Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Not similar at all

<start_rant> I'm constantly fascinated by the increasing accuracy of recommendation engines across the Web.  This includes everything from Amazon's finely tuned (commerce assistance/know it all personal shopper) to the simple "You Might Like.." tag- or topic-based links appearing at the end of many online articles to one of my favorites, the Music Genome Project and Pandora.  These solutions provide a never-ending fountain of entertainment and intrigue but often do little to break our habits.  I've been spending a lot of time thinking about the nature of how we teach ourselves, track our progress and build our lives into unique paths.  Or, how we form online habits.  Or habits online.  You get the idea.

For example, after seeing many familiar faces in Twitter's "Similar to You" sidebar, a little voice inside of me wanted an alternative "Not Similar To You At All" set of choices.  Many fascinating pieces have been written on confirmation bias and serendipity online (I'm thinking of Ethan Zuckerman's blog) and these ideas are essential to keep in mind as we flood ourselves with information.  Sifting through the abundance is difficult enough  considering that many of us worry more about keeping up than keeping ahead.  Ironically, I've felt pressured to read The Information Diet, Clay Johnson's recent book because it's something I constantly struggle with and have since ye olden days when I practiced guitar religiously.

Of course, being active, passive or interactive all have their place.  Sure, you can go on a link-to-link adventure and find yourself in the far corners of the Web.  And you should - that's the point.  Nowadays I feel like the commoditization of the web makes it less likely.  It does for me, at least.  That's one reason I stopped using Facebook in 2008 and the reason I didn't get an iPhone until last year.  So what tools will get us started breaking our digi-habits?  The goal would be a tool that asks you a few questions about your preferences and presents you with information that's remote enough you'd be unlikely to find it or search for it, but juuuust related enough that you won't be presented with totally uninteresting or useless crap.  And sometimes, throw in a completely opposing point of view.  Which made me think of this guitar riff.  </end_rant>>

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Austin Adventures, Part 1

I've been in Austin for the past three weeks as part of the Residency portion of the Code for America fellowship.  While wandering to the coffee shop today, I fortunately found the HOPE Farmers Market.  The thriving, communal atmosphere, along with a few familiar faces, made Austin feel like home for the first time today.  I'm not sure I'm ready to move here but it's nice to feel connected in a non-digital way.  We're all enjoying the three-day weekend in honor of Presidents' Day after three weeks of meetings, interviews, meetups, happy hours, presentations, special events... you get the idea.  I'm not complaining, of course.  The place we're staying does have a hot tub!

My market visit started with a few songs from Whiskey Shivers, a country/folk/bluegrass four piece band.  After seeing Redd Volkaert at the Continental Club yesterday too, now it's starting to feel like I'm in Texas.  The copious amounts of tasty BBQ also help.  Still, Austin is sort of a progressive melting pot in the middle of the state, and no one would want it any other way.  The "Keep Austin Weird" motto works for me.  It is, however, a city in transition.  The market is set up along a service road next to a sprawling semi-abandoned railyard with the downtown high-rises in the background about a mile away.  The growth and change are on display everywhere.

I enjoyed a polenta cake covered with a poached egg, kale pesto and goat cheese from the Seedling Truck while watching an African band I really enjoyed.  Food trucks are another hugely popular feature of Austin, although it did feel a bit strange the other day when I said, "Let's go to the food trailer park."  After buying some fresh produce and lamb from a local farm, I headed to my temporary home to enjoy an afternoon of cooking and catching up on pleasure reading.  The place we're staying has a well-curated cabinet of books about theater, religion, spirituality, alternative medicine, classic literature and Texas history.  It's been a great visit so far but there's a lot left to see...  More blogging and pics coming soon.  If you're that curious, here's a post I recently wrote on the Code for America blog.