On being ... Rorschach's legacy?

By Ingrid Sapona

I don’t know about where you live, but here in Toronto these bizarre, crossword puzzle-like graphics have started turning up everywhere. To be honest, I can’t even tell you how long they’ve been around because for the longest time I simply ignored them.

The first time it occurred to me that these weren’t some strange, Escher-like graffiti that someone was randomly posting around town was when I noticed one on a printed sign in the subway where ads normally appear. I couldn’t understand why such a thing was on a printed poster because that would mean that someone had actually paid for such a graphic -- and that it was somehow part of the ad.

I made my way closer to the poster to see if there was more to the box -- you know -- some hidden message like those tests they give to see if you’re colour blind. But, there was nothing that I could see -- just a bunch of black squares and white spaces. It wasn’t until I was quite close that I noticed instructions that said something about using your cell phone. At that point I made a conscious decision to tune it out. If it was something involving a cell phone, I pretty much wasn’t interested, as I still view my phone as something just for making calls.

After that, I started noticing them here and there, usually with a note about needing a cell phone to view it. Eventually I heard someone describe it as a kind of a “bar code” that you read with your cell phone. “Aha!” I thought… just a new-fangled bar code. That explanation at least meant something to me, since everyone who has ever shopped knows what a bar code is. But still, I couldn’t understand why there would be bar codes on ads – and I sure as heck couldn’t understand why anyone would want to “read one” with their cell phone. (It also made me wonder whether anyone scans the old style bar codes (the vertical line ones) with a cell phone -- and if so, why?)

Then, last week I was at a concert with some friends and I saw a large banner that had a company’s logo and tag line and then a huge one of those black and white puzzle-designs. I asked a friend if he knew what that was and he said, “Ah, yeah -- it’s something you read with your smart phone -- it’s like a bar code.” Now I was getting somewhere, I thought. Since I knew he had a BlackBerry® (Canada’s famous smart phone), I bombarded him with questions.

How does it work? What kind of information does it magically provide? How come some of those “bar codes” are super big (like the one on that banner) and some fit on a business card? Alas, he had no answers, as he had never done anything with one of them. Though my curiosity was peaked, there was little I could do, since I have an “ordinary” cell phone -- not a smart phone.

Finally, just the other day, a newspaper article talked about the positive response a winery has had by putting them on their wine bottle labels. Apparently they’re called QR codes, which stands for “quick response”. The article explained that they are basically encoded text or links to a web page and scanning software in smart phones decodes the message and displays it on the phone’s screen, or automatically connects you to a web page.

The article then went on to explain the kind of information the winery has included -- stuff about the blend of grapes used and food pairings -- additional information that would appeal to some customers, but not everyone. I must admit, on reading that, bells went off in my head -- not so much as a consumer, but as a business writer. (A new market for my services?)

I then Googled QR codes and found all sorts of information and videos about them, including their possible uses and how easy they are to create. The videos made it pretty clear that marketing is the name of the game. Indeed, one person described the use of QR codes as “rewarding consumers for paying attention to your brand” -- I guess because when you scan one you’re directed to more information about that product. Hmmm… more marketing information… Some reward, huh?

Well, now that I know that for the most part QR codes are about selling you something, at least I don’t feel I’m failing some 21st century Rorschach test or that perhaps I’m missing out on important messages about the meaning of life…

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a good (if unoriginal) idea

By Ingrid Sapona

I’ll confess right from the start that I borrowed the idea for today’s column from Katie Couric. In April she published: The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives (2011 Random House). I was intrigued by the book as soon as I learned it came about as a result of an invitation she got to be the 2010 commencement speaker at Case Western Reserve University, one of my alma maters. On top of that, long-time readers of On being… know I’ve always dreamed of giving a commencement speech (I wrote about in June 2006), so Ms. Couric’s thoughts on commencement speeches was of interest to me regardless of the CWRU connection.

As a seasoned commencement speaker, in the book’s Introduction (page xxii) Ms. Couric eloquently writes about what she’s found inspiring about others’ commencement addresses, describing them as “… often thoughtful, entertaining, and very personal. And, like eulogies celebrating a life well lived, they make you want to be a better version of yourself.” Then she goes on to explain that in thinking about what she might say at CWRU, she hit on the idea of asking some of the remarkable people she’s interviewed over the years what they’ve learned.

Apparently lots of the initial group she asked responded, and so she cast the net a bit wider, asking others to participate. She soon realized the responses were “moving and funny and profound and helpful” and should be shared -- not simply with college graduates but with “anyone who may be in need of a little lift, a little instruction … or a few laughs”. And so she created the book, which is a collection of responses to her questions: What have you learned? What lessons from your own life might be useful and instructive.

Some of the essays that were most meaningful to me were about things I believe to be true, but had never thought of in quite the same way, or had never managed to put so succinctly. For example, t.v. host Larry King’s four sentence essay (page 45) about learning to listen rang true for me -- and I loved his comment that: “You don’t learn anything when you are talking.” And New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman struck a chord when he talked about the difference between skepticism and cynicism. According to Friedman (pages 125-126), “Skepticism is about asking questions, being dubious, being wary, not being gullible but always being open to being convinced of a new fact or angle. Cynicism is about already having the answers -- or thinking you do…” While I’m embarrassed to admit that in my youth I was more of a cynic, Friedman’s explanation of the distinction has helped me see that (thankfully) I’ve matured into a skeptic instead.

I was especially struck by the fact that no fewer than three people talked about a very simple concept that’s easy to articulate, but hard to live by: saying yes. Television personality Ryan Seacrest (page 48) says that’s been the secret to his success. Former executive chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt (page 220) advises that: “Even if it’s a bit edgy, a bit out of your comfort zone, saying yes means that you will do something new, meet someone new, and make a difference.” And author and satirist (and Northwestern alum – I’ve gotta put that in, since I mentioned my other alma mater) Stephen Colbert (page 225) believes that though saying yes may sometimes get you in over your head, “It’s the best way to meet other people who love to do what you love to do. You will learn from and comfort each other.” Though I wasn’t in the market for a new mantra, I must say, after reading their comments about saying yes, I certainly found one.

With over 110 essays, there’s lots of good stuff in Ms. Couric’s book -- and, like any advice or stories of trials, tribulations, and triumphs -- what each reader gets out of the essays is personal. One of the things that surprised me most was the wide range of people whose offered-up wisdom resonated with me -- people whose life trajectories are so very different from mine. Of course, that’s one of the wonderful things about life -- there’s no end to who you can learn from or be inspired by.

Ms. Couric’s idea to reach out to the people she’s met in her life got me thinking about the people I’ve met and my readers in particular. Over the years I’ve been moved and inspired by anecdotes readers have shared with me when columns have touched them in some way -- so I know there are lots of rich lessons to be learned from them.

So, I have a special request of all of you: this summer -- as you’re (hopefully) enjoying some down time -- I’d love it if you’d take a few minutes to share some advice you might have been given along the way, or a story from your life that you think is instructive. You can provide your thoughts directly on the On being … blog (http://onbeing.goodwithwords.com) – or you can e-mail me.

Then, this fall -- like a convocation speech marking the start of a new academic year -- I’ll write a column featuring some of the stories, advice, and secrets of success (and happiness, I hope) -- readers have shared with me (on a no-names basis, of course). So, if you have the time and inclination, I look forward to hearing about your extraordinary life…

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona