April 30, 2009
OMG I am spending so much money on Kindle-ized books. Amazon has already made its margin on me twice over, I am 100% sure. Guess I should recommend some, huh?
- A Free Life by Ha Jin. Sublime tone. I just cannot get over the fact that Ha Jin writes this well in his second language, which he learned relatively late in life. It's a modern immigrant story, full of detail and surprise.
- The Bin Ladens by Steve Coll. I thought this book was going to be 50% Bin Laden family, 50% Osama Bin Laden -- something like that. Nope. There's plenty of OBL, but he's really just a small piece of the tapestry. You gotta read about Salem Bin Laden, the patriarch of the clan for a big part of the 20th century. He is as strange a character as OBL himself -- and couldn't be more different.
- Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered by Peter S. Wells. Mentioned this already. Makes the Dark Ages seem rich and textured -- not just, uh, dark.
- Stealth Democracy: Americans' Beliefs About How Government Should Work by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse. Actually, I think I'll save this one for a different post. Very counter-intuitive findings.
- Daemon by Daniel Suarez. The Da Vinci Code meets Cryptonomicon meets Advanced Topics in Network Security. Lots of adjectives and adverbs here, but if you're in it for the ideas, not the crystalline prose, it's very worthwhile. Embedded in the Clancy-squared plot machinations are solid signals about the future of the internet.
Crucial update: It wasn't on Kindle, but I read, and loved, Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I haven't read a ton of his other books, but this slim little volume was a dream. Hard to tell to what degree the translation reflects the original, of course, but the language is wonderfully direct and down-to-earth. Add it to the growing of canon of work that says: It's not about bright, blinding genius; it's about hard work -- where "it" is the creative, technical, or athletic endeavor of your choice.
Nom De Whatever
Intriguing aside in this Slate article by Huan Hsu on office workers in China adopting English names:
In the United States, people tend to view names and identities as absolute things—which explains why I agonized over deciding on an English name—but in China, identities are more amorphous. My friend Sophie flits amongst her Chinese name, English name, MSN screen name, nicknames she uses with her friends, and diminutives that her parents call her. "They're all me," she says. "A name is just a dai hao." Dai hao, or code name, can also refer to a stock's ticker symbol.
You Want Bookporn? Oh, Man. We Got Some Bookporn.
VERY mature books (is 8000 BC old enough?) with an astonishingly sexy zoom feature -- similar to Google Maps, but smoother and more natural, especially with a two-finger trackpad. It's all yours, for free, at the World Digital Library.
April 29, 2009
Eat Sunlight Instead of Oil
Wow. Has Michael Pollan been using this phrase for a while already? It is genius. From the latest Long Now email newsletter:
Eat sunlight instead of oil, and eat as if your health depended on it. American agriculture and food marketing can be reorganized around those goals.
It's like a chemistry lesson and a parable, all in five words. Poetic, scientific, and mythic all at once. Totally abstract and symbolic, but it also renders a vivid image: Mmm, warm sunlight! Eww, gross oil.
Pollan is doing a Long Now talk next week in SF. Very excited.
I realize these self-links are a little lame. But... I like what I said here: What's the future of the book in the age of video?
Every Little Thing About Things
So, I've been following this Columbia U course blog called "thing theory" for a while now, enjoying the smart discussions of philosophy of things as they've trickled out. (Things are a personal passion of mine, and my dissertation is on the material culture of modernist art/lit/cinema.)
Well, it being the end of the semester, the blog is now positively blowing up. People are taking stances, saying what and who they like and don't like, and generally trying to put it all together for future thinking about, um, things.
So if you like sentences like these:
I understand that if one focuses on these aspects, the zebra ceases to exist, but the zebra is not a hard concrete thing, it is the manifestation of a particular network, a network that repeats itself (with slight variations of course) to create millions of similar networks we call zebras. I get it.
Then, my friend, you've got to jump in and check out this discussion. Tell them that Snarkmarket sent you.
File under: Learnin', Object Culture, Recommended
Gay History vs. Queer Studies
It took a long time for Yale to accept Kramer money. After a number of years of trying to get Yale to accept mine for gay professorships or to let me raise funds for a gay student center, (both offers declined), my extraordinary straight brother Arthur offered Yale $1 million to set up the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies and Yale accepted it. My good friend and a member of the Yale Corporation, Calvin Trillin, managed to convince President Levin that I was a pussycat. The year was 2001.
Five years later, in 2006, Yale closed down LKI, as it had come to be called. Yale removed its director, Jonathan David Katz. All references to LKI were expunged from Web sites and answering machines and directories and syllabuses. One day LKI was just no longer here.
When this happened I thought my heart would break.
I wanted gay history to be taught. I wanted gay history to be about who we are, and who we were, by name, and from the beginning of our history, which is the same as the beginning of everyone else’s history.
This is a great speech, even though it's peppered with the occasional, um, surprising claims ("George Washington was gay, and that his relationships with Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette were homosexual... his feelings for Hamilton led to a government and a country that became Hamiltonian rather than Jeffersonian") and a tirade against queer studies that feels misplaced and, at times, childish:
It seems as if everything is queer this and queer that... Just as a point of information, I would like to proclaim with great pride: I am not queer! And neither are you. When will we stop using this adolescent and demeaning word to identify ourselves? Like our history that is not taught, using this word will continue to guarantee that we are not taken seriously in the world.
Just like dressing "in drag," "acting" transgendered, or not wanting to let other people define your identities for you guarantee that you won't be taken seriously in the world. Oh, it matters so much to be taken seriously.
In particular, it seems foolish to blame scholars of literature and anthropology or communication for doing what they do with anything rather than history or politics departments who refuse to give gay history a foothold.
Folks care about the words they use, and are chilly towards "homosexual," not because they refuse to grant that same-sex desire/partnering/sex have always been around, but because 1) lots of people's sense of their gender/sexuality doesn't fall under what we'd just call "gay" or "homosexual," not least because 2) to pick of an example, if you were born an anatomical woman but think of yourself as a man attracted to women, you wouldn't think of your attraction as "same-sex," and 3) people finally get to define the words for themselves! "Homosexuality" is a medical word; "sodomy" is religious; "queer" is social. They all have different valences, but the last offers a flexibility that for many, many people, is highly desirable.
Now, I absolutely agree that Eve K Sedgwick doesn't do what George Chauncey does, and that we need about a hundred more Chaunceys a hundred times more than we need a hundred more Sedgwicks. But gosh, Larry, don't bash folks for not being serious because you don't like the name. Bash the institution for taking your money and not supporting what you wanted to do.
Also, pick up Epistemology of the Closet sometime and give it a read. I think you'd find that this marvelous turn of phrase you use (wait for the end) echoed nicely there:
Franklin Pierce, who became one of America's worst presidents, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who became one of our greatest writers, as roommates at Bowdoin College had interactions that changed them both forever and, indeed, served as the wellspring for what Hawthorne came to write about. Pierce was gay. And Hawthorne? Herman Melville certainly wanted him to be.
File under: Fairy-Tale Marriage, Language, Learnin'
April 28, 2009
April 27, 2009
Google: The World's Medical Journal
A good anecdotal lead. Carolina Solis is a medical student who did research on parasitic infections caused by contaminated well water in rural Nicaragua.
Like many researchers, she plans to submit her findings for publication in a medical journal. What she discovered could benefit not just Nicaraguan communities but those anywhere that face similar problems. When she submits her paper, though, she says the doctors she worked with back in San Juan del Sur will probably never get a chance to read it.
"They were telling me their problems accessing these [journals]. It can be difficult for them to keep up with all the changes in medicine."
Washington recently got involved. Squirreled away in the massive $410 billion spending package the president signed into law last month is an open access provision. It makes permanent a previous requirement that says the public should have access to taxpayer-funded research free of charge in an online archive called PubMed Central. Such funding comes largely from the National Institutes of Health, which doles out more than $29 billion in research grants per year. That money eventually turns into about 60,000 articles owned and published by various journals.
But Democrats are divided on the issue. In February, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., submitted a bill that would reverse open access. HR 801, the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act, would prohibit government agencies from automatically making that research free. Conyers argues such a policy would buck long-standing federal copyright law. Additionally, Conyers argues, journals use their subscription fees to fund peer review in which experts are solicited to weigh in on articles before they're published. Though peer reviewers aren't usually identified or paid, it still takes money to manage the process, which Conyers calls "critical."
And cultural/generational change:
The pay-to-play model doesn't jive with a generation of soon-to-be docs who "grew up Google," with information no farther than a search button away. It's a generation that never got lost in library stacks looking for an encyclopedia, or had to pay a penny for newspaper content. So it doesn't see why something as important as medical research should be locked behind the paywalls of private journals.
Copyright issues are nothing new to a generation that watched the recording industry deal its beloved original music sharing service, Napster, a painful death in 2001. Last October, it watched Google settle a class-action lawsuit brought on by book publishers upset over its Book Search engine, which makes entire texts searchable. And just last week, a Swedish court sentenced four founders of the the Pirate Bay Web site to a year in prison over making copyrighted files available for illegal file sharing. And now the long-familiar copyright war is spilling over into medicine.
There's even WikiDoc
And, the article doesn't mention this, but I'll contend there's a role for journalism to play. Here's a modest proposal: allow medical researchers to republish key findings of the research in newspapers, magazines, something with a different revenue structure, and then make it accessible to everyone. Not perfect, but a programmatic effort would do some good.
Speaking of which -- what are the new big ideas on the health/medicine beat? This is such a huge issue -- it feels like it should have its own section in the paper every day.
File under: Journalism, Science, Snarkpolicy, Worldsnark
April 26, 2009
Finding Würde in America
Been recently fascinated with learning more about health care, reading a lot of Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn, catching up on essays by the likes of Paul Krugman and Atul Gawande. And the best thing I've read so far is this wonkish-but-accessible interview with health care policy super-couple Uwe Reinhardt and Tsung-mei Cheng. The interview teases out a number of distinctive policy critiques and ideas that aren't surfaced in most of the layperson-friendly health policy lit I've come across, like this point about the oft-derided drug company profiteers:
If you look at total drug company profits in a given year, of every retail dollar sale, drug companies who manufacture the stuff get 75 cents. And of that, they make 16, 15 percent profit. So if you multiply that out, we have about $220 billion in drug sales; that's about, say, $25 billion in profits. Now, that is a lot; you can buy two Princetons for that. However, if you then divide $25 billion through $2.2 trillion in national health spending, you get 1.2 percent; that is, drug company profits are 1.2 percent of total national health spending.
