Wisdom of the Kickstarter crowd?

I didn't realize this, but “Kickstarter now raises more money for artistic projects each year than the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).” In light of that, an HBS professor decided to study whether the NEA and people on Kickstarter differ in how they select which projects to fund.

"First, it's important to consider that there's a bit of an art to raising money from the crowd," Nanda says. "Sometimes the judges liked projects for which the artists hadn't quite figured that part out. That said, most of the disagreements were on projects that the crowd liked but that the judges would potentially have given less money to or not have funded at all. Those particular crowd favorites showed more variance. They were more likely to be breakout hits, but also included one flop that judges might potentially have been able to stop." 
 
The crowd aggregation allowed the funding of many projects that were slightly outside the purview of what judges focused on, suggesting that Kickstarter's democratization enables a greater breadth of artistic production, says Nanda. At the same time, the study recognized that Kickstarter supporters weren't always applying the same kind of discipline and rigor in their analysis of projects. They simply liked a project and supported it, or didn't. 
 
"Overall, the general sense is that the projects that found success on Kickstarter were by no means crazy," Nanda says. "Quite the opposite. The average size of the project in our sample was similar to the average size of a project funded by the NEA. And yet, you can imagine that the kinds of projects people put on Kickstarter and the kind they submit to the NEA are quite different in composition and style, which is why we can't definitively say whether crowdfunding is a substitute to grant-making bodies such as the NEA."
 

The one advantage of Kickstarter over a grant from the NEA is that your supporters on Kickstarter effectively become your first audience. That is, given a fixed amount of funding, I'd hypothesize that getting that amount in small doses from lots of people is more optimal than getting all of it from one entity or person. It's a healthier, lower risk distribution of funds.

Longer term, the rise of crowdfunding is part of what I consider a healthy trend towards disintermediation in the arts, putting more of the tools of fundraising, production, distribution, marketing, etc., directly in artists' hands. Kickstarter doesn't just enable artists to raise money, it gives them a direct line to many of their fans, one they can turn to even after the project is complete.

The Assassin

I do not always have Cannes Film Festival envy, but this year I do, in spades, because Hou Hsiao-Hsien, one of my favorite directors, just premiered his new movie The Assassin there. It stars his long time muse Shu Qi. I will see anything he does.

David Bordwell got an opportunity to visit the set two years ago.

Years ago Hou said in an interview that perhaps he is too meticulous when it comes to mise-en-scène. This clearly has not changed. On the first day the camera was not yet on the set. Overheard snippets of Hou’s extended discussions with Huang Wen-ying, Mark Lee and others, gave the impression initially that he was going to shoot an interior scene one way, then another, only by the end of the evening to lead me to believe it had changed once again. Then on the second day, the first day of actual shooting, I returned in the morning to discover that the scene was covered from yet another angle.
 
Throughout that morning, that single setup underwent three more metamorphoses. Hou and his colleagues tinkered with the set and props so extensively that they broke for lunch before actually shooting — this despite the actors all being on call since around 6:30 am. Not bounded by the union rules typical on a Hollywood set, Hou at times was directly involved in adjusting several minute details. Hou is as meticulous as ever.
 
Hou never uses storyboards or shot lists. He does not even write out dialogue beforehand for the actors. His scenes have always grown out of the specifics of a setting—usually real locations that spark his imaginative staging and lighting. His modus operandi is to then respond directly to the atmosphere he finds himself in, no matter how long that takes. Everybody who works for him seems to understand this.
 

No dialogue, no script, no shot list. Process-wise, he sounds just like another of my favorite directors, and one he's often grouped with, Wong Kar Wai. Their movies have many similarities, chief among them the ability to capture a mood, a sensation, the feel of a story more than the structure of it.

Is the process integral to producing that type of movie? Does agile development lead to a different type of product than, say, waterfall development? It seems obvious that it would, but the Bordwell piece is worth reading to understand the mechanics of just how.

I really hope this movie comes to TIFF this fall. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is a Taiwanese treasure.

