Friday Five: choices, mushrooms and podcasts

The Friday collection of cool stuff from the web that I came across this week:

The paradox of having too many chances, via Quartz

You’ve heard about too many choices creating stress and indecision, right? Well, now there’s a cure.

The next big breakthrough in design and technology will be the creation of products, services, and experiences that eliminate the needless choices from our lives and make ones on our behalf, freeing us up for the ones we really care about.

“Up to now, the tendency of designers has been to provide customers with as many options as possible—various colors for vacuum cleaners, feature options for calling plans, and a spectrum of detergents for any kind of stain or proclivity.

Anticipatory design eliminates all that and presents a singular option. “Flow not friction,” “convenience not choice,” and “efficiency not freedom” are the mantras of anticipatory design.”

It sounds great. I would love to not have to make so many choices during the day. The Jobs/Zuckerberg theme of having a casual T-shirt-and-jeans uniform sounds ideal, only I’d like mine to be a bit more colourful.

However, here’s the catch:

“But for anticipatory design to work, an interconnected network of systems and records need to work seamlessly. This means relinquishing personal information—passwords, credit card numbers, activity tracking data, browsing histories, calendars—so the system can make and execute informed decisions on your behalf.”

I would love a more streamlined life. But I don’t want to relinquish that much control. And I would also like some complications from time to time. For texture, interest and to remind myself that life isn’t perfect.

This is a fascinating article, ripe with efficient possibilities that sound like science fiction but that are possible today. But to what extent do we want more efficiency? Like the smothering mother who won’t let you do anything for yourself, when does that pass from helping to controlling? And, when does the pursuit of such efficiency become more trivial than evolutionary?

The aim of anticipatory design is, in the end, to solve the ultimate of first-world problems: too much choice.

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3d printing nature, via Dezeen

How’s this for an appetizer? You plant mushrooms and herbs inside a little 3d-printed bread basket, let them grow, and then eat the whole thing together. Talk about wild.


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Podcasting in the limelight – via The New York Times

Of all the innovations in media distribution that the Internet has facilitated, I would put podcasts at the top of the list. Ok, along with music discovery and new documentary formats. But podcasts have taught me more than any other innovation, way more, and no other development has helped fill previously unproductive times quite like podcasts. Trekking to the grocery store? a16z. Going to the gym? Tech Weekly. Walking the dog? 99% Invisible. Running? Freakonomics. Airports? The Web Psychologist. So, to say that I am a podcast fan, doesn’t quite cover it.

This article in the New York Times by Farhad Manjoo brings up some of the obstacles podcasts as a business face – the lack of industry standards in advertising, the lack of actionable data – and highlights some success stories. The author knows the sector, he himself has a tech podcast (now on my list of things to listen to). But I don’t agree with his title: Podcasting Blossoms, but in Slow Motion. Podcasting startup Gimlet Media’s first show took 30 days to reach 100,000 listeners. Its second show took four days to reach that. That’s pretty fast growth. And the torrent of new entrants into the scene doesn’t sound like slow motion to me.

But, putting aside quibbling about the pace, the fact that podcasting is featuring so prominently in mainstream media, given its almost retro non-tech feel, is exciting and encouraging. I worry about the time I’m going to need to set aside just to keep up with my favourites, let alone my new discoveries.

“Several advertisers told me that podcast ads had proved to be tremendously effective. They can’t be easily skipped, and because they are often read by hosts, audiences are often convinced of their authenticity. “We feel it creates a deep personal connection to our brand,” said Ryan Stansky, the marketing manager who runs podcast advertising at Squarespace, which currently sponsors hundreds of podcasts.

Even though rates are high, selling ads is still a laborious process and top-tier shows limit the number of ads that appear in each show. The more ads that appear, the less each advertiser will pay, a dynamic that may limit the upside of the business. There are also technical problems to be solved. Podcasters can count their downloads, but it’s difficult to tell if downloads translate to listeners, and it’s nearly impossible to tell who is listening, and to figure out what sort of ads listeners may like.”

