August 31, 2009
I'm going to keep you apprised of new developments with this 3D sketching app Rhonda, just because I think it's such an exciting, novel visual tool. In this video, Andreas Martini exports the raw geometry from Rhonda—that's a new feature—and plays with it in a more traditional 3D program. The result is a neat little hand-drawn, day-glo neighborhood.
Reading Poems Out Loud, Or Not
I think I just realized something. I enjoy reading poems out loud. But I only enjoy it when I am the one reading. Stuff like this—A. Van Jordan reading a poem called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—it's like, it loses all of its poetry somehow. Gone. Drained.
Even a poet I love as much as Billy Collins—to hear him reading his stuff is just not edifying. I can barely hear how it's poetry, and not just an odd string of words.
Agree? Disagree? Am I missing a gene?
(The A. Van Jordan link is via Swindle, a neat poetry aggregator. Well, kinda neat. I like the idea, but the links are so devoid of context I can't always muster the interest to click on any. Good titles get me.)
Update: Some great recommendations, and a bonus MP3, in the comments.
Launch Emma, Part Two
This book trailer for Flatmancrooked's Launch Emma project (previously) features, against all odds, a giant metallic Veritech fighter (in robot mode, naturally) extolling the virtues of arts patronage. SOLD.
The End of the Modern Age of Comics
A few reactions to Disney's purchase of Marvel:
- Can we call this the close of the Modern Age of comics? Sometime during the early 00s—maybe even earlier—it seems like big corporate comics (DC and Marvel) shifted decisively from creating new characters and storylines to mining the creative capital they'd accrued over decades. (There's a fossil fuel analogy lurking here.)
- I'm not talking about relaunches and re-interpretations, a la The Dark Knight Returns and John Byrne's Superman reboot back in the 80s. I'm talking about all you do is look backward—whether it's retold tales like Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man or recursive loops like DC's Infinite Crisis.
- Okay, I'm sure there are lots of little exceptions, but I really really want to pronounce Marvel and DC dead. C'mon, can't we just pronounce them dead?
- And what I mean by that is: They are no longer engines of creation. They now exist to license, merchandise, expand and exploit the IP they've been nurturing over the years. Which is totally okay! But...
- Who's gonna create the new characters?
(Hmm. That ended up being more suited to paragraphs than bullets. Oh well, not changing it.)
Another detail from the story: Marvel has just 300 employees. Think of that company's cultural "throw-weight"—not insignificant—and divide that by its headcount. Pretty impressive.
What have you noticed about comics in the last 3-5 years? Anything noteworthy? Anything that this deal crystallizes? Where is the medium going?
Amazing! My Kickstarter project hit 100% sometime after I went to sleep but before I woke up. What a thrill.
I posted a project update on Sunday afternoon, for the curious.
(Don't worry, it's not gonna be all Kickstarter all the time around here. I have a post on ancient coins coming.)
Update: Nice mention on the HarperStudio blog. I love that the post's author is, simply, "Intern." Thanks for the shout-out, Intern, whoever you are!
August 30, 2009
Your Future Portaphone
He hasn't posted a ton lately, and really, going after mobile phones is low-hanging fruit, but I was still delighted with today's look at portable phones (from a 1976 book titled Future Facts). It includes this quote:
For a while at least, the portaphone will remain a business tool or luxury item. In time, however, portaphones will get smaller and cheaper, just as transistor radios have.
First: "portaphones!" When did we stop applying multisyllabic prefixes to words? Probably around the same time "port-a" became uniquely associated with outdoor toilets.
Second: today, we would almost certainly have to reverse that analogy: "Over time, transistor radios became smaller and cheaper, just as celullar phones have today." I consider this a sign of the analogy's intrinsic merit.
Last: it's easy to look at old predictions of the future with awe at what they get right and glee at what they get wrong. But this should be taken seriously as symptoms. They show how the past dreamed itself, and indeed, how it dreamed the present, in all of its possibilities and constraints, into being.
File under: Gleeful Miscellany, Object Culture, Technosnark
Hey, This is the Kind of Post That I Usually Write
Hmm, this seems to be happening more and more often—Snarkmarketers do something interesting and somebody else explains What It Means for Media. (Usually that's our gig.) In this case it's Eoin Purcell, with a really nice, complimentary post about my Kickstarter project.
And I especially appreciate it because I feel like I have totally written That Post before, and I know how jazzed I was when I was writing it.
Scholars To Google: Your Metadata Sucks
Geoff Nunberg at Language Log on one of the biggest problems for scholarly use of Google Books: :
It's well and good to use the corpus just for finding information on a topic — entering some key words and barrelling in sideways. (That's what "googling" means, isn't it?) But for scholars looking for a particular edition of Leaves of Grass, say, it doesn't do a lot of good just to enter "I contain multitudes" in the search box and hope for the best. Ditto for someone who wants to look at early-19th century French editions of Le Contrat Social, or to linguists, historians or literary scholars trying to trace the development of words or constructions: Can we observe the way happiness replaced felicity in the seventeenth century, as Keith Thomas suggests? When did "the United States are" start to lose ground to "the United States is"? How did the use of propaganda rise and fall by decade over the course of the twentieth century? And so on for all the questions that have made Google Books such an exciting prospect for all of us wordinistas and wordastri. But to answer those questions you need good metadata. And Google's are a train wreck: a mish-mash wrapped in a muddle wrapped in a mess.
The devil here is in the details - Nunberg goes on to list dates and categories that aren't accidentally, but systematically misapplied, in wild, impossible fashion. There's a great discussion after the post, too - not to be missed.
It's actually surprising that this is such a problem, considering that the bulk of Google Books's collection is gathered from major research libraries, who DO spend a lot of time cataloguing this stuff for themselves. What happened?
In discussion after my presentation, Dan Clancy, the Chief Engineer for the Google Books project, said that the erroneous dates were all supplied by the libraries. He was woolgathering, I think. It's true that there are a few collections in the corpus that are systematically misdated, like a large group of Portuguese-language works all dated 1899. But a very large proportion of the errors are clearly Google's doing. Of the first ten full-view misdated books turned up by a search for books published before 1812 that mention "Charles Dickens", all ten are correctly dated in the catalogues of the Harvard, Michigan, and Berkeley libraries they were drawn from. Most of the misdatings are pretty obviously the result of an effort to automate the extraction of pub dates from the OCR'd text. For example the 1604 date from a 1901 auction catalogue is drawn from a bookmark reproduced in the early pages, and the 1574 dating (as of this writing) on a 1901 book about English bookplates from the Harvard Library collections is clearly taken from the frontispiece, which displays an armorial booksmark dated 1574...
[It's like that joke from Star Trek VI: "not every species keeps their genitals" (by which I mean, metadata) "in the same place."]
After some early back-and-forth, Google decided it did want to acquire the library records for scanned books along with the scans themselves, and now it evidently has them, but I understand the company hasn't licensed them for display or use -- hence, presumably, the odd automated stabs at recovering dates from the OCR that are already present in the library records associated with the file.
Ugh. I mean, the books in these libraries are incredibly valuable. But when you think about all of the time and labor spent documenting and preserving the cataloguing info over centuries, it's kind of astonishing that we're losing that in favor of clumsy OCR. Out of any company, Google should know that a well-optimized search technology is at least as important as the data it helps to sort.
Maybe they're just excessively cocky about their own tools. After all, the metadata problem isn't limited to browsing through Google Books. If you've ever tried to use an application like Zotero or EndNote to extract book and article metadata from Google Scholar, you find incomplete and mistaken information all over the place. You spend almost as much time checking your work and cleaning up as you would if you'd just entered the info in manually in the first place.
And in the end, manual entry is what we want to avoid. I'd say half the value of digital text archives for scholars is that they can put their eyeballs on a document - the other half is that they can send little robots to look at thousands and thousands of them, in the form of code that depends not least on good metadata.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Technosnark
August 29, 2009
I loved Virginia Heffernan's postscript to the Facebook exodus:
You’re not the first to think it’s creepy to have your personal life commercialized. Jürgen Habermas has been especially eloquent about this. Start with “The Theory of Communicative Action.” Copies are available on AbeBooks.com.
Just in case it's not clear why this is, um, unexpected AND funny, this is the sort of thing Habermas's two-volume book is about:
With this failure of the search for ultimate foundations by "first philosophy" or "the philosophy of consciousness", an empirically tested theory of rationality must be a pragmatic theory based on science and social science. This implies that any universalist claims can only be validated by testing against counterexamples in historical (and geographical) contexts - not by using transcendental ontological assumptions.
This is what I take to be the gist of Heffernan's recommendation: "No longer wasting time on Facebook? You finally have time to bone up on the Frankfurt School's critique of instrumental reason!" Sign me up.
August 28, 2009
Titles Through Time
QUESTION: The idsgn post includes a frame from the title sequence for SE7EN, and this page says the sequence "changed the way we look and think about title design today and is arguably the most imitated main title ever made."
What was so special about it? Was it the layering of imagery? The jittery motion? (I realize this is probably one of those situations where the aesthetic innovation has now diffused so fully that I simply can't see it. But I wanna know what I should be looking for.)
Don't Take My Word For It
I married my wife because not long after we met, she told me that when she was a little girl, she would rehearse for a never-to-happen appearance on Reading Rainbow, reviewing her favorite book, Norman Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth.
That's a true story.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Self-Disclosure
An Ancient Math Tutorial... on YouTube
A friend's dad has posted a multi-part abacus math tutorial on YouTube. Okay, I know it sounds like you're going to click the link and see Rick Astley, but no, really: It's fascinating. I didn't realize that the first abaci—or the abacus precursors, I guess—were probably just drawn in the dirt. Use pebbles to count. Easy.
I love that the internet provides a place for super-geeky, super-in-depth projects like this.
Kindle 2020 Playbook
I like Farhad Manjoo's approach in this piece about Kindle competitors. Not: "Here, then, is a survey of the market!" but rather "Listen boys... this is what ya gotta do."
August 27, 2009
Matt and Kim
This performance has three stars: Matt, Kim, and the look on Kim's face. What a great look! I feel like it's the look you see on your friend's face when she's having fun in the kitchen, laughing at a funny joke you just told but also, like, really concentrating on dicing a tomato. (I mean that as a compliment.)
Napoleon at Waterballoon
If you've been paying attention to some of the images I've linked to recently (e.g.), you've got my number: I like rainbow shrapnel. Therefore, I love Jamie Gumbrecht's photos of a titanic water balloon fight (obvs old-school positional warfare, not guerrilla-style) convened recently in Atlanta.
The New Patronage
I talked to CNET's Elinor Mills today about micro-patronage and my Kickstarter book project; here's the resulting piece.
I like this line:
Mozart may have had his patron Austrian prince, but he didn't have Twitter followers or MP3s to share.
(There aren't any Austrian princes subscribed to Snarkmarket's RSS feed, are there?)
Small World Pop
[I]f anything, rock criticism's become less populist over the last decade, as the spiraling decline of album sales makes it tougher to frame successful records as public events and easier to make niche sensations seem like they matter. And as we'll see, there were definite limits to the types of pop that could win over wider audiences.
On a personal level, of course, the idea of a pro-pop revolution feels right because it validates the many hours I spent arguing about it on the net. Making niche events feel somehow important is something the Internet is horribly good at: it turns arguments fractal, lets your bunch of digital friends and foes feel like the world when it no way is.
The So-So Firewall of China
I've read reports like this before: China has set up a massive internet filter inside its borders. A massive internet filter that is remarkable easy to circumvent.
It makes you wonder about the Chinese government's real objectives:
[...] it is not important for the CCP to make the wall insurmountable, just existent.
Is there—might there be—an ongoing argument inside the Chinese government about the optimum level of internet filtering or censorship in general? That's what's so fascinating about stuff like this; the official "thought process" is entirely opaque. (Compare to the U.S., where it is basically public.)
And I'm still on the hunt for more/better journalism about China in general. I'm talking not about "whoah crazy trend in China!" pieces but rather "this is how the Chinese government made this decision" pieces. But maybe those, uh, just don't exist.
Albert and Kurt
Albert and Kurt, via Nerdboyfriend.
This is my preferred vision of the all-knowing creator figure. He must a) have hair like that, and b) wear a nice unassuming blue sweatshirt.
SERIOUS QUESTION: Would this have been a fun conversation to be in? Like, reflected glow of fame aside, were these guys actually enjoyable to talk to? Any anecdotes or insights?
Early prediction: This book, Research Confidential, is going to become an underground new liberal arts classic, ostensibly about one specific field but actually applying to lots more—almost like the "Understanding Comics" of social science. (If you understand the analogy I'm trying to draw there, I love you.)
The New Rules Still Apply
A small piece of an expanding pie is the biggest piece of all.
I feel like there should be a gorgeously-illustrated kids' book with this as the central message. Take small slices. Grow the pie.
D is for Digitize
I'm going to be on a panel at the D is for Digitize conference put on by James Grimmelman and New York Law School in October. It's keyed to the Google Book Search settlement—which is far from settled:
Everything about the Google Book Search project is larger than life, from Google's audacious plan to digitize every book ever published to the gigantic class action settlement now awaiting court approval. The groundbreaking proposed settlement in the Google Book Search case is so complex that controversy has outpaced conversation and questions have outnumbered answers.
We aim to help close these gaps.
I'm going to study up on the settlement between now and then, and I'll share as I go. First order of business is the under-publicized but super-interesting research corpus clause.
However, I should note that I was invited not on the basis of my legal scholarship... not for my media futurism... but because of a short story. Pretty cool!
Kickstarter Video Tips
P.S. I wrote up some video tips for the Kickstarter blog, too.
Ben Clemens maps per-capita carbon emissions by congressional district. It would be interesting to add rural/urban as a dimension, too—although maybe we get that data "for free" because it correlates so well with red/blue.
August 26, 2009
Clive Thompson talks to the Stanford Study of Writing's Andrea Lunsford about the astonishing
decline super-tumescence of reading and writing:
"I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization," she says. For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.
The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That's because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.
It's almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn't a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they'd leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.
It's really easy to push this too far, and Thompson comes close. For one thing, I think it's more fair to say that before the internet, most Americans not in white-collar jobs (a much bigger field than just CT's three exemplars) never typed anything that wasn't a school assignment.
But in the broadest outlines, I totally agree -- and it's instructive that writing is SO dominant that it's gobbling up all of a lot of what used to be oral exchanges in favor of secondary literacy. And that writers are now particularly tuned towards a sense of TIMING in what they write. After all, classical oral rhetoric is where kairos, the Greek term for a sense of timing, moment, context, comes from:
Lunsford's team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.
The fact that students today almost always write for an audience (something virtually no one in my generation did) gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it's over something as quotidian as what movie to go see. The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn't serve any purpose other than to get them a grade.
The thing about kairos that doesn't come across in the plain-sense translation Thompson offers is that it's all about TIME. Timing, the moment of utterance, the moment of the speech, the sense of THIS moment in all of the times and places in history to give THIS speech. If chronos is cosmic time, the structure, the long duration, kairos is the event, the time when Things Happen. Cicero writing to Marc Antony, "you are Rome's Helen of Troy," knowing this will be read, out loud, by a reader who does not know what it says, in the Senate when Cicero himself is high-tailing it out of town, that he will be and has been part of the disaster he's describing ... That is kairos.
Writers coming of age today understand kairos because they write in time. And in-time. Has there ever been a moment where non-professionals have had to write so much in such an accelerated sense of time? In a not-quite-real-time, but a nearly-synchronized time, which is still nevertheless the quasi-timeless time of writing?
In fact, I think this is the proper philosophical response to "While I Was Away." Kairos Amok! (which is to say, chaos.)... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin'
The Senator from Netscape
I'm Writing a Book (With Your Help)
I'm not going to make this a splashy, OH-MY-GOD-CLICK-THIS-NOW post because you're going to be hearing a lot about it over the course of the next two months. No, like seriously: a lot.
But, building on the terrific experiences of Mr. Penumbra's Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store and New Liberal Arts, I'm writing a book! And I'm using Kickstarter as the funding and community platform to do it.
A special Snarkmarket note: I'm as interested in the new process as I am in the new economics. How do you balance behind-the-scenes updates with secrets and surprises? What's a tempo that's engaging but not annoying? How do you effectively solicit ideas? (For some reason—I don't know why I'm so sure of this—I am just 100% certain that a crucial idea, the key to some puzzle, is going to come from my backers.)
There's a video intro, so come take a peek.
