September 13, 2009
The Mother of Invention
Although the word “unicorn” appears seven times in the Bible, it crept in only with the Septuagint, when translators needed to describe a horned creature that was “crucially not a cow.”
September 12, 2009
How Green Is My Metropolis, The Book
David Owen has a new book, titled Green Metropolis, that will be released next week. His 2004 New Yorker essay "Green Manhattan" [PDF] is a classic. The book looks like an extended treatment of the same idea.
Most Americans think of crowded cities as ecological nightmares, as wastelands of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams. Yet residents of compact urban centers, Owen shows, individually consume less oil, electricity, and water than other Americans. They live in smaller spaces, discard less trash, and, most important of all, spend far less time in automobiles. Residents of Manhattan— the most densely populated place in North America —rank first in public-transit use and last in percapita greenhouse-gas production, and they consume gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn’t matched since the mid-1920s, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T. They are also among the only people in the United States for whom walking is still an important means of daily transportation.
These achievements are not accidents. Spreading people thinly across the countryside may make them feel green, but it doesn’t reduce the damage they do to the environment. In fact, it increases the damage, while also making the problems they cause harder to see and to address. Owen contends that the environmental problem we face, at the current stage of our assault on the world’s nonrenewable resources, is not how to make teeming cities more like the pristine countryside. The problem is how to make other settled places more like Manhattan, whose residents presently come closer than any other Americans to meeting environmental goals that all of us, eventually, will have to come to terms with.
Media Physics with Prof. Hova
He now calls the old record companies "archaic," and says they made a huge error in 2000 when they sued to stop the original Napster, which popularized free file sharing: "They had it all in one place coming through one hole, where they could control it. They shut that down, and just opened the floodgates. Now everyone's running their own Napster. Now it's just a hole in the universe, and it's too late."
"Now it's just a hole in the universe." That really is the right image for the craziness we now face. Media space-time torn asunder. Well-established principles of album acceleration and movie momentum no longer apply. It's just a hole in the universe!
Forgive me while I crow for just a moment: Mr. Penumbra just hit what I think is a new peak in the Kindle store. It's the 937th bestselling item in the entire Kindle universe. The fourth-bestselling short story. The third-bestselling "techno thriller."
The sad truth: As best I can figure, that rank was driven by about 30 copies over the past two days.
Alas, Kindle. Your universe is small indeed.
September 11, 2009
The Tao of Lego
I'm with Jason when he says Legos are becoming just another single-use plastic toy.
But, even as the sets get more corporate, Lego builders get more creative. And, my god. I just cannot comprehend how people build some of this stuff:
The mech from District 9, perfectly rendered, with room for a Lego minifig inside.
Spaceships cooler than anything Lego has ever sold.
And, my favorite, the "microspace" movement, which is like the haiku form of Lego-building. The emphasis is on economy of construction and wee tiny scale. And yet: Danger. Style. Speed. Drama. Each one is like a little puzzle, sometimes a little joke.
This, my friends, is the tao of Lego.
Present at the Creation, Part Two
There's always been a funny connection between Snarkmarket and Current.
After all, introduction aside, my very first Snarkmarket post inaugurated the "Gore TV" category. More followed. November 2003. March 2004. ("Man, I thought I had put this behind me. But now I'm all excited about it again.") May.
But then what? How did I end up, not too many months later, here in San Francisco, working for what was then called INdTV?
On August 1, 2004, I sent an email to Joel Hyatt, INdTV's CEO. (I found his address on the web. After searching for days.) In the email, I introduced myself—a reporter/producer/blogger in St. Petersburg, Florida, with two years of experience at a non-profit journalism institute—and lobbed in an idea for how this new TV channel could use the web in an interesting way. And, more importantly, I promised (threatened?) to follow up with another idea, and another, and another. Thirty-one total. An August of ideas.
To his everlasting credit, and to my everlasting gratitude, Joel's reply did not say "never email me again, you weird kid." Rather: "OK, let's see what you've got."
Keep in mind that I had about four ideas cooked up when I sent that first message. And then my part of St. Petersburg got evacuated because of a hurricane. And then I drove cross-country, from Florida up to Michigan, then over to California, stopping at the wifi-enabled rest stops along I-80, dispatching ideas, racing to come up with more. It was a pretty crazy month.
The final idea, sent on August 31, was, perhaps, predictable: You should hire me!
And again, this is a point at which Joel could very reasonably have said "you weird kid." Instead, he invited me into the city for lunch.
At Current, I've been, successively, an interactive producer, a blogger, a channel manager, a futurist (note: bad title choice), ad sales adjunct faculty, and the vice president of strategy. I've been here for just a hair under five years.
But finally, there's just too much other cool stuff to do. Today is my last day.
