What I was looking at last year

I was just perusing my pinboard bookmarks from this past year, thought I would pass along the kinds of things that crossed the transom over 2012. I know, listcicles are a little late, and sooo December, but still. Enjoy, and I’m happy to have some conversation about some or all of these things, publicly or non-publicly!


1. Comments are terrible.

People have mostly stopped commenting entirely on this blog (a handful of readers continue to do so, and I completely appreciate it). The only places I have experienced specifically good comments are on Making Light, Unfogged, and (as the author mentions) on Ta-Nehisi Cotes’ blog. Maybe commitment to forums outside facebook or twitter are just more difficult now than they used to be, and since attention is diluted across the spectrum of internet activity, we are driven more and more to be consumers of knowledge/content rather than participants. Or maybe I’m just not an active member of Reddit and that’s the problem. Or it could be that the internet truly is a medium.


2. Dark Souls.

I’m a little obsessed with this video game, and if you want to get a sense of what you are in for, watch this great PBS Ideas Channel video about Homestuck, Ulysses, and Effort Justification. This game is far, far beyond what is reasonable, and I am inexplicably drawn to it. So, effort justification, yes.


3. Let’s Move.

Oh, I’m sorry, did you not know that we have the most amazing first lady in the world? Um, yes. YES. You can keep all the Blue hype, the remixed baby cries, the tumblr, whatever. I loved the video to Let’s Move, and I’m just going to leave it at that. Yes, it’s 2011, but you know what? Make your own list, don’t be a hater.


4. Twistable and Dunkable

We have a good friend who worked at Kraft for a long time, as a brand manager on the Oreo team. The conversations were amazingly interesting, because, well, Oreo cookies, and because brand managers who are thoughtful think a lot about their brands. She described the process of working with their internal brand police while developing the Oreo Cakester (the history of Kraft, Phillip Morris, Nabisco, is all muckety but fascinating in its own right. Oreos are now actually made by Mondelēz International). Still, the upshot was that Oreos were existentially defined as being ‘twistable’ and ‘dunkable’. So you could have a 12″ Oreo cookie made of gingerbread, theoretically, but not a ‘cake’ that wasn’t twistable. The fight to create the new product was a challenge, overcome after battles by the brand team, and the highly successful Oreo Cakester was born.

This article takes this further, chronicling the entry of Oreos into the Chinese market. My favorite part:

They started to ask other provocative questions.

Why does an Oreo have to be black and white? Davis sent us an Oreo with green tea filling. Another had a bright orange center divided between mango and orange flavor.

And why should an Oreo be round? They developed Oreos shaped like straws. In China, you can buy a long rectangular Oreo wafer, the length of your index finger.

Impossible to twist apart, but Davis points out that it makes it easier to dunk in milk.

It almost became a philosophical question.

If an Oreo isn’t round and black and white and crazy sweet, is it still an Oreo? What is the essence of Oreoness?

What the Chinese team at Kraft figured out is that an Oreo is an experience. You pry it apart, scrape out the filling with your teeth and plop it into a glass of milk. Their shorthand for the concept: “Twist, Lick, Dunk.” All the wild new shapes and flavors of Oreo wouldn’t work in China, unless they could somehow share that same experience.



5. An old-fashioned urchin party.

I generally love Sweet Juniper’s blog, which is centered around living and raising children in Detroit, but in particular I am smitten with the insanely elaborate projects they do. The urchin party is a good one, but so are the costumes (both Halloween and everyday), the outings, the holiday cards.

I also appreciate the parallels between the urban destruction of Detroit and the kind of throw-back freedom from (Park Slope, Brooklyn-centered) conventional childhood that they experience. There is a more trenchant critique of class and race and urban structure in early 21st century America; SJ is not that. But it is fascinating.


6. Bret Victor’s Inventing on Principle.

This talk, and then a little later on in the year, his Learnable Programming paper/presentation, highlight for me the gap between what I want to say and what I often end up saying. I know that gap is endemic to any creative work. But I feel strong affinity for Victor’s vision of reducing the distance between creators and their work. I would say that if there is one thing that I want to accomplish in the next decade of my life, it is to do something similar with data and analysis. We need more and better knowledge; the tools are wildly complex for accomplishing this; and so we abdicate.

I know that Victor’s vision is something of a privilege for someone who can choose which work, which project, which ideas to pursue, but that’s not necessarily an excuse for it.


