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Anil Dash

A Blog About Making Culture

Updated: 2011-07-12T04:59:40Z


Animated GIFs Triumphant


"If you can make it here...", Jamie Beck, 2011 It's been 84 years since talkies began their march towards dominance over silent film. But while... "If you can make it here...", Jamie Beck, 2011 It's been 84 years since talkies began their march towards dominance over silent film. But while 1.3 billion people in the U.S. bought a ticket for a motion picture with sound last year, I'd estimate that 3.3 billion people will watch a silent film this year. That's based on just the numbers from Tumblr alone, where we can count 180 million page views a day in the U.S. If just one in twenty of those visits includes a silent film, and we add in other popular media-sharing communities, then it's likely that Americans watch at least three times as many short-form silent films in a year as they do theatrical releases. How can this be true? Due to the power and ubiquity of what may be the world's most popular format for the moving image: The humble animated GIF image. The facts about animated GIFs are stark. They only support a palette of 256 colors. No current browser lists support for animated GIF as a codec for the HTML5

The Virtual Startup: Taking Flight


A year ago, I wrote about the launch of Gourmet Live by Condé Nast. It was a fascinating project for many reasons, ranging from the... A year ago, I wrote about the launch of Gourmet Live by Condé Nast. It was a fascinating project for many reasons, ranging from the fact it was bringing back a brand name that lots of people missed, to the tech innovations the team came up with. (For example, I thought/feared Flipboard was going to launch with some of social/game mechanics that Gourmet Live had, but a year later it seems like almost no other reading apps have incorporated those elements.) Today, the app's doing well, the editorial content is great, and lots of people are reading and buying stories. The team even released a big upgrade to a whole new version that adds iPhone support. (Go get it!) It's a nice case study of how a great app gets built. And the project was particularly satisfying to me because our team at Activate got to collaborate with folks both inside and outside Condé Nast to build Gourmet Live as a sort of "virtual startup". If you caught the "Redefiners" presentation we put up a few weeks ago, you already know the idea — even the biggest, most established companies can adopt some of the principles that tech startups innately obey, like giving enough freedom to really run with their ideas, or being much more iterative and resourceful with a product launch. Good, common sense stuff. So that's the end of the story, right? Well, no. What happened after that is even more interesting. Real Startup Guts Some of us who worked on Gourmet Live were outsiders (not Condé Nast employees) and part of the virtual startup idea is that you can assemble some folks on a team who are there for the duration of the project, in order to tap into talent that's outside the walls of your organization. As Bill Joy said, "No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else." You might have heard what some of these folks have been up to over the past year: At Activate, we have been doing lots of strategy work for Condé Nast and our other clients; Elizabeth Spiers became Editor in Chief of the New York Observer; Garrett Murray's Karbon has created a ton of other cool apps for the likes of Yelp and Fast Society; Paul Ford's been all over the intersection of web culture and editorial genius, revealing "Why wasn't I consulted?" as the fundamental question of community on the web; and Andre Torrez and the Simpleform team launched the wonderful MLKSHK (which you should go support.) But what about the Condé Nast folks who made Gourmet Live happen, and who've kept it vibrant and evolving in the year since its launch? Gourmet Live as it stands today is their baby entirely, especially as it evolves to new platforms like the iPhone. People like Chris Gonzalez, Don Eschenauer, Juliana Stock, Melanie Rivera, Rob Haining do awesome work (think Hall of Fame iOS apps like Epicurious) and if they followed the usual pattern of big companies, they would have gone back to doing just that after Gourmet Live was done. Interestingly, though, these folks maintained the intensity and focus of launching an ass-kicking iPad app as a virtual startup and decided to do it again. The end result is called Idea Flight, and it's pretty great. src="" width="500" height="281" frameborder="0" class="imgcenter"> Idea Flight is based on a simple idea: In a meeting where everyone has an iPad in their hands, there's a better way to share documents than printing and passing out handouts. From smartly pulling files out of Dropbox, to simplifying the ability for people in a meeting to connect via LinkedIn, to thoughtful human touches like letting a meeting's leader decide if people can flip ahead in their reading materials or not, there are wonderful design choices. If you have meetings with people who have iPads, you should download the free app. What's just as compelling as the Idea Flight app is what it [...]

