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September 13, 2009

The Mother of Invention

Tim says,

From a short review of Chris Lavers's The Natural History of Unicorns:

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.”
Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 4:06 PM

September 12, 2009

How Green Is My Metropolis, The Book

Tim says,

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.

Latest comment from Matt Burton: I am glad to hear they incorporated infrastructure, I am knee jerking b/c it is so often neglected. I totally agree that dense living yields significantly less energy consumption, that is a no brainer. I remember visiting south western Germany a few years ago, the geographic distribution of people was densely populated urban space surrounded by green rural space. Even a small town, of only ~1000 had a population density approaching any of the older cities in the US. The really tough question, which Owen hits, is how to restructure the US's habits and habitat? We *know* what needs to be done, but we don't know *how*. American's love their lawns...
Comments (3) | Permasnark | Posted: 2:55 PM

Media Physics with Prof. Hova

Robin says,

Pretty amazingly trenchant observation from Jay-Z:

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!

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 2:40 PM

Kindle Metrics

Robin says,

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.

Latest comment from Scott: Couldn't find it on Sony's ebookstore, though. Wish everyone would just go to epub rather than multiple itunes/ipod style bookstores.
Comments (2) | Permasnark | Posted: 2:26 PM

September 11, 2009

The Tao of Lego

Robin says,

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.

Another Legomech, so alive and full of personality. (My 10-year-old self would have traded scraps of soul for the secrets in these bricks.)

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.

Latest comment from Robin: The only part I take issue with is the second phrase of #2 -- "especially with the terrific pieces that you get with the customized sets." Some of them are, I agree, pretty cool; but some of them are just like, "here is a piece of the Millennium Falcon." Eh, you know, I'm not using my imagination here. B/c of course you're right -- "here is a piece of the Millennium Falcon" can become the chest-plate of a battling war-mech without too much effort.
Comments (3) | Permasnark | Posted: 10:24 PM
Robin's thoughts: :-)... >>

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?

off to work
Me in San Francisco, spring 2005. Current HQ in background.

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 was getting slammed with visitors, and I'm thinking to myself, "Wow, jeez, big news... I guess?" Nope, different reason. Shoulda known!

Posted September 11, 2009 at 1:13 | Comments (8) | Permasnark
File under: Gore TV, Media Galaxy, Self-Disclosure

September 10, 2009

Tim's thoughts: I *absolutely* wish I still had access to my MSU and UChicago email accounts. I remember on Septe... >>

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.

Posted September 10, 2009 at 11:30 | Comments (2) | Permasnark
File under: Journalism, Recommended

I Hear Prada's Collection Is All Voronoi Diagrams This Season

Robin says,

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.

You know what Voronoi diagrams always really remind me of? Skin! But also, I suppose, leaves.

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 10:25 PM

Taking It to the Streets

Robin says,

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.)

Latest comment from Tim: General rule for "title case" is that prepositions and articles are lowercase. This covers both "to" and "the." But there's no perfect agreement on this one, especially when graphics are considered.
Comments (3) | Permasnark | Posted: 10:16 PM

Pet Sounds, Renewed

Matt says,

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:


Latest comment from sweetie: i've never heard of this album but it's gotten a lot of acclaim apparently! wow. how are the other tracks?
Comments (1) | Permasnark | Posted: 4:31 PM

The Correspondent-Fixer Dialectic

Tim says,

George Packer on the death of Sultan Munadi: "It's Always the Fixer Who Dies."

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 10:52 AM

Mr. Penumbra Speaks

Robin says,

This is awesome! The folks at Escape Pod contacted me a while back about doing an audio version of Mr. Penumbra's Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store. I said yes, of course... and now, here it is!

I haven't listened to it yet, but I'm really looking forward to it.

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 9:52 AM

September 9, 2009

The Book's Terms of Service

Robin says,

If this was the set, then this, from Matthew Battles, is the spike: The Book: Terms of Service. Simultaneously sharp satire and a really strong, beautiful statement of values.

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.

Latest comment from Cara Powers: Reminds me of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. "It's the mixing of the streams that makes them new." Or something like that.
Comments (1) | Permasnark | Posted: 9:35 PM

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!

Previously. Here's his album. Via TMRW.

Posted September 9, 2009 at 9:09 | Comments (0) | Permasnark
File under: Music

The Virgin and the Inkjet

Robin says,

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.)

Latest comment from Matthew Battles: I'm grateful for all of your expansive thoughts on my recent posts! And your magnanimity towards Joni Evans makes me see the merits of a more patient reading. The Angel of History is indeed a fraught and rich trope—and the image of its trash as the remnants of failed utopias is most beautiful. She needs to put all that stuff in a bag & sling it over her shoulder!
Comments (2) | Permasnark | Posted: 3:37 PM

September 8, 2009

The Atlantic Has a Good Month

Robin says,

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."

California's new energy economy.

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.

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 11:29 PM

Auto-Tune the News Goes Mainstream (Sorta)

Robin says,

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.")

Comments (0) | Permasnark | Posted: 11:05 PM
Saheli's thoughts: Facebook could do it, with it's lists, but it's not an intuitive interface. This is basically wha... >>

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.

Posted September 8, 2009 at 10:47 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Media Galaxy

September 7, 2009

The Popular vs. the Acclaimed

Matt says,

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.

Latest comment from Mongo Needfood: Not to contradict your point, but since April, BALLS OUT has been downloaded over 14,000 times, with the vast majority of people responding positively. It's true that many of our A-List and A-List-Adjacent fellow writers have loved the meta elements of our screenplay. However, even the average reader who has little or no comprehension of the subversive underpinnings of our epic work of uncompromising genius has been able to enjoy the script for what it is on the surface: a familiar yet hella-funny story that is simply hella-funny. (Full disclosure: my mom HATED this screenplay. FULL ON 'EFFING HATED IT.)
Comments (1) | Permasnark | Posted: 8:03 PM
Tim's thoughts: I contend that it is impossible to give a meaningful side-view of a round coin. For minimal cover... >>

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.

Posted September 7, 2009 at 5:26 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Gleeful Miscellany, Media Galaxy
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