The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13
Greg Linch § Matching cuts / 2014-09-16 18:18:15

The Common Test
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One of my running jokes on Twitter is that I hate the rapper/actor Common. No; hate is the wrong word. The joke is that I consider Common my personal archenemy.

Now, it’s certainly true that I generally think there are better rappers and especially better actors than Common. And I think “I Used To Love H.E.R.” is a shining example of supposed consciousness and integrity hiding a lazy misogyny. But I’m mostly playing this up, because it’s funny to me how strong my feelings sometimes run — in general, not just about music or movies, and particular, about Common.

There are songs featuring Common that I absolutely love: Black Star’s “Respiration” is definitely one of them.

J. Dilla’s “So Far To Go,” with Common and D’Angelo, is another. Even if its greatness has more to do with Dilla and D’Angelo’s contributions than Common’s (and some of his lyrics make me shake my head), it’s just beautiful:

It’s probably most accurate to say: Common bugs me. Take the end of his verse on “Respiration”:

Ask my guy how he thought travellin’ the world sound Found it hard to imagine he hadn’t been past downtown It’s deep, I heard the city breathe in its sleep A reality I touch, but for me it’s hard to keep Deep, I heard my man breathe in his sleep A reality I touch, but for me it’s hard to keep

Now, that last couplet — that’s a pretty good line. You can tell Common knows it, too, because he repeats it. Why does he repeat it? Now, this is educated conjecture, but: he really likes it, he thinks it’s profound, and he wants to hang a lantern on it. And: it’s because the structure of the verse demands another rhyme, and he doesn’t have a better one.

As a writer and editor, this offends me. This is super-presumptive on my part, but I feel just a little bit like Lydia Davis in this terrific anecdote from her 2014 New Yorker profile that I think about all the time:

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

I want to like Common. But he keeps getting in the way. I wish he would get out of the way.

Note: I feel this way about a lot of people. Blake Griffin — really, the entire Los Angeles Clippers — Cam Newton (although I’m mellowing on Cam), Dwight Howard, Kyrie Irving, Pete Townshend, Paul Simon, post-Exile in Guyville Liz Phair, Batman, more of my fellow journalists and scholars than I am comfortable naming. I just want them to be better artists, public personalities, and/or humans than they are.

Now, one artist I am 100 miles per hour excited about pretty much all the time is Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick is great because, like Anthony Davis, he got great in a hurry and there’s a very good chance he’s going to get even better as time goes on. Even if the things he says sometimes makes you shake your head — and really, once you start shaking your head at hip-hop and pro athletes, you’re never going to stop — he’s so charming that you forgive him everything. (It’s the same quality that Eazy-E, Snoop Dogg, and pre-2000 Tom Cruise had.)

Here’s an example of why I like Kendrick Lamar so much. This is from “Backseat Freestyle,” a joyous, thoroughly juvenile, and exceptionally well-crafted single from his 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city.

Goddamn I feel amazing, damn I’m in the matrix My mind is living on cloud nine and this 9 is never on vacation Start up that Maserati and VROOM-VROOM, I’m racing Popping pills in the lobby and I pray they don’t find her naked

Now, that second part of the first line almost always trips me up. First of all, I’m not totally convinced that it’s “damn I’m in the matrix” and not “damn I’m in the majors,” but the first is what most of the lyrics sites go with, so, ok, whatever.

Second of all, it’s not the song’s hook, but it shows up where the hook might go (before the first bridge or hook ever appears) and parallels its structure. This is how the hook goes:

Goddamn I got bitches, damn I got bitches Damn I got bitches, wifey, girlfriend and mistress All my life I want money and power Respect my mind or die from lead showers

So you have this “Goddamn/damn” partial parallel in the hook, which is fully paralleled in this verse. Which makes you think, once you know the song, that he’s going to lead into “Goddamn I got bitches” rather than “Goddamn I feel amazing.” And he repeats “I got bitches” three times, which leads you to think, okay, he’s going to repeat “I feel amazing.” But he doesn’t. He goes into “goddamn I’m in the matrix/majors.”

