Tag Archives: Books

But I Don’t Like That

11 Jun

Do you ever look at the personalized recommendations you get online and wonder where the algorithm went wrong? Maybe Netflix suggested movies you think you’d never watch, or Pandora suggested a playlist that feels totally off the rails. And you think to yourself: but I don’t like that kind of thing. Why would they suggest this?

Well…there’s usually a reason. But sometimes you can’t spot it. Websites and apps suggest content based on previous actions. Sometimes they mess up and use the wrong signals to assume interest. Maybe you watched Bring It On to wax nostalgic with a junior high friend, but don’t actually want to see other movies from that time period or genre.

But what if sometimes you’re the one who’s wrong?

I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Tom Vanderbilt called You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice. Vanderbilt sets out to explain how we develop our tastes, how psychology affects preference and how the modern age of never-ending-content and recommendation engines could change all of that. He cites an impressively broad mix of experts, from developers to academic researchers to philosophers.

One of the core claims is that we know less about our tastes than we think we do. We want to believe there’s logic to what we like, but can’t truly explain all of our preferences. That’s because too many factors play into our choices, from social norms to preconceived biases to generalizations. For example: maybe you love Justin Bieber, but you’d never say so in public because you think people might judge you. Or maybe you hate opera but pretend to like it, because you think that makes you sound cultured.

Turns out, we sort of stink at describing why we like what we like. But data is the great revealer. Companies like Spotify and Netflix know what you actually like based on your consumption patterns. You may say you love foreign films, but you’ve only watched one in the last five years. Meanwhile, you swear you hate chick flicks, but watch five a week. You can say whatever you want to your friends…but Netflix knows what’s up.

Sometimes, you’re explicitly trying to save face or establish expertise. But sometimes you don’t even realize the gap between what you say you like, and what you actually like. Sophisticated data programs can spot patterns we can’t discern on our own. Netflix has a classifications system that’s way more granular than typical genres, finding detailed connections between the types of things you tend to watch, and what you might want to see next. So even if you don’t always spot a connection between what you think you like, and what they recommend—it’s probably there. Try listening to one of Spotify’s curated playlists without looking at the screen. You’ll find you like songs that fall into genres you think you hate, and you hate songs that fall into genres you think you like. You’re actually more likely to find content that suits your tastes when you ignore the labels.

Vanderbilt’s book was on my mind as I read this article about Pippa Middleton’s wedding. I almost didn’t click, because the headline talked about her wedding dress—and I didn’t think I cared. But then I figured, why not? Dresses are pretty and it’s fun to learn about them. Clicccck.

I’m glad I took the bait, because the article was more commentary than couture. It talked about how the NYT decided on its coverage for Pippa’s wedding. This paragraph made me laugh pretty hard:

NYTimes coverage

People dissed the NYT for their wedding coverage, those wedding articles actually performed really well. Of course, it’s possible there were different audiences clicking the wedding content and complaining about it. But that’s not very likely, given how media works these days. It’s just that people didn’t want to believe they were interested in wedding content. They wanted to believe they had higher class tastes than wedding fodder…even as they secretly clicked to learn more.

Creepy? Yes, of course. But also pretty helpful, in my opinion. Wouldn’t you rather have data help you find things you’ll like, rather than wading through things you hate?

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Worth Its Salt

7 Oct

Ever had a bacon cupcake? How about salted caramel ice cream? Salty-sweet desserts are making their way to menus all over the country. According to food and beverage firm CCD Innovation, only 0.4% of U.S. restaurants offered salty-sweet desserts in 2010. That number is now up to 3.1% of U.S. restaurants. While that’s certainly not a majority, the boost is meaningful. Salty-sweet has captured the U.S. palate  and our imagination, too. American taste buds are growing up, as we seek more sophisticated tastes and complex flavors. Plus, the combo may have scientific justification. As the CEO of Vosges Haut-Chocolat explained it to NPR: “when you add salt, it creates a cycle of continuing craving.”

I’ve been reading a fascinating book about food trends called The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes, but Fed Up with Fondue. In his book, David Sax takes us through several of North America’s recent crazes, from cupcakes to kale. Sax talks to people who work in trend forecasting, food marketing and product development to help us understand how foods go from just another foodstuff to almost mythical status. He interviews food truck owners, restaurant owners, meat farmers, apple growers. As I read NPR’s article about the growth of salty-sweet, I remembered a part of Sax’s book where he talks to innovation expert Barb Stuckey. Speaking about kale, Stuckey points out that foods have to go mainstream to truly have a place in American food culture. It’s not just about high-end restaurants experimenting with new ingredients or gourmet companies putting out expensive niche products. As Stuckey puts it, “slowly but surely, the kale salad will make its way to TGI Friday’s menu, then McDonald’s, Kraft, and, eventually, as a Dorito’s flavor.”

My favorite cupcake at Molly's Cupcakes (locations in Chicago, NYC and Iowa). Photo from Flickr, via the Chocolate Peanut Butter Gallery

My favorite cupcake at Molly’s Cupcakes (locations in Chicago, NYC and Iowa). Photo from Flickr, via the Chocolate Peanut Butter Gallery

A food goes from niche to mainstream when it manifests across price points, formats and locations. To truly cement its place in the US dessert psyche, the salty-sweet phenomenon has to trickle down from high-end ice cream sandwiches and pricey bacon chocolate to casual restaurant chains and mass packaged goods companies.  This trickle is already happening: the NPR article notes that TGIF has been offering a salted caramel cake since 2012.

As Sax’s book makes clear, not every food trend can or should become a full-fledged part of our eating culture. Though salty-sweet desserts sure seem like they’re here to stay, other trends that Sax talks about were less successful. Sometimes consumers lose interest, sometimes there’s backlash, and sometimes the flavors just don’t work for the majority of American palates. There are always people working behind the scenes to bring us the “next big thing.” There’s always going to be a new superfood and a new trendy dessert. The more interesting part is seeing which take root, and which  disappear quicker than you can say “cronut.”

If you want a preview of David’s compelling writing style and thoughtful research, check out his recent piece on the “Bacon Boom.”

And since I love to bake salty-sweet treats in my own kitchen, here are some great recipes I’ve made in the past:

What I want to make next:

My first-ever batch of homemade salted caramel - but definitely not my last. Recipe from Two Peas and their Pod

My first-ever batch of homemade salted caramel, but definitely not my last. Recipe from Two Peas and their Pod

Such A Facade

28 Aug

20140826_174507As I strolled San Francisco last week I passed a giant building under construction. The building takes up almost an entire block with a uniform facade painted an odd shade of brown. To its right is another new building, this one gray, but with an equally bland facade. My first question was what the buildings were going to be used for. My second was why they made the buildings so uniform and boring. It’s not just about aesthetics: research shows that when a street has large, uniform facades, people walk through the street much quicker, and enjoy the walk much less. Streets with smaller facades and more functions per block inspire people to linger, gather and enjoy the scene.

I learned of this phenomenon in a wonderful book called Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. As the title suggests, the book talks about different ways that urban design can impact quality of life and emotional well-being. The book is full of interesting nuggets, from research on the proper distance between your house and your bus stop, to an entire section on piazzas. This facade research stood out to me, though, because it’s such a common trait of modern architecture. Think of all the blocks now dominated by gigantic, big box stores that stretch and stretch and stretch. Think of all the huge apartment buildings that take up entire blocks. Think of the cold, empty spaces that you encounter as you walk through a modern city.

551764_865618047362_70379446_nMuch of the research on facades comes from Jan Gehl, a Danish urban design consultant and architect. Her studies show that people find it much more uplifting to walk through streets with variety in their facades. Compare the picture above to this other picture from San Francisco, this time from the Castro neighborhood. Which street would you rather walk down? Which would you rather explore? Where would you rather sit and talk to your friends?

Studies like Gehl’s can really impact how cities shape their world. For example, Denmark now regulates where banks open their new branches, to make sure they don’t affect a main city street that thrives off a flurry of activity and movement. New York City has limited the amount of ground floor space for new stores on the Upper West Side, ensuring that streets maintain a variety of shapes, openings and varieties. Vancouver regulates its big box stores to make sure that their design fits with how the city wants its inhabitants to experience their surroundings.

As our cities continue to evolve, we’ll need to keep an eye on the way that our architectural and design choices can impact the quality of lives. Bigger isn’t always better. Taller isn’t always smarter. And even as big box retail and chain restaurants continue to grow, we must think of ways to make big business act small.

A Year Abroad

8 Apr
In front of Las Ventas in Madrid. It's a bullfighting ring, but I never actually saw a fight there -  just went to the museum!

In front of Las Ventas in Madrid. It’s a bullfighting ring, but I never actually saw a fight there – just went to the museum!

For many U.S. students, a semester abroad is a big part of their college experience.  But a mere 50 years ago, studying abroad was much less common, and a much more daring undertaking. One of my favorite professors recently co-wrote a memoir about studying abroad in the 1960s. The first half of Crossing Cultures contains my professor’s story about studying abroad in France, and the second half was penned by a French woman who spent a year abroad in the U.S. around the same time. Each woman shares about being in a foreign land, learning about a different culture and making life-long friends with the people she met while abroad.

Both authors wrote with emotion, personality and depth. They also both did a fantastic job saving correspondence, tickets and diaries from their years abroad, so the book contains a lot of personal artifacts in addition to their anecdotes. They talk about normal touristy things, of course, but also about how they felt, and how their thinking evolved over the course of their time in another country. The resulting book isn’t just about travel: it’s about the self-awareness and self-growth that comes with spending time in another culture.

The book is in English and French, side-by-side.

Beyond basic logistics like crossing the ocean on a boat rather than a plane, I found quite a few differences between my professor’s experience abroad, and my own semester I spent in Spain.  Altogether, her’s was a rather different sort of adventure, with less communication to the folks back home as well as less knowledge going into her trip. She didn’t have the luxury of looking up directions on Google Street View, searching online for student groups, or calling home every couple days via Skype.

As I read my professor’s stories,  I was also struck by the loose structure of her study abroad program. Or, really, the lack of structure altogether. My semester in Spain was organized by my U.S. university. We had homestay families, organized outings, and a full-time staff member who handled a lot of behind-the-scenes logistics. My European friends on Erasmus exchanges laughed at us, telling me that U.S. students were “babied” by their universities. And actually, I completely agree. While it was nice to have things arranged for me, my professor had a truer sense of adventure, and likely a more authentic experience. Once she got to France she was entirely on her own: no one to help her if she had a problem finding housing, no one setting up her class schedule, no gaggle of Americans to speak to in English.

The entrance to my friend's "cave," dubbed the "Party Cave" by students on my program. It was more or less my friend's version of a basement to hang out in.

The entrance to my friend’s “cave,” dubbed the “Party Cave” by students on my program. It was more or less my friend’s version of a basement to hang out in.

My professor’s experiences had a profound impact on her life. She became a French instructor, and part of her responsibilities included leading students on a summer program in France’s Loire Valley. I had the privilege of going with her one summer, and very much appreciated how much she encouraged us to get beyond our group housing, beyond our school schedule, and just explore for ourselves. She purposely built in days where we had nothing “official” to do so we could properly wander and learn from the world around us. She encouraged us to make friends with the locals nearby, even when that meant coming home absurdly late or wandering off to someone’s “party cave” (see picture at right). So even though we technically had a structured program, we had as much freedom as she could give us to make discoveries for ourselves.

I had a wonderful time that summer and learned so much. From my classes, from my local friends, from my professor. And that great experience in France inspired me to try really, really hard to make local friends when I spent a semester in Spain a couple years later. An effort that, luckily, truly paid off and made my experience in Spain so much richer than it might have been otherwise.

Just one more observation about Crossing Cultures: it makes me so happy to see that both authors are still in touch with the friends they made during their adventures in the 60s. I treasure the friends I made while abroad, and can only hope we’re still in touch 50 years from now.

Below are some photos from my time abroad. If you’re interested in learning more about the book Crossing Cultures, you can check it out on Amazon, or through Lulu.

 

Traces of History

30 Mar
A very bad photo taken by yours truly at the University of Texas' Ransom Center

A very bad photo taken by yours truly at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center

Last weekend I saw one of the Gutenberg Bibles. I only knew it was a Gutenberg Bible because a placard told me so. Otherwise, it bore no signal of its importance. Just looking at its pages gave me no sign that it was one of the first substantial books ever printed with moveable type.

Last weekend I also saw what’s called the “first photograph.” It was barely visible, the actual image faded since its production over 180 years ago. I only knew it was the so-called first photograph because it was in a special exhibit with information cards that told me all about it. Otherwise, it just looked like a reflective surface in a decorative frame.

Sometimes, historical things just look like things. To the naked eye, neither of these objects looked particularly important. Sure, they looked old. But there are lots of old things out there, and only some are bestowed with a particularly significant meaning. For all the old books out there, a very small fraction are protected by layers of glass and temperature-controlled technology. To really appreciate these sorts of objects, you have to think about what they mean, not just what they look like. We’re quite used to books and photographs in today’s world, so why should an old book or photo catch our eye?

With all the books around us today, it’s easy to forget that at one point in time, the Gutenberg Bible was proof of astounding innovation. Moveable type, and the inventions that followed, made it possible for more people to have more books. It improved literacy, and changed the future of education. It changed how stories were passed down between generations.

To the naked eye, this looks like just another old book.

To the naked eye, this looks like just another old book.

Looking at the Gutenberg Bible, it sure didn’t look like much. But when you take a couple of steps back in your head, and think about what that book means  – it’s hard to not feel a sense of awe. That book represents so many changes to society, and so much wonder. The mere fact that the book was printed so long ago in 1454 or 1455 makes it pretty impressive. Then add on the layer that it took 3-5 years to print this single copy. Then the fact that there’s only 21 complete copies around today. Suddenly the book feels much more meaningful. Then take another few steps back, and reflect on how much this book changed society, forever. And suddenly, that weathered, leather-bound book in front of you shouts “revolution!” from its pages.

In 500 years, maybe someone will stand in front of a glass-protected copy of one of the first things produced by a 3D printer. And perhaps there will be placards explaining how the 3D printer worked, and why it changed society. Maybe there will be stories about 3D printers bringing clothes and food and medicine to the masses, improving health and nutrition all over the world. And a 20-something girl will find herself staring at the printer, wondering what it must have been like to live in an age where the mere act of instantaneous object-printing was something to celebrate. And she’ll take a step back, reflect a bit, and think about the traces of history before her eyes.

Pay to Play

5 Jan

I used to think that people who paid to volunteer were doing it wrong. I’d see ads for organizations that facilitate trips to far-off lands, offering you the “right” to volunteer in exchange for some of your hard-earned cash. It just never made sense to me to pay a middle-man, given that there are so many ways to volunteer on your own, even abroad. I’d alway assumed these trips were a rip-off, or that an organization was unfairly profiting from selling people the “opportunity” to volunteer. But then I read Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton’s work on the connections between how we spend money and how we feel as a result changed my perspective on these pay-to-help opportunities.

One of the main theses of Happy Money is that it’s more meaningful to buy experiences than it is to buy objects. You may be excited by a beautiful new coat, but buying a beautiful experience may technically have a longer residual effect on your overall well-being. Happy Money discusses many different research studies that have led to this conclusion, and the authors recommend that you shift some of your material spending over to experiential spending.