Current is the company, the idea, that brought me to San Francisco, and I have a lot of people to thank for the depth and breadth of my Current experience. But none so centrally as Joel, who took a chance on a 24-year-old who sent a bunch of emails. I mean, guys: This is big. This is what makes lives happen, or not.
Anyway, I'm sure I'll have more reflections to share, but I'll leave it at that for now. Mostly, I wanted to tell the tale of that fall five years ago because it makes the step I'm about to take, in the fall of 2009, seem relatively conservative by comparison. Ha!
Here's the agenda:
First: Spend the next fifty days absolutely jamming on this book. On one level, this is just simple necessity. I sort of set a trap for myself here, didn't I? On another level, I had an epiphany the other day: There is nothing in the entire world I would rather do for the next two months than work my ass off to create something wonderful for the people on this list. Not sure I've ever had quite that level of clarity before. Gotta say: I like it.
Then: Consulting—for Current, for starters. Freelancing, in a few different domains. There's more writing in the works. And some bigger ideas, which I won't try to squeeze into this post. But I won't keep you waiting for too long, I promise. I'm going to need your help!
Update: Ha hahaha. I got a web-monitoring text message this morning saying that robinsloan.com was getting slammed with visitors, and I'm thinking to myself, "Wow, jeez, big news... I guess?" Nope, different reason. Shoulda known!
File under: Gore TV, Media Galaxy, Self-Disclosure
September 10, 2009
Kleinfeld's Got the Past Futures Beat
I'm sure you saw this, because the NYT's been promoting it: Remembering a Future That Many Feared by N. R. Kleinfeld. The idea is to look back to September 12, 2001, and recall the widely-shared fears and assumptions of the moment:
New York would become a fortress city, choked by apprehension and resignation, forever patrolled by soldiers and submarines. Another attack was coming. And soon.
If a crippled downtown Manhattan were to have any chance of regeneration, ground zero had to be rebuilt quickly, a bricks and mortar nose-thumbing to terror.
First: What did we think would happen? Then: What actually happened? The reporter's job is straightforward. Interview the past. Report the present.
This setup is so good it made me gasp—really—as I started in on the first few grafs and realized what Kleinfeld was up to. Talk about context. We can't improve our decision-making, our foresight, if we never go back to look at the decisions we made—the futures we feared—and compare them to reality.
This kind of story—maybe it's more "history light" than journalism, I don't know—ought to be standard practice. Let's look at the wailing and teeth-gnashing of just nine months ago, re: the economy. First: What did we think would happen? Then: What actually happened?
Our memories are so short. Our imaginations are so... adaptable. We don't notice them changing. This story totally represents a kind of Long Now thinking, if you ask me—in the sense that it says our vision of the future is something we can inspect, analyze, criticize, report. I mean, that headline says it all, and some copy editor should get a prize for it: "Remembering a Future." Exactly.
Anyway, this is all to say, big ups to N.R. Kleinfeld and the NYT. This was a great idea.
I Hear Prada's Collection Is All Voronoi Diagrams This Season
Here's a great post about Voronoi diagrams: what they are, why they're cool, and how to draw them. sevensixfive writes: "they can be used to describe almost literally everything: from cell phone networks to radiolaria, at every scale: from quantum foam to cosmic foam."
After you have drawn your own Voronoi diagram by hand, perhaps you will enjoy this rad Voronoi diagram animation made with Processing.
Taking It to the Streets
New Kickstarter update in which I visit a local printer and am simultaneously disappointed and emboldened.
(Nerd question: In an upcase headline, you'd leave "to" lowercase, as I did, right? Or no? I always hem and haw.)
Pet Sounds, Renewed
I think I forgot to post this a month or so ago when I couldn't stop listening to it. Some genius had the amazing idea to remove the backing vocals from all the tracks on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. The result is kind of breathtaking, especially "God Only Knows":
The difficulty and the peculiarity of these vocal lines can get obscured in the full versions. Just listen to the fugue section of that song. Man.
And of course, "Sloop John B," my other favorite song from Pet Sounds:
The Correspondent-Fixer Dialectic
George Packer on the death of Sultan Munadi: "It's Always the Fixer Who Dies."
Mr. Penumbra Speaks
I haven't listened to it yet, but I'm really looking forward to it.
September 9, 2009
The Book's Terms of Service
It's a reminder that books at their best are not just intellectual objects, not just aesthetic objects, but democratic objects.
And it makes me think of Salman Rushdie's claim:
Literature is the one place in any society where within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way.
Go go go read it read it read it.
More Hud Mo
Hudson Mohawke remixes Tweet's "Oops (Oh My)"—and wow, whatever happened to Tweet? Her time has come, and she's nowhere to be found!
The Virgin and the Inkjet
Read this post for the sound of the words alone! The Late Age of Print and the Storm of Progress! I mean, it's positively Tolkien-esque. Living through the sickly mutant collapse of industrial media? Lame. Living through the Late Age of Print? Awesome.
