do amazing things.

On the flipside, how many young people – including, I’d wager, many reading this blog – have parents who just don’t get us, who see technology as a threat, best represented by that “can-you-put-that-damn-thing-down-and-join-us-in-the-real-world!?” smartphone in our hands, without any appreciation that it’s that phone and the world it represents that has allowed us to find ourselves and become the person we know they wanted us to be?

In the first half of the ad, the kid is portrayed as self-absorbed, antisocial, even rude in his attention to his iPhone. But why? Would we have seen him in such a negative light if he had been reading a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, or writing in a journal, or drawing in a sketchpad, or noodling on a guitar? The magical, revolutionary thing about an iPhone (and I say this unironically) is that it can become a novel, a journal, a sketchbook, a musical instrument, or a video camera/video editor (with apps like iBooks, Day One, Paper, Garageband, and iMovie among many others).

And yet, we've all seen people ignoring the real world in favor of their device, and they were not involved in a heartwarming creative pursuit. I have looked at Twitter more than once while my children were trying to have a conversation with me. I have even checked Facebook, surreptitiously, while my son, who'd just learned to read, struggled to read a new book to me (not the first book he read to me, but still). I'm not proud of this. And I worry that my kids, who love these devices as much (if not more) than I do, with soon be acting just like the teenager in this ad. And instead of making a beautiful home video during family gatherings, they'll be sexting with Russian oligarchs, selling their non-essential organs, and ordering designer brain implants on some future version of the Silk Road.

That's the double edge of the technology we now have in our pockets. It gives us access to boundless information, and enables all kinds of interactions with that information, but it doesn't distinguish between empty and nourishing information, or help us determine the right uses of that information. We have to make those distinctions and those choices.

One of my favorite pictures of my kids was taken with, edited on, and sent to me from my wife's iPhone. It shows my son and daughter, cuddled together in the dark, their radiant, smiling faces lit from beneath by an unearthly glow. You can't see the object making the glow in the picture, but it's the screen of an iPad. It's also the source of the joy on their faces.

That screen is not going away anytime soon, but we don't have to be passive viewers of it, merely consuming and feeling vaguely guilty about what we consume from it. There's immense creative power behind the screen. Instead of worrying about it, lamenting it, and disparaging it, we should focus on learning how best to use it --- to gather, understand, shape, and share the information around us.

Placebo-philes

Audiophiles have gotten a lot of bad press recently, what with the apparently silly Pono music player (which plays much higher quality audio files despite almost no one being able to hear the difference) and the news from Wired magazine that "burning in" your headphones has no discernible effect on sound quality. Reading about the truly insane things audiophiles will do in pursuit of the perfect sound, I can't help reflecting back on that unfortunate period in my life when I almost fell down the same rabbit hole.

For me it started with a simple search for better headphones. I think I typed "best headphones under $50" into Google, and what came back was a series of lists, like this one or this one, ranking the best headphones at a series of price ranges. I settled on a pair pretty quickly, and when they arrived I loved them, but those lists had planted their hooks in my brain. How much better would my music sound if I were willing to spend just a little bit more?

I decided to research what headphones I would buy the next time I had saved up a decent amount of money, and my research led me to my first (and really only) foray into Internet forums: a website called Head-Fi, where enthusiasts gather to discuss, argue, and bond over their love of headphones and headphone-related accessories. It was a remarkably friendly place for people who enjoyed tuning out the world, but darkness lurked at the edges. People would post glowing reviews of the headphones they just bought, and others would weigh in about how much they loved those headphones too, but inevitably someone would say how those headphones would sound even better if connected to a decent headphone amplifier. Or a decent digital audio converter. Or how those headphones didn't even compare to these other headphones that just cost a little more.

The perfect headphone set up always cost just a little bit more. Audio nirvana was always just out of reach.

Over the course of three years, I wound up buying one pair of headphones that cost about $100, then another that cost about $150, then a headphone amplifier that cost about $100, then another headphone amplifier that cost several hundred, then a special iPod that had been rewired for better sound, then several more pairs of headphones, each more expensive than the last. It helped that the internet made it easy to resell my previous purchases in order to fund my new purchases. At the height of my sickness, my portable sound system looked like this:

portable rig

But that was nothing compared to the equipment (and prices paid) by many. The most money I ever paid for headphones was about $300. But the best headphones were going for more than $1000, and the best amplifiers and related devices were many times that. People would post pictures like this:

high end rig

and I'd wonder what in God's name that would sound like.