August 25, 2009
What Is The Price?
His first words are "How much time do I have?"
The Tape Wore Away, and We Discovered What Was Underneath
I was reminded tonight of my life in Detroit driving up and down Woodward Avenue. Up and down, up and down. My car didn't have a CD player, only a tape deck. The tape I had was one side dubbed with Björk's Post and the other side with Homogenic. So many ups and downs on Woodward that after two years the tape was deteriorating to the point where the song "Pluto" sounded like it was imploding rather than exploding. Once getting to "All is Full of Love," Björk's voice was sounding more like Stephen Merritt's than Siouxsie Sioux's. "Headphones" was an audio reading from Nick Cave. It was sad and that was some lonely driving around.
(That's some of Merlin Mann's clackity right there.)
Stairway to Heaven
This made me laugh. Not one of those "ho ho, what a clever piece of art" laughs, but one of the better kind. I think a lot depends on the scroll; I pray that your monitor is not so tall that joke and punchline are displayed together, all at once.
Unicorns Bringing Up the Rear
Here's your oh-yes-it's-real chart of the day: the incidence of various elements on fantasy book covers. Swords hold a commanding lead, of course. But who knew boats would do so well?
Fake Steve Jobs explains his non-thinking behind the new Apple tablet:
I started with the big questions. What is a tablet? Who will use it? And for what? If the tablet were a tree, what kind of tree would it be? And what of the word tablet itself? Ta is a Sanskrit root, for "gift." Blet is Proto-Indo-European meaning "to be perfect while lacking usefulness." Will you write on a tablet, or just read from it? Or will you just buy it and put it on your desk and look at it a lot and never use it at all? Or will you maybe carry it around and put on the table in restaurants to show the other humanoids in your tribe that you are more advanced and wealthy than they are, and they should fear you because you have powerful magic that they do not understand? You see what I mean? What is the anthropology here? And what about the ergonomics? Can you mount it on a wall? Will it have a shiny surface so that Macolytes can adore themselves as they use it in public? (Yes. It must.) The tablet must look and feel not like something that was made by man -- it must feel otherworldly, as if God himself made it and handed it to you.
Perfect for the Botnet Master or Drug Dealer in Your Life
Wow, I weirdly sorta want one of these shameless knockoff pseudo-iPhones. The real attraction is the space for two parallel SIM cards. I feel you'd want to stock those slots with a couple of throwaway numbers and, what? Do secret things!
August 24, 2009
The New Looks
Just some links to things that are visually stunning:
Jillian Tamaki: How to smuggle a dirty bomb.
Yuhiko Tajima's illustrations from 1976. Look at the use of black. And look at the top figure; it's everything Dragonball has ever wanted to be.
AA Models. Geometric architectural and geological forms. Pretty much totally unbelievable.
Composite Squiggles (link to embedded Processing applet). Wonderful color.
Anaelle by Stefan Gruber (link to embedded Quicktime movie). C-H-A-R-M-E-D.
Collage by Able Parris. "The beginning involves applying." (Also, is Able Parris totally a name out of a novel, or what?)
And now, the big finish... Shane Hope. His big colorful freak-out giant-sized prints are "[r]endered and built with customized versions of user-sponsored open-source molecular visualization systems." Love that. Science visualization software co-opted for goofy, rainbow-colored fun. Full details here.
His Compile-a-Child drawing are fun, too (example), but they hit you in the head—whereas the big, colorful stuff hits you in the eyes.
A Constant and a Variant
I love stories like these, from poet Robert Creeley:
In the late forties, while living in Littleton, N.H., I had tried to start a magazine with the help of a college friend, Jacob Leed. He was living in Lititz, Pennsylvania, and had an old George Washington handpress. It was on that that we proposed to print the magazine. Then, at an unhappily critical moment, he broke his arm. I came running from New Hampshire—but after a full day's labor we found we had set two pages only, each with a single poem. So that was that.
Good enough, right? Nope:
What then to do with the material we had collected? Thanks to the occasion, I had found excuse to write to both Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. I didn't know what I really wanted of them but was of course deeply honored that they took me in any sense seriously. Pound very quickly seized on the possibility of our magazine's becoming in some sense a feeder for his own commitments, but was clearly a little questioning of our modus operandi . What he did give me, with quick generosity and clarity, was a kind of rule book for the editing of any magazine. For example, he suggested I think of the magazine as a center around which, "not a box within which/ any item." He proposed that verse consisted of a constant and a variant, and then told me to think from that to the context of a magazine. He suggested I get at least four others, on whom I could depend unequivocally for material, and to make their work the mainstay of the magazine's form. But then, he said, let the rest of it, roughly half, be as various and hogwild as possible, "so that any idiot thinks he has a chance of getting in."
Creeley goes on then to meet Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, all of the Beats... it just kind of runs on from there, a glorious march through almost all of the avant-garde poetry of the 1950s, from town to town, magazine to magazine... Just kids cranking away on their rusty old handpresses, broken arms be damned.
(Creeley's entire Collected Essays is available at the U of California press site - just follow the link above.)
And Suddenly You Feel Like An Alien
Um. Question. When you buy a hardcover book—or have one foisted upon you (because maybe you're like me, and you vastly prefer trade paperbacks—do you immediately peel off the jacket and, like, throw it away?
Apparently people do this. Seriously? I cannot even imagine. I'm not sure why, as I obviously don't like those filmy coverings. But to throw one away? It feels... transgressive!
Is this really a thing that people do?
Update: Wow, I'm not the only one. The battle lines are drawn! It's dust jacketeers vs. trashbots, and I think the DJs are winning.
Two Weeks' Worth of Awesome
Gabe Askew's fan-video for "Two Weeks" by Grizzly Bear can conjure only one appropriate adjective: Sublime.
Here's an interview about it, and here's the thing itself:
I just subscribed to Jamais Cascio's future-y blog on Fast Company and in the subhed of the Google Reader subscribe page, it said:
That's just a bit of exposed CMS-speak, but hmm. It seems resonant somehow.
Hari Seldon, speaking to students across a glowing touch-table covered with flickering blue-green graphs: "But to predict future events, you must apply the taxonomy view." He swipes his thumb and the graphs rotate.
A student pipes up. Linus, the eager one: "But at what depth, Master Seldon? Three-hundred? Three-thousand?"
"No, no, no." Seldon smiles. "The depth... is zero."
Dance in Unlikely Places
I'm sitting in a coffee shop right now, quarter-aware of some of the funny conversations and interactions around me, so it occurred to me to link to this: Lily Sloan (my sister!) is an MFA student in dance at Texas Woman's University, and the project she's working on right now involves observing customers in a coffee shop—essentially building a database of motion and behavior—and then amplifying and remixing that into an "action score"—choreographing it.
You've gotta see the video of an early rough draft. It's simultaneously familiar and strange.
Hmm, now I'm peering around, on the lookout for undercover choreographers...
Technologies Don't Transform, Societies Do, Pt. 2
As a follow up to my first linkpost on this topic, I'm adding an exhibit: Apple's celebrated "Knowledge Navigator" late-80s concept video. Watch it, then come back.
Here's the thing that's always struck me about this video. Technologically, it's wonderfully optimistic. (I love it when the professor flubs the name of the researcher he's looking for, and the computer figures out the right name, like a Google-search correcting spelling.)
But socially, it's incredibly conservative. Basically, it treats the computer interface as a synthesis of secretary, research assistant, and wife to the prototypically WASPy-dude professor. He doesn't even have to learn how to type! Imagine how short his Acknowledgements page will be! And his mom still nags him about his dad's birthday party! Oh, will life's problems never go away?
The assumptions are that 1) a breakthrough communication technology and 2) probably quite a bit of time passing won't produce any social changes at all. It won't create any new problems, either. It will simply make life easier.
We're actually usually pretty good at forecasting technological change. But we're astonishingly bad at predicting social responses to it. This is why most past attempts to predict the future strike us as unintentionally funny in retrospect: it's the mismatch between their creators' social imagination and our own -- or rather, between the constitutive blindnesses of their creators' social imagination and our own. We see and say things that they can't, and (often enough) vice versa.
Sideloading Now Seems So Simple
Nilay Patel, on the whole Apple/Google/AT&T/App Store-avaganza:
I don't think there's any good reason the most interesting things about the App Store right now should be procedural details and the number of submissions each reviewer handles a day -- somewhere around 80, if you can believe it. I'd rather be talking about new and exciting ways to integrate the iPhone and other mobile devices into my daily life -- I'd rather be talking about apps. And the more I think about it, the only way Apple can get back to that is by doing what it should have done in the first place: allowing developers and users to bypass the App Store and sideload apps onto the iPhone themselves.
Every single App Store submission story we've covered boils down to the fact that Apple is the single point of control for the iPhone ecosystem, and it's simply not fast or flexible enough to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation we're seeing on the platform. Like it or not, what's happening on the iPhone is leading the entire tech industry, and Apple should be doing everything in its power to enhance that, rather than miring itself in scandal and regulatory investigation. If that means releasing some control over the platform, then so be it -- especially since allowing sideloading would make almost all of these problems simply disappear.
See also #8.
Away We Go
See Winged Chariot press -- I think it's UK only for the moment.
OutKast's B.O.B. is the best because it says YES to everything we are and compresses it to pure energy. It's our Good Vibrations, our Layla.
Robin (who clean-sweeps his tweets) had a nice addition:
Jeez now I'm listening to it again, and like Harold Bloom's Hamlet, it's a Total Work. EVERYTHING is in here.
Here's Pitchfork's Stuart Berman with a more expansive explanation:
"B.O.B." is not just the song of the decade-- it is the decade. Appropriately, the contemporary hip-hop act most in tune with the Afro-Futurist philosophies of Sun Ra, George Clinton, and Afrika Bambaataa, wound up effectively crafting a fast-forwarded highlight-reel prophecy of what the next 10 years held in store. The title-- aka "Bombs Over Baghdad", a phrase that sounded oddly anachronistic in 2000, sadly ubiquitous two and a half years later-- is only the start of it. In "B.O.B"'s booty-bass blitzkrieg, we hear an obliteration of the boundaries separating hip-hop, metal, and electro, setting the stage for a decade of dance/rock crossovers. We hear a bloodthirsty gospel choir inaugurating a presidential administration of warmongering evangelicals. We hear André 3000 and Big Boi fire off a synapse-bursting stream of ripped-from-the-headlines buzzwords ("Cure for cancer/ Cure for AIDS"), personal anecdotes ("Got a son on the way by the name of Bamboo") and product placements ("Yo quiero Taco Bell") that read like the world's first Twitter feed. We hear four minutes of utter fucking chaos yielding to a joyously optimistic denouement (a point reinforced by the Stankonia cover's re-imagination of the American flag, which anticipates a White House set to be painted black).
Of course, there is a downside of being ahead of your time-- upon its release, "B.O.B." didn't even dent the Billboard Hot 100, and merely peaked at No. 69 on the Hip-Hop/R&B Chart. But unlike OutKast's subsequent number one singles ("Ms. Jackson" and "Hey Ya") "B.O.B." is too disorienting and exhausting an experience to ever succumb to over-saturation, and its majesty has never been diminished by ironic cover versions from cred-hungry rock bands. Because even after a decade that's seen the act of copying music become as easy as a mouse-click, and the process of performing simplified for toy video-game guitars, the future-shocked ferocity "B.O.B." is something that just cannot be duplicated.
The best place to enjoy "B.O.B.", of course, is at Snarkmarket 3000.
Technologies Don't Transform. Societies Do.
Quick-hitting today, but here's an important axiom from Dan Visel at if:book --
the social use of digital media is more transformative than the move to the digital itself
Visel's responding to Eric Harvey's "The Social History of the MP3":
The first widespread music delivery technology to emanate from outside industry control, mp3s, flowing through peer-to-peer networks and other pathways hidden in plain sight, have performed the radical task of separating music from the music industry for the first time in a century. They have facilitated the rise of an enormous pirate infrastructure; ideologically separate from the established one, but feeding off its products, multiplying and distributing them freely, without following the century-old rules of capitalist exchange. Capitalism hasn't gone away, of course, but mp3s have severely threatened its habits and rituals within music culture. There is nothing inherent or natural about paying for music, and the circulation of mp3s > through unsanctioned networks reaffirms music as a social process driven by passion, not market logic or copyright. Yet at the same time the Internet largely freed music from its packaged-good status and opened a realm of free-exchange, it also rendered those exciting new rituals very trackable. In the same way that Facebook visually represents "having friends," the mp3s coursing through file-sharing networks quantify the online social life of music by charting its path.
P.S.: This observation from Harvey's essay is a great coda to my "How the iPod Changed the Way We Read" --
This might be the most profound social shift of the mp3 era: hoarding and sharing music changed from an activity for eccentrics to the default mode of musical enjoyment for millions.
The Twitter Valve
Henry Jenkins has a solid post on the value and limitations of Twitter. It has two parts, descriptive and normative. Here's the descriptive part:
Someone recently asked me, "If McCluhan is right and the medium is the message, what is the message of Twitter?" My response: "Here It Is and Here I Am."
And the normative:
My first impressions were correct that Twitter is no substitute for Blogs or Live Journal. And in so far as people are using it to take on functions once played on blogs, there is a serious loss to digital culture.
I think you can find a lot to talk about in the descriptive part of Jenkins's account even if you quibble with the normative part. But there are also descriptive claims contained in the normative account. I want to look at just one slice of this:
Three years ago, when I started this blog, if people wanted to direct attention to one of my blog posts, they would write about it in their blog and often feel compelled to spell out more fully why they found it a valuable resource. I got a deeper insight into their thinking and often the posts would spark larger debate. As the function of link sharing has moved into Twitter, much of this additional commentary has dropped off. Most often, the retweets simply condense and pass along my original Tweet. At best, I get a few additional words on the level of "Awesome" or "Inspiring" or "Interesting." So, in so far as Twitter replaces blogs, we are impoverishing the discourse which occurs on line.
In other words, Twitter acts as a kind of valve, where the energy that would go into 1) writing extended comments and 2) signing a blog of your own gets siphoned off into minimalist links.
I'll hold off on explaining what I think about this -- I'm still formulating it -- but I want to note that you could apply this logic to a lot of other kinds of contemporary web discourse, from Facebook "Likes" to Diggs -- maybe even things like Instapaper.
There is clearly demand for a minimalist approach to reading and commenting. We like the option of doing "less" and doing it later. Why is this? And what does it change about the way we communicate ideas online?
August 23, 2009
One of Those Old Words We Don't Use Anymore
It's not really the full content of Charles Stross's argument here that gets me; it's simply his use of the word "mercy." He connects Abdelbaset Al Megrahi with U.S. health care reform, and argues that the U.S. is suffering from a mercy deficit, and it's worth checking out. But really, I'm sort of inclined to ignore the argument, and just dwell on the word. Mercy.
Is that word like totally not a part of our modern lexicon or what? I'm rolling it around in my mouth, and in my brain, and it feels almost like one of those hard-to-translate words from another language. Saudade. Schadenfreude. Mercy.
Where does mercy live in our society today? What policies do we promote that have mercy at their core? What would that even mean? Not rhetorical questions; I find myself suddenly and sincerely puzzled by this.
The Hajj as an Engine of Peace
A team of economists did some clever research focused on the impact of the Hajj—the pilgrimage to Mecca that two million Muslims make every year—not on Saudi Arabia, not on, like, the world, but simply on the people who go.
The research design is straight outta Freakonomics: In Pakistan, more than 100,000 people apply for Hajj visas every year. Around 60% get them. The unsuccessful applicants form the perfect control group; compare their feelings about the world to their pretty-much-identical peers who snagged visas and made the Hajj, and voila, you have science.
Anyway, the findings:
Our results support the idea that the Hajj helps to integrate the Muslim world, leading to a strengthening of global Islamic beliefs, a weakened attachment to local religious customs, and a sense of unity and equality with others who are ordinarily separated in everyday life by sect, ethnicity, nationality, or gender, but who are brought together during the Hajj. Although the Hajj may help forge a common Islamic identity, there is no evidence that this is defined in opposition to non-Muslims. On the contrary, the notions of equality and harmony appear to extend to adherents of other religions as well. These results contrast sharply with the view that increased Islamic orthodoxy goes hand in hand with extremism.
And I like this detail:
We complement the harmony index by exploring the extent to which the Hajj leads to greater inclination to peace. [...] Examining some of the component questions, we find that the Hajj almost doubles the number of respondents who declare that Osama bin Laden's goals are incorrect, from 6.8% to 13.1%, and increases the fraction declaring his methods incorrect from 16% to 21%.