All In Favor


By request, a bit of explanation of how and why I favorite things on the internet. (Or favor them. Or like them. Whatever.) First, where... By request, a bit of explanation of how and why I favorite things on the internet. (Or favor them. Or like them. Whatever.) First, where do I favorite? On Twitter, certainly: I love lots of tweets! On Facebook! That's mostly for liking things outside of Facebook, around the web. I like lots of videos on YouTube and on Vimeo, the latter of which probably has the most satisfying like/favoriting animation on the web. I judiciously like things on MLKSHK. I suppose I still favorite things on Google Reader from time to time, which always involves me starring, sharing, +1ing and clicking 10 other buttons in their UI, since I don't really know which one does what. YouTube has both liking and favoriting, too, but somehow that redundancy doesn't bother me as much. And, perhaps more visibly than anywhere else, I star all kinds of things on Stellar, which is also where many of these favorites get aggregated and shared with others; It's my, erm, somewhat enthusiastic use of favoriting on that service (I'm by far the most prolific star-giver in these early days of the awesome little site) which has inspired the most recent "dude, what the hell?" responses from many of my friends. As of 6 weeks ago, Jason showed me stats where I had about 1/3 more favorites than the next-highest person on the site. Why am I so prolific with the stars? Well, one part is that I am just an enthusiastic person: I like lots of stuff! There's also social expectation; My favorite (see what I did there?) friend David Jacobs is a master of favoriting and taught me the wonders of the form years ago. In the early days of (now-defunct) Vox, David was specifically called out when the app added favoriting: By popular demand, we've introduced the ability for users to mark posts, photos, audio, video and books -- from their own blog as well as other Vox blogs -- as favorites. We've nicknamed this feature the "David Jacobs" after friend and Vox user, who, at last count has favorited 1,677 photos on Flickr. It's a great way to keep track of good stuff you've seen on Vox, as well as keep a record of your own things that you particularly like. Do me a favor Despite my enthusiasm, my habit of enthusiastically clicking stars and thumbs-up all over the web is not unconsidered. Instead, my intention is fairly consistent, though I'm aware the semantics of these functions are slightly different in all these various services. A few common themes: Acknowledging good work: When someone writes a tweet that makes me laugh or think, or produces a video that's worth the time to watch it, I favorite it or like it as a "reward" of sorts to them. I don't know anyone who doesn't check the number of likes/faves on a work they've made at least some of the time, and that way they know I was rooting for them. Retaining for the future: Favoriting items increases my ability to retrieve them later. I've got Instapaper and Readability and Pinboard all hooked up together so that things I star get saved as bookmarks that I can retrieve later. Similarly, ThinkUp can show me a rough version of the links that were shared in tweets that I've favorited. Basically, I'm more likely to favorite something if I think it's worthwhile enough to return to later. Implicit sharing: These days, this may be my main motivation for favoriting lots of stuff on the web. Truth is, I often miss the curation and editorial fun of the link blog that I used to publish on this site. (Give me a shout if you remember that — it's been seven years since I stopped doing it, old-timer!) By judiciously favoriting good things across the web, I can share them with my friends, assuming they're on services like Stellar and Favstar and Facebook with me. Now, there are a couple of factors that make my favoriting behavior unusual, compared to normal web users. (Beyond the fact that I probably waste even more time on the [...]

Out In The World


It's really gratifying to get to ruminate on things here on my blog and see echoes of those ideas the great work that other people...