I don't think it's an accident that this period in my life was the same period in which I had two children in diapers and an extremely stressful job. After putting the kids to bed, if I didn't have any more work to do, and if my wife wanted to watch TV, I would find a quiet spot in the house and get lost in the increasingly detailed soundstage my gear supplied.

But the specter that loomed over everything was the idea that this was all some big placebo effect. I would occasionally spend an evening listening to a song on my new set of headphones and then on my old set, or with my new amplifier and then my old amplifier. I would make my wife listen to see if she heard a difference. Sometimes she did, sometimes she didn't. Sometimes I didn't. Every once in a while, I'd read a post on Head-fi about someone who was selling everything he'd bought because he realized he was listening to his equipment rather than music. I finally had the same realization and made the same decision. At the time, I felt like a recovering addict, or a victim of a con artist, reformed but slightly ashamed.

I got a new percpective on that period, however, when I this recent piece by Felix Salmon (via Kottke) about converting money into happiness. Salmon is also interested in placebo effects, specifically in the world of wine tasting, where experiments have frequently shown that very few people call tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine, or even the difference between red and white wine. When I first read about those studies, they reminded me of the scene in Brideshead Revisited when a couple guys get drunk and describe the wine they're tasting with increasingly absurd metaphors:

"….It is a little shy wine like a gazelle." "Like a leprechaun." "Dappled in a tapestry window." "and this is a wise old wine." "A prophet in a cave." "and this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck." "Like a swan." "Like the last unicorn."

I had moments almost as absurd with my headphones, when I heard things inside songs I swore I'd never heard before, when I felt as if parts of the music were two dimensional backdrops and then three dimensional shapes would leap out of the picture towards me, or the music would drizzle over my head, or crackle like lightning, or I'd swear I could smell the studio where the song had been recorded, or something.

In other words, I was an idiot. Because on other nights, usually after I'd owned that same set of gear for a little while, I wouldn't hear those things any more, and I'd start thinking that I needed better gear. I needed a new placebo affect.

It's easy to sneer at the placebo effect, or to feel ashamed of it when you're its victim. And that's precisely why I found Felix Salmon's piece revelatory, because instead of sneering at the placebo effect of fancy wine, its marketing, and its slightly higher prices, he thinks we should take advantage of it. If the placebo effect makes us happy, why not take advantage of that happiness?

The more you spend on a wine, the more you like it. It really doesn’t matter what the wine is at all. But when you’re primed to taste a wine which you know a bit about, including the fact that you spent a significant amount of money on, then you’ll find things in that bottle which you love ... After all, what you see on the label, including what you see on the price tag, is important information which can tell you a lot about what you’re drinking. And the key to any kind of connoisseurship is informed appreciation of something beautiful.

This idea of "informed appreciation" reminds me of another area of modern life beset by placebo effects: the world of alternative medicine. In a recent article for the Atlantic, David H. Freedman argues that there's virtually no scientific evidence that alternative medicine (anything from chiropractic care to acupuncture) has any curative benefit beyond a placebo effect. And so many scientists are outraged that anyone takes alternative medicine seriously. However, there is one area where alternative medicine often trumps traditional medicine: stress reduction. And stress reduction can, of course, make a huge impact on people's health. The Atlantic article quotes Elizabeth Blackburn, a biologist at the University of California at San Francisco and a Nobel laureate.

“We tend to forget how powerful an organ the brain is in our biology,” Blackburn told me. “It’s the big controller. We’re seeing that the brain pokes its nose into a lot of the processes involved in these chronic diseases. It’s not that you can wish these diseases away, but it seems we can prevent and slow their onset with stress management.” Numerous studies have found that stress impairs the immune system, and a recent study found that relieving stress even seems to be linked to slowing the progression of cancer in some patients.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a trip to the chiropractor or the acupuncturist is much more likely to reduce your stress than a trip to the doctor. If anything, a trip to the doctor makes you more anxious.

Maybe each of these activities (listening to high end audio gear, drinking high end wine, having needles inserted into your chakras) is really about ritualizing a sensory experience. By putting on headphones you know are high quality, or drinking expensive wine, or entering the chiropractor's office, you are telling yourself, "I am going to focus on this moment. I am going to savor this." It's the act of savoring, rather than the savoring tool, that results in both happiness and a longer life.

Of course, you don't need ultra high end gear to enjoy your music, or ultra high end wine to enjoy your evening, just as you shouldn't solely use acupuncture to treat your cancer. It might be as effective to learn how to meditate. But maybe we all just need to meditate in different ways.