And in fact, every single one of the hooks is just a little bit different. Sometimes after “damn I got bitches,” he adds a little contrapuntal “okay,” and sometimes he doesn’t.

It actually reminds me a little of what Paul Simon does to the hook on “Graceland.” Go to about five minutes in, and you get a fraction of the story of composing this song: the full version on Under African Skies (from which these clips are taken) is terrific.

Anyways, on “Graceland” sometimes the hook is more straightforward (“I’m going to Graceland / Memphis, Tennessee / I’m going to Graceland”) and sometimes it’s a permutation (“In Graceland, in Graceland / I’m going to Graceland”). It’s tied to little mini-verses, and sometimes it migrates out of the chorus and into the verse. It’s just a continual iteration and play.

Kendrick and Paul are never happy to just repeat themselves, no matter how thoroughly they’ve nailed it. And that’s why I’m more tolerant of their tics, blind spots, and failings of politics or self-consciousness, than I am for someone like Common. Because they’re actually artists, and much closer to the kind of artist or craftsman that I would like to be.

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Unforgotten
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I’ll admit it, I didn’t want 2015 to pass without at least saying hi to you, Snarkmarket. The proximate nudge for this particular greeting is Hossein Derakhshan’s Guardian essay about how the internet had changed for him when he was freed from prison in Iran, an edited, updated version of his post from earlier this year at Matter1:

The Iranian blogosphere was a diverse crowd – from exiled authors and journalists, female diarists, and technology experts, to local journalists, politicians, clerics, and war veterans. But you can never have too much diversity. I encouraged conservatives inside Iran to join and share their thoughts. I had left the country in late 2000 to experience living in the west, and was scared that I was missing all the rapidly emerging trends at home. But reading Iranian blogs in Toronto was the closest experience I could have to sitting in a shared taxi in Tehran and listening to collective conversations between the talkative driver and random passengers.

There’s a story in the Qur’an that I thought about a lot during my first eight months in solitary confinement. In it, a group of persecuted Christians find refuge in a cave. They, and a dog they have with them, fall into a deep sleep and wake up under the impression that they have taken a nap: in fact, it’s 300 years later. One version of the story tells of how one of them goes out to buy food – and I can only imagine how hungry they must have been after 300 years – and discovers that his money is obsolete now, a museum item. That’s when he realises how long they have been absent.

The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. It represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web – a vision that started with its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralisation – all the links, lines and hierarchies – and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks. Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realised how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete.

It’s a familiar complaint. Blogs like this one are speakeasies now, not raucous pubs. I don’t actually know if fewer people are “reading blogs” or if it’s that the web has grown so much larger that the boutique communities of yesteryear merely feel less significant. But I will say, I find enduring and immense value in this place, in the fact that you’re here, reading these words, however you’ve found them. Speakeasies can be marvelous spots.

For my birthday this year, my beloved Bryan took me to a performance called “Then She Fell,” staged in a humble building in a quiet part of Williamsburg, late-ish on a Sunday night. Bryan and I, along with 13 other guests and a cast of actors almost as numerous, spent the next two hours together walking through a delightful and thought-provoking story loosely based on Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland. A few of us had a tea party with the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbits and the queens. I was pulled into a brief but intense conversation with Alice about true love and the value of obedience. The two hours I spent enacting my part in this play were two of my favorite hours of the year, but this, essentially by definition, could not be an experience for “everybody.” It was a performance for and with a couple dozen people, and that very smallness and intimacy was its essence.

So it is with this, and you.

I’ve marked my years through Snarkmarket. It’s been ten years since the second, and last, version of EPIC, a.k.a. the Googlezon video.2 Ten years ago, I recorded a reminder to myself on Snarkmarket to go check out what was in Howard Dean’s sealed records from his time as governor of Vermont.3 A decade hence, I trust this leaky rocketship will still be cruising somewhere beyond Pluto, and that you’ll be here, watching. I promise to pour us a drink.