Another main theses? Investing in others makes you happier. Whether it’s spending 15 minutes per week volunteering, taking a friend out to dinner, or doing something along the lines of The Giving Pledge, humans show a stronger sense of contentment when they use some of their resources on others. It doesn’t even have to be a huge amount. It boosts your happiness just knowing that you’ve helped someone else.

Putting these two theses helps justify why it can actually be quite meaningful to pay to volunteer. Think of it this way: instead of spending money on a nicer car, you decide to spend it on a trip. And instead of spending that whole trip on the beach, you decide to spend a good part of it volunteering to build a new health clinic in an impoverished community. You’ve now optimized your spending by buying an experience and at the same time, used your money to invest in others. Two principles of “happy money,” right then and there.

Now, I’m not advocating that we ditch the “free” chances to volunteer – volunteering shouldn’t just be a means to optimize your own happiness, so your choices shouldn’t truly be driven by how you think you’ll benefit the most. But the book suddenly made it clear to me how paying a middle-man could actually boost the effect you get from helping others, and make your trip even more fulfilling.

As you think about how you want to spend your money in 2014, I highly recommend you check out Happy Money. It’s more of a research discussion than a financial tome, and it’s full of interesting, head-scratching conclusions. Plus, it’s full of clever puns – and what’s better than that?

Encounters With Strangers

21 Oct

When I overhear people talking about something I can relate to, I have a strong urge to join in. But as I’ve mentioned before, I typically hold back, assuming that others wouldn’t truly appreciate input from a total stranger. My sometimes exception to this rule relates to giving directions- if I see people who look totally lost and are pointing at a map, I feel perfectly fine asking if they need help.

But I broke my rule a couple days ago. I was in a bookstore, rummaging around, when I overheard a woman asking the owner if he had books by a certain French author. The problem was, she couldn’t remember the author’s name. So, the customer and the owner began a guessing game to see if they could figure it out. This of course stirred up the former French major that lives inside me, and I started to play along, too, from a couple aisles away. She finally mentioned a specific book title, and it all clicked. Of course! She was talking about Emile Zola!

I didn’t have a chance to rush over and solve her mystery (to the rescue!) because she actually remembered the author’s name a few seconds later and blurted it out. But for some reason, I still felt the need to join the conversation. Something moved me to remark out loud that I had been wondering whether she was talking about Zola. And then I followed her to the part of the store where the owner said his Zola novels rested. Because you see, I wrote my college thesis on Zola. In fact, my thesis’ main focus was the very book she wanted to buy. I still get a weird rush of excitement when I see anything about the book, or even just see the book on the shelf. And part of me wanted to talk to this woman about why she wanted to read that specific book.

I felt a little weird dashing across the store with this total stranger, and felt the need to explain myself. I told her I really loved Zola and wanted to see what the store had. That seemed fair enough, so she nodded. But then when she pulled down the actual book- the wonderful The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames, en francais)- I just had to talk to her about it. I told her it was a fantastic book. Minimal reply on her end. I told her it was something I really loved. Slight reply. I told her it had so many layers of story and social commentary. Cha ching! That got her interested, and we chatted for a bit about Zola and his style.

But, at some point, it felt weird to keep talking. I knew the time had come to move on, so I wished her happy reading and started browsing books on art. And I thought to myself about just how badly I had wanted to talk to her about that darn book. I think it was due to a couple of things. Number 1, of course, is my love for that book. But number 2… I think that as humans, we have strong urges toward relating to others. Even people who strive to stand out have their own construct of acceptance and understanding. What I was looking for with this woman in the bookstore was a moment of shared understanding- a moment where we talked about why we were interested in the book and what we hoped to get out of it. I wanted to reveal to her all the hidden layers of that novel, those layers that I peeled away in my thesis. I didn’t get the chance to do that (though I’ll gladly lecture YOU about it if you’d like!). But I still got some joy out of the encounter, because it just made me so happy to see someone else excited about reading one of my favorite books. Even though we didn’t have a long, deep conversation about the book and its meaning- I realized that just sharing an appreciation for the book felt very, very good.

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