More factoids, not necessarily related to the research: Most Pakistani Hajjis spend four years saving for the trip. It costs about US$2,000, which about 2.5 times Pakistan's per-capita GDP. And, this part is a little dense, but how would you like to design this web app:
The Hajj lottery is conducted over parties of up to 20 individuals who will travel and stay together during the pilgrimage. Parties are formed either voluntarily, often along family lines, or by staff of the bank branches. Parties are assigned into separate strata for the two main Islamic sects (Sunni/Shia), eight regional cities of departure, and two types of accommodation that vary slightly in housing quality. A computer algorithm selects parties randomly from each stratum until the quota of individuals for that stratum is full.
Reading this paper is an opportunity to reflect on just how intense the Hajj is these days. I mean, two million people! All pushed through the same space, at the same time. In the desert. The best description I've found of the event's history and modern dimensions is in Steve Coll's The Bin Ladens. A big part of the Bin Laden fortune came from building facilities in and around Mecca to support the crush of the Hajj. Think air conditioning, and lots of it.
However, having said all that, I'm on a new Flickr hunt now. All the images we usually see of the Hajj are of the mind-blowing masses. But what about the dorky vacation photos? I like these images because they cut it back down to size. On some levels ,this is completely foreign. On other levels... it's family vacation.
(Thanks to Tim for snagging the article for me.)
The Part of District 9 I Didn't Like
Racialicious calls out District 9's Nigerian gangster caricatures:
So why the racist parts? Why can't the Nigerians just be people with logical motives like money and weapons? Why do they have to go out of their way to be ooga-booga savages? The film would still have held up without the narrative elements of cannibalism and interspecies sex. Why do the blacks have to be sexual degenerates who will eat filth and violate the oldest human taboo by committing cannibalism? The only reason I see is to shoehorn some cheap visceral thrills into the movie. It's lazy, sensationalist writing, and it diminishes the potential for intelligent, nuanced allegory. And it doesn't even make sense. Man, it pissed me off.
Yup, I agree. Not a reason not to see and enjoy the movie; but one should notice such things, and call them out.
Speaking of Lego Voltron
Besides the a priori awesomeness of Lego stop-motion and chiptune music, I think what this video brings to the table is: a) amazing camera work; b) many, many how-did-he-do-that moments; and c) stuff like this.
August 22, 2009
DIY Book Scanner
The future is here; it's just not evenly distributed.
P.S. Something I find myself doing more often these days: snapping a passage out of a book with my phone's camera and emailing it to myself. Now if only Gmail had a little built-in OCR module...
P.P.S. I seriously want to build one of these things.
August 21, 2009
The Unattended Documentation Of Culture
I fell in love with The Books in 2002, when I heard "Motherless Bastard" from Thought For Food. It begins with an audio sample, a conversation between a father and his daughter, where the dad playfully says, "you have no mother or father."
"Yeah, I do!"
"No, they left..."
And then the hammer falls:
"Don't touch me, don't call me that in public."
That sample was recorded live by The Books' Nick Zammuto at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Los Angeles. The rest of the track is just an insanely sweet, melancholy, beautiful acoustic instrumental, on cello, banjo, percussion, made just slightly glitchy with some electronic effects. That's what they do.
In a new interview with Pitchfork, Zammuto and Paul de Jong talk about their process--
NZ: There is a pulse to the material we work with that you can't find in the mainstream. It's this unattended documentation of culture. The productions are not made for recording any kind of history, but there's all this cultural documentation in there anyway.
PDJ: You can't find it anywhere else. You can't make it up, you can't shoot it yourself. If there's three seconds of beauty in an hour and a half tape, the search is worth it.
-- and their new album --
NZ: We've been really into hypnotherapy tapes. We've been into a lot of spoken-word religious material in the past-- just these deeply ego-ed voices. But, with hypnotherapy, the ego disappears-- it has this relaxing effect independent of what someone's saying. We're interested in that un-self-consciousness. In a bizarre way, it keeps things grounded. There's always this element of not knowing where you stand that you can hear in almost any voice. It's a universal quality.
And we have a vast collection of these tiny little musical fragments-- like analog synth demos-- that are very dated, but we never knew what to do with them. It's really hard to use them without sounding like genres that everybody's familiar with. But I think we finally started to crack the code and figured out how to use them in a way that satisfies us. Like, we have this incredible collection of brass sounds, so we kind of have a brass section going.
PDJ: Yeah, it seems to be developing more into the sounds from traditional pop-rock history-- like, actual drum sounds. We're starting to make sense of what to do with something that's reached a critical mass.
August 20, 2009
My Global Cereal Arbitrage Scheme... FOILED
I love posts like this! I feel like I have an infinite appetite for them: Rice Krispies boxes from around the world. Sometimes they're... Rice Bubbles?
I want posts that aggregate: movie poster variations from the around the world; book cover variations from around the world; corporate identity variations from around the world; you get the idea.
And hey, is this blog idsgn scarily well-designed or what?
A Short History of Color Printing
So lately I've been thinking a lot about how color turns out to be a surprisingly important part of our experience reading printed books, and I came across this terrific website on the history of color printing, part of a special collections exhibit in the 90s from the University of Delaware's Morris Library.
I love this stuff:
Lithography was the first fundamentally new printing technology since the invention of relief printing in the fifteenth century.... Early colored lithographs used one or two colors to tint the entire plate and create a watercolor-like tone to the image. This atmospheric effect was primarily used for landscape or topographical illustrations. For more detailed coloration, artists continued to rely on handcoloring over the lithograph. Once tinted lithographs were well established, it was only a small step to extend the range of color by the use of multiple tint blocks printed in succession. Generally, these early chromolithographs were simple prints with flat areas of color, printed side-by-side.
Increasingly ornate designs and dozens of bright, often gaudy, colors characterized chomolithography in the second half of the nineteenth century. Overprinting and the use of silver and gold inks widened the range of color and design. Still a relatively expensive process, chromolithography was used for large-scale folio works and illuminated gift books which often attempted to reproduce the handwork of manuscripts of the Middle Ages. The steam-driven printing press and the wider availability of inexpensive paper stock lowered production costs and made chromolithography more affordable. By the 1880s, the process was widely used for magazines and advertising. At the same time, however, photographic processes were being developed that would replace lithography by the beginning of the twentieth century.
How The iPod Changed The Way We Read
Since I slid this claim in at the end of a long post with a lot of literary theory, you might have missed it:
When the media landscape changes, we actually begin to SEE things differently, even (or ESPECIALLY) things that haven't changed at all.
This is the reason why the iPod didn't just change the way we listen to music - and later, look at pictures or movies or play video games. It changed the way we read.
And (because I couldn't help my ever-qualifying self):
(As did movies, television, video games, and many, many other things.)
(The big one I Ieft out in this list was mobile phones, but since the iPod and the smartphone wound up being convergent/complementary technologies, I think they're more arguably part of the same story.)
Let me try to spell out point by point how I think the iPod - or more precisely, the evolution of the iPod - changed reading.
- Design Matters. The iPod elevated the level of aesthetic pleasure people expected from handheld devices, as well as the premium they were willing to pay for well-made things. Looking back at the first-generation Kindle, it's actually astonishing how much of the early commentary focused on the perceived ugliness of the device. In particular, the first Kindle didn't just look ugly - it looked out of date. This was something we used to care about with home theater equipment and kitchen appliances - the iPod taught us to care about it on our handhelds, even when we were walking around with cheap plastic phones. If the e-reader breakthrough had happened in 1999 or 2002, even if the device had been similarly awkward-looking relative to the technology around it, I don't think this would have been as much of a problem as it became.
- Software Matters. I almost titled this "Design Goes All The Way Down." It's a truism now that Apple was able to swoop in on the digital music market because they wrote better software than the Sonys and Samsungs they were competing with on the high end. But it's true. You're not just creating a piece of hardware; you're creating an interface for an experience. And in particular, if you get the experience of buying, sorting, finding, and selecting media wrong, you've got real problems. You have to make the software intuitive, powerful, and fun. The goal is to reduce the friction between a user's intent and their goal - whether it's buying music, listening to it, or flipping through album art. If there's friction anywhere in the experience, it had better be deeply pleasurable friction. (That's right, I said it.)
The Kindle actually seems to understand this really, really well.
- This is more specific: People Like Full Color. Was anyone complaining about the monochrome taupe-and-dark-taupe display of the first iPod? No. Was I when I bought my first iPod, in 2004? Not at all. Did I cry inside when they launched the first color-display, video-capable iPod about a month afterwards? Not exactly. I cried on the outside, too. Color is resource-intensive, and hard to get right on a small screen. But god - it's beautiful. It's also one of the things that easily gets lost in the transition from print to digital; there's nothing like a book with full-color prints, and the only thing sadder than an image-heavy book that's all in black-and-white is a digital version of the same book that doesn't have images at all.
- Images Make Reading Easier. I mean, this is one of the big lessons of the graphical interface on the desktop, right? Column after column of text is hard to look at, and it's hard to distinguish one version from the next. Seriously - sorting through an early iPod, like my third-gen one, is one of the most intense reading experiences you're likely to have, and I think it (along with text messages) totally softened people up for reading strings of text on small screens. But texts with icons - even generic icons that just look like little pieces of paper next to the text that identifies with them - reinforces the idea that you're dealing with distinct objects. Add covers - like book or album covers, or preview images of pictures, and you've got a hieroglyphic hybrid mode of reading that is frankly more powerful and intuitive than text or images alone. Create a software interface where you can manipulate those objects, and you've got something that's genuinely game-changing.
- Media Devices Should Do More Than One Thing. It's great that I can take my music with me, but I'd really like to listen to radio programs, too. (Podcasts.) I carry around all of these pictures in my wallet - maybe you could...? (Done.) What about TV? I like TV. And my kids like to watch movies in the car. (We can do that.)
Was it obvious that there was a hidden affinity between pictures and music and movies? No. But once you've got a screen with a big hard drive, a great syncing tool, and a solid store that can deal with media companies... You follow the logic of what you can meaningfully offer and what your customers can use the device to do.
The only thing more appealing for multiple media than a tiny screen with a big hard drive is a great big screen with a big hard drive. I can't believe that future reading devices won't take advantage of it.
- Make It Easy For Me To Get My Own Stuff On The Screen. Can you imagine if Apple had ONLY let you put stuff on your iPod that you'd bought or ripped through iTunes? The iPod moment benefited tremendously from the Napster moment, which in turn was driven by the CD-ripping and cheap fast internet moment. You had all of this digital material sitting on people's hard drives and floating around networks, and we just needed someplace to put it. There's no stuff we want more than our own stuff. Apple smartly opened itself up to it. Well, likewise, now, we've decades of office documents sitting on people's hard drives and hypertext pages floating around networks, and nowhere but our computers to put it.
I'll say it again: There's No Stuff We Want More Than Our Own Stuff. If Amazon, or Google, or anybody, could find a way for me to get MY print library on a portable screen, I would both love and pay them dearly for the chance to do so.
- Devices Should Talk To Each Other. My DVD player is an idiot. It has nothing to say to anyone except maybe my TV and some speakers. Now, I just leave it in a drawer. My TV is a little better, because it listens really well, but not by much. From the beginning, the iPod could both talk and listen to your computer. Now, because of its wireless connect, the iPhone can talk to almost anything.
The Kindle's networking ability, still limited as it is, stands on the shoulders of those devices. (And your computer, too, does a much better job of talking to small, post-PC devices than it used to, from video game consoles to mobile phones.)
- This last point is from Gavin Craig, and it includes the iPod, and the Kindle, but also is more general: "It should be possible to make the device useful in ways that the designer may not have intended." I call this half-jokingly "Media Existentialism." (Existence precedes essence; we come to terms with our determined place in the universe, and only afterwards do we define who we are and what we're for.)
The point is that users, not designers, ultimately determine what an object is for; and any attempt to engineer-through that process in a closed-ended way restricts value rather than creating it.
This is a short list of the expectations we have for reading machines now that we largely didn't have a decade ago. None of them came from devices that were designed (except largely accidentally) to read anything.
But this list only barely begin to speak to the expectations we'll have for an electronic reader decades from now.
What might those expectations be? Where will they come from? How might they change everything else?
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Design, Object Culture, Technosnark
Interview with a Botmaster
Two things about this article on botnets are interesting:
- "The botmaster, upon realizing that one of his bots was suddenly sentient, appeared to assume that the researcher was a fellow botmaster and that their respective networks had 'collided.' The researcher worked to strengthen the botmaster’s assumption. Pretending to be a fellow botmaster, the researcher asked about the server software. Figure 3 shows the initial conversation with the botmaster." (Here.)
- Who's responsible for this bit of investigative cyber-journalism? Why, it's... Cisco. I think you're going to see more and more entities not traditionally in the business of journalism supporting and publishing stuff like this.
August 19, 2009
No New Tricks
I love the actor/magician Ricky Jay, not least for his terrific supporting turn in the first season of Deadwood (understated on a show where nobody was understated). I resisted reading an old New Yorker profile of Jay when John Gruber at Daring Fireball linked to it earlier in the week, even after linking to an interview Jay gave Errol Morris about deception and talking up Jay's history of magicians and irregular stage entertainers Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women (JG: "simply one of the best books I’ve read in years"). But then Jason Kottke linked to it too, and I was done.
Part of the charm is that Jay isn't just a magician, but also a storyteller, a physical specimen (throwing playing cards through watermelons, that sort of thing), and a scholar, historian, and collector of magical books, stories, and ephemera. David Mamet tells a good anecdote:
"I’ll tell him I’m having a Fourth of July party and I want to do some sort of disappearance in the middle of the woods. He says, ‘That’s the most bizarre request I’ve ever heard. You want to do a disappearing effect in the woods? There’s nothing like that in the literature. I mean, there’s this one 1760 pamphlet—'Jokes, Tricks, Ghosts and Diversions by Woodland, Stream and Campfire.' But, other than that, I can’t think of a thing.’ He’s unbelievably generous. Ricky’s one of the world’s great people. He’s my hero. I’ve never seen anybody better at what he does.”
The profile, by Mark Singer, is not uniform - it lulls in places, and then snaps back to attention, kind of like a good magic trick. But there are perfect things in it, like this:
“I’m always saying there’s no correlation between gambling and magic,” Jay said as he shuffle-cut the cards. “But this is a routine of actual gamblers’ techniques within the context of a theatrical magic presentation.”
He noticed me watching him shuffling, and asked softly, with deadpan sincerity, “Does that look fair?”
When I said it looked fair, he dealt two hands of five-card draw and told me to lay down my cards. Two pair. Then he laid down his. A straight.
“Was that fair?” he said. “I don’t think so. Let’s discuss the reason why that wasn’t fair. Even though I shuffled openly and honestly, I didn’t let you cut the cards. So let’s do it again, and this time I’ll let you cut the cards.”
It goes on like this for a while, with Jay apparently giving up more and more control over the deck with each iteration, until finally Jay says:
"Now, this time you shuffle the cards and you deal the cards. And you pick the number of players. And you designate any hand for me and any hand for you.”
After shuffling, I dealt four hands, arranged as the points of a square. I chose a hand for myself and selected one for him. My cards added up to nothing—king-high nothing.
“Is that fair?” Jay said, picking up his cards, waiting a beat, and returning them to the table, one by one—the coup de grâce. “I. Don’t. Think. So.” One, two, three, four aces.
Later, Singer asks Jay about a rumor that he had once played cards for a living.
“Would anybody play cards with you today?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. “Silly people.”
I'll also reproduce, because I can't help it, the catalog of reviews Singer gives of Jay's Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women:
Reviewing “Learned Pigs” in the Times, John Gross wrote, “One effect of Mr. Jay’s scholarship is to make it clear that even among freaks and prodigies there is very little new under the sun. Show him a stone-eater or a human volcano or an enterologist and he will show you the same thing being done before, often hundreds of years earlier.” In the Philadelphia Inquirer Carlin Romano wrote, “ ‘Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women’ is a book so magnificently entertaining that if a promoter booked it into theatres and simply distributed a copy to each patron to read, he’d have the hit of the season.” A blurb on the jacket from Penn and Teller says, “It’s the coolest book . . . and probably the most brilliantly weird book ever.” Jay wrote much of “Learned Pigs” while occupying a carrel in the rare-book stacks of the Clark Library, at U.C.L.A. At one point, Thomas Wright, a librarian at the Clark and a former professor of English literature, tried to persuade him to apply for a postdoctoral research fellowship. When Jay explained that he didn’t have a doctorate, Wright said, “Maybe a master’s degree would be sufficient.”