Love the GoldieBlox Video, but Not the Toys

I once paid my daughter a dollar to not buy a princess backpack. And when she recently announced, "I don't need to know math, because I'm going to grow up to be a supermodel," my brain nearly melted out of my ears. I spent the next thirty minutes (or so) half-ranting, half-explaining to her how she has to fight against a culture that believes the most important thing about a girl is being pretty. So I'm totally down with the sentiment of this video.

But then I get to the end and see that the product being advertised, GoldieBlox, is apparently just a set of blocks "for girls." Which makes me wonder, do girls need blocks "for girls"? Why can't they just use blocks?

The company's website has an answer:

Our founder, Debbie, spent a year researching gender differences to develop a construction toy that went deeper than just "making it pink" to appeal to girls. She read countless articles on the female brain, cognitive development and children's play patterns...Her big "aha"? Girls have strong verbal skills. They love stories and characters. They aren't as interested in building for the sake of building; they want to know why. GoldieBlox stories replace the 1-2-3 instruction manual and provide narrative-based building, centered around a role model character who solves problems by building machines. Goldie's stories relate to girls' lives, have a sense of humor and make engineering fun.

I find this somewhat persuasive but also strange. The idea behind the video is that girls just need to be taught to see themselves as more than princesses, that they just need to overcome the culture's brainwashing to become the builders they were meant to be. And yet, the message above seems to be that girls are naturally more in tune with verbal skills than spacial skills. So apparently the only way to lure them into using a spacial toy is with verbal bait? I'm not buying it.

After a brief search for studies on gendered toy preference, I stumbled on Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, a professor at the Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University, who has been conducting a toy study for the past few years, trying to determine which types of toys tend to elicit the most complex forms of play. And he made some interesting findings about toy preference among boys and girls.

What set the highest-scoring toys apart was that they prompted problem solving, social interaction, and creative expression in both boys and girls. Interestingly, toys that have traditionally been viewed as male oriented—construction toys and toy vehicles, for example—elicited the highest quality play among girls.

He also says,

One trend that is emerging from our studies can serve as a guide to families as they choose toys: Basic is better. The highest-scoring toys so far have been quite simple: hardwood blocks, a set of wooden vehicles and road signs, and classic wooden construction toys. These toys are relatively open-ended, so children can use them in multiple ways.

The accompanying video for the study bears this out (study findings begin at 3:10).

One of the most basic toys they studied, a set of multicolored wooden blocks in the shape of stick figures called Rainbow People, turned out to be among the most successful in encouraging open-ended play. Children created trains of Rainbow People, made towers of Rainbow People, made up stories about rainbow people, and so on. Even the teachers admitted that they didn't expect these simple toys to be so popular. And indeed, the children weren't interested in them at first. But once they started exploring the toys, they played with them longer and more creatively than much flashier options.

The implication of the video is that both children and adults are often drawn to toys that don't actually foster the most creative play. Toy companies do a lot of research on kids, but their research is geared toward getting kids to want their toys, not necessarily getting kids to play extensively with those toys. Lego's sales went through the roof after they started making highly gendered building sets based on Star Wars, etc. But as any parent can tell you, building these Lego sets tends to follow a linear trajectory: follow the instructions until the X-wing fighter is complete, put on shelf. Not a lot of open-ended play there.

All of which goes to say that while I love the GoldieBlox video, I think the GoldieBlox toys are misguided, just as I think Lego's attempt to woo girls was misguided. You don't teach kids how to think and build creatively by giving them ready-made narratives to build around. And you don't encourage open-ended play by making your building toys highly gendered. The best building toys are the simplest. What we need to do is advocate for a new aisle in the toy section where boys and girls can each find creative toys to play with, side by side, and build things we've never seen out of their own imaginations.

Anxiety and the Marc Maron Interview

I was never good at hitting news pegs when I worked in public radio, and so it's no surprise that I'm writing my thoughts about Marc Maron and his podcast WTF weeks after the show's 400th episode. But seeing various websites compile their favorite episodes of the show, I wanted to write about how important Maron's voice was to my own life when I first discovered it.

I have Ira Glass to thank for the discovery. He recommended WTF back in 2010, describing it as "the New York Times of comedy podcasts." In retrospect, as much as I love Ira Glass, this is a terrible analogy. WTF is neither the New York Times of anything nor the anything of comedy podcasts. While WTF contains elements of journalism and comedy, it is wholly its own thing, some new hybrid art form, mixing comedy, interview and audio-memoir. Though Maron comes from the world of standup comedy and primarily interviews standup comedians, I don't even think his show is primarily about comedy. It's just that comedy, and the practice of comedy, offers the best lens for examining Maron's most enduring subject, which is anxiety.