It's really gratifying to get to ruminate on things here on my blog and see echoes of those ideas the great work that other people do. Some recent bits of gratification:

  • After talking about the open data from Health and Human Services as a "Health Graph" last year, and updating on its progress a few weeks ago, I'm absolutely delighted to see the smart folks at Runkeeper actually introduce a service called the health graph API. There's a ton of smart thinking that's been put in, and it's well worth exploring.
  • Want even more momentum around health data startups? There's Aza Raskin's Massive Health. Jane McGonigal's SuperBetter. Buster Benson's Health Month. I was mesmerized by Tom Lee's One Medical Group principles when I spoke at Gel with a few weeks ago. I'm smacking my forehead as I write this, because I know there are at least a handful of other health startups that I've missed — feel free to plug them in the comments.
  • Meanwhile, we'd just talked about Apple's Twitter, spawning some great conversation with MG Siegler where he'd hoped for something aimed more directliy at SMS, and Darrell Etherington, who'd said Apple simply wouldn't copy Twitter by introducing a realtime messaging platform. As it turns out, they did, and it is fairly tightly aligned to compete with SMS, and that sort of surprise is what makes this tech pontificating fun.
  • And finally, our Activate presentation that I mentioned in Redefining the Problem has inspired some great conversations; Mathew Ingram's take was one of my favorites.

Baby Boot Camp


In the months since my son was born, I've struggled mightily with resisting the urge to unleash the mommyblogger that's been lurking in my heart...

In the months since my son was born, I've struggled mightily with resisting the urge to unleash the mommyblogger that's been lurking in my heart lo these many years.

But one recent insight seemed to cross the bar of "would this still be interesting to a child-free person?": Babies act as boot camp.

You see, we have a structured model for turning adults into more capable, overperforming versions of themselves. Whether it's going through boot camp to join the army, enduring a medical residency to become a doctor, or even just the various hazing rituals that different organizations put new initiates through, there's a pattern that's common to reprogramming efforts:

  • Sleep deprivation combined with constantly-changing schedules
  • Performance of rote tasks, incorporating newly-acquired knowledge over time
  • Breaking down of self-consciousness or a tendency towards embarrassment in the face of overwhelming responsibilities

While I'd seen friends and acquaintances go through these processes in a medical or military context, I had never considered that the most highly evolved form this "break them down to build them up" process is actually the most universal one: Becoming a new parent. And as much as I'm chagrined to admit this as a feminist, I'd always assumed that women are physiologically reprogrammed to some degree by the act of carrying a pregnancy to term, but I hadn't really thought about the fact that being a new dad would do the same thing to me.

It's absolutely true, though. The baby boot camp that springs from the combination of sleep deprivation, emotional stress, extreme positive reinforcement from your baby's responses, and an overall process of learning a whole new way of living your life performs a pretty profound transformation on the way you think, act and live. Even just a few months into the process, I can tell I've been fundamentally upgraded and modified. Even though I'd heard a million times that "being a parent changes you!", I'd never put it in the context of it changing behaviors the same way that other boot camp-style processes do.

Now I'm left wondering if those other processes were explicitly designed to mimic new parenthood, or if the similarity of process is coincidental. Because it damn sure is effective.

Redefining The Problem


When I co-founded Activate last year, one of my goals was that, as much as possible, we'd share what we learned about helping established companies...

When I co-founded Activate last year, one of my goals was that, as much as possible, we'd share what we learned about helping established companies with their strategies. I know there are plenty of old-school consulting companies that publish big, fat white papers that nobody reads, but I was raised on stuff like Getting Real. I want to help articulate a message that makes sense to the CEOs of the biggest media companies around, while also compelling someone who's knee-deep in doing a startup to be able to look at a perspective on big media that gets them excited about the opportunity to collaborate. Media companies face perhaps the most acute and visible form of the Innovator's Dilemma of any industry, and it's exacerbated by the fact that startups and media companies don't really even speak the same language, let alone speak to each other.

So, we focused a lot of time and energy from our senior team at Activate on creating a presentation called Redefiners. The premise is, whether you're a big or small company, if you're going to build a big new business going forward, you'll do it by redefining a market that exists at the intersection of media and technology. Based on our work over the past year or two, as well as based on broader experiences dating back to the beginning of the web's impact on media and business, we've collected some key ideas to start that conversation. It should take you about ten minutes to flip through.

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Since we first started sharing these ideas on Business Insider and SlideShare and on itself a few days ago, about 100,000 people have read through the slides. It's been gratifying to see so many people be interested, but it's just a start. I hope you'll take a few minutes to read over it, and let me know if any ideas in particular resonated with you, or if anything seemed glaringly wrong or confusing.

