Off Topic: The Internet Sometimes Forgets

I’ll begin with two short anecdotes:

The first comes from the sci-fi book Death’s End by Cixin Liu. In the story, our solar system is facing the threat of a catastrophic destruction, and the main characters are discussing the construction of a Museum of Humanity. The goal is to save our history, our beliefs, and our greatest works of art in hope that some alien civilization will discover it in possibly millions (or billions!) of years. The question is, how do you preserve all this information for such a long time? Well, I don’t want to give away any spoilers – it is a very good book series – but I will tell you that the idea of storing this information on data drives, the same ones that form the backbone of the internet, is quickly dismissed because that hardware degrades too fast.

The second anecdote – and the reason I decided to write this piece – started when I began to re-read a few of my old blog posts. I noticed that a lot of outgoing links (that is, other webpages that I’d linked to) were broken or dead. Sometimes the pages had been moved, sometimes they’d been edited or deleted, and sometimes it seemed like an entire website had disappeared off the internet. Mind you, these were sites that seemed perfectly fine two or three years ago, and now they’re just gone.

This happens because websites and internet services require upkeep. For this blog, that upkeep is as simple as remembering to pay my hosting bill, but for others it involves complicated stuff like server maintenance and security patches. When a blogger/webmaster/company decides it’s no longer worth their time and money, all that information and data can vanish.

This isn’t a phenomena known to only smaller websites either. Geocities, which hosted many personal websites in the early days of the internet, shut down in 2009 and deleted all its old content. Google Plus, a once viable contender for social media dominance, recently ended its services. And there’s no guarantee that bigger companies like WordPress, Facebook, or Amazon will be around forever. Even The Internet Archive, which runs the incredibly useful Wayback Machine, has had fires and funding issues.

I’ll admit that all of this worrying seems odd. If anything, the common concern is that too much of our past will be archived online. Teens are often warned to be mindful of what they post on social media because “the internet never forgets!” You don’t want something you did online when you were 15 to ruin your career when you’re 45. We certainly don’t think about digital preservation very often, but we should.

So if you want to save your content – pictures, writings, etc. – what should you do? In Death’s End, the solution was to carve the most important work of humanity onto the walls of a cave on Pluto – something like that could potentially last millions of years. But that might be overkill for most of us. A more practical solution would be to burn all of your important information to an archival DVD, which could last over 100 years. Though, you might potentially run into data compatibility issues sometime in the future.

But if you really want your stuff to last a long time, a better solution might simply involve paper and ink. Print your stuff or write it down using archival quality supplies. If preserved properly, it could last hundreds of years. For proof, look no further than The New York Public Library’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible; it is over 500 years old and still looks beautiful.

So, if you want your digital stuff to last, take action. Back it up or print it out. You just have to first figure out what’s worth saving – a complicated topic on its own. But that’s a blog post for another time.

Off Topic: Oreo Flavor Obsession

Since 1912, when the Oreo was first introduced, Nabisco had been content with their cookie’s traditional flavor: a vanilla frosting sandwiched between two chocolate wafers. Of course, the company fiddled with the recipe over the years. Ingredients like trans fats and lard were removed or replaced, the filling was occasionally dyed into fun colors, and the cookies were both shrunken and enlarged to create different product lines.

Nabisco even sporadically produced new flavor varieties like lemon, mint, and peanut butter. But that was nothing compared to the flavor explosion that occurred in the 2010s, right around the time Mondelez took over as the brand’s parent company. At some point, the shackles were loosened on the Oreo R&D department, and the whole brand went berserk.

Oreo flavors like birthday cake and red velvet, novelties a few years ago, have become standard, and they’re now are available on store shelves year-round. The newer flavors these days are released in “limited edition” runs, which come and go after couple of months. These limited editions are usually where Oreo releases the really weird flavors, like “waffles & syrup” or “cherry cola.”

The Oreo is the most popular cookie in the world with billions in sales every year, making three times more money than it’s nearest competitor. It seems risky for a big company to mess around with such a successful formula. So why do it?

I tried to contact Oreo for an explanation, but (not surprisingly) they didn’t respond. But, having consumed my fair share of Oreo flavors, I suspect that their strategy is three-fold:

  1. Get some media attention. Oreo is an old cookie, but some of these new flavors can get some buzz. When they release particularly odd flavors (like Watermelon or Kettle Corn), they seem to get a lot of it.
  2. Capitalize on seasonal trends. Apparently, pumpkin spice products do hundreds of millions of dollars in sales each year, so it’s not surprising that Oreo jumped on that bandwagon. But that’s not all, they release new Oreo flavors to coincide with many holidays: Peppermint Bark for Christmas, Peeps during Easter, Hot & Spicy Cinnamon around Valentine’s Day, etc.
  3. Market test new ideas. I suspect that the tamer flavors, like coconut or dark chocolate, are really just broad market tests. Ditto for brand mash-ups like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and Dunkin’ Donuts Mocha Oreos. Mondelez is probably fishing for a new hit flavor, hoping to create the next Doritos Locos Taco.