The origin story of the podcast is legendary. After ending his second marriage, losing his job at Air America, failing to break through as a mainstream standup comic, and (by his own account) approaching the verge of suicide, Maron started interviewing fellow comedians in his garage, partly to examine why he hadn't achieved more success in his life. The critic David Haglund has argued in Slate that it was precisely this exploration of failure that made the show resonate with listeners.

When your work life is not going well—especially if you’re professionally ambitious and even more so if your chosen field is the sort that has an audience—it is easy to isolate yourself, to shy away from friends and from peers and avoid acknowledging that things are not going as you hoped they would. Much of the power of WTF comes from Maron doing the exact opposite of that. He said to the world, “My life is a disaster right now. Help me understand what the fuck is going on.” (I’m paraphrasing.) It is maybe not a coincidence that his podcast became a phenomenon at a time when many Americans were losing their jobs.

It may not be a coincidence that I started listening to the show after I had quit my own job and then failed to find the next thing I wanted to do. I was teaching part time at a technical college, but on my days off, I would struggle to work on a novel or a number of radio stories that never came to fruition. In the afternoons, I would go for a jog or a bike ride, exercise providing the only part of the day that I could be sure I hadn't wasted. I no longer felt the excessively sharp teeth of anxiety that had plagued me in my previous job, but I still felt dizzy from the view of the precipice between this life and that one, not sure if I'd made the right choice for myself or my family, and it was into the midst of that doubt that Marc Maron's sandpapery voice entered and served as a remarkably comforting companion.

The appeal of those early episodes is the hunger with which Maron pursues wisdom for the purpose of improving his own life, and his quest is especially intoxicating if you identify with his creative struggles. But what's revelatory, even if it should be obvious, is to hear Maron uncover not the secrets of happiness but how hard even his most successful peers have struggled and continue to struggle with stress, anxiety, rage, and depression, just like he does.

Almost everyone agrees that the pinnacle of WTF is the interview with Louis CK, partly because he and Maron share so much history. The interview itself becomes a kind of excavation of a friendship that had died as a result of Maron's resentment over CK's success. What I love is how baldly CK lays out the history of his own moments of abject failure and desperation as he struggled to make it as a comic. One of my favorite parts of the interview is what might be called the parable of the trumpet and the peep show, excerpted below.

I retold this story to my wife recently, and instead of being amused, she was mortified. "I'm not sure what you want me to make of that," she said. "Are you planning to spend $1400 on something or what?" I couldn't quite figure out at the time what made it so important to me, but thinking of it now, the story reminds me of something I read in an essay (subscription required, sadly) by Andrew Solomon, describing his own bouts of anxiety-fueled depression. He offered the following analogy.

If you trip or slip, there is a moment, before your hand shoots out to break your fall, when you feel the earth rushing up at you and you cannot help yourself—a passing, fraction-of-a-second horror. I felt this way for days.

In his story of the trumpet and the peepshow, Louis CK is describing his own desperate attempt to stave off this kind of anxiety, his own hand shooting out, and what it grabbed to break his fall. Maybe if I grab this trumpet I won't fall. Maybe if I grab this orgasm I won't fall. Maybe if I can just distract myself for a second from this sensation of horror, I can catch my breath and things will be okay. I know this sensation well. Often, in those days after I quit my job, what I grabbed was a two hour jog with Marc Maron in my ears.

Maron returns to the theme of anxiety again and again in his interviews with comedians. Of course, it's truism that most comedians are troubled, depressive, addictive personalities. But it hadn't ever occurred to me that so many of them would suffer specifically from anxiety. Of course, standup comedy is actually the perfect venue for someone to confront their anxiety and conquer it publicly. As Maron frequently puts it, comedians are often drawn to comedy because it's the one place where they can control why people are laughing at them. Maron made this point in another of my favorite episodes of WTF, an interview with writer/director/produce Judd Apatow.

I love that so much. "Is there any point where I get enough approval? And I've realized, there is no point." It's such a naked admission. This is just one example of why WTF, at its best, towers over all other comedy podcasts. Because it's not a comedy podcast. It's an exploration of the failure all creative people fear, no matter how successful they become, how that fear can both paralyze and inspire, and how we can get through it by telling each other stories and occasionally laughing.