“Thomas, I don’t even have a B.A.”
Wright replied, “Well, you know, Ricky, a Ph.D. is just a sign of docility.”
List of Hypothetical Objects
The themed lists on Wikipedia are the best. For instance: hypothetical objects.
Mary Shelley's creation has come unstuck in time. He lives in New York or did until recently. He passes Tower Records, a Duane Reade drugstore.
Sheck's novel acknowledges Google searches. Wikipedia. Redirections. All this webwork.
"A Monster's Notes" is an uncommonplace book. A site for revision, translation, error, confusion, melancholy. Limits of this method. Book is over 500 pages long, not without longueurs. (Could it have worked at 100 pages, at 50?) But heft becomes crucial to the experience. To exhaust the metaphors and the monster.
Are these my real notes or the ones I will publish? Which version has more energy?
Actually, the more I think about it, this might be the coolest thing I've read in weeks.
Death Star Over San Francisco
RFK Funeral Train
Something about this perspective is absolutely moving and mesmerizing.
(Via tons of land.)
Hanging With Kafka
The new Franz Kafka Society Center is lovely.
One of my favorite bits from Kafka is a passage from The Trial:
He was slim but firmly built, his clothes were black and close-fitting, with many folds and pockets, buckles and buttons and a belt, all of which gave the impression of being very practical but without making it very clear what they were actually for.
That's totally fashion in 2009!
Caravaggio and the Cops
Caravaggio was no stranger to run-ins with the law. Accused of killing at least two men and having done several stints in prison, the painter put his own multiple arrests on canvas when he interpreted this Biblical episode known to every Sunday school student.
Also, think about how stunning the dark, stark look of this painting must have been at the time:
[Caravaggio's] style -- realism and high-contrast lighting directed with dramatic precision against haunting, black backgrounds -- changed art forever. His work made the Sistine Chapel's figures and religious scenes look like clumsy, antiquated, cartoons. In an age of intolerance, Caravaggio almost single-handedly killed off traditional religious art and made money off the Church in the process, all the while behaving like a savage.
"His work made the Sistine Chapel's figures and religious scenes look like clumsy, antiquated, cartoons." Whoah!
A Piece of the Planet, Pinned To Your Chest
This seems really resonant to me: a piece of jewelry cut to the contour of any place on earth. The silver version is too expensive, but it's a cool idea; they should offer them in plastic.
Rockin' Microsoft Fonts
Microsoft has taken an epic amount of abuse for Arial, their now-ubiquitous Helvetica knockoff. But, uh, did anybody notice... I think they took it to heart... 'cause the new Windows fonts are really good?
And they're not even that new, right? I think they've been out since 2007. Anyway, one in particular, Calibri, is just really nice. Of course, I think it's nice, in part, because it has many ligatures (see above).
Maybe this is old news and everyone has been joyfully typing away in Calibri and Consolas for years now. I'm just getting wise. And looking for synonyms with the "ti" word pairing.
Update: Actually, I totally remember when this Poynter piece by Anne Van Wags about the C-family came out. But it was all "ooh, wow, coming soon, maybe" and then somehow I missed the actual release of these fonts.
August 18, 2009
Continuity in Nonfiction
Speaking of intertextuality, probably no readers are more explicitly intertextual than mainstream comic books. Everything you know about genres, the characters, the world(s) they inhabit, their history/histories, and how to read and make sense of what you see, comes from your experience with other texts -- usually a lot of them, and not all of them comic books.
Readers see that experience as an investment in literacy. At O'Reilly Radar, Brett McLaughlin looks at comic book fans' (and presumably, fans in other media/genres) investment in story continuity:
Putting aside issues of story, I'm struck by how much looking back and forth I tend to do in reading a comic. I'm scanning a bit ahead, and reflecting back on what I just read and saw, even while reading the current panel. I've got this constant sense of context; I have a continuity in which what I'm learning (about a comic book character, about a love interest, about an island that's about to be submerged by supersonic waves triggering earthquakes along fault lines, etc.) fits.
So why would we simply accept that in non-fiction--especially projects and products that purport to actually teach something--we can't have continuity?
I guess weblogs are one solution to this problem; and in its own way, academic writing is another. Both have mechanisms make their own continuities with other writing explicit, and signal when they're about to reboot.* But general nonfiction, especially journalism? Harder than it probably ought to be. More rewarding when it does pay off.
Which begs another question; why do readers get such pleasure out of continuity? Is it the happiness that comes with recognition, a feeling of belonging to a community, a function of reduced learning/transaction costs when you approach something new...?
*I think rebooting in a series actually pulls in more of your unconscious knowledge about characters, genres, etc. than even continuity does - not only are you establishing all of these new contexts, you've got this layer of old context, too -- "oh, that's how they're handling this event/character/place." It's like building a city on top of another city. This is why the ultimate trick to pull is to do a reboot that isn't really a reboot.
Is This Painting or Sculpture?
In case you can't tell, that's a 3D "painting" made from many closely-packed glass "canvases." How much do I love it? So much!
(Via Jon Hansen.)
Joburg Is the Future
The assertion from Neill Blomkamp, director of District 9:
I actually think Johannesburg represents the future. My version of what I think the world is going to become looks like Johannesburg. Every time I'm there, it feels like I'm in the future, so I was just very, very interested in the city.
Well, the film was so creatively rewarding to work on, it's got all my favorite ingredients, that if the movie's successful, and people want a sequel, I would happily make one. Because I would love to go back to the world of aliens in Johannesburg.
The Completely Understandable Spectacle of the Haul Video
Here's a new Viral Video Film School about haul videos, which you probably didn't even know existed. It's hilarious.
My first reaction to this (besides laughter) was: "Oh man, people are strange. I do not understand this at all. The internet is a machine for showing you how weird and unlike you other people are."
Which is, you know, a common reaction to a lot of things on the internet. But then I thought better of it, and tried to exercise a bit of empathy. And you know what? I'm thinking of the crisp joy of setting a big, boxy bag (the kind that stands up on its own) down on your apartment floor. I'm remembering the "fashion shows" we'd do as kids, trying on new outfits in succession as soon as we got home from the mall to show them off to our dad. I'm pondering the "I win at life" delight of snagging something awesome on super-deep discount.
And it makes perfect sense. Whew. Curmudgeonly moment avoided. Oneness of humanity affirmed.
The Writer & the Witch: Sold!
(We now return you to our regularly scheduled material intertextuality.)
Towards A Theory of Material Intertextuality
It turns out that one of my ideas about Kindle 2020 --
How might [electronic readers] change the entire FIELD of media consumption, handheld devices, computing, reading, etc… Will everything restructure itself around the reader? Or will it be a fun, handy curiosity, plotting its own logic while everything else goes along unchanged?
-- actually depends on a whole bunch of other ideas, some of them a little bit technical. I'm going to try to spell those out here.
The big idea is material intertextuality. The short version of this is:
1) a text's meaning (use, experience, etc.) always depends on its material/physical form;
2) material/physical form always depends on both the materiality of the media itself and its physical contexts (readers, bookstores, sites of reading);
3) all of those forms are always part of a system where they're in dialogue with other forms.
In short, when I read something, I bring all of my assumptions about reading, in all of its various forms - in cheap books, expensive ones, pamphlets, comics, movies, street signs, etc. - with me. How I read is structured by all of them, even if negatively. A novel printed on cloth paper can be cheap, unserious, escapist reading in one context, and the epitome of high learning or even political protest in a different context -- even if it's the same physical book.
I've been trying to explain what literary critics (and litcrit-minded people) mean by intertextuality, and this "Semiotics for Beginners" website is a good place to look (without, like a lot of otherwise smart critics, getting it wrong).
As with so many other things, Roland Barthes is a good place to start:
A text is... a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations... The writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.
Two things are getting disrupted here - the unity of the book and the unity of the author. Hence the "multidimensional space" -- you can think about the text or the writer as points of intersection with all sorts of vectors flowing through them, coming from and headed to someplace else. Those vectors are what we call language.
Michael Bakhtin tried to approach the novel this way. A lot of classical poetry seems to have one voice - one guy (usually) talking, in one mode of address - usually a high or elevated style. You couldn't understand the novel without trying to understand how the novel orchestrates all the different modes and varieties of language -- narrative, dialogue, storytelling, letter-writing, the weird naturalist-scientific mode that so many novelists adopted. Bakhtin's solution was to see this heterogeneity of language in the novel as a reflection of the dialogic, plural voices always present in language itself. This is from Sue Vice's Introducing Bakhtin:
The language we use in personal or textual discourse is itself composed of many languages, which have all been used before... Each utterance, whether it takes the form of a conversation in the street or a novel, consists of the unique orchestration of well-worn words. As in an everyday dialogue, all these languages will interact with each other, jockey for position, compromise, effect a temporary stabilization, before moving on to the next construction of meaning.
Intertextuality has a slightly different spin than dialogism - partly because it's trying to move away from the notion that individual people are pulling the strings of language, rather than the other way around. Julia Kristeva, who coined intertextuality, put it this way:
Kristeva referred to texts in terms of two axes: a horizontal axis connecting the author and reader of a text, and a vertical axis, which connects the text to other texts (Kristeva 1980, 69). Uniting these two axes are shared codes: every text and every reading depends on prior codes. Kristeva declared that 'every text is from the outset under the jurisdiction of other discourses which impose a universe on it' (cited in Culler 1981, 105). She argued that rather than confining our attention to the structure of a text we should study its 'structuration' (how the structure came into being). This involved siting it 'within the totality of previous or synchronic texts' of which it was a 'transformation' (Le texte du roman, cited by Coward & Ellis 1977, 52).
Part of this move, too, is to move away from using words like "book" (which implies a kind of self-contained perfection of the text) or "work" (which implies a one-to-one relationship between a text and its author) or even "author" (which implies that the person who wrote this language down has a authoritative monopoly on its meaning).
Words aren't little pictures happily joined to sounds in your head. They're out in the world, and so are you. This is what Jacques Lacan meant when he said "the unconscious is structured like a language."
Nothing is in here. Everything is out there.
But all of these ghostly circulations inevitably leave out huge chunks of the material world. Eventually, critics and theorists started to say, okay, we get it; we were assuming all of this metaphysics about books and authors and readers and bodies. But let's forget about "books" as hypothetical ideal and self-contained entities. They're not just self-cancelling disembodied authorless language. A lot of those metaphysical illusions actually seem to come from real, physical practices, effected on paper and book covers and sold by booksellers and acted on by readers. Let's start to look at some of those codes and practices too! (Ditto the body, commodities, etc., the whole historical/materialist turn of the last twenty years.) This is what some of us mean by the materiality of the text.
So we started looking at physical objects again. And I mean looking, really hard - sometimes at individual pieces of paper, stray punctuation marks, registers of subscriber lists, ledgers for ink and paper purchases by regional booksellers. It's the paranoid style applied to bibliography; a kind of collector's mania, where you strenuously insist on the importance of alternate covers, variations in editions, the subtle sonic differences in grades of wax on vinyl recordings.
What we forgot though, in all of this emphasis on specificity, is the place of the system, and the importance of understanding how perception itself changes in time and space. This is where Walter Benjamin's project of aesthetics and theories of comparative and convergent media become really important.
When the media landscape changes, we actually begin to SEE things differently, even (or ESPECIALLY) things that haven't changed at all.
This is the reason why the iPod didn't just change the way we listen to music - and later, look at pictures or movies or play video games. It changed the way we read. (As did movies, television, video games, and many, many other things.)
The question is - what kinds of new media, or new experiences of media, drive these changes, and make us change the way we read, think about, produce, exchange texts? Will electronic reading devices be largely a peripheral part of this change (reflecting the way we read paper books, or on computers, or on our phones), or will they be at the center of it?... Read more ....
August 17, 2009
Everybody Knows You Never Capitalize a Public Good
A note on style! Moments ago, @thatwhichmatter said:
WEBSITE/WEB SITE? Website is one word, lowercase. When used alone, as "the Web," capitalize. Some use "Web site" so check preferred use.
ThatWhich is right; it's definitely "website." But—and please do not award me any pedantry points; I only mention this because I carry a deep, nerdy conviction on the point—it's always "the web" and (for that matter) "the internet." No capitalization.
As I explained on Twitter:
"The Web" is like "The Taj Mahal": distinct & proprietary. "The web" is like "the sky": diffuse & open. Thus more accurate.
I don't think there's a single diffuse natural system that we capitalize: the sky, the ocean, the atmosphere, the planet, and so on. Right? And therefore, to the degree it's both descriptive and, perhaps, prescriptive too, let's use "the web."
The Spines! The Spines!
More great covers at Book Worship.
Snark By Snarkwest: Kindle 2020
The iPod wasn't the first digital music player, but that doesn't really matter; when it was introduced in 2001, it was the first digital music player that made ordinary tech-inclined (but not necessarily tech-savvy) consumers pay attention.
I graduated from college that year, so I remember that time very well. Let's review; Napster had been shut down. I didn't own a DVD player. In fact, I didn't even have my own computer. (I bought both that December.) I didn't have a cellular phone, but some of my friends did. (In fact, I didn't get one until 2005.) I had never used wireless internet, ever. I had bought an APS camera two years before, on study abroad. (Digital cameras cost about a kajillion dollars.) Instead of writing a blog, I kept email lists of everyone I knew and periodically quasi-spammed them with prose poems, Nietzsche quotes, outlines for essays on Bulworth ("The key to understanding Bulworth is that it's not very good"), and news about my life. Oh, and I used telnet for email.
The time hardly seemed propitious to launch a device that would effectively break wide open handheld digital media. But that's what happened.
It's worth remembering this, because we've now had eight years of the iPod, iTunes, and the Apple Store, during which we've had to clear all of these technical and commercial and psychological and social hurdles to get to the devices that most of us carry around (in one version or another) every day.
What does this year's model of the iPhone (already almost three years removed from the announcement of the first version) have in common with the first iPod? It fits in your pocket; and maybe - maybe - you still put stuff on it from your computer - to update the firmware, if nothing else.
That's eight years of the iPod. I'm glad I saw it, because 21-year-old me wouldn't have believed it. All the more so because none of what happened is in retrospect at all ridiculous.
Now let's imagine twelve years of the Kindle.
Now the Kindle in 2020 might not even be the Kindle anymore. Maybe Sony or Apple or Google or Microsoft or someone we don't even expect might shoulder Amazon aside and take center stage, or readers will be more like the smartphone market right now, with a handful of solid competitors egging each other on.
But the Kindle now, like the iPod eight years ago, is the first electronic reader that most of us tech-inclined but not tech-savvy users have paid much attention to. It's already gotten better, it's already spurred competition, and the chances are good that we're going to see some significant advances in these devices before the end of the year.
In twelve years, we know electronic readers will do more, store more, work faster, look cooler, and offer more things to look at then it does now.
But what don't we know about the Kindle 2020 yet?
Robin, Matt, and I - yes, all three of us - have proposed a presentation for South by Southwest Interactive where we -- and some other supremely smart people -- are going to try to figure out just that.
Here are some basic questions:
- What kind of devices will we use to read?
- What formats will be used to deliver documents?
- What kinds of documents will be "read" - text, image, video, audio, hybrids?
- How will documents be written and produced?
- How will documents be bought, sold, and otherwise supported?
- How will contributors be compensated?
- How will reading work in different industries?
And here, I think, are - for me, at least, some more interesting ones:
- What could turn an electronic reader into a totally NECESSARY device - like a mobile phone, or iPod?
- What features will the reader of 2020 have that nobody's even talking about yet?
- What are we going to use it to do that nobody uses anything to do now?
- What's going to be your favorite thing to read on it?
- Forget your favorite thing - what are you going to use it to do over and over again, whether you like it or not?
- How are you going to write with it?
- Who's going to have one? How are they going to pay for it?
- How do we share what we read?
- What will we still want but not get?
- Here's the big one: how might it change the entire FIELD of media consumption, handheld devices, computing, reading, etc... Will everything restructure itself around the reader? Or will it be a fun, handy curiosity, plotting its own logic while everything else goes along unchanged?
Beginning today, you can vote to help get this panel accepted to South By Southwest. I am way excited. First, I am a nerd for all things related to the written word. Second, Robin and Matt are the most talented futuronomists I know.
