2014 Reading Recap

Books read in 2014

Hell (Robert Olen Butler)
The story of a guy who gets dead and then tries to escape hell, but ultimately the slow pacing and unwelcoming characters feel like a slog through purgatory. Considering the book’s hype, I’m clearly missing something.

American Gods (Neil Gaiman)
What happens when an ex-con with nothing to live for is employed by a living god and begins affecting a global war between the New and Old gods. Gaiman’s star-studded career writing for comic books shines through: his narrative is crisp, characters are fascinating, and plenty of dark corners are left for the reader to contemplate. A classic.

The Enterprise of Death (Jesse Bullington)
So there’s this teenage slave who is captured by a necromancer, becomes his apprentice, and before escaping learns the secrets of resurrection, the undead and the spirit worlds. Before the ultimate showdown, she travels with soldiers, whores and cracked doctors while battling off-the-deep-end Inquisitors.

Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson)
You’ve all read it, or at least know the story. This is to pirates what Bram Stoker’s Dracula is to vampires. Compelling, original, and completely worth your time.

Carrion Comfort (Dan Simmons)
A book about mind vampires, Nazis, corruption and control. A horror story in the Stephen King genre, yes, but the real terror is the crippling racism that pervades every character, making the everyday passerby as hair-raising as the ghouls running concentration camps.

The Casual Vacancy (JK Rowling)
When a local councilman dies without warning, a tiny English hamlet spins off the rails as politics and biases bubble like effervescent acid to the surface. Rowling’s ability to create life-like characters with the most subtle nuance, just a few words, is unparalleled, and what sounds like a flaky plot concept becomes a reflective, incisive, cruel and delicate page-turner that cannot be put down. Highly recommended.

Neuromancer (William Gibson)
For the science fiction / dark future fan, this book is the primer for a hundred other novels, television series, movies and techno albums. Gibson paints a psychedelic and unsettling future of wide economic separation, haywire AI, and military corruption that moves at the speed of the motorcycle battle in Akira. This was my second time through, and I’m already planning a third.

The Dante Club (Matthew Pearl)
Murders that mimic passages in The Inferno confound police. Who else can solve them but a bunch of poets working on a translation of Dante’s works? A meh mystery novel, but a dandy romp for Dante trainspotters.

The Crook Factory (Dan Simmons)
Nazi forces swarm around Cuba, but the U.S. can’t officially do much except send a secret agent to team up with Ernest Hemingway for covert surveillance. A fun history-based adventure, but the real gem is the character study of Hemingway.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Ransom Riggs)
A teenager visits Scotland to untangle his funky family history, and ends up stepping back into time to instead find a school that was home for children with creepy superpowerish abilities. The magic of this book is in the authentic period photography of kids. (Of course there’s a movie, and of course it’s directed by Tim Burton.)

Inferno (Dan Brown)
Dumb and unrewarding. Even for Dan Brown.

Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth (Curt Stager)
What’s next for us? Not tomorrow, not 2020, but far, far into the future, where almost nothing is guaranteed? Curt Stager addresses the big question of human life so far out that the only clues we have is what’s already happened. Astronomy, tectonics, climate change … all will shape how, and where, we live.

Content Everywhere (Sara Wachter-Boettcher)
A beautifully written and illustrated book delving deep into structured content, and how modularity as a strategy can serve every content channel. A perfect complement to anything Karen McGrane.

Mental Models (Indi Young)
This book is cited often, so I read it. A fascinating UX strategy born from real-world practice. Mandatory reading for #UX friends.

LavaCon 2014 Wrap-Up

My first LavaCon, and I was impressed. Great city and venue, engaging speakers both new and known, tasty food at every turn. Jack Molisani operated at next-level super-host speeds, checking in almost every session, making sure folks had everything they needed. Not that he needed to. The execution and attention to detail were top-notch.

There were so many appealing sessions running in parallel (five session tracks) that I vacillated often on which to attend. Competition for attention was fierce. While I appreciate the diversity of speakers, there’s a compelling argument for the simplified experience of single-track conferences like An Event Apart.

