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The Art of Noticing

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 15, 2019

When Tim and I first started the Noticing newsletter, I got a note from Rob Walker, a design and technology journalist whose work I’ve followed for some years. He said he was working on a book about paying attention and that the book and an affiliated newsletter were going to have a similar name to “Noticing”. Name collisions like that are always a bummer, but we didn’t challenge each other to a duel or anything. Instead, he asked me to contribute a tiny bit to the book and I said I’d write about it when it was coming out.

So here’s the skinny. The book is called The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy In the Everyday, will be out in May 2019, and can be preordered from Amazon right now. Walker describes it as a practical guide to becoming a better observer, “a series of exercises and prompts and games and things you can actually do (or reflect upon) to build attention muscles or just get off your phone and enjoy noticing stuff that everyone else missed”.

The Art of Noticing is an expansion of an essay by Walker called How to Pay Attention. One of the suggestions is “Look slowly”:

Robert Irwin, the artist mentioned above, shaped his practice in part by spending insane-sounding amounts of time simply looking — at his own paintings, at rooms, at outdoor settings. “Slow Art Day” is an annual event at multiple locations around the country that picks up this spirit in a perhaps more manageable form: Participants meet at a museum and “look at five works of art for 10 minutes each and then meet together over lunch to talk about their experience,” the event’s site explains.

The weekly newsletter associated with the book is right here if you’d like to join me in signing up. So far, it’s both whetting the appetite for the book and also providing interesting attention-adjacent things to snack on in the meantime.

P.S. I love Walker’s idea that paying attention is something that a person can learn to do. In the introduction letter to Noticing, I wrote about a similar assertion Walter Isaacson made about Leonardo da Vinci in his biography:

One of Isaacson’s main points in the book was that Leonardo’s accomplishments were due in no small part to his extraordinary powers of observation. By observing things closely and from all possible angles, he was able to make connections and find details that other people didn’t and express them in his work. Isaacson argues that Leonardo’s observational powers were not innate and that with sufficient practice, we can all observe as he did. People talk in a precious way about genius, creativity, and curiosity as superpowers that people are born with but noticing is a more humble pursuit. Noticing is something we can all do.

P.P.S. When working on the book, Walker asked a number of people for tips on paying better attention. My tip (the “tiny bit” mentioned above) didn’t make it into the book, so I thought I’d share it here:

The thing that popped into my head about noticing suggestions is to pay attention to kids. They are literally at a different level in the world, ocularly speaking, and so notice different things. They’ve also got Beginner’s Minds, again literally. Having been a designer for many years, I am pretty good at observation, but my kids are always noticing details that I miss. I’m not saying you should crawl around on your hands and knees, but occasionally directing your gaze as a child would is often instructive.

Related to this, a few months ago I was able to add a new tool to their observational skills. The kids were having repeated difficulty with the door to a store in our town and on one particular visit, my son voiced his frustration. I asked them why he thought the door was so tough and they couldn’t really say, so I told them about Norman doors and now every time they have trouble with, say, a PULL door with PUSH indications, they go, “Norman door! They should get a better designed door.” It’s really fun because it turns a boring shopping trip into a little exercise in how the world could be a tiny bit better if people were just a little more observant about how others use things.

P.P.P.S. <— Last one, I promise. A version of this post first appeared in last week’s Noticing newsletter. If you’d like to subscribe, right this way.

Unlocking the Commons and Collective Micropatronage

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2019

For NiemanLab’s annual Predictions for Journalism package, Tim Carmody revisited his take on how kottke.org’s membership program works and what that could mean for independent media.

The most economically powerful thing you can do is to buy something for your own enjoyment that also improves the world. This has always been the value proposition of journalism and art. It’s a nonexclusive good that’s best enjoyed nonexclusively.

Anyways. This is a prediction for 2019 and beyond: The most powerful and interesting media model will remain raising money from members who don’t just permit but insist that the product be given away for free. The value comes not just what they’re buying, but who they’re buying it from and who gets to enjoy it.

If you’d like to help support independent media and keep access to kottke.org open and free, you can join the membership program.

And as always, a huge thank you to all of you who have already contributed. As I wrote in an update back in November 2017, I’m not sure the site would even be here without your support:

While I didn’t know it at the time, your support saved kottke.org. This is not even hyperbole. As I hinted at in the announcement post, the industry-wide drop in revenue from display advertising was beginning to affect kottke.org and just a few months later, the site’s largest source of revenue (ads via The Deck) went from “hey, I can make a living at this!” to zero. … But over the course of the past year, hundreds and then thousands of you became members, exceeding even my loftiest expectations. Membership is now the primary source of revenue for kottke.org.

Kottke.org’s Best of 2018, Parts 1 and 2

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 21, 2018

2018 light bulb.jpg

Subscribers to Noticing, the Kottke.org newsletter, have already seen our two-part Best of 2018 series, published on Thursday the 20th and Friday the 21st. We decided to split the best-of into two parts, with the first letter, the A-Sides, focusing on the 50 most popular posts of the year, and the second, the B-Sides, collecting our personal favorites.

For the B-Sides, Jason and I each submitted lists of posts we wanted to include, and after discarding redundancies, it turned out that the number of “favorite” posts was an even 100. I’d expected to write up about fifty, which was the number of the first newsletter. But that century mark felt like a sign, and a challenge I wanted to meet. So, fuck it; we wrote up the full 100.

Here’s an excerpt from the first newsletter:

Mapping cities, the planet, the stars

A number of the year’s best posts, as always, featured maps. A literal world map stars countries with the literal translations of their names. A map of the world after four degrees of warming is sobering, if not outright depressing. (Spoiler: most of the places where lots of people live will become hostile to the point of unliveable.) A map of the world where the sizes of countries is determined by their population has a similar “whoa!” effect, making you rethink the distribution of the planet. But maybe nothing is more “whoa!” than a timeline map of the 200,000 year history of human civilization, starting with migrations out of sub-Saharan Africa and following human travel and development through to the present.



We’ve reached the point in our development where we don’t necessarily need cartography to map our surroundings; photography will do the job. Even in 1920, photographers were able to capture stunning aerial photographs like cities, like these snaps of Edinburgh. These days, you can take aerial panoramas from 20,000 feet using as something as ubiquitous as an iPhone. Or use a fractal lens to take pictures of Tokyo, bending yourself into the future from that great contemporary city.



We now know what high-resolution photos of the Earth taken from the surface of the moon look like. We know how our seemingly geometric road grids subtly correct themselves for the curvature of the Earth’s surface. And we can even photograph black holes — or rather, watch stars in orbit around black holes, using a twenty-year time lapse. (Twenty years? Huh.)

That “twenty years” bit is a callback, as Kottke.org turned 20 this year.

And here is an excerpt from the B-Sides issue, which is, let’s just say, more dense:

The Year In Inspiration





Consider the fable of the dragon-tyrant. Literally, it’s about the possibility of extending the human lifespan and human flourishing, instead of sacrificing the young and old alike to the tyranny of death. But allegorically, as Jason writes, “humanity has lots of dragons sitting on mountaintops, devouring people, waiting for a change in the world’s perspective or technology or culture to meet its doom.”



Consider, too, the calmness of airline pilots. In the midst of disaster, good pilots actually get calmer, and this helps them solve their problems.



Do you need to get yourself out of a funk? Or console or otherwise help a grieving friend? Think about what Augustine says about hope: hope stretches us out across time. It makes our hearts bigger in order to contain it. And all our secular hopes help to prepare us for the great hope to come, that all might be redeemed and made perfect, and we can find our true place in the cosmos. Think about Dean Allen, one of the kindest and most talented people in the tech universe, and whether or not he’s found the peace that eluded him — that eludes us all — on Earth.



We are, all of us, explorers and hermits, both searching for adventure and longing for routine. This is why, despite it all, it is some small comfort to know that humans right now are better at Tetris than they have ever been. And that if we decide to move to Los Angeles, we’ll have to solve a lot of problems with ourselves first: “How do you help care for the city that drew you in, rather than allow your presence to steamroll its culture?” And, to generalize: how can we care for 2019, as we’re drawn inexorably into its vortex, rather than allow it to steamroll us all?

It’s been a great year. I’ve loved writing this newsletter, and being able to chime in with my Friday posts and occasional guest weeks. (Guest editor Chrysanthe Tenentes put up some great posts this year as well.) Cheers to Jason for continuing to host the best blog in the universe. Here’s to more and better in 2019. Here’s to blogs making their inevitable comeback. Here’s to another twenty years.

The Official Kottke.org Music Playlist

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 14, 2018

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the mini-phenomenon of book playlists — music playlists designed to accompany new books, as a kind of disembodied soundtrack. Then last week, in the newsletter, I wondered out loud what songs would be on a Kottke.org playlist, and asked you, the readers, for help figuring that out. Jason amplified the call on Twitter, and we were off and running.

So, for the past week, I took the advice that came in, reached out to a few musically-minded Kottke readers that I trust, and trolled the “music” tag on the site to get some more ideas. (I was tempted to include some Kenny G, but ultimately passed.) And here it is:

Update: (Ben Samuels-Kalow made an Apple Music version of this playlist, if that’s your jam.)

It’s almost exactly two hours long, or about the length of a double album. (Disc 2 would start with Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”) Daft Punk, John Cale, Johnny Cash, The Strokes, Nina Simone, and The Echelon Effect all came from reader suggestions. So did Tom Misch and Carmody (!), an artist with whom I’d only had passing acquaintance, but turned out to deliver one of my favorite songs in the mix. Thanks to E.A. Gordon, Olga Nunes, David Gagne, Dan McCue, and Michael Ashbridge for their invaluable help putting this together. (Seriously, Mr. Ashbridge: Nina Simone’s cover of “Isn’t It A Pity” might be the best song I’ve ever heard.)

The rest of the contributions came out of my own head, after doing a lot of reading of the site. Readers will spot some of their favorite tags in the titles, which happen to correspond to magnificent songs: “The Moon” by The Microphones, or “Maps” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or “Photograph” by Weezer. (Somewhere my college friends are laughing at me for putting Weezer on a playlist.) “Blogging” by Wire was frankly a no-brainer based on the title alone, but I’m pleased it’s such a good, pointed song. I wanted to include one Philip Glass song and one Radiohead song, and I think I picked some good ones. And if you listen to the rest of the songs, you’ll see plenty of Kottke-esque themes and moods reflected in the lyrics. But it’s a playlist that I made, which means it has plenty of hip-hop and indie rock, some jazz and instrumental numbers, and a Dionne Warwick song.

One thing I hope is clear from this playlist: I love Kottke.org. This is a love letter. And the way Paul Westerberg sings about Alex Chilton is how I feel about Jason. He’s my guy. And I hope he finds something in this that reflects his personality and sensibilities, from his infinite capacity for wonder and his meticulous sense of taste to — and I was surprised by how much this seemed to naturally creep in — that midwestern, A Charlie Brown Christmas mood of introverted melancholy that lies behind all of that other-directed wonder. Not all of these songs are happy songs, but they are songs that find joy in the universe. And that’s deeper and richer than a giddy, booster-ish hayride. After all, as Dionne sings, loneliness remembers what happiness forgets.

I love listening to this music, and I hope you do too. A little early Christmas present from your friends here at what I will always think is the best blog in the world.

The Explorer and The Hermit

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 12, 2018

In a piece called I’m the Food Expert But My Kids Love My Husband’s Cooking, Amanda Hesser talks about food, tradition, and the differing cooking styles between her and her husband Tad. When she was younger, Hesser’s approach was to experiment relentlessly with her cooking, moving from one new dish to the next. But her husband took a different approach:

One of my other nicknames for Tad is Mr. Efficiency. He obsesses over the shortest route to a destination, orders everything in bulk, is always on time, writes thank-you notes within a day, and absolutely detests standing in line. Especially for food.

When it came to cooking, Tad was characteristically economical. Once we had our kids and our schedules went haywire, he set about mastering a handful of dishes he could pull off on a moment’s notice: fish tacos, pasta alla vodka, and Daddy’s pasta.

Mr. Efficiency…that could be totally be me. I do occasionally enjoy trying to find new stuff to cook, but their mom is way more adventurous in cooking for the kids. I always come back to my go-tos of caldo verde, taco salad, smoky corn chowder, the world’s best pancakes, burgers, and even the occasional tater tot hotdish.

