Category Archives: What I’m Reading

Jill Lepore: What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong

I’ve waxed poetic about my love affair with The New Yorker before, and this week’s issue is another one with several riveting long form pieces that I can’t wait to dig into. Jill Lepore offers a scathing critique of Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation theory. I have to confess that I haven’t actually read The Innovator’s Dilemma (which seems sacriligious given the nature of my work). I’m not sure if this article will encourage me to read the original text or not, but if is offering a lot of food for thought.

Jill Lepore: The Disruption Machine

How reading an article on Bustle made me a bit bipolar

I started reading this New Yorker piece about Bryan Goldberg with mild interest–he’s the 30 year old multi-millionaire founder of The Bleacher Report, a sports site it probably isn’t surprising I’d had never heard of as the demographic is described as “overwhelmingly male.” His latest venture-funded “business” plan is to create a parallel media site intended to appeal to young women through a mix of celebrity news and fashion & make-up tips intermixed with hard news stories and career advice. He wants to have a site that will be as ubiquitously popular with women as ESPN is with men.

I don’t have much of an opinion about his plan; I’m not in the target demographic (though I’ve never been interested in fashion or makeup, I do possess an alarming amount of trivial knowledge about celebrities from the late 80’s and early 90’s–so it’s possible this kind of site would have had some appeal to me). Goldberg comes off as an ambitious young man with a lot of enthusiasm and the kind of confidence that seems unsurprising in someone who has achieved complete financial security at a time in life when most people are still paying off student loan debt.

His approach has been to hire young women who are interested in publishing, pay them meagerly (which turns out to be a lot more than they can earn working and interning at traditional publishers like Glamour and Vogue) and give them a lot of flexibility and autonomy, possibly allowing them to get experience that will be far more valuable than making copies and fetching coffee. I kind of like that part–it’s hard not to be supportive of people who are trying to find or create new models for work, which seems like something we desperately need as our 20th century models for almost everything seem to be failing us in so many ways.

And then I got to this quote from Brian Morrissey, the editor of Digiday, on how sites like the Bleacher Report are “gaming” the Internet ad system:

“A well-researched expose, such as the one Sports Illustrated recently ran about N.C.A.A. violations by the Oklahoma State football team, may take many months of work from a highly paid reporter and editor. But, in the end, Morrissey said, “it yields the same revenue as a ’25 Sexiest Female athletes who can Kick Your Ass’ post, which cost, like, two hundred dollars.”

And I completely deflated. This makes an effort like Bustle seem like just one more cynical and short-sighted way of ensuring that a small number of people get rich without creating real value while imperiling the fate of organizations who produce good content by ultimately making it impossible for them to be profitable. And at the end of the day, is this very different from Wall Street sharks who enriched themselves with Credit Default Swaps and other exotic financial instruments? (Well, one way that it’s different is that tax payers won’t be asked to pick up the pieces of failed publishing ventures, so I guess that’s something…)

I love the Internet. There are so many good things about it, but it also has a dark underbelly that I guess is unavoidable in any disruptive technology. In the end I want believe the Internet can make the world a better place–the success of initiatives like Kickstarter and sites like Stack Overflow (and maybe even wikileaks), suggest that is possible but at the end of the day stories like this one–as benign as something like Bustle is compared to truly evil things like child pornography and human trafficking as well as garden variety crime and fraud–make me feel like we might actually be on the road to a net negative.


What I’m Reading this week

But far and away the best news of the week (so far) is that Kathy Sierra is blogging again!


TGIF: This & That

Sheep & Goats

Since “gamification” became a buzzword a couple years ago I’ve been paying a bit of attention while also waiting to see if it is something that is going to stick or if it will become a passing fad (remember when everything had to include a tag cloud?). As I’m working on the advanced IA class I find myself paying more attention to topics that focus on learning/how people learn and motivation–this post from “Gamasutra” strikes at the intersection of both.*

“What do sheep and goats have to do with educational games?”

A few comments…

Sheep learners do as they’re told, and follow instructions disciplinedly. Goats don’t like to do as they’re told, and instead want to know why they’re doing it.