Finally, in addition to being awesome, Austin is (oddly enough) geographically centered for the three of us. If you look at our locations (Philadelphia, Minneapolis, San Francisco), Austin is the country's fourth column, which (I think) bestows it with Penumbra-like magical powers.
Between books, papers, and screens, I think we might just have this covered. But see, this is where we start to worry about our own blind spots or idiosyncratic enthusiasms, not because we want to lose them, but because we need to put them in context.
So we don't just need your vote. We need to know what you know. And we're willing to use the patented Snarkmarket figure-four leg-lock -- by which I mean, your comments in the thread below -- to get the conversation started.
They say that hindsight is 20/20, but that's not really true; some people remember the past better than others. The future, however, really is 20/20 (especially in 2020). Right now, we all know just as much about the future of reading as everyone else.
The only difference is that we -- you and I -- are focused.
What do you see?
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Collaborations, Object Culture, Technosnark
For just $10, you can buy a share in Emma [Straub]'s future. As recompense for that investment, you get a signed and numbered copy of her first stand-alone book (above is an excerpt and the fabulous cover featuring beautiful art by Raul Gallardo). Buy multiple shares, get multiple copies. Give them away to friends, neighbors, and libraries; help start a career.
—but really it's the GIANT GREEN BUTTON that makes it work. From now on, every innovative publishing model needs a giant green button.
This Is a Two-Word Post
And those words are:
August 16, 2009
Visualizing Usain Bolt
Aha! Data visualization is often pretty, but not always truly revelatory. I found the Guardian Data Blog's post on Usain Bolt—putting him in context—to be totally enlightening.
Turns out that Bolt is not merely fast. He is getting faster faster than anyone in the history of fast.
Just a micro-note: If you're using the ideabox iPhone web-app, a small change to the Google Forms "API" just broke the old version. It was an easy fix, though, and the updated version is available here (link goes to zipped archive).
Classifying Very Small Objects
August 15, 2009
"While My Guitar Gently Beeps"
If you were planning on not reading this week's NYT Mag cover story because it's, um, about Guitar Hero, reconsider. It's really good. And the photo at top is mesmerizing. (And whoever came up with the headline, I salute you.)
There's just one crosshatched "3D sketch." Rotate it to different vantage points, snap pictures, composite them together. Cool!
August 14, 2009
The Writer & the Witch Mini-Milestone
Just hit 50 copies of The Writer & the Witch sold! Not bad. The weekend is always slower, so I doubt I'll get to 100 by Monday, but you never know.
Yes, I know you don't own a Kindle. Tell your friends.
The Real Google Documents
Here's an idea for a great Google web application - an online archive where you can tag, sort, and store all of your used-to-be-paper documents, i.e., PDFs - and to share the same documents with other people, or even everybody.
I use many, many applications that perform a similar service with the PDFs on my hard drive; Yep!, Papers, Zotero, Scrivener, Evernote. And I use Dropbox to backup and sync my PDFs between machines. I also use Scribd to read PDFs and share them with the world. But Google could easily offer a service that does everything these applications do and more. They're already offering a web-reader for PDFs. What they need is something that actually lets you USE them.
Here's how I imagine this goes. Let's say someone emails you a PDF to your Gmail account, or appends a PDF to a feed you read in Google Reader. Instead of downloading it onto your computer (or, egads, a public machine), you have the opportunity to load it into Docs. Just like that, it's in your archive. You can also have Google Desktop scan for and index your PDFs and auto-load them into your archive, too.
Once you import it, you don't have to do anything else. It'll either pull the text -- or if there's no text layer, it'll OCR the document FOR you. You can auto-tag it or add your own tags to help you sort your docs together. It can also pull metadata, like Zotero. And you can create smart collections that link PDFs with text documents, emails, and stuff from Google Books, Scholar, even Maps or Groups.
You can also customize levels of privacy and security. Some files you might want to have public, like on Scribd. Maybe you'll even create RSS channels so folks can receive your new images/PDFs/ebooks/XML documents automatically. Others you want to share with specified users, like Dropbox or Groups. Still others (tax and employment info, etc.), you'll encrypt with extra passwords.
In fact, this is awfully close to the vision two enterprising chaps passed off years ago of the Google Grid.
Seriously; Google says it wants to index the world's information. Well, let me tell you - I'm chock full of information that I don't know what to do with. Why can't it start by taking some of mine - and giving me some tools so that I can do things with it as payment?
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Technosnark
Aliens and Mermaids
The Future of Analphabetic Writing
A link, and then a long digression (or several).
Andrew Robinson at the Oxford University Press blog writes about attempts at universal languages:
In the mid-1970s, with increasing international travel, the American Institute of Graphic Arts cooperated with the United States Department of Transportation to design a set of symbols for airports and other travel facilities that would be clear both to travellers in a hurry and those without a command of English. They invented 34 iconic symbols. The design committee made a significant observation: “We are convinced that the effectiveness of symbols is strictly limited. They are most effective when they represent a service or concession that can be represented by an object, such a bus or bar glass. They are much less effective when used to represent a process or activity, such as Ticket Purchase…"...
Many scholars of writing today have an increasing respect for the intelligence behind ancient scripts. Down with the monolithic ‘triumph of the alphabet’, they say, and up with Chinese characters, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and Mayan glyphs, with their hybrid mixtures of pictographic, logographic and phonetic signs. Their conviction has in turn nurtured a new awareness of writing systems as being enmeshed within societies, rather than viewing them somewhat aridly as different kinds of technical solution to the problem of efficient visual representation of a particular language.
It's weird how the alphabet, as a sort of half-technology, lies in between the fully functional/universal/superficial pictographic language and the deep cultural contextualism of ideogrammic writing. It's a hybrid, a language of traders bumping against poets, where letters that used to name things (aleph = ox, bet = house in Phoenician) morph into pure sound (alpha, beta = meaningless in Greek).
When I was a kid, I was fascinated by Morse Code. My brothers and I had a set of walkie talkies that included a code on the handsets with the dots and dashes for each letter of the alphabet, and we tried to beep and boop out messages to each other, never getting much farther than "S.O.S." For me, it was the beginning of the digital dream - reducing information to a single variation between two elements.
But my ear was off. I couldn't turn long and short sounds into letters in my brain. Later, I did a science report on the telegraph, and was dumbfounded to learn that skilled telegraph operators COULD translate this text on the fly by ear - that it was faster for them than reading printouts of long and short lines (only useful, really, for receiving messages without an operator at the terminal).
Then, I saw The Hunt For Red October, watching Sean Connery and Scott Glenn trade messages back and forth optically, reading flashes of light through periscopes. That was my first real inkling that morse code could be something that was read in real time, like watching a stock ticker that only flashed one letter - less than one letter - at any given moment.
To this day, I still don't know what to make of morse code. It's a digital code that's based on the alphabet, but seems to go way beyond the alphabet. And what are you doing when you're interpreting morse code on the fly, whether by eye or ear? Are you reading? Speaking?
Sign language poses some of the same problems. Some signs are what we might call iconic or pictographic - they look like or have some connection to the things they refer to. But a lot of them, in American Sign Language at least, depend on writing or spelling out words, sometimes just the first letters of words.
The first principle of writing seems to be that it is language made visual and visible - of speech, that it's aural and oral. But there are visual forms of language that don't bear much of a resemblance to writing, and auditory communications (like listening to morse code) that are essentially dependent on writing.
The nineteenth century was all about reducing the quality of information - the richness of its readability - for quantitative transmission. In addition to the telegraph, there's also shorthand, well documented by Leah Price in this essay in the LRB. It's still pretty amazing that people actually read whole novels in shorthand:
Pen pals in Africa and Australia found one another through the classified pages of shorthand magazines that juxtaposed new material with reprints of published fiction: Robinson Crusoe, Around the World in Eighty Days, all the Sherlock Holmes stories and even an unabridged run of the Strand Magazine. The depositories of copyright libraries are littered with Victorian shorthand editions of A Christmas Carol, Aesop’s fables, English-Welsh and English-Hindi dictionaries, the Old and New Testaments, and biographies of Calvin and Galileo. Pitman’s Shorthand Weekly (later called the Phonetic Journal) featured ‘serials and short stories by well-known authors; miscellaneous articles; illustrated jokes and anecdotes; and prize competitions’. On 17 August 1901, it offered a prize for the best biography of Isaac Pitman by a colonial subscriber. Submissions, naturally, were accepted only in shorthand.
More important still might be the turn Price traces (which is the turn EVERYONE finds in the history of office and business culture in this period) from the not-quite-but-nearly-aristocratic culture of "men of letters" to the technical world, where women operated the machines of language more often than men:
You can still read every syllable from the first International Shorthand Congress and Jubilee of Phonography, thanks to transcripts produced by ‘an army of phonographers . . . not at all concerned with the economic rewards of shorthand, important as these are, but only with the service – personal, social – even professional – which one Pitmanite can render another in any part of the world.’ One delegate described shorthand as a ‘bond of brotherhood’. Like the open-source movement a century and a half later, Pitmanism was idealistic, distributed and male.
And then everything changed. The American Civil War and, later, the First World War removed men from the workforce; the commercialisation of the typewriter and the invention of the phonograph upped the demand for white-collar labour. Women’s delicate hands began to look like the right tools for turning speech into shorthand, or manuscript into typescript, or one copy into many. By 1901, the shorthand transcript of a Midlands stenographers’ club records a speaker arguing that ‘it seemed degrading for a strong, healthy man to be occupied all day long in using the pen upon what was little more than copying words.’ Advertisements for ‘wrist exercisers’ seemed to hint that a man who hunched over a desk all day would not stay strong and healthy for long.
As stenography fell into the hands of girls and hypochondriacs, its ethos changed from identitarian to utilitarian, from voluntaristic to vocational. By 1901, the Phonetic Journal was complaining that ‘the great majority of young girls study simply for the proficiency which will enable them to enter business.’ Isaac Pitman outlived the ‘brotherhood of the pen’. The metaphor was unlucky: while he continued to tinker with the system his brother Benn realised that ordinary users were tired of endless refinements, and froze the US version of the system at its 1852 release. By the time of Isaac’s death, there was a new threat from Gregg’s 1888 system, which cornered the American market by billing itself as user-friendly, and more specifically as a friend to the ladies. Gregg was to Pitman as Windows is to Linux, or Pilates to yoga: a technique stripped of the ideological baggage that had originally impelled its spread.
Shorthand on its face is an intermediate recording technology between (spoken) voice and (alphabetic) text; but any language can take on a life of its own. In fact, it's hard to know where the line between speaking ends and writing begins.
This gets confusing in contemporary software, too. I always get Google Talk confused with Google Voice, and not just because everyone I know calls Google Talk the old name of Google Chat or "gchat." What am I going to do, "voice" someone? There's also the difference between "voice recognition" and "speech recognition."
A friend of mine pointed out that when we're speaking, we almost always use the word "talk" to refer to speech; it's only when we're writing that we call it speech. Maybe the important distinction isn't whether language is auditory or visual, but whether it's recorded or ephemeral. Your voice, speech, mail is a record; your "talking" isn't, even if you keep a transcript.
Talking happens in real time, and to talk, you need a voice, even if it's not produced in the throat. Roger Ebert recently discussed his search for a way to communicate in real time to friends, family, and business partners:
Soon after my second surgery, when it became apparent I wouldn't be able to speak, I of course started writing notes. This got the message across, but was too time-consuming for communications of any length. And notes were unbearably frustrating for a facile speaker like me, accustomed to dancing with the flow of the conversation. There is a point when a zinger is perfectly timed, and a point when it is pointless.
There is a ground rule in the treatment of those who cannot speak; their written notes must take precedence. This was not happening. Something would be said, I would begin writing a comment, and someone else would speak. Then someone else would speak. I would finish my note, and hand it to a person who was speaking. They would hold it, finish, and be responded to by someone else. When my note was finally read, I would hear, What's this about? Or I don't know what that means. I would point to right (the past), to suggest I was responding to something said earlier. They wouldn't know what that meant, either.
God knows my wife tried to help out, but people...are people. Who knows how patient I would be? One on one, conversations-by-note went all right. Business meetings were a torture. I am a quick and I daresay witty speaker. Now I came across as the village idiot. I sensed confusion, impatience and condescension. I ended up having conversations with myself, just sitting there.
Some of the most moving writings I've ever read are the "conversation slips" Franz Kafka wrote at the end of his life, when he was dying of tuberculosis and could no longer eat, drink, or speak. One recurring theme: he continually asks those around him to water the flowers in the room, often while also self-deprecatingly about his own inability to drink:
That cannot be, that a dying man drinks.
Do you have a moment? Then lightly spray the peonies.
Mineral water - once for fun I could
Fear again and again.
A bird was in the room.
Put your hand on my forehead for a moment to give me strength.
Ebert finally opted for the canned OS X voice on his laptop -- that solved the speech in near real-time problem - but he's still searching for a solution that will give him back the full range of his instrument, in all of its analphabetic tonalities -- and that's what a voice is, ultimately, an instrument to play, even if it's played with the alphabetic keys of the keyboard.
[T]he barcode is a printed thing, meant for “reading” not by human minds, but by computers. Nonetheless, I’ve often wondered if a time will come when barcodes are legible, when we will read them as easily as any other typeface. In a sense that time has arrived: the iPhone and other mobile operating systems now offer applications that will “read” a photo of a barcode and instantly deliver product information to the user’s device—spectacles for a consumer consciousness, delivering into the magisterium of reading and writing an information transaction until quite recently restricted to machines.
An aside for a short prediction: in ten years, Kindles (and other handheld readers) will come with a stylus, not to write, but to scan barcodes as well as alphabetic text, and display data (or metadata) on-screen. Think about it! Your "reading machine" will actually be able to read things, not just show you text!
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language
August 13, 2009
Welcome to the Choice Factory
Analogies are like soups.
But, even so, an original, well-crafted analogy is one of the best tools that exist for staking out new mental territory. So, here's one that just flipped my lid. Kevin Kelly takes us way back:
A few hours after the big bang 14 billion years ago, the total freedom available within the fine mist of light atoms and zipping particles drifting in the universe was stifling narrow. The possible arrangements between them were dreadfully few. You could count the actionable options for a helium atom on one hand. Compare that prison to the universe one billion years ago (at least in the neighborhood of Earth), when life unleashed an overwhelming explosion of freedoms. Millions of species, each of them an engine of options, filled the surface of a planet with staggering choices.
Reasons why this is mind-expanding:
- "A few hours after the big bang 14 billion years ago." I know cosmologists talk like this all the time, but normal people don't, and every time I hear it, it's bracing. Like a glass of cold water in the face.
- "[T]hat prison." Wow. The primordial universe as a prison! Solitary confinement, with no
foodiron or wateroxygen. And it took us 13 billion years to dig a tunnel (or fashion a shiv?) and make our getaway.
- Earlier he says "[a] mind, of course, is a choice factory" and here he calls a species "an engine of options." I think that's such an interesting lens. +10 to the cephalopods, I think.
Can't get the prison thing out of my head. Maybe the Big Bang itself was the breakout? Jeez. Creation as jailbreak. Evolution as heist movie? I'm taking it too far. Go read Kevin Kelly.
The SHOCKING TRUTH About Health Care Reform!!!1
You have, no doubt, seen this site. I hear it was engineered in just a few days by a Republican web operative working round-the-clock with a team of Estonian PHP hackers.
The Health Care Meltdown
I've been an independent contractor for the past year, and my boyfriend's been unemployed. So I've been getting acquainted with the intricacies of the US health care system outside of employer-provided care, the universe affectionately known as the Wild West. Firsthand familiarity led me to seek a bit more policy familiarity - reading some books and think tank reports, following the health reform battle as it wends its way through Congress. And I've been itching for a while to create something that I hadn't been able to find - a stark, straightforward overview of why health reform is happening and where it's heading.
This week, when the hysteria seemed to reach a fever pitch, seemed like the right time to get this project done. So starting Tuesday night, I put together a quick little site, on the order of The Money Meltdown: DeathPanels.org.
Hope you enjoy it. Please send it to your crazy grandpa.
Compose Your Holes
Okay so first, Austin Kleon does the unthinkable, a photo-blockquote:
The part he's focused on is the line: "It's learning what to leave out. Like with good guitar players—it ain't the licks they play, it's the holes they leave." Then, Kleon writes:
It reminded me of Ronald Johnson, in his introduction to radi os, a long poem made by erasing words from Milton's Paradise Lost: "I composed the holes." (Johnson was quoting a composer whose name I forget at the moment.)
