Educated Drivers Wanted

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Advertisements for the first automatic transmissions, 1939. Image: NTY/General Motors

Interesting article in the Times recently about the explosion of problems surrounding gear selectors in automobiles that have come to light since the tragic death of actor Anton Yelchin a month or so ago.

The most interesting takeaway for me was about the intersections of technology and psychonomics, the link between products and minds. A well-crafted bicycle handbrake is an example given in the article of something that one intuitively knows how to use.

For me, ever a car nut, I was reminded of driving my 1988 Volkswagen Scirocco, the cockpit of which was perfectly laid for me. I didn’t have to think; I just moved an arm or finger or foot. It was a brilliant automobile. And I think its brilliance ultimately lay in its simplicity of operation.

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Ergonomically and psychonmically perfect, at least from this driver’s viewpoint, was the last of the Volkswagen Sciroccos sold in America. I sold mine when it was 10 years old with a hair under 200,000 miles on the clock. Image: German Cars For Sale Blog.

Recently, I heard Jay Leno posit that operating an automobile has changed more in the last 20 years than it has since its invention. And I think he’s onto something.

We are cramming more and more technology into our cars while we’re hampering the driver experience. I am absolutely sure that cars manufactured today are safer than those built 20 or 25 or 50 years ago, but I’m not sure that we are operating them more safely.

In the last few years, automotive designers have been experimenting with new and different ways of electronically shifting gears — buttons, joysticks, paddles, dials — and placing these shifting mechanisms in areas of the car that may be counterintuitive; especially if you are seeking an old-fashioned (but tried and true) PRNDL shifter. However, are we actually doing the driving public a disservice when we produce vehicles that the average consumer can’t be sure they’ve put it in Park correctly?

I’m all for technology, but let’s be savvy about it.

Have PR and Marketing Become The Same?

Stumbled upon this article by Wendy Lindars today. Worth a read.

Lindars admits that she initially scoffed at the advice a PR professional gave to a friend: that to get ahead in PR today you have to know Google Analytics and SEO.

That’s marketing, she immediately thought, not PR.

Most of us would probably think the same. But, give it some thought. This guy is correct. Marketing has shifting significantly on its axis in the last 10-15 years. Why would you assume that PR is practiced the same way it was when a “fast Internet connection” was a dial-up modem and you mailed press releases?

Lessons Learned from Not Having Drama

And the play was terrific — sweet, funny, and cumulatively powerful. The audience was with us all the way. The most common audience response was, “I loved watching you; you all were having so much fun up there!” And we were.

We closed last night. I am tired and ready to get back to my regular hours, but I will miss it, both the wonderful people and the sweet simplicity of the work. I have been  thinking about other projects I have been, and am currently, engaged with, and wondering whether they are more difficult and stressful than they need to be.

This cut is from the Mama Ph.D. blog on Inside Higher Ed. Susan O’Doherty is the Ph.D. mama in question.

I liked this cut because I’ve spent a considerable amount of my professional life in the theatre and you always gird your loins for the drama offstage and backstage. And, like O’Doherty, you are always shocked when it does not come.

Her last sentence, though, struck me: I have been thinking about other projects I have been, and am currently, engaged with, and wondering whether they are more difficult and stressful than they need to be.

Is your workplace festering stress and difficulty? Mine has been recently, and I’m off to fix it. I hope you are, too.

Media Not Asking Right Question on Sweet Briar College Closure

There are a lot of people who get their knickers in a twist over the announcement of a college closing. Teeth are gnashed. Hackles are raised. Hands are wrung. Danders are gotten up. Tears are shed.

This is because, for many people, the college that they attended shaped their lives at a time when they were just dipping their proverbial toes into the river of adulthood. And many of those attribute — I would suggest, wrongly — their very being having changed directly because of their college.

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Sweet Briar College near Lynchburg, Virginia announced this week that it would cease operations in August 2015.

I say wrongly because what actually happens is that they grew up. They became adults. The college experience was happening around that change. And humans tend to need something tangible to hang that type of change on. Agree or disagree; whatever.

My life, too, was fundamentally transformed during my college years, but if my college announced it was closing tomorrow, I wouldn’t shed a tear.