This was from Frontline's excellent "Sick Around the World" documentary, where they profiled the health care systems of five developed countries and compared them to the US system. See also: Frontline's follow-up, "Sick Around America." (Note: T.R. Reid, the correspondent on "Sick Around the World," refused to participate in "Sick Around America" after he found that the producers shafted the option of single-payer health care in the final edit.)
Every Day Like Paris For The First Time
Jonah Lehrer + Allison Gopnik on baby brains:
The hyperabundance of thoughts in the baby brain also reflects profound differences in the ways adults and babies pay attention to the world. If attention works like a narrow spotlight in adults - a focused beam illuminating particular parts of reality - then in young kids it works more like a lantern, casting a diffuse radiance on their surroundings.
"We sometimes say that adults are better at paying attention than children," writes Gopnik. "But really we mean just the opposite. Adults are better at not paying attention. They're better at screening out everything else and restricting their consciousness to a single focus."
This (in bold) is the money-quote, though:
Gopnik argues that, in many respects, babies are more conscious than adults. She compares the experience of being a baby with that of watching a riveting movie, or being a tourist in a foreign city, where even the most mundane activities seem new and exciting. "For a baby, every day is like going to Paris for the first time," Gopnik says. "Just go for a walk with a 2-year-old. You'll quickly realize that they're seeing things you don't even notice."
I can confirm that this is true.
Also, peep this graph charting synaptic activity + density according to age (via Mind Hacks):
Apparently, that's where the real action is: contra Lehrer's article, baby brains don't actually have more neurons than adults, but way more (and way denser) synapses (aka the connections between neurons).
Also, just to free associate on the whole synapse thing: I had knee surgery a few weeks ago to repair a torn quadriceps tendon, and I'm in physical therapy now. Part of my PT involves attaching electrodes to my thigh to induce my quad to flex (this is called "reeducating the muscle.").
Anyways, it is always weird to confirm that we are just made out of meat, and that if you run enough electrical current through a muscle, it'll react whether or not your brain tells it to. That's all your brain is -- an extremely powerful + nuanced router for electricity.
Swine Flu and the City
There's a lot to process here, but it's worth it: BLDGBLOG's post about disease and urban planning is the most interesting thing you'll read all day.
The roots of modernism in sanatorium design. Office space built around the transmission properties of the common cold. Settlers of Catan: Outbreak Edition. Doctors holding seminars in the sewers of Paris.
Like a little virus in its own right, this post will take up residence in your brain. It's made all the more satisfying for seeing its roots -- early symptoms -- over on @bldgblog.
This Is How a Public Intellectual Works TodayTM.
April 25, 2009
A Fembot Living in A Manbot's Manputer's World
Audio For Dummies
Copyblogger lays out some guidelines for producing engaging podcasts or other audio recordings. Please note that if you maximize every suggestion, you wind up with a perfect episode of Radio Lab. This seems like a halfway-decent validation of their merit.
Snarkmarket Reading Survey
Something Walter Benjamin said has interested me for a while now:
If centuries ago [writing] began gradually to lie down, passing from the upright inscription to the manuscript resting on sloping desks before finally taking itself to bed in the printed book, it now begins just as slowly to rise again from the ground. The newspaper is read more in the vertical than in the horizontal plane, while film and advertisements force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular.
--- One Way Street (1928)
If Benjamin's right, then this is a reading revolution that's still underway -- expanding from film, advertisements, and newspapers to television, computer, and telephone screens. Even though we're using all these different devices, they just might be participating in this dyad of vertical vs. historical reading.
I've become something of an amateur anthropologist of how people read -- watching people read books or papers or from their phones or laptops in public places -- but I'm curious: how do you read?
* What kind of device(s)? * Where is your body? * Where is your reading material? * How do you prefer to read? * How do you read most often? * Where/how is it hardest for you to read? * What are your reading surfaces -- desks, tables, a bed, your own body? * Do you use any prosthetic aids -- glasses, something to raise your laptop upwards? * How did you read as a child? Ten years ago? What's changed?
Send pictures or movies even! Images of reading!
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Collaborations, Object Culture
April 24, 2009
La Jolie Rousse
Guillaume Apollinaire, "La Jolie Rousse [The Pretty Redhead]":
Here I am before you all a sensible man
Who knows life and what a living man can know of death
Having experienced love's sorrows and joys
Having sometimes known how to impose my ideas
Adept at several languages
Having traveled quite a bit
Having seen war in the Artillery and the Infantry
Wounded in the head trepanned under chloroform
Having lost my best friends in the frightful conflict
I know of old and new as much as one man can know of the two
And without worrying today about that war
Between us and for us my friends
I am here to judge the long debate between tradition and invention
Between Order and Adventure
You whose mouth is made in the image of God's
Mouth that is order itself
Be indulgent when you compare us
To those who were the perfection of order
We who look for adventure everywhere
We're not your enemies
We want to give you vast and strange domains
Where mystery in flower spreads out for those who would pluck it
There you may find new fires colors you have never seen before
A thousand imponderable phantasms
Still awaiting reality
We want to explore kindness enormous country where all is still
There is also time which can be banished or recalled
Pity us who fight always at the boundaries
Of infinity and the future
Pity our errors pity our sins
Henri Rousseau, "La Muse inspirant le poète," 1909. (A portrait of Apollinaire and Marie Laurencin). Image via Wikipedia
Now it's summer the violent season
And my youth is dead like the springtime
Oh Sun it's the time of ardent Reason
And I am waiting
So I may follow always the noble and gentle shape
That she assumes so I will love her only
She draws near and lures me as a magnet does iron
She has the charming appearance
Of a darling redhead
Her hair is golden you'd say
A lovely flash of lightning that lingers on
Or the flame that glows
In fading tea roses
But laugh at me
Men from everywhere especially men from here
For there are so many things I dare not tell you
So many things you would never let me say
Have pity on me
-- From Calligrammes, 1918
... Read more ....
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Recommended
Wow, super podcast find -- on Apple Hot News, of all places. The Year Was 1959, a series of lectures (w/music) on a single year (but what a year) in the history of Jazz. Georgia State professor Gordon Vernick starts with three of my favorite records ever: John Coltrane's Giant Steps, Miles Davis's Kind Of Blue, and Ornette Coleman's The Shape Of Jazz To Come. (The two other great albums that people usually talk about are Charles Mingus's Mingus Ah Um and Dave Brubeck's Time Out.)
When you look at 1959, it's almost impossible to believe that it would be rock and roll (plus folk and ballad pop) that would chart the musical revolution. Rock was stagnant and jazz was endlessly inventive ten times over. Such a delight to listen -- this one year is an education in music itself.
Commenting on Comments
Virginia Heffernan has a blog post up about comments and how generally awful they are, especially on big news websites. I think her observation is fair, and raises a good larger question: What's the future of comments on the web? I think they're pretty broken right now, especially at scale. They're not really conversations at all; they're a cross between an old-school web guestbook (people merely registering their existence) and a black hole (scraps of text flung into the void, never to be seen or heard from again).
But, let's not talk about it here.
I left a comment on the post, and I think you should do the same. Snarkmarket readers know something about commenting; I think we've got some of the best commenters around, and together we have some of the best conversations.
And there's something delightfully meta about this post about bad comments having the best comments ever.
P.S. I believe, broadly, in the value of moderation, but man, it's annoying that my comment is not posted over on the NYT yet. If you don't see it, wait a few minutes. Not a few hours, I hope.
Please, More Literary Theory Radio Shows, Please
If you've got twenty-five minutes to listen to two smart + funny people talk about Marcel Duchamp, Ezra Pound, comparative literature, American poetry, and French philosophy, give this podcast a whirl. It's by two of my teachers (and friends, and readers), the poet Charles Bernstein and literary critic Jean-Michel Rabaté. It's an intelligent and charming interview that could be subtitled "the stuff Tim thinks about all of the time."
April 23, 2009
Marcel Duchamp, 1926:
I even like the John Fahey-esque score, added by whomever.
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Movies
The Loss Of Routine Beauty
Not that long ago, all books were handmade; now, most of the work is performed by armies of cleverly machined presses and binderies. Lost, in that consumptive progression, is not the beautiful book -- for many special books made by machine do manage to be beautiful objects that function well. Lost is the ordinary book being routinely beautiful.
Rats, I Ran Out of Words
Speaking of writing: I've been thinking about video, the grammar of video, video-as-writing, etc. a lot lately (as usual), and it really is crazy how lame and limited video editing is at this moment in history.
The analogy to writing (I know it's a stretch): If writing today were like video editing today, you'd have to start by going out and hunting down all the words you wanted to use -- finding them in other books, on posters, on billboards, and cutting them out. Then you'd sit down and paste them together in a different order. And if you ran out? Or realized you needed a word you didn't have? Too bad!
This is why I'm excited for some sort of future "synthetic cinema" -- a super-extrapolated version of machinima. If you're at your video-writing desk at 2 a.m. and something amazing occurs to you, some wonderful turn of phrase (as it were), you'll be able to simply... make it.
Just read a random entry on Zoe Finkel's blog about waltzing and getting in over your head. It's amazingly good writing.
On the continuum of writing, there is, of course, bad writing; then there's good writing; then there's really good writing that knows it's really good writing, that telegraphs its mastery ("Aha, did you see that thing I just did? With the words? Of course you did!"); and then there's a kind of good writing beyond that, which sort of punctures the veil and achieves a special kind of ease and grace. I'm pretty sure this is an example.
It also has plenty of what Roy Peter Clark describes as "gold coins" (it's writing tool #19) -- little asides, little moments of delight, not necessarily crucial to the central story. Zoe's image of men dancing with other men, and the allusion to Yale, is an example.
Returned To The Forest Primeval
Flint, MI is contemplating shrinkage:
Instead of waiting for houses to become abandoned and then pulling them down, local leaders are talking about demolishing entire blocks and even whole neighborhoods.
The population would be condensed into a few viable areas. So would stores and services. A city built to manufacture cars would be returned in large measure to the forest primeval.
I'm always awed that when it comes to cities like Flint, EVERYTHING is thought of in near-cosmic terms. Instead of "let's replace abandoned neighborhoods with new parks" -- which is already a pretty dramatic undertaking -- it's "let's let that bitch goddess nature take back what's hers, for we can no longer maintain even the pretense of civilization."
I mean, look:
These days, crime is brazen: two men recently stripped the siding off Mr. Kildee’s old house, “laughing like they were going to a picnic,” Ms. Kelly said. Down the street are many more abandoned houses, as well as a huge hand-painted sign that proclaims, “No prostitution zone.”
Maybe this is what Flint needs:
Then again, Rome had a working economy.
NB: If it seems like I sound too callous or flippant, I should add (for the benefit of readers who don't know me personally) that I was born in Detroit and grew up in Michigan; I get wounded every time I read articles like this, and lash out with gallows humor. Watching these cities die, with nobody but the occasional national reporter to pop in like a hospice nurse to check their vital signs, is like watching a family member succumb to cancer.
This isn't dancing on Flint's grave; this is an Irish wake.
April 22, 2009
A Public Broadcasting Facelift
In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.
This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved -- not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees -- investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate.
According to several former top officials involved in the discussions seven years ago, they did not know that the military training program, called SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, had been created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans...
They did not know that some veteran trainers from the SERE program itself had warned in internal memorandums that, morality aside, the methods were ineffective. Nor were most of the officials aware that the former military psychologist who played a central role in persuading C.I.A. officials to use the harsh methods had never conducted a real interrogation, or that the Justice Department lawyer most responsible for declaring the methods legal had idiosyncratic ideas that even the Bush Justice Department would later renounce.
The process was "a perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm," a former C.I.A. official said.
In general, I wouldn't think it was a problem not to know the origins of a technique, except for political reasons. But not knowing that the SERE program was designed to help soldiers withstand interrogations that had produced false confessions is inexcusable, especially since this was our program. Not knowing that the psychologist who persuaded the CIA to go for this had never conducted an actual interrogation is similarly mind-boggling. The fact that no one knew what the actual interrogators thought of all this is standard for the Bush administration, but it should not have been.
There are all sorts of experts in our government, including experts on interrogation. There's also more than enough institutional memory to inform the administration about the origins of the SERE program. But the Bush administration, typically, did not bother with them. They preferred to make things up as they went along, because, after all, they always knew better.
This is what happens when we stop demanding minimal competence in our Presidents; when we start caring more about who we would rather have a beer with than, oh, who would be most likely to seek out the best advice and listen to all sides of an argument before making an important decision, or whose judgment we can trust. We end up with people who toss aside our most fundamental values because someone who has never conducted an interrogation before thinks it might be a good idea, and no one bothers to do the basic background research on what he proposes.
April 21, 2009
Ink: Flock/Songbird For Writing
I gave a presentation to my students today on writing and research tools, doing what I always do -- apologizing for the limitation of every single thing that I showed them. Zotero is pretty good at building a research database -- but you can't use it to write. MS Word 2008 is a champ for layout and even does a good job at formatting bibliographies -- but it sucks for organizing research or pulling data from an application. Scrivener is a good place to organize research or notes and build drafts -- but it turns PDFs into pictures and doesn't really handle citations. Yep and Papers are great PDF organizers, but not much else. (I didn't even want to get into DevonThink.) But Papers builds in a WebKit browser, so you can do research and navigate into online databases and plug anything you find right into your library.
This feels like the big conceptual leap. We're finding our information on the web. We're writing our documents on the web. We're storing our data on the web. We're using the web to collaborate on docs. But while online storage and collaboration are winners, AJAX writing apps kind of suck. They're low-powered exactly where we need the full power of a rich client. We don't just need more formatting and layout options; we need to be able to manage databases, for research and reading material, and lots of interconnected projects that bridge online and offline work.
What I want is just what my title says: a specialized browser-based client devoted to writing.... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Collaborations, Learnin', Technosnark
Nerds Only: Great Java Libraries
This applies only to a small sub-fraction of SMKT readers, but if you're one of them: These Java libraries by Karsten Schmidt, a.k.a. toxi, comprise a sort of Batman utility belt of graphics, geometry, physics, and more. I have used them happily in dozens of dorky experiments -- and now they're freshly upgraded.
April 20, 2009
Pulitzer for PolitiFact
My usual take on the Pulitzer Prizes are that they're cool and deserved, but in no way useful as a guide for where news ought to go. I'm going to have to modulate that a bit; this year's winner for National Reporting is the St. Pete Times site PolitiFact.
So, to be clear: The 2009 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting went not to a story, but to a reported database presented as a user-friendly website. I actually think one of the tectonic plates that make up journalism's history and culture just shifted a little. Rumblerumblerumble. Very cool.
Where's HBO News?
Hmm. David Simon says hey, wait, HBO charges for content -- and it started doing so in a historical context in which people had gotten all TV for free, free, free for decades. So newspapers should get a clue and start doing the same.
But, this made me wonder: Where's HBO News? Is it the case that HBO just considers news too far from its core area of expertise? Or is it the case that HBO ran the numbers and decided that serious news won't attract the kind of audience they need?
Maybe it's that the market for news is too competitive. Relatively few entities produce engrossing, high-end drama; lots and lots of entities produce news. But, then again, you extend the analogy
and it's like, uh, yeah I would watch that.
Any other theories?
William James, You've Got It Goin' On
This reminds me of that great William James quote: "We ought," he wrote, "to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue, or a feeling of cold." What is James talking about? He's pointing out that language creates the illusion of transparency. We pretend that we're just describing the "substantive parts" of the world - those nouns we match together with adjective and verbs in neat sentences - but this substance is inevitably shaded by "transitive" mental processes we aren't aware of, such as gendered nouns and quirks of grammar. In other words, language is a constraint on thought, a concrete riverbed for the stream of consciousness.
April 19, 2009
Do you know what was great? The Hanseatic League. Do you think we could bring that back, twenty-first century style?:
This diffuse, fractured world will be run more by cities and city-states than countries. Once, Venice and Bruges formed an axis that spurred commercial expansion across Eurasia. Today, just 40 city-regions account for two thirds of the world economy and 90 percent of its innovation. The mighty Hanseatic League, a constellation of well-armed North and Baltic Sea trading hubs in the late Middle Ages, will be reborn as cities such as Hamburg and Dubai form commercial alliances and operate "free zones" across Africa like the ones Dubai Ports World is building. Add in sovereign wealth funds and private military contractors, and you have the agile geopolitical units of a neomedieval world. Even during this global financial crisis, multinational corporations heavily populate the list of the world's largest economic entities; the commercial diplomacy of emerging-market firms such as China's Haier and Mexico's Cemex has already turned North-South relations inside out faster than the nonaligned movement ever did.
Wait -- ninety percent of what, exactly? Innovation units?
Things: (Re)Statement of Purpose
I really love this elegant digression inserted in one of things magazine's periodic collections of smartly-chosen links:
We used to notice slight spikes in traffic when we led with an image, but these seem to have tailed off (as has traffic in general). Things will always be about physical things but the role of text and analysis has and always will be central to the publication (although readers might have noticed that the physical publication itself has been in an extremely long stretch of self-imposed limbo). As talk of design, objects and collections shifts from the linguistic to the strictly visual, it seems ever more important to write about objects and the role they play in contemporary life -- and, by definition, the role that collecting and collections play as well -- rather than simply add to the ever-growing museum that is the internet. It seems increasingly clear to us that things' role is not one of curator, but guide.
In one sense -- and it's a particularly narrow one -- the change we are undergoing is one of "dematerialization" -- but in another and (I think) more profound sense, what's happening is that materiality and physicality are changing, becoming something else. I'm happy that things is around, in whatever format, to help document that.
Brothers In Arms
Most people who know me well know that I have two brothers, one older, and one younger. We're all oversized, bigbrained, bighearted, redheaded guys with Irish names (Sean Patrick, Timothy Brendan, and Kevin Daniel). Sean's a high school math teacher and football coach; Kevin is a counselor/advisor at a liberal arts college. Sean's two years older, and Kevin's a year and a half younger. They are honestly more like each other than I am like either of them, but since I'm in the middle, I was probably equally close to both of them. Kevin and I shared a room together until I was 16; Sean and I went to college and lived together for three years.
This is a long way to go to say that whenever I read about Rahm Emanuel and his brothers, I smile and smile and smile.
April 18, 2009
In Search Of Ordinary Things
Image via Wikipedia
Like the birds he loves so well, Callahan's albums find him alighting momentarily on precarious perches and naming what he sees. By the time we hear the music, he seems to have flown on again. His vantage from Eagle is one of textured ambivalence; his images split and shimmer like double-exposures, immediately releasing an obvious meaning quickly followed by a subtler one that equivocates the first... Twenty years in, and Bill Callahan appears to be tearing up everything he's believed and starting from scratch, armed with the terrifying wisdom of knowing that one knows nothing, and searching for meaning regardless. He's resigned but heroically presses on. The void looms, but the music keeps it barely at bay.
I don't think I've been this dominated by an album since Andrew Bird's The Mysterious Production of Eggs.
April 17, 2009
The Pathos Of Twitter
Virginia Heffernan looks deep into the Twitterverse and doesn't like everything she finds:
The "ambient awareness" that Twitter promotes — the feeling of incessant online contact -- is still intact. But the emotional force of all this contact may have changed in the context of the economic collapse. Where once it was "hypnotic" and "mesmerizing" (words often used to describe Twitter) to read about a friend's fever or a cousin's job complaints, today the same kind of posts, and from broader and broader audiences, seem... threatening. Encroaching. Suffocating. Twitter may now be like a jampacked, polluted city where the ambient awareness we all have of one another's bodies might seem picturesque to sociologists (who coined "ambient awareness" to describe this sense of physical proximity) but has become stifling to those in the middle of it.
I only subscribe to a handful of Twitter feeds -- about twenty, almost all people I've met and known for years -- and I protect my updates, partly to ward off feeling this way. However, I still can't escape whiners like me:
In the old days, Facebook updaters and Twitterers mostly posted about banal stuff, like sandwiches. But that was September. It's spring now. Look at Twistori, a new site that sorts and organizes Twitter posts that use emotionally laden words like "wish" or "hate" or "love," thereby building an image of the collective Twitter psyche. The vibe of Twitter seems to have changed: a surprising number of people now seem to tweet about how much they want to be free from encumbrances like Twitter. "I wish I didn't have obligations," someone posted not long ago. "I wish I had somewhere to go," wrote an other. "I wish things were different." "I wish I grew up in the '60s." "I wish I didn't feel the need to write pointless things here." "I wish I could get out of this hellhole."
Exactly. Obviously, people use Twitter to do different things. A professor of mine has, I think, perfected it as an art of academic self-promotion -- linking not just to new posts but old articles, interviews, projects, etc. But one thing that scares me about the way that I use it is that I often find myself being brutally honest about my feelings -- like I'm in therapy with Wonder Woman's lasso wrapped around my brain.
For every detached quip like "tcarmody thinks Proust would have been a great blogger. Joyce? Not so much," there's a strain of sentimentality ("tcarmody is watching my son play catch with my sister, who taught me how to play catch when I was a little boy"), self-pity ("tcarmody is recovering from surgery and apparently is pissing off everyone in his life. If you're going to be useless, don't be cranky too"), petty complaints ("tcarmody will not give up cream in his coffee. Will. Not."), and full-blown existential dread: "tcarmody is trying and failing to call in friendships and favors. Help. I need help"; "tcarmody is deeply uncomfortable and entirely alone."
Heffernan pulls back from this conclusion and settles for a vexed explanation based on long-felt class anxieties. I think something else is at work. Maybe it isn't a new epoch in the history of being, but it is SOMETHING. This isn't just ordinary moaning. Is it?
The Simplest Of Weekend Pleasures
Wyatt Mason on outdoor springtime reading Leaves of Grass (the 1855 edition): "Not least of the pleasures of reading outside is one of the most prosaic: the light's really good."
We Will Learn These Things Together
Oh wow. This just made my week. Jennifer Rensenbrink, author of the New Liberal Arts entry on home economics (which is here and which you'll also be able to get in book form, uh, soon) is writing a new blog about -- you guessed it -- New Home Economics.
My recommendation? Subscribe immediately.
Where's My All-You-Can-Eat Movies?
Farhad Manjoo tries to figure out why nobody's solved the riddle of streaming movies on the internet:
When I called people in the industry this week, I found that many in the movie business understand that online distribution is the future of media. But everything in Hollywood is governed by a byzantine set of contractual relationships between many different kinds of companies—studios, distributors, cable channels, telecom companies, and others. The best way to understand it is to trace what you might call the life cycle of a Hollywood movie, as Starz network spokesman Eric Becker put it to me. We all understand the first couple of steps in this life cycle—first a movie hits theaters and then, a few months later, it comes out on DVD. Around the same time, it also comes out on pay-per-view, available on demand on cable systems, hotel rooms, airplanes, and other devices. Apple's rental store operates under these pay-per-view rules, most of which put a 24-hour limit on movies. The restriction might have made sense back in the days when most people were getting on-demand movies in hotel rooms and the studios didn't want the next night's guest piggybacking on rentals. It doesn't make much sense when you're getting the movie on your MacBook. But many of the contracts were written years ago, and they don't reflect the current technology.
A movie will stay in the pay-per-view market for just a few months; after that, it goes to the premium channels, which get a 15- to 18-month exclusive window in which to show the film. That's why you can't get older titles through Apple's rental plan—once a movie goes to HBO, Apple loses the right to rent it. (Apple has a much wider range of titles available for sale at $15 each; for-sale movies fall under completely different contracts with studios.) Between them, Starz and HBO have contracts to broadcast about 80 percent of major-studio movies made in America today. Their rights extend for seven years or more. After a movie is broadcast on Starz, it makes a tour of ad-supported networks (like USA, TNT, or one of the big-three broadcast networks) and then goes back to Starz for a second run. Only after that—about a decade after the movie came out in theaters—does it enter its "library" phase, the period when companies like Netflix are allowed to license it for streaming. For most Hollywood releases, then, Netflix essentially gets last dibs on a movie, which explains why many of its films are so stale.
I actually think Netflix Watch Instantly is pretty good. It's got the first two seasons of 30 Rock, the complete Monty Python's Flying Circus, some old Woody Allen and Pasolini movies, The Big Sleep, and The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland. It's not perfect, but neither is Showtime.
April 16, 2009
Jigsaw-Fragment Models Of Tomorrow
Ozymandias on the history of tabbed browsing:
Multi-screen viewing is seemingly anticipated by Burroughs' cut-up technique. He suggested re-arranging words and images to evade rational analysis, allowing subliminal hints of the future to leak through... An impending world of exotica, glimpsed only peripherally.
Perceptually, the simultaneous input engages me like the kinetic equivalent of an abstract or impressionist painting... Phosphor-dot swirls juxtapose: meanings coalesce from semiotic chaos before reverting to incoherence. Transient and elusive, these must be grasped quickly.
This jigsaw-fragment model of tomorrow aligns itself piece by piece, specific areas necessarily obscured by indeterminacy. However, broad assumptions regarding this postulated future may be drawn. We can imagine its ambience. We can hypothesize its psychology.In conjunction with massive forecasted technological acceleration approaching the millennium, this oblique and shifting cathode mosaic uncovers the blueprint for an era of new sensations and possibilities. An era of the conceivable made concrete...
... And of the casually miraculous.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy, Technosnark
Library Culture / Information Culture
|LIBRARY CULTURE||INFORMATION-RETRIEVAL CULTURE|
a. quality of editions
b. perspicuous description to enable judgment
c. authenticity of the text
|Access to everything
a. inclusiveness of editions
b. operational training to enable coping
c. availability of texts
a. disciplinary standards
b. stable, organized, defined by specific interests.
a. user friendliness
b. hypertext--following all lines of curiosity
a. preservation of a fixed text
a. intertextual evolution
b. surfing the web
It is clear from these opposed lists that more has changed than the move from control of objects to flexibility of storage and access. What is being stored and accessed is no longer a fixed body of objects with fixed identities and contents. Moreover, the user seeking the information is not a subject who desires a more complete and reliable model of the world, but a protean being ready to be opened up to ever new horizons. In short, the postmodern human being is not interested in collecting but is constituted by connecting.
The chart is from an apparently unpublished lecture by computer scientist extraordinaire Terry Winograd; the commentary is by Heidegger scholar extraordinaire Hubert Dreyfus.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Technosnark
Not really much of a narrative, and not even really a vision of the future. Instead it feels like a Borges story in video, a kind of thought experiment, and I love it:
Or maybe I just think that because I've been reading some of the Heidegger linked in this thread. Man as world-builder, etc.
(Via Life Without Buildings.)
Bill Reads Books
Enjoyed this post from Steven Johnson on two levels: One, his excitement at having Bill Clinton articulately discuss his book, "The Invention of Air," and two, Clinton's discussion itself.
This bit, from Clinton, made me laugh:
I'm going to make this point later as I wrap up about the importance of books. But the things books do -- I would argue books are more important in the age of blog sites and tweaks and whatever else they call it -- I read a bunch of them -- because there's more information than ever before, but you can have all the facts in the world in your head. If you don't know how to organize and evaluate, construct an argument, get from A to Z, what you know in your head doesn't amount to a hill of beans.
And the reason I noted the post in the first place is that I myself am about halfway through "The Invention of Air," and loving it so far. Highly recommended.
What's Still In The Inbox
Some people keep tabs open in their browser for days or weeks; I keep them open in my well-loved RSS reader NetNewsWire. (NNW doubles as a browser; I almost certainly do more READING of web content there than in Firefox.)
I like it -- it keeps the old stuff next to the new stuff, and puts little pictures of what I want to read or re-read. I usually use MarsEdit to blog stuff, and MarsEdit is really well integrated with NetNewsWire, so it's a good workflow to keep things open that I want to post to Snarkmarket eventually, or to make some other use of. (MarsEdit doesn't play nice with Movable Type 3.2 [edit - but see below], which is why I occasionally have crazy characters in my posts for smart quotes, apostrophes, em-dashes, usw.)
Anyways, like any other workflow, this one gets backed up; I can't think of exactly what I want to say, or (more often) other stuff gets in the way. But I think it's still good to take some time to register the things I'm thinking about, because you might want to think about them too. Here's what's still in my inbox.
- if:book, "design and dasein: heidegger against the birkerts argument." E-book readers and phenomenology? Content, thy name is Carmody. Disappointingly, author Dan Piepenbring hasn't actually read a lot of Heidegger, so the argument is a little underdeveloped (check my comment down the thread). I really want to blog about this, but I also wanted effectively to remake the whole idea from scratch, and I don't have the time right now to do that.
- CFP for Wordless Modernism at MSA 11. Academic CFP listservs come in RSS form now! This is so, so sweet. So is the CFP here: "If, as W.J.T. Mitchell has argued, the 'linguistic turn' of the early twentieth century took place alongside a concomitant 'pictorial turn,' how does this change the way we approach modernism’s engagement with visual media and theories of sensation?" See also “Film Grammar and Literary Modernism”. If I can't get a paper in Montreal this year, I need to hang it up.
- Two other cool CFPs: Multiple Perspectives on Collecting and the Collection (for a Spanish-English journal -- I may submit something from my chapter on Borges, Melville, and Citizen Kane) and Re-viewing Black Mountain College, for a conference at the BMC museum.
- "Beyond Life Hacks: Reusable Solutions to Common Productivity Problems." Gina Trapani is so, so good. I look at this fight-procrastination guide every day now, trying to read it first thing in the morning.
- "Gabriel García Márquez, literary giant, lays down his pen." In 2005, García Márquez didn't write a line. There probably won't be any new books in his lifetime. (PS: Go read One Hundred Years Of Solitude. Just do it. I won't tell anyone you haven't yet.)
- Clement Greenberg at 100. "I’m so excited. I’m one of the few graduate students who will be presenting at a centennial symposium looking back to the life and work of the legendary Clement Greenberg. (So my name isn’t listed yet on the official publicity, and that’s all right. I haven’t paid enough dues yet to warrant headlining status. Rosalind Krauss and Thierry de Duve, Luke Menand and Serge Guilbaut have)." I wonder how this conference went?
- Diana Kimball drops this perfect quote from Bruno Latour:
In politics as in science, when someone is said to ‘master’ a question or to ‘dominate’ a subject, you should normally look for the flat surface that enables mastery (a map, a list, a file, a census, the wall of a gallery, a card-index, a repertory); and you will find it.
- Wyatt Mason on Proust and Nabokov. I've really been loving Pale Fire lately.
- Jason Kottke, "Gairville." A Brooklyn neighborhood (now Dumbo) once named for the guy (Robert Gair) who invented the modern cardboard box. Jason's interested in the neighborhood; I'm interested in the boxes.
- "Obama Offers Plan to Improve Care for Veterans." Electronic records come to the VA. I want to write a post called "In Praise of Bureaucrats," about how "bureaucracy" has such a mixed meaning as an insult/complaint (meaning both robotic impersonality and feudalist inefficiency) and how much really good information science (and scientists) could improve, um, everything. Not a new liberal art as such, but maybe the new engineering.
- "Substance and Style" (on Wes Anderson). Watched The Royal Tenenbaums the other day, and thought a lot about the subtleties of the writing, especially for Royal.
Royal: Can I see my grandsons? Chas: Why? Royal: Because I finally want to meet them.That little inversion -- "finally want to," instead of the expected "want to finally" -- which could (almost) be unintentional -- tells you so much about Royal. Nine out of ten phrases are like that.
Now, to fill up the tabs again.
April 15, 2009
Digital Democracy (For Real)
This is actually surprising (and heartening) to me:
For the first time, more than a half the country's voting-age population used the Internet to get political news or get involved in the political process in 2008.
And remember, this kind of change is totally nonlinear -- so the internet is just going to get more important, faster and faster, to politics and democracy.
The WaPo's Jose Antonio Vargas has carved out a pretty excellent beat around this stuff, by the way. He's the one to watch if you're interested in the intersection of democracy and technology.
Winner Take All
Wow. Stephanie Meyer's Twilight (and sequels) accounted for 16% of all book sales in the U.S. in the first three months of 2009.
Probably not that unusual in the weird post-Potter publishing world, I know, but still.
The File Is Its Own Name (Whoah)
(I know, I know: It's all media, media, media, and files, files, files around here lately. Think of it as a special thematic issue, like when the NYT Mag is all about movies one weekend. Ours is just two weeks long.)
Computer files: a total aberration. I totally agree!
Photography and Citizenship
Really love this argument, which seems to be that photography helps establish the idea of "lots of other people in your society" which, in turn, helps you understand your own role as a citizen. So that raises the question: How did that work before photography? How has our conception of "everybody else in my country" changed?
This image, linked to from the first post, is also terrific.
And it all makes me think of Nick Calcott's writing about photography at On Shadow, which deserves more time and response -- to come!
Conservation Of Outrage
When trying to explain one’s past actions, hindsight is always 20/400. With that caveat, I will say that the emotional pleasure of using the #amazonfail hashtag was intoxicating. There is no civil rights struggle in the US that matters more to me than the extension of equal rights without regard for sexual orientation. Here was a chance to strike a public blow for that cause, and I didn’t even have to write a check or get up from my chair to do it! I went so far as to publicly suggest a link between the Amazon de-listing and the anti-gay backlash following the legalization of gay marriage in Iowa and Vermont. My friend Nelson Minar called bullshit on my completely worthless speculation, which was the beginning of my realizing how much I’d been seduced by righteousness, and how stupid it had made me.
Eye on the Bailout
ProPublica's Eye on the Bailout. Upon first glance appears pretty cool. In particular, I love the minimalist graph at the very top of the page. It's actually a little bit beautiful.
I do wish it had a page like this, though.
Eat The Document
Always good to reread Brown and Duguid's "The Social Life of Documents":
In this way, document forms both old (like the newspaper) and relatively new (like the television program) have underwritten a sense of community among a disparate and dispersed group of people. As newspapers recede before broadcast and on-line communication, and as the multiplication of television channels disrupts schedulers' control over what is seen when, the strong feeling of coordinated performance provided by these documents is changing. One possible result may be that the loss of simultaneous practice will reinforce the need and desire for common objects -- the wish at least to see the same thing, if not at the same time. Here the Internet is a particularly powerful medium for providing access to the same thing for people more widely dispersed than ever before. Moreover, the reach of the Internet is increasing a sense of simultaneity as ideas emerging on one side of the world can almost instantaneously be picked up through the Internet and absorbed into the local context by communities on the other.
This essay makes for a nice introduction to a handful of the brainsexy literary/social theorists and historians I like to read: Bruno Latour, Roger Chartier, Michel de Certeau. (Hmm. All French. I guess Benedict Anderson and Joanne Yates are in there, too.)
It also has one of my favorite-ever qualifiers: "Art and eternity are beyond the scope of this essay."
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy, Object Culture
Anti-Strunkites, Pt. 2
Pullum says that "many" of Strunk and White's recommendations are "useless," citing "Omit needless words" as an example. On its own, this advice is no more helpful than telling a musician to avoid playing wrong notes. But "Omit needless words" doesn't appear on its own; it's accompanied by sixteen examples of how to improve cumbersome phrasing (e.g., "the fact that") and a demonstration of how six choppy sentences can be revised into one...
Pullum's summing up — "Following the platitudinous style recommendations of Elements would make your writing better if you knew how to follow them" — seems to forget that The Elements of Style is, after all, a book, with examples and explanations to help the reader to put its recommendations into practice.
He also points out, as I did, that Pullum too often switches his targets.
Key takeaways for me from the Pullum: S/W too often creates sentences that NO ONE trained in comp would write as illustrations of types of writing to avoid, rather than tougher cases; the evidence of S/W "don'ts" in the writings of master contemporary stylists of English literature strongly suggests that these usages are in fact perfectly grammatical/appropriate.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Learnin'
April 14, 2009
Two weeks ago I praised Harper's Scott Horton, who in addition to tiptop legal/political commentary regularly serves up poignant and relevant chunks of older texts, and lamented that more bloggers don't mine the past as well or as often as they do the just-this-minute.
I don’t have to impress upon you the need to embrace the new... You have to continue to challenge yourself as a reader - a serious reader. And as one who learns - a serious student. That you have not calcified. That you do not know what you think you know, least of all who or what or where or especially WHEN is important... Get a library card and wander somewhere dusty. Find something real. And then blog about it — bring it into this world. Scan that creaky wisdom, make it sing. We need many things now, but wisdom most of all.
There are actually a whole microclass of bloggers and online commentators who do what Horton does. And I think I've come up with a good name for what they do: paleoblogging.
Like paleontologists, paleobiologists, and paleoarcheologists, Paleobloggers dig up blogworthy material from the past to see what makes it tick. But instead of our prehistorical past, paleoblogging focuses on our analog past, blending in somewhere in the mid-1960s. See after the jump for my abbreviated field guide to paleoblogging.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Media Galaxy, New Liberal Arts
April 13, 2009
An Archaeologist of Morning
From Polis Is This, a documentary about the great poet, critic, and Black Mountain college rector Charles Olson:
I've said before and I will say again, I feel a spontaneous affinity for Olson like for no other American historical figure I've ever seen, heard, met, or read about.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Movies, New Liberal Arts
Bad Judgment in "Women's Literature"
Image via Wikipedia
Elaine Showalter just doesn't know what she's talking about:
Q. You say a literary history has to make judgments. Give us an example of whom you see as overrated, whom underrated?
Overrated: Gertrude Stein. She played an important role in the development of modernism, but she played it for men. And she is just not readable. She became viewed as a "sister": That doesn't sanctify her work. We can criticize it.
I look with a critical eye at contemporary poetry, too. There are a great many talented woman poets today, but I don't think any of them measure up to a Sylvia Plath or Adrienne Rich. I don't feel any male poets do either.
You know, if you're willing to write off contemporary poetry by women, then yes, it's a lot easier to say that Stein's development of modernist literature was only for men. And I think it's ridiculous for a professional literary critic, even an old, cantankerous one, to write off a major writer for not being "readable" and dismiss serious scholarship about her writing as motivated by "sisterhood." Because what it does it allows you to take Stein down a peg without having to similarly discount Joyce, Beckett, Faulkner, Celan, or any of the "unreadable" men who took on the writing of language as powerfully as she did.
Gertrude Stein stands at the front of every major American literary movement of the 20th century (and plenty of the European ones too). And it's not just the crazy experimental ones -- the minimalist-realist school of Hemingway and Carver, the creative-critical modes of a lot of our best thinkers. If you want to be a serious reader of literature, you have got to grapple with Stein -- at the very least with Tender Buttons and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which is as good and as readable a novel about literature as you're ever going to find.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin'
April 11, 2009
Loss Of Service
Matt Richtel whines:
Technology is rendering obsolete some classic narrative plot devices: missed connections, miscommunications, the inability to reach someone. Such gimmicks don’t pass the smell test when even the most remote destinations have wireless coverage. (It’s Odysseus, can someone look up the way to Ithaca? Use the "no Sirens" route.)
Of what significance is the loss to storytelling if characters from Sherwood Forest to the Gates of Hell can be instantly, if not constantly, connected?
Plenty, and at least part of it is personal. I recently finished my second thriller, or so I thought. When I sent it to several fine writer friends, I received this feedback: the protagonist and his girlfriend can't spend the whole book unable to get in touch with each other. Not in the cellphone era.
Then Christopher Breen whines:
As you may have heard, areas of San Francisco’s South Bay and coast lost their landline, cell phone, and Internet connectivity because an individual or individuals unknown deliberately sliced four fiber optic cables in San Jose, California. This action (currently termed “vandalism”), in addition to unplugging over 50,000 area residents, caused many businesses to shut down and threatened lives because 911 services were out for the better part of the day...
