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

No one to witness and adjust, no one to drive the car
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A big part of my history of Flint River pollution, just published today, is about this 1999 accident where 22 million gallons of raw sewage was dumped into the river, killing fish and making the river unsafe for contact for about a year and a half. It revealed all sorts of structural problems in the way sewage was being treated in the region, and happened right in the middle of a mayor’s race and an attempt to renegotiate the city’s water contract with Detroit.

Over two days, 22 million gallons of raw human, industrial, residential, and commercial waste poured into the river. On the second night, downstream in Mt. Morris Township, Karen Winchester saw hundreds of dead fish floating down the river past her property — catfish, carp, and bluegill, 3 to 20 inches long, all belly-up. For 14 months, health officials prohibited swimming, fishing, or direct contact with the river…

Over the next year, bacteria levels continued to rise, fall, and rise again, suggesting ongoing pollution. In June 2000, the Michigan legislature passed a law requiring municipal and county authorities to report any sewage spill to the Department of Environmental Quality. It uncovered dozens more spills: as part of an amnesty program, nine communities in the Flint area reported 90 illegal sewage overflows over the preceding five years. Heavy rains, power outages, and accidents at plants or along sewage lines repeatedly dumped waste into the river. Flint itself declined to disclose any spills it hadn’t already reported. Communities began doing house-to-house checks looking for illegal hookups dumping into the sewer system or the river. Many were never found.

Despite the new law, the city continued to discharge untreated and partially treated sewage into the river during heavy rains, snowmelts, and power outages, including an 8-million-gallon spill in March 2006 and a 18.1-million-gallon spill in September 2008. The city’s takeover by state-appointed emergency managers did nothing to change the basic limitations of the river and the city and region’s ability to treat its own waste. It happened over and over again.

After each spill, many of Flint’s leaders repeated a version of the caveat James Helmstetter, the county’s director of environmental health, tacked onto his warning to residents after the 1999 spill.

“As far as we know, no [community] uses the Flint River for a drinking water source,” he said.

But! Here’s one little historical irony (or rhyme?) that got cut from the final story.

A contractor for a telecom company — probably SBC Ameritech but I couldn’t even find legal papers to say exactly who it was — was digging a trench to lay fiberoptic cable near an apartment complex on the bank of the river. They notify this third-party agency whose job it is to get permission from the city to say it’s OK to dig. The water department in turn is supposed to mark the line. This agency contacts Flint’s water department, and gets no response. They in turn tell the contractor, yup! No problems! Go ahead and dig!

The contractor digging the trench punches a giant hole in a main sewage pipe running between the city and the treatment center. Just all the filth in the universe is leaping out of this pipe. You can’t shut it off. The only thing you can do is divert some of it to other sewer lines, including into Flint Township, and dump the rest of it directly into the river. So that’s what they did. It then took the city more than two days to patch the broken pipe. With raw sewage dumping into the river the entire time.

Why didn’t the water department respond to the request to mark the line, and why were they so slow to patch the pipe? Well! First of all, they were totally understaffed and underfunded. But what staff they did have, almost all of them, were diverted to work with GM on getting a brand-new engine plant ready at the complex on Van Slyke Road, making sure they had the proper hookups for water to use on their equipment and to treat their waste to go into Flint’s sewers.

Flash forward fifteen years later. The city switches from Detroit water to water from the Flint River. GM starts noticing that the new water is corroding its parts. It starts getting its water from Flint Township — the same system that handled part of the overage when the pipe was broken. But not at every plant — just this one engine plant.

This was one of the early signs that there were serious problems with the city’s water, and was also emblematic of how they were dealt with — piecemeal, under the radar (although it was known), satisfying important interests, neglectful towards the vast majority of people who were more deeply affected.

And damned if this GM plant that switched its water source isn’t the same GM plant Flint’s water department was helping get up and running fifteen years before when they should have been marking that sewage line.

And oh — that engine plant switched its incoming water to Flint Township. But it continued to dump its waste into Flint’s city sewage lines.

You can’t make this stuff up.

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The State of the Speakularity
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Matt coined (or at least first wrote about) “the Speakularity” in 2010: “the moment when automatic speech transcription becomes fast, free and decent.”

Five years and change later, we’re still not exactly there! But we are closer. Like the horizon, the Singularity, or the coming of the Messiah, the Speakularity is always ever-so-slightly in the distance.

I recently reevaluated my rig for transcribing recorded audio and thoroughly reworked it. I feel much happier about this than any of my previous setups, which leaned a little too heavily on procrastination and weeping.

Also, I recently read Friend of the Snark Charlie Loyd’s entry on “The Setup” about the tools he uses, and feel correspondingly moved to actually tell people how I do things in the hope that they might add, improve, adopt, critique, be entertained, or otherwise benefit from it. You know, like how the internet used to be!

