The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
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

The rise of "capitalism"

I love Benjamin Schmidt’s blog, where he uses R and a huge corpus of 19th century literature to ask questions about how words (and ideas) evolved over time. One such question might be: which came first, “capitalist” or “capitalism,” and how did the balance shift over time? Schmidt graphs it


—and commenter Dan narrates:

[The story is] one that begins with “capital” as an object of practical use and Smithian investigation, moves on to “capitalists” as a term of art for the skilled employer of capital, and becomes an increasingly pejorative “capitalism” by the turn of the twentieth century, before the mid-twentieth century re-appropriation of capitalism and capitalist by big business as positive goods.

Data viz meets American intellectual history. How could I not love this? Here’s more from the New York Times on the project.


Comic Chat


I did not know that a thing called Microsoft Comic Chat ever existed, but now I want it to exist again. Ideally as a web app. Ideally with the option to save comic-chats and post them on your blog.

Check out the expression selector in the lower right corner! Seriously—I love this.

P.S. The Canvas Blog is a treasure trove.


Like The Economist, except, Communist


Totally dig these covers by Edel Rodriguez for China Reform magazine. Also totally dig the fact that there’s a magazine called China Reform.

One comment

An update on the future of designed content

Not a lot of time to wax poetic here, but there’s a constellation coming together and I want to make sure I point it out. Things got really interesting for the future of designed content just now:

  • Flipboard Pages has the glimmerings of something great. Michael Sippey calls it “a content rendering engine optimized for beauty.”
  • Laura Brunow Miner launched a new ad model at Pictory—”big, beautiful photo-based ads with the designer and photographer of the ad credited.” See it in action here. This bodes well.
  • Rupert Murdoch has a lil’ launch of his own coming, too: a daily publication built specifically for tablets. I’m excited about The Daily because it’s going to be able to take design risks and learn from them every day, not every month. And we’re all, by extension, going to learn a lot just by watching.

Oh, and guess what? Google still doesn’t “index design,” per se—but it does now bring design directly into search results. Sorta. It’s a start.

Here’s my prediction: 2011 is going to be an annus mirabilis for designed content. The vigor we’re seeing from projects like Pictory and Flipboard, plus the imminent tablet-splosion, sets us up for some really exciting stuff in the next twelve months. Now’s the time to get into the pool. Jump, jump!


Notes from the field

Having just returned from a five-day jaunt up the West Coast of North America, I present three findings:

  • Every city needs an Ace Hotel. As some of my colleagues know, I hate snazzy hotels; they always seem so wasteful, so frothy, so (for lack of a word) huh-I-don’t-get-it-who-actually-likes-this. By contrast, the Ace Hotels (I’ve stayed in the New York and Portland editions) seem just perfectly calibrated to me: not too much space, not too much fuss, but plenty of attention paid to the details—and to the food.
  • If you have the right temperament for it, Amtrak’s Coast Starlight route is a blast. You’ve definitely got to start down in LA, though. Get a private cabin. Read Steinbeck on the way up through Santa Barbara and Salinas. Go to sleep somewhere around Sacramento. Wake up at the California/Oregon interface, which, at least this time of year, looks basically like Narnia. Get off at Portland. And then…
  • If you find yourself in Portland this winter, go to Cascade Brewing and get their glueh kriek, a piping-hot beer served from a steaming cauldron that feels exactly like the kind of thing a half-elf ranger would drink in a dark tavern somewhere just east of the Shire.

Wikileaks is boring

A stray thought on Wikileaks: it’s actually pretty old-fashioned. Building on Rick Prelinger here: it’s not particularly networked, peer-to-peer, or Web 2.0 at all. Just the contrary, in fact: it’s pure distilled Web 1.0. It’s the collective fantasy of all the 80s cyberpunk novels and spy thrillers made real. It’s a Stieg Larsson story. It’s the heroic hacker standing athwart history telling “Information wants to be free!”—which is fine, but also a bit shopworn. (I guess maybe we’re all just excited that it finally happened?)

After all: the Wikileaks process is top-down and one-way. It’s pretty opaque too, right? Unless I’m totally missing something, the “wiki” prefix is a total misnomer. I mean, yes, the leaked documents come from many different informants, many of them anonymous—but that’s nothing new. Back in the day the documents just came over the transom, and they were printed on paper.

