Announcing the SO Challenge: Spot the Patterns!

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A glimpse inside Significant Objects' laboratory.

Years ago, when I was (briefly) a grad student in Sociology, at Boston University, I discovered that positivist science doesn’t offer satisfactory models for synthesizing a cluster of elements that resist reduction to a common denominator, generative first principle, or essential core. Significant Objects now faces this problem. Our efforts to organize our experiment’s data into a simple pattern haven’t worked — doubtlessly because our model is too reductive. Perhaps we should consider the Hausdorff dimension; or maybe a parabolic partial differential equation is called for? Hmmm…

What am I going on about? Our project’s hypothesis, that narrative is a key x-factor influencing an object’s exchange value, i.e., by transforming a qualitatively and quantitatively “insignificant” object into a “significant” one, was definitively proven by the pioneering quasi-anthropological experiment that Rob Walker and I ran from July to November 2009. As a result of our experiment, which involved using 100 stories by talented authors as item descriptions for 100 objects that we listed on eBay, the “value in trade” of those objects increased from a mere $128.74 to an astonishing $3,612.51.

Yes, MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program scouts, you heard right: We employed narrative to boost the qualitative-quantitative significance of castoff objects by over 2,700%. But that was just the beginning of the important work we’re now doing behind the scenes here at Significant Objects.

From October through December 2009, we shared our experiment’s results here at the Significant Objects website, via a plethora of incontrovertible charts and graphs:

  • We classified the 100 objects in our experiment as talismans, totems, evidence, and fossils.
  • We presented the raw original price/final price data.
  • We listed the week in which each story was published, and its associated object listed for auction on eBay.
  • We neutralized the Duration Factor by adding $18.00 to the final sale price of each item in Week 1, $17.00 to the final sale price of each item in Week 2, and so forth through Week 18 of 19. The resulting Adjusted Final Prices have been used in our figuring ever since.
  • We presented the experiment’s overall, week-to-week mean and median price data.
  • We compared the Final Prices and Adjusted Final Prices, and made it possible to rank sales data by either factor.
  • We presented the experiment’s Top 25 most significant objects (according to adjusted sales rank) in a visual manner, and invited readers to point out aesthetic considerations that might explain the objects’ popularity (i.e., independent of the associated narratives).
  • We also invited readers to point out aesthetic considerations that might explain the unpopularity of some objects.

The above tables and charts demonstrate, in granular detail, exactly what narrative does. But how does narrative accomplish this miraculous transformation, this transubstantiation of insignificant into significant object? Since December of last year, our crack team of analysts — working in Savannah and Boston — has struggled to pin down a clear cause-and-effect relation that might explain how this process works. So far, no such relation has been discovered.

To paraphrase a scrap of doggerel from The Scarlet Pimpernel: “Is it in Heaven, or is it in Heck / That damned elusive cause-and-effect?”

Not that our research has been in vain. If the insignificant-to-significant objectual transubstantiation were a simple, straightforward matter, then it would already have been discovered — no doubt by fully funded marketers and brand consultants — years ago. We now strongly suspect that the relation between the cluster of elements in our data set cannot be reduced to anything so simple as cause-and-effect. Which is why we’ve jury-rigged a Verifiable Insignificant-to-Significant Transubstantiation Analyzer (model 1.0), pictured below.

The VISTA 1.0, multiple patents pending

The VISTA 1.0 has improved our analytical efficiencies tremendously. For example, in January and February 2010, we speedily constructed tables of data allowing us to do the following:

  • We analyzed the effect of CATEGORY on the experiment’s 100 object/stories, ranked by adjusted final sales data. Result: inconclusive.
  • We analyzed the effect of FUNCTION on the experiment’s 100 object/stories, ranked by adjusted final sales data. Result: inconclusive.
  • We charted CATEGORY and FUNCTION on pie charts. (OK, we didn’t use the VISTA 1.0 for that.)
  • Before leaving the question of FUNCTION behind, we asked readers to vote on whether particular objects were a novelty, or houseware.
  • We analyzed the effect of EXPOSITION STRATEGY on the experiment’s 100 object/stories, ranked by adjusted final sales data. Result: inconclusive.
  • We started analyzing the effect of HOT and COOL narrative modes on the experiment’s 100 object/stories, ranked by adjusted final sales data, and (what’s more) correlated with CATEGORY. Result: not in yet.

While doing all of the above analysis work, from December 2009 through February 2010, we managed to publish a second volume of Significant Objects. Kathryn Davis, Tom McCarthy, Amy Fusselman, Neil LaBute, Gary Panter, and 45 other writers helped us raise over $2000 for the tutoring program 826 National. Phew!