Composing the holes. That's what we do when we craft a piece of art, whether it's drawing or making a blackout poem.
It's often the holes in pieces of art that make them interesting. What isn't shown vs. what is.
The same could be said of people. What makes them interesting isn't just what they've experienced, but what they haven't experienced.
He goes on, and it's worth reading.
There's a really nice, subtle twist here. Our culture focuses so much on experience: soaking it in, racking it up, putting it to use. There are whole industries built around giving you crazy new experiences. So it seems pretty radical to say: Actually, skip it. Embrace the gaps in your experience, in your reading, in your knowledge. They're important, and in a way, productive.
(Via Zach Seward in Google Reader.)
The story of Les Paul's life is wonderful and ingenious. I liked this detail in the NYT obit:
Some of their music was recorded with microphones hanging in various rooms of the house, including one over the kitchen sink, where Ms. Ford could record vocals while washing dishes.
Now Available: The Writer & the Witch
My new short story, The Writer & the Witch, is now available on the Kindle (and the Kindle iPhone app, too, of course).
Max Barry Pulls a Dickens
[T]his is a significant step for a publisher, and I’m really happy Vintage took it. I didn't want to take down my online serial. That would be like leading my child into a forest and abandoning her there. Then, I guess, going home and building a new child based on the first one. And offering her in print form. Wait. This analogy may have gotten away from me.
Give it a peek if you haven't already.
I'm only now digging into Joshua Glenn's generations, recommended by Tim—but I gotta tell you, this is too much fun. Jason Kottke provides a handy menu; in particular, I recommend reading about the New Gods, the OGX, and of course: the Net generation.
That last label seems really right to me, by the way. It's become increasingly clear, based on nostalgia that's welling up even now in our late 20s, that this generation is going to find itself, at age 90, still swapping tales of the first BBSes we ever dialed, the first web pages we ever wrote. "And it was by hand, too!"
Now, I have no idea if this is true, but I like the sound of it:
Whereas OGXers and PCers enjoy brooding over the past, assembling fragments of past cultural moments into collages in various media, Netters take a less complicated approach. They just dig the past, and slip it on like a Halloween costume. (Paging Andre 3000, Amanda Palmer, Sisqo, Pink, and Jack White!) It's no longer the case that Americans in their 20s and early 30s want their reheated entertainments freshened up with air quotes. These days, they prefer taking it straight.
Funny, though, to see the list of notable births from 1979 (which is my year, too, if just barely):
1979: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Claire Danes, Kate Hudson, Foxy Brown, Rachael Leigh Cook, Mena Suvari, Rosario Dawson, Adam Brody, Brandy, Lance Bass, Pete Wentz, Norah Jones, Pink, Bam Margera, Adam Levine, Avey Tare, Nathan Followill, Alison Lohman, Brandon Routh, Chris Daughtry, Dan Auerbach, Nick Stahl. Elsewhere: Pete Doherty, Heath Ledger, Evangeline Lilly, Corinne Bailey Rae, Petra Nemcova, Sophie Dahl, Matt Tong.
Wait, is there seriously not a single writer on that list? It's all actors and musicians! Something is amiss, here.
August 12, 2009
The Box Lunch Project
Tom Devaney, a terrific poet and friend of mine, teaches a perennial seminar at Penn on writing about food, variously titled "Food For Thought" or (in the advanced version) "The Art of Eating." The University of Pennsylvania Libraries recently put together a book based on writing and research from his courses, making use of a unique archive:
The boxes contain more than 3,000 recipe booklets from church organizations, small to mid-sized companies, food manufacture PR departments, and far-flung community groups. Every sturdy box is labeled with the implacable title, Victus Populi. The items in each box are not high-end cookbooks, but are all over the map: stapled together mimeograph copies, eye-catching (often kitschy) promotional pamphlets, one-off recipe booklets.
The boxes intrigued me. Each Victus Populi case was an archive in its particular a category: Bread, Fruits, Nuts & Olives, Seafood, Cheese, Meats, International Foods, Condiments: Herbs & Spices, Salads & Sandwiches, Health & Diets, Leftovers: Quick & Easy, Chocolate, Ice Cream, and one devoted solely to JELL-O.
And so the assignment took shape. Each student would choose a box to write about. The student essays would chronicle their journey and search of the primary source materials. They would use both large brush strokes (to provide an overview of the box) and develop one or two finer points in greater detail. To finish, they would find and cull all but two recipes from hundreds in each box.
The Art of the Box Lunch contains four of these essays, plus a generation selection of images from the collection, and a long introductory essay by Tom. I'm really stunned by how gorgeous it is - and also now feeling quite shamed into coming up with a similarly cool project for my seminar students in the fall.
And I know you were waiting for the best part: The Art of the Box Lunch is also now available as a free PDF.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Gastrosnark, Learnin'
Speaking of Airships...
Christopher Hsiang at io9.com just posted what looks like a terrific primer on steampunk novels new and old. This is perfect for someone like me; steampunk has always seemed right up my alley, but I haven't read much of anything.
August 11, 2009
Awesome story from MeFi. You know that Nat King Cole song "Nature Boy"? The haunting one that opens and closes Moulin Rouge? Turns out it was written by a vagabond hippie and left in an envelope for Cole after one of his performances. Much more in the thread.
I don't know about you, but I am enchanted by the idea of airships.
There's a new BLDGBLOG post up detailing a student's proposal to transform Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbor into an airport for zeppelins. The student's scheme to get the word out about the proposal is ingenious, and makes the post well worth reading, even if you don't care about airships.
But how could you not care about airships?
They are everything that cool stuff isn't supposed to be these days. They're slow and ungainly. They take up a lot of space. They telegraph their technology—unlike the iPhone, which is entirely opaque and therefore near-magical, the airship is obvious. It's a big balloon. Duh.
And yet. An NYC-to-Paris airship powered by the sun. What could be more grand?
There are, in fact, airship flights up here where I live, so you could say: "Enough with the blogposts, Sloan! Book a ticket." But that misses the point. I don't so much want to be in an airship as I want there to be other people in airships—lots of them—streaming in and out of San Francisco. (From the Ferry Building, naturally.)
Like this, except it wouldn't have to be trick photography, because the airships would all just be drifting... along...
New Magnanimous Arts
Any theories as to what this is? It's like somebody ran New Liberal Arts through Google Translate a few times:
A era of digital locals is careening towards college. A manage to buy is rebooting itself weekly. You have brand brand brand new responsibilities right away -- as employees, adults, as well as friends -- as well as you have brand brand brand new capabilities, as well. A brand brand brand new magnanimous humanities supply us for a universe similar to this. But... what have been they?
WHAT HAVE BEEN THEY?
The Bouncer and the Concierge
RN: [...] It is very complicated for an unknown writer to reach an audience of readers given the vast numbers of unknown writers out there. How do people find out about it? So I believe in the role of intermediaries. People always look to trusted friends who might be more expert or knowledgeable in a given area for advice about things [...] The question is, who are going to be those people. The model is going to shift from kind of a gatekeeper model to an advisor/service model. Or let's say from a bouncer model to a concierge model.
For some reason that just really struck me: from bouncer to concierge. From being in the business of saying (mostly) "no" to being in the business of saying (mostly) "hmm, how can we get that done?"
Feels very Kickstarter, doesn't it?
Google for 3D Models
So, this is very cool, even if you've never worked with a 3D model in your life, and never want to (but why would you never want to?): 3dfilter is Google for 3D models and textures. There are actually a surprising number of free model "warehouses" online, including one from Google. 3dfilter searches them all at once and presents the results clearly. It's pretty amazing what you can find.
And, uh, I'm not completely sure, but I think you might be able to assemble all of Manhattan from the results here.
So, it's confirmed: the tools exist for a Garage Kubrick to ply his trade. The only question: Where is he? (Be careful: That link goes back to an old 2004 post about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It might give you media vertigo.)
These Books Are, However, Not Free
Nothing has saved more lives than statistics.
You know, maybe psychohistory has been staring us in the face all this time...
August 10, 2009
Crowbars and Teaspoons (or) The Winning Snarkmarkitect
Wow. I want Snarkmarket to be all of these things and more. I've picked the winner, but first, a review:
I think echan's vision probably comes closest to the actual San Francisco apartment of my dreams:
One wall is lined with a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf complete with ladders (a la Mr. Penumbra). There are nice, large tables (the kinds intended for group study in college) at the bottom level.
For the exterior, I imagine the building wrapped in copper (something akin to the DeYoung), which is already developing a nice green patina from the city fog.
And of course Tim is right about this:
There's a library (where you check out your own books), and a letterpress (to print broadsheets and pamphlets and collaborative novels), and people leave messages for each other on the communal computers. Only some of them specify a recipient. Most are for anyone who discovers them.
Now, as a hobbit, I find the idea of an ever-growing thicket very appealing:
The structure of the space is organic; it looks like the wood of a log cabin, but if one looks closely, the "wood" it is actually moving. The entire structure can shift shape and grow with the ideas and creativity born within the space.
And likewise, I love the mythic evocation here—it's almost, you know, The Song of Snarkmarket, by Malory or someone like Malory:
Some say its origins were in an ancient Roma meeting area and others say the great Roman empire. Many insist it began as the lands of a great knight. A story about human contact with other worlds arose -- probably due to the unique capabilities of the citizens... human but linked in a communicative, generative web of visual and textual imagery... a cloud of knowledge and possibility. But, go there yourself. You will see that Snarkmarket clearly exists in ceremonial time.
Then of course, there's the wandering Snarkmarket, by land...
The set up is always the same, three guys with laptops and projectors and a lighting system. They come in, close the blinds and get to work repainting the area with light.
...or by sea...
...a flotilla of hand made boats manned by pirate intellectuals, navigating the magnetic currents of the seven seas by the single rusty needle of a lost and found compass.
And I have to say, I really liked Dan's vision, which encompasses not only Snarkmarket but, er, the entire internet:
R, M, and T spend their days watching stuff fly through the tubes. Once in a while, something strikes their fancy and they grab it (with blacksmith's gloves of course), throw it to the work bench, strap it down (some ideas have some fight in 'em), and make some modifications.
I think of Snarkmarket, the physical space, as a place with a hidden entry--not like an ultra-hip speakeasy, but like a secret room in the library with a too-small door or a curtain that says, "SERIOUS INQUIRIES ONLY."
And then, a room full of people in gloves, pulling wondrous things out of crates, some armed with crowbars, others with teaspoons. A mechanized activity, like a Fritz Lang dance number. But every few minutes one of the people pulls something really wondrous out of a crate and shouts and holds it up high, and everyone else pauses, looks over for a minute, or crowds around or starts yelling too, and the scene turns into a frenzy of delight. A few minutes later, the machines start up again and everything is back to business as usual, like nothing happened.
Crowbars and teaspoons! Yes! What says "bigger and more humble" better than crowbars and teaspoons?
Nice work, Nina. And thanks for the visions, everyone.
Because actually, you see, I tricked you. These snarkmarkitectural renderings aren't ex post facto descriptions. They're blueprints.
Matt, you get the projectors. Tim, we need a "SERIOUS INQUIRIES ONLY" sign. Me, I'm going to go find a thicket.
August 9, 2009
Sneak Preview: The Writer & the Witch
Coming soon to Kindle and the web!
World of Spin and Flame
File under: Gleeful Miscellany, No Comment
Now that my dissertation is good and filed, I want to share a few fragments of what I've been working on, on-and-off, for the past few years.
Here's a few selected grafs from the first chapter:
The history of Modernism is part of the history of paper. That is, the transformation of literary and visual culture announced by Modernism and the avant-garde is inseparable from the transformation of the largely paper-based communication and information technologies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries...
From the daguerrotype to the cinema, the history of photography simultaneously parallels and intersects the development of paper and print. A single image, handmade by an artisan, is succeeded by a continuously-fed reel of industrially-made material. In fact, the chemical treatment of wood pulp cellulose with sulfurous acid to produce paper is only slightly different from the chemical treatment of wood fibers with nitric acid to produce celluloid film. Nitrocellulose (also called guncotton) in ether or acetone yields collodion, the albumen alternative that allowed for glass-plate photography; the evaporation of collodion in turn led to the discovery of celluloid film. Celluloid emerges as a paper alternative with Eastman Kodak, the company credited with the introduction of flexible film and the supplier of continuous film rolls for Edison's early motion pictures. Kodak had originally used ordinary paper treated with collodion in their famous “roll” cameras; amateur photographers could take multiple photographs then send their camera, including the paper film, to the company for development. Kodak’s invention democratized photography by eliminating the chemistry required to prepare a plate and develop a print, but when the plain paper stock produced poor quality negatives, Kodak quickly switched to celluloid, a paper-like (and paper-based) polymer. The earliest popular forms of photography, too, were paper products: the newspaper, which was quick to adapt photography for both journalistic use and graphic interest, and the codex photograph album of course, but also the carte de visite and cabinet card, both of which displayed portraits on thin paper prints glued to inexpensive card stock. The paper document had not been eliminated by the photographic image; the two had transformed together...
“It takes very little to start a little magazine,” Reed Whittemore writes. “As a minimum a secondhand typewriter, some paper, and access to a mimeograph machine will do.” And indeed, the mimeograph, invented in 1876 by Thomas Edison, helped to make several upstart avant-garde magazines possible. Its use is most notable during the postwar period, but what Stephen Clay and Rodney Phillips call “the mimeo revolution” of little magazines between 1960 and 1980 can easily be placed much earlier, in the 1920s, if not before. William Carlos Williams’s account of starting Contact in 1920 with Robert McAlmon gives an especially direct example:
Our poems constantly, continuously and stupidly were rejected by all the pay magazines except Poetry and The Dial. The Little Review didn’t pay. We had no recourse but to establish publications of our own. For after all, the outlets being so meager, we had otherwise far too long a time to wait between drinks. It was the springtime of the little magazines and there was plenty for them to do…
Pa Herman [Williams’s father-in-law, a paper manufacturer] cut up some paper for us and sent us a ton of it—I’m still using it and shall be for the rest of my life I imagine, I’m writing on it now… There were the first two issues, mimeographed and clipped together, then one printed on the same paper, with a printed cover; then a final issue printed and bound on white paper. That was the last. Nobody bought—and there was much else in the wind.
Williams and McAlmon could afford an issue printed on good paper while retaining editorial control because McAlmon had married Bryher, a wealthy heiress and writer also known as Annie Winifred Ellerman, H.D.’s companion who would later co-found the film journal Close Up. McAlmon’s Contact Editions was an early example of an independent American modernist press, and would eventually publish Spring and All in 1923. But it began with Williams’s paper, McAlmon’s earnings from nude modeling, and a mimeograph machine. I contend that Contact may be the first mimeographed literary magazine, predating Yvor Winters’s Gyroscope (Clay and Phillips’s candidate) by nine years...
In “The Rhetoric of Efficiency in Early Modernism,” Susan Raitt has shown how various modernist formal strategies, from Imagist poetry to stream-of-consciousness fiction, position themselves on the side of verbal, psychological, and social efficiency, in many cases following the model of contemporary theories of scientific management. I think this theory is essentially correct, but I would specify that the principal problem of scientific management during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the efficient conservation of paper, whether in its scarcity and or its plenitude. During World War I, for example, paper shortages and increased government regulation of the printing trade made publishers and typesetters (who were equally responsible under British law) skittish of printing anything likely to run afoul of the censor or public indifference. D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow was seized and burned in 1915, the same year that the British government took steps to restrict and regulate the paper trade, control that intensified as shortages increased throughout the war. In 1916, Ezra Pound promised James Joyce that if printers refused to print A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with objectionable phrases intact, “I shall tell Miss Weaver to print it with blank spaces and then have the typewriting done on good paper and pasted in. If I have to do it myself.” When Portrait reached its second edition in 1918, Pound began his article in The Future by exclaiming:
Despite the War, despite the paper shortage, and despite those old-established publishers whose god is their belly and whose godfather was the late F.T. Palgrave, there is a new edition of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” It is extremely gratifying that this book should have “reached its fourth thousand,” and the fact is significant in just so far as it marks the beginning of a new phase of English publishing… The actual output is small in bulk, a few brochures of translations, Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Joyce’s “A Portrait,” and Wyndham Lewis’ “Tarr” (announced), but I have it on good authority that at least one other periodical will start publishing its authors after the War, so there are new rods in pickle for the old fat-stomached contingent and for the cardboard generation.