It should be possible to take two important, powerful communities that are shaping culture and start to shift them from warily eyeing each other as potential threats and instead move towards fruitful collaboration together. Here's one starting point.

Apple's Twitter


I've been waiting a year for someone to write about this, but my laziness has not yet paid off, so here are a few things...

I've been waiting a year for someone to write about this, but my laziness has not yet paid off, so here are a few things that we all know about everybody's favorite Cupertino fruit company:


  • Apple has client app software on hundreds of millions of devices in the form of iTunes on PCs and Macs and, well, all of the bundled software on iOS devices.
  • Apple has an extremely large-scale realtime messaging service, in the form of Apple Push Notifications, which has scaled with high reliability to what must be an extremely large number of messages, certainly on the order of hundreds of millions a day.
  • Apple has account info for every person receiving those notifications, usually including credit card information.
  • Apple has lots of experience making client applications for short-length interpersonal messaging.
  • Apple has a proven ability to get the attention and interest of artists and tastemakers who influence culture and inspire a following.

And here are a few things which Apple doesn't have:

  • Any success or demonstrated ability in making compelling clients for social networking, whether in the form of Game Center or Ping.
  • A usable API for developers to build on this realtime networking infrastructure in a lightweight way in web apps, or in languages other than Objective C.

To some degree, third parties like Boxcar address some of the need for a generic push notifications client; Services like Urban Airship solve a good bit of the API problem as well.

But in short, the hardest, most expensive technical part of building a web-scale Twitter competitor already exists in Apple's infrastructure. What's missing, in an odd reversal of Apple's usual pattern, is a well-designed, simple user experience that makes people want to participate.

Could a small team of developers and designers within Apple make a credible realtime messaging service with first-rate native clients on every important platform? Could they graft on a simple, REST-based web-style APIs to the complicated, old-fashioned API that enables push notifications right now? It'd be a lot like building a usable, delightful user interface on top of well-established, but complicated, technological underpinnings, wouldn't it? I wonder if Apple has those skills.


In NYC, the Web is a Public Space


This morning, I was extraordinarily excited to get to witness Mayor Bloomberg and our city's new Chief Digital Office Rachel Sterne unveil New York City's... This morning, I was extraordinarily excited to get to witness Mayor Bloomberg and our city's new Chief Digital Office Rachel Sterne unveil New York City's "Road Map for the Digital City". It's an extraordinary document, and as someone who loves the web, civic engagement, public infrastructure and New York City, it feels like a momentous accomplishment, even though it marks the beginning of a years-long process, not just the end of a months-long one. But the single biggest lesson I got from the 65-page, 11.8mb PDF is a simple one: The greatest city in the world can take shared public spaces online as seriously as it takes its public spaces in the physical world. As you'd expect, there's a press release about the Digital Road Map, but more reassuringly, the document demonstrates the idea of the web as public space throughout, making the idea explicit on page 43: Maintaining digital ‘public spaces’ such as or 311 Online is equally important as maintaining physical public spaces like Prospect Park or the New York Public Library. Both digital and physical should be welcoming, accessible, cared for, and easy to navigate. Both must provide value to New Yorkers. And for both, regular stewardship and improvements are a necessity. Why is that declaration so promising? Well for me, it goes back to the post that I wrote last September 11th: [T]his is, in many ways, a golden era in the entire history of New York City. Over the four hundred years it's taken for this city to evolve into its current form, there's never been a better time to walk down the street. ... {I]n less than half a decade, the public park where I got married went from a place where I often felt uncomfortable at noontime to one that I wanted to bring together my closest friends and family on the best day of my life. We still struggle with radical inequality, but more people interact with people from broadly different social classes and cultures every day in New York than any other place in America, and possibly than in any other city in the world. And all of this happened, by choice, in the years since the attacks. We didn't withdraw, we didn't say "we can't build bike lanes because the terrorists will use them", we didn't abandon our subways en masse because we feared some theoretical attack that might strike us there. It could just have easily gone the other way. Many predicted an exodus from New York City after the attacks, with our once-proud citizenry retreating to the theoretically-safer environs of smaller towns or lesser cities. It didn't happen. ... We have not conceded our public places or our shared spaces where we marry and play, eat and dance, walk and shop, or just sit quietly by ourselves. Maybe it seems like a small thing, but it's a beautiful and meaningful and brave thing, and I am nothing but thankful for those who've made the choices to enable this evolution of our city. And I hope that making New York more livable for those of us who are here is an appropriate, albeit humble, tribute. So the New York City you see today is the safest, most vibrant, most livable version of the city that's ever existed because we've invested in making it so. And at a time when the web is in danger from an array of forces that match the social pressures that nearly tore New York City apart in the 70s, seeing a city seriously invest in treating the web as a valuable public space for its citizens is both provocative and inspiring. What's the plan? Now, any plan of this scale is necessarily going to have some vague parts. But a few highlights really jumped out at me: New York City hears loud and clear the cries from the entrepreneurial and startup communities for more engin[...]