May 2016 bring you more life than any year before it. And if it is now long past 2016 for you, may the worst of your years lie long in your past, and may the best of them lie ahead.


1 At Matter? On Medium? I’m self-conscious about my prepositions and my objects.

2 The occasion didn’t go entirely unremarked-upon, happily; the Internet loves few things more than an anniversary peg.

3 I did remember to check on this last year, after Dean’s archives opened to the public. From the accounts of local reporters who trawled through the records, there was really nothing revelatory in the files. Perhaps one day when I’ve got lots of spare time, I’ll make a fuller accounting.

One comment

I really don’t know clouds at all

I watched Peter Diamandis give a presentation yesterday (at the Michigan CEO Summit) – among other things, he showed a video of Watson absolutely dominating in Jeopardy and mentioned, offhand, that Watson has an API now.

My ears perked up, and one Google search and a few clicks later, I confirmed what I’ve long suspected: AI is coming for my job.

Message Resonance

But don’t worry, fellow wordsmiths and rhetoricians: the only audience you can optimize for, under Watson’s current public incarnation as Bluemix, is the crowd of Twitter users interested in two topics:

  • Cloud
  • Big Data

And that, if you’ll forgive the somewhat laborious introduction, is why I’m thinking about clouds.

Sunrise (Abbottabad) 1

Much like its tropospheric namesake, you can see almost anything in the digital cloud if you stare at it long enough. Panopticon? Library of Babel? Sum total of human knowledge? Yes, yes, yes, all of the above. So why do we persist in using only one word to mean so many things?

I’d like to propose a new classification system. Instead of just talking about “the cloud”, as in “this app syncs with the cloud” or “I keep all my photos in the cloud now” or “Ever since Snowden, I just don’t trust the cloud” – let’s be more specific.

Clouds and Clouds

Cirrus clouds are light, wispy, more decorative than consequential.

Cirrus clouds 2

Moving over to the digital world, a cirrus cloud primarily stores metadata, and you wouldn’t really miss if it disappeared. For example, Chrome browser sync – it’s nice to have your bookmarks on all your computers, but not something you couldn’t live without. GameCenter on iOS keeps track of your leaderboard rankings and syncs your game progress, but you don’t really “keep” anything in GameCenter.

Cumulus clouds are hefty, voluminous, big.

Cumulus clouds 3

A cumulus cloud is a storehouse for heaps of data, like that 25GB of correspondence over a decade in your Gmail account, or photo backups on Dropbox, or your iTunes library.

Stratus clouds are flat sheets, sometimes layered. People don’t take many photos of stratus clouds, because frankly they’re not very impressive.

Stratus cloud 4

A stratus cloud is important, but it’s not customer-facing. Amazon AWS, Github, Heroku – workhorses, one and all, but unless you’re a developer you probably neither know nor care.

And then there are nimbus clouds – the ones that promise rain, sleet, snow, hail. Or worse.

Nimbus cloud 5

Nimbus clouds are the dark internet, the alphabet soup of NSA programs, the hacked credit card and password databases getting passed around the back alleys of the net. The cloud that rains on your parade when your identity gets stolen: that’s a nimbus.

This is just scratching the surface of cloud-related terminology, but it’s a start – and hopefully a useful one. What do you think?

Notes:

  1. Photo CC-BY-SA Umais Bin Sajjad
  2. Photo CC-BY European Southern Observatory (ESO)
  3. Photo CC-BY-NC Fir0002/Flagstaffotos
  4. Photo CC-BY-SA PiccoloNamek
  5. Photo CC-BY-SA Malene Thyssen
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I wanted you, but I’m over that now
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Every album by The Wrens so far has turned out to be a time capsule prophecy of my life in the decade to follow — just open it up ten years later, listen to it again, and it turns out there was your whole life, written for you by a band’s songwriters who’d already gone there and were sending you a message back, like constellations five to ten light years away, only it went in reverse, and you are actually seeing the future in the stars. Superluminal astronauts desperate to get a message back to the past, and the only way is through slightly overwrought guitar pop songs.