Last of the monoculture

Grandiose as it sounds, watching Letterman pace the stage, charisma still radiating, I couldn’t help thinking that this guy represents the last vestiges of the monoculture. The fortress of macro-entertainment has crumbled. The new late-night shows have no prayer of reaching all of America, all at once. They can’t rely on a docile audience that will patiently sit through the second celebrity guest and into the loopy, end-of-hour conversation with Fran Lebowitz, or the time-filling, willfully bizarre skit with Chris Elliot.
 
You can see it in the way the other hosts plod wearily through their audience interactions, passing time until the cameras roll again: They barely knew we were there. These shows are designed to chase likes and shares, to be easily chopped up into discrete grabs for elusive virality. There’s no need to put on a really big show in a really big theater when your end goal is a 30-second clip that will play in a tiny frame on someone’s Facebook feed. The studio audience is a vestige, too. But at Letterman, at least for one more week, a live taping still feels magical.
 

Seth Stevenson writes about his experience attending live tapings of all the late night talk shows.

I don't know that we've seen the last of monoculture monoliths, but the bar is set much higher now, as it is for all our cultural products. Watching these late night talk shows at all, let alone watching live, just doesn't exceed the bar of cultural touchstone (and by the way, no one except the studio audience watched these episodes live, they're always taped earlier that day, many hours before they air on television). The ratings reflect that.

I grew up with Letterman, though I rarely got to watch his show when it aired. It always came on after my parents made me go to bed. I've seen enough of his show across the years to feel his sensibility as a familiar one, though. His was the first show that had such a wry sensibility about the whole show business affair, that didn't seem overly impressed with itself for being on television. That such an approach to comedy is so widespread now is just one of the challenges for late night talk shows like Letterman's, but he was the pioneer.

He was also as comfortable in his own skin as any TV personality I've seen. It translated into an on screen confidence and honesty that separated him profoundly from someone like, say, Jay Leno, who has always had the air of a rehearsed performer seeking audience approval and laughter. Letterman was so honest it was evident when he had no interest in one of his guests or conversely when he had a real flirtatious chemistry with a female guest. You knew when he was upset, just as it was clear as soon as he ambled on stage whether he was feeling particularly chipper that night.

Someone that honest and that you encounter regularly across so many decades...well, they feel like a friend. Or a family member. So in two hours, I'm going to tune in to say my goodbye.

Supposedly irrelevant factors

There is a version of this magic market argument that I call the invisible hand wave. It goes something like this. “Yes, it is true that my spouse and my students and members of Congress don’t understand anything about economics, but when they have to interact with markets. ...” It is at this point that the hand waving comes in. Words and phrases such as high stakes, learning and arbitrage are thrown around to suggest some of the ways that markets can do their magic, but it is my claim that no one has ever finished making the argument with both hands remaining still. 
 
Hand waving is required because there is nothing in the workings of markets that turns otherwise normal human beings into Econs. For example, if you choose the wrong career, select the wrong mortgage or fail to save for retirement, markets do not correct those failings. In fact, quite the opposite often happens. It is much easier to make money by catering to consumers’ biases than by trying to correct them. 
 
Perhaps because of undue acceptance of invisible-hand-wave arguments, economists have been ignoring supposedly irrelevant factors, comforted by the knowledge that in markets these factors just wouldn’t matter. Alas, both the field of economics and society are much worse for it. Supposedly irrelevant factors, or SIFs, matter a lot, and if we economists recognize their importance, we can do our jobs better. Behavioral economics is, to a large extent, standard economics that has been modified to incorporate SIFs.
 

Richard Thaler on behavioral economics. Again and again, studies have put cracks in the edifice of rational homo economicus.

SIFs exist in product design, too. The myth of the rational utility-maximizing user can be just as pernicious and misleading an assumption. If it wasn't, we wouldn't need concepts like smart defaults in apps, the design equivalent of nudges like retirement savings programs that are opt out instead of opt in.

Frictionless product design

Great post by Steve Sinofsky on the difference between minimalist and frictionless product design.

Frictionless and minimalism are related but not necessarily the same. Often they are conflated which can lead to design debates that are difficult to resolve.
 