For those that sat through my humble presentation: thank you. We had an expansive conversation on taking content global, touching on localization, cultural nuances, and workflows that won’t make you go mad. There’s no faster way to up your game than speak with folks smarter than you, and my game was measurably upped.

If you’re interested, here are the slides:

Going Global Without Going Insane from Kevin Potts

Teaching Myself French

In May, my wife and I went to France and Italy for a few weeks. Besides the amazeballs wine, food, history and beauty, I was humbled by the ease at which our friends in Europe switched between languages. I’m from the States. Multilingualism is an afterthought. A grasp of english and a mouth-breathing ego carry most folks from kindergarten to grave. The European paradigm was humbling. I felt viscerally foreign. American.

But it was also inspiring. So in July, I started teaching myself French.

Besides my own time, this is a straight-up zero-budget project. So without money, books, tutors or oversight, I did what any self-respecting n00b would do: fired up ye olde app store.

First app: Duolingo

  • Immediately useful. You “taste” the language right away.
  • Starts right in with patterns. Word memorization is de-emphasized. Assumes nothing and does not apologize for it.
  • Fluid and zippy interface. Colorful, approachable. Gamey.

Second app: Memrise

  • More traditional approach: memorization, grammar, building blocks.
  • Builds a broader vocabulary from the start. Gets into more complex phrases quicker. Harder.
  • Clunkier interface, but very responsive. More diverse audio samples (a good thing).


Both emphasize audio. I find this critical, because spoken and written French are basically different languages. Little is phonetic, and verb forms written differently are pronounced the same. Dictation, predictably, is a struggle as it’s the crossing of these streams.

The major downside to the app-first approach is lack of human interaction. Both push you right into the weeds of rules without explanation. Time after time my question is not “how do I say this?” but “why do I say it this way?” Adjective placement varies, noun gender feels arbitrary, and question structure continues to confound.

Ironically, the best thing about the apps is their web complements. Both offer a richer, explanatory and contextual web application that provides interactivity and detail not present on the tiny screen. Example: Duolingo provides commenting for every phrase. Like PHP, this community conversation is a trove of useful doofus-friendly detail.

But it’s not enough. I purchased my first helper book to provide the formal explanation the apps lack. And I still wish I had a human over my shoulder.


OK, I guess. I can frame short sentences: Bonjour. Le chat a mange une souris. Je suis un americain enneyeux. Etc. But little meaningful writing, and not much reading comprehension, and a live conversation would terrify me.

I’ll keep going. I’m not sure I can ever be fluent without engaging in real-life conversations, but I can at least have a strong academic understanding to, like, read wine bottles and stuff.

Editorially and the Incumbent

Editorially came out of the gate with a vision to change the way content is created. It led with a deep appreciation for the writing process, and provided the writer a sophistegant1 authoring experience. The talent behind it was huge. The focus was 100%. When the curtain lifted, the crowd went wild. But one year to the day after announcing the product, the team announced its closure. One year.

Many, myself included, brayed like vindicated 6-year-olds about the zero-revenue business model. In general, I think giving away a product for free is stupid. But let’s be honest: the inconvenience of not making money has never stopped the tech industry before.

Rather, this line in the post “Goodbye” was telling:

But Editorially has failed to attract enough users to be sustainable, and we cannot honestly say we have reason to expect that to change.

And later:

Even if all of our users paid up, it wouldn’t be enough.

Indeed, revenue is irrelevant without adoption.

The obvious question: why was adoption poor? Editorially had the product, the talent and the exposure to stake a lead position in the swirly market of collaborative writing and editing tools. The prospective customer base is near infinite — besides marketing writers, editorial staff, pro bloggers and authors, there’s a computationally infinite long tail of hacks, wannabes, students and Buzzfeed contributors.

In my experience, the impediment is simple and obvious and painful: Microsoft Word.

Organizations construct communications infrastructure built upon Word, using it and abusing it every time something needs to be written about anything. It’s both scratchpad for CEOs and publishing engine for editorial teams, as embedded as business cards and fake ferns. This isn’t inherently bad. Features like commenting, change-tracking, view-switching, data parsing and visual formatting are chocolate-cake rich. Word is messy and unstructured but its convenience is narcotic.

