Tacos, Attention and Adam Smith

Once or twice a month I head over to a mexican restaurant near Vienna’s main university. Their food is quite good and word has spread over the years, so the place is always crowded around noon. Most customers seem to be students around my age, and so they have their eyes glued to their smartphones. Understandably so, because after all, smartphones were invented to kill time in the waiting line. When I went for some crispy tacos two weeks ago, I noticed they had put up a sign:

A sign asking the customer for attention

The three illustrations show a person talking on her phone, another one texting, and two people having a loud chat. When I saw the sign I felt quite irritated. Of course I can empathize with the restaurant’s owners and I’m sure they have to deal with less-than-respectful customers, but the wording is not optimal. In it’s current form it sounds like a stressed father or mother of a three-year-old, begging to please, please, be *quiet, goddamnit. The sign makes the staff appear needy, and it demands empathy from the customer, while offering none in return. Or, to put it in Smith-ian terms1 - it doesn’t appeal to the customer’s self-interest2.

As a customer, I want to get my meal as quickly as possible; I also don’t want to annoy the staff or other people in line by keeping them waiting. Finally, I want to pay, because I know I am getting quality food. But, like it or not, waiting is part of the procedure, so I pull out my iPhone and read something in Instapaper. And sometimes that means that the staff has to tell me to pay attention. Or - does it?

Ordering at a Subway restaurant

It turns out, there already is a solution to this problem, one that has existed for years and originates from the world’s largest fast-food chain. No, not McDonald’s - Subway. When you are in line at Subway the process is neatly laid out for you: Pick a type of bread, the meat, the vegetables, the sauce, whether you want a menu or not, then pay. Boom.

Now, this doesn’t keep people from not paying attention either. But it makes life a little bit easier for everyone involved:

  1. Transparent process: I know what the process is. I can see the current step and the ones after that.
  2. Complete information: I know what it is they offer.
  3. Better communication: Therefore, I can prepare for the question of the staff.

This results in several things, psychologically:

  1. A sense of control for me as a customer.
  2. Satisfaction, because I can make better desicions, based on clear information. ('oh, I didn't know they offered extra cheese!')
  3. A quicker process overall and/or a perceived decrease in time spent waiting 3.
  4. Less annoyances/stress for the staff.

So instead of simply telling me to, the Subway system plans ahead and offers a target for my attention, helping to stay attentive, increasing transparency and subsequently leading to a happier customer.

  1. One of my courses this semester deals with Adam Smith’s concepts and how they got misinterpreted. A lot of the theoretical ‘lenses’ offered by political science are based on marxist thinking (which I’m fine with, most of the time), so Smith is a welcome change. 

  2. Mind you, self-interest in Smith’s thinking does not equal selfishness, quite the contrary. The self-interest is the sum of my motivations for both the short-term and the long-term, so it also includes the staff earning enough money, the food being priced appropiately, so the owners can make a profit, the environment not being harmed, etc. - Here’s a good piece by Amartya Sen, explaining why a lot of folks get Adam Smith wrong

  3. Which, as we know, has been solved at airports by introducing longer walkways

This Week I Learned #8

Craig Mod making the case for Facebook.

The more I use Facebook, the better it gets. And I find the quality of experience increases as I bring friends and family dear to my heart onto it. This is mostly because Facebook allows you to quietly prune as you go along. I wholeheartedly agree.


The demise of the newspaper, as analyzed by Ben Thompson:

Let me be more blunt than I was in the original article: life is not “more difficult” for traditional newspapers; it’s unsustainable. They don’t have the best content, it’s not personalized, and they really don’t know anything about most of their readers.


Nate Silver’s relaunch of FiveThirtyEight has been criticized a lot already, not least for the staff’s lack of diversity. Here’s a good article explaining why this is a problem for journalisms.

But life’s not just high school, and there is not one kind of hierarchy. What happens when formerly excluded groups gain more power, like techies? They don’t just let go of their old forms of cultural capital. Yet they may be blind to how their old ways of identifying and accepting each other are exclusionary to others. They still interpret the world through their sense of status when they were “basically, outsiders.”


The pointlessness of ‘unplugging’.

If it takes unplugging to learn how better to live plugged in, so be it. But let’s not mistake such experiments in asceticism for a sustainable way of life. For most of us, the modern world is full of gadgets and electronics, and we’d do better to reflect on how we can live there than to pretend we can live elsewhere. I’ve had my fair share of such “digital fasts” and they have helped me, along with a lot of experimentation over the years, to find some sort of balance. It gets messed up from time to time, but overall I think my consumption is okay.