A design can be minimal but still have a great deal of friction. The Linux command line interface is a great example of minimal design with high friction. You can do everything through a single prompt, as long as you know what to type and when. The minimalism is wonderful, but the ability to get going comes with high friction. The Unix philosophy of small cooperating tools is wonderfully minimal (every tool does a small number of things and does them well), but the learning and skills required are high friction.
 
  • Minimalist design is about reducing the surface area of an experience.
  • Frictionless design is about reducing the energy required by an experience.
     

This is a critical distinction that not many understand, but it's critical to absorb in this age where minimum viable product (MVP) and minimalist design are so in vogue. What you want isn't minimalism, it's something else. I had never come up with a concise way of encapsulating this “something else,” but Sinofsky's “frictionless design” is perfect, and his playbook of low-friction design patterns is worth internalizing for any product person.

To the untrained eye, a more minimalist design always seems like superior design, but often it leads to higher friction. A door that only swings one direction might be cleaner with no handle of any sort, but the handle is an affordance that clues a user into whether they should push or pull the door.

A lot of first generation mobile apps for well-established web products and services were so far from feature parity with their web brethren that they were arguably too minimalist. While the smaller screen size and touch interaction method forced some healthy simplification, some mobile apps lacked basic functions that users associated with the product or service, and thus the apps just seemed crippled. It's often a fine line between MVP and broken.

I download lots of mobile apps nowadays that are so in love with minimalist design I can barely figure out how to use them, and even after I learn, I've forgotten by the next session (unless it's an app that warrants daily or near daily use, a lot can be forgotten in between sessions). Lots employ gestures, which are very difficult to discover. Many employ icons without text labels and might as well be showing me hieroglyphics from ancient Egypt.

On the other hand, if you always listen to your earliest users, your power users, you often end up with a product that just gets more and more bloated and complex over time. I remember hearing someone say once that users only use 20 percent of the features in Excel, but every users uses a different 20 percent.

Low end disruption theory (one of the two dominant variants of the theory) says that products and services can grow to the point where they over-serve a market. At that point, a simpler, lesser featured, lower-cost competitor comes in to steal share from underneath you.

Since so many of the world's largest apps and services today are free, the cost advantage doesn't come into play as much when it comes to low end disruption in software, but products and services can absolutely over-serve on features. Instead of a price umbrella that competitors sneak in under, it's a complexity umbrella that leaves market openings for more intuitive customer experiences.

Lower friction design matters, and today the returns are higher than they've ever been. If you can build a lower friction mousetrap, it's often enough to create a new market even if the incumbent can do everything you do and more; in fact, it's often because they do more that you create a new market. Software is so powerful it can solve almost any problem, but don't forget the cost side of the ledger. Until we shift into a new design medium that isn't based around functionality mapped to icons and menus in screen real estate 2 , added functionality all comes with a tax on user comprehension.

  1. The most promising of these alternate design paradigms in the near term is text. In the medium term: voice. In the longer term, the most promising I've seen is virtual reality. All of those can map to behaviors humans learn from a very early age and thus the learning curve is dramatically flattened. Furthermore, screen real estate is less of a limiting factor.

How to solve chronic homelessness

Sam Tsemberis came up with a novel solution to solving chronic homelessness: give people homes, no strings attached.

Homeless services once worked like a reward system. Kick an addiction, get a home. Take some medication, get counseling. But Tsemberis’s model, called “housing first,” said the order was backward. Someone has the best chance of improving if they’re stabilized in a home.
 
It works like this: First, prioritize the chronically homeless, defined as those with mental or physical disabilities who are homeless for longer than a year or have experienced four episodes within three years. They’re the most difficult homeless to reabsorb into society and rack up the most significant public costs in hospital stays, jail sentences and shelter visits.
 
Then give them a home, no questions asked. Immediately afterward, provide counseling, a step research shows is the most vital. Give them final say in everything — where they live, what they own, how often they’re counseled.
 

You can read more about the Housing First model at Pathways to Housing, the organization Tsemberis founded and runs. What's beautiful about Tsemberis' approach is how it comes from a place of empathy for the homeless, rather than distrust or disdain, which is how the current system of helping the homeless approaches them. First he realized that these were people with an inherent resourcefulness and strength, contrary to most people's opinions of them as lazy drunks and drug addicts.