But Hesser’s approach to cooking has shifted towards the familiar in recent years after noticing the downside to always pushing the boundaries:

Meanwhile, I continued to roam and experiment, rarely making the same dish twice. I enjoy the hunt for a new great recipe, the push for something better. But it comes at a cost; cooking new things is more stressful because the unknowns are many. Tad would chat with the kids while making his pasta; I would cook distracted, with my nose in a recipe. Even after focused cooking, things don’t always work out well, and no one around the table is happy. And it’s hard to expect anyone to build an emotional connection to a dish if they’re only seeing it a few times.

I am really feeling that tension between novelty and stability lately, and not just when it comes to food. Sometimes I feel like I’m two different people. The Explorer craves new experiences, finds routine boring, and wants to learn new things or he’ll feel brain-dead. The Hermit needs the stability of a comfortable routine, finds exploring exhausting, and doesn’t want to have to think about what’s next all the time. Should I go to my favorite restaurant or try a new place? Regarding travel…should I re-experience somewhere I’ve been before or head somewhere new? (For my last trip, I did both: a repeat trip to Berlin with a short stay in Istanbul after.) There are certain types of books, movies, and TV shows I like to watch — their reliability is comforting but when I do venture from those paths, the results can be very rewarding and horizon-expanding. Should I spend time with old friends or work on some new relationships?

The part of my life in which I’m feeling this most acutely is in my work. Editing kottke.org is a constant exercise in balancing the familiar with the new. My approach is: “here’s something you haven’t seen before but packaged in a familiar way” and then do that 9-to-5, day-in and day-out, 52 weeks a year. I bury you (and myself) in novelty, but in a clockwork fashion.1 I never know what I’m going to find on a particular day and you never know what you’re going to read, but by the end of the day, every single weekday, there is (I hope!) an interesting, entertaining, thought-provoking, and awe-inspiring collection of things to explore.

But even though I enjoy editing the site and learn about a lot of new things along the way, the work itself sometimes isn’t that challenging. There’s a lot of repetition, sitting in a chair, and willpower — not insignificant things when trying to accomplish something — but it increasingly feels like I’m on autopilot creatively. Has the site gotten better in the last 5 years? I think so. But have I? What creative boundaries have I pushed along the way? In what ways could kottke.org be better or different that would provide new challenges for me? Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, but my desire to “roam and experiment” (as Hesser puts it) has been on the rise lately for sure.

  1. When I think about how I approach my work on the site, two references come to mind: 1) the Dunkin Donuts guy (“time to make the donuts”), and 2) what the doctor in Gattaca says about regularity of Ethan Hawke’s character’s heartbeat while exercising (“Jerome, Jerome, the metronome.”).

The 2018 kottke.org Holiday Gift Guide

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 04, 2018

Gift Guide 2018

As I’ve done for the last five years, I’ve spent the past few weeks scouring the internet for the best 2018 gift guides and pulled a few of the most interesting items from each. Think of it as a curated meta-guide for your holiday giving. Let’s dig in.

Charitable giving always tops this list. Check out GiveWell and Charity Navigator to find organizations that will put your money to the best use. (Read up on big charities like Red Cross and Salvation Army…they are often not the best use of your charity dollar.) GiveDirectly sends money directly to people living in extreme poverty around the world. I always recommend Volunteer Match to find local volunteer opportunities but they force you to log in now, so just an FYI. Alternate sites for volunteering are the AARP’s Create the Good and United Way. If you’re giving to the local food shelf, skip buying food yourself for the donation bin and set up a direct debit or CC payment instead…that will put your donation to better use.

If you’re looking for great gift ideas for kids (and/or Toys for Tots), the best place to look remains the excellent The Kid Should See This Gift Guide. I use this almost exclusively for all of my kid-related holiday and birthday shopping. This year’s stand-out items include The littleBits Space Rover Inventor Kit (littleBits stuff is *huge* in our household), The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid (got this for my daughter for her birthday), SET (a pal also recently recommended this game), and a set of four board books including Quantum Physics for Babies. And whoa, the Harry Potter Coding Kit from Kano? Accio Coding Kit!

The Accidental Shop is a collection of products I’ve previously linked to on kottke.org. It is heavy on books…I’d particularly recommend Emily Wilson’s The Odyssey, Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs, and Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin. Oh, and I’m flying through Madeline Miller’s Circe right now…what a read!

For those of you into food, you’ve probably already have an Instant Pot and Anova Sous Vide Cooker, so check out the gift guides from Eater, Food52, Serious Eats, Kitchn, and Ruth Reichl. Among their recommendations are a Korean fermeting crock (for making kimchi), the Five Two double-sided cutting board, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat, a Taco Passport, Anita Lo’s well-regarded Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One, and aged fish sauce (!!).

I love my Kindle Paperwhite and there’s an updated version this year that’s waterproof, lighter & thinner, has Bluetooth for audiobooks, and has more storage.

I’ve seen several guides touting so-called “inexpensive” gifts and then going on to recommend $50 bars of soap, so Slate’s The Good Enough List is a welcome effort. They’ve recommended a bunch of items that are almost as good as the best available options but more affordable. My favorite pick is their rec for a $7 pedometer over a Fitbit or Apple Watch. They also highlight the Gulliver crib from Ikea, which I have taken apart and put back together approximately 30 times. It’s a basic, durable, simple, and fantastic crib.

The kids and I have been playing two games pretty heavily this year: Sushi Go Party and Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle. I really like Hogwarts Battle because it’s cooperative — all the players play together against the villans on the board and it’s fun to strategize how to allocate tokens and hearts to get everyone through the danger areas.

The 2018 Engineering Gift Guide from Purdue University is full of “gift ideas that engage girls and boys in engineering thinking and design”. Their picks this year include Duct Tape Engineer and Kiwi Crate’s monthly subscription service for project kits (which a friend also recently recommended).

The Astronomers Without Borders OneSky Reflector Telescope is probably the best $200 telescope you can buy. I got one this summer and it’s been great for looking at the Moon, planets, and even some nearby galaxies.

Gift Guide 2018

My kids would flip out if I bought the family a Nintendo Switch with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe but I don’t think it’s going to happen. [crying emoji]

Whenever I need to buy something for around the house, Wirecutter is the first (and often only) place I go for recommendations. From their Gifts We Want to Give in 2018, I found Blue Planet II (the *perfect* family holiday entertainment), a Carhartt tool bag, fleece blankets from Uniqlo, and a pack of Blackwing pencils.

Remember Viewmaster? Now you can Create Your Own Reel Viewer.

The 2018 Christmas Catalog from Tools & Toys is blissfully heavy on the nerdy stuff. Their picks include an instant photo printer for your iPhone, the Field Cast Iron Skillet, these enamel steel signs from Best Made, and this clever magnetic wrist band for keeping track of errant screws and parts while you’re doing projects. And Lego has a Voltron kit? Holy nostalgia.

Every year I “recommend” this 55-gallon drum of personal lubricant because why would anyone actually buy this? (Have any of you ever bought this? Report back, please!)

I recently did a round-up of Adult Nonfiction Adapted for Younger Readers, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Howard Zinn’s A Young People’s History of the United States.

Recommended this last year but gonna repeat: a Christmas storybook based on Die Hard. Self-recommending. See also this sequined Jeff Goldblum pillow.

Some friends of mine love this Ooni portable pizza oven…it can cook a pizza at 932°F in just 60 seconds.

I’m lucky to know so many people who have written books or built companies that sell great products. Here are some of them: Advencher, prints from Mari Andrew (a rare occurrence), This Book is a Planetarium, Legal Nomads, 20x200, Tattly, The Bloody Mary, SDR Traveller, Cora Ball, Austin Kleon, Happy Cooking Hospitality, you think you know me, Gracie’s Ice Cream, Kingston Stockade FC, Storyworth, The Aviary Cocktail Book, Chris Piascik, Salty Avocado, Hoefler & Co, Tinybop, Fat Gold, Hella Cocktail Co, Storq maternity wear, Milkmade, and Field Notes.

From The Colossal Shop, multi-colored toy soldiers doing yoga. See also this maddening puzzle…the pieces change colors depending on how you look at them.

My daughter endlessly rereads her Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls books (sequel). I Am A Rebel Girl Journal is their newest product and just might be under our family tree this year.

Socks inspired by Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar? Yes, please. And they make them for adults too! The same company makes all sorts of book-related products, from Harry Potter t-shirts to Kurt Vonnegut necklaces.

From the NY Times’ collection of gift guides, a US National Parks annual pass (I put mine to good use this summer), a phone mount for your car (I got one of these this summer and love it), and these Jabra wireless earbuds that the Wirecutter rates as better than Apple AirPods. Oh and Bananagrams.

From Curbed’s 21 holiday gifts for people who like nice things, this ramen puzzle and a radio designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1946 but was never produced (until now).

More gift guides: Cup of Jo, Canopy, Engadget (tech), The Guardian, Buzzfeed, Daily Nous (philosophy), Tom’s Guide (tech), and Red Tricycle (kids).

My gift guides from the last few years have yet more ideas: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, and 2013.

Update: A few miscellaneous gifts suggested by readers. Island Creek’s Oyster of the Month Club. A retro SNES game console from Ghostly and Analogue. From Richard Eaglespoon’s 2018 Holiday Gift Guide, these small metal tins of Malden’s sea salt for bringing to restaurants.

I’ve also posted my yearly round-up of best books of the year. Among the most frequent recommendations for 2018 are Madeline Miller’s Circe, David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass, Educated by Tara Westover, and How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan.

Update: I wasn’t going to update this anymore but I’m making an exception for this: a firelog that smells like Kentucky Fried Chicken when you burn it. !!! Only $18.99 (incl s&h).

Update: From Julia Carrie Wong, the Reverse Gift Guide — “give your friends and family the gift of not having these products”. The list includes DNA kits and “toys that require batteries to make noise”.

Rookie and the Business of Independent Publishing

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2018

Tavi Gevinson started Rookie in 2011 when she was 15 years old and late last week announced that the online magazine was ceasing publication. The stories about the struggle of independent online media in the age of Google & Facebook are well-worn by now, but the first couple of pages of Gevinson’s letter really resonated with me and with what I’m doing (and not doing) here at kottke.org. This paragraph specifically:

It has sometimes felt like there are two Rookies: There’s the publication that you read, that I also love reading, writing for, and editing; and then there is the company that I own and am responsible for. The former is an art project; the latter is a business. Each one needs and feeds the other, but when I started Rookie at age 15, I saw the two as mutually exclusive. Rookie had been founded, in part, as a response to feeling constantly marketed to in almost all forms of media; to being seen as a consumer rather than a reader or person. In my black-and-white view of the world, the idea of capitalizing on an audience seemed cynical, selfish, and something only evil adults do. It would be misleading to say I was a total purist, though, because I also thought Rookie was really good, and that it should reach people rather than be small and struggling. I wanted it to be able to hire more editors, pay contributors more, and grow so that not everything would need my oversight and other voices could be more prominent. I also wanted Rookie to eventually be a source of income for me, which I didn’t need it to be when I was a teenager and living at home. In those first few years, however, just the day-to-day running of the site was brain-consuming enough without also actively trying to make it as profitable as possible. And, that was the part I was most passionate about, and adept at: collaborating with writers and artists, curating and editing their work, and watching the conversations that would unfold around it.

Over the years, kottke.org could have gone in many different directions — possible acquisitions by Conde Nast publications, funding, partnerships — but I could never convince myself that any of those options would actually make the site any better or make me any happier. I thought then, and I still think now (more than ever actually), that growing the reach and operations of the site would be a terrific idea, but the business challenge is tougher than ever. Thanks to the support of my readers through the membership program (more on that in a second), the business side is stable-ish and I’ve been able to grow modestly here and there (e.g. the weekly Noticing newsletter written by Tim Carmody), but the scope of this enterprise from a financial standpoint is still just one person. Adding another full-time person to the mix sounds easy, but doubling the size of your business is rocket-ship growth, even when you’re tiny. So I continue to put almost 100% of my efforts into writing the site and almost 0% into things like audience growth, business development, promotion, or marketing…and hoping that the product will continue to speak for itself. This feels both like the right way forward for me and also idiotic, like the foundation of this house I’ve spent 20 years building is slowly rotting away out from under us. It’s a real catch-22 that keeps me up some nights.

