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Monsters and Thieves

Nathan Kontny
Nathan Kontny wrote this on 5 comments

Good artists copy; great artists steal.

A famous quote about creativity often attributed to Picasso. But what can we actually learn about creativity from studying thieves? And did Picasso even say it?

Halloween is tomorrow. I haven’t cared for ages. But, now I have someone in my house like this. My 5 month old ladybug :)
I find myself at the nearest drugstore constantly buying diapers, and I can’t help notice the holiday on sale. Candy, makeup, masks. Especially the classic: Frankenstein.
Most of us don’t realize our use of Frankenstein’s name is wrong. Frankenstein was the name of the scientist, Victor Frankenstein. The monster didn’t have a name.
In the book, he’s called monster, creature, fiend, even devil. If anything, the monster’s name is Adam.

I am thy creature: I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed

-The “monster”

But the big thing most don’t realize is that the story of Frankenstein was written by François‐Félix Nogaret.
Wait that doesn’t sound right. Wasn’t Frankenstein written by Mary Shelley?
Julia V. Douthwaite, a professor at The University of Notre Dame, recently uncovered a story by French author François‐Félix Nogaret, written years before Mary Shelley was even born. The story is about an inventor named Frankenstein who creates an artificial man.
Mary Shelley stole the idea of Frankenstein.

Cars were supposed to be the solution to lost or stolen horses.

When I leave my machine at the door of a patient’s house I am sure to find it there on my return. Not always so with the horse: he may have skipped off as the result of a flying paper or the uncouth yell of a street gamin, and the expense of broken harness, wagon, and probably worse has to be met.

-An excited new automobile owner from 1901, found in the book Stealing Cars

Instead, cars have been the object of thieves attention since they were first invented. Motor vehicle theft, also more popularly known as grand theft auto (amongst police and video game playing teens), is an enormous problem and a multi-billion dollar industry for thieves.
By many counts, a car is stolen in the US every 30 seconds. Of those stolen, only about 12% are ever recovered. And the problem is all over the world. 1 in 6 cars on the road in the Czech Republic are stolen vehicles or contain stolen parts.
But today, with the advent of Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs), a stolen car isn’t that valuable sold on its own. If you had a stolen car and changed its plates, its VIN is still etched or stamped onto 20 or more pieces of your car. The dashboard is the obvious place you see it. But it’s on the engine. The doors. Some cars even have the VIN etched onto all the windows.
And so, a stolen car is easy to identify. As a whole.
Professional car thieves know that as soon as you steal a car, your next immediate task is to get it to a chop shop. A chop shop is an illegally operating garage that specializes in taking a car and almost literally chopping it into pieces. In less than an hour, a stolen car is chopped. Seats, windshield, airbags – every individual item is removed. Things with VINs are dumped, destroyed, or melted down.
Now, thieves have extremely valuable parts on their hands. Wheels, entertainment systems, air bags – all can go for hundreds to thousands of dollars on their own. Even melted down. A catalytic converter contains platinum going for $1500 an ounce.
And in their sale, they can’t be traced back to the original owner or the crime.
Professional thieves have figured out that there isn’t much use to stealing and reselling an entire car. The value is in deconstructing the car, and utilizing the individual pieces.

Many people also don’t realize Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is subtitled “The Modern Prometheus”, as the subtitle doesn’t appear on modern editions of the book.
Prometheus is a tale from Greek mythology, probably 3000 years old. Some versions of the myth have Prometheus as the architect of mankind, fashioned out of mud and fire. Shelley’s monster was created with flesh and lightning.
Shelley didn’t just steal from Nogaret. She stole pieces of work from a countless number of places. Like Greek mythology. Like Milton’s Paradise Lost, an alternative genesis story about Adam, God, and Satan.

Like Adam, I was created apparently united by no link to any other being in existence many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me.

-The “monster”

Like Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Mariner and Frankenstein both use a similar narrative technique of one character telling another character the story, and interrupting the narrative to make sure the reader is reminded of that fact.
She stole from Giovanni Aldini and Johann Konrad Dippel who were scientists in the late 1700s who were trying to sustain or create new life with electricity and chemicals.
Shelly even stole narrative and character ideas from her own mother’s novel, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
But you wouldn’t know these things unless you did a lot of research and could spot the elements. Nogaret and Shelley might have a main character with the same name creating an artificial man, but that’s largely where the similarities stop. The stories are completely different.
And that’s because Shelly did what these car thieves excel at: break things down, and find new value in the parts.