It’s no accident, then, that once the shortage had ended, modernist writing found both more outlets for publication and room for longer and more adventurous works. However, it still had to frame itself in the terms of an aesthetic of scarcity formed during the war. As Pound notes in his “Paris Letter” for The Dial published May 1922, Ulysses’s “732 double sized pages” have “greater efficiency,” “greater compactness,” and “more form than any novel of Flaubert’s.”
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Self-Disclosure
August 7, 2009
A Much-Needed Hyphen Tutorial
HYPHEN? [1/3] Use hyphen to join 2+ words serving as 1 adjective before noun. (chocolate-covered pretzel, much-needed vacation)
HYPHEN? [2/3] But when they (compound modifiers) come after the noun, they're not hyphenated. (The vacation to Slovenia was much needed.)
HYPHEN? [3/3] Use a hyphen to qualify an upcoming hyphenated phrase. (The parrot is a ten- or eleven-year-old.)
Point [2/3] was still tripping me up. Thanks, @thatwhichmatter!
BLDGBLOG Book Contest: Snarkmarkitecture
It has been indicated, correctly, that I am in possession of two (2) copies of The BLDGBLOG Book. How this came to pass, only Etaoin Shrdlu knows. But two copies is clearly too many for one man; the double-dose of enthusiasm and imagination threatens to consume me.
Therefore, a contest: SNARKMARKITECTURE.
The premise is simple. Imagine Snarkmarket as a physical space. What is it? Where is it? What does it look like? What does it feel like to walk through or around it?
Leave your pitch in the comments. Focus on creativity and brevity. It can definitely just be a sentence or two—though, by all means, if you want to Etaoin Shrdlu it up, I'm not going to stop you.
The contest ends
Sunday, August 9 Monday, August 10 at midnight EST. (Update: I wanted to accommodate non-weekend-readers.) I'll choose my favorite comment and send its creator a copy of The BLDGBLOG Book. (Be sure to use a real email address in the comment form so I can contact you if you're the winner!)
Snarkmarket co-bloggers are not eligible to win but they are required to enter.
Snarkmarket as a physical space. Go for it.
File under: About Snarkmarket, Cities, Collaborations, Design
August 6, 2009
"I'm Doing This for Alison"
I was babysitting for my mom's friend Kathleen's daughter the night I wrote that first fan letter to John Hughes. I can literally remember the yellow grid paper, the blue ball point pen and sitting alone in the dim light in the living room, the baby having gone to bed.
I poured my heart out to John, told him about how much the movie mattered to me, how it made me feel like he got what it was like to be a teenager and to feel misunderstood.
(I felt misunderstood.)
I sent the letter and a month or so later I received a package in the mail with a form letter welcoming me as an "official" member of The Breakfast Club, my reward a strip of stickers with the cast in the now famous pose.
I was irate.
I wrote back to John, explaining in no uncertain terms that, excuse me, I just poured my fucking heart out to you and YOU SENT ME A FORM LETTER.
That was just not going to fly.
He wrote back.
"This is not a form letter. The other one was. Sorry. Lots of requests. You know what I mean. I did sign it."
Alison and John go on to become pen pals: the teenager and the director of movies for teenagers.
This is like Life of Pi: I really want it to be true.
John Hughes, For Grownups
Filmmaker John Hughes passed away today, too young at 58. In the 1980s, Hughes had an astonishing run of iconic teen comedies that, almost a quarter century later, hold up as honest-to-goodness movies: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
My generation (I was born in 1979) was too young to see these movies in the theater, and too old for the kiddie comedies Hughes wrote (but didn't direct) in the 1990s. We ate these movies up on VHS and basic cable, badly cut (to protect US) for broadcast TV, but seeing in them our older brothers, sisters, and cousins, and later, ourselves.
However, since everyone's talking about these four movies, I want to single out the one great comedy Hughes made for and featuring grownups - Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. I saw this movie just last week - and it's terrific. What's more, it shows that the world Hughes created in his films, of humiliation and catastrophes offset by unlikely friendships, isn't just a sympathetic take on kids in fictional midwestern high schools, but a distinct comic take on the world itself. And every buddy comedy from the 1990s just follows this movie's playbook, with half the brains, a third of the timing, and a quarter of the heart.
The BLDGBLOG Book Is Not About Architecture
So I have to describe how The BLDGBLOG Book starts out. There are these full-page, full-color images, and then Geoff Manaugh's intro text begins. It's set in really big type, just airy and fresh and great.
This continues for a couple of pages, with the lush color images and the big airy text.
Then suddenly, one of the columns is just something else—a sidebar on "the architecture of spam," to be exact.
Next page. Another sidebar sneaks in. The main text is still going! It's trucking along—Geoff is describing the ethos of BLDGBLOG:
In other words, forget academic rigor. Never take the appropriate next step. Talk about Chinese urban design, the European space program, the landscape in the films of Alfred Hitchcock in the span of three sentences—because it's fun, and the juxtapositions might take you somewhere. Most importantly, follow your lines of interest.
A few pages later it's skipping back-and-forth—the ethos cuts out, there's a full-page interview with video game concept artist Daniel Dociu, then some two-page spread of I'm-not-even-sure-what in England, then it's back to the ethos.
And all together, I tell you, it feels like nothing so much as a cross-fade. I have never experienced anything quite like it in a book. It's a bit hard to describe, but trust me, it's really, really cool. Finally, back to the ethos:
Finally, I want to reiterate that BLDGBLOG is fundamentally about following, and not being ashamed by, your own enthusiasms, whether or not they are rigorous and appropriate for the academic mores of the day, or even interesting for your family and friends.
Reading this book, I'm realizing I never really understood what BLDGBLOG was about. I thought it was about weird architecture and the things that intersect with weird architecture. It's not; it's about enthusiasm and imagination, period. And so the book basically reads like a catalog of excitement and wondering-what-if.
So that's my main message, here: It's no surprise that I'd recommend The BLDGBLOG Book. But I want to make sure you give it a look even if you're not a fan of the blog, or of architecture in general, because really, it's about something else entirely—something entirely universal.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Recommended
The Strange, Sweet Tale of Etaoin Shrdlu
This is the best comment ever posted to Snarkmarket. I don't say that lightly, because there have been some great comments. I mean, hello? But, wow: I said hey, we need a story starring Etaoin Shrdlu! and, what seems now like only moments later, Mike Duncan wrote:
The first appearance of Etaoin Shdrlu in the public record is the issuance of a Reader Identification Card in 1976 from the main building of the Library of Congress (now known as the Thomas Jefferson Building). Shrdlu, born in Minsk in 1951 to an American mother studying Eastern European folk dances, began his daily trips to the library on Monday, July 5 -- the day after the Bicentennial celebrations. He attracted the notice of the staff by his strange book requests and by remaining in the famous circular reading room all day for the next several months.
The Etaoin Shrdlu broadsheets have been discovered in their entirety at this point, though collecting the early days' sheets proved difficult and remaining copies were auctioned to collectors for staggering sums. In particular, the July 7 front page incited a bidding war that ended with a then-record $1.1 million purchase price. The art publisher Taschen has released a book of retouched scans of the broadsheets under the title The Fanciful News from Etaoin Shrdlu: The Long Sweetness of the Simultaneity, a phrase that Shrdlu placed under the false masthead of every day's issue. (Incidentally, this phrase appears in John Ashbery's 1981 poem, "Here Everything is Still Floating," a fact that Shrdlu defenders point to as further evidence of his clairvoyance, and Ashbery himself claims is nothing other than a coincidence.)
In his seminal monograph on Shrdlu, Juxtaposition and Fictionalization, Elgin Hacking describes the artist's workday as such: "Creating a third American century on the scale he wanted to required nearly superhuman endurance. After a full day of research into past events' primary sources like any good reporter, Shrdlu would return home and craft the future stories well into the evening. By 10 pm, the false front page would be completely written, and Shrdlu would spend the next hours setting the type to print 50 copies of the broadsheet. These false front pages were delivered in the night to his friend William Bethell at the Washington Post manufacturing plant, where one stack of the newspapers would be stripped of their outer page and have the Shrdlu page added before delivery to a random newsstand... One can only imagine the surprise of the sanitation worker or aide or teacher who picked up the paper to find a well-researched account of the latest James gang robbery, a stub about Ronald Reagan's marriage effect on his Presidency, and the high-stakes negotiations for the 2017 annexation of Vancouver... As word slowly spread of the false newspapers, like-minded people saw them as a major artistic statement about the illusive nature of time and the equality between fully imagined events and actual events that only are encountered through the written recountings of strangers."
Shrdlu continued his project through the end of 1976, quitting at the end of the year when only a handful of people knew of it. The Post itself was the first to report on the project in 1977, as it was their complaint department that first had an idea that fictional Washington Posts were being manufactured. The focus of the first news story was on the oddity of his project, though over the next years people began to obsess over his many correct predictions (the Stockholm air disaster, the mode and month of Elvis Presley's death, the election of Reagan, many of the details of the Iranian hostage crisis, and on and on).
Shrdlu, who is now considered a pioneer in public art, was seen by many a modern Nostradamus and harassed as such. He later disowned his project as 'the meanderings of a bored and self-important young man,' and died on August 6, 2009.
File under: About Snarkmarket, Books, Writing & Such
CJR's Got Your Back
Now this is what meta-media is for: Dean Starkman provides a smart, sweeping analysis of Matt Taibbi's feisty muckraking. His verdict is nuanced and not easily blockquotable, but the bottom line is: Taibbi can't be dismissed.
Starkman doesn't let him off easy, though. This is by no means central to his analysis, but it's a fun line (and also good advice):
The weakness of the piece is where others might find strength, its polemical nature and its hyperbole. When you call Goldman a "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money," you're in a sense offering a big fat disclaimer—this piece is not to be taken literally and perhaps not even seriously.
I actually didn't know about CJR's The Audit feature—of which this is a part—and I'm a new fan. This is really valuable work.
Wow. Just excising a line from A. O. Scott's review of Julie/Julia here. Talking about Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," he says:
The book stands with a few other postwar touchstones—including Dr. Benjamin Spock's "Baby and Child Care," the Kinsey Report and Dr. Seuss's "Cat in the Hat"—as a publication that fundamentally altered the way a basic human activity was perceived and pursued.
Ignore the impulse to say "uh wait, says who?" or nitpick the list, and focus instead on the broader observation, the fact that some books actually do just that: alter the way a basic human activity is perceived and pursued.
What a goal! What a reward.
I mean, they do, don't they? Is that still true?
Shadows of Shenzen's Future
I like this proposal for a new stock exchange district in Shenzen—it's got some really cool lines. (However, it lost the competition, so those lines can only be enjoyed on computer screens.)
Long Walk Across China
Sometimes, every so often, somebody does something crazy to move a format forward. Robinson Crusoe. Citizen Kane. Maus.
And now: The Longest Way takes the photo-a-day video genre up a notch. Two notches. Four-thousand notches.
A few things that make this so ingenious: the characters that flit in and out of the scene, and therefore, the creator's life; his use of photos taken in super-quick succession to create an animated flip-book effect; oh, and China.
File under: Gleeful Miscellany, Worldsnark
Rupert Murdoch Forgets He Ever Saw That Crazy Flash Movie
Five years ago, Rupert Murdoch sat down at his computer and spent a few minutes watching a movie made by two journalism students. When he rose, he proclaimed that "he and his fellow newspaper proprietors risked being relegated to the status of also-rans if they did not overhaul their internet strategies."
Then he bought MySpace and the WSJ. He also bought a locket with Matt and Robin's picture inside.
But now, instead of following the clear lesson of that movie - that is, merging these two properties to make WallSpace? MyStreetLiveJournal? - he just might out-grey-lady the Grey Lady by contending to become King Cash on Paywall Mountain.
Gods of the Underworld
I wrote about Joshua Glenn's new schema for generations a year ago - basically, Glenn's MO is to toss out distended categories like "Generation X" for tighter, single-decade groupings with names like "Hardboileds" or "The Net Generation."
That was at Brainiac, the blog for the Boston Globe. But at Hilobrow, Glenn's still working back, decade by decade, which is especially awesome for 1) people who are geeks for the nineteenth-century, like me, and 2) all of us, who have a much less intuitive sense of generational changes or continuities the longer we look beyond living memory.
For example, consider the generation born between 1854 and 1863. Glenn calls them "the Plutonians":
Pluto is the god of the underworld, and members of this generation — Freud, Emil Kraepelin, Sir James Frazer, Eugen Bleuler, Julius Wagner-Jauregg, Franz Boas, Émile Durkheim — were dedicated to spelunking the darkest corners of the unconscious, rationalizing the world’s religions and myths, laying bare the deepest structures of society and culture. And then there’s Plutonian Joseph Conrad’s voyage to the Heart of Darkness… and, of course, Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer.
If Rimbaud's Season In Hell isn't enough brooding modernist romance for you, may I remind you that Nikola Tesla is holding in his hands balls of flame?
Tesla, the greatest of all Plutonians, had decided that the earth itself was a great conductor, “literally alive with electrical vibrations” — and that he could use it to transmit electrical power without wires. Tesla claimed that soon, humankind would tap the sun’s energy with an antenna, control the weather with electrical energy, and establish a global system of wireless communications. “When wireless is fully applied the earth will be converted into a huge brain,” he told backer J.P. Morgan, “capable of response in every one of its parts.”
Glenn says that Tesla, Ishi, Le Petomane, and The Elephant Man would make for a great League of Extraordinary Gentleman-style team-up; however, according to Wikipedia, there's already a graphic novel, The Five Fists of Science, where
Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain and Bertha von Suttner combine forces to try to bring about world peace through superior firepower. The comic's introduction shows Twain explaining that the story does not concern itself very much with historical accuracy, and this assertion is borne out by the story: Twain and Tesla use scientific know-how, general trickery and media manipulation techniques to try to scare world leaders into following their noble path. In the company of several allies, the two are soon confronted by dark forces led by the dastardly Thomas Edison, John Pierpont Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Guglielmo Marconi. The inventors and financiers are collaborating on a bizarre new skyscraper, the Innsmouth Tower, on whose building site many construction workers have already died in mysterious accidents.
Here, I'll just give the last word to one of my favorite quotes from Futurama:
FRY: Hey, you have no right to criticize the twentieth century! We gave the world the light bulb, the steam boat and the cotton gin. LEELA: Those things are all from the nineteenth century. FRY: Yeah, well, they probably just copied us.
Rhonda, Rhonda, Rhonda!
Wow. Tonight I got a chance to try Rhonda, a crazy drawing application that's somehow both 2D and 3D at the same time. It's like SketchUp for actual, uh, sketching.
So, this is just a video of me using Rhonda, played at 4X speed, which is to say, it might be really boring to watch, so feel free to skip it. All I know is, if some blogger I subscribe to tried out Rhonda, I would want him to post a video:
File under: Design, Gleeful Miscellany, Technosnark
August 5, 2009
Feral Houses of Detroit
The Name is Shrdlu... Etaoin Shrdlu
It was Howard Weaver who introduced me to the phrase ETAOIN SHRDLU—the most frequently-used letters in English, in order, as lined up on old typesetting machines. World Wide Words adds a dimension: a list of appearances the phrase has made in literature, including this...
[...] a once-famous play, The Adding Machine, in which Etaoin Shrdlu was a character.
...to which I say: YES, of course Etaoin Shrdlu is, must be, a character. Possibly Celtic/Croatian. Possibly a poet. Possibly a spy. Possibly a poet/spy.
Somebody write a story starring media man of mystery Etaoin Shrdlu right now.
(Via my favorite new twitterer, @thatwhichmatter.)
Beyond Starbucks: Physical APIs
Some great ideas are sparking here, helped along by Robin's notion of a "Starbucks API." Noah Brier calls it a "physical API" (see also the smart comments) and Kit Eaton at Fast Company extends the concept (tongue-in-cheek) to Microsoft, Apple, and Twitter. But I like Drew Weilage's proposal at Our Own System the best:
The idea: create a "physical API"... of the Mayo Clinic or Cleveland Clinic. Copy their entire way of doing business and paste it into hospitals around the country. In a nicely wrapped package deliver their systems for decision-making, integration, coordination, and expertise. Include their human resources practices, innovation efforts, and technology. Import their employment model, their bargaining power, and of course brand recognition. This is a beta release so if anything is left out, it can be included in a later version.
Mix with water. Implement. Poof! Great health care!