But back to Rookie. I’m a little surprised that Gevinson didn’t pursue subscriptions or a membership program, but I can relate to what she writes here:

I also know that the idea of taking money from readers made me feel an immediate and intimidating sense of responsibility. (In retrospect, that may have been a more manageable kind of responsibility than money from investors, and could have been a hint to how I’d feel about investors, but you can’t know what you don’t know.)

The first time I tried funding kottke.org with reader support back in 2005, I ended up scrapping the scheme after a year because of that same “intimidating sense of responsibility”. Now with the membership program, it feels more like the site and the business part are in greater alignment…that this is something we’re all doing together for similar reasons. There should have been a way for a site with a strong sense of community like Rookie to come up with a membership plan that seemed collaborative and not extractive, that felt good for everyone. But maybe Gevinson was just ready to move onto other challenges in other arenas. God knows I can empathize with that myself.

The Web Design Museum

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 05, 2018

Ok, if you started using the web 15-25 years ago, prepare yourself for the nostalgic blast of the Web Design Museum.

Web Design Museum

I remember all of these from back in the day — what a trip. Even kottke.org circa 1999 made it in there.

Reminder: support kottke.org with a membership today!

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 25, 2018

I’ve been a bit lax about getting the word out about this lately — been busy in the content mines and with the Noticing newsletter and I am bad at self-promotion — but this is your periodic reminder that kottke.org is financially supported primarily by memberships from readers. If you’d like to support one of the best independent sites on the web, you can check out your options here. It takes less than a minute to sign up and your collective support will keep the site chugging along for the foreseeable future.

If you’re already a member, thank you again! Your support has enabled me to publish the site without compromise & encouraged me to experiment with a few new things, which you’ve gotten glimpses of over the last 18 months via the members-only newsletter.

Speaking of the members-only newsletter, I’ve sent out 2 issues over the past 10 days or so. If you’re a member and haven’t gotten them, your membership may have lapsed because of an expired credit card…you can sign in on the membership page to check your status and renew.

Ok, self-promotion over…that wasn’t so bad. Here’s a fun handclapping clip from Sesame Street to celebrate getting through that together:

(Sesame Street is supported by “viewers like you”…just like kottke.org. Become a member!)

On Margins 005 with Jason

posted by Patrick Tanguay   May 01, 2018

Jason interviewed on On Margins

Jason is a humble guy so I’m not sure he’d post this. Good timing then that he’s on vacation and I’m writing here because I will! He’s the guest on the most recent episode of the excellent On Margins podcast by the equally excellent Craig Mod. Not everyone is a podcast listening person but still have a look, there’s a full transcript of the interview and you can also see some excerpts written up by Mod on Medium.

For those of us who have not just used the web but built on the web for decades, a place like kottke.org becomes almost physical in its emotional resonance. […]

These last few years have been tipified by a realization: I think we understand the brittle nature of our institutions a little more than we ever have.

These things we love in the world are not in this world, unless we continually put energy into them, supportive energy into them. I think we felt that really strongly in the last two years, especially. (Emphasis mine)

(Header image shamelessly lifted from Mod’s Medium post.)

The only winning move is not to play?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 11, 2018

The other day I observed that whenever a new issue of the Noticing newsletter goes out, a bunch of people unsubscribe. When this happens each week I panic a little, so I asked other newsletter writers if this happened to them too. And it does.

In the ensuing thread, a former Twitter employee chimed in to say that “the single biggest correlation with people unfollowing an account [on Twitter] was whenever an account tweeted anything at all”. And someone else chimed in with “historically the biggest problem of newspaper subscriptions: physical delivery of the damn things leads to churn!” I also remarked that this reminded me of Jon Bois’ amazing Chart Party episode on Barry Bonds, where he concludes (spoilers!) that in 2004, Bonds would have finished with essentially the same on-base percentage if he hadn’t used a bat for the entire season.

Newsletters you’re better off not sending, newspapers you shouldn’t publish, and pitches you should never swing at. Was WOPR right in WarGames? Is the only winning move not to play?

Global thermonuclear war notwithstanding, this issue highlights the need to keep in mind why you’re playing a particular game in the first place. I often return to something that Ludicorp (makers of Flickr) had on their about page from a book by Charles Spinosa et al. about the goal of business:

Business owners do not normally work for money either. They work for the enjoyment of their competitive skill, in the context of a life where competing skillfully makes sense. The money they earn supports this way of life. The same is true of their businesses. One might think that they view their businesses as nothing more than machines to produce profits, since they do closely monitor their accounts to keep tabs on those profits.

But this way of thinking replaces the point of the machine’s activity with a diagnostic test of how well it is performing. Normally, one senses whether one is performing skillfully. A basketball player does not need to count baskets to know whether the team as a whole is in flow. Saying that the point of business is to produce profit is like saying that the whole point of playing basketball is to make as many baskets as possible. One could make many more baskets by having no opponent.

The game and styles of playing the game are what matter because they produce identities people care about. Likewise, a business develops an identity by providing a product or a service to people. To do that it needs capital, and it needs to make a profit, but no more than it needs to have competent employees or customers or any other thing that enables production to take place. None of this is the goal of the activity.

The people who work for newspapers want to provide their readers with high quality information.1 Barry Bonds wants to play baseball, be competitive, and provide entertainment to the fans instead of standing bat-less in the batter’s box; the Giants & MLB presumably want those things as well. With my efforts here and with the newsletter, I’m not playing a subscriber or profits maximization game — I want to share my ideas & information that I find and connect with people. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t keep your eye on how much money you make or how many subscribers you’ve got for a relatively new newsletter,2 but keeping your purpose firmly in mind while you do those things is of paramount importance. Otherwise you’re just stalemating yourself.

  1. We’re witnessing many counter-examples to this in American journalism right now, where corporations are buying up newspapers and, in an effort to maximize profits, firing “expensive” journalists and producing a lower-quality product that’s unsatisfying to their employees and readers alike.

  2. The other issue with the newsletter situation in particular is you’re seeing a small but loud negative signal (people unsubscribing) but not seeing a much larger but quiet positive signal (everyone else reading the newsletter with some degree of satisfaction); this is probably an example of availability bias. That results in a perception that’s 180° from reality…which is, you know, not helpful!

A tip for a better media diet: delay reading the news

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 09, 2018

In The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman writes about the benefits of time-shifting your news reading.

One excellent way to stay calm but well-informed, I’ve found, is to consume the news a day or three later than everyone else. Print is one way to do this. But it works online, too: more and more, I find myself promiscuously cruising the web, saving umpteen articles in a “read later” app (in my case Evernote, though you could use your browser’s bookmarks). By the time I read them, the time filter has worked its magic: a small proportion of them stand out as truly compelling.

A new car loses about 10% of its value as soon as you drive it off the lot; most news depreciates a lot faster than that. Humans are curious, hard-wired to seek out new information on a continuous basis. But not everything we haven’t seen before is worth our attention. As Burkeman says, a great way to determine if something is intrinsically interesting or worthwhile apart from its novelty is to set it aside for awhile.

My process for gathering links and information for kottke.org is pretty much what Burkeman outlines in the article: when I see something that looks interesting, I file it away and revisit it later. I don’t even leave it that long sometimes…even a few hours works wonders. Most of the links I throw out, some because they weren’t as interesting as I’d hoped from reading a headline or pull quote but more often because they won’t be interesting after a day or two passes. I’m proud that you can go back weeks, months, years, and (more rarely) decades into the kottke.org archives and still find things worth your time.

20 years of gratitude and acknowledgements

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 20, 2018

I was on the road for an unexpectedly long time last week, so the post I wrote about kottke.org’s 20th anniversary was a little rushed and incomplete. I often call kottke.org my “one-man band” but it has been anything but. Today, I want to swing back around and thank all of the people and organizations who have supported me and the site with their encouragement, advice, criticism, well-wishes, hard work, and services.

I’ve thanked ‘em before and I’ll thank ‘em again: the support of kottke.org members has given this here webmaster new life. If you’d like to see kottke.org run another 20 years, the best way to do that is to sign up for a membership (it’ll only take you a minute).

I’ve been lucky to work with a bunch of talented guest editors over the years, including Sarah Pavis, Greg Allen, Adam Lisagor, Choire Sicha (now the editor of the NY Times Style section — fancy!), Deron Bauman of the dearly missed Clusterflock, Susannah Breslin, Cliff Kuang, Ainsley Drew, Jenni Leder, Joel Turnipseed, Lance Arthur, Andy Baio, and Chrysanthe Tenentes. Chris Piascik has provided the occasional high quality illustration. Aaron Cohen guest edited for a couple of weeks and then, unbidden & for reasons unknown, posted 3-5 posts each week for several months. (Aaron still bugs me bi-monthly about doing a Kottke Konference and someday he might actually persuade me to do it.)

And a special mention goes to Tim Carmody, who has guest edited several times and is now writing the Noticing newsletter and posting on Fridays. He’s like my smarter and more verbose brother, and I love what he contributes to the site.

Back in 2005, when I quit my job to work on kottke.org full-time, I asked my readers to support me in a precursor to the membership program. Hundreds of them did just that, and I’m forever grateful.

To Greg Knauss, Anil Dash, Heather Armstrong, Michael Sippey, Mark Wilkie, David Jacobs, Meg Hourihan, Jake Dobkin, and Jonah Peretti: your advice and counsel over the years has been invaluable to me. Best informal board of advisors ever.

I need to thank Greg Knauss & Mark Wilkie again, along with Finn Smith, for helping me out with the heavy lifting server admin stuff. Mark in particular hosted kottke.org on his own personal server for many years in the early days.

Along with his counsel, I’d like to thank Jonah Peretti for providing me with a space at Eyebeam Labs in 2005 as a senior fellow and again at Buzzfeed as a design advisor and a desk-squatter for almost 10 years.

kottke.org is proudly hosted by Arcustech, which keeps the site running at top speed with no downtime. I dunno, maybe the site’s been down once, for like 2 seconds in the middle of the night, but I was sleeping and didn’t notice.

The fonts for the site are courtesy of Hoefler & Co. I’m proud to have been one of the first sites on the web to use their web fonts.

I’d like to thank my advertising partners throughout the years: Carbon Ads, We Work Remotely (which started out as the job board for 37signals), and especially The Deck.

And last but not least, I’d like to thank all of you for reading all these years, despite the repeated use of cliches like “last but not least”. I you all!

Twenty.

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 14, 2018

Kottke Twenty

kottke.org is 20 years old today. Holy shit! On March 14, 1998, I launched a new episode of 0sil8 called “Notes”. 0sil8 was a previous website of mine, started in 1995 or 1996. The site’s format was episodic: every month or two the design and content was completely different. With Notes, I wanted to have somewhere to write regularly for my friends, modeled after the online diaries that were growing in popularity at the time. Weblogs were a thing, one of the many types of regularly updated personal sites that were in existence then; they wouldn’t take off and begin to consume all media for another year or two. In December 1998, I registered kottke.org (kottke.com was taken and I wasn’t a network so .org it was) and sometime later moved Notes over, where it’s been ever since. And now it’s one of the oldest regularly updated sites on the web.

I’ve been reading back through the early archives (which I wouldn’t recommend), and it feels like excavating down through layers of sediment, tracing the growth & evolution of the web, a media format, and most of all, a person. On March 14, 1998, I was 24 years old and dumb as a brick. Oh sure, I’d had lots of book learning and was quick with ideas, but I knew shockingly little about actual real life.1 I was a cynical and cocky know-it-all. Some of my older posts are genuinely cringeworthy to read now: poorly written, cluelessly privileged, and even mean spirited. I’m ashamed to have written some of them.

But had I not written all those posts, good and bad, I wouldn’t be who I am today, which, hopefully, is a somewhat wiser person vectoring towards a better version of himself. What the site has become in its best moments — a slightly highfalutin description from the about page: “[kottke.org] covers the essential people, inventions, performances, and ideas that increase the collective adjacent possible of humanity” — has given me a chance to “try on” hundreds of thousands of ideas, put myself into the shoes of all kinds of different thinkers & creators, meet some wonderful people (some of whom I’m lucky enough to call my friends), and engage with some of the best readers on the web (that’s you!), who regularly challenge me on and improve my understanding of countless topics and viewpoints.

