The Annotations: No. 2

First Principles

An introduction to Issue 2, in which we careen into the new year and tap the brakes.

In the margins

  • Issue No. 2 focused on the underlying truths: the first principles on which we build our projects and professions. From intensely geeky close examinations of a single computing principle to descriptions of a working ethos or a personal battle with distraction, the articles in this issue attempt to reveal a little bit of the dark matter of our work—the things we don’t usually take the time to consider. Not just how, but why.

Sara grapples with curiosity, a force that pushes us toward smarter and better, but that can also make us dilettantes.

In the margins

  • The Itch of Curiosity, by Jonah Lehrer (

    “The first thing the scientists found is that curiosity obeys an inverted U-shaped curve, so that we’re most curious when we know a little about a subject (our curiosity has been piqued) but not too much (we’re still uncertain about the answer).”

  • The Disease Called Curiosity, by William Eamon (New Mexico State University)

    “Augustine included curiositas in his catalog of vices, identifying it as one of the three forms of lust (concupiscentia) that are the beginning of all sin (lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and ambition of the world).”

  • Connecting the Dots, a Creative Mornings talk by Anna Rascouët-Paz (

    “If intelligence is the ability to connect the dots, the first step is to gather them. That’s what curiosity is about.”

“To thrive amid unprecedented amounts of novelty, we must shift from being mere seekers of the new to being connoisseurs of it.”

New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, Winifred Gallagher

About half of all adults in North America, Australia, and most of Europe have trouble reading. Angela offers a pragmatic introduction to the phenomenon of low literacy and the basics of writing and presenting content for low-lit readers.

In the margins

  • Reading and Navigational Strategies of Web Users with Lower Literacy Skills (PDF), by Kathryn Summers and Michael Summers

    “…users skipped from link to link throughout the site, often ignoring page content completely. When asked, they said they were hoping to arrive at more focused information. Users who relied on this strategy sometimes landed on pages with their desired content but did not see it.”

NPR’s Project Argo tested new editorial strategies, tools, and practices across twelve topical websites—and then transparently documented their work live and in public.

In the margins

  • The Art of Working in Public, by Robin Sloan (

    “Working in public like this can be a lot of fun, for writer and reader alike, but more than that: it can be a powerful public good. The comments on Matt’s post all go something like this: Hey, thank you. I’m running a small studio myself, and this is really instructive. When you let people inside your head, they come away smarter. ”

  • View Source, by Clay Shirky (

    “The single factor most responsible for this riot of experimentation is transparency—the ability of any user to render into source code the choices made by any other designer. Once someone has worked out some design challenge, anyone else should be able to adopt, modify it, and make that modified version available, and so on.”

Our First Principles

Writers, thinkers, and makers Kat Meyer, Dorian Taylor, Ian Alexander, Elizabeth McGuane, Henrik Berggren, Randall Snare, and Karen McGrane break down their working principles.

In the margins

  • My First Principles, by Corey Vilhauer (

    “The boundaries of what we do shift constantly. The things we hold dear will change. Someday, we’ll look back at our processes and methodologies and client work and laugh and laugh and laugh and that is okay because we will have learned and learned and learned.”

  • Celestial History, by Liz Danzico (

    “Starting with the north star, and systematically creating relationships in the winter sky among Hercules and Sagittarius, Libra and Polaris, we told tales. We’d trade stories on top of the old stone building in the middle of dark campus until late into the night. Creating these stories, giving Hercules a relationship to Cassiopeia—true or not, good or not, believable or not, it didn’t matter—what mattered were that patterns were found and marked. Marking patterns and making content accessible through stories is what we do. And often, still, when we begin, we’re in the dark.”

“all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language…”

Meditation XVII, John Donne
Columnist Daniel Eizans considers the relevance of the limbic system to people who make content.

In the margins

  • How to Dispel Your Illusions, by Freeman Dyson (

    “At the end of his book, Kahneman asks the question: What practical benefit can we derive from an understanding of our irrational mental processes? We know that our judgments are heavily biased by inherited illusions, which helped us to survive in a snake-infested jungle but have nothing to do with logic. We also know that, even when we become aware of the bias and the illusions, the illusions do not disappear. What use is it to know that we are deluded, if the knowledge does not dispel the delusions?

    “Kahneman answers this question by saying that he hopes to change our behavior by changing our vocabulary.”

  • How You Live Changes Your Brain from Ten Things I Learned, by Milton Glaser (

    “I have a friend named Gerald Edelman who was a great scholar of brain studies and he says that the analogy of the brain to a computer is pathetic. The brain is actually more like an overgrown garden that is constantly growing and throwing off seeds, regenerating and so on. And he believes that the brain is susceptible, in a way that we are not fully conscious of, to almost every experience of our life and every encounter we have.”

A little calm, please.

In the margins

  • Designing Calm Technology, by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown (Xerox PARC)

    “A very busy network causes a madly whirling string with a characteristic noise; a quiet network causes only a small twitch every few seconds. Placed in an unused corner of a hallway, the long string is visible and audible from many offices without being obtrusive. It is fun and useful. The Dangling String meets a key challenge in technology design for the next decade: how to create calm technology.”

Ambiguity lets us make art, literature, and bad jokes, but it’s really hard for our computers to understand. Rachel examines the root of the problem and considers ways we can help machines understand us without losing our us-ness.

In the margins

  • Wikipedia: Disambiguation (Wikipedia)

    “Disambiguation is required whenever, for a given word or phrase on which a reader might search, there is more than one existing Wikipedia article to which that word or phrase might be expected to lead. In this situation there must be a way for the reader to navigate quickly from the page that first appears to any of the other possible desired articles.”

  • Seven Types of Ambiguity, by William Empson

    “We call it ambiguous, I think, when we recognize that there could be a puzzle as to what the author meant, in that alternative views might be taken without sheer misreading. If a pun is quite obvious it would not be called ambiguous, because there is no room for puzzling. But if an irony is calculated to deceive a section of its readers, I think it would ordinarily be called ambiguous.”

“Aristotle also regards things—non-linguistic, non-psychological, non-propositional entities—as first principles. We come to know, e.g., that there are four elements, and this proposition that we know is a first principle; but the four elements themselves are also first principles and are prior and better known by nature. Actually existing things are first principles because they explain other things, and our knowledge of the world requires us to know the explanatory relations in it. To have scientific knowledge (epistêmê) about birds is to be able to explain why birds are as they are and behave as they do. The things and processes that explain others are basic and fundamental; when we have found them, we have found the first principles of birds.”

Aristotle’s First Principles, Terence Irwin