Stories Updates

Drinking from a Firehose of Novelty

My apologies for the long delay between blogposts.  I haven’t posted more frequently because of my obsession with excellence that sets the bar too high for me to publish most of my half-baked thoughts.  I’m going to try trading off polish and thoroughness of thinking for frequency and volume of ideas.  Let’s see how this experiment goes–if it fails, I can switch back or try something new (comments welcome!).

Many people feel bored with life because of its plodding “same old, same old”.  I now know what it feels like to be on the other extreme: I feel like I’ve been drinking out of a firehose drowning in a pool of novelty for the past month.  Before I get into some details, here’s an observation:

Things get boring when they get old.  For a toddler, the simplest experience of a floating balloon can be a source of delight for several days.  For a particularly despondent teenager, you might need a surround sound system with a 500-watt subwoofer and stunning visual effects to arrest their attention.

The pain of boredom can often turn life into an endless pursuit of “the next big thing”, e.g. the newest smartphones, latest fashions, real-time political news, and nascent philosophies where wonder, mystery and discovery seemingly lie (this is perhaps one of the logical primary pursuits in life for a secularist who believes this decaying world is all there is–since the old is always passing away, you constantly must produce and keep up with what’s new lest everything you know or have becomes worthless).

One might assume that alot of novelty would be incredibly exciting, but I think I’ve bordered on the tipping point of what I can handle.  For example, last weekend I went on a roadtrip to LA with friends and had the novel experience of an 18hr drive without layovers.  Great company, good conversation, but my body clock has been way off ever since. 

During the trip, my Motorola Rizr fell on pavement and turned into a “Cracked-berry”.  This fortuitous circumstance disrupted my dithering–I had been meaning to buy a new cellphone for several months–and “forced” me get a Motorola Droid :-).  (I plan on buying an iPad, so I didn’t get an iPhone).

As you can imagine, my attention was totally absorbed by the shiny new toy in my pocket for three days straight.  Not good, especially considering that I am the coordinator for my church‘s Easter service this Sunday and should have been directing those efforts (which has also been a novel project management experience).

The day after Easter, I start my first full time job at, which I expect to be mindnumbingly mindblowing.  I’m anxious enough about all the learning, listening, relationship building and exploring I’m going to have to do my first week that I postponed buying an iPad because I know its alluring novelty will likely be a massive distraction.

Anyway, just to emphasize how novel-ed out I am, the two weekends prior to the LA trip, I attended two Seattle conferences: one for youth put on by Dare2Share and an “All Things Church” ministry conference at Overlake Christian Church where I helped man the booth for my dad’s company iCrescendo.  (I plan on summarizing my thoughts on these conferences in a future post).  It would be nice to have the freedom of exploring and enjoying all of these experiences at a contemplative pace instead of trying to process a year’s worth of material in the span of a month (sidenote: maybe that’s why couples need to cool off and pull back sometimes–too much, too fast without time to reflect…).

These experiences have led me to the (half-baked) conclusion that novelty is delightful and healthy in measured amounts.  Too little and we stop learning and growing and become boring.  Too much and we can’t take it all in and get frustrated because we want to enjoy it while it quickly passes us by.  Ideally we could engage in selective novelty from a basis of stability.  And of course there’s the dessert of reminiscing about the joy of a first ____ when novelty gives way to nostalgia.

Lastly, a brief note from a Christian perspective on how gracious God–the perpetual novelty–is in revealing himself as a relatable, discoverable human being in Jesus Christ.  After my experience being overwhelmed these past weeks, I wonder what it would be like for God to reveal His glory in a massive awesome display, perhaps like he did to Isaiah…not only would I feel undone by God’s holiness, but it seems like the innumerable virtues to enjoy and explore would overload my senses and cause my body to explode into a million pieces all longing to fully experience the slightest hint of glory.

By coming as a man in Jesus, people can meet and discover a fellow human being instead of falling apart at first contact.  By faith, we can today look back and contemplate the glory revealed in Israel’s history and at the Cross while looking forward to the hope of the Resurrection that Jesus guaranteed by rising form the dead.  Soon we will have the honor of spending an eternity exploring and enjoying every detail of the infinite glory of God–an everlasting novelty.



Serving the Homeless on MLK Day

It was a chilly Monday afternoon with a bright sun doing little to dispel the cold and wary atmosphere. As we walked towards the Union Gospel Mission Men’s Shelter, there were several homeless men in puffy, black jackets loitering around and I sensed my party apprehensively draw into a tight formation as we approached the entrance. There were five of us: my dad, two sisters, grandma and myself. We quickly scurried into the building, not knowing what to expect.