I had a personal realization recently: kottke.org isn’t so much a thing I’m making but a process I’m going through. A journey. A journey towards knowledge, discovery, empathy, connection, and a better way of seeing the world. Along the way, I’ve found myself and all of you. I feel so so so lucky to have had this opportunity. When kottke.org turned 10, my post marking the anniversary ended with “I’ll see you in 2018”. In my recollection, that line was somewhat serious but also partially somewhere between a joke and a dare. Like, “how has this thing lasted 10 years, why not go for 20?” So…why not go for 30? 40? I’ll see you for sure in 2028 and perhaps even in 2038. Thank you so very much for being here with me, I surely don’t deserve such fine company.

P.S. And if you’ll indulge me for a moment in a brief shameless sale pitch, if you have found something valuable here over the past 20 years, please consider supporting the site with a membership. Member support has put the site on a stable financial path into the future and has personally re-energized my involvement and commitment to the site. Thanks!

  1. This is still arguably the case.

Guest editing this week: Chrysanthe Tenentes

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Mar 05, 2018

[Hello gang. I am off this week and am very pleased that my pal Chrysanthe Tenentes will be taking over while I’m gone. We haven’t caught up in awhile, so I’m eager to learn what she’s thinking about these days and what she’s been working on. Welcome, Chrysanthe! And I’ll see the rest of you rascals next week. -jason]

Longtime reader, first time guest editor here…I’ve been mostly behind the scenes working on content strategy and other editorial projects the past few years but you may know me from Brooklyn Based, where I was co-founder, Foursquare, where I was an early hire, or The Shed story salon, which I run with friends in Brooklyn. I’m currently on the west coast, consulting for a few clients and about to launch LA IS OK. I’m on Twitter and most things as eqx1979, which is a reference to the alternative radio station I listened to in high school (heart you forever WEQX) and that Smashing Pumpkins song that I apparently liked enough to use in my ICQ screen name that then became all my screen names.

But enough about me, let’s get back to the links! I’m very much looking forward to spending the week with you all.

The best kottke.org posts and links of 2017

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 02, 2018

[ As a tease for the first issue of the just-announced Noticing newsletter coming up on Friday, here is last week’s newsletter that we previewed for kottke.org members. It’s a review of the best kottke.org posts and links from 2017. You can sign up for Noticing if you find this kind of thing appealing. Ok, I’ll let Tim take it from here. -jason ]

 
2017 Through the Lens of Kottke.org

If 2016 was chaos, then 2017 was catastrophe. In the middle of an ongoing disaster, the world reckoned with bills long overdue. Kottke.org has never been a terribly political blog, but it’s always been one that’s grappled with history, the problems of art and media, self-reflection, and the long trajectory into the future. The site couldn’t help but reflect that catastrophe back to its readers. At the same time, it continued to offer some small oasis by selecting and presenting the best of the World Wide Web.

 
Messages in Bottles

One of the most exciting weeks of 2017 for me was when I asked Kottke.org readers to help me build a time capsule for the World Wide Web. It felt particularly important this year to try to save the best parts of the things we loved. We had to have something to show the future, despite all this destruction and heartache, that we were still capable of making things that surprised and delighted.

The entire “best of the web” series paid homage to the 20th century technologies that have defined so much of the 21st. It also showcased the deep knowledge and generosity of Kottke readers, who contributed and helped curate all of the entries. If you missed it, or are looking to refresh yourself, the web’s best hidden gems and the web’s funniest stories are good places to start.

Jason on Halt and Catch Fire

Jason as gas station patron on Halt and Catch Fire. Photo courtesy of AMC.

One of the most exciting weeks of 2017 for me on Jason’s behalf was his appearance on Halt and Catch Fire. Jason wrote this wonderful love letter to the show and the moment it tries to capture:

When I was a kid, there was nothing I was more interested in than computers. My dad bought one of the first available IBM PC-compatibles on the market. I’ve read and watched a ton about the PC revolution. I used online services like Prodigy. And the web, well, I’ve gotten to experience that up close and personal. One of the reasons I love Halt and Catch Fire so much is that it so lovingly and accurately depicts this world that I’ve been keenly interested in for the past 35 years of my life. Someone made a TV show about my thing and it was great, a successor to Mad Men great. Getting to be a microscopically tiny part of that? Hell yeah, it was worth it.

Recently, I saw The Farthest, a wonderful documentary about the Voyager missions. In it, Timothy Ferris, producer of the famous Golden Record, laments the fact that so much wonderful music was left off, but says something like, “who would want to live in a civilization that only ever produced 90 minutes of great music?” It made me feel better about leaving off so many wonderful parts of the web in my time capsule; who would want to honor a technology whose entire set of great achievements could be documented in a week of blog posts?

 
In Search of Deep Time

In 2014, it was easier to believe in the future. For The Future Library, an art project by Katie Paterson, a thousand trees were planted. In a century, the trees will become part of an anthology of books, written by Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell, among others.

Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until the year 2114. Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the one hundred year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.

Deep Time, conceptualized in the eighteenth century but coined in the twentieth by John McPhee, is bigger than centuries; it’s really about time on the geologic scale. Even the time of human civilizations (Stone, Bronze, Iron, etc.) is too small. Deep time is deep.

Something like “The Earth’s five energy revolutions” gets us closer to it: all life on earth begins with geochemical energy, then augmented by sunlight, and finally, oxygen, flesh, and fire. The life and death of entire forests of trees, of entire species and kingdoms, is dwarfed by the history of an entire planet and all the life that’s ever been on it. This point of view has always been a powerful perspective, but in 2017, the cosmic telescope of time was almost a comfort. Even if nations fall and species fail, this too will pass.

Coleman's Cafe in Greensboro, Ala.

Coleman’s Cafe in Greensboro, Ala., in 1971. By William Christenberry

But deep time has its own human counterparts. Consider Teju Cole’s essay “The Image of Time,” on photographer William Christenberry. Christenberry photographed buildings in small towns in the American south over time: seemingly the same photograph, of the same object, from the same distance, with the same framing, shows the object’s subtle or radical transformations, its non-identity.

Time is photography’s illusion. Almost every photograph appears instantaneous. But of course, there’s no such thing as “instantaneous”: All fragments of time have a length. In a photograph, the time during which the light is refracted by the lens, enters the aperture and is allowed to rest on the photosensitive surface could be 1/125th of a second, one-eighth of a second, half a second, a whole minute, much more or much less. What is intriguing about a practice like Christenberry’s is that it employs time elsewhere in the photograph too: as a source of narrative.

Or look at Jon Bois’s magnificent “17776: What Football Will Look Like in the Future,” which dives right into the familiar — maps, calendars, printer readouts — and estranges it, exactly to make the reader experience time. (I can’t even blockquote or screenshot it. It’s one piece you have to read for yourself.)

 
Time Collapsed

In 17776, the angel of history is a far-flung space probe that’s absorbed all of human culture, emotions, and sports statistics through radio transmissions. For Walter Benjamin in 1940, the Angel of History was a thought-experiment to try to understand all of history as an ongoing catastrophe.

These are chaotic times. But to the angel of history, it’s not a sudden eruption of chaos, but a manifestation of an ongoing vortex of chaos that stretches back indefinitely, without any unique origin. When we’re thrust into danger, in a flash we get a more truthful glimpse of history than the simple narratives that suffice in moments of safety. As Benjamin puts it, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

For James Baldwin, there were no angels, and no robots; only fallen, imperfect beings who’d likewise absorbed the surrounding culture, but hadn’t necessarily been humanized by it. “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction,” writes Baldwin, “and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

Baldwin and Benjamin were the two writers that best helped me understand this year, because they’d already seen how fascism and Jim Crow could fold time over on itself. Had he not been murdered, Emmett Till would have turned 76 in 2017; instead, a new book revealed what was long known, that he died because of a lie.

And in 2017, in a different sort of lie, Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who self-identifies as black, changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo. When Baldwin wrote “the world is white no longer, and it will never be white again,” I don’t think this is what he was talking about.

It was not the first time that the curiously stagnant nature of time made me wonder if we were all dead and in Hell. It would not be the last.

 
The New Callousness

In 2017, knowing how to apologize properly is an essential skill. (You might even call it a new kind of liberal art.) The essential components of a genuine apology, according to Beth Polin:

1. An expression of regret — this, usually, is the actual “I’m sorry.”
2. An explanation (but, importantly, not a justification).
3. An acknowledgment of responsibility.
4. A declaration of repentance.
5. An offer of repair.
6. A request for forgiveness.

Most of 2017’s public apologies whiffed on one or more of these. It was a year filled with soul-searching, but also much rejection of any real contrition. We might remember individual acts of selflessness, but the year was fueled by selfishness.

This photo by Kristi McCluer of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest became a metaphor for the summer, and the whole year.

Summer 2017 Fire

A man golfs with a wildfire raging behind him. One of the defining images of 2017.

The New Callousness, swept into power in the United States and elsewhere, led to widespread physical and political fatigue: Kayla Chadwick’s “I Don’t Know How to Explain to You That You Should Care About Other People” reflects the prevailing mood of exhausted incredulity.

It is probably fair to say that in every direction, 2017 involved a lot of human beings writing off other human beings. But pushing back against this were great technologist-humanists like the legendary Ellen Ullman, explaining why hackers need the humanities:

Algorithms surround us, determining how we get mortgages or apartment rentals, or whether we get hired. It is crucial that we open up those algorithms and take them apart, and then either put them back together or scrap and rewrite them. Algorithms may run our lives, but I really believe people make the future.

 
Sharp as Possible

Trying to figure out how to live through this year, I often thought about Thelonious Monk’s advice on how to play a gig:

Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.

Don’t play the piano part. I’m playing that.

Don’t play everything (or every time). Let some things go by.

Some music just imagined. What you don’t play can be more important than what you do play.

Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself.

What should we wear tonight? Sharp as possible!

I also tried to remember Richard Feynman’s advice that if you can’t explain something simply, you probably don’t really understand it. I admire complexity, but whenever it’s possible, simplicity is better.

The best of all things may be to be able to ratchet the explanation’s complexity up or down depending on who your audience is: neuroscientist Bobby Kashturi explaining a connectome to a five-year-old, teenager, college student, grad student, and scholarly peer is a great example of that.

It all builds from the foundation. As Richard Hamming observed, knowledge and productivity are like compound interest. You grow from work you put in over time, simple things repeated until they become (or appear to become) complex. Learning effects, network effects, path dependence — over time, they all roll up, and who you’re becoming overtakes who you are.

 
The Great Eclipse

In August, after a jab step into Nebraska, Jason drove to Rayville, Missouri to witness and photograph the solar eclipse.

As totality approached, the sky got darker, our shadows sharpened, insects started making noise, and disoriented birds quieted. The air cooled and it even started to get a little foggy because of the rapid temperature change.

We saw the Baily’s beads and the diamond ring effect… When the Moon finally slipped completely in front of the Sun and the sky went dark, I don’t even know how to describe it. The world stopped and time with it. During totality, Mouser took the photo at the top of the page. I’d seen photos like that before but had assumed that the beautifully wispy corona had been enhanced with filters in Photoshop. But no…that is actually what it looks like in the sky when viewing it with the naked eye (albeit smaller). Hands down, it was the most incredible natural event I’ve ever seen.

Eclipse 2017 by Mouser

A view of the eclipse from Rayville, MO. Photo by Mouser.

Jason also collected the best photos and videos of the eclipse, this NASA map showing the eclipse’s path across the continental United States. and eclipse maps of the United States from 2000 BC until 2117 AD. Even for those of us who just sat under a tree and watched the shadows turn into scallops, it was a special experience this year.

 
Did Someone Say Maps?

Talk about visualizing deep time! Here we go:

A Tapestry of Time and Terrain shows the ages of rock in different parts of the continental US.

Another map shows the hometown of nearly all of the warriors from Homer’s The Iliad.

