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June 15, 2010

The Inverted Pyramid & The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

The inverted pyramid is a simple principle: important things first, not-so-important things later. In fact, it's so simple it sounds not worth mentioning. Does anyone in this fast-paced age really need to be told to get to the point? Unfortunately, yes. Content producers all over the world, from big brands to hobby bloggers, unknowingly violate this principle on a regular basis.

What follows is the report of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, a report that would not only shake America to its core, but also establish the inverted pyramid as a precedent for journalists and content creators for years to come. Take it. Learn from it. Use it.

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War Department, Washington

April 15, 1:30 A.M. - Maj. Gen. Dis.:

This evening at about 9:30 p.m., at Ford's Theater, the President, while sitting in his private box with Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Harris, and Major Rathbone, was shot by an assassin who suddenly entered the box and approached the President. The assassin then leapt upon the stage, brandished a large dagger or knife, and made his escape in the rear of the theater. The pistol-ball entered through the back of the President's head and penetrated nearly through the head. The wound is mortal. The President has been insensible ever since it was inflicted and is now dying.

About the same hour an assassin, whether the same or not, entered Mr. Seward's apartments, and under the pretense of having a prescription, was shown to the Secretary's sick chamber. The assassin immediately rushed to the bed, and inflected two or three stabs on the throat and two on the face. It is hoped the wounds may not be mortal. My apprehension is that they will prove fatal. The nurse alarmed Mr. Frederick Seward, who was in an adjoining room, and hastened to the door of his father's room, when he met the assassin, who inflicted upon him one or more dangerous wounds. The recovery of Frederick Seward is doubtful.

It is not probably that the President will live throughout the night. General Grant and wife were advertised to be at the theater this evening, but he started for Burlington at six o'clock this evening. At a cabinet meeting at which General Grant was present, the subject of the state of the country, and the prospect of a speedy peace was discussed. The President was very cheerful and hopeful, and spoke very kindly of General Lee and others of the Confederacy, and of the establishment of government in Virginia. All the members of the cabinet, except Mr. Seward, are now in attendance upon the President.

I have seen Mr. Seward, but he and Frederick are both unconscious.

-Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War

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Thanks to the folks who wrote Universal Principles of Design for pointing out this fascinating letter and highlighting this timeless principle of content creation.

June 3, 2010

How Walt Whitman Changed The World of Poetry & What You Can Learn From It

In the early 19th century, poetry rhymed. Period. End of story. Free verse didn't exist yet, and anything that didn't descend from a long line of European traditions dictating style, content, and form was quickly dismissed as commoner's gobbly-gook. It might be called sentimental, perhaps moving, but not poetic.

Walt Whitman changed all that. The ideal American poet, according to Whitman, did not elevate himself above the common man. He didn't hold fast to tradition for tradition's sake. And, above all, he did not identify with Europe, it's land, people or society. He was American through and through.

Whitman wasn't preaching to the choir; his high-minded ideals directly contradicted everything about modern American poetry and American poets. He was preaching equality and free verse to sonnet-clinging elites. Moreover, while the Good Gray Poet is now known world-over as the father of free verse, when he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 he was a nobody.

But Whitman's audacity knew no bounds; he wasn't content with coming out of the woodwork to call out the literati, and he wasn't content to take risks with his style. At the age of eleven, Walt left school to begin a career that included stints in teaching, printing, publishing, and journalism. He learned how to set type, and he acquired a feel for popular culture and, in a sense, marketing. In turn, this would lead to his ultimate show of panache -- the promotion of his own work.

Upon the debut of Leaves of Grass, Walt sent complimentary copies to a number of prominent literary figures (now a common promotion tactic, then a rare move of boldness). And when Ralph Waldo Emerson responded favorably to the copy he received, Whitman took the liberty to publish the response in the New York Daily Times without asking for Emerson's permission. He even went so far as to anonymously publish reviews of his own work in several newspapers. There would be no shortage of praise for Walt Whitman.