Privacy is like the organic food-market, ten years ago. In the future it will become more affordable and less geeky.

This Week I Learned #7

Some non-tech stuff:

This Week I Learned #6

(This Week I Learned replaces my old Linkliste. Also, I’ll stick to english from now on.)

On Beats by Dr. Dre and electronic music

I never understood why people bought Beats headphones. Most of the time I use the EarPods that came with my iPhone 5s. I also own Bowers & Wilkins P5 headphones, for those hours when I want great sound reproduction and fully dive into a world built by music.

To me, Beats headphones look like they were designed for the purpose of showing off, not for the purpose of delivering music. Slapping “Dr. Dre” on them reinforced my impression, that this product was conceived for status and effect, not musical pleasures. However, there is another side to Beats - their inaccurate sound reproduction is exactly what people want. This Pitchfork article from two years ago sums it up nicely:

Beats by Dr. Dre are popular because they don’t reproduce music as much as they transform it. They are the right headphones for the current era, because their design “customizes” the sound for the listener who wants bass. Music is never finished; we can chop and screw, add bass, slow it down 100x, mash it up with something else. And people will buy headphones that finish the music in the way they like.

The article also deals with electronic music. I mostly listen to alternative rock/folk/pop, but sometimes I choose electronica and this is what I’m looking for:

… Aphex Twin makes the drums feel, and he knows exactly what to do with the bass that goes with it. There is bass in “Flim”, and its role in the track is key, even if it never overwhelms the space; it supports the drums and engages in a dialog with them, but the approach is subtle and precise and intimate, a whispered conversation instead of a shout across the rooftops.

Jon Hopkins is another good example for this type of electronica.

Jean-Louis Gassée on Satya Nadella

Simply put: Will Nadella have the guts to make the really hard choices (killing off burdening legacy products, that is)?

On Google’s business model:

The representation is one of a research laboratory succeeding against difficult problems. Very similar to a successful academic or industrial laboratory sustained by grants from a benevolent (but messy) organization. Google becomes the embodiment of “big science” and “the world’s laboratory” unfettered by politics and unsoiled by commercial interests.

There is a business in Google but it’s a very obscure topic. The “business side” of the organization is only mentioned briefly in analyst conference calls and the conversation is not conducted with the same team that faces the public.

Astute analysis by Horace Dediu.

How To Survive The Next Wave Of Technology Extinction

Farhad Manjoo argues that a combination of Apple hardware, Google services and Amazon media is the most future-proof solution right now. I agree (and I have been using this solution for several years now).

As Carsten Pötter points out though, this really is an ongoing process. Some people might become so confident in their own setup that they miss a paradigm shift happening right in front of their eyes.

On the difference between “tolerance” and “acceptance” of LBGT persons

Well written piece in german. Also, some facts about why people are homophobic (again, german).

Linkliste #5

Spannende Texte zu allen möglichen Themen, die ich in den letzten Wochen gelesen habe.

Tim Bray hasst den Begriff “content”, weil er nichtssagend ist:

I’ve loathed it ever since its first powerpoint-pitch appearance, meaning “shit we don’t actually care about but will attract eyeballs and make people click on ads”. Except for they don’t say “people”, they say “users”, a symptom of another attitude problem.

Und Cory Doctorow ergänzt:

[the word “content”] implies a harmful untruth: that there is a clean line that can be drawn between “content” and “form.” Where this untruth flourishes, people who produce “content” that is, in fact, optimized for the form of “content whose form will be determined later” go about claiming that they have found the neutral, form-free, platonic ideal of content. Instead, they’ve constrained their content by eliminating all the form-dependent elements, and thereby constrained their ability to communicate the full range of human ideas.

Die MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) ist jetzt Mitglied des W3C Boards (World Wide Web Consortium). Das ist in etwa so, als hätte man Atomkraft-Lobbyisten direkt im Umweltministerium sitzen.

Der “Director of Data Science” von Buzzfeed im Portrait. Spannender Job und schon sehr bald Standard für erfolgreiche Online-Publikationen.

Harlin runs complex permutations of these A/B tests and analyzes the results using pioneering algorithms he developed to predict when and why stories go viral. The work that he and his team of data scientists do at BuzzFeed has fueled substantial traffic growth for the five-year-old news site as readers widely share its humorous lists and animated GIFs through social networks.

Blei erhöht nachweislich die Kriminalitätsrate. Langer, gut recherchierter Artikel von letztem Jahr.