They’re releasing another one, signed with a label, recording is almost done. Their fans may be few, but we are loyal and we are mighty, and we have been making ourselves ready, here on the other side of the universe.

Call it dad rock if you want. I, for one, am anxious to learn what my forties will be like, and grateful to know that if the pattern holds, no matter what happens, at least I’ll live that long.

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A leaky rocketship
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I’ve been trying to write this post all day. It’s hard for me to write these days because I fractured my shoulder a few weeks ago, so writing for me really entails talking to a computer, which translates my speech into text. This sounds like it would be easy, but it isn’t. You need time, electricity, and relative quiet, which turns out to be really scarce. You also need to be able to pay attention, which is also pretty scarce.

We’re not quite at the “Speakularity,” where speech in any context can instantly be converted to text and back again with a minimum of human processing. But speech recognition software has gotten incredibly good — certainly much better than it was five years ago when I was last injured and trying to write blog posts with a combination of one-handed typing and decent – but – still – rudimentary speech recognition software. Those early Snarkmarket posts in the fall of 2009 were pretty rough. I remember contacting Robin Sloan and asking him if he could proofread them for me, because I made so many typos with my left hand, and I couldn’t pay attention long enough to reread everything I’d written.

Snarkmarket is 11 years old today, and like the preteen that it is, it’s not as communicative as its parents would always wish it would be. Attention and quiet are scarce resources, and even a hardy desert ecosystem needs those two things to sustain itself. Still, it’s a relief to know that Snarkmarket it’s always here, a pied-a-terre in the blogosphere for those of us who live on social media, dark social, the official world of formal communications, the imaginary world of invented fictions, the obligations and complications that life continually calls on us to address and fulfill. Snarkmarket is here. The key to that lock will always let you in.

Six years ago today, I became one of the writers/editors of Snarkmarket, joining Matt Thompson (hahaha — you guys can’t see it, but my speech software wanted to call him “Matt #”) and Robin Sloan in convening this circus tent, this public diary of private preoccupations, this repository for 10 year time capsules, this leaky rocketship into the future. Snarkmarket has been Snarkmarket with Tim longer now than it wasn’t.

And I think — maybe Robin and Matt would contest this — but Snarkmarket deserves a place as one of the Great Blogs of the 2000s. I don’t know if anyone is keeping a list of these, or if people get together and argue whether Metafilter or Kottke.org was better and why, or if the whole Daring Fireball route was a mistake, like sports fans arguing about overrated and underrated sports teams and players, but if such a world exists, and let’s be honest, a universe with such a world inside it is better and greater than one without it, in the same way that a universe with a just and perfect God is better and greater than one without it, I submit that in this world Snarkmarket needs to be considered as one of the Great Blogs, in the same way that Tony Gwynn is one of the great baseball players, or the 1988-89 Detroit Pistons is one of the great basketball teams of all time.

Enough people — smart people, successful people, people not much younger than Robin and Matt and I, but often more successful than any of us, which, look around, is a pretty significant hurdle to clear — come up to me and say things like, “Snarkmarket helped me figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up.” enough people say these things that I increasingly have a sense that Snarkmarket was not just the most important blog to me when I joined it in 2008, but to many other people too. It played that Tony Gwynn/Kazuo Ichiro role for a lot of people — sure, other blogs had more power, but Snarkmarket was just a little smarter, a little trickier, a little more curious, a little better at getting on base.

Joining this blog was one of the most important things that ever happened to me, and that’s another way in which I can judge somewhat objectively how important it is been. In November 2008, I was on the academic job market, getting ready to interview for a few tenure-track jobs and postdoctoral fellowships, and it was weird — it was a time when people, smart people, influential people still said “you shouldn’t have a blog, you shouldn’t be on twitter, if you do these things, you should do them under pseudonyms, and if anyone asks you about it, you shouldn’t tell them, because if you blog, and it’s known that you write a blog, online, people are going to wonder whether or not you’re really serious about your work, and you just don’t want to give them any extra ammunition to wonder anything about you.”