This map of the Roman Empire c. 125 AD shows the major Roman roads as if they were London’s tube.

A collection of miniature metro maps shows world cities with smaller systems, from Bangalore to Tblisi.

There’s a timeline map of US immigration since 1820, a set of hand-drawn infographics made by W.E.B. Du Bois and his students at Atlanta University, auto-generated maps of fantasy worlds, a topographical map of Venus (with geographic features named for historical and mythological women), and even an interactive map of personal debt.

There’s also The Atlas for the End of the World, which looks at critically endangered bioregions worldwide, and NASA’s striking nighttime map of the world, complete with a patch of void separating China from South Korea; the one nation, that, light-wise, may as well be open ocean.

 
So What Was Good?

There were so many essays and features and pop-up op-eds and shameless resistance grifters and rust belt whisperers that all tried to explain what was really happening in 2017. Almost always reporting either from a small red-state town or the comforts of one’s own imagination. And almost always thoroughly ignoring what was happening in the wider world in favor of warmed-over anecdotes and armchair realpolitik. All that noise nearly drowned out a few moments genuine insight. That’s always the case, but it all felt sharper this year.

I’ve already listed a lot of what I loved about this year — and everything I’ve mentioned appeared as a blog post or a Quick Link on Kottke.org. But two pieces of documentary art stand out for having a different set of ambitions, in search of a different kind of truth about 2017.

Flamingos in Planet Earth II

A flock of flamingos in Planet Earth II.

The first is Planet Earth 2. We already know that when the BBC breaks out Sir David Attenborough, they deliver the goods: a respite from our overweening humanity, with cutting-edge photography and cogent commentary. But PE2 went further, because it was just so goddamned beautiful.

The tracking shot of a lemur jumping from tree to tree is one of the first things you see in the first episode and it put my jaw right on the floor. It’s so close and fluid, how did they do that? Going into the series, I thought it was going to be more of the same — Planet Earth but with new stories, different animals, etc. - but this is really some next-level shit.

The second is Whitman, Alabama. Jennifer Crandall’s serial documentary benefits enormously from the fact that it didn’t set out to explain what happened politically in 2016 or 2017. The filmmaking began much earlier as a meditation on the longstanding problems of democracy and diversity in America.

It’s a very different kind of film from Planet Earth 2. It’s not state of the art. It’s relentlessly human. It manifests the spirit of Walt Whitman: his generosity, his capaciousness, his gentle but insistent concern on the public and private lives of his fellow Americans.

The first time Crandall read “Song of Myself,” it was 1990, and she was sixteen, standing in a bookstore in McLean, Virginia, having just moved back to the United States. Because of her father’s job, with U.S.A.I.D., she had spent most of her childhood in Bangladesh, Haiti, and Pakistan. “My mom is Chinese, from Vietnam, and my dad’s a white dude from Denver, and at that moment I just felt that I did not understand America,” she said. She pulled a paperback anthology of poetry off the shelf, and Whitman stuck out right away. “Though I wouldn’t have articulated it then, what I responded to was this idea that everyone embodies diversity, not just the country. That many people are negotiating multiple social contracts, the way I’d been doing since I was born.”

Somewhere between those two, between the whole planet and just one town, between the deep time of the age of fire and the quickfire moments of the post-web internet, between the human and the indifference to humans, is where we are. It’s where we’ve been in 2017 and will be again in 2018, no matter what comes. It’s where we’ve always been, careening between catastrophe and epiphany, callousness and generosity, the divine and the mundane. With luck, we will not destroy ourselves. With luck, and grace, and hope, and because we have no choice, we will find a way to make it through.

Noticing, a new weekly newsletter from kottke.org

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 02, 2018

As kottke.org enters its 21st calendar year of activity (!!!!), it’s time for something new. And old. Email was invented in 1972, the year before I was born, but is still going strong. The email newsletter has re-emerged in recent years as a unique way to connect with readers, distinct from social media or publishing on the web. So Tim Carmody and I have teamed up to launch Noticing, a free email newsletter. You can subscribe here.

Written by Tim Carmody and published by me every Friday, Noticing will contain a curated roundup of the week’s posts from kottke.org as well as some extra stuff that we’ll be introducing in the weeks to come. It most definitely won’t be a replacement for kottke.org…more like something to read alongside it.

Initial funding for the newsletter comes from two sources: the bulk of it from kottke.org (made possible through the support of members) but also from Tim’s supporters on Patreon. Noticing is an experiment in unlocking the commons.

The most economically powerful thing you can do is to buy something for your own enjoyment that also improves the world. This has always been the value proposition of journalism and art. It’s a nonexclusive good that’s best enjoyed nonexclusively.

The newsletter is very much a work in progress and a departure from the way I usually do things around here. For one thing, it’s a collaboration…almost everything else I’ve done on the site was just me. We’ve previewed it over the last two weeks just for members, but it’s still more “unfinished” than I’m comfortable with. The design hasn’t been nailed down, the logo will likely change, and Tim & I are still trying to figure out the voice and length. But launching it unfinished feels right…we aren’t wasting time on optimization and there’s more opportunity to experiment and move toward what works as time goes on. We hope you’ll join us by subscribing and letting us know your thoughts and feedback as we get this thing moving.

P.S. A quick note on the name. I thought of it while listening to the last part of Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci on audiobook on the drive home from NYC last week. One of Isaacson’s main points in the book was that Leonardo’s accomplishments were due in no small part to his extraordinary powers of observation. By observing things closely and from all possible angles, he was able to make connections and find details that other people didn’t and express them in his work. Isaacson argues that Leonardo’s observational powers were not innate and that with sufficient practice, we can all observe as he did. People talk in a precious way about genius, creativity, and curiosity as superpowers that people are born with but noticing is a more humble pursuit. Noticing is something we can all do.

I also thought about one of my favorite scenes from Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. From A.O. Scott’s review:

Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal, has read Lady Bird’s college application essay. “It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,” Sister Sarah remarks. This comes as a surprise, both to Lady Bird and the viewer, who is by now aware of Lady Bird’s frustration with her hometown.

“I guess I pay attention,” she says, not wanting to be contrary.

“Don’t you think they’re the same thing?” the wise sister asks.

The idea that attention is a form of love (and vice versa) is a beautiful insight.

I agree. Drawing honest & straightforward attention to things I love is much of what I do here on kottke.org, so I thought Noticing was a natural name for its newsletter extension.

P.P.S. An additional programming note. In addition to doing the newsletter, Tim is also taking over the posting duties on kottke.org most Fridays. This will free me up to work on other site-related things that I haven’t been able to tackle due to the daily scramble. Again, thanks to member support for making this possible!

In tech and media, you can’t remain neutral on a moving train

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 28, 2017

In his review (finally!) of the iPhone X, John Gruber begins with a zoomed out view of how computer platforms face an adapt-or-die choice.

The more popular a computer platform becomes, the more of a bind in which it inevitably finds itself. A platform is only “finished” when it is abandoned. It needs to evolve to remain relevant, but it’s difficult to change in unfamiliar ways without angering the base of active users. Adding new features on top of the familiar foundation only gets you so far — eventually things grow too complex, especially when what’s needed now is in conflict with a design decision that made sense a decade (or more) prior.

I’d argue this applies equally well to cultural & scientific paradigms, media, companies, technology, and politics. And people too. Who you were in your 20s and the decisions you made for that person often don’t work that well for that same person at 40…which can make long-term relationships difficult to navigate.

It also applies to this here website. I’ve talked before about the changing landscape of web-based media from a revenue perspective, which is why I started the membership initiative.

As I hinted at in the announcement post, the industry-wide drop in revenue from display advertising was beginning to affect kottke.org and just a few months later, the site’s largest source of revenue (ads via The Deck) went from “hey, I can make a living at this!” to zero. Then Amazon slashed their affiliate percentages, resulting in a 30-50% drop for some sites in the network. I found a new ad network partner (with greatly reduced revenue) and my Amazon affiliate revenue didn’t fall as much as that of other sites, but together, those revenue sources would no longer be enough to support my full-time activities on the site.

But I’ve also been thinking a lot about how the information published here is delivered. I love the web and websites and believe the blog format is the best for the type of thing I want to communicate. But fewer and fewer people actually go to websites. I largely don’t. You can follow kottke.org on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and via RSS, but fewer people are using newsreaders and Facebook et al are trying their best to decrease visibility of sites like mine unless I pay up or constantly publish.1

So I’ve been considering other ways of producing content that don’t involve this website. (An experiment along those lines will be launching very soon…although if you’re reading the members-only newsletter, you already know all about it.) But I also know that if you’re reading this, you are likely reading it on the web, as intended, and likely for 8-10 years or more…my loyal base of active readers who I don’t want to alienate. But as Gruber says above, it’s a sticky wicket…adapt or die. kottke.org is a blog, but that’s only a means to an end: sharing information and ideas with other people. How do I continue to do that, stay true to a format that I & my loyal readers love, but also not end up like a vaudevillian in the 1940s, hoofing it on some dusty stage with no one in the audience while the movie houses are packed? All I can say for sure is that kottke.org is very much not “finished”. Stay tuned!

P.S. It’s perhaps not the perfect metaphor in this case, but the thing that always pops into my head when thinking about changing on the go is this clip from Mr. Bean. He’s late for the dentist and has to get ready in his tiny car. The whole thing is great, but the particularly relevant bit starts at ~3:30.

  1. Social media is disproportionally shitty for small media businesses that prioritize quality over quantity. It’s Walmart gutting small town downtowns all over again.

Unlocking the commons: or, the psychoeconomics of patronage

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 15, 2017

Nieman Journalism Lab is running its annual predictions for the next year in journalism. I wound up pitching something about audio platforms that is weirdly optimistic about Spotify? but for a hot minute, I tried to talk Jason (and he tried to talk me) into writing something about the new patron economy.

It was too late to pitch it as a prediction, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I do what I do, which is to write as much of it down as I can. In the end, I couldn’t think of a better place to run it than right here at Kottke.org.

Here’s the picture as generally agreed upon: ads are still alive and well, but the collapse and consolidation of the ad market means ads alone can’t support media companies any more, whether they’re big like the New York Times or small like Kottke.org.

There’s a puritanical argument that says ads have failed media, they bring out media’s worse impulses, and might be inherently bad. The only way to break with the ad model is to break with it completely, and sell media like a product. Make readers pay for content. If they don’t pay for it, don’t give it to them. Only when media companies are wholly accountable to their subscribers can you fix what’s wrong with media. Big companies need paywalls: little ones need exclusive subscribers.

Kottke.org, obviously, does not work this way. It has ads, although those are a very small part of the site and a shrinking part of the revenue. It has members, but very, very little is directed only to them: right now, subscribers to the newsletters get some behind-the-scenes stuff and a few early previews and experiments. Stuff that only real fans even want. The site, the tweets, the RSS feed, and everything else the site’s produced or ever will produce is available to everyone, whether they’re a member or not.

I call this “unlocking the commons,” and it’s the same approach I’ve taken with my Patreon and newsletter. Fans support the person and the work. But it’s not a transaction, a fee for service. It’s a contribution that benefits everyone. Free-riders aren’t just welcome; free-riding is the point.

This, I think, is key to understanding the psychology of patronage. Normally, if you buy a product — let’s say you’re buying a book. Books aren’t perfect commodities, but they’re still commodities. As a shopper, you’re trying to get as much value for your book as you can for your money. If I can get the book cheaper and faster from retailer A(mazon) than retailer B(arnes & Noble), most of the time, that’s what I’m going to do.

If I’m skeptical of A, and prefer to support B or C(ity bookstore of my choice), I’m not strictly speaking in a purchasing relationship any more, but something closer to a patronage one. I don’t just want my money to buy an object; I want it to support institutions and individuals I like, and I want it to support the common good.

This is one of the weird things about patronage. As a consumer, your first thought is to your own benefit. As a patron, it’s to the good of your beneficiary. Likewise, as an artisan supported by patronage, you tend to think more about what’s best for your patrons and audience than you do yourself.