Now, of course that actually provides Wikileaks’ best defense: the scale of the docu-dumps is totally staggering and totally modern. Wikileaks contends with scale successfully: I will give it that.

But there’s more to the modern web than gigabytes, and I think the truly transformative transparency project would be something that was actually distributed and participatory. This is why I continue to be much more enthralled by stuff like Anonymous, which seems to me much more of-the-moment and, frankly, hard to understand. That’s a good thing. I mean, any time the media has a tough time telling a story about something, you know it must be truly new. Wikileaks is an easy story, made for front pages—and for me, that means it’s a pretty boring story as well.

Now, I’m just talking about Wikileaks-as-organization and Wikileaks-as-process here. The good news is that within the leaks, there are plenty of great stories, and breathtakingly modern ones, too. Take it away, Cablegate Chronicles.

Note: I’d love to get talked out of this if you’ve got a different take on Wikileaks. Remember, I’m talking about the organization and the process, not the political impact, etc.

Another note: There were a bajillion great comments waiting in the queue to be approved. Sorry ’bout that. Good stuff!

One more note: Okay, I still think it’s not very Web 2.0, but who cares when the story is this crazy?


I have mixed feelings about Facebook.

I’m not going to recount the long insomniac thought trail that led me here, but suffice it to say I ended up thinking about mission statements early this morning. Google’s came immediately to mind: To organize the world’s information, and make it universally accessible and searchable. I’m not sure what Twitter’s mission statement might be, but a benign one didn’t take too long to present itself: To enable a layer of concise observations on top of the world. (Wordsmiths, have at that one.)

I got completely stuck trying to think of a mission for Facebook that didn’t sound like vaguely malevolent marketing b.s. To make everything about you public? To connect you with everyone you know?

When I read Zadie Smith’s essay as an indictment of Facebook – its values, its defaults, and its tendencies – rather than the “generation” it defines, her criticisms suddenly seem a lot more cogent to me. I realized that I actually am quite ambivalent about Facebook. I thought it was worth exploring why.

I was thinking about the ways social software has changed my experience of the world. The first world-altering technology my mind summoned was Google Maps (especially its mobile manifestation), and at the thought of it, all the pleasure centers of my brain instantly lit up. Google Maps, of course, has its problems, errors, frustrating defaults, troubling implications – but these seem so far outweighed by the delights and advantages it’s delivered over the years that I can unequivocally state I love this software.

I recently had an exchange with my friend Wes about whether Google Maps, by making it so difficult to lose your way, also made it difficult to stumble into serendipity. I walked away thinking that what Google Maps enabled – the expectation that I can just leave my house, walk or drive, and search for anything I could want as I go – enabled much more serendipity than it forestalled. It’s eliminated most of the difficulties that might have prevented me from wandering through neighborhoods in DC, running around San Francisco, road-tripping across New England. And it demands very little of me, and imposes very little upon me. (One imposition, for example: All the buildings I’ve lived in have been photographed on Street View. I’m happy to abide by this invasion of privacy, because without it, I wouldn’t have found the place I live in today.) For me, Google Maps is basically an unalloyed social good.

Google has been very prolific with these sorts of products – things that bring me overwhelming usefulness with much less tangible concern. Google Search itself is, of course, a masterpiece. News Search, Gmail, Reader, Docs, Chrome, Android, Voice – even failed experiments such as Wave – I find that these things have heightened what I expect software to do for me. They have made the Internet more useful, information more accessible, and generally, life more pleasurable.

I was trying to think of a Facebook product that ameliorated my life in some similar way, and the first thing to come to mind was Photos. Facebook Photos created for me the expectation that every snapshot, every captured moment, would be shared and tagged for later retrieval. At my fifth college reunion, I made a point of taking photos with every classmate I wanted to reconnect with on Facebook. When I go home and tag my photos, I told my buddies, it will remind you that we should catch up. And it worked like a charm! I reconnected with dozens of old friends on Facebook, and now I see their updates scrolling by regularly, each one producing a tinge of warmth and good feelings.