But then… disaster struck! The VISTA 1.0 threw a rod, just as we were launching the current volume of Significant Objects — our third — in order to raise money for the tutoring program Girls Write Now. Not to worry: SO v3 will continue to publish terrific new stories every weekday, through April. But our analysis efforts have ground to a halt. This is tragic, because correlating HOT/COOL styles with CATEGORY looked like a very promising direction: four of the Top Ten objects/stories are Cool Talismans, for example; and another four are Hot Fossils. Meanwhile, Hot Talismans and Cool Fossils don’t rank nearly as high. Why?

Which brings us back to the problem that I encountered as a Sociology grad student. The VISTA 1.0 wasn’t up to the ticklish task of synthesizing a cluster of elements that resist reduction to a common denominator, generative first principle, or essential core. So — before we can even begin to develop the VISTA 2.0, which we’ll program to be non-reductionist, if possible, Rob and I need to decide what shape the answer to our experiment’s question might likely take. I can’t speak for Rob, but I tend to agree with Benjamin and Adorno that a “constellation” — i.e., a pattern, half-discovered and half-invented, drawn among points that may or may not be arranged randomly — is the only appropriate model for a juxtaposed rather than integrated cluster of elements.

This is where you come in!

While we continue to tinker with the VISTA, we’re crowdsourcing the analysis. We’re not asking you to pin down cause-and-effect — because not only did we fail to do so, but we no longer think it’s possible. Instead, we’d like you take a gander at the table below. You’ll find elements galore, a Milky Way of datum points: FUNCTION, EXPOSITION TYPE, HOT/COOL, CATEGORY. But don’t tense up; instead, relax. Imagine that you’re stargazing, on a clear night in the mountains, and that you feel like discovering/inventing a few of your own constellations.

Look at the data in the table below, in a relaxed and playful yet focused, logical way. Can you connect the dots? That is, can you spot meaningful patterns — “meaningful” in the sense that others can see them, too? If so, DON’T REVEAL YOUR ANSWER YET! We’ll be announcing a Spot-the-Pattern Challenge soon. There will be prizes. Go ahead and study the data, and stay tuned.