For instance, when Patreon recently changed its fee structure, I thought about it on two levels. First, it seemed really bad for patrons, slightly less bad for beneficiaries, and clearly helped out Patreon more than either group. As a customer of Patreon — they’re the ones I give my money to — I felt like I was being ripped off. I was being asked for more money without getting more in return. But as a patron, my first thought was, does this help the people I pledge money to each month? And as a beneficiary, I thought, how does this affect the people who pledge money to me?

In both cases, I wanted what was best for that other person. I wanted them to be getting the full value of the transaction. The only time it was about me was when I thought about my relationship with Patreon — which is completely different.

Please note that this is not fuzzy-headed idealism or just sentiment: this is as concrete and comprehensive as it gets. It’s economic thinking that recognizes that goods don’t just exist to be used up, but are objects of labor produced by and for members of a commonwealth. The truth of the transaction is in the whole.

The most economically powerful thing you can do is to buy something for your own enjoyment that also improves the world. This has always been the value proposition of journalism and art. It’s a nonexclusive good that’s best enjoyed nonexclusively.

Anyways. This is a prediction for 2018 and beyond. The most powerful and interesting media model will remain raising money from members who don’t just permit but insist that the product be given away for free. The value comes not just what they’re buying, but who they’re buying it from and who gets to enjoy it.

The bigger those two pools get — the bigger the membership, and the bigger the audience — the better it gets for everyone. This is why we need more tools, so more people can try to do it. PBS as a service.

It’s not quite socialized art. Mutualist art, maybe. Proudhon probably would have thought it was pretty cool. So would the Florentines, arch-capitalists as they were. And it might not work. But so far, it’s the only model I’ve found worth trying.

The 2017 kottke.org Holiday Gift Guide

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 07, 2017

Gift Guide 2017

For the past few years, I’ve featured the season’s best gift guides from other sites and pulled out a few things from each that I think you might be interested in. Like I wrote in 2016, this year has not been the easiest for many, making it difficult to muster a festive mood. But if you’re determined to give to your loved ones and to those in need, maybe this guide will help you. Let’s get to it!

Giving to charity and those in need is always first on the list here. Personally, this past year I’ve spread my giving out across the year with monthly recurring donations…mostly local stuff but also the ACLU and other national orgs that are fighting for the rights of women, people of color, and immigrants. If you’re looking for opportunities to give, you can check GiveWell and Charity Navigator so that you don’t end up sending your money down a hole (e.g. The Red Cross). VolunteerMatch has extensive listings of holiday volunteer opportunities in the US and you can directly help those in your community by donating your time and money to the local food shelf or contributing to holiday toy drives. This weekend, the kids and I are heading to the store to select some items for Toys for Tots.

Hands down, the best gift guide for kids is from the excellent The Kid Should See This. Like last year, I had my kids scroll through the list to look for favorites. My 10-year-old son selected this 20g sample of gallium and Space Racers: Make Your Own Paper Rockets. My 8-year-old daughter chose the littleBits Star Wars Droid Inventor Kit and the Kano Pixel Kit. Me? The Kano Computer Kit looks cool as hell.

The Accidental Shop is a collection of products I’ve previously linked to on kottke.org. Lots and lots and lots of good stuff there.

If someone in your life somehow doesn’t have an Instant Pot or an Anova Sous Vide Precision Cooker, now is your chance. I used my Instant Pot just the other day (in saute mode) to make this delicious chili. Or if those boxes are already checked, perhaps this small-but-powerful portable pizza oven from Uuni…it’s capable of heating to 932°F and can cook a pizza in 60 seconds!

The sequel to the awesome Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is out: Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls 2, “featuring the adventures of extraordinary women from Nefertiti to Beyoncé”.

My pal Austin Kleon recommends buying his books (Show Your Work! & Steal Like an Artist) but also this waterproof notepad for taking notes when in-shower inspiration strikes.

Whenever I need to buy something for my home, Wirecutter is always my first (and often only) stop. Their collection of gift guides is characteristically helpful. A couple of things that stood out to me: Tokaido, a Japanese board game with a relaxing concept: “whoever has the chillest vacation wins”, this wireless phone charger from Samsung (which works just fine with my iPhone X), and this Nickelodeon slime-making kit. Oh, and I’m coveting their pick for the best 4K TV…I really want to watch Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049, Planet Earth II, and Blue Planet II in all their 4K glory at home.

Pixelated tea towels designed by the legendary Susan Kare? Ok, yes. More available here.

The 2017 Engineering Gift Guide from the engineering department at Purdue University is the only guide I’ve found that lists the research papers used when preparing the list (like “Gender Bias in the Purchase of STEM-Related Toys”, a paper presented at the 2015 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition in Seattle). They recommend Coding Farmers (a board game that teaches kids programming concepts) and Circuit Maze (a puzzle game using electric logic circuits).

From them, a list of gift recommendations from 12 queer influencers. Actress Ali Stroker recommends Bronx Greenmarket Hot Sauce and journalist Jenna Wortham recommends these pennants from goods with positive intent.

Gift Guide 2017

No further comment necessary: A Die Hard Christmas, “a delightful Christmas storybook for adults based on the action-packed Die Hard movie” and the Night Before Christmas poem. Pairs well with the authorized Die Hard coloring book.

Some use the holiday as an excuse to let their gifting freak flag fly. The Hidden Valley Ranch mini keg of ranch dressing is out of stock for the holidays but many other Hidden Valley products are available. Someone in your life needs an 8-foot-long gummy python…27 pounds of gummy goodness. And it wouldn’t be the holiday season without a 55-gallon drum of personal lubricant. Buy in bulk and share with friends! Or get a ranch keg and a lube barrel and have a Dip-N-Slide party…just don’t get them mixed up!

One of the things I’m most thankful for this year is that I got to meet Jodi Ettenberg of Legal Nomads in person and get to know her better (instead of just through email and her site). If you follow her site at all, you’ll already know that it’s been on hiatus for the past few months as she deals with a personal health crisis. As expenses related to her medical care mount (there’s a GoFundMe!), if you want to help Jodi out and get a cool gift for someone, check out the Legal Nomads store. I am particularly a fan of these food map posters.

It’s always worth paying attention to what the gadget-loving weirdos at Boing Boing put in their gift guide. This year, they’re featuring this airbag for motorcycle riders, miniature game system Arduboy, and an LP replica of the Voyager Golden Record. And OMG, the Intellivision Flashback console!

Beverage of the year: Male Tears flavored La Croix. Print by Kate Bingaman-Burt via Erika Hall’s gift list.

This holiday season’s worst gift is this fake surveillance camera that “reports bad behavior to Santa”. Santa knowing when you’re naughty or nice was always creepy, but this is some next-level BS. I posted this to Twitter last week though, and I should have not been surprised at how many people were into the idea of making their kids feel watched in order to keep them in line.

I have pals who do/make cool things for sale…like This Book is a Planetarium, Fat Gold, Tattly, Tinybop, Food52, SDR Traveller, Stowaway Cosmetics, Colossal, Google’s AIY Vision Kit, Kingston Stockade FC, Storyworth, Chris Piascik, Hoefler & Co, Wait But Why, Hella Cocktail Co, Storq maternity wear, 20x200, and Field Notes.

Life Haaaaaack: use these baby food freezer storage containers to make big cocktail ice cubes.

Quick hitters: The Millions has a gift guide for readers and writers that (mostly) aren’t books (licorice pipes). The Cup of Jo 2017 Holiday Gift Guide (kids’ knives). Engadget’s guide (NBA Connected Jersey, which interacts with your phone to push you exclusive info and deals, and the 20th anniversary Tamagotchi).

Books! There are tons of gift ideas in my best books of 2017 post. On her gift guide Erika Hall recommends Behave, which she’s been evangelizing all year. One of The Gannet’s top recs is Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. National Geographic has a gift list for maps lovers, including The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World. Fast Company recommends Made in North Korea. Master designers Jessica Helfand & Michael Bierut share a list of design and design-ish books at Design Observer (Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin).

And gosh if that’s not enough, you can look back at the lists for 2016, 2015, 2014, and 2013.

Update: A few more guides to add to the mix.

For the 2017 Good Gift Games list on The Morning News, Matthew Baldwin picks some recent board games that make good gifts, like The Fox in the Forest and game-of-the-year winner Kingdomino.

The Christmas Catalog from Tools & Toys is always worth a look. This year’s installment includes The Complete Calvin and Hobbes Box Set, the Teenage Engineering OP-1 Mini Synthesizer, and this cool duct tape keychain (a keychain that dispenses duct tape, not a keychain made out of duct tape).

Quartzy, which is associated with Quartz in a way I do not understand, has a couple of gift guides going. In The Ultimate Gift Guide for True TV Fanatics, they offer gift suggestions based on your favorite TV shows. So, fans of Breaking Bad might like Heisenberg’s Breaking Bad Crystal Meth Bath Salts while GoT viewers might find this Dinner is Coming cutting board amusing. And the other is Five Gift-Giving Philosophies to Help You Find the Perfect Gift. I’m personally a fan of The Fancy Candle Philosophy and The Pasta Class Theory strategies.

Dude, if your loved ones are into weed, The Cannabist has you covered.

The unofficial Goldman Sachs holiday gift guide for 2017 includes a complete Triceratops skull fossil, a $3.5 million Ferrari, and a $1 million global safari to visit some of the most endangered species on the planet.

Join me in supporting Tim Carmody’s writing on Patreon?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 15, 2017

Over the past few years of doing kottke.org, I’ve been lucky enough (with your support) to be able to take some time off now and again to relax, spend time with my family, and recharge the batteries. My vacations are also a chance to introduce different voices and perspectives to the site in the form of guest editors. For my last few absences, Tim Carmody has stepped into the guest editor role and has done an incredible job. It’s a win-win…I get some time off and the site improves while I’m gone. Most recently, he organized the creation of a time capsule for the internet and wrote an amazing collection of posts about love letters and time machines.

If you enjoy and appreciate what Tim does here (and elsewhere), I hope you’ll join me in supporting his independent “rogue writing” efforts on Patreon.

Can I tell you a secret?

I don’t know what my work is any more.

Or rather: I don’t know what to call it. Not anything that makes sense.

There was a time when that would have been a very easy question to answer. I’m a reporter who writes about the intersection of technology and media. Or: I’m a scholar who studies the history of comparative media and the stories we tell about it going back forever. Or: I’m a blogger who’s trying to figure out what the liberal arts are in a networked age.

I think all of those things are still true, but how and where I’m doing them have changed. I don’t have a university job like I used to at Penn. I don’t have a regular gig at a fancy magazine like Wired or The Verge (or Newsweek or National Geographic or The Atlantic or the few dozen other places I’ve written). I don’t even have a sweet collective blog like Snarkmarket or The Message to call home.

Like a lot of us, I’m adrift, a planet flung out of its orbit into some other new system: strange, unfamiliar, ready at any moment to collide with another planet and make something new.

So that’s what I am. A rogue writer trying to put things together again and figure them out. I’m using all the tools I can find to do it: anything I can learn, anything I can leverage.

I’m proud that kottke.org has been a frequent venue for Tim’s writing, but the web could use more of it and I’m happy to support him in that effort.

P.S. Tim and I are also plotting how he can contribute more regularly here. No promises, but stay tuned!

kottke.org memberships, an update one year later

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 01, 2017

A year ago today, I introduced kottke.org memberships, a way for the readers to support what I consider one of the best independent sites on the web. Here’s what I wrote:

I’m proud of what I’ve built here at kottke.org over the past 18 years and I’m committed to publishing here regularly and operating independently as long as I am able. Even though the site is primarily a one-person operation, I’ve never done it alone. You have always been an essential part of this site — providing me with feedback, counsel, encouragement, pushback, and many great links and ideas for posts — and I’d love your help in taking this next step.

While I didn’t know it at the time, your support saved kottke.org. This is not even hyperbole. As I hinted at in the announcement post, the industry-wide drop in revenue from display advertising was beginning to affect kottke.org and just a few months later, the site’s largest source of revenue (ads via The Deck) went from “hey, I can make a living at this!” to zero. Then Amazon slashed their affiliate percentages, resulting in a 30-50% drop for some sites in the network. I found a new ad network partner (with greatly reduced revenue) and my Amazon affiliate revenue didn’t fall as much as that of other sites, but together, those revenue sources would no longer be enough to support my full-time activities on the site.