Sparking Innovation


In a remarkably fast evolution from what-if rumination on a blog to cutting-edge news dissemination, Alex Kerin's idea last year of how to use Twitter...

In a remarkably fast evolution from what-if rumination on a blog to cutting-edge news dissemination, Alex Kerin's idea last year of how to use Twitter to share sparkline infographics on Twitter was used by the Wall Street Journal to share unemployment statistics.

It's a clever hack, as well-explained by the Journal's own Zach Seward, building on work by The Data Collective to create a web-based sparktweet tool. The results really do an effective job of showing how compelling news can be when it embraces a new medium instead of fighting against its constraints.


But aside from sharing interesting data in a novel way, what's most remarkable about the example is how quickly new ideas can bubble up from creative individuals all the way to powerful media institutions with huge reach. And it only happens if those creators blog about what they've done.

More in this vein:

Suggestions for LinkedIn


I know lots of people use LinkedIn and like it. It seems more like a sort of obligation for me, but I know lots...


I know lots of people use LinkedIn and like it. It seems more like a sort of obligation for me, but I know lots of nice people who work there, so I thought I'd collect some of my frustrations with the service and turn them intro constructive suggestions. You folks can work on these features while you're enduring the quiet period before your IPO!

  • Amnesty Day: Lots of people don't want to update their profiles because they are worried their employers will think (perhaps correctly!) that they're on the hunt for a job. Every two or three months, offer up a Profile Amnesty Day where people can make changes without it indicating anything untoward.
  • Minor Edits: In many wiki software tools, you can mark certain changes as "minor edits", so they don't trigger update notifications akin to major content changes. Making small tweaks to one's LinkedIn profile should offer the same option.
  • Revised Credential Assumptions: LinkedIn has a fun little tool called LinkedIn Maps that offers a pretty visualization of your social network on the service. I like the results — I've been at a few conferences where they gave printed-out versions of the map as a souvenir, and that was very nice. But if I try to generate my own dynamic map at the link shown above, LinkedIn tells me that my profile needs to be 75% complete in order to participate.

Now, here's the thing: My profile is 75% complete. So maybe there's just a bug in detecting how far along my profile's progressed. But even before I had reached that milestone, LinkedIn admonished me to get to 75% complete on my profile by adding my education to my profile.

Here's the thing, though: My education's all already in there. I didn't go to college. It's another facet of the flaw in drop-down identities that LinkedIn assumes someone in my social context had to have learned in a traditional way in order to participate in the career that I have.

(image) More broadly, the annoyances with publishing my profile updates reflect this social tension as well: Not everyone can afford to publicize the changes they're making to their job information. Now, I know that you can turn that setting off. It's possible, if you dig deeply enough into LinkedIn's settings, that you can keep people from seeing your every tweak.

But right now, the default settings encourage the sort of social friction that benefits those who preen and promote themselves, while disadvantaging those who are more circumspect about broadcasting their career moves. It'd be a nice innovation if LinkedIn flipped those assumptions.