And so, it perhaps came as a surprise when, in the early nineties, he took a job in New York City doing outreach for the mentally ill, which brought him into close contact with the homeless. He soon sank into their hidden world, noting the complexity of its social rules and survival tactics. How some experts perceived homelessness, he said he realized, was fundamentally flawed. This world’s denizens, in fact, were profoundly resourceful.
 
“We were equating the severity of diagnosis with ability to function,” he said. “But surviving in homelessness is labor intensive, exhausting and complicated. It calls for a skill set of functionality.”
 

By living among the homeless and understanding their plight, Tsemberis saw that the stress of being homeless is so great it is almost impossible to recover while living on the street.

Housing First was developed to serve the chronically homelessness who suffer from serious psychiatric disabilities and addictions. Traditionally, the chronically homeless live in a cycle of surviving on the street, being admitted to hospitals, shelters, or jails and then going back to the street. The stress of surviving each day in this cycle puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the individual’s psychiatric and physical health. “Living in the street,” one Pathways to Housing client said, “It makes you crazy.”
 
The traditional structures in place to “help” the homeless population often make things worse, particularly for those who suffer from mental illness. Shelters and transitional living programs often require people to pass sobriety tests and other hurdles before they can be considered for housing programs. Housing is considered a reward for good behavior instead of a tool to help stabilize a homeless-person’s mental health. This attitude cuts out the people who need the support the most, effectively punishing them for their conditions. 
 

By following up housing with mental health treatment, Housing First has been able to keep the chronic homeless off the streets with a higher effectiveness than other models, at a lower long-term cost. Perhaps not surprisingly, the program cuts exactly along the fault lines of the debate between the Right and the Left on welfare.

Not everyone agrees. Although Housing First was adopted by the George W Bush administration, it remains unpopular on the right of the political spectrum, and not just among people who believe that citizens should “earn” state support. The initial cost of Housing First is expensive, and many people are resistant to the idea of providing housing for homeless drug addicts without first enrolling them on to a rehabilitative programme. 
 
This strikes at the heart of the debate about the root causes of homelessness, which is fundamentally about two arguments, according to Nicholas Pleace, a housing policy expert at the University of York and researcher with the European Observatory on Homelessness, an arm of the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (Feantsa).
 
“There is the idea of essentially structural causation: economic downturn, cuts to welfare, service and benefits, limitation with services with, for example, regards to mental health and the care system,” Pleace says. “But then you’ve also got what we call individual pathology, which tends to be argued by those on the right, more about individual actions, choice and characteristics.”
 

The article notes that former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was one of those opposed to Housing First, instead using taxpayer money to give the homeless one-way tickets out of town. In the years he tried a series of moves to lower homelessness, the Coalition for the Homeless note that homelessness in NYC rose to all-time highs.

This is yet another reason having more affordable housing in our cities is imperative. The world is moving into cities, and the rate of housing construction is not keeping up. One flaw of Housing First is that it doesn't work unless such housing is available, and the Guardian article notes that it hasn't worked to reduce homelessness in Los Angeles. The scale of the problem in LA is so large that Housing First can barely make a dent, so little affordable housing is available to use as a base to work from.

I won't pretend to have studied all the research on this issue with any sufficient depth, but the initial story caught my eye for more than just its counterintuitive solution but for how it came about. Tsemberis assembled a team of outsiders to think through solutions from a point of empathy for the people they were trying to help.

There was need of a change. So he assembled a very small, very unusual team. None of them had any training in homelessness. They, too, were outsiders. One was a recovering heroin addict. Another was a formerly homeless person. Another was a psychologist. And the last, Hilary Melton, was a poet and a survivor of incest.
 
“We were people who weren’t that far removed from the people we were serving,” recalled Melton, who runs Pathways Vermont. And so, over long conversations, they fashioned the rough contours of what would become housing first.
 

Isn't that often how the most difficult of problems are solved, with fresh thinking from fresh thinkers and a radically different perspective or approach?

Is it real 3D?