This setup requires a few pieces of software. Some of them I even paid American money for.

CallRecorder for Skype. Skype is… less than perfect. But it’s common, and you can do app-to-app calls or call an outside phone number. Most of what I do these days is interview sources and contacts on the phone. If you have a landline from which you can easily record incoming audio… do that. The rest of us sinners, we have to do this.

There are a bunch of call recording programs for Skype. There are also ways to rig Skype and your sound card to dump audio into a file. I’ve used Soundflower before. But I like Call Recorder for a few reasons:

  1. I already bought it;
  2. I can set it to record Skype calls automatically;
  3. It can easily split the recorded audio into two files, one for each side of the conversation.

This last part turns out to be important. It gives you a pristine audio file with no trace of your own voice. You don’t have to listen to your own stupid self! Totally worth the price of admission. Or I don’t know, rig Soundflower to do the same thing. I can’t figure it out, but you probably could.

Ok, now I do a rough pass of this separated audio in a voice transcription app. I use an older version of Dragon Dictate. Again, I use this partly because it (kinda) works, but mostly because I have it. It’s like eating what’s in your fridge before you go back out shopping. You can also use YouTube, especially if you don’t care that Google might have a copy of your audio.

You can also use IBM Watson’s speech-to-text API for two cents per minute. This has some advantages in that it’s relatively easy to script. I’ve just started messing with Watson by way of Dan Nguyen’s video transcription project on GitHub. Sometimes Watson works for me and sometimes it times out, which might be a function of my often-iffy Wi-Fi more than anything else. So usually for a first pass I try Dragon instead.

All I want for this quick-and-dirty transcription is a basic idea of what was said. Plus, it’s good to get an auto-transcription of the audio file before you start messing with it, which we’re about to do.

The next piece of software I use is an app called AudioSlicer. AudioSlicer is free but comes with some limitations, like being Mac-only and only working on MP3 files. So I may try another app like WavePad Audio Splitter. Maybe you have a favorite you’d like to share.

The important thing you’re looking for with this app is that it 1) detects silences in an audio file and 2) elegantly splits that file into multiple files, wherever silence is detected.

This, in conjunction with splitting your Skype recordings into a you-side and a them-side, is magic. Not only do you not have to listen to yourself talk, but those places where you did talk? They become punctuation for the other person’s audio. You can get audio files broken up into natural units of conversation. This, unsurprisingly, makes for audio files that make good quotes, and are a natural length for you to edit and transcribe in one go.

Now we’re on to the last app: ExpressScribe. This company also makes WavePad Audio Splitter, which makes me think they might work well together. Anyways, this is a genius little free app. It lets you load and save audio files, has a text editor right there, and adjusts speed without changing pitch. Again, it’s far from perfect, but it solves a lot of problems for you.

So you take all those split audio files from AudioSlicer or WavePad or wherever. Sometimes I sort them by size and weed out the smallest ones, which are usually just somebody saying “yup” or “uh-huh,” “ok,” etc. Then you load them into ExpressScribe. I’ve got my quick-and-dirty transcription of the entire interview, which helps guide me for the quotes I’m looking for. When I find those audio files, I run them through the transcriber again by their lonesome. (If I’m using Watson, I probably bulk upload here; Dragon, you have to do them one at a time). I pick whichever of the two transcription (pre-cut or post-cut) is more accurate, or maybe take pieces of both of them. Then using ExpressScribe, I do a fine-grained edit of the transcribed the text, checking it against the audio.

When I’m done with the transcription (either piece-by-piece or the whole thing), I put the transcribed files into my notes (which I keep in Scrivener). Now I’ve got a bunch of separate quotes that I can deploy anywhere I need them. I’ve got the audio that goes with each note, if I have to finesse it. And I have a transcription of the entire talk, for context.

If I need to, I transcribe my side of the conversation — but most of the time… this is actually unhelpful. I mean, sometimes I say something really smart on a phone call or I stupidly phrase a question in a way that you need it in order to make the answer make sense. But most of the time, even if I say something smart, it’s to try to goad the other person into saying something smarter. The more I can get out of my own way, the better.

So right now, February 2016, that’s how I’m transcribing my phone calls. I’m sure I will relentlessly fine-tune this process, especially when doing so means that I might be able to avoid actually writing or especially, actually hand-transcribing audio.

What do you use?

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A Doll Cabinet in Iowa
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Iowa.gov

In the Iowa statehouse, there’s this doll cabinet. Amid the political regalia surrounding it, the cabinet stands out, filled as it is with dozens of dolls, each with its hair immaculately styled, each dressed in a gorgeous gown, all bearing the exact same porcelain face.