I had no Internet access. I couldn’t call the office to alert my boss that I was off the grid. And my iPhone was no good with its constant No Service heading regardless of where I drove. I was completely unplugged.
Voilà.... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy, Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark, Television
Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write "however" or "than me" or "was" or "which," but can't tell you why. The land of the free in the grip of The Elements of Style.
So I won't be spending the month of April toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst. I've spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don't-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can't even tell when they've broken their own misbegotten rules.
That sounds like standard-issue Chronicle of Higher Ed blunderbussery, but the author, Geoffrey K. Pullum, knows what he's talking about -- he's a linguist, and co-wrote The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language -- and the bulk of the essay is a startlingly comprehensive, point-by-point, and erudite take-down of Strunk and White.... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Learnin'
Dream of My Dissertation Defense
I had a dream a few nights ago where I was defending my dissertation. Actually, it wasn't clear if it was my dissertation defense or another job interview. Anyways, this is what I said. (Replace the word "Rehabilitated" with "Educated.")
That night, I slept peacefully, content to finally have revealed the truth.
Angela at AdRants blogged the heck out of my session at ad:Tech Paris on Monday -- complete with video!
My part of the session was basically my mini-manifesto for the future of advertising, disguised as a look back from ad:Tech 2019. (I don't know how to tell a story any other way, apparently.) Angela's video snippets are a chance to see Prezi in action, if you haven't yet. And watch the first one around 1:10 for a sneak peek of Apple's breakthrough product in 2011.
Unfortunately, no blog posts have yet been produced chronicling the baguette-eating and boulevard-wandering that has followed.
April 10, 2009
Thousand-Dollar Steampunk Idea
Teletwitter (or "Twittergraph"): A multiplatform twitter client that pounds out received tweets like an oldtimey telegraph/teletype machine. Morse code optional. Also sheds punctuation formats in telegram style & replaces period with STOP
Doctor Jones's Office Hours
Good-looking people enjoy what economists/sociologists call a "beauty premium." They get paid more and are seen as better at their jobs than people of average attractiveness. It works for men and for women. Men, for example, get a premium for being taller, in shape, handsome, and with a nice head of hair.
Now here's where it gets interesting. A new Israeli study suggests that male professors get a beauty bump, but female professors don't. The researchers guess that this is rooted in a "contradiction between... role images and gender images": somehow, female attractiveness is seen as incongruous with the paternal, traditional scholar/educator role of the professor, where male attractiveness isn't -- particularly, it seems, for female students. That's the idea, anyways.
I don't endorse this conclusion, but there's definitely something going on here. A couple of things that came to my mind on reading this:... Read more ....
File under: Beauty, Learnin', Society/Culture
April 9, 2009
Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings is so perceptive, it transcends any artifact of professional training and reveals a purity of attention to and sympathy with the human universe. Consider her long post on abusive relationships:
So imagine yourself, in love with someone, on your honeymoon or pregnant, when suddenly this guy just goes ballistic, often for very little reason, and hits you. For a lot of women, this is profoundly shocking and disorienting. There are things that are comprehensible parts of the world, even if they're rare, like having your car stolen; and then there are things that are unexpected in a completely different sense, like having your car turn into an elephant before your eyes: things that make you wonder whether you're completely crazy. Being beaten up by someone who apparently loves you is one of those things.
What this means is that precisely when a woman needs as much confidence in her own judgment as she can muster, the rug is completely pulled out from under her. And it's not just that she questions her judgment because she got involved with this guy in the first place; she questions her judgment because something so completely alien to the world she thinks she knows has just happened.
April 8, 2009
An Odyssey In Reverse
Bob Dylan on what intrigues him about Barack Obama:
He's got an interesting background. He's like a fictional character, but he's real. First off, his mother was a Kansas girl. Never lived in Kansas though, but with deep roots. You know, like Kansas bloody Kansas. John Brown the insurrectionist. Jesse James and Quantrill. Bushwhackers, Guerillas. Wizard of Oz Kansas. I think Barack has Jefferson Davis back there in his ancestry someplace. And then his father. An African intellectual. Bantu, Masai, Griot type heritage -- cattle raiders, lion killers. I mean it's just so incongruous that these two people would meet and fall in love. You kind of get past that though. And then you're into his story. Like an odyssey except in reverse.
Dylan obviously knows a thing or two about 1) being a fictional character and 2) being on an odyssey. He was drawn to Obama early after reading his memoir, Dreams From My Father. "His writing style hits you on more than one level. It makes you feel and think at the same time and that is hard to do. He says profoundly outrageous things. He's looking at a shrunken head inside of a glass case in some museum with a bunch of other people and he's wondering if any of these people realize that they could be looking at one of their ancestors." This also sounds like Dylan to me.
(PS: Link to the Times of London interview fixed.)
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Music, Snarkpolitik
April 7, 2009
My favorite new adjective is employed in the following sentence:
Except the author goes on to say it's cold, which doesn't seem right. Dagoba was a jungle planet, right? I think we need to take this one head-on. Dagobavian is for steamy, sinister summer nights. Use it.
MSU student Megan Gebhart writes up a bit more of my talk from a couple weeks ago -- this part about prototyping, iterative development, and the imperative to fail fast.
Megan did a great job drawing out the main points (and made some explanatory graphics to go along with them); overall, I'm think this is probably an improvement on the original! And I like this analogy, which is all hers:
It’s like painting a small section of your wall before you decide to paint the whole house. Instead of sitting around hoping you’re making the right choice, try it out!
And, credit where it's due: I was basically channeling the d.school.
April 6, 2009
Site-Specific Short Stories
Over at BLDGBLOG, Nicola Twilley writes about a set of short stories just commissioned for the Royal Parks in London. How completely cool: Imagine reading a short story set in a park while walking through it. If I was writing one I'd do the scenes such that you could actually walk the story as you read it -- my characters and your feet keeping pace. They're in the Botanical Gardens. You're in the Botanical Gardens. Walk faster! Read slower!
Better yet if this kind of work isn't commissioned, of course; ideally, you want your site-specific fiction to be organic, to exist entirely because of the irresistible pull of a place on some writerly mind.
But, I'll take work-for-hire in a pinch.
Bet on Cities
Tentative thesis: Cities, not countries, are the true unit of human civilization. Two data points:
- The book Barbarians to Angels, which I tore through whilst SFO-JFK-CDG. The author, Peter Wells, tries to reframe the Dark Ages as not, well, the Dark Ages, but rather as just another period of growth and development. The important bit: Almost all of the important towns of Roman Europe, all the way up into Britain and Scandinavia, just kept on growing during the Dark Ages. There was no great ruin, no abandonment. Just the opposite: There was continuity.
- And then cross-ref with the percolating potential of this post over at O'Reilly about participatory planning in cities.
Oh yeah, and maybe also:
(Got the book recommendation from @bldgblog, and I pass it along to you.)
I know I promised baguettes, and this is a particularly dorky thing to be blogging from your Paris hotel room, but I think this sort of stuff is important.
Another little data point from Jakob Nielsen about the way people read online: They generally only process the first two words of items in lists. Those could be products, they could be news articles, they could be philosophical arguments, whatever.
Especially if you work professionally on the web -- vs. blogging intermittently -- it's really important to understand just how strange our brains and eyes become when we open up a browser. We turn into these crazed, ravenous info-squirrels leaping desperately from branch to branch.
This is of course not to say that all web writing needs to be
- bulleted lists
- with bold words
but rather, just remember: It's not like a book. It's not like a magazine. In fact, it's barely even like reading. It's more like wayfinding in a foreign city -- something I, after today, know a little about -- and you need to design things accordingly.
I can't believe I just wrote this in Paris. I gotta go.
April 5, 2009
In Praise of Phlegmatic Burghers
More good stuff on the journalism beat. Nicolas Lemann's "Paper Tigers" reviews new biographies of media moguls past and present, including a marvelous pivot between the flashy Hearst and Pulitzer to the double-breasted world of The Wall Street Journal's Barney Kilgore:
Kilgore and his colleagues did figure out how to publish a home-and office-delivered daily newspaper nationally, something that was far more difficult to accomplish in the nineteen-forties and fifties than people who have grown up with the Internet can imagine. The Journal's circulation, which was thirty-two thousand when Kilgore became its managing editor, in 1941, rose to just above a hundred and fifty thousand in 1950, eight hundred and twenty-five thousand in 1962, and almost a million when Kilgore died, of cancer, at the age of fifty-nine, in 1967.
When Kilgore started out at the Journal, reporters sometimes sold advertising, and Kilgore's own early work as a reporter entailed experimentation with forms carried over from the nineteenth century, such as articles written as letters to an imaginary friend. By the time the Journal had come to full maturity, it had helped establish the journalistic norms of reportorial nonpartisanship and of independence from advertiser pressure. As Tofel observes, it was less a standard newspaper than a news-and-business magazine published daily on newsprint, closer to Fortune and Business Week than to either Hearst's New York Journal or the Times, both of which were edited on the assumption that they would be their readers' sole source of news.
Still, Kilgore did much more than develop the manners and mores of modern élite journalism. The newspaper he built was full of idiosyncrasies and peculiarities, like the use of line drawings on the front page instead of photographs, the heavy use of peppy news briefs in lieu of stories, the not very funny daily cartoon cornily titled 'Pepper . . . and Salt,' the right-wing editorial page, and the goofy human-interest story in the middle of every day's front page. No less than Hearst's Journal and Pulitzer's World, the Wall Street Journal bore the stamp of Kilgore's personality, which turned out to be one that appealed to a large audience of phlegmatic businessmen like him.
I think Lemann actually goes too far in emphasizing the WSJ's blandness next to the rough-and-tumble world of the full yellows -- in the late nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, the ecology of financial news and the stock exchanges -- "a late-nineteenth-century version of a Bloomberg terminal -- a high-priced, custom-produced collection of timely data on the financial markets which was distributed to people who planned to trade on the information" -- was every bit as crazy, with people fighting each other over information (and misinformation) -- less Bloomberg than CNBC.