The shelter reminded me of a middle school cafeteria.  Everything seemed rather clean, if a bit musty, and the place was well lit and inviting.  Immediately at the entrance was a booth where two or three people were chatting on the phone, eyes on computer screens, but someone noticed us and asked if he could help.  My dad said that we were volunteers from Indonesian Presbyterian Church (IPC), there to help serve dinner for the night.  Then he signed off on a form and we were all sent back to the kitchen for orientation.

The people in the kitchen were friendly. One was a tall black man with a smile on his face and the other was a short, tough guy who might have been Hispanic. We later found out that he was the football coach of one of our fellow volunteers, which helped us all relax. We waited awhile since the full force of 15 people had not yet arrived and got started by storing our jackets and bags in a locked closet. We were soon busy putting on aprons, washing our hands, putting on gloves and learning about the different roles in the cafeteria. I would be assigned to serve salad from the middle of the cafeteria with several other men who would serve dressing, cheese and desserts. The ladies got to stay behind the kitchen counter and serve meals on trays.

Union Gospel Mission has about one hundred residents who actually live in the shelter and go through a recovery program called New Creations.  These men get one-on-one counseling through the Genesis Addiction Recovery process, participate in Bible studies and take daily responsibilities within the Mission.  We started serving these residents at 5:00pm—they get first dibs.  At 5:30pm, the doors opened for everyone and anyone to come in from the streets and have a free meal.

My friends and I were ready around 4:45pm, so we joked about school and girls while waiting for the clock to run down to dinner time.  Eventually several residents filed into the cafeteria.  They were all clean and most were friendly as they collected their food.  One of the residents who I’ll call Jim chatted with my dad while he ate.  He was a tall white man with tattoos on both arms and a short, orange beard.  I had no idea what they were talking about, but it seemed engaging.

Soon the doors opened for everyone else; the panoply of Seattle’s homeless.  Some smelled of urine while others looked like they were fresh out of the shower.  Some wore dilapidated shirts and pants with grimy jackets while others may have shopped at Nordstrom’s.  I couldn’t help but think that some of these folks weren’t homeless at all—just freeloaders looking for a free meal—but who am I to judge?

Even though it was a Men’s Shelter, there were women in line for food as well.  One older woman was very well dressed and even brought her own plate and silverware.  This sharply contrasted with others who looked really dirty like kids who had just played out in the rain.  It was a sad and joyful scene.  Sad that people had to endure such difficult lives, but joyful that we got to be of service and experience what it’s like to love like Jesus does.  There is a sense in which His love is indiscriminate, people who are so poor you can’t help but help them, people who don’t say thank you when you serve them, people who freeload, and people who shine with gratitude—Jesus Christ is kind to all whether they are grateful or not.

As I served salad out of a giant tub, Jim ambled over and sat down next to me, surveying the room.  I asked the next man in line “Would you like some salad, sir?”  He nodded his head with a big smile and said, “Yes, yes, thank you!  God bless you!”  I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it, except that Jim stood up and whispered to me, “You hear that man thanking you?  That’s the Holy Spirit thanking you, right there.”  And a few moments later he said with soft-spoken passion, “Jesus died for every person in this room.”  While I was somewhat wary of the theological imprecision of his statements, I was moved too.  It was as if God were so pleased with us and delighted to see us serving the poor.  His pleasure is contagious.

It turns out that Jim had a really broken background.  He was smart, no doubt, having discovered a way to automatically generate credit card numbers and using them to get the works: babes, booze, big TVs and drugs.  He had been in and out of jail several times, but what always amazed him was that UGM would still take him back.  I think he put it best when he explained, “Rehab doesn’t work.  Detox doesn’t work.  But the gospel—it works.  The gospel of grace.”

When dinner was over we helped clean up a bit while other residents came down and mopped the floor.  I was relieved and rejuvenated.  A lot of my worries and suspicions about the homeless gave way to compassion.

After feeding everyone freely, UGM has a chapel service.  No one is required to go, but everyone who attends is allowed to sleep on the foam mattresses they setup in the cafeteria.  They do this tirelessly day after day: serving the poor, feeding the hungry, preaching the gospel and watching God do the impossible.  If you find your soul in need of refreshment, I highly recommend going.  The grace you experience serving at UGM is a great way to remember (or encounter for the first time) the grace everyone—homeless or not—can experience at the Cross.

Contact for more information.

Article written for Indonesian Presbyterian Church.

Ideas Reviews

Apple iPad: Revolutionary Product or Oversized iPod Touch?