Funding a Startup Without VC


I love entrepreneurship, and I love tech startups, but sometimes I'm struck by the lack of perspective that many tech entrepreneurs have about creating a... I love entrepreneurship, and I love tech startups, but sometimes I'm struck by the lack of perspective that many tech entrepreneurs have about creating a startup. One of the most common things that entrepreneurs in the tech sector lose sight of is that most companies never get venture capital funding, especially outside of the technology world. That's not to say that VC hasn't played an important rule in the growth of many of the biggest and best companies, sites and apps. It's just not the only option. There's also been a change in the economics of building a web-scale business; As I outlined in my piece about mom and pop startups at web scale, the hard costs of growing a business built on a website or app have come down enough to allow for bootstrapping or alternate funding as a realistic path to growth. And of course, many entrepreneurs have always had concerns about the lack of ownership and control that's inherent to accepting funding from traditional VCs. The Options If getting venture capital is now optional for making a big, successful business, and lots of entrepreneurs might want to avoid it anyway, what are the other options? I've outlined a few other common options, including examples of companies that have made these options work, and some of the cons of each method that might explain why don't we hear about them as much as we hear about venture capital. This isn't saying VC is always a bad thing. I've helped friends get funding from venture capital firms, and worked at a company that was VC-backed. But by understanding and pursuing these options, even entrepreneurs that choose to get venture funding can strengthen their businesses and their negotiating position when it comes time to talk to VCs. And some will find these options obviate the need for VC at all. Friends & Family Pros: Builds your support network; taps into resources you're already connected to Cons: Can cause personal stress; personal network might not connect you to new opportunities or resources Good old-fashioned friends-and-family funding! Almost every entrepreneur uses this sort of funding at the earliest stages of their work, and it's often been the only funding for traditional physical businesses like restaurants and small retail shops, especially in immigrant communities. The limits, of course, are that your friends and family have limited finances, and it can make for an awful awkward Thanksgiving if your business isn't going well. Examples: Almost every startup you've ever heard of began with a friends-and-family round of funding. Most moved on to other methods later, though. Crowdfunding Pros: More people are starting to understand this model; You build an enthusiastic customer base right from the start of your company Cons: It doesn't always work; You might not be able to duplicate this sort of funding success if you want to grow later There's a lot of attention on sites like Kickstarter these days, but much of it focuses on the outsized success stories of a few unusual cases. Much more interesting are the smaller efforts that seem directly analogous to the friends-and-family funding that entrepreneurs have used for centuries. While Kickstarter is more oriented to artistic, expressive projects, Profounder lets people focus more explicitly on business. Either one's a good choice if you want a path that will require you to clarify your marketing message and product story right from the start. Examples: Just browse around Kickstarter and Profounder, there's a whole bunch of them. Bank Loans Pros: A familiar, known way of funding small business; relatively low returns desired comp[...]

The Health Graph: Mortal Threats & Signs of Life


Two years ago, I said that the executive branch of the U.S. federal government was the most interesting tech startup of 2009. That optimism started... Two years ago, I said that the executive branch of the U.S. federal government was the most interesting tech startup of 2009. That optimism started to bear fruit just a few months later, with one of my favorite examples being what I called "The Health Graph", the massive amount of new public health data being made available by the Department of Health & Human Services' open data project, the Community Health Data Initiative. We know public data can drive huge businesses; in last month's Wired, Clive Thompson caught me being a little bit flippant about it: The best-known example, of course, is the multibillion-dollar weather-reporting industry. For-profit weather services take free, public data produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and then make it worth oodles by adding analysis, tailoring it to local markets, and, as public-data expert Anil Dash playfully notes, “having attractive people stand in front of maps explaining tomorrow’s weather to you.” (The Weather Channel sold for $3.5 billion two years ago, people.) And that potential is even greater for health data. As I said last year in my post on the Health Graph: [S]tarting today, if I had to pick the next area where somebody's going to make an enormously successful and valuable business built on top of open government data, I'd put my money on health data. Because the Department of Health & Human Services has just launched an unprecedentedly ambitious release of public health information. This ambitious, valuable project graduated into Health.Data.Gov, a full-fledged community for those who want to exploit it to help their fellow citizens while building businesses and opportunities for themselves. A Mortal Threat Less than two weeks ago, this health data set, along with many dozens of other similar efforts across the open government data ecosystem had their very existence threatened by devastating budget cuts that were only slightly tempered at the last minute. As a result, many open government data projects will survive, but barely on life support. It's an egregious, and dangerously short-sighted way of trying to reduce the budget. Congress has been trying to cut investments that fuel innovation simply because they are unfamiliar in form and may take away power from the usual political insiders by making new types of data radically more available to innovators, startups, and people who actually work with this data on a day-to-day basis. Why does it matter? Because the output of efforts like the Community Health Data Initiative are just starting to bear fruit in mainstream culture. Data At Work In the first episode of the new season of Jamie Oliver's (excellent!) show "Food Revolution", open health data makes an appearance as part of a Bing-sponsored community "war room" being used to show availability of healthy food within the LA community that Oliver is trying to help. (Relevant segment starts at 4:10 in this clip.) Bing trumpeted the launch of this health maps feature a year ago when it was new, but making it the cornerstone of a sponsored placement in an influential TV show is a great way of demonstrating that the company sees this information as valuable enough to base its brand message on. When you're a search engine that's surged to 30% market share in a head-to-head battle against Google, that's damned impressive. At the other end of the spectrum, this open health data is being used by the Bayonne Medical Center in New Jersey to promote the short wait times at its emergency room, which was exactly the sort of use that people wer[...]