But over the course of the past year, hundreds and then thousands of you became members, exceeding even my loftiest expectations. Membership is now the primary source of revenue for kottke.org. As I wrote in a recent members newsletter, this transition has been disconcerting to experience:

From a business perspective, it’s an understatement to say that it’s been a bit unnerving seeing 10 years of steadily growing revenue being replaced by something else entirely. I’ve been trying (and failing) to come up with a metaphor to explain it…the site is exactly the same, the revenue is in the same ballpark as before, but the financing is completely different. Maybe it’s like changing your underwear while remaining fully dressed the whole time? Anyway, I’m glad we’re all still here!

What I’m trying to say is: thank you so much for your support over the past year. To say it means a lot to me is insufficient. Member support has made it possible for me to keep publishing kottke.org without compromise (i.e. without splashing trashy ads everywhere or selling to a larger media company), something I know you appreciate and something I’ve grown increasingly thankful for as the 20-year anniversary of the site approaches early next year (!!!). If I start to think about it too much, I’m gonna start to cry at work, so I’ll just leave it at that.

To put my sales cap on for a second, if you’re already a member, I hope you’ll continue to support the site in the future (memberships renew automatically, so you shouldn’t need to do anything)…or even increase your membership level if you’ve enjoyed what I’ve done here in the past year. If you’ve disabled the auto-renewal of your membership or let your membership lapse, I hope you’ll consider rejoining…without recurring support, an independent member-supported kottke.org is unlikely. And if you’re a regular reader and not yet a member, it’s never too late to join up…there are lots of membership options.

Ok, sales pitch over. Thanks again for your support. Now, back to it!

The Accidental Shop

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 29, 2017

Accidental Store

If kottke.org ran a store, what would that look like? (Like this, but hold that thought for a second.)

Lots of things on kottke.org happen by accident. When I started writing here in 1998, it wasn’t supposed to be a blog. An offhand comment by a friend led me to turn a hobby into a job that I’m still doing 12 years later. A lunch conversation last summer with someone I’d never met before saved the site from financial ruin. kottke.org was never supposed to host fan sites for Wes Anderson and Jane Jacobs or vertical blogs about sports, politics, and climate change.

kottke.org was also never supposed to be a store. But as the years piled on, so did the links to all sorts of interesting books, movies, music, and other products that people could buy. I’ve collected many of those products into The Accidental Shop. The shop contains over 2000 items from 19+ years of posts. You can dip into it by filtering by the most recent items mentioned on the site, my top picks, and with a random selection of items. The default view is a weighted combination of recent, top picks, and random which tries to achieve a blend of recency, serendipity, and relevance. Clicking on the item image will take you to the Amazon page for that product. Most of the items are accompanied by a link to the most recent kottke.org post mentioning that item, so the shop also functions as an alternate way of browsing through the kottke.org’s extensive archive.

This is very much a first version of the shop. Right now, all of the items are from Amazon (if you buy something via the shop, I get a small affiliate fee), but I will be adding non-Amazon items to the shop in the near future — stuff like Tattly, 20x200 prints, pastrami from Katz’s, and kottke.org memberships. I will also be adding a localization feature so readers in Canada and the UK will see links to their respective Amazon stores.

So that’s The Accidental Shop. As always, let me know what you think via email or on Twitter.

P.S. Thanks to kottke.org members for their help with The Accidental Shop. I shared an in-progress version with them on my members-only mailing list a couple of months ago and received lots of great feedback and encouragement. If you’d like to help out on future projects or just lurk on the newsletter, become a member today.

Update: How about a little behind-the-scenes info? I’ve been doing web design since 1995, and I’ve always wanted to design and build an online store but never had the chance. So this was pretty fun. To build the shop’s catalog, I went through and scraped all ~25,000 posts I’ve done over the past 19 years, looking for product links to Amazon. The script found almost 2300 distinct items and put them into a database, noting the dates of the initial & most recent mentions and the # of mentions for each item. Then I used Amazon’s Product Advertising API to retrieve all sorts of information about each item, including title, type (book, eBook, kitchen, DVD, etc.), price, image, and the creator (a book’s author, a movie’s director).

Once that was done, I built the shop interface with an admin function for rating each item on a scale of 1 to 4 (or 0, which excludes the item from the public shop altogether). I used the admin interface to rate every single item in the database — it only took a few hours while watching reruns of ST:TNG on Netflix. Then I wrote a script to assign a “score” to each item based on: my rating, how recently it was mentioned, the frequency of mentions, and a couple other factors. The highest scoring items are an eerily accurate reflection of what I am interested in and what I talk about on the site. FYI, the current highest scoring items: Infinite Jest, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the Kindle Paperwhite, The Victorian Internet, the Harry Potter books, 1491, and The Making of the Atomic Bomb, all of which I’ve mentioned on the site 10+ times.

The layout is pure CSS…I’m using the column feature to create a quick & dirty Pinterest-style layout. Each of the store filters (recent, top picks, random) is randomized to give you a slightly different product assortment with each page refresh. The scoring and rating system, combined with the semi-randomized output, makes for a lively and ever-changing store interface without me having to constantly pick which items go where in the layout. A high-maintenance, just-so layout that’s updated daily would undoubtedly work better — but probably not way better and as a one-person operation, I don’t have that kind of time anyway. This is pretty much the approach I use for all my projects: do the most I can with the least possible effort. Make it appear complex but work simply. As Milton Glaser said: “Just enough is more.”

Some site news: hello advertising, my old friend

posted by Jason Kottke   May 08, 2017

Last month, I told you that I lost the advertising on kottke.org after The Deck folded. After fielding lots of feedback (thank you!) and checking out a few different options, I’ve decided to try out Carbon Ads. By going with Carbon, the advertising on kottke.org retains many of the features I enjoyed about The Deck: a single unobtrusive ad per page, a curated group of sites and advertisers in the network, set it & forget it, and prompt payment. You’ll find the ad on each page of the site, in the post sidebar (or just below the post on mobile).

Before I let you go, I need a tiny bit of your help with this. If you use ad blocking software when you read kottke.org, could you please whitelist kottke.org and/or Carbon Ads (carbonads.com)? It should be pretty easy…check your ad block software’s instructions if you’ve never done it before. I don’t want to get into an argument about the ethics or morality of advertising or ad blocking, but I will say that blocking ads on kottke.org means less revenue for the site. As previously discussed, advertising is an essential piece of the ongoing stability of kottke.org and whitelisting the site would help me out in that regard. Thank you.

A Time Capsule for the World Wide Web

posted by Tim Carmody   Apr 17, 2017

Ray - Platinum Reserve.png

There’s an Achewood comic that I love where Ray, one of the strip’s deeply flawed but endearing animal protagonists, frustrated with browsing eBay, types “WHAT’S THE BEST THING YOU GOT” into the search bar. This unlocks a special store called “eBay Platinum Reserve,” where Ray can buy items like “The Biggest Laser,” a real Airwolf helicopter, and Keith Moon’s head in a jar. Ray immediately buys Moon’s head and Airwolf, and the laser… well, eleven years later, like Chekhov’s proverbial pistol, it’s never been fired.

Sometimes I wish the internet worked like eBay Platinum Reserve, turning up the best stuff without us having to look for it. But for all that search engines, social media, and even artificial intelligence have given us over all these years, the closest thing we have to Platinum Reserve are still blogs like Kottke.org. Somebody still has to go out, concierge-style, to find the best stuff on the web and serve it up.

More than ever, what the web serves up on its own is the very worst things that have just happened. It’s an active shooter livestreaming a snuff film on Facebook — or something not as bad, but not much better.

And hey, focusing on very recent, very bad news makes a lot of sense. If there are awful things happening right now, I want to know about them. If some overpaid someone wrote something stupid and everyone I know is slamming it on Twitter, I want to get in on it. We’re only human.

But sometimes, I wonder, with all the abundance and ephemerality of the web, whether we indulge the opposite impulse enough. I don’t mean sharing more new things that are funny, or heartwarming, or relatable. I mean going out and finding or rediscovering the things that are The Very Best We Have to Offer, gathering them together, and saving them, forever.

This week, I am proposing an experiment. I am asking you — all of you: readers of Kottke.org, my friends, my colleagues, my strangers, my citizens of the World Wide Web, people who have known the grandeur of the best webcomics, the best YouTube videos, the best memes, the best stories and articles and entire blogs and games and nonsense with which we entertain and edify ourselves every day — I am asking you:

WHAT’S THE BEST THING YOU GOT

We’re going to find the best things in the history of the internet, and gather them here, together, forever. And never to part. Find me on Twitter at @kottke or at @tcarmody and tell me what you want to show your children and grandchildren; what you want to show the aliens when they arrive; what you showed your partner when you couldn’t believe they’d never seen it. Tell me what made your jaw drop open in awe like Ray’s when he saw Airwolf.

Imagine we’re making the world’s greatest time capsule, or the world’s greatest mixtape, of everything on the web. Tell me what’s worth saving. And then we will save them all. Here. Together.

Update: Twitter turned out to be the wrong way to handle this, so I created a Google questionnaire that could better manage suggestions. It also lets me ask a few more focused questions, like “what’s the funniest story you’ve read on the web?” or “what’s the best animal thing you’ve ever seen on here?” It also, importantly, allows me to ask for the URL of the thing of you’re talking about. So please, if you have the time, I’d love your help.

Some site news: a (temporary) farewell to advertising

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 03, 2017

For the past 12 years, working on kottke.org has been my full-time job. For all but two of those years, my primary source of income has come from a small advertisement that appeared on each page of the site served up by The Deck. The Deck was small advertising network that displayed ads on sites like kottke.org, Daring Fireball, swissmiss, MetaFilter, and The Morning News from advertisers like MailChimp, Slack, Adobe, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, etc. etc. etc. The ads were small & clean and accompanied by a bit of text and a link; that’s it. No tracking, no targeting, no pop-ups. The ads were tasteful, polite even. In exchange for allowing these companies a small piece of my site to tell you folks about their products and services, I was paid a fixed amount every month, direct-deposited like clockwork into my bank account. I never ever had to think about it — we didn’t even have a contract!1 — all I had to do was write. All in all, a fair trade for everyone involved.

Sharp-eyed readers will note that The Deck ad is no longer on the site. Some months ago, Jim Coudal informed me that the ad network was struggling to attract advertisers. An attempt at restructuring failed and, as of March 31, The Deck is no more. There’s much I could say about the challenges faced by small independent sites now and how drastically the online advertising market has changed in the past few years, but mostly I’d like to thank Jim (and original Deck co-conspirators Jason Fried and Jeffrey Zeldman) for building a service that allowed me do my thing with minimal fuss for so long. Jim, I wish you continued good luck in steering the Field Notes juggernaut.

So, where does that leave kottke.org? Luckily I anticipated something like this happening1 and the launch of memberships back in November has left the site on stable financial ground, even without advertising. Thank you, members! Seriously, you people saved the Building & Loan. And if you’re not yet a member and you find value in what I do here, there has never been a better time to support kottke.org.

Even so, in the interests of necessarily diversifying the revenue of this here very small business, I will be looking at options for replacing The Deck with….something. I have a few leads and ideas but am open to suggestions. Wanna do a year-long sponsorship of one of the best independent sites on the internet? Got a line on a small ad network with tasteful advertising? Do you have experience with online advertising and advice for me? Let’s talk. Chumbox providers need not apply.

  1. You would not believe the looks people gave me when I told them this. My entire livelihood, dependent on a handshake! I dunno, it just never seemed necessary. *shrug*

  2. Which I feel a little clever about except that I should have done the membership thing years ago. Idiot. Just as every problem is actually a opportunity, every success is an chance to consider how you might have done it better.

Happy 19th birthday, kottke.org!

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 14, 2017

Kottke Designs

As of today, I’ve been posting and linking to stuff on kottke.org for 19 years. When I started, I was 24 years old, working as a web designer for a small web development shop in Minneapolis. The site started as a offshoot of another site I had at the time, which I worked on in my spare time at home on my Pentium Pro 200 with a 56K modem. I worked at a desk that was really a 70s-style kitchen table I’d bought for $25. I’m sitting at that same table writing this right now. Earlier I was struggling to think of something else that’s been in my life for as long as kottke.org has…I guess this table is it.