The January 27th announcement of the Apple iPad has set off a firestorm of opinions, reviews and comments fueling a discussion over whether the device is a revolutionary product or merely an oversized iPod Touch. While many technology bloggers and pundits have lamented the perceived lack of innovation and missing features1, Apple CEO Steve Jobs claims that the, “iPad is our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price” and that “it creates and defines an entirely new category of devices that will connect users with their apps and content in a much more intimate, intuitive and fun way than ever before”2. Will it live up to its promise?

Revolutionary products often stretch existing technologies far beyond the status-quo, radically changing how consumers do tasks, transforming business models and industries while opening up new possibilities that touch everyone’s lives. Predicting whether or not a product will be revolutionary is no easy task, but there are several ways to glean evidence from current data to shed light on the iPad’s future. First, we can compare it to existing products that overlap in purpose and design like e-readers, tablet computers and netbooks. Second, we can compare the iPad to products on the boundaries of its niche like smartphones and laptops to see if it clearly changes how consumers do tasks they care about. Third, we can analyze initial customer feedback by reading reviews and comments on blogs and in the press. Fourth, we can speculate by studying the history of revolutionary products and determining if the iPad exhibits the necessary characteristics. In this essay, I take the first and second approaches by comparing the iPad with related products to show why this device will probably revolutionize the way people consume content like photos, videos, books and the web.

Tablet PCs have failed to launch a computing revolution because of at least three major setbacks: a weak battery life that keeps them deskbound and prevents them from being useful throughout the day, a user interface designed primarily for desktops instead of one specially-made for tablet computing, and a high price. In contrast, the iPad excels in all three areas and was designed from the ground-up to be “so much more intimate than a laptop [and] so much more capable than a smartphone”3. Let’s examine each area to understand its importance in context.

Current laptops achieve around 6 hours of battery life at best, which is enough to get some work done on the run, but not enough for a full day’s use. To solve this problem, people have tried packing more functionality into smartphones or focusing on doing single tasks like reading. For example, the Amazon Kindle supports a 1 week battery life between charges4 by using a low-power display designed solely for reading text. In contrast, the iPad achieves only 10 hours of battery life, trading away efficiency in order to gain full multimedia capabilities—people can watch movies and run graphics-intensive apps on the iPad. This tradeoff is acceptable since 10 hours is just enough to support a day’s worth of usage between charges, and it seems like a small price to pay to gain a responsive full color, multitouch display. By combining two design innovations—Apple’s custom A4 “system on a chip”5 and a custom lithium polymer battery6, which can be folded into the iPad’s sleek form factor—Apple has succeeded in overcoming laptops’ weak battery life while providing far more value than an e-reader. The result is a multimedia device that fits people’s lives: the iPad needs to be recharged while people sleep and can be used throughout the day while they are awake.

Previous attempts at tablet computing simply replaced the mouse with a pen, adding pen input capabilities on top of a standard desktop operating system7. Pen-based computing had the promise of a more intuitive interaction than a mouse, but still falls short of a child’s intuition to touch interesting things and discover what happens. It was also hampered by software with small buttons, small text and awkward interfaces—everything was designed for the mouse. Instead of adapting a desktop operating system to a tablet, Apple adapted its iPhone OS 3 to the iPad along with support for the over 140,000 applications in the App Store. It also released touch-specific versions of its iWork productivity suite to show how applications can be re-imagined for the new category of devices it is trying to create. For example, the e-mail application supports intuitive modality through changes in orientation. When the user holds the iPad in landscape mode, an inbox is displayed with previews of messages shown to the right. To focus on a particular message, the user simply turns the iPad into portrait mode and the software switches to a full screen view of the message. The physical design of the product is also intentionally touch-centric, sporting a wide bezel so that holding the device does not get interpreted as a touch. Unlike tablets which tried to run heavy desktop applications on a small machine, the iPad runs lightweight iPhone applications resulting in a delightful speed and responsive interface. The most novel iPad experience is made possible by a combination of multitouch and the IPS display technology which supports a wide viewing angle8. The wide viewing angle and large screen enable several people to enjoy content together, so instead of flipping through Facebook photos alone, a family can now sit on the couch and flip through photos together. This collaborative computing experience has the potential to go beyond media and revolutionize applications in gaming, productivity and education to name a few.