TMI: Fear, Fukushima and Facts


Thirty-two years ago today, I noticed that things were odd at our pre-school. The teachers had drawn the blinds closed in a few rooms and... Thirty-two years ago today, I noticed that things were odd at our pre-school. The teachers had drawn the blinds closed in a few rooms and at least one of the other kids had had his mom pick him up in a big wood-sided station wagon before the day was actually over. I didn't really know much more about what was going on, or why the day was strange, until years later I read much more about the accident at Three Mile Island and realized that since my pre-school and my home were just ten miles from the reactor meltdown, it's surprising that the parents of our classroom full of three year olds weren't more disturbed. The accident's been on my mind a lot lately since the horrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan has put the Fukushima plant at risk. Beyond the obvious parallels, one thing that's stuck with me is that, aside from being a very young kid at the time, I hadn't originally known very much about what the hell actually happened at Three Mile Island, and much of that was because I didn't really know how nuclear power worked, or what the real risks were, or what had actually happened at TMI. Fortunately, even in that pre-Wikipedia era, the information was pretty easy to get hold of, because local papers back then were very interested in accurately covering the story. When I was a kid, "TMI" was synonymous with "Three Mile Island". It's only since I've been an adult that it's ironically come to mean "Too Much Information". Because that's obviously not the case with news coverage of the Fukushima reactors here in the U.S. Fortunately, I did have access to an expert who could truly explain the context and severity of the threat at hand. An Expert's Voice Most of the folks I know online have seen Randall Munroe's Radiation Dose Chart. Randall's an acquaintance, and I'd been following his work since the beginning of XKCD, so I knew that he had a physics background and is a diligent researcher, so his work would be fact-driven and as accurate as possible. He talks about his sourcing and his caution in more detail on his blog, and on the whole I was very pleased with how meticulous he was. But in my case, I had an unfair advantage: My father-in-law Stephen Browne is actually a health physicist, an expert scientist trained in measuring the amount of radiation that people are exposed to, and tracking it against the amount of exposure that's permitted. After he'd done a really insightful radio interview about his perspective on the dangers at hand, I'd sent him Randall's illustration and asked for any feedback or comments he had on it. He's kindly agreed to let me share them here, and I'll try to filter back any questions raised if clarifications are needed. His response to the XKCD Dose Chart follows. (I've added emphasis for clarity, but not changed any of the text.) Well, the individual dose numbers are about right, but you cannot sum numbers which represent dissimilar things, such as one-time hypothetical exposure events, annual average exposures, thresholds for biological effects, and regulatory limits. Also, partial body doses (e.g., x-ray of hand, chest, arm, and mammogram) cannot be compared to whole body doses without an additional weighting factor. It would be better to just list the numbers in ascending order to show their relative magnitudes. I think it would be more helpful for people to look at the two charts discussed below which were produced by the National Councial on Radiation Protection & Measurements (NCRP), a scientific body chartered by Congress. The first chart breaks down the total dose to the U.S. population by major cate[...]