Wie designed man eine Stadt für Frauen? Hatte vorher keine Ahnung, dass es Gender Mainstreaming in der Stadtplanung der Stadt Wien gibt. Interessant. (via)

Im Internet geistert gerade ein merkwürdiges Video herum, in dem behauptet wird, dass die NSA bei Siri-Suchanfragen am iPhone den Wikipedia-Artikel zum Islam blockiert.

Das ist lediglich ein Softwarefehler. Im Eigenversuch bekam ich mit abgeschalteten Ortungsdiensten bei “Prophet Mohammed”, “Koran” und “Islamismus” problemlos den Wiki-Eintrag. Die Ortungsdienste werden beim Begriff “Islam” deshalb verlangt, weil Siri komischerweise einen Schritt weiterdenkt und nach der nächstgelegenen Moschee suchen will. Wie gesagt, ein Softwarefehler.

Und wie Carsten Knobloch schreibt:

Das Schlimme ist nicht der lächerliche Bug – sofern es überhaupt einer ist – , sondern die Reaktionen der Menschen in den Netzwerken. Man hat es geschafft, man hat dafür gesorgt, dass Menschen Angst oder Vorurteile haben. Oder man grundsätzlich davon ausgeht, dass wirklich alles und jedes durch die Hände der NSA geht – wobei ich diese Thematik auf keinen Fall kleinreden möchte..


Michael Lopp über das Verhältnis von Medienkonsumption und -Erzeugung (im weitesten Sinne):

You’re fucking swimming in everyone else’s moments, likes, and tweets and during these moments of consumption you are coming to believe that their brief interestingness to others makes it somehow relevant to you and worth your time.

These moments can be important. They can connect us to others; they briefly inform us as to the state of the world; they often hint at an important idea without actually explaining it by teasing us with the impression of knowledge. But they are often interesting, empty intellectual calories. They are sweet, addictive, and easy to find in our exploding digital world, and their omnipresence in my life and the lives of those around me has me starting this year asking, “Why am I spending so much time consuming other people’s moments?” (Hervorhebung von mir)

Letzten Monat hatte ich, krankheitsbedingt, weniger Energie als sonst und mir wurde wieder bewusst, welche Informationsflut ich mir täglich verabreiche. Natürlich ist die Sensibilität für Informationsflut bei manchen stärker, bei manchen schwächer ausgeprägt. Wenn ich aber am Ende des Jahres in der Statistik von Pocket sehe, dass ich immerhin 550,000 Wörter gelesen habe, fange ich mich an zu fragen, was davon wirklich übrig blieb. Ich werfe einen Blick auf mein Pocket-Archiv und finde das meiste spannend und informativ. Erst beim zweiten Blick bemerke ich, dass hier genau das Problem vorliegt, dass Michael Lopp beschreibt.

Meine Interessen sind sehr vielfältig. Artikel befriedigen dieses Bedürfnis schnell und mit geringer Anstrengung - darum lese ich alles, das mir zwischen die Finger kommt.

Ich will nicht sagen, dass vielfältige Interessen etwas schlechtes sind. Sie sorgen dafür, die Welt von vielen verschiedenen Blickwinkeln zu sehen, in Zusammenhängen und Abhängigkeiten denken zu lernen. Aber statt der technischen Erklärung des TouchID-Sensors im iPhone 5s ein Buch zu lesen ist eine überzeugende und schöne Vorstellung.

Die zentrale These des eingangs erwähnten Beitrags ist eigentlich, selbst Dinge zu kreieren, statt zu konsumieren. Damit sind explizit größere Projekte und nicht kurze Statusupdates gemeint, egal wie kreativ sie sind. Ich arbeite bereits täglich an Songs, mache Musik und schreibe gelegentlich auch hier ein paar Zeilen - der Output-Prozess funktioniert also bereits ganz gut 1.

Meine Vorsätze beginnen und enden nicht mit einem Kalendersystem, aber 2014 möchte ich versuchen nach zwei Jahren mit sehr viel Blog- und Podcastkonsum wieder etwas runterzukommen. Und einfach mal ein Buch lesen.

  1. Streng genommen ist der Output-Prozess erst fertig, wenn die Songs auch veröffentlicht wären - so gut sind sie in meinen Augen aber noch nicht (ganz). 


Why metadata matters, or: Metadata 101.

It’s easy to design something attractive that’s not very usable, and it’s easy to design something usable that’s unattractive. The challenge is striking a balance, and iOS 7 made too many usability sacrifices to achieve attractiveness. Apple knows this, so it’ll be interesting to see how it’s revised next year. If iOS 8 can’t remove any of these options, it’s a design failure.