I didn’t care. I had been waiting for one or two years, ever since Robin had suggested that maybe Snarkmarket would add a few writers and maybe I might be one of them, I think when we were on our way to the bathroom at the Museum of Modern Art on a random visit, and I was just super hungry to be handed the key to this place where I’ve been reading and writing comments since before I knew what a blog really was.

Is that still a thing, people getting excited about being able to be part of a blog? I didn’t think so, but then I became part of Paul Ford’s tilde.club and saw people falling over themselves to get an invite to SSH into a UNIX server, just to be a part of something, just to have a chance to put up some silly, low bandwidth, conceptually clever websites and chat with strangers using the UNIX terminal. It’s not like being one of the cool kids who’s in on a private beta for the latest and greatest smartphone app, where your enjoyment is really about being separate from the people who aren’t included, and the expected attitude is a kind of jaded, privileged disinterest: it’s more like getting a chance to play with the neighbor kid’s Lego set, and he has all the Legos.

Robin and Matt had crazy good Legos. I didn’t get that academic job, but I was able to take their Legos and build my way into a job writing for Wired, of all places, 30 years old and I’d never been a journalist except by osmosis and imposture here at Snarkmarket, and now I get paid every month to write for Wired, how does that happen except that this place was an extra scaffolding for all of us, for me in grad school, for Matt at newspapers across the country, for Robin at Gore TV/Current TV/Twitter, to build careers that weren’t possible for people who didn’t have that beautiful Lego scaffolding to support them (I’m wearing a sling on my arm right now with straps that wrap around my body to hold my arm in place, and a screw and washer to hold my shoulder bone together, my upper arm bone really, plus my rotator cuff, plus hold massive tendons, plus I’m thinking about those times that I would walk from my apartment in Columbus Circle down Broadway to Four Times Square in Manhattan to go to work at wired, wired isn’t there anymore, Condé Nast just moved in to one World Trade Center today, all the way downtown, but the scaffolding in Manhattan that is just constant, that is the only thing that allows the city to remake itself day after day month after month year after year, so this scaffolding metaphor is really doing something for me, plus Legos, well, Legos that just came from before, so what can I tell you, roll with it).

I don’t work at Wired, Robin doesn’t work at Twitter, Matt is at NPR, and we are where we are because of the things that we did but also because of this place. Ars Technica ran a story about it being 10 years since EPIC 2014 – I could paste the link and maybe that would be the bloggy thing to do, but you’re big boys and girls, you can Google it after you finish reading this — and there’s great interviews in there with Robin and Matt about how they made the video, and some specific names of wars and companies aside, were basically right about how technology companies were going to take the distribution and interpretation of the news away from both traditional journalism companies and the emerging open standards of the World Wide Web. I mean, isn’t that a hell of a thing, to see the future and put it in a flash movie? Anything was possible in 2004, especially if that anything Looked like a future that was vaguely uncomfortable but not so bad, really.

I turned 35 today, and I don’t really have a lot of deep thoughts about my own life or career or where I am in it. I’ve had those on other birthdays, and I’ve had them on many days in the not too distant past. Today, though, I’ve mostly felt warm and embraced by the people all around me, in my home, across the country, on the telephone, connected to me by the mails, whose books I read (and whose books publishers send to my house, my friends are writing books and their publishers send them free to my house, that’s almost as amazing as a machine that I can control that lets me read new things all day), and who were connected to me by the Internet: on twitter or Facebook, on Slack or email, by text message or text messaging’s many, many hypostases, all around me, as real to me as anyone I’ve ever imagined or read or touched, all of them, all of them warm and kind and gracious and curious about me and how I’m doing, what I’m up to, what I’m thinking, what I want to do this week or next month or when I get a chance to read that thing they sent me. it is as real to me as that invented community at the end of epic 2015, that brilliant coda that people almost always forget, and I don’t know why because it’s actually a better prediction of our future-come-present than anything in the first video, but maybe it’s not about the New York Times, it’s just about a beautiful day outside, a traffic accident, an open door, Matt’s beautiful voice when he narrates that photograph, beckoning you to come outside to look, LOOK.