Great stuff all around from Matthew Battles. And this part is so slick:
The public sphere's terms-of-service, the product of five hundred years of cultural contest, are a better deal than anything Facebook, Amazon, or Google Books has to offer. To keep them current in the digital age, as Richard suggests, we must turn around and face front.
"The public sphere's terms-of-service." Cool.
The only thing missing now is a comment from Tim Carmody, but maybe if we set the snare just so... and step back...
(Actually, I guess this was Tim's comment, really. But now I wanna hear him talk Walter Benjamin.)
September 8, 2009
The Atlantic Has a Good Month
I still have a soft spot for The Atlantic, the magazine that introduced me to, um, thinking. Certainly to the thrill of great journalism. It hasn't always been as interesting in recent years (James Fallows provides an epic ongoing exception) but wow, this latest issue is really good:
A paean to Al Jazeera, the only cable TV network in the world that actually offers "a visually stunning, deeply reported description of developments in dozens upon dozens of countries simultaneously."
Love this one: the myths that led media companies astray. Because, "[if] we take Netscape's public offering in 1995 as the birth of the Internet era, on average over the next 10 years the biggest media conglomerates achieved less than a third of the returns available from the S&P as a whole. But even more telling is that these companies, as a group, had also underperformed the S&P for much of the previous decade, before the Internet upended their industry. Indeed, one aspect of the media business has remained largely unchanged for a generation: the lousy performance of its leading companies."
And the cover story, a powerful piece by Andrew Sullivan, written as a letter to George W. Bush about torture and "absolute evil"—clear, descriptive, urgent.
Auto-Tune the News Goes Mainstream (Sorta)
Auto-Tune the News feat. Alexa Chung! (Link goes straight to "God Bless America" break-down at the end. "Who is gettin' blessed? America. And who is gonna bless it? GOD.")
The Slider of Trust
I just wrote a quick update over at Kickstarter, accessible to my project backers only, and I have to say, it was an interesting experience. It felt different; more than usual, I could picture somewhat specifically who I was writing for. And this post is about the music I've been listening to, so I could include a few MP3s without feeling like a pirate.
What if more web writing had this kind of thing built into it? Imagine—I'm brainstorming real-time right now, so this probably won't make any sense—imagine a little slider on the blog entry editing screen that goes from "free / full public access" to "bulk subs / high access" to "patrons only / inner circle." It's a question (I'm discovering) not primarily of "content value" (like, "save the good stuff for the paying customers!") but rather of intimacy and voice. In one mode, the vast howling weirdness of the public web. In the other, a defined group of people you know and, on some level, trust.
So forget the payment thing, explicit in Kickstarter and implicit in my scenario above. What if it was entirely about concentric circles of trust and—what else? Helpfulness? Constructiveness? "Propensity to read, understand, improve and articulate"? You want to try an idea out, you want a bit of freedom to think out loud—to suggest something stupid, to fail! So you set the slider to "friends and allies." You'll write a fully-baked, armor-plated public version later. But not yet.
September 7, 2009
The Popular vs. the Acclaimed
Great, great, great AskMeFi thread: In the art forms you are experienced or well versed in, what kinds of stuff is notorious for being only liked by the experts, and what kinds of stuff is notorious for only being liked by less experienced or educated casual consumers?
Examples of artists (or works of art) beloved almost exclusively by other artists in their domain include Rothko, Linux, Cloud Gate, Yasujirō Ozu, Ernie Bushmiller, Rush, the screenplay "BALLS OUT" (pdf) and Paranoia Agent.
There are also some fun minor art-snob arguments, and mini-digressions on the nature of taste. As well as a terrific New Yorker essay I never read about the appeal of Charles Bukowski.
American Numismatic Society, I Salute You
We've been talking a lot about the future of digitization, about how much digitization needs to improve, about the severe limits that digitization still imposes on many things—books, for instance.
So, here's a change of pace. Here is the almost perfectly digitizable object, almost perfectly digitized.
Small objects, easy to photograph in their entirety? Check.
Defined number of important views? Check. (Obviously two.)
Standard set of metadata? Check. (And click on one of the images above to see an example.)
So, given the ideal material for a digital archive, the American Numismatic Society delivers. There's a powerful search engine but their collection is pretty browsable, too. And, listen, I only collect coins that I intend to spend on the train, but I defy you not to get a little lost in these pages.
And every coin has its own stable permalink! Swoon!
The only thing missing is that you can't heft the coins, feel their contours. Fair enough. But I'll bet you could even generate 3D models from these images, using the depth information implied by the shadows. When I finally have a home 3D printer I'll crank out some of these guys and send 'em around.
And you know, ancient coins are perfect tokens of historical imagination, especially when captured so crisply. They're totally familiar but deeply strange. You can imagine keeping one in your pocket, feeling it in your hand.
Check these off the list. Now we just gotta get those books right.