The Annotations: No. 3


An introduction to Issue 3, in which we thought about intelligence.

In the margins

  • Issue No. 3 was loosely organized around intelligence: getting smarter about our work, learning from data, seeking more useful and ambitious ways of documenting our ideas, and attending to the ideas that really matter.

An idiosyncratic view into editorial process at Lapham’s Quarterly.

In the margins

  • From a letter sent on behalf of the Troy Public Library in Troy, Michigan by E.B. White (

    “Books hold most of the secrets of the world, most of the thoughts that men and women have had. And when you are reading a book, you and the author are alone together—just the two of you. A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people—people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.”

  • Paleoblogging, by Tim Carmody (

    “The important thing to me about paleoblogging, as opposed to blogging about what’s in the New York Times or in your friends’ twitter feeds, is that this is stuff that would not enter into the conversation otherwise. You’re not just copying it from internet relay to internet relay, but genuinely scanning it, converting it from the physical and/or nonblogospheric universe into this universe of discourse, recirculating it into new channels of information and ultimately into new retinal images and neural paths. This is the fundamental humanist endeavour—taking knowledge that took a tremendous amount of energy and expenditure to achieve, and that would otherwise go UNknown, and giving it a new social life, a new audience.”

  • The Hermeutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books (PDF), by Stephen Ramsay (

    “It is rather to ask whether we are ready to accept surfing and stumbling—screwing around, broadly understood—as a research methodology. For to do so would be to countenance the irrefragable complexities of what “no one really knows.” Could we imagine a world in which “Here is an ordered list of the books you should read,” gives way to, “Here is what I found. What did you find?”

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

“The Jabberwocky,” Lewis Carroll
This installation of Melissa’s column considers what retail businesses can teach us about serving our users.

In the margins

  • 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer Executive Summary (PDF) (

    “The data portray a savvy consumer who turns first to search engines to see what is available on the topic of interest, and who then seeks out traditional media to confirm or expand on what he or she has learned. Information ubiquity has changed the playbook for corporate communications, the data suggest, signaling to companies that they cannot simply be present with their messages, but rather must be omnipresent through an approach that encompasses mainstream, new, social, and owned media.”

  • Inside the Secret World of Trader Joe’s, by Beth Kowitt (

    “A ringing bell instead of an intercom signals that more help is needed at the registers. Registers don’t have conveyor belts or scales, and perishables are sold by unit instead of weight, speeding up checkout. Crew members aren’t told the margins on products, so placement decisions are made based not on profits but on what’s best for the shopper. Every employee works all aspects of the store, and if you ask where the roasted chestnuts are he’ll walk you over instead of just saying “aisle five.” Want to know what they taste like? He can probably tell you, and he might even open the bag on the spot for you to try.”

  • Penney Overhauls Pricing, Stores in Major Makeover, by Phil Wahba and Dhanya Skariachan (

    “Some 72 percent of Penney revenue came last year from items discounted at least 50 percent. ‘At some point, you seem desperate,’ said Johnson, who became CEO in November after 11 years at Apple Inc., where he built that company’s retail chain.”

A good book review and a thorough content audit share important critical techniques and aims.

In the margins

  • Why’s This So Good? #1, by Alexis Madrigal (Nieman Storyboard)

    “Each time the phone rings, some nearly arbitrary amount of time has passed. The first time Murray calls, we know it’s been three hours, though clearly three hours haven’t been described or felt by the reader. In another instance, ‘an hour seemed to have passed,’ in the course of a thousand words. The passage of time roughly tracks with the word length, but not precisely so. And that’s the real trick. By forcing us to pay attention to the real time (the fabula) every so often, Capote is free to play with narrative time (syuzhet) at will, tunneling back to childhood, zooming in on Brando on the stage or on film, stopping, starting, reversing, slow-mo-ing. He’s like a magician distracting us with unnecessary information so that we don’t notice the mechanics of how he pulls the trick off.”

  • State of Play, Pt. 2, by B. Kite (Museum of the Moving Image)

    “It may be more fruitful, for example, to think of Finnegans Wake as a possibility space than to read it as a novel. Possibility spaces aren’t infinite—they have rules that allow for some modes of interaction while disallowing others. The Wake is a huge possibility space—Joyce himself sometimes thought of it as a divinatory device, predicting events that postdated its composition. Huge but not infinite—it might be difficult to support a reading that took it as a washing-machine repair manual. I suggest that any prognostication on the artistic future of video games should look to works that most explicitly aim toward an expansive field of response, whether these be the plays of Richard Foreman, Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, or Tati’s Playtime.”