The Snarkmatrix Is infinite, the stark matrix is everywhere, the start matrix can touchdown at any point in these electronic channels and reconstitute itself, extending perpetually outward into the entire world of media and ideas and editors who are trying to understand what will happen next, and teenage kids who are trying to figure out how what they’re doing maps in any way at all to this strange, established world of culture, to writers who are anxious for any sense of community, any place to decompress between the often hostile worlds of social media and professional correspondence. People want a place, a third place, and blogs are a great form of that place, even when they’re not blogs. (I’m subblogging now. This is what it’s come to. But I think most of you feel me.)

I don’t feel like I’m at any kind of peak or hollow or inflection point of my life or career, or any vantage at which I can look forth and contemplate what’s happened or what is to come. what I feel overwhelmingly is a sense of being in the middle, in medias res, nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita, and there is no crisis, only a sense of being surrounded, enmeshed, connected, and in-between, en route. Snarkmarket remains en route. And I hope it does for another 111 years. It deserves to.

Screenshot 2014-11-04 13.24.26

4 comments

Matching cuts
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I’m not sure if this video is enjoyable/meaningful if you’re not already a Satoshi Kon fan, but man I really enjoyed it. Maybe the images are arresting enough to entice a non-fan to try out one of Kon’s movies? Paprika, perhaps?

He was just the best.

5 comments

Sooo
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What’s up?

(Open thread!)

8 comments

Or not

Imagine, if you will, the following as narrated in a British accent. Or don’t. It’s really up to you.

It was a late spring afternoon when the reader discovered a new post at a beloved but recently quiet site. The reader’s initial enthusiasm was somewhat dampened when it was discovered that the post took a video game as its jumping off point. “Wasn’t the last post about a video game?” the reader sighed, but continued anyway. This was, after all, the sort of site where interest was often found in unexpected places. Whether motivated by fascination or nostalgia, the reader moved past the somewhat awkward third person narration of the opening paragraph, and began to read in earnest.

Binary

While videogame developers like BioWare (Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect) and Quantic Dream (Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls) have generated a great deal of sound and fury by designing games on the premise of meaningful narrative choices, there has been in the past few years a quiet movement of smaller games such as Pathos, Unmanned, and The Stanley Parable which throw into question the very possibility of meaningful choice in an “interactive” narrative environment. Read more…

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Old blood

I don’t know a great deal about the upcoming PC game Apotheon beyond what can be gleaned from the trailer. According to Polygon, it’s a Metroid-like 2D action platformer whose original comic book visuals were replaced during the development process by its current classical-Greek-inspired look.

http://youtu.be/AO5UaD_wPjI

While the trailer doesn’t seem to delve much into the why of what goes on in the game, it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot of combat, and that the game takes the idealized figures of ancient Greek pottery and adds a great deal of blood. Exploding clouds of blood, in fact, not even imagining that every wound must hit an artery so much as the human body itself as a film special effect, with a layer of explosive squibs directly beneath the skin.

That said, it must be acknowledged that while classical Greek art might not often be gory to our modern, horror-film-jaded eyes, it is frequently violent. (See, for example, this image of a pot depicting Achilles dragging Hector’s body behind his chariot, which probably illustrates my point better, but doesn’t look quite as nice on the page as the more generic battle scene below.)

Amphora_warriors_Louvre_E866

And if the ancient Greeks valued a clean line in their visual art, they certainly didn’t shy away from detailed descriptions of the effect of violence on human anatomy in their poetry. Read more…

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Women’s voices and mogul swagger
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I had the fortunate accident of reading these two very different articles in close succession: Mary Beard’s “The Public Voice of Women” and Peter Lauria’s “Mark Zuckerberg Comes of Age As A Mogul.” I think you can guess which quotes from come from which:

I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. I’m thinking of a moment immortalised at the start of the Odyssey. We tend now to think of the Odyssey as the story of Odysseus and the adventures and scrapes he had returning home after the Trojan War – while for decades Penelope loyally waited for him, fending off the suitors who were pressing for her hand.​ But the Odyssey is just as much the story of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope; the story of his growing up; how over the course of the poem he matures from boy to man. The process starts in the first book with Penelope coming down from her private quarters into the great hall, to find a bard performing to throngs of her suitors; he’s singing about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home. She isn’t amused, and in front of everyone she asks him to choose another, happier number. At which point young Telemachus intervenes: ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’ And off she goes, back upstairs.