Pen Nerds and Finding Better Tools


While I've always liked doing a lot of my notes and writing with pen and ink, I've never been particularly well-versed in the latest innovations...

While I've always liked doing a lot of my notes and writing with pen and ink, I've never been particularly well-versed in the latest innovations and trends in the handwriting world. But! I know this is exactly the sort of endeavor that attracts nerds, and that my network of friends and acquaintances would be well-versed in what the best options are.

So, I asked my Twitter followers for pen recommendations that would best meet my predilections. Here are their responses:

Some early trends jump out — 10 recommend a Pilot pen of some sort, and 8 mention Uni-Ball. The zebra, signo, and pentel all have vocal advocates. And what's clear to me is that I'll just have to buy a few different ones and try them out, but at least my friends have helped narrow down the selection. Because obviously, the thing that's keeping me from updating this blog more often is that I don't have the right pen.

The other improvement to my recording tools that I've been looking for is shown by the contents of this post itself; The latest versions of ThinkUp have progressed enormously, and doing fun stuff like embedding a list of replies (in this case, sorted by friends first, and then by number of followers) is really easy to do with just a click.

I know the old trope is that the answer to productivity is never a new tool, but sometimes there are tools that let us do things that would be a total pain in the ass otherwise. It's nice to have friends to help solve that problem.

Apple and Appropriate Secrecy


About a year and a half ago, I was disappointed with one of the key choices Apple had made, given that they're often described as... About a year and a half ago, I was disappointed with one of the key choices Apple had made, given that they're often described as one of the most admired companies in the world. I wrote a piece called "Secrecy Does Not Scale", to try to describe the issue: [T]he element of secrecy that's been required to maintain Apple's mystique has incurred an increasingly costly price. Apple must transform itself and leave its history of secrecy behind, not just to continue being innovative and to protect the fundamentals of its business, but because the cost of keeping these secrets has become morally and ethically untenable. Well, if it's worth calling out companies when they do something wrong, then it's just as important to highlight when they do something right. Apple is to be commended for having addressed many of the key issues that were enabled by its lack of transparency, from answering questions about the working conditions of its suppliers in China to becoming far more open about the workings of the markets it controls through its dominant iTunes and iOS platforms. Apple has published an industry-leading supplier responsibility document, offering insights into the environment at Foxconn and expressing a commitment to ensuring humane and healthy conditions. And this document was clearly in progress before the publication of Joel Johnson's excellent Wired cover story about the topic (though admittedly, after significant coverage from outlets such as the New York Times), so it seems the company has been proactive about the issue even before receiving its most pointed media criticism. Apple's nearly-metonymic leader Steve Jobs personally became much more transparent in his communications before his recent medical leave, answering so many emails that multiple blogs like Emails From Steve Jobs have popped up to document them. That's amplified by unprecedented communications like Apple SVP Phil Schiller's on-the-record email to John Gruber about app store rejections, just a week after my critical post had gone up. (To be clear, I'm ascribing zero credit to my post for this change, but wanted to make clear the timeline because it seems Apple noticed the how untenable its position was at about the same time many of the rest of us did.) Just as important to their developer community, Apple offered clear, publicly-accessible published guidelines by which applications are evaluated for inclusion in the App Store. You can debate them, disagree with them, or be frustrated by them, but you can't say you don't know what they are. That's not to say that Apple still isn't fantastically secretive about many things they do. The company still works frantically to try to shroud their product launches in as many layers of secrecy as always. Apple will certainly never be a company that puts out press releases about internal reorganizations or promotions, thank goodness. But in just 18 months, there has been a fundamental shift in the way the company communicates about the issues which have the greatest social impact on the world. It's a positive evolution, and one that is worth calling out. Frankly, I still think they could loosen up about the secrecy around product launches, too. But I don't care about that as long as it's not having a cost in either the quality of life of the people who make their products, or in the ability for those who support the Apple ecosystem to make a living on their own terms. And there's still a tremendous opportunity for a company to combine Apple's culture of design and user experience with a[...]