This is an interesting observation. (I’m trying to decide whether I’m a goat in sheep’s clothing or a sheep who longs to be a goat.) But having read a great deal about the growing educational divide between girls and boys (I highly recommend “The Trouble with Boys” by Peg Tyre), it’s hard not to notice that in the context of school girls are often more sheep like and boys are often more goat-like–and in that context sheep behavior is rewarded and goat behavior may lead to a recommendation for a Ritalin Rx.

Thanks to the advent of technology, “we now have the ability to self educate in ways we never had before,” Schell says. Before the industrial age, no one had the luxury of questioning whether their education or skills were purposeful — largely education was directly related to making things necessary to live. A society of sheep, in other words.

Was it that no one had the luxury of questioning whether their education or skills were purposeful–or is it that when you can draw a clear line between what you’re doing and survival that there isn’t a need to pose the question? Knowledge workers and service workers may well question the ultimate purpose of their work–the subsistence farmer knows the answer. In many ways the industrial revolution has been a curse and a blessing–it brought us the Rat Race, afterall.

What does it take to become a curious person? Telling a child that a game might be out of his or her reach makes a student want to defy that instruction, makes the child curious about why they can’t do something and motivated to try to find out.

Well, it might make *some* students want to defy the instruction, but I think that kind of obvious reverse psychology schtick stops working on most kids once they’re in early elementary school. My four year old is already showing signs that he’s catching on and I’ve had the approach backfire.  I don’t think a simple one size fits all “trick” is the right answer to the question–although I think posing the question and then trying to answer it is a worthy goal as well as something that should be of supreme importance to parents and educators.  To that end, I’d be very interested to hear what pre-school teachers think; do they observe that all children are curious or are some genuinely not? Is it really the case that we need to help people become curious or is it more a problem that culture & lifestyle drain our natural curiosity? This is essentially what  John Taylor Gatto argues, and I think he’s absolutely right.

It’s a lot to spend on a piece of paper. Why don’t goats just go and learn things on their own? “It’s not just a piece of paper,” Schell asserts. “It’s not just a piece of paper — what the diploma represents is social proof, and as human beings we care about social proof. We care about the fact that the ‘elders of the tribe’ said ‘yes.'” People who presume higher education will just go away are missing an important part of the human mindset, he says. (emphasis added)

This, I think, is a very powerful observation. And one that should probably motivate me to be more diligent about my kid’s college fund. I think the system is going to collapse or experience some fundamental revolution or shift due to the sheer weight of the debt load it is producing, but I don’t know  that I can afford to bet on it happening in the next 15 years.



*The biblical connection is apparently purely coincidental.

the weirdest people in the world

I still can’t entirely wrap my head around this amazing article.

You’ve probably seen this illusion:

mlillusion (also called the Muller-Lyer illusion)

If you are like me, the line on the left probably looks LONGER to you than the line on the right. (The two lines are actually the same length). If you were like me you would further assume that this illusion has something to do with the way the human brain interprets the incoming information from the eyeball and think that this interpretation would hold steady for any and all human animals encountering the illusion. But as it turns out, perceiving the line on the left as the longer line actually suggests that you are:






Because in fact when people from a dozen different cultures were shown the illusion some saw the lines as they are–equal in length, and Americans saw the illusion more dramatically than all the other cultures.


From the article:

The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects. A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: more than 96 percent of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners—with nearly 70 percent from the United States alone. Put another way: 96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.


The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.”

Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.


What other certainties about “human nature” in social science research would need to be reconsidered when tested across diverse populations?

I need to spend a bit of time absorbing this; I’m not sure to what degree it may impact my thinking about user experience design and usability, but I suspect it will be increasingly relevant as our work becomes increasingly globalized (unless globalization will ultimately make the whole world weird?).

Inaugural Blog Post

Like every third person on the planet, I’ve long been thinking about creating a blog but I’ve been torn between the competing desires of not wanting to commit to daily care and feeding vs. the fact that I frequently have links and resources I want to capture, both for myself and to share, and sometimes I even have (gasp!) actual insights to share. At least initially I see this space primarily as a repository of resources related to my professional activities.

So–first post:

Karl has been after me to read “Factory of One” by Daniel Markovitz–a book about applying Lean manufacturing principles to personal productivity. So far it’s pretty fascinating, although it is clear that my entire office/workspace/workflow is in desperate need of a makeover.