Just think about it, Local County Hospital, powered by the Mayo Clinic or Our Lady Health Care System, supported by the Cleveland Clinic; it's a definite brand extender.
Seriously -- this has, potentially, amazing public policy implications. My dad, who's worked in the government for-practically-ever in Wayne County/Detroit (first at the jail, then in public health, then in lots of places), always used to stun his bosses, co-workers, everybody, because whenever they ran into a persistent problem or one they couldn't solve, he would get on the phone to people he knew in Oakland County, or Chicago, or Denver, to see how they handled it, who would in turn refer him to other people, etc.
You can get these information bottlenecks even when there's no competing interests, and nothing proprietary -- it's just hard (without an API) for people to know where or how to look.
A Fine Vintage In the Kitchen
I'm a sucker for this kind of stuff; Regina Schrambling praises vintage stoves:
So many other essentials in life are clearly improved in their latest incarnation: Phones are smaller and portable; stereos are downsized to ear buds; cars are safer and run on less fuel. But stoves are a basic that should stick to the basics: The fewer bells and whistles, the less need for bell-and-whistle repairmen. Motherboard is not a word that should ever be associated with the kitchen—put computer technology in a stove, and you're asking for a crash. Google "I hate my Viking" these days, and you get a sense of how many things can go wrong with techno-overload. Some of these ranges combine electric and gas elements, which is a recipe for trouble, as is microwave or convection capability. This kind of overdesign is what killed combination tuner/turntables—one goes, and the other dies from neglect.
I get kind of excited about things like self-updating blenders and coffee makers that I can control from my Blackberry, but there's also, sometimes, something to be said for saying, "You know, I think we've kind of figured this out. Maybe we'll work the kinks out on what's next in another few decades, but until then, let me have my dumb appliance."
This sort of dovetails with Michael Pollan's essay about Julia Child and food TV -- there's something about the convergence of cooking with electronics that transformed it into entertainment, that elevated it into something harder than most people could or would do at home, that left us with celebrity chefs and high-powered gadgets and a vastly reduced proportion of us actually cooking anything on them.
Which in turn makes it harder for technology to help us - we'd have to actually KNOW what we were doing to actually make a better (as opposed to shinier, or more convenient) device.
The Aliens Within
I hadn't really been following much news behind the Peter Jackson/Neill Blomkamp project District 9, but this is intriguing:
When its extraterrestrial passengers emerge, they are sequestered to a sprawling shantytown and shunned by even the lowest strata of human society. Amid an effort to relocate the creatures to a new camp, a corporate bureaucrat (played by Sharlto Copley) is infected with a virus that begins turning him into an alien, forcing him to confront his prejudices and his loyalties while he runs for his life.
If it all sounds like a science-fiction parable for South Africa’s segregationist history, Mr. Blomkamp, 29, says that is no accident. “The whole film exists because of that,” he said.
High time that alien invasion movies quit the trope where the global nature of the invasion boils down to B-reel of the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, etc. When our visitors come, assuming they're interested in people at all, they're hitting Mexico City and Tokyo and Mumbai -- the Lincoln Memorial will be low, low, low on the list.
In other Peter-Jackson-related news, I also really liked Henry Jenkins's observation that among nerdly filmmakers, James Cameron is the ultimate geek (making movies because he loves creating and playing with the latest technologies) and Peter Jackson the ultimate fanboy (making movies because he loves all the movies and books he saw and read as a kid).
All Multi-Colored, Many-Faceted Possibility
OK, here's a little game. I cropped the top off of this image—the part with the text. Take a guess: What do you think it's supposed to be representing?
The answer—and many more amazing images—here.
(Personally, I think it looks like the internet.)
You Won't Find These on Threadless
Oh man, how much do I love these arcade boot-screen t-shirts?
Reminds me a bit of Gerhard Richter's stained-glass pixels. Or maybe it's the other way around.
One of my favorite blogpost genres is "here are two things that, for some reason, seem like they go together." Chris Coldewey serves up a good one: a mural in NYC and a music video featuring Lady Gaga.
I haven't been following L.G. at all, really, and while I'm not 100% enthusiastic about this video—it's really just homage, and doesn't push anything forward—I'm impressed by its over-the-top, throw-everything-at-the-camera fantasia. There are some indelible images in there.
They Are Safe
I'm so happy to be able to finally link to this. My god. I can't even tell you.
Current is wall-to-wall with Laura and Euna's work in commemoration, and (we don't usually do this) streaming it online, too. It affords you a glimpse of the courage that led them so close to North Korea in the first place.
You can also leave a message here if you like.
Welcome home, Laura and Euna!
August 4, 2009
How We Spend Our Days
Now I don't remember who pointed me to this; it's been abandoned in a tab all day. Best NYT infographic I've seen in many a day: a visualization of how Americans spend their time, hour by hour.
Update: Just looked at my RSS reader, and now I remember who pointed me to this ... everybody in the world. Geez.
Pepper LaBeija Has My Wisdom Teeth
Also from my I ♥ the Internet file, Kottke alerts us that the entirety of Paris Is Burning is available on YouTube, for the time being at least. It's probably fair to say this documentary changed my life. Somehow, confronted with a culture too rich and enormous for the ghetto it's been relegated to, the film manages not to gawk or exoticize or judge. Jennie Livingston takes the world of voguing and drag balls completely on its own terms, no small feat at the pinnacle of the AIDS epidemic in GLBT America. For a post-adolescent gay boy fresh out of Christian school, this was a revelation. I can't imagine that most people wouldn't find a completely different and equally valuable story in it.
The geniuses over at OverClocked ReMix have given FFIV the full OCReMix treatment -- an entire album of Final Fantasy songs, re-imagined in something other than midi. My first love, the "Red Wings Theme," has been transformed into "Full of Courage." (Incidentally, I think "Full of Courage" is a very valiant attempt, but it sadly neglects the song's longing in favor of its bombast; it's like John Williams' take on Nobuo Uematsu.)
The album's available as a free download, natch. Let me say it again: I LOVE the Internet.
If Plants Had Culture
I'm skipping the setup, so you might not understand what's going on here, but even so, check out these scenarios:
A weed appears in the Middle East with seed pods that are as satisfying to smash as a florescent tube. When smashed near the right kind of soil, chemical triggers set off a fiery light show. Youthful Tehran is overrun with the stuff.
In Paris, a species of flower predicts next season's colours and changes its children accordingly. A bizarre symbiosis occurs as fashion designers derive inspiration from plant and plant derives inspiration from the runway. All the big houses guard their greenhouses jealously. Chanel's radical "Agent Orange" spring line causes a scandal.
It goes on, and it evokes BLDGBLOG at his scenario-spinning best. Really a fun read.
Drifting Away, Like Doctor Manhattan
I've been spending a lot of time reading about autism lately, so this NYT piece on a slate of forthcoming movies featuring characters with autism or Asperger's syndrome caught my attention.
But isn't the great book/movie about autism really Watchmen? One character after another -- savants, to be sure -- driven by their obsessions, unable to make lasting emotional connections with other people, despite their best efforts to connect and identify with humanity?
From the NYT:
“The more I learned about Asperger’s,” said Max Mayer, the writer and director of the romance, “Adam,” which opened last week, “the better metaphor it felt like for the condition of all of us in terms of a desire for connection to other people.”
People with Asperger’s may have superior intelligence and verbal skills, and they often have an obsessive interest in a particular topic (astronomy, in the case of the title character in “Adam,” played by Hugh Dancy). But they tend to be self-defeatingly awkward in social situations, and romantic relationships can leave them at sea.
The Starbucks API
Lots of people seem to think Starbucks' new "stealth stores" are creepy…
A Seattle outlet of the 16,000-store coffee behemoth is being rebranded without visible Starbucks identifiers, as 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.
Two other stores in Starbucks' native Seattle will follow suit, each getting its own name to make it sound more like a neighborhood hangout, less like Big Coffee, a Starbucks official told The Seattle Times on Thursday.
…but imagine that this was playing out differently:
What if Starbucks was offering up a Starbucks API—a set of hooks into a vast, efficient coffee shop support system with incredible economies of scale? You, the local coffee shop owner, simply plug in, and wham, your costs drop by thirty percent because you're leveraging Starbucks' insanely optimized supply chain. You can use as much or as little as you want.
The NYT cites the Huffington Post…
You can imagine where this un-branding campaign could lead. A little neighborhood burger place run by McDonald's? A little neighborhood hardware store owned by Home Depot? A little neighborhood five-and-dime operated by Wal-Mart?
…and I find myself thinking, uh, yeah, wouldn't that be cool? Swap out "run" and "owned," and put in "powered" and "supported." Wal-Mart's back-end is as innovative and important as its front-end. Why not offer it up to indie retailers?
I know it's a stretch, but consider the analogy: Amazon's web services have been absolutely transformative in the startup world. You can store files and spin up servers without buying, or committing to, anything. It's easy to try things and cheap to fail. The notion of plug-in infrastructures just as flexible for other businesses—real-world businesses—run by other goliaths isn't unsettling. It's exciting.
And yes, I realize that's not what Starbucks is doing here. But it's what they should be doing!
A Kiss from Tokyo
It's a book trailer! I am so into book covers for things that aren't books and movie trailers for things that aren't movies. I want the next plastic mixing bowl I buy at Target to come with a trailer.
Another version over at Art of the Title.
(Via Create Digital Motion.)
BOOK SQUADRON, ASSEMBLE
Hugo Chavez's revolutionary reading plan:
[A] key part of the Reading Plan are thousands of 'book squadrons.'
These are basically roving book clubs that are intended to encourage reading on the metro, in public squares and in parks.
Each squadron wears a different colour to identify their type of book. For example, the red team promotes autobiographies while the black team discusses books on 'militant resistance.'
Props to the BBC for going beyond the obvious smirky weirdness of this story and sharing a detail that's actually interesting/important:
"I think there's a great contradiction there," says Mr Garcia [who runs Random House in Venezuela]. "That a government which on the one hand is promoting reading, giving out Les Miserables in a public square, but doesn't allow the free importation of literature—not, it should be said, for any ideological reason, but because of currency controls."
August 3, 2009
It Really Is Snark Week
... but that doesn't mean Christopher Shea isn't right:
I'm as big a Julia Child fan as the next person... But how many pieces about Child's cultural significance can media outlets run before it starts to look as though reporters and editors have a financial stake in the forthcoming Nora Ephron movie about her?
The Stupidity of Serendipity
Having just two weeks ago posted a link to what I think is a reasonably intelligent take on the importance of serendipitous discoveries in old and new media, Damon Darlin's not-quite-an-essay in the NYT is by comparison offensively stupid.
Let's just juxtapose these two excerpts:
It gives us a measure of the owner’s quirky tastes and, more often than not, we find a singer, a musician or a documentary we’d never known before.
But that isn’t serendipity. It’s really group-think. Everything we need to know comes filtered and vetted. We are discovering what everyone else is learning, and usually from people we have selected because they share our tastes.
I'm just going to assume that Damon Darlin walks into other people's houses at random, without filtering or vetting them first. I'm also going to assume that he goes through their medicine cabinets and ingests whatever drugs he finds there without filtering or vetting them. Because otherwise this makes NO SENSE.
Top 40 Radio, books read by random people on the subway - say what you will about the merits of these as engines of serendipity, but at least there's a prima facie case to be made for them as a fundamentally different kind of content delivery than the way most folks experience the web. But browsing your friends' bookshelves and sorting through their Twitter recommendations are prima facie the same thing. You're encountering the shared culture of a small set of associates selected because they have other things in common. Again, this is true unless you're just knocking on doors.
At least make a case for it. Say something about how our CDs reveal more about us than our Twitter or Blog recommendations, because they show what we like and HAVE liked rather than what we admit that we like right now. Say that email forwards are actually a much more ritualized and inherently conservative form than they're cracked up to be.
The ultimate irony of this is that you could annotate this post and identify every single cliché in it, most of them already published in the NYT itself. So the other, alternate solution is that it's a kind of weird performance-art piece, a limply parodic performance of the reject-the-web-in-favor-of-false-nostalgia-for-serendipity tropes that have been circling for years.
Unless it's forthcoming, I'm going to assume that the guy breaks into people's houses and huffs their pills before checking out their CD and magazine racks.
(*I know, I'm a weekend late on the stupefied outrage about this. But I'm also just offended as a writing teacher. If an eighteen-year-old submitted this to me, with this paucity of argument, it would be lucky to squeak by with a B.)
All this gabbin' 'bout Shakespeare makes me wonder - what are the sacred, that is, foundational, texts for us? (Feel free to variously define "us.")
I mean Shakespeare's plays are one; I think the Bible is or ought to be another; The Simpsons, seasons 2-8; the original Star Wars trilogy; Sophocles; The Great Gatsby; Goodfellas...
I'm half kidding, one quarter reaching, and one quarter deadly serious; what cultural references are now, for you, and in your interactions with others, just assumed, like the way Moby Dick assumes King Lear, Paradise Lost, and the King James Bible?
August 2, 2009
Richard Scarry 2009
Love this new direction from Jillian Tamaki. Wouldn't it be cool if she did an entire Scarry-style book like this? What Do People Do All Day for the 21st century. Little anthropomorphized bears and alligators blogging and sequencing DNA.
The New Lexicography (or) Wordination Postenko
Sure, the Oxford thesaurus is gonna be great when it comes out. But what happens when the bounds of existing English past and present are simply not enough?
It's meant for naming products, websites, etc.—but I like the (silly) notion of an app like this as a general-purpose tool. Writing a blog post, need a new word? Done. It's parlineasy.
Note the crucial indicators that Wordroid provides: Is the domain available? Are there any search results for this word yet? Welcome to the new lexicography. (Prelexicography?)
August 1, 2009
Link Love and the Viral Spike
The BBC also points to an op-ed by Bill Wasik in the NYT, which I am drafting into service in our Snarkmarket Forum on Free (Related Topics Division). It's about the new "big break"—the viral spike!—which is made possible, after all, by the friction-less power of free.
Well, that and the internet.
For Sound, We'll Sync Up Shells
I have no idea where I found this—it was lurking on the far-left side of my tabs—and I sorta feel like it must have been planted there by some HTML fairy: Kelp, a poem by Paul Farley. Just terrific. Recommended: speak the words aloud and feel them in your mouth.
The Bard, Or What You Will
John McWhorter's exhortation to perform Shakespeare in modern-language adaptations caught my eye a while back. His case is that Shakespeare's language is more-or-less unrecognizable to us; we misunderstand most of what we pick up; and (I think this is probably uncontroversial) full-length 100% faithful readings of the longest versions of the texts are chorish.
Original Shakespeare should occupy the place original Chaucer does today: engaged by scholars and hard-core aficionados. However, to require intensive and largely unfeasible decoding in full three-hour live performances is to condemn us to ignorance of something that makes life worth living. As Liddell put it, for a people to genuinely possess, rather than merely genuflect, to a literature, its words "must convey expression not to one man only, but to thousands."
Maybe I'm an outlier, but I think I'm so conditioned by my professional position and highly personal Shakespeare fetish that it's almost unimaginable to me to go to a Shakespeare play and try to comprehend the action and language as if I'm hearing it for the first time. Do people actually do this? Should they?
When I see Shakespeare, it's more like going to a Bloomsday reading. I'm quite consciously seeing an adaptation/interpretation of texts that I have read and (usually) know quite well. My attitude is generally, "let's see how they do this." Again, maybe I'm in the minority on this. But I'm also probably squarely in the middle of the target audience for live Shakespeare.
I actually DON'T think that there's much of a market for middle-of-the-road contemporary-language Shakespeare. When people want the Bard, they want the real stuff, and feel cheated if they think they're getting anything less. Even if they don't understand the language. ESPECIALLY when they don't understand it.
But I think you could generate more interest from everyone if you avoided intelligibility for intelligibility's sake and offered a more stylized take on Shakespeare's language. McWhorter's counterexample to Shakespeare is August Wilson, and Wilson's language is NOT plain-language. It's often not even contemporary. If you wanted an August Wilson take on Shakespeare, you'd really be looking for something completely different.
My own preference for clever updates of Shakespeare - again, I'm a history freak - would be for lots and lots of adaptations that don't just port his text into the present, but into lots of different periods, including mishmashes of multiple times and places. (This is actually what Shakespeare does.) Do Julius Caesar during the American Civil War; give us a Prohibition-era Twelfth Night (I actually saw an adaptation like this in London). Put Shakespeare in masks, just any mask but our own.