  • Introduction to The Best American Essays 2007, by David Foster Wallace (excerpted at

    “I am acting as an evaluative filter, winnowing a very large field of possibilities down to a manageable, absorbable Best for your delectation. Thinking about this kind of Decidering is interesting in all kinds of different ways. For example, from the perspective of Information Theory, the bulk of the Decider’s labor actually consists of excluding nominees from the final prize collection, which puts the Decider in exactly the position of Maxwell’s Demon or any other kind of entropy-reducing info processor, since the really expensive, energy-intensive part of such processing is always deleting/discarding/resetting.”

“I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”

The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien

Better Lures for New Audiences

James introduces search-centric, “outside-in” content strategy practices used at IBM to demonstrate how search data can help us make smarter content.

In the margins

  • Stet by Me: Thoughts on Editing Fiction, by Mandy Brett (

    “The editor’s only real resource is judgement. You have to have absolute faith in it, but you must also interrogate it ceaselessly so as to keep the clearest possible distinction between the needs of the work and your own tastes or preferences.”

  • “Big Data”: An Opportunity for Historians?, by James Grossman (

    “But (and this is what matters to historians): the data are useless until we have them organized into conceptual frameworks able to answer useful questions. Decontextualized data are frequently offered to potential users who quite reasonably assume that understanding patterns of behavior in the past can help to predict future activity. Police forces, for instance, refer to “historical arrest patterns” as one piece of an algorithm generating predictions useful to assigning priorities. A good historian, however, knows never to assume continuity, seminar debates over the dynamics of continuity and change being among the clichés of graduate education.”

  • Introduction to Digital First Metrics: How Do You Measure Success?, by Steve Buttry (

    “Part of your effort to measure is to understand the value of any metric you use: the strengths as well as the weaknesses. You want to understand both the performance that a standard measures and the way that use of a metric might change behavior.”

  • Visualizing Emptiness: Reflections on a Preoccupation with Missing Values, by Jen Lowe (

    “I think that visualization is amazing for its ability to force us to see what’s missing; to see the missing values in a collection of data. Anyone who has experience with data analysis, especially with analyzing other people’s data, knows the feeling of being totally preoccupied with missing values: how are they represented in the dataset? How should we deal with them—bootstrap to fill them in, or throw out the associated data completely?”

Tools for a Revolution

Online communication platforms and social networks have played a central role in the last year’s wave of political uprisings. What does that mean for us, the people who make those platforms and networks?

In the margins

  • Speech to the IAAC, by Ben Hammersley (

    “In this way, we are undergoing a renegotiation of the social contract because of the internet, and the data up on it. We have become more empowered, more self-actualised. We know what we create simply by existing, and we know its value.

    “This is not because people are “addicted to the video screen”, or have some other patronising psychological diagnosis. But because the internet is where we live. It’s where we do business, where we meet, where we fall in love. It is the central platform for business, culture, and personal relationships. There’s not much else left.

    “To misunderstand the centrality of these services to today’s society is to make a fundamental error. The internet isn’t a luxury addition to life; for most people, knowingly or not, it is life.”

  • Twitter, NPR’s Morning Edition, and Dreams of Flatland, by Matthew Battles (

    “Here’s the thing: Twitter is part of the ‘real world.’ The Internet is part of the world.

    “In last year’s revolutions, it wasn’t flatness that gave social media its power. It was its hyperlocality, its novel blending of intimate communities and witness at a distance.”

  • The Internet Is the Best Place for Dissent to Start, by Cory Doctorow (The Guardian)

    “I strongly believe that when people work en masse to route around a system, the system is most likely the thing that needs the fixing, not the people.”

  • We Need to Talk About Piracy (But We Must Stop SOPA First), by danah boyd (

    “[Ethan] Zuckerman’s argument is this: while YouTube, Twitter, Facebook (and other popular social services) aren’t good at protecting dissidents, they are nevertheless the best place for this sort of activity to start, for several reasons.”

  • Losing My Revolution, by Hany SalahEldeen (Web Science and Digital Libraries Research Group, Old Dominion University)

    “All of these contributions [to the Egyptian Revolution] were made by the public, not historians, utilizing the tools of web 2.0. As a result of all these contributions we have an enormous digital content including thousands of posts, tweets, images, videos and sound files narrating and documenting the revolution. Unfortunately, at the first anniversary of this revolution over 10% of this digital content is already gone.”

Daniel explores embodied cognition—the brain in the body—and considers its implications for our work.

In the margins

  • Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and its Aftermath, by Michael Paul Mason (

    “Who are we, other than our brains, really?”

  • Keyframe Bias, by Jack Cheng (

    “The keyframe bias is rooted in the way our memory works. To cram more information into the canteloupe-sized piece of flesh between our ears, we spawn formulas and look for exceptions, discarding the predictable and retaining the keyframes. These become the blueprints we use to recreate our past experiences, stretching a hard drive of a fixed size out to infinity.