(I'm including this clip of Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler slightly because it begins with a crazy scene where Mabuse has used the newspapers to manipulate the stock market into a mighty short-sell, but mostly because I just love this movie.)
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Journalism, Movies
Star-Eyed Idealists Burning The House To The Ground
Last week, Jack Shafer called out the idea that newspapers are essential to enlightened democracy as a big bunch of self-deluded hooey:
Until the current newspaper crisis, you rarely heard politicians or activists bleating about how important newspapers were to self-government. They mostly bitched about what awful failures newspapers were at uncovering vital data. The only group that holds a consistently high opinion of newspapers is newspaper people. They're the ones who do the bragging about how newspapers enrich democracy by uncovering pollution, malfeasance in office, abuses of power, and unsafe consumer goods...
The insistence on coupling newspapering to democracy irritates me not just because it overstates the quality and urgency of most of the work done by newspapers but because it inflates the capacity of newspapers to make us better citizens, wiser voters, and more enlightened taxpayers. I love news on newsprint, believe me, I do. But I hate seeing newspapers reduced to a compulsory cheat sheet for democracy. All this lovey-dovey about how essential newspapers are to civic life and the political process makes me nostalgic for the days, not all that long ago, when everybody hated them.
Me, I think journalism is (among other things) good for democracy, and newspapers are a pretty good way to read things in print. So I took Shafer's rant as half a useful corrective and half an enjoyable self-contained bit of contrarian crankiness.
But then I read this striking juxtaposition in LISNews, and I thought -- hmm: maybe something less wholesome is going on with all this hymn-to-democracy talk:
At the end of last week, the New York Times Company threatened to close down the Boston Globe unless the employee unions agreed to $20 million in cuts. This comes on the heels of comments by NYT executive editor Bill Keller speaking to an audience at Stanford in which he stated "saving the New York Times now ranks with saving Darfur as a high-minded cause." (He clarifies his statement to relate it to the relative level of interest in the survival of the Times, not as a human rights intervention. This doesn't change the extraordinarily poor choice of comparative terms.)
See also Brian Tierney, publisher of the now-bankrupt Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News, who made a whole lot of noise about the virtues of a locally-owned paper while taking on a ton of debt, extracting pound-of-flesh concessions from labor, and awarding himself raises and bonuses before it all kinda fell apart.
So to review:
- Sometimes when people are going on-and-on about how virtuous and essential their industry is, they're actually trying to Mickey-Finn you into letting them do whatever they want;
- A lot of people who really like the idea of good local journalism and even really like newsprint in their hands really don't like their local newspaper -- either because of what they read (or don't read) or because of what they know the paper is doing or has done, in many cases to people they know. We can't lose sight of that.
File under: Cities, Journalism, Snarkpolitik
The Economist just published a magazine article on the relationship between poverty, stress, and memory in childhood development. It's a powerful thesis, and breathtaking in its scope. But Mark Liberman at Language Log has an equally powerful takedown that walks back some of the big conclusions the article suggests.
Basically, the differences found in the research are actually statistically smaller than you'd think. As debunkings go, this is ho-hum. But I'm much more intrigued by Liberman's Whorfian idea about why we get confused when we start to talk about statistical variation among groups:
This is presumably because a significant proportion of [The Economist's] readers would be baffled by talk of effect sizes or percentiles, while the proportion who are bothered by vague talk about generic differences is minuscule. Such things are not effectively taught or widely learned, even among quantitatively-minded intellectuals. But I also think that there's a linguistic aspect. If Benjamin Lee Whorf were alive, he might argue that our whole society is intellectually hamstrung by the way that English -- like all the other languages of the world -- tends to make us think about the evaluation and comparison of the properties of members of groups. And, I think, he might be right.
The easy and natural ways of talking about group comparisons express differences in terms of properties of the groups involved, or in terms of properties of imaginary generic or average group members: "the working memories of children who have been raised in poverty have smaller capacities than those of middle-class children"; "Those who had spent their whole lives in poverty could hold an average of 8.5 items in their memory at any time. Those brought up in a middle-class family could manage 9.4." Writers and speakers may know what's really going on, at least with half of their brains, but readers and listeners are fooled into thinking that they understand these generic statements, even though in the absence of information about the comparison of distributions rather than the comparison of average values, they're left completely unable to put that understanding to any valid use.
This situation ought to be just as puzzling, at least to members of a more advanced civilization, as the Pirahã's ignorance of numbers is to us.
This kind of cognilinguistatistical analysis just strikes me as so powerful, and so complimentary to all of its various parts, that I wish there were some kind of new program that just devoted to all of the different highly technical ways we have to make sense of stuff: linguistics, statistics, model-building, cryptography, semiotics, paleography, information sciences. I'd double-major in that and philosophy in a heartbeat -- then start a think-tank devoted to high-end hermeneutics.
Also, I would wear all-black tailored suits and a sharp fedora, and ride around in the Batmobile. It would be so, so sweet.
File under: Braiiins, Language, Learnin', New Liberal Arts
Off to Paris
OK, I'm off to Paris in a few hours. Expect light posting from me this week. And expect those posts to mainly be baguette reviews.
If you live in Paris, or know somebody cool who does -- drop me a line! Comment here, or email robin at snarkmarket dot com.
Making Reality Operational
Friend of Snarkmarket Nav at Scrawled In Wax has a thoughtful meditation on the relationship of video games to other art forms (and to reality), spurred on by playing LittleBigPlanet:
Video games can also tell stories, but many people argue that narrative -- particularly telling stories, or "diegesis" - isn't their primary function. Instead of relying on the representation of a world to tell tales, video games rely on simulation, not to recreate the world but in order to create a world as an arena for simulated action. And by collapsing both play and creation into one experience, blurring the distinction between the two, LittleBigPlanet becomes a metaphor for gaming itself in which the uniqueness of games as a cultural form becomes clear.
If literary texts work primarily through representation, and secondly by reader interaction, the inverse is true of video games: even in the most "realistic" games, it is the creative, interactive element that is paramount, and it is through this that players produce their own narratives as they move through a world that references "life" but is neither constrained by it nor bound to its rules...
And while I myself will always be partial to the intensely interior nature of literature, LittleBigPlanet suggests that, as gaming develops, its potential and power will be found in its capacity to empower players to create worlds never before imagined - and then, as was never possible before, step into them.
Let me tweak Nav's terms a little, because I think actually that "diegesis" DOESN'T just mean narrative, and is flexible enough to cover the "reader interaction" that he's talking about. Broadly speaking, diegesis is the interaction, rather than the story -- we associate it with narrative because it's a way to describe all the tools a narrator uses to tell a story rather than simply recount what happened. When a good storyteller hooks you in, THAT's diegesis. (Narrative in this sense would be one kind of diegesis.)
I particularly like the idea that video games and literature/film are at opposite ends of the teeter-totter that is mimesis/representation and diegesis/reader interaction -- they're important aspects both, but actually diegesis (I guess we'd call this "gameplay") is way more privileged in video games, precisely because of the high emphasis on interactivity.
I'll add another wrinkle. In fancy-pants film theory we often talk about the way that a viewer is "sutured" or stitched into the mind-space of the film. Basically, when you're watching a movie, you've got to take some kind of subject position -- usually it's that of the third-person who watches, taking turns identifying with one or another of the characters' point-of-view. And traditional movie techniques are all about making that subject-position super comfortable. You're sitting back, watching Bogart and Bergman and Dooley Wilson talk in Casablanca, one of them kind of at the center-left of the screen and one kind of at center-right, cutting back and forth, and you never stop to think, "hey! what's going on! where the hell am I?" The movie's doing its job, making all of this stuff transparent. While crazy art movies, like Pier Paolo Pasolini's, flip the axis and do disjunctive montages, so you can't get comfortable or find an easy space to identify with. And that's the point.
Scott McCloud talks about something similar in comic books -- we can identify with a character as an avatar if there's just enough detail that he/she seems real-ish, but not so much that he/she seems like somebody else, which is weirdly uncanny. So the more precisely iconic a character is -- whether Homer Simpson or Batman -- the easier it is for us to say, "that could be me."
Video games definitely work on both levels. The characters themselves have to be iconic - enough detail to distinguish them from being merely generic, not so much that we reject the ID altogether. But what really hooks us in is the gameplay, and in order for the gameplay to feel right, it, too, has to feel iconic -- simple enough in its execution to be manipulable and masterable, complex enough in its representation to "feel" real. This is the difference between trying to make the character on the screen -- what my mom would call "the guy" -- do different things, and feeling as if you yourself were doing them. Where you can call the character "I," or intermediately, "my guy."
I feel like I'm venturing too far afield. Suffice it to say, this reality/representation/narrative/interaction stuff is surprisingly profound once you start to get into it. And the fact that most of it is, for us, unconscious, helps to show both how good games tap into our brain's capacity for this kind of agent-mediated thinking and how thoroughly acculturated most of us are to the representational/interactive grammar of video games. Just like with films, when it's working really well, we don't even notice it any more.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Braiiins, Movies, Video Games
As Still As A River Could Be
Whenever I get stuck trying to explain either 1) my favorite current musical artist, 2) my musical tastes in general, or 3) my general aesthetic stance on the universe, I always fall back on Bill Callahan.
Callahan made one terrific record after another through the nineties and early part of this decade, recording as Smog - and later as (Smog). Red Apple Falls and Knock Knock are particularly atmospheric high points. They also show Callahan's musical range -- he can crank out feisty garage rock, precise minimalist folk, full-throated country gospel, and carefully arranged pop.
Somewhere in the nineties, too, Callahan shifted his singing voice downward; now he's somewhere in that strange middle road between Lou Reed and the late Johnny Cash. And in 2006, he hooked up with queen of folk Joanna Newsom (previous paramours include Cat Power's Chan Marshall) and shed the Smog moniker to release his first album under his own name. Woke On A Whaleheart is gentle but exuberant, roots-burnt rock and roll. Of course, then Callahan's heart got broken again - but he kept the name, and the relative immediacy
His new album, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, is more restrained than the uneven Whaleheart, but even more beautiful. In particular, "Rococo Zephyr" and "Faith/Void" just blow me away. They officially drop at mid-month -- check them out.... Read more ....