But whatever the case, this “new flavor” strategy must be working because they don’t seem to be slowing down. For myself, I can say that I’ll grab a new flavor of Oreo every time I see one, and I probably wouldn’t buy Oreos otherwise.

I can’t explain why I like trying these new Oreo flavors. They’re rarely as good as the original cookie, and sometimes they are far worse (I’m looking at you Swedish Fish Oreo) But it’s still a lot of fun to try them all.

For the last few years, I’ve even been documenting these new flavors on Twitter (and I’ve compiled them into a list here). I’ve tried dozens of them already, and I’m still interested to see what comes next. Eventually, these flavors will start to get predictable and boring. Oreo’s flavor obsession will die, as will my interest to try them. But, for the time being, the Oreo R&D department still seems able to come up with weird and creative ideas. So, even though I probably don’t need the extra calories, I hope Oreo keeps it up.

Off Topic: The Odd Hobby of Running

Though I often find it difficult to explain this blog (and the hobby of collecting pens in general) to people, running as a hobby can be much harder to explain. With pens, I usually say that I’m drawn to the art and design element, or I’ll just gift a nice gel pen to anyone who expresses curiosity – that works most of the time. But trying to explain my hobby of running to non-runners, well, a lot of the time they just don’t “get it.”

Running at least has the advantage of being a very common activity. Nobody really looks down on it or thinks that it’s crazy or weird, but a lot of people see it as something grueling at best or, at worst, grueling and boring. Most wonder, if you’re not just trying to burn a few extra calories, why would you choose to run all the time?

I’ve found that the easiest answer is to just shrug and say, “I think it’s fun.” But if I’m making an effort, I’ll say something like, “running is the opposite of eating an entire tray of brownies.” The point is, gorging yourself on a big dessert is really pleasurable in the moment, but it’ll leave you feeling sluggish, bloated, and probably ashamed of your gluttony. Conversely, running can sometimes be miserable in the moment, but you’ll feel energized and happier later on.

Though, honestly, that’s still just a partial explanation.

There are times when I’m just happy to be outside in the fresh air, especially on a sunny day but even sometimes on a rainy or cold day. There’s also the famous “runner’s high,” though I think it’s greatly exaggerated. More than that, I love the feeling of setting goals, running longer and faster, and being surprised at how much progress is possible.

Over the past year, I’ve really gotten into the sport. I’ve been running lots of 5Ks and Half-Marathons, slowly getting faster, gaining endurance, and chipping away at my personal records. I’m not quick enough to be competitive, but I’m still excited to see what I can do. And I’ll find out this fall when I’ll be running my first marathon – the New York City Marathon. It might sound odd to a lot of people, but I’m very much looking forward to running those 26.2 miles.

If you’re at all interested in picking up running as a hobby, I’d strongly encourage signing up for a 5K race/fun run this summer. There are many to choose from, and it shouldn’t be difficult to find a local event. There are also lots of great “Couch to 5K” training plans for free on the web if you aren’t sure how to start.

Yes, it’ll probably be grueling and boring at first. But if you stick with it, you too may get to that point where you’re looking forward to your next run and maybe even discover that running isn’t such an odd hobby after all.

Off Topic: Inch x Inch Button Club

When I was in high school, one-inch buttons were all the rage. I had a small collection of my own at the time; a collection that has, sadly, been mostly lost to time. Still, whenever I’m in a coffee shop or otherwise walking around town, I enjoy spotting the occasional backpack or purse plastered with the tiny buttons. Perhaps that’s why my interest was piqued when I learned about Inch x Inch (via a post on the Three Staples blog) a couple of years ago.

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Inch x Inch is a monthly button subscription service whose proceeds go to charities that support youth art education. Every month, Inch x Inch finds an artist to create a new 3-pack of one-inch buttons, and for $50 those buttons will show up at your door for a year. I really enjoy the day each month when the little, yellow Inch x Inch envelope appears in my mailbox.

Since Inch x Inch collaborates with so many artists, it’s always a fun surprise to see the design variations. I’ve gotten buttons with little skulls,  donuts, and pig snouts, for instance. But one of my personal favorite sets is from the month Aaron Draplin (of Field Notes fame) created a pack done in his “Thick Lines” style.

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In the time that I’ve been an Inch x Inch subscriber, I’ve formed a small tradition. Every month I choose one of the new buttons and attach it to my work bag. Others I often give away, and the rest go into a box that houses a rebuilt button collection. Of course, the charge could be made that subscribing to a monthly button service is a bit frivolous, but the fact that the money goes to a good cause at least provides me with a decent excuse.

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