But the dark side of Facebook Photos almost immediately presented itself as well. For me, the service has replaced the notion of a photograph as a shared, treasured moment with the reality of a photograph as a public event. I realized all of a sudden that I can’t remember the last time I took a candid photo. Look through my photos, and even those moments you might call “candid” are actually posed. I can’t sit for a picture without expecting that the photo will be publicized. Not merely made public – my public Flickr stream never provoked this sense – publicized. And although this is merely a default, easily overridden, to do so often feels like an overreaction. To go to a friend’s photo of me and untag myself, or to make myself untaggable, feels like I’m basically negating the purpose of Facebook Photos. The product exists so these images might be publicized. And increasingly, Facebook seems to be what photos are for.

Of course that’s not true. I also suddenly realized that I’ve been quietly stowing away a secret cache of images on my phone – a shot of Bryan sleeping, our cat Otis in a grocery bag, an early-morning sunlit sky – that are quickly becoming the most treasured images I possess, the ones I return to again and again.

Perhaps Facebook Photos has made my private treasure trove more valuable.

I use Facebook Photos as an example first because it’s the part of the service that’s most significantly altered my experience of the world, but also because I think it reflects something about the software’s ethos. That dumb, relentless publicness of photos on Facebook doesn’t have to be the default. Photos, by default, could be accessible only to users tagged in a set, for example, not publicized to all my friends and their friends. I’m not even sure that’s an option. (My privacy settings allow most users to see only my photos, not photos I’m tagged in. But I’m not sure what that even means. When another friend shares a photo publicly, and I’m tagged in it, I’m fairly certain our friends see that information.)

Facebook engineered the photo-sharing system in such a way as to maximize exposure rather than, say, utility. For Facebook, possibly, exposure is utility.* I think that characterizes most of the choices that underpin Facebook’s products. With most of the other social software products I use – the Google suite, WordPress, Twitter, Flickr, Dropbox, etc. – I am constantly aware of and grateful for the many ways the software is serving me. With Facebook, I’m persistently reminded that I am always serving it – feeding an endless stream of information to the insatiable hive, creating the world’s most perfect consumer profile of myself.

I don’t trust Google for a second, but I value it immensely. I trust Facebook less, and I’m growing more ambivalent about its value.

I don’t think I want to give up Facebook. I value the connections it offers, however shallow they are. I enjoy looking at photos of my friends. I like knowing people’s birthdays.

But I am wary of it, its values and its defaults. How it’s changing my expectations and my experience of the world.

* Thought added post-publication.


I'm a sucker for an Easter Egg

Via Zach Seward on Google Reader, here’s something fun: Pull up a New York Times story, e.g. this one. Scroll down a bit so you see mostly text. Hit the shift key twice. Neat, huh?

I think I like the fact that it’s hidden more than I like the actual feature (though the feature is certainly useful). Now, what you should do next is pull up a Michiko Kakutani review, close your eyes, tap in the Konami code, and…


Beauty and the book

Two quick things:

  • I contributed to Bygone Bureau’s Best New Blogs of 2010. The other contributions are great, and the blogs they describe (most of them new to me) sound stellar—but it’s worth checking it out for Sleepover SF‘s layout and illustrations alone. That’s some bespoke design right there, and it’s beautiful.
  • My digital/occult mystery Annabel Scheme is now available for the Kindle. I think it makes a particularly good Kindle read—it’s short and, you know. Kindle-y. It also makes a great spontaneous Kindle Gift, nudge nudge, at a mere $3.99.

Best. E-mail marketing. Ever.

Bonobos, the internet haberdashery (and increasingly, curator of cool gear), sent out this email today—plain text with no formatting, no “Display images below.” I present it here in its entirety:

Looks like we’re all stuck in the same security line…

Couple of observations:

-should have left before your boss. 30 mins you waited is costing you now. 20 bucks says we both get stuck in dallas
-nice pants, but u need a new bag. At least risk of yours getting stolen is zero. Use code “bodyscanner” to get 20% off upgrading your bag anytime this wkend.
-it’s only polite to tip the person who frisks you. $5 is reasonable
-window seats r for idealists. Aisle is for pragmatists. choose accordingly

Good luck with travel. Best wishes for exit rows, free drink tickets, and a seat next to someone attractive

-Sent by my mobile device from Security Line #4, JFK, casual traveler line

Cute, right?

P.S. Bonobos is the brand to which I traded a short story for pants about a year ago.