7. Average Ratings

Sometimes there is just a complex-but-simple solution to an important problem. And this is one of those times. The problem is, how to ‘surface’ or ‘bubble up’ positive items via ratings? And it turns out that using ‘average’ ratings is not a particularly good solution. The correct solution is to take the lower bound of Wilson score confidence interval for a Bernoulli parameter.

This is one of those things. Like why it’s over 50% likely that someone at a bar has the same birthday as you, or why plus/minus 1.96 standard deviations cover 95% of cases in a normal distribution.

In this case, there is even convenient code in Ruby and SQL.


8. How Big are Porn Sites?

We say things like “porn makes up 30% of the total data transferred across the internet,” and then kind of shrug and think, wow. But this is a real estimate, and the statistics are crazy. The second largest porn site on the internet, YouPorn, is 6x larger than Hulu. 800 Gigabytes per second, like 2% of the internet’s total traffic. According to this article, “Xvideos, the largest porn site on the web with 4.4 billion page views per month, is three times the size of CNN or ESPN, and twice the size of Reddit.”

I don’t know why, but this puts me in mind of Nielsen ratings of top US TV shows. I mean, I know that it’s always NCIS, NCIC: Los Angeles, football, and Pawn Stars, but it’s still surprising (yes, JL, I know you know this already).


9. Girl Legos

In 2012, Lego started making Lego Friends, a product line aimed at girls. Predictably, feminist-leaning groups and bloggers pointed out how terribly this confirms and extends existing divisions between girls and boys. Just as predictably, people who dislike feminism talked about how feminists have their panties in a twist.

I think Lego is being greedy and lazy, and it is easier for them to add a girly line of toys than to ‘rethink’ their existing line of toys. Greedy because these are only imperfectly compatible sets of toys (the girls and ‘regular’ lines); lazy because it is easier and less financially risky to slot into existing cultural grooves regarding gender than it is to change them.

And you don’t have to support feminism (though you should) to recognize that having a ‘regular’ set of toys and a ‘girls’ set of toys is problematic. Yes, boys and girls are different. Yes, it’s great for boys and girls to play with a wide variety of toys. No, androgyny is not the only alternative. But still, this (successful, I think) line of toys is a problem, and Lego is perpetuating it and profiting by it.


10. Gender and AI

My general observation that U.S. culture hates women was confirmed quite a bit in 2012, with discussions about the routine treatment of women in tech, women at Comic-cons, women who criticize George RR Martin’s books (warning: there are some spoilers in there, as well as reasons you may not want to ever read the Ice & Fire series).

So read about that stuff, and fight it please. But also look at the article about gender and AI. Because it’s a brilliant discussion about gender, Portal 1&2 (arguably the most creative video games in the universe). Basically HAL made Siri into a girl. And German men won’t take any directions from a woman (how in the world Angela Merkel works is a mystery I don’t even want to delve into).


11. Manhattans (the drink)

There’s nothing here that I haven’t said here. But Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s drink recipes are always amazing. I’ve made his ginger beer, and his bloody mary. Both were terrific.


12. Star Wars for kids

Honestly, there should be a nerd parent’s guide to everything. But if you haven’t heard of Machete Order, you should read that whole thread. It’s amazing. And since Disney has purchased the rights to make more Star Wars movies in perpetuity, you should get your classic house in order (although we recently watched the obviously destined to be a classic Pitch Perfect, where she mentions why the greatest reveal of all time shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone).

I’ve been wondering about how to manage screen time lately, and two things seem apparent: 1) there is a good way to do it; and 2) I am not going to figure out what that is.


13. Code Year, teaching yourself how to code

MOOCs (massive open online courses) were the rage of 2012, and if you can believe some pundits, it’s the disruption to Higher Education that we’ve wondered about for the decade. Code year is a bit less grandiose, it’s a progressive teach-yourself-to-code website. I’ve been learning Javascript this way.

This deserves a more comprehensive post, but I’ve been stymied by loops. Not that I can’t figure them out, but I seem to have stalled someplace in that section. I know, that’s not too far in. But I’m waiting for a surge of ambition and interest, as well as a somewhat less make-work project (build a blackjack game! a pretend cash register!) to get excited about continuing. No doubt that I will complete this at some point, though. It’s just too useful and too accessible to not do it.