Amateurs tend to be poor at imitation. When they see an idea, they clone the whole thing and offer it as their own work. The pro knows to chop these things into pieces and find new uses for them.
One of my favorite books to recommend to developers who feel like they can’t design is Jarrod Drysdale’s Bootstrapping Design. He outlines a way novice web designers can do what Mary Shelley did:

  1. Find 3 sites that inspire you.
  2. Steal the layout from one, color scheme from another, and typography from the third.
  3. Combine those three, and you’ll realize you’ve created something original.

I’ve made something called Draft, software to help people write better. The homepage has served me well in getting traffic and getting people to sign up:

But it’s actually a combination of things I’ve stolen. The font I stole from Field Notes, these beautifuly designed notebooks from Aaron Draplin and Coudal Partners. They introduced me to Futura, and I fell in love.
The layout was stolen from Google. Simple, centered, almost nothing on the page, just click the button and get started.
There’s a little animation to the headline that drops in – stolen from DuckDuckGo’s previous design, a great search engine built by Gabriel Weinberg. Their logo had a similar animation when the page loaded.
Even the blue button came from some place I can’t remember now. But I was on a site, saw the blue they were using, and decided it would make a great link and button color.
On and on, I’ve deconstructed these other sites into pieces and mixed them together into something new. Something original.
Now, I’ve recently taken over as the CEO of Highrise, and as we look at things to improve and redesign, I see us doing the exact same thing.
I hired the very talented designer, Wren Lanier, and the first thing she asked me was: send me all the sites and designs that inspire you.
And as you’ll see, when we launch our new homepage soon, it will come off as original, because it is. But lots of elements on those pages are because Wren or I liked a button here, a color there, a font somewhere else.
Here’s an illustration that you might see soon on the new Highrise homepage, describing Highrise as a “Secret Weapon.”

A beautiful original “shaken” from a designer and artist I hired, Brad Colbow, but you can spot where inspiration came from.

That quote “Good artists copy; great artists steal,” is often attributed to Picasso. But that’s not what he actually said. According to The Quote Investigator, that’s Steve Jobs’ version as he was trying to quote Picasso.
Picasso has also been quoted as saying:
    Bad artists copy; great artists steal.
But a 1974 book, mentioned William Faulkner said:
    Immature artists copy, great artists steal.
But it was T.S. Elliot who in 1920 wrote:
    Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.
And it was Alfred Tennyson in 1892 who wrote:
    That great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.

All these great artists, Jobs, Picasso, T.S. Elliot, stole parts, added their own, and inspired the next – just like professional car thieves, clever enough to deconstruct the originals, and use the pieces to create something much more valuable.

The Distance: Fantasy Costumes

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on Discuss

Walk into any Halloween pop-up store right now and you’re likely to find the same assortment of merchandise: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costumes and “Frozen” princess dresses, plus old stand-bys like witch hats and vampire capes.

You’ll find those items at Fantasy Costumes in Chicago too, but the store has a singular, massive inventory that’s the result of being in business year-round for 45 years. To visit Fantasy Costumes is to browse a museum of pop culture phenomena where everything is for sale or rent—a Garth wig from Wayne’s World (excellent!), Andy Warhol glasses, a Hello Kitty mascot head. That kind of selection helps the store stay open year-round and competitive against the seasonal pop-ups. No tricks here, just a half-century of knowing how to help people have fun.

Photo by Michael Berger

Read more about Fantasy Costumes at The Distance. Happy Halloween!

Basecamp Meetup: October 2014

Basecamp wrote this on 4 comments

Twice a year everyone who works at Basecamp comes to our Chicago office for a week to work and catch up with each other. Last week was our Fall meetup.

Here’s what happened:

  • Shaun had a BBQ at his house for out-of town guests
  • We welcomed 3 new employees: Conor, Eileen, and Sylvia
  • Noah talked about customer demographics
  • We had a company dinner at Half Acre Brewery
  • JZ, Nick, and Zach talked about the Basecamp for iOS app
  • Mig recapped last summer’s internship program
  • James, Joan, Kristin, Natalie, and Sylvia shared customer feedback
  • The Distance team planned the future of the magazine
  • A few of us went to the David Bowie exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art
  • The ladies of Basecamp met for a night out
  • Jason and David celebrated the extraordinary efforts of Dan, Jim, and Nate
  • Javan and Sam presented some cool new stuff they’re working on
  • Jonas and Trevor shared some of their recent updates to Basecamp
  • Will set up a room for us to try Oculus Rift
  • Dan and Jamie presented what’s new in Android 5.0 Lollipop
  • We had a pizza party and played games
  • Noah demoed some new software to visualize data
  • Zach from Inventables showed off their new desktop CNC: Carvey
  • Some of us went to see a live taping of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me

Because we’re spread out across states, countries, and time zones it’s nice to have the opportunity to get together in person every once in a while.