April 4, 2009
Method to Madness
I love the sound of this, and plan to try it:
I remove my glasses, pull a stocking cap down over my eyes, and type the first draft single-spaced on the yellow paper in the actual and metaphorical darkness behind my closed eyes, trying to avoid being distracted by syntax or diction or punctuation or grammar or spelling or word choice or anything else that would block the immediate delivery of the story.
The author uses a typewriter, but this intentional blinding seems even more appealing in the context of a laptop. These things are wonderful, terrible distraction machines, and while you can always subvert technology with more technology, I think a stocking cap over the eyes sounds just about right.
Something about the Tokyo! trailer seemed pretty Robin-esque to me:
So, Sloan, how's my Ro-dar? Planning to see this? Seen it already?
What's Valuable, What's Real
I really admire Harper's Magazine blogger/lawyer Scott Horton, not least because he is a voracious and sensitive reader, who often serves up nice chunks of older texts. This, for example, is from today's excerpt of John Stuart Mill's essay on Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
'Lord, enlighten thou our enemies,' should be the prayer of every true Reformer; sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers: we are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom; their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.
I've heard this quote before, without attributing it to Mill, and I'm guessing you might have too; but there's more, and it's all worth reading.
I know, I know; my bias on this is clear, since I read and reread old stuff as a matter of disposition - an irresistable need to know - as much as because of my profession.
I think what I want to emphasize, in this case and maybe in others, is that you, gentle reader, ought to be dissatisfied with the general knowledge you have of people like John Stuart Mill, whether from a college humanities course or wherever. It's too easy to say, "yeah, Mill, Utilitarianism, I know all about that." I mean, be thankful that you know that. But I think that kind of checkbox thinking about intellectual history is too easily encouraged by the way we teach this stuff.
What doesn't come through in that isn't the deep nuances of the different philosophies or systems or biographies that scholars and specialists concern themselves with. It's the knowledge that most of these people that we remember were really important because they were great essayists, occasional thinkers, men and women who could speak about anything great or small. And there's nothing to replace that feeling that you get, reading someone, that you're thinking with them, and that their thoughts and words are... irreplaceable and necessary and just.
I don't know. I am not saying this well. These thoughts are replaceable and unnecessary and almost certainly unjust. So I will take them to their limit. You have to continue to challenge yourself as a reader - a serious reader. And as one who learns - a serious student. That you have not calcified. That you do not know what you think you know, least of all who or what or where or especially WHEN is important.
I don't have to impress upon you the need to embrace the new. But get a library card and wander somewhere dusty. Find something real. And then blog about it -- bring it into this world.
Scan that creaky wisdom, make it sing. We need many things now, but wisdom most of all.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin'
April 3, 2009
Some Of That Information I Actually Need
Joshua Schachter lists several reasons why shortened URLs (those mini-links provided by TinyURL and its children), despite their convenience in some circumstances, are actually pretty bad. And I agree.
Some of Schachter's reasons are technical, related to DNS servers and the code they're written in, and others are more counterfactual - like what happens when a company goes out of business, and all of those links go dead?
But eventually, under the rubric of "usability issues" he gets around to the big one for me: "The clicker can't even tell by hovering where a link will take them, which is bad form."
I don't know about you, but when I'm browsing the web, I hover over links like each one were a suspect public toilet -- only touching down when I'm sure I know what I'm getting into. I take clicking through VERY seriously. Hovering over a link to get a peak at the URL may not always be perfect information, but to me, it's essential. TinyURLs don't let you do that. You're going to the middle of nowhere. This bothers me, every time.
In response to Schachter, Jason lists what he'd like to change about the way Twitter uses shortened URLs:
With respect to Twitter, I would like to see two things happen:
1) That they automatically unshorten all URLs except when the 140 character limit is necessary in SMS messages.
2) In cases where shortening is necessary, Twitter should automatically use a shortener of their own.
That way, users know what they're getting and as long as Twitter is around, those links stay alive.
Very reasonable ideas, all of these. In general, it seems like Twitter's going to have to create its own rhetoric of linking as powerful as the "@username" designation for links to Twitter users. Maybe an "%sitename" HTML tag in lieu of a shortened URL? Not sure.
"He's got good morals," conceded a graffiti artist called Monkey, while helping his friend scale a traffic light and drape a banner: it depicted a grim reaper clutching fistfuls of banknotes.
Prezi Passes the Test
Oh man, you should see my Gmail inbox. It's fully 50% emails to myself with drafts of Snarkmarket posts. There's an avalanche coming. But not yet.
I did, however, want to give a shout out to Prezi. I did my first public prezi-ntation on Wednesday at Web 2.0 Expo. It was projected on a couple of mega-screens (about like this) and wow, it looked great. Really slick and entirely arresting.
The app is open to the public starting next week, and I can't recommend it more highly.
Credit where due: It has been pointed out to me that there's a zoom-y thing in PowerPoint these days. I still prefer Prezi, though, if only because it's so gleefully non-rectilinear. Rotating, twisting, flipping upside down: These things are hard to avoid once you get going with a prezi. I like that.
Untitled, by Mira Schendel; from a new MOMA retrospective of Schendel and LeÃ³n Ferrari.
April 2, 2009
The Web Today
Mary Meeker's Web 2.0 presentations are, almost by definition, the ultimate expression of the reigning conventional wisdom about the web. But wow: What an expression. Dense and data-rich: Here's the latest one.
April 1, 2009
Every Library Is A Lighthouse
Bad times do strange things to free, public places, especially those with internet access:
Urban ills like homelessness have affected libraries in many cities for years, but librarians here and elsewhere say they are seeing new challenges. They find people asleep more often at cubicles. Patrons who cannot read or write ask for help filling out job applications. Some people sit at computers trying to use the Internet, even though they have no idea what the Internet is.
“A lot of people who would not normally be here are coming in to use the computers,” said Cynthia Jones, a regional branch manager in St. Louis.
“Adults complain a lot about kids just playing games and you know, ‘I need to do a résumé, or ‘I need to write, I need some help,’ ” Ms. Jones said. “There’s a bit of frustration.”
Ms. Jones instructed her staff to tread carefully. “You don’t want to upset people,” she said. “You don’t know what might set somebody off.”
Philadelphia recently had a long and torturous go-round over proposed library closings. The idea I floated among my small and relatively uninfluential circle was to keep the libraries open and move other public/social services into space at the libraries and close THOSE buildings.
I still think this is a good idea, especially once you grant the notion that libraries are a place to access public information of all kinds, not just those found in books. If libraries are where people are coming for help, then that's where we should go to reach them. Every library is a lighthouse, a city's or town's beacon to guide the way in the night.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Cities, Snarkpolicy
Our Phones, Ourselves
I recently had one of those moments where a few disparate thoughts click into place, and I was left with an insight that seems obvious in retrospect. (Trouble is, you never know when those moments actually are obvious, and have occurred to everybody except you ages ago. Forgive me if this is one of those.)
It starts with the mobile "phone," or whatever you want to call it. First, as has been widely remarked, half the world has one. Adoption rates exceed 100 percent in countries from Romania to New Zealand. Here in the US, it's not hard to imagine a near future where smartphones with touchscreens are as ubiquitous as the Nokia bricks of yesteryear.
Here's what strikes me about mobile phones: they correlate pretty well with actual people. To a degree unmatched by a computer and certainly by a landline, a cell phone is a personal device. Every member of a family is likely to have one. Not all that many people carry more than one. Between phone number portability and Google Voice, you can almost imagine a person's phone number becoming an identifier almost as reliable as a Social Security number, certainly more stable than, say, a driver's license ID.
This got me thinking about biometrics. The notion of your mobile phone touchscreen reading your fingerprint isn't exactly new, and these devices are almost made for voice recognition, right? The point is, verifying identity with a mobile device seems like it should be easier and more accurate than it has typically been throughout the digital transition, yes?
We're already paying for things with our cell phones. You can see the vast upsides to voting via cell phone. I'm already jonesing for my cell phone to interface with all my other electronic devices: "Desktop and air conditioner, Matt's on his way home. Work it."
The upshot of all this is that we're hurtling towards a moment when your mobile telecommunications device is entangled with your identity in all sorts of curious ways. What does this mean? What does it mean to be that closely enmeshed with a computer?
And how does that enmeshment implicate our relationships with the telecom industry? It's already squicky enough that I rely on T-Mobile for phone service. I am not at this moment OK with signing on to T-Mobile's Identity™ service.
Perhaps this epiphany occurred much earlier to those of you with iPhones, but it felt novel enough to me to remark upon it. At any rate, "mobile phone" is not cutting it any more. If this thing really is becoming the prime representative of our digital identity, it needs a more accurate rebranding. Nominations?
A Place To Gather (And Use The Printer)
Diana Kimball praises the campus computer lab:
Computer labs offer a combination of connectivity and escape at the same time: they provide a location, a destination, where all of the necessary technological tools are assembled and maintained. They also establish in student’s minds the existence of a “computer place” on campus—the natural place to gravitate toward when your laptop has gotten a virus, or its hard drive has died, or you’re wondering how to set up your email client. Here, the IT helpdesk is right in the computer lab, reinforcing that relationship.
With laptops all but ubiquitous, community computer labs may seem frivolous. But that very ubiquity, and its inescapability, means that colleges have a responsibility to respect and support the relationship between students and computers. A computer lab sends a strong signal, offers an obvious location to honor and troubleshoot that relationship, and gives students an alternative to squinting at tiny screens.
An indication of how fast things have changed: when I started college (in 1997), not only did I not own a laptop, I didn't even own a computer. I had never owned a computer. (My first honest-to-goodness PC to call my own came in 2001, my first year of graduate school.) Every paper I wrote was improvised in a computer lab. (Hmm. Maybe I should try that again.)
Here's my vision of the future of the computer lab: rows of ready-to-go machines, yes, but also of laptop kiosks, places where you can plug in and recharge, hook up to the networked printer, and chat with the techs and support staff. Maybe even a floating reference librarian to help with research questions and writing papers. A place to gather, where the communal intellectual energy can hum and crackle and strike down with electric inspiration. And to use the printer.