But Whitman and his poetry were not well-received by all. His poetry was regarded by many as obscene, and he was frequently perceived to be arrogant beyond belief. When it came to light that Whitman had published a number of self-written reviews, needless to say, people were not pleased. And in 1882 the sixth edition of Leaves of Grass, by now his life's work, was prohibited from being published in the city of Boston on grounds of obscenity. However, despite, or perhaps because of, all the controversy surrounding him, Walt Whitman accomplished a feat that most poets and authors do not: he lived to see his work rise to prominence.

Regardless whether you enjoy his poetry or agree with his methods, Whitman's audacity serves as an inspiration to us all. He's a reminder that sometimes you need more than talent; you need a bit of chutzpah, too.

image via Marcelo Noah

May 24, 2010

What Did You Leave On Your Desk Today?

We've all heard: "Live each day like it was your last." But, for some reason, we never associate this idea with our lives at work. Recently at LessConference, Cammeron Moll recounted a great story about a husband and wife couple who owned a design agency (if you know the original source of the story, please share in the comments).

One day, the husband died. It was sudden and unexpected. The wife was grieving her husband, she walked into his office and she started to clear off his desk. Sitting on top of the desk was a collection of all his recent works. The work left on his desk was some of the best he'd ever created. He'd died at the peak of his creative work. She found comfort in the fact that when he died, he was still as passionate, and creative about his work as the day they first met. She could see her husband in the legacy of his work. She knew he would be proud of the work he left behind for them to discover.

If you were to die suddenly, what would be your legacy? As you leave your office, ask yourself, what did you leave on your desk today? Is it something you'd be proud of?

May 19, 2010

Why Autonomy At The Office Isn't Enough

Studies have shown that autonomy, self-governance, is a crucial factor in determining how much enjoyment people derive from their work. When bureaucracy makes your efficient work inefficient, you get upset. When your boss won't let you take projects in new directions, you get upset. Eventually, a lack of autonomy creates depressed, unmotivated employees.

But it's easy for this simple truth to yield a defeatist mentality that doesn't help employees at all. Instead of anything useful, it provides a scapegoat. My work place is stifling my creativity! The bureaucracy is unbearable! This kind of attitude ignores the fact that we all have choices to make, for better or for worse.

When it comes to our work, or anything for that matter, the only way to get better is by practice, and the truth is that no work place provides enough time for practice  -- there's too much work to be done. You have to choose to practice on your own time. As much as employers need to grant autonomy at the office, employees must choose discipline at home.

The real challenge isn't finding a place to work that let's you shine (there are actually more of those than you might expect), but choosing to shine no matter where you work.

May 12, 2010

What A 20th Century German Philosopher Can Teach You About Building Better Web Apps

Martin Heidegger, the 20th century german philosopher, theorized that people relate to tools differently than they relate to other types of objects. He called this the Ready-to-Hand principle.

Ready-to-Hand is a term he invented to describe what happens when people become one with their tools. His insight was that people don't notice their tools while using them. Instead, they are focused on the desired outcome. Imagine a person driving their car on the highway. The driver isn't thinking about his car -- he's thinking about how to get to Mom's house in Decatur. He's not focused on his tool. He's focused on his task.

Since a web application is a type of tool, it adheres to the same principles Heiddeger described for physical tools. When using a web application it should be Ready-to-Hand. It's use should feel as natural as waving your arm. While this sounds simple, the reality is a bit more complex. The psychological connection we have with our tools is very fragile. If something doesn't respond as expected, then the connection breaks.

When this happens, we react like a carpenter with a suddenly broken hammer. Curse words fly, and we lose focus on our task. The tool is no longer a tool, it's an object that has to be fixed. The reason people hate slow applications is because of their lack of responsiveness (AKA lag). Our mind is awaiting a timely response that never comes. We can't become one with our tool.

And while speed is a common cause of frustration, the Ready-at-Hand principle really applies to the entire user experience. An otherwise perfect user experience can be ruined with a single flaw. If a hammer slips out of your hand, or a web application has a confusing navigation scheme, then you lose focus on the task at hand. You suddenly become acutely aware that the tool isn't really a part of you. The result is pure frustration for the user.