Nate Otto
Nate Otto wrote this on 13 comments

If there was a buddy cop movie starring the Geico gecko and the Aflac duck, I’m pretty sure it would outperform “Edge of Tomorrow” at the box office.

We love our anthropomorphized branding mascots. Shortly after Basecamp hatched its own such character, I was watching a big event on TV, and it seemed as though every product in every commercial had sprouted arms and legs. I guess we are part of the zeitgeist.

While I would love to take credit for inventing our Basecamp creature because he came out of the tip of my Micron, the fact is Jason asked me to create it, and it’s pretty hard to go wrong by adding humanoid features to the Basecamp logo. The results are bound to be adorable. Shawnimals had made a similar character months before with the Happy Sherpa, and our design intern this summer, Julia, also made a nice version. That said, I’m proud of the character I helped create, and I’m glad to see it gain momentum. What started as an experiment seems to have taken hold.

At Basecamp, our marketing is more intuitive than contrived. We don’t have dedicated marketing or sales staff. We pay attention to data but it doesn’t own us (take that Noah). I think the philosophy has been that the best marketing is a superior product. Basecamp sells itself, but it doesn’t hurt to have something cool to print on T-shirts. That is where this mascot comes into play. Internally we have been calling it “Basecampy,” and I heard someone call it “Mr. Basecamp” the other day. Let it be known, however, that it is genderless. It reproduces through binary fission. A creation myth is in the works. Basecampy may stick as the name, but we are open for suggestions. Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Google made one of Android's jokes into something clever.

Jamie wrote this on 2 comments

Face Unlock is one of those features that surprises you. “Wow, this is pretty cool.” But after the novelty wears off some things become apparent: it doesn’t work very well, it isn’t very secure (it can be fooled), and you look kinda silly trying to unlock your phone with your face.

A few weeks ago John Gruber tweeted:

It reminded me of how Google creates these sci-fi things but doesn’t implement them very well. Often times features like these get buried or forgotten (is Google Goggles a thing still?).
Yesterday I watched Dieter Bohn’s review of the upcoming Nexus 6 device. I listened to his rundown of the hardware, the screen, how huge the device is, and how the camera’s pretty good. But there was one sentence in the review that I found puzzling. He said it so quickly—almost as an aside—that you could easily miss it:
“It’s got a clever feature if you’re looking at the lockscreen you can unlock the thing.”
What was that? Is he talking about Face Unlock? Is it different in Android Lollipop (the newest/next version of Android)?
I have a Nexus 5 with the latest Developer Preview, so I looked for some clues for this feature that Dieter Bohn mentioned. Sure enough, there it was in the Security Settings: Trusted Face.

Alongside trusted Bluetooth devices, you can set your face to automatically unlock your phone.

OK, so how’s this different than the Face Unlock of old? Android Lollipop doesn’t make you choose to lock your phone by PIN, Password, or Face. The Trusted Face feature is a layer of convenience. You can still unlock your device using a PIN, Password, or Pattern. If the device scans your face, it’s unlocked.
You might be saying, “I don’t get it. It sounds the same.” Here’s the thing. Android Lollipop now shows your notifications on the lockscreen.

The key difference is: you’re looking at the lockscreen to scan your notifications now. It’s during this time that Android scans your face!
When the device sees your face, this is what the lock screen icon does:

Now your phone’s conveniently unlocked for you without you having to think about it.
This seems like such a minor thing, but it shows the care and attention Google has been paying to Android’s design recently. They took this technology (face recognition), and finally applied it in a useful way. It’s a subtle thing, but the difference between “staring at your phone to unlock it” and “reading a notification unlocks it” is a huge difference.

iPad Spinners

Shaun wrote this on 32 comments

Last March the iPad team asked me to design some custom loading screen spinners for the Basecamp app. None of these have made it into the app yet, but I thought it would be fun to share some of the tests.

Admire someone? Write them an email, you might be surprised.

Dan Kim
Dan Kim wrote this on 11 comments

Last week I attended the Digital PM Summit in Austin (Basecamp was a proud sponsor of the event!). There were a lot of great speakers, but the one I really wanted to see was Mike Monteiro. I’ve admired Mike’s work from afar for many years because it’s so honest and direct.

I watched Mike’s entire talk – What Clients Don’t Know (and Why It’s Your Fault) – and enjoyed it thoroughly. It was so great, I wanted to say thanks—it’s the least I could do for something I liked so much. I looked through the crowd for a while, but was never able to find him.