Rank (adj.)ObjectExposition TypeHot/CoolFunctionCategory
1Russian FigureDescriptionCoolfigurine-humanTalisman
2Indian MaidenSequenceCoolfigurine-humanTalisman
3Wooden AnimalSequenceHottoyEvidence
4"Hawk" AshtrayClassificationHottobaccaniaFossil
5Pink HorseDescriptionHottoyTotem
6Metal BootClassificationCoolnovelty itemTalisman
8Cape Cod ShoeSequenceHotsouvenirFossil
9Duck TrayClassificationHothousewareFossil
10Wooden MalletClassificationCooltoolTalisman
11Fish SpoonsSequenceCoolkitchenwareEvidence
12Fake BananaSequenceCooldecorationEvidence
13Cow VaseSequenceCoolhousewareFossil
13Missouri ShotglassClassificationHotsouvenirTotem
15Kneeling Man FigurineClassificationHotreligiousTalisman
16Rhino FigurineDescriptionCoolfigurine-animalTalisman
17Rainbow Sand AnimalSequenceCoolhandicraftEvidence
18Meat ThermometerClassificationCoolkitchenwareFossil
20Felt MouseSequenceHottoyFossil
21Bird FigurineDescriptionCoolfigurine-animalTotem
22Ziggy HeartClassificationCoolnovelty itemEvidence
23Geisha BobbleheadSequenceCoolsouvenirEvidence
23BBQ Sauce JarSequenceCooltablewareEvidence
25Ireland Cow PlateClassificationHotsouvenirTotem
26Necking Team ButtonClassificationHotnovelty itemFossil
27Rope/Wood Monkey FigurineSequenceHothandicraftFossil
28Rooster Oven MittClassificationHotkitchenwareFossil
29Motel Room KeyClassificationCooltoolFossil
30Jar of MarblesClassificationCooltoyEvidence
31Smiling MugDescriptionCoolnovelty itemFossil
32Marines (Upside-Down) Logo MugClassificationCoolpromotional itemEvidence
33Maine Statutes DishClassificationCoolpromotional itemFossil
33Halston MugClassificationCoolpromotional itemFossil
35Seahorse LighterClassificationHottobaccaniaFossil
36Hand-Held Bubble BlowerClassificationCooltoyTalisman
36Creamer CowSequenceCooltablewareEvidence
36JFK BustDescriptionCoolsouvenirTalisman
39Mr. Pickwick Coat HookSequenceCoolhousewareEvidence
39Round BoxSequenceHotcontainerFossil
41Amoco Yo-YoSequenceHottoyFossil
42Miniature BottleSequenceCoolpromotional itemTalisman
42Penguin CreamerClassificationHottablewareFossil
44Cigarette CaseSequenceCooltobaccaniaEvidence
45Chili Cat FigurineClassificationHotfigurine-animalTotem
46Alien ToyClassificationHottoyFossil
47Ocean Scene GlobeClassificationCooldecorationEvidence
49Crumb SweeperSequenceCoolhousewareEvidence
50Praying HandsDescriptionCoolreligiousTalisman
50Elvis Chocolate TinClassificationHotcontainerFossil
52Sanka AshtraySequenceCoolpromotional itemEvidence
53Tin ArkClassificationHotdecorationTalisman
54Windsurfing Trophy/StatueClassificationCoolawardEvidence
55Pabst Bottle OpenerSequenceCoolpromotional itemFossil
56Spotted Dogs FigurineSequenceHotnovelty itemFossil
56Santa NutcrackerSequenceCoolhousewareEvidence
58Foppish FigurineDescriptionHotfigurine-humanFossil
59Kitty SaucerClassificationCooltablewareEvidence
60Piggy BankDescriptionCoolcontainerTotem
60Mule FigurineDescriptionCoolnovelty itemTotem
62Troll NutcrackerSequenceCoolhousewareTalisman
62Grain ThingDescriptionHotkitchenwareFossil
64Dome DollSequenceCoolnovelty itemTalisman
65Popsicle-Stick ConstructionSequenceHothandicraftFossil
65Golf Ball BankSequenceCoolcontainerEvidence
67Blue VaseSequenceCoolhousewareEvidence
68Candyland Labyrinth GameSequenceCooltoyTalisman
68Pen StandClassificationHotcontainerFossil
68Military FigureClassificationCoolfigurine-humanEvidence
71Dilbert Stress ToyDescriptionHottoyTalisman
72Uncola GlassSequenceHotpromotional itemFossil
72Choirboy FigurineSequenceCoolreligiousEvidence
74Star of David PlateSequenceCoolreligiousEvidence
75Lighter Shaped Like Small Pool BallSequenceCooltobaccaniaFossil
76Cracker Barrel OrnamentClassificationHotpromotional itemFossil
76Sea Captain Pipe RestClassificationHottobaccaniaFossil
76"Hakuna Matata" FigurineClassificationHotpromotional itemTotem
76Ornamental SphereClassificationCooldecorationTalisman
81Cat MugClassificationHottablewareFossil
82Wave BoxClassificationCoolsouvenirTalisman
83Toy ToasterClassificationHottoyTalisman
84Flip-Flop FrameDescriptionHotnovelty itemTalisman
85Thai HooksSequenceCoolsouvenirEvidence
85Small StaplerSequenceHottoolFossil
87Duck VaseDescriptionCoolhousewareTalisman
88Fred Flintstone Pez DispenserDescriptionHotnovelty itemFossil
89Basketball TrophySequenceCoolawardEvidence
90Toy Hot DogClassificationHottoyTalisman
91Umbrella TrinketSequenceCooldecorationEvidence
92Toothbrush HolderSequenceCoolcontainerEvidence
93Coconut CupSequenceHotnovelty itemFossil
94Swiss MedalSequenceHotawardFossil
95#1 Mom HooksSequenceHothandicraftFossil
96Clown FigurineDescriptionCoolfigurine-humanTalisman
97Kentucky DishSequenceCoolsouvenirEvidence
98Porcelain ScooterSequenceHotdecorationFossil
99Hawaiian UtensilsSequenceHotsouvenirFossil
100Bar Mitzvah BookendsSequenceCoolsouvenirEvidence

The VISTA 1.0 will be up and running again soon.


Joshua Glenn is an editor, publisher, and a freelance writer and semiologist. He does business as KING MIXER, LLC. He's cofounder of the websites HiLobrow, Significant Objects, and Semionaut; and cofounder of HiLoBooks, which will reissue six Radium Age sci fi novels in 2012. In 2011, he produced and co-designed the iPhone app KER-PUNCH. He's coauthored and co-edited Taking Things Seriously, The Idler's Glossary, The Wage Slave's Glossary, the story collection Significant Objects (forthcoming from Fantagraphics), and Unbored, a kids' field guide to life forthcoming from Bloomsbury. In the '00s, Glenn was an associate editor and columnist at the Boston Globe's IDEAS section; he also started the IDEAS blog Brainiac. He has written for Slate, n+1, Cabinet, io9, The Baffler, Feed, and The Idler. In the '90s, Glenn published the seminal intellectual zine Hermenaut; served as editorial director and co-producer of the pioneering DIY and online social networking website; and was an editor at the magazine Utne Reader. Glenn manages the Hermenautic Circle, a secretive online community. He was born and raised in Boston, where he lives with his wife and sons. Click here for more info.

One thought on “Announcing the SO Challenge: Spot the Patterns!

  1. Josh – your mention of the word constellation made me think of the sky. When I thought of the sky I thought of clouds. And when I thought of clouds I thought of word clouds. So (very unanalytically), I made a word cloud (thanks to Wordle) of the Exposition Type, Hot/Cool, Function, and Category for all 100 items. Now I have a pdf file of the result – I’ll email it to you. It’s interesting – and very cool (she said, giving a bit away).

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