    “I suppose it all boils down to the irreducibility of the human experience. It’s easier to transmit and evaluate frozen moments than impart direct experiences, and our ability to look for keyframes and write off the rest is also how we refine the patterns in our head, how we learn and grow. At the same time, these processes can also lead us further from the truth, developing us in a way that ultimately inhibits growth. We must realize that the keyframes are merely slivers of our total experience, that the fullness of life happens between the frames.”

  • The Foreign-Language Effect, by Boaz Keysar, Sayuri L. Hayakawa and Sun Gyu An (Psychological Science)

    “It may be intuitive that people would make the same choices regardless of the language they are using, or that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic. We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases. Four experiments show that the framing effect disappears when choices are presented in a foreign tongue.”

Colleen presents original research on the qualities that make our content credible to readers.

In the margins

  • Stanford Guidleines for Web Credibility: A Research Summary from the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, by B.J. Fogg (Stanford University)

    “1. Make it easy to verify the accuracy of the information on your site.”

  • Getting the News, by Zach Seward (

    “There is also institutional trust. I’m well aware of the gauntlets through which an article much pass before, say, the Journal will publish it, so I’m pretty trusting of anything that makes it that far. But there’s a limit to this approach: The New York Times tells me I’ve read 172 of their articles in the past 30 days. Surely, some portion of them were not up to snuff. I’d be a sap to trust all 172 just because they were published in the Times, however rigorous their editorial process may be.

    “So I tend to think about trust on the level of individual pieces—and, over time, writers. I’m most interested in whether I can trust the author of a piece to treat the subject skeptically, which is just a reaction to what I find lacking in so much of what I read. Where did all this credulousness come from?”

  • 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer Executive Summary (PDF) (

    “Trust has tangible value. Companies that are distrusted and facing an onslaught of negative news will have a harder time changing opinion after the storm than they would if they were trusted at the outset.”

“I’m not like those so-called fair-weather friends of yours. You can believe in me. Trust in me. Trust in me. Shut your eyes. Trust in me. You can sleep, safe and sound, knowing I am around. Slip into silent slumber. Sail on a silver mist. Slowly your senses will cease to exist. Trust in me. Trust in me. Shut your eyes and trust in me.”

Kaa the python, The Jungle Book (1967)
There’s more to information architecture than site maps and trees. Dorian nudges us to explore the real promise of hypertext.

In the margins

  • Information Management: A Proposal, by Tim Berners-Lee (CERN)

    “In 1980, I wrote a program for keeping track of software with which I was involved in the PS control system. Called Enquire, it allowed one to store snippets of information, and to link related pieces together in any way. To find information, one progressed via the links from one sheet to another, rather like in the old computer game ‘adventure’. I used this for my personal record of people and modules. It was similar to the application Hypercard produced more recently by Apple for the Macintosh. A difference was that Enquire, although lacking the fancy graphics, ran on a multiuser system, and allowed many people to access the same data.

    “In providing a system for manipulating this sort of information, the hope would be to allow a pool of information to develop which could grow and evolve with the organisation and the projects it describes. For this to be possible, the method of storage must not place its own restraints on the information. This is why a “web” of notes with links (like references) between them is far more useful than a fixed hierarchical system.”

  • Heterarchy (Wikipedia)

    “A heterarchy is a system of organization replete with overlap, multiplicity, mixed ascendancy, and/or divergent-but-coexistent patterns of relation. Definitions of the term vary among the disciplines: in social and information sciences, heterarchies are networks of elements in which each element shares the same “horizontal” position of power and authority, each playing a theoretically equal role.”

  • Of Dead Trees, Living Networks, and Encyclopedic Ambition, by Matthew Battles (metaLAB)

    “That knowledge is a property of the network means more than that crowds can have a type of wisdom in certain circumstances… it’s not simply that under some circumstances groups are smarter than there smartest member. Rather, the change in the infrastructure of knowledge is altering knowledge’s shape and nature… knowledge is becooming inextricable from—literally unthinkable without—the network that enables it.”

A round-up of responses to and posts about the content strategy conference held in May in Minneapolis, and a meditation by Jonathan on what it might mean.

In the margins

  • Confab 2012 Reading List, by the Editors

    27 blog posts and write-ups about the conference, ready to be read in your browser or exported as epub to the device you choose.

Paul’s closing keynote at the 2012 MFA Interaction Design Festival in New York.

In the margins

  • How to Read a Game that Never Ends, by J. Nicholas Geist (Kill Screen)

    “The gameplay is predictable. Each bloodline is a series of fights. Each fight is a series of gestures. The result is a rote sequence: Dodge, dodge, dodge, swipe. Like a heartbeat. Like the tides. Like the liturgy.”