Whether you’re a relatively recent reader or you’ve been along for the entire ride, I’d like to thank you for reading the site and for your feedback, gentle typo corrections, encouragement, push-back, and membership support. I’m really glad to be hurtling through space and time with you good people.

See also a retrospective of kottke.org designs I did nine years ago when the site turned 10.

A Day Without Immigrants strike

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 16, 2017

kottke.org will not be updated today in support of the Day Without Immigrants Strike. From the Washington Post:

Immigrants in D.C. and across the country plan to participate in the “Day Without Immigrants” boycott, a response to President Trump’s pledges to crack down on those in the country illegally, use “extreme vetting” and build a wall along the Mexican border. The social-media-organized protest aims to show the president the effect immigrants have in the country on a daily basis. The boycott calls for immigrants not to attend work, open their businesses, spend money or even send their children to school.

The regularly irregular publishing schedule will resume tomorrow.

Medium’s pivot and the inherent instability of new businesses

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2017

From this piece by Evan Williams, it sounds like Medium is still trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up.

So, we are shifting our resources and attention to defining a new model for writers and creators to be rewarded, based on the value they’re creating for people. And toward building a transformational product for curious humans who want to get smarter about the world every day.

It is too soon to say exactly what this will look like. This strategy is more focused but also less proven. It will require time to get it right, as well as some different skills. Which is why we are taking these steps today and saying goodbye to many talented people.

I like Medium and read thoughtful & engaging stuff on there daily, including articles by the many publications that moved their entire publishing operations to Medium and who were caught off-guard by Williams’ announcement:

As part of the strategic pivot, Medium will lay off 50 staffers and close its satellite offices in New York and Washington. It will also stop selling “Promoted Stories,” its native ad unit, and distributing revenue from those sales to publishers.

Medium’s exit from the online ad business was news to some of its publishing partners, many of whom have come to depend on the publishing platform as a key source of revenue. More than two dozen publications are members of Medium’s revenue beta program, which allows them to sell paid subscriptions to readers and to receive a cut of Medium’s native advertising revenue.

Five members of the revenue beta program told POLITICO that they did not receive any advance notice of Medium’s change in strategy before Williams’ public announcement. One publishing partner only learned about the pivot after reading an article about it on the tech news site Recode.

Over the past year, when I was thinking about how best to steward kottke.org into a financially stable future, moving to Medium was definitely an option. But never, in my mind, a very serious option. It was just too many eggs in one basket for a small publisher like me, especially when Medium is still obviously trying to figure out if they’re even in the egg-carrying business. New businesses are unstable…that’s just the way it is.1 In Silicon Valley (and in other startup-rich areas), these unstable businesses have lots of someone else’s money to throw around — which makes them appear more stable in the short term — but they cannot escape the reality of the extreme risk involved in building a new business, particularly a business that needs to grow quickly (as almost all VC-backed startups are required to do). All of which can make it difficult to enter into a business arrangement with a startup…just ask publishers working with Facebook or businesses dependent on Twitter’s API or Vine or Tumblr, not to mention the thousands of startups that have ceased to exist over the years.

With kottke.org, even though it hasn’t been easy, I’ve opted for independence and control over a potential rocketship ride. Instead of moving the site to Medium or Tumblr or focusing my activities on one social network or another, I use third-party services like The Deck, Amazon Associates, Stripe, and Memberful that plug in to the site. Small pieces loosely joined, not a monolithic solution. If necessary, I can switch any of them out for a comparable service and am therefore not as subject to any potential change in business goals by these companies. Given the news out of Medium, I’m increasingly happy that I’ve decided to do it this way (with your very kind assistance).

Update: It’s tough to hear about the small companies that put their faith in Medium and then got blindsided by their umpteenth pivot.

“Right now, we’re very concerned about the future of our site’s partnership with Medium,” said Neil Miller, the founder of pop culture site Film School Rejects. “What we were sold when we joined their platform is very different from what they’re offering as a way forward.”

“It’s almost as if Ev Williams wasn’t concerned that he was pulling out the rug from underneath publishers who had placed their trust in his vision for the future of journalism,” he said.

Update: Film School Rejects ended up jumping ship back to an independently hosted site.

Our story begins last May, when we joined the Medium platform as one of their first 12 premium publishers. This meant moving 10-years of content over to their platform, where we were promised a beautiful user experience and a way forward that would allow us to grow our business, continue to pay our writers, continue our growth as a publication, and ultimately keep FSR on the cutting edge. It was a great partnership, until Medium changed its mind about what kind of platform it wanted to be. At first, we were a part of a group of publishers that took a wait-and-see approach with Medium. As time went on, it became clear that Medium’s priorities had shifted from being a platform for independent publishers to being itself a publisher of premium, subscription-based content. As we learned more about their future plans for the now-existent Medium ‘Members Only’ program, it became clear that our site wouldn’t be able to continue to operate the way we always had.

This was an interesting side effect of their time at Medium:

When we moved to Medium, we stopped worrying about what would be popular and started focusing on what we wanted to talk about. And guess what? Readers continued to follow us. So we’re going to continue to allow our very talented team to write freely. We’ll continue to deliver passionate, thoughtful, topical, and sometimes well-marketed articles.

I’ve never been that interested in chasing clicks because The Deck (the advertising network I used for 10 years) was not strictly based on clicks or pageviews. Even so, thinking about what sorts of posts might attract more attention than others was a growing consideration for me as traffic fell off the past few years. After launching memberships back in November, I feel as though I’m slowly trending back towards caring less about attention and more about writing for myself and the members. And lo and behold, traffic is up slightly since then.

  1. I will add that new services by large companies are unstable as well. They need to reach scale just as quickly as VC-backed startups or they don’t stick around that long or pivot to something else.

The 2016 kottke.org Holiday Gift Guide

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 06, 2016

For the past few years, I’ve featured the season’s best gift guides from other sites and pulled out a few things from each that I think you might be interested in. 2016 has been a rough year for some of us, so getting in a festive mood might be asking too much. But my determination to give is off the charts this year, and if you’re feeling similarly, maybe this will help you. Let’s dig in.

Charity is going to be a big part of people’s giving this year. If you have the means, please find a worthy place to spread the wealth at GiveWell or Charity Navigator. A kottke.org reader recently pointed me toward GiveDirectly as well. Find volunteer opportunities in your area, give to your local food shelf, and look for holiday toy drives. On the way to lunch today, the kids and I noticed a Toys for Tots donation box outside a store. I gave each of them some money to spend on toys to put in the box…we’re working hard to make giving back part of our family routine.

The Kid Should See This is a true gem of the web and their gift guide is always top-notch. This year, I sat down with my kids and they each picked out two things from the list. Ollie chose The LEGO Architect book and this wind-powered Strandbeest. (As a fan of Strandbeests and their inventor Theo Jansen from way back, I was tickled by that choice.) Minna picked out these colorful playing cards (which we have and use often) and the littleBits Gizmos & Gadget kit. She got one of the littleBits kits from Santa1 last year and really liked it — it’s seen a resurgence in use over the past couple weeks as well. Perhaps another installment from St. Nick is in order.

Jodi Ettenberg of Legal Nomads has compiled a list of Great, Affordable Gifts for Travelers, including portable chopsticks, Appetites (a new cookbook from Anthony Bourdain), and Speakeasy Travel Scarves that have hidden pockets big enough to carry a phone, passport, and some cash. Sneaky! And the Altas Obscura book, duh.

Last year, Quartz did my favorite holiday gift guide: they asked a bunch of notable folks about the best gift they’d ever received. Unexpectedly poignant. This year, they’re publishing a story every day until Dec 25th (Advent-style) on different aspects of holiday gift-giving.

If you haven’t bought your partner an Instant Pot pressure cooker yet, now’s your chance. Goes from zero to risotto in just a few minutes.

Every year, The Wirecutter and The Sweethome bring it with the holiday recommendations…my entire house is basically a Wirecutter/Sweethome showroom. Among their extensive recs are littleBits Rule Your Room Kit, the Electric Objects EO2 Digital Art Display, Regarding Cocktails by Sasha Petraske, and this Bosch cordless drill (yo, Santa, I need one of these). Also, you can buy bulk movie tickets? Huh.

Stop reading, this is the best gift: Die Hard: The Authorized Coloring and Activity Book. Yippie ki-yay, motherfestivusers!

Boing Boing has three separate gift lists this year — for gadgets, books, and toys. Among the picks are the NES Classic Edition (hahaha good luck finding one of these before next year), a disposable hand-crank lantern, the Womanizer sex toy, blank playing cards, and What’s It Like in Space?: Stories from Astronauts Who’ve Been There by Ariel Waldman.

The Kindle Paperwhite remains my favorite gadget recommendation. I love mine…my entire library slips into a pocket now.

Did you know that Muji and Uniqlo both have online stores now? From Muji I recommend the ultrasonic aroma diffuser (and some essential oils to use with it) and these amazing sock/slipper things I bought there last year but now they don’t have them anymore, sorry! And point Grandma toward Uniqlo so she can get you some socks and underwear you’ll actually wear.

Find the readers in your life some books on the best books of 2016 lists.

Food52 and Serious Eats have your food picks covered. Fancy cheese knives! Olive oil fresh from a small Italian grove! The Food Lab Cookbook! Eco Planter Herb Kit! Tacos: Recipes and Provocations by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman! The Uuni wood-fired oven (“cooks a pizza in 60 seconds”)!

Speaking of food, did you know you can order Katz’s famous pastrami and they’ll ship it anywhere in the country? Get a loaf of rye bread and some mustard while you’re at it.

Friends of kottke.org who make cool products include Tattly, Tinybop, Stowaway Cosmetics, Kingston Stockade FC merch, Hoefler & Co, Wait But Why merch, Hella Cocktail Co, Storq maternity wear, Electric Objects, 20x200, Dead Bookstore, and Field Notes.

For years, I recommended this Tovolo King Cube tray for making big ice cubes for cocktails…until mine got the freezer stank on it and my old fashioneds started tasting like freezer stank. Yuck. No one seems to make non-silicon big cube trays though. Business opportunity? (See update below…)

I helped 20x200 out with their gift guide this year, editing the Geek Chic section. Selections across all their sections include the AWB OneSky Telescope, Craig Kanarick’s Animals prints, and Steve Lambert’s Drawings for 3 Rooms in Your Home: #1.

For the serious nerds in your life, check out the 2016 Engineering Gift Guide from the engineering department at Purdue University. Their picks include Thames & Kosmos Electronics Learning Circuits and Simple Machines from Learning Resources.

More gift guides and curated shops: Canopy, The Colossal Shop, The Cup of Jo Holiday Gift Guide, Photojojo’s holiday gift guide, The Digg Holiday Gift Shop, The Tools & Toys 2016 Christmas Catalog, Slate Picks, #holiday on Kit, the NY Times 2016 Holiday Gift Guide, and the Brooklyn Holiday Gift Guide.

You can also check out past kottke.org gift guides: 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Update: Several people recommended dealing with freezer stank by putting the silicon cube tray into a 350° oven for an hour. Bibulous recommends highjacking these OXO frozen baby food containers for the production of stank-free cocktail cubes.

Update: One Perfect Shot offers their list of 41 Perfect Gifts for the Movie Lover in Your Life. The Gannet’s gift guide offers guidance on objects, food & drink, and books. StoryWorth is offering a unique gift: a bound book of stories from a loved one. New site The Outline published A Gift Guide for Picky Nerds (including this Czech non-smartphone). Wink has a listing of good book gifts. Cool Tools has a selection of good gift ideas. The Stripe has a gift guide for the person who hated 2016. And from The Fox is Black, a gift guide featuring only products that are black.

  1. Both kids still believe in Santa, although the 7-year-old is more skeptical than the 9-year-old. Is that normal? A 9-year-old (almost 9 and a half!) still believing in Santa? And he is ALL IN. He explained his reasoning to me the other day. Since Santa has to build all kinds of toys in his workshop, LEGO, Nintendo, and Disney must license their products and trademarks for Santa to use. And since these big companies are all in on it, Santa must be real. It was all I could do not to laugh. Santa is definitely a manifestation of the machinations of large multinational corporations, but not in that way, kid!