14. It doesn’t matter where your kid goes to school

This is Felix Salmon’s take on a paper called “The Elite Illusion,” about the effects of elite, selective high schools (in NYC these are known as exam schools) on educational outcomes:

The main lesson of the paper — which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest — is that students at highly-selective schools, like Stuyvesant in New York or Boston Latin, don’t seem to perform any better than students who might well have gone to those schools but didn’t. In other words, the outperformance of such schools on tests is a function of how selective they are; it’s not a function of how good the teaching is.

The authors matched up students who were on the borders of acceptance; they compared the educational outcomes of students who were just below the cutoff with students who were just above the cutoff. And found little difference. This is one of those ‘put your money where your mouth is’ kind of arguments, whether kids of middle-class, educated, motivated parents with resources (i.e., people like me) do well no matter where they go.

I know that elite educations allow your kids to hobnob with other elite kids, and that the ‘outcomes’ – testing – are highly limited. But I am highly skeptical that the price tag of a Harvard or Columbia is in whatever sense of the word “worth it.” I am equally skeptical that private/elite elementary and middle schools are worth it either.


15. Television!

There’s nothing amazing here, but read through the third point (“TV is Broken) at least. I am in love with the ways current technology, practices, culture are embedded in historically-specific artifacts. It’s like reading Berger and Luckmann and having access to the desert island where they decided the convention of eating a meal when the sun went down.


16. Women, Having it All

This is more on the continued downward spiral of feminism today. I mean, damn, we have been dead set in 2012 on re-litigating the gains of the last 40 years. I think this Slaughter piece is misguided. To her credit, I think she re-thought it as well in light of criticism, particularly this amazing response by Rebecca Traister. The Traister piece is an example of a great argument, well presented:

It is a trap, a setup for inevitable feminist short-fall. Irresponsibly conflating liberation with satisfaction, the “have it all” formulation sets an impossible bar for female success and then ensures that when women fail to clear it, it’s feminism – as opposed to persistent gender inequity – that’s to blame.

After all, if feminism is supposed to provide women with complete fulfillment, and allow them to have it all, then anyone who’s less than fully pleased by her lot – who works long hours, struggles to pay bills, spends more hours over dirty dishes than her mate, who’s guilty about missing her kid’s play or her business partner’s PowerPoint, who feels tugged in ways that she perceives her husband does not – is not simply experiencing firsthand the ways in which sexism, the economic divide, the wage gap and patriarchal models for public and personal life persist. She’s not even simply experiencing the human condition of dissatisfaction and yearning.

No. Thanks to the “have it all” phantom, she’s experiencing betrayal at the hands of feminism itself. She may well be betraying herself! The movement she actually needs more of – to advocate for universal daycare, better schools, a higher minimum wage, paid family leave, a workplace culture that doesn’t continue to treat all employees as if they were “men” in a historic sense, with wives at home taking care of their lives – takes the blame because thousands of years of sexual inequity have not been reversed fully in the past 50 years.

Yes. A thousand times yes.


17. Jonathan Harris‘ talk at Creative Mornings

I have started to go to some of these Creative Mornings talks, and they are almost always good. I liked this talk a lot (particularly the section on data around 5:00 mark), and I think he got dinged a bit about his pooh-poohing of curation over creation later in the talk. But his impulses are really interesting.


18. Subcompact Publishing

The context of this article is a new app/magazine called The Magazine, but the same ideas about disruption, technology, opportunity, data, caring for your audience, creating content that is both compelling and sustainable, they are all here still swirling around. Plus, the shift from skeuomorphic digital offerings to native digital mirrors the shift in many institutions I’ve been interested in. Trading handhelds that simulated a crowd; ‘trading’ pollution allowances on the CME rather than through the EPA directly. Transitions across institutional changes are complex, but not unpatterned.


19. 7 Basic Rules for Charts and Graphs

I appreciate best practices. There is a strong place for creativity, but without foundations of common practice that creativity becomes, well, some kind of ‘to each her own’ truthiness. I wouldn’t take the final stand in charts and graphs, but still, love a good practical best practices guide.


20. Terry Gross’ last interview with Maurice Sendak

Do yourself a favor and listen to this interview excerpt, illustrated by Christoph Niemann. Terry Gross is magic. And Maurice Sendak is so wonderful he makes me cry:

“I have nothing now but praise now for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. I cry a lot because they die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more… There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”

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