My Favorite Things, March 2009

In the tradition of John Coltrane, the Bureau Staff talks about what they’ve been into lately.

If you’d like to tell us what book you’re reading, album you’re listening to, YouTube video you’re watching, or whatever, drop us a roughly 250-word line at

Ffffound!, a social-bookmarking site dedicated to design-related images, has been effectively crippling my productivity since I added it to my bookmark bar last November. But what I really like is the site’s surprisingly unpretentious design. Coupled with its pleasant minimalist aesthetic are Ffffound!’s keyboard shortcuts, the easiest, most delightful way to quickly consume the pages and pages of illustrations, fancy packaging, concert prints, and gorgeous Flickr photos. Pressing J jumps you to the next picture, K to the previous, and when you get to the end of the page, pressing J again will even load the next one. It even works on Ffffound!’s brilliant tile view, which can be toggled by pressing V.

Though it might seem like a simple concept, I think small but valuable usability tweaks often go unrecognized. Props to The Big Picture, which also picked up the J/K keyboard scheme. – Bureau Editor Kevin Nguyen

You’re probably familiar with Fareed Zakaria. If he’s not on CNN or PBS, he’s writing a column in Newsweek. He also does not take flattering pictures. Ever. I’ve been reading one of his books, The Future of Freedom, and I always find myself returning to the bio pic on the back cover—it totally creeps me out.

The book is good though. In The Future of Freedom, Zakaria argues that countries can suffer from too much democracy and developing countries should not actively seek democracy until strong liberal institutions take root. When I say liberal institutions I mean it in the classical sense: ideas like rule of law, constitutionalism, and divided power. His argument clearly details why developing states have failed so tremendously with democracy: out of the developing states that have toyed with democracy in the last half-century, 56% (39 out of 69) eventually collapsed. In states where strong government took hold first—like the old authoritarian regimes in Chile, South Korea, and Taiwan—democratic transitions were far more successful. In states like Russia, where democracy was implemented before acceptance of liberalism, democracy crumbles (or slowly fades out). Using this analysis, our continuous pressure towards democratizing countries like China may be ultimately misguided. – Bureau Writer Jordan Barber

My new best friend comes in a white plastic tub. Her name is Cascade Fresh Fat Free Plain Yogurt, and for the last few weeks I’ve discovered her many charms. Mainly by putting her in my mouth.

You see, plain yogurt is perhaps the most versatile food product on the planet. Toss it on top of a salad as dressing! Mix it into a bowl of soup to make it a bit heartier! Dollop it on top of spicy curry and spare your tongue from misery! Or do as I’m doing, as I write this tribute to culinary perfection, and squeeze honey on top as a light dessert.

Another plus is that it’s healthy. I’ve developed that obnoxious habit of checking the nutrition facts label on everything I eat. This can take some of the joy out of eating, but cracking open the yogurt is a guilt-free experience: low in fat and carbs, high in potassium and protein.

Finally, the tub tells me that I am eating “THE #1 YOGURT WITH 8 LIVE ACTIVE CULTURES!”. I didn’t know what this meant until I checked the entry for yogurt on Wikipedia, where I learned that “yogurt is made by introducing specific bacteria strains into milk, which is subsequently fermented under controlled temperatures and environmental conditions inside a bioreactor.” I don’t know about you, but when I’m famished, I always reach for the first thing in the fridge that involves bacteria, fermentation, and a bioreactor. – Bureau Writer Daniel Adler

Contributing to a solipsistic tide that threatens to drown human society, I count myself among the first-worlders who spend most of their time in front of a computer screen. So, when not staring down the hungry throat of nihilism, I like to tweak my computer user experience. My efforts have coalesced into a simple GUI philosophy that I call dilettante minimalism. Genuine user minimalism would likely involve running everything from the command line, which I could not do. But, in my own superficial way, I feel that when it comes to my laptop, less is more.

For example, on my Mac OS X install, I change the little bubbles that close windows from vivid stoplight colors to smooth grays. Slightly less usable, sure, but the grays unify the interfaces of all my applications and reduce visual distractions. I also keep as few icons as possible in my dock, and I never leave anything on the desktop. I want everything to look smooth. Recently, I’ve obsessed over reducing the amount of chrome on my applications (“chrome” describes all the buttons and menus at the top of an application window). I feel that if I keep my screen clear, I can focus better.

This is the long way of saying I like the new Safari 4 Beta. Some argue that the application is less usable because Apple moved the tab bar to the top of the window, above the url field. I see this as a stroke of genius (specifically, the Google Chrome browser’s stroke of genius). Typically, the top of a window contains just a title and a few small buttons, but why not use that space more efficiently? Tabs need titles anyway, so it makes sense to combine the two. This reduces Safari’s menu chrome by a full line, which may seem trivial, but I believe is significant. The universal interface metaphor of the “window” fits best with web browsers: we don’t look at them, we look through them. Since I see less window in Safari 4, it’s more successful. – Bureau Editor Nick Martens