But I still wanted to say thanks, so I took a shot and sent him an email, fully assuming he wouldn’t read it. I kept it brief – I introduced myself, let him know that I’ve admired his work for many years, and thanked him for a great talk.

Later that morning as we hung around the lobby, Mike walked up to me and said hello. We shook hands, and he mentioned he got my email and said thanks for that. The whole interaction was maybe 30 seconds, and I probably made a fool of myself.

But my foolishness aside, I got to meet someone who I admired. All it took was the simple act of saying thank you in an email.

This isn’t a unique story, either. Before I started working at Basecamp, I would occasionally email Jason – just to say hello and to thank him and the team for Basecamp. Eventually those individual emails turned into conversations. And those conversations ultimately turned into my dream job.

Our friend and current CEO of Highrise, Nate Kontny, has written about a similar story. He’s cold-emailed hundreds of people over the years. And while most have been ignored, some have started some really important conversations (like the one that led him to become the CEO of Highrise!).

So if you admire someone, want to say thank you, or just want to strike up a conversation, don’t be afraid to send a nice email. All the headlines keep declaring that email is dead, but it absolutely isn’t. Let your ideas, genuine gratitude, and personality shine in an email. You might be surprised what it leads to.

How Basecamp helped the Golddiggers get our act together

Emily Wilder
Emily Wilder wrote this on 1 comment

My relay team goes by the name “Alaska Golddiggers,” because race officials frown on us calling ourselves the more accurate “Team Shitshow.”

For a group of otherwise competent women, we’ve managed to screw up a lot during our annual participation in the Klondike Trail of ’98 International Road Relay, a 10-leg, 175-kilometer race that follows the trail of the gold rush stampeders from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon. Past oopsies include failing to renew passports on time, forgetting our running shoes, traveling with 11 people on an RV that sleeps 8, misestimating the correct start time so our final runner doesn’t have a finish line to cross, and filling the RV’s holding tank to capacity and then some. (Glad you asked — why yes, that is as gross it sounds!)

Half of the team in 2010. If I recall correctly, the ‘K’ in ‘YUKON’ is slightly crooked because we accidentally pulled it off the sign.

We’ve always planned the event either via email or our Facebook group, which worked OK, although details always inevitably fell through the cracks. This year we switched to Basecamp, and the consensus was that planning went much more smoothly. (Full disclosure: Basecamp sponsored us this year, so I didn’t have to work too hard to convince anyone to get on board. Thanks Basecamp!)
We used a to-do list to discuss and assign race legs — they vary from 9 kilometers but steep to 25.6 kilometers but relatively flat. Another to-do list helped determine what everyone would bring to the pre-race washers tourney fundraiser, and yet another served as our packing list. (Item #1: Passport!!!)

We used the hell out of discussions, and it was so nice to have everything in once place, to refer back to: Who is bringing camp chairs? Don’t buy mint; I have some in my garden! What is everyone’s drivers license number to provide to the RV rental company? No, don’t make hummus; we always bring a ton and no one ever eats it.

“I think one one of the coolest things about this year was just how absolutely stress-free everything was,” one teammate said. “I think a lot of the advanced communication set us up to understand our boundaries, how things would work, and to get to know each other in some cases. When it came time for the actual road trip it was like pushing play and just sitting back.”

Perhaps much of that is that after six Klondikes we’ve begun to learn from our mistakes, but Basecamp also definitely helped everyone stay on the same page. We still emailed and texted a bit, but for everything we needed a record of, it went in Basecamp. Of course there were still a few bumps in the road — we neglected to outfit our leg #1 runner with a timing chip; we got rained on a little. Whatever. We still had a blast, and it was the easiest, most relaxed trip we’ve had to date.
And no one felt guilty wasting any hummus.

Finding Apps: a Personal Experience

Jamie wrote this on 6 comments

This morning I needed an app, but I had no idea where to start. I knew what the app should do, but did it exist? Here’s my story.

The Problem
We received this in the mail this morning. It’s a ticket warning issued by the City of Chicago.

I know what you’re gonna say. See, we do follow the speed limit. The thing is—this was issued to my better half. And she is way more cognizant of the speed limits around the city. What probably happened was the speed limit was 35 mph then in the speed camera zone it dropped to 30 mph. The City of Chicago issues you a ticket when you’re going 5 mph over the limit. At least that’s what I think happened. Either way, it’s beside the point:
There must be some type of app that warns you of these speed zones.
Where to start?
I Googled “chicago speed camera app.”

Interestingly, the first two results are apps for Android. Not sure if Google knows that I use Android. Well, of course they do. Anyway, awesome! Here are two apps that I can check out right away.
The first result
The first app, Speed Camera Alerts gets great reviews. No brainer right?