My favourite podcasts this month (the list changes frequently, especially as I’m continually discovering new ones):

a16z (Andreesen Horowitz)

Entrepreneurial Thought Leadership (Stanford University)


Tech Weekly (The Guardian)

The Web Psychologist

The Tim Ferris Show

99% Invisible

GPS with Fareed Zakaria

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7 future web design trends that are already here, from Medium

Jowita Ziobro on Medium gives us an excellent synthesis of changes in web design: scrolling with gestures, simple is better, animation is back and email trumps social. Fascinating and well presented.

“Right now you see the best of mobile app design appearing in web design. With enough time, the difference between an app and a website might almost entirely disappear.”

image via "7 Future Web Design Trends" on Medium, by Jowita Ziobro

image via “7 Future Web Design Trends” on Medium, by Jowita Ziobro

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A Sad Counting – The Guardian’s Counted project, from Nieman Labs

This is an interesting exercise in participation, with interesting lessons in Getting the Message Out There. At the beginning of the month, The Guardian newspaper of the UK launched The Counted, a tally of those killed by police in the US. It’s a sad and fascinating project, with a sobering presentation, an absorbing design and a clear layout. The problem is that the impact is only as good as the quality of the data behind it. So, The Guardian turned to crowdsourcing, asking the public to participate, to verify and amplify the information publicly available. But how to get people to participate? This insightful article explains the process and the result.

The main takeaways:

  • Lose the brand. People care about causes, not brands. The Guardian’s US team set up Facebook pages and Twitter feeds that did not flaunt The Guardian’s brand, but were centred on the cause.
  • Moderate, moderate, moderate. Debate is good, but abuse is not. This part is difficult.
  • Cherish the community. Cultivate the super-users. They’ll become ambassadors and moderators, spreading the word and caring for the project as if it were their own.
  • Bring together small communities, by respecting their focus and their space, and by giving them a way to reach other small communities. Help them to share their stories and information.
  • Share the data. The more open the project is, the more usable it is and the more it will be shared and commented on. Let people have access to the data for free, and they’ll contribute more data, input and insight.

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Words take on a life of their own

The Visuwords website is fascinating. Not very useful maybe, unless you’re into language trivia. But it is hypnotic, and worth playing around with.


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The lack of European unicorns – from the New York Times

Yet another article comparing the US entrepreneurial scene with the European. This one (by the knowledgeable and prolific James Stewart) is more insightful and frustrating than most, for the clarity of its cultural comparisons. It’s not a Europe-bashing article which would inspire me to come to Europe’s defence. It is more a European-politics-bashing article which I have no problem with. I see so many headlines about entrepreneur initiatives and Silicon Valley wannabes that pretend that it’s even possible to replicate the scale of success. And it’s frustrating, as Europe is such a wonderful place to live (politics aside), with so much creativity and stimulation. We would like the talented individuals with lofty entrepreneurial ambitions to stay, and I’m sure that they would like to as well. It would be so great if articles like this help European legislators to wake up and realize the depth of change that mercantile law needs to compete for that talent.

“Here’s a stark comparison: In the United States, three of the top 10 companies by market capitalization are technology companies founded in the last half-century: Apple, Microsoft and Google. In Europe, there are none among the top 10…

There are institutional and structural barriers to innovation in Europe, like smaller pools of venture capital and rigid employment laws that restrict growth. But both Mr. Kirkegaard and Professor Moser, while noting that there are always individual exceptions to sweeping generalities about Europeans and Americans, said that the major barriers were cultural…

None of this will be easy to change, even assuming Europeans want change. “In Europe, stability is prized,” Professor Moser said. “Inequality is much less tolerated. There’s a culture of sharing. People aren’t so cutthroat. Money isn’t the only thing that matters. These may be good things.” But Europeans can’t have it both ways. She said that successful innovators quickly discover it’s hard to break through these cultural norms.”

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I have to share this with you. It’s one of the craziest things I’ve seen in ages. Really. Crazy.

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On that note, have a crazy (but cannibal-free) weekend.

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