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Noticeably absent from the mounds of coverage of how Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp came together is any mention of the social network’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg… Her absence, at least publicly, seems to suggest that Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg no longer needs adult supervision. Quite the opposite, in fact. Though Zuckerberg is still three months away from his 30th birthday, over the last few years he has blossomed into a very impressive mogul. Gone is the caricature of him as a hoodie-wearing, socially awkward CEO profusely sweating under questioning. He’s grown into a cocksure leader, solid operator, and gutsy dealmaker, even if the casual dress still remains. Looking at him today, he can rightly be called the first mogul of social media.

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There is something faintly ridiculous about this wet-behind-the-ears lad shutting up the savvy, middle-aged Penelope. But it’s a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere; more than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species. The actual words Telemachus uses are significant too. When he says ‘speech’ is ‘men’s business’, the word is muthos – not in the sense that it has come down to us of ‘myth’. In Homeric Greek it signals authoritative public speech (not the kind of chatting, prattling or gossip that anyone – women included, or especially women – could do).

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It’s important to understand that not all CEOs are de-facto moguls. There’s a swagger moguls have that transcends simply being the boss or being rich. Moguls are visionary, decisive, and a bit ruthless, at least with their business objectives. They are concerned not with industry or domestic but rather world domination, and usually have grandiose mission statements to describe their business (“Connecting the world” in the case of Facebook; as another example, “Organizing the world’s information” for Google). And they also usually have absolute control of their companies through majority control of its voting shares. Not unlike the traditional family-run media companies — think News Corp’s Murdoch family, Comcast’s Roberts family, Cablevision’s Dolan family, or Viacom’s Redstone family — Zuckerberg has an ironclad grip on Facebook’s board and strategic direction through his 57% control of its voting shares.

It’s both fucked-up and perfect to think about Telemachus competing with both Penelope and her suitors over her “control of voting shares” in Odysseus’s media empire.

I did a quick Google search to see if any female tech CEOs have been praised for their “swagger,” and got stalled at Andrew Wallenstein’s exhortation for Marissa Mayer to, well, shut up:

It’s as if Mayer is trying to play two seemingly incompatible roles at once: the visionary turnaround specialist who lets the innovations she implements do the talking, and the rockstar CEO who rationalizes that her company basks in the refracted glow of a halo that gets its shimmer from her swagger.

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” you think. Well, “The Marissa Mayer Show Needs a Rewrite” spells out its subtext, pitting Mayer against Sandberg through way of a joint photo op. While Sandberg epitomized “tasteful restraint,” Mayer “seemed to be auditioning to be an Entertainment Tonight correspondent.” “Sandberg leans in. Mayer preens in.”

Dismiss this opinion of Mayer as pure sexism if you must. She’s an attractive woman who shouldn’t have to tamp down her femininity to correspond to some conventional presumptions of how an executive should conduct him or herself. But the same could be said about a male executive who posed for GQ and interviewed the cast of Fast and Furious 14.

Beard’s article/speech isn’t really about the way professional media writers talk about CEOs. It’s more directly about the way the hoi polloi talk to and about women who speak, especially women who speak out. But I think Beard also persuasively shows that the two things aren’t so separate. The way we frame women’s personae at the top of the social pyramid, from Penelope to Margaret Thatcher to Mayer and Sandberg, both guides and is supported by the way we talk about women’s and men’s public and private voices all the way down.

The whole mess is caught up in an inherited fabric so tangled, so knotty, so devious, that “misogyny,” Beard suggests, is a word that falls far too short. It’s not only hate; it’s history.

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