Except that it looks too European for me. Not the design, but too European in the vein of “Are they going to have Chicago speed camera information?” I thought, well, let me check out the second result…
The second result
The second app is called Chicago Speed Camera. You can’t name an app any more obvious than that. Again no brainer right?

Except it only had 18 reviews. The first two reviews weren’t great. And there was a huge all caps disclaimer on the app description.
Going back to the Google results
So I went back to the Google results to look at the 3rd link. No one does that! (Except for me.) It’s an article called How to avoid all those new speed cameras.
Interestingly, the article is about a 53-year-old local company Cobra Electronics and their smartphone app called iRadar. I’m about to check out that app, but this quote catches my eye:

The app update comes just as Cobra Electronics faces tough competition, including from popular apps such as Trapster and Waze. Trapster has 16 million users; Waze has 50 million; and Cobra’s laser radar-detector version has 1 million.

Waze is a competitor for this app? I have some experience with Waze because Google sends me Waze alerts if there’s an accident on the highway. I’m not a Waze user, and I really don’t have any experience with Waze other than those notifications Google sends me.

I remember seeing a couple friends’ homescreens a while back. Yeah I know, that’s creepy. Anyway, I think I saw the Waze icon on there. So I ask them via Instant Message:

He’s an iPhone person. So I ask my other friend who has Android. I thought I saw Waze on his screen too (yes, I know creepy). How’s the Android app?

I asked them both about speed cameras and how Waze works in alerting you. Waze seemed like the app I was looking for, but there was one small problem. For Waze to work, you have to open the app before you drive. Then when you’re done driving, you have to stop the app.
I asked my Android friend about turning it on automatically by listening to Bluetooth. He replied, “yeah. or, you can just get into your car and turn on waze :/” I don’t want to remember to do that though. Well, actually I know myself too well. I’ll definitely forget to do that.
Surely there must be some way to automate this?
When I get into the car, my phone automatically connects to the stereo via Bluetooth. I figured there must be a way to launch Waze by listening to the Bluetooth connection.
I’ve heard a lot about IFTTT. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem capable of listening to Bluetooth connections. I’ve also heard a lot about Tasker. Tasker is one of those apps Android users will tell you makes Android awesome. I’m sure it’s awesome, but I just want to do one simple thing: Listen for Bluetooth and launch an app.
One of the nerdier things I do (I do a lot of nerdy things, but this is up there) is listen to the All About Android podcast. Every show they have a segment where they review apps. One of the hosts mentioned an app called Trigger that was positioned as a simple version of “Tasker”.
I checked out Trigger’s product page, but it wasn’t clear if it did exactly what I needed. Luckily, I found a review on YouTube.

It works perfectly!
After that initial path of Googling for an answer, I have a setup that works: I get into the car, the phone pairs with car’s Bluetooth, and Trigger launches the Waze app. Now I get alerts like, “Speed Camera Ahead” while I’m driving.
OK so what’s the point?
I wanted to share this with you because often times when we’re marketing something we’re looking for a Silver Bullet. One awesome spot or placement that will get people to use your product.
Look at my experience. I had a need—find a speed camera app. Searching on Google gave me 2 clear app results, but I didn’t end up downloading those. The Google result did get me an article about another app, but I ended up asking friends on IM about one of the competing apps because it was mentioned in the article. Their personal recommendation got me to download the app and set up an account. I wanted to improve my experience with the app by automating it based on my car’s Bluetooth connection. I remember hearing about that app on a podcast. Then I watched a review about the app on YouTube. Now I have the perfect solution from all these disparate unrelated sources. That’s pretty fascinating.
If I was to pick the most powerful point in my decision-making process it would be the recommendations of Waze by my friends. It would take a huge leap of faith to install the app and create an account for something I wasn’t sure would work. It was ultimately because of their recommendations that I chose Waze. But I wouldn’t have known that Waze could do what I wanted if it wasn’t for Google either.
One more thing
I started out by saying the ticket warning was issued to my wife. The problem is, she has an iPhone. Waze will still work for her, but now I have to look into automating Bluetooth, etc on iOS now… Any recommendations?

Extra Drawings

Nate Otto
Nate Otto wrote this on 6 comments

For the last ten months at Basecamp I have been the guy that draws stuff. After making occasional contributions at 37signals over the years, they tapped me to make hand drawn images for the Basecamp marketing site that first appeared in February. Since then my drawings have crept into the app itself, into email blasts, onto banners at Pitchfork, all up in The Distance, plastered on the walls of the office, and into several employee’s avatars. We came up with a creative contract that allows me time to work on my other career as an artist while still providing substantial input at Basecamp.