One of the sites I use at least a half dozen times a year or so is Is It Real of Fake 3D? It lets you know if a movie that is coming out in 3D was actually shot in 3D or converted into 3D in post. I don't love 3D movies unless they were shot natively in 3D. When technicians convert a 2D movie into 3D in post, they choose different parts of each shot to place at different depths, and the final product resembles dioramas seen straight on, with objects placed on several fixed planes of depth.

What's worse is that since a 2D movie is shot with only one camera, it can't replicate the full arc of vision of a movie shot in 3D, with two cameras. Typically, the two cameras used to shoot a 3D movie are shot with two cameras separated by the average distance between two human eyes. As you know from closing one eye, then the other, the distance between your eyes allows each eye to see a slightly different perspective on all objects in space, and our brains learn to combine those two images to produce a 3D perspective.

2D conversions can't just conjure what the 2nd camera would have seen from thin air. But since 3D tickets command a price premium, and since enough viewers seem to go for the fake 3D conversions, studios continue to crank them out in ever greater volume.

I bring all this up just to remind you that when you go see Mad Max: Fury Road, the movie I'm most excited to see this year, go see it in 2D. It opens Friday.

Ritual as urban design problem

Kavanagh identifies several influences weakening the urban Church as civitas. The many churches developed many different liturgies, resulting in what he calls “liturgical hypertrophy.” These were flattened and standardized, shrunk to centrally-manageable size and legible doctrinal authority, by the English Act of Uniformity of 1549 and the Council of Trent by 1614. At the same time, printed books ushered in the new literary consciousness, eroding the power of community ritual consciousness for European Christians.
 
But ancient religious practices (and their modern elaborations) are still performed in Europe; processions may still be seen winding through the streets of cities and small towns. Except for the occasional Palm Sunday procession, they are all but absent in the United States. The American urban design pattern — increasingly spreading even to small towns — is forbidding to the kind of religious practice that transforms space and time.
 
The American urban design pattern is characterized by, first, an orientation toward the automobile above all else; second, toward consumption as the main activity besides work; and third, toward efficient human storage. Human activities other than consumption and “being stored” – as in day cares, schools, prisons, offices, nursing homes, and “housing units” themselves – are made difficult and uncomfortable by the physical built environment itself. Religious activity and social activity, two main components of human flourishing that transform local environments, are increasingly rare and emptied of transformative power.
 

From a great piece at Front Porch Republic by Sarah Perry, whose work I've appreciated wherever it shows up online.

Many people are excited about all the free time self-driving cars might return to people, but I'm more excited to reclaim all the physical space currently dedicated to parking garages, parking spots on the side of the road, and roads themselves. If you had more self-driving cars in operation at all hours, you'd have fewer idle cars requiring space to park. A road that is four lanes wide, one on each side for parking spaces, one in each direction for traffic, could be reduced to two lanes, or maybe even one if self-driving cars could coordinate with each other when to head which way down a road. Now you'd have two or three extra car widths of road space that could be used to widen sidewalks, add dedicated bike lanes, grow trees or plants, and so on.

It is only when one travels to a city that was designed before automobiles became prevalent that one senses just how much of their surface area American cities have sacrificed to cars. Pedestrians have been trained to stay out of the road, it holds nothing but danger for them, and even when there are few cars around, that road space lays idle for the most part. It's a usage of land that is actively hostile to most people who are walking around the city, instead giving preference to cars, many of which are too large, most of whom only hold one person, and a large percentage of which are just driving around in search of a parking spot because street parking is priced too low and public transportation is under built.

The next time you're out in the city, look at the width of the sidewalk you're walking on and compare it to the width of the road off the side. Then travel to Europe and stroll around a town like Seville or Florence and do the same arithmetic. Or you can just use Google Street View or an online image search for a cheaper, if less charming way to complete the exercise.

A street in Seville. If you add up the sidewalk space, it's almost as wide, if not as wide, as the space dedicated to cars and motorcycles. But this understates the pedestrian-friendliness of Seville because people feel very comfortable walking on the roads in Seville, not just the sidewalks.

Market Street in San Francisco. It is the widest street in San Francisco, but the ratio of street space dedicated to automobiles to sidewalk set aside for pedestrians is similar to that of other streets throughout the city. As a pedestrian, the difference in feel between walking in a European city like Seville to an American city like San Francisco is palpable.