Writers like Word. Organizations standardize on Word. The world works in Word. So switching away from Word is not like switching to a different car, it’s like driving on the other side of the road. In a hovercraft. Backward.

I learned this the hard way in 2009 when I tried to move my marketing team to Writeboard, 37signals’ collaborative writing tool. I thought it was a lay-up. Built-in version control, live collaboration, native integration to Basecamp. The pilot never got out of the locker room. Within one day, writers fell back to posting Word docs in Basecamp — because that’s what the rest of the organization needed.

Ultimately, that’s the problem. Editorially attracted a legion of early adopters, some graduating into full evangelists, many who would happily pay for the tool. But we’re dealing with a 300 situation: even the loudest, staunchest, feistiest cadre mean little to an institution of millions that regards the most sophisticated writing tool on the planet as a firmware-grade commodity and whose complacency with said tool has settled like concrete.

I’m bummed to see Editorially go. It was a genuinely great product. You can still use Gather Content, Penflip, Quink, Draft, Typewrite, StackEdit, Live Documents, Quip, Texts, Contentful or god help me Google Docs. Author in the cloud, format with Markdown, version with git. The rest of the world just needs to know if you can email them that Word file.

1 Sophisticated and elegant. Just made that up.

Augmented Reality Does Not Have to Be a Douchebag's Wingman

Recently, Infinity Augmented Reality launched a video about the nearish future of augmented reality built upon what they humbly describe as “the first augmented reality software platform to connect universally with digital eyewear, smartphones and tablets, integrating multiple devices into one platform.”

Intriguing. But ultimately disappointing. Instead of augmented reality solving actual problems, their concept video reinforces and exacerbates all of the negative swirl most recently witnessed over Google Glass. Specifically: it’s a creepy product worn by creepy douchebags.

This three-minute joyride of masturbatory “because we can” technology showcases and promotes white entitlement, class elitism, sexism, and cheating. The near-incoherent “script” kneels before the alter of personal gain at the expense of others. It purposefully dismisses humility and privacy. After all, why play fair when you have cheat codes for society? The narrative could only have been devised by an American.

A Missed Opportunity

On one hand, the presentation lands tone-deaf to the current economic and societal challenges the world faces. On the other hand, the presentation fumbles away the product’s actual promise.

Taking a picture? Getting a weather report? Directions? Unlocking a car door? A speedometer? Dictating a Facebook message? That’s not revolution, it’s more interface.

The interesting bits — calculating billiards shots, face-scanning and tone recognition, playing digital dress-up with clothing inventory — glimpse at something more than an iPhone app. But ultimately, real-world challenges are traded away for rich white people inconveniences.

It’s too easy to paint this picture.

What if augmented reality were put to good use? A few ideas:

  • A farmer surveys their fields and evaluates each crop’s growing stage, patches of drought, soil health, evidence of disease. They are fed a prediction of optimal harvest time modeled on current trends and weather forecasts.
  • A hiker instantly identifies the snake that just bit her.
  • A museum provides context to each piece in its collection, including deep magnification of details, the political environment and artist’s life-state at the time of creation, and a public forum about the piece from others currently in the building.
  • A traveler helps someone with a disabled vehicle on the side of the road with real-time directions for changing the tire.
  • A doctor accesses a new patient’s complete medical record — past visits, X-ray images, prescriptions, doctor notes, current insurance — to make an appropriate diagnosis.
  • A first-responder better evaluates wounds while having visibility into the quantity and position of medical supplies en route to the emergency.
  • An architect programs a prospective interior design to a room space so the client can literally walk through a concept.
  • A troop on the ground can better identify legitimate targets to reduce civilian casualties.
  • A foreigner receives translations for signs, signals and speech in real time.
  • A pedestrian passes a fundraiser and makes a donation on the spot.

We Can Do Better

Augmented reality can literally change the world. We can do better than a Day in the Life of a Douche.