Instead of following competing manufacturers by producing cheap netbooks, Apple decided to make a new kind of device that focuses on content consumption and falls between smartphones and laptops. Although a first glance seems to favor a $300 netbook with a desktop OS over a $499 iPad with a smartphone OS, the real question centers on the value of the multitouch experience. People who prefer functionality and low cost may buy a netbook, but if the tablet experience is worth the cost of a low-end $800 tablet PC, the iPad has a revolutionary price. Furthermore, Apple has negotiated a contract-free 3G data plan with AT&T, which could change the game for other wireless carriers by positioning the whole industry as primarily selling “access to the pipes”.

Despite all these advances in battery life, usability and price, many people have repeatedly decried the iPad’s shortcomings: the lack of a webcam, no support for flash or multitasking, lack of precise stylus-based input, no built in video output, etc. Do these weaknesses mitigate the revolutionary impact of a large multitouch tablet? Probably not. The success of the iPhone and the widespread adoption of touch-based technology by competitors demonstrates that customers love the intuitive multitouch interface. By liberating the technology from the confines of a smartphone screen, Apple sets up the potential for a usability revolution everywhere computers are used. Although it focused on creating a compelling content consumption experience in the iPad, Apple also released a new toolkit, which enables developers to explore the frontiers and implications of multitouch for every sector spanning education to business to gaming.

As these new areas are explored, new needs will arise which Apple can prioritize and act on to improve future iterations of the iPad. For example, a built-in pico-projector could enable people to consume content not only with a neighbor, but with a room of friends. The iPad could also serve communication needs by including a webcam for videoconferencing. If customers want to do content production and data entry, the iPad could include speech recognition similar to Google’s NexusOne to augment its multitouch interface with another intuitive input method. As tablets evolve from solely media consumption devices to general purpose touch-based computers, Apple may need to support multitasking for select applications like instant messenging. Many people also want to consume video through websites like Hulu instead of being stuck with the iTunes store. Apple may provide an ad-supported media streaming service of its own or partner with Hulu to develop a custom application like YouTube. This is but a taste of what is to come.

The largest barrier to widespread adoption is convincing users that a third category of devices exists, which meets their needs in a sufficiently superior way to warrant purchasing an iPad when they may already own a laptop and smartphone9. At the same time, the iPad’s simplicity may attract new customers like my grandma who were previously reluctant to use computers because of their complexity. Overall, the iPad appears to have the marks of a revolutionary product and may usher in a second “PC” revolution. Every desktop application needs to be re-examined to see if and how it would be designed in a collaborative multitouch scenario. In the same way the PC changed the world, we can expect the iPad to touch nearly everyone’s lives changing the way they do things in every line of work because of the novel, intuitive, sharable experience it offers.

A Brief Note on Industry/Market Implications:

The iPad extends its iTunes and App Store business models to books, providing one stop shopping for almost all of a consumer’s media needs. Given sufficient selection, people no longer have to go to physical stores or purchase content through computers; all the content they want is at their fingertips. This revolutionizes the media industry by changing the playing field so that content producers now compete in Apple’s stores either through their actual store or by creating apps of their own. By creating and controlling a compelling new device, Apple becomes the gateway to media changing the industry so that content sellers must compete on Apple’s terms. Even so, there are opportunities to gain a strong competitive position. In contrast to retailers like Amazon, Apple focuses on premium content on premium devices implying that businesses that serve the “Long Tail” of content niches can thrive. By offering a larger selection of content than Apple, making it easier to search for and discover the content consumers care about, and supporting a larger ecosystem that makes content available in many form factors beyond the tablet, businesses may be able to succeed despite Apple’s firm control. Taking this to an extreme, a marketplace for selling user generated content (video, books, music, etc.) similar to the way the App Store enabled independent developers to sell software may also be an attractive option.

Product-wise, the implications of the iPad for the tablet, e-reader and netbook markets remain to be seen. Within Apple, the iPad could cannibalize sales of iPod Touches and low end MacBooks. Outside of Apple, it clearly supplant’s Amazon’s Kindle DX large format e-reader because of its far superior capabilities at a similar price point10. Although computer manufacturers like Dell, HP and others have historically sought to undercut Apple’s premium products by offering lower prices, the iPad’s already excellent price appears to nullify this strategy. Therefore, two approaches currently seem viable: offer simpler functionality at a lower price or more functionality at a comparable price. For example, Dell or HP could capture part of the market by offering a tablet at a similar price with the same form factor, but with additional capabilities like Flash support and multitasking. Alternatively, companies like Google could provide a limited cloud-based OS for tablet-like devices at a lower price point. It may not provide the same level of consumer experience, but would meet the needs of people who have been complaining about price or other glaring deficiencies in the iPad.

1 See Engadget’s editorial and a summary of top bloggers