The figurines reflect a tradition begun by former Iowa first lady Billie Ray in celebration of the state’s centennial in 1976. She wanted to honor Iowa’s past and future governors’ wives with commemorative dolls, molded in Ray’s own image. Each of Iowa’s 43 first ladies is represented, dressed in a Barbie-sized version of the first lady’s inaugural gown and identified (in most cases) with a small placard carrying the governor’s name — “Mrs. Robert Ray” or “Mrs. Samuel J. Kirkwood.” So in the same place where Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina were just furiously campaigning to become the first female President of the United States, several dozen women share the dubious honor of being distinguished solely by a hairstyle, a dress, and a man’s name.

I often wonder how that doll cabinet will honor Iowa’s first first spouse who isn’t white, or a woman. This hasn’t been a consideration previously; all the governors and their spouses so far have helpfully fit the pattern. But demography, along with a multi-generational pivot in American gender dynamics, have rendered that status quo shatteringly delicate. One day they’re either going to have to stuff the likeness of Mrs. Robert Ray into a man’s suit, paint that porcelain doll brown, or rethink the entire exercise.

That doll cabinet is already a museum piece, even if it doesn’t know it yet. You can look at it and see the era it represents becoming suddenly untenable. I’ve come to think of that type of moment — when you can mark the instant before and after something slips into history, just as it’s happening — as rare and intensely valuable.

A dozen years ago, Robin and I shared one of those moments. Over the course of a few weeks in early 2004, we came to realize that our then-present experience of media and technology was fast becoming an anachronism, and that there were a lot of people—journalists in particular—who weren’t aware of that. We imagined ourselves looking back on that era before tiny, powerful computers colonized every corner of the world, and marveling at how strange and foreign it would already seem just ten years later. We shaped these imaginings into a rough little movie that is still one of the most popular things I’ve ever had a hand in making, and I credit some significant part of its resonance to the way we flipped the lens — projecting not forward from our past experience, but backward from the future.

To know the future … that’s the dream, right? But it’s a dream that makes sense only if the future is merely revealed, rather than being constructed bit by bit from the traces of the present, which we still have the ability to shape. Let me argue instead for seeking future history — the ability to consider the present through the lens of the future, to find imminent anachronisms hidden in plain sight. What do we take for granted today that will come to seem remarkable tomorrow? What will the history books say about us?

A few months ago, my friends Andy, Amanda, and Amy, and I decided to build a weekend around these questions. And now I’m seeing future history everywhere.

Like all right-thinking people, I’ve been infected with Hamilton fever. The theme of the show that resonates most loudly is the obsession of all the central characters with their place in history. After one recent replay of the score, I found myself tearfully re-reading Washington’s farewell address, a message sent across the ages, to us. Of course, nearly every Presidential farewell has that time-capsule quality — it’s the last best chance for a President to spin his legacy. But fast-forward through more recent ones, and Washington’s stands out all the more. Other Presidents are aware of the watchful eyes of history, but they spend most of their parting speeches dwelling on the recent past — what they saw, what they did, why they did it. Consequently, moments in these speeches can seem parochial or short-sighted, just decades later. “There hasn’t been a failure of an insured bank in nearly 9 years,” Truman says. “The Persian Gulf is no longer a war zone,” Reagan says. We’re “on track to be debt-free by the end of the decade,” Clinton says.

Washington, though, scours his Presidency for lessons that would reverberate across centuries: Cherish your union, he tells us. “It is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize.”

It’s not just lofty Presidential speeches; tiny gestures can mark a break with the past. When Tom Vilsack ascended to the Iowa governor’s mansion, his wife Christie broke slightly with tradition: she elected to have her doll identified by her own name in the cabinet. “I’ve never called myself ‘Mrs. Tom Vilsack,’ ever,” she said. Iowa’s next first lady echoed Christie Vilsack’s choice; her doll is called “Mrs. Mari Culver.”

In 2012, Christie Vilsack tried to change another longstanding Iowa tradition: she ran for Congress. Not only had a woman never been governor of Iowa in 2012, no woman had ever represented the state in either the House or the Senate. “We really have a wonderful history,” the state’s Democratic Party chair said when Vilsack announced her exploratory committee. “With this one problem.”

Vilsack’s run failed; she was defeated by Steve King in 2012. But then something happened, just last year. A streak unbroken since Iowa entered the union in 1846 — nearly 170 years in which a long succession of men exclusively represented Iowa in Congress — ended. Joni Ernst, the daughter of another Mari Culver, became Iowa’s first ever Congresswoman. (Initially, I thought she was the daughter of the same Mari Culver who was Iowa’s first lady. But no, Joni’s mother is Marilyn Culver, not Mariclare Culver, so this post was wrong.)

For a weekend in Baltimore in April, we’re going to look for moments like this, and scour our own experiences for ideas and lessons that will endure. We’ll make a time capsule, and we’ll end with a prom; we couldn’t think of two better ways to bring a far-seeing lens to the present. It will be massive fun and I hope you join us if you can. But most of all, I want to know: What do you see around you today that will come to seem remarkable?

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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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