Meanwhile, over in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia — up the road from the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina where I went to college — lots of tears are being shed over the closing of Sweet Briar College, which was announced earlier this week.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the size of Sweet Briar’s endowment, the role of small, rural, liberal arts colleges, the role of single-sex colleges (Sweet Briar is a women’s college) and the fact that the president of the institution noted that the place was 30 miles from a Starbucks. Did any or all of this matter or in some way effect the decision to close?

The question that has been raised is if a college, even one with declining enrollment, has approximately $85 million in its endowment, how can it plead poverty and shut down because of financial exigency?

Well, media watchers, why hasn’t anyone asked this question: “How much debt do you have?”

Boo-hoo about the closing all you want, folks, but you’ll never get the real answer unless you ask the right questions. Score one for critical thinking learned in a liberal arts environment. Ahem.

(For the record, Ry Rivard came close on Inside Higher Ed.)

To Better Position Your College, Remove Word ‘College’ from Name?

Students and alumni of King’s College London have reacted with horror after the university announced it will change its name to “King’s London”.

Yet another spectacularly stupid epic fail in the world of “rebranding.” There are a lot of smart people who work in universities and colleges — including your faithful correspondent — but there really are an astonishing number of stupid people running many of them.

Read this from Times Higher Education.

Gannett Latest Media Corp to Split; WaPo Online Readership Up

Gannett has announced that it will split into two separate entities — one focused exclusively on digital and broadcasting and one focusing on print. Gannett is the nation’s largest newspaper publisher. Its portfolio includes flagship USA Today and 81 other papers around the country.

In addition to splitting, it has announced that it will purchase the remaining 73% of Classified Ventures LLC — read: Cars.com — for $1.8 billion dollars cash. Gannett already has a 27% stake in the online venture.

According to a Gannett press release, Gracia Martone, president and CEO, says, “The bold actions we are announcing today are significant next steps in our ongoing initiatives to increase shareholder value by building scale, increasing cash flow, sharpening management focus, and strengthening all of our businesses to compete effectively in today’s increasingly digital landscape. Cars.com doubles our growing digital business, while our recent acquisitions of Belo and London Broadcasting doubled our broadcasting portfolio. These acquisitions, combined with our successful initiatives over the past 2-1/2 years to strengthen our Publishing business, make this the right time for a separation into two market-leading companies.”

Can you read those tea leaves? Read closely in-between the bullshit jargon words. Investing in broadcasting and online media and separating print means that when the shrinking newspaper revenues reach non-profitability — and they are not there, yet — it will be much easier to jettison print without hurting the overall bottom line.

On one hand, it’s another nail in the coffin of print as we know it. On the other, you have to admit, it’s good business. For the shareholders, obviously. And really, who else are they thinking about? The reader? Surely, you jest!

Meanwhile, over at the hallowed halls of The Washington Post Company, July 2014 saw WaPo’s most traffic month ever on washingtonpost.com. Insiders credit new owner Jeff Bezos and commitment to digital as the drivers of the upward trend. The Post has added about 60 staffers on the editorial side this year; most of them on digital, according to reporting at GigaOM.

All this begs the question: just how much time is left on the clock for the printed daily paper?

KISS Off — Beginning to Make Your Website Work for Your Clients

“Simplicity should be to self-service as chocolate is to joy or sadness is to taxes.”

That’s how Gerry McGovern begins his latest New Thinking missive.

And here’s how he ends it: “Organizations are making life easy for themselves and miserable for their customers.”

Gerry McGovern. Image: ux-lx.com

Gerry McGovern. Image: ux-lx.com

Think about that statement when you look at your own website. Think about that when you visit a competitor’s website or your healthcare provider’s website or your cell or internet provider’s site. Think about that the next time you have cause to visit a college or university website or a big box retailer’s site. Or, and this is a big one: think about that the next time you have to apply for a job online.

Organizations big and small are making their websites work for THEM and not for YOU, the user. It’s maddening and frustrating and ultimately, I fear, most of us have given up. “This is just the way it is,” we’ll sigh and go on to the next thing.

But here’s my thought: it doesn’t have to be that way. A few simple fixes — simple for the user, not so simple for the implementer, especially if they have to convince senior management first — and you can make your site stand out from the crowd because your site visitors can actually get something done. And that’s a real step forward.