January 31, 2008
Things points to the fascinating idea of the "virtual cable" for driving directions in cars. There's been a lot of recent buzz about projecting data on car windshields. The virtual cable is a three-dimensional line drawn onto the road ahead showing you exactly where you're going. Trippy, probably distracting, but nonetheless fascinating.
January 29, 2008
Radio Lab, OMG, Just, Radio Lab
The new Radio Lab podcast is sublime. Honestly, they could just say "blah blah blah" -- but apply their amazing production methods to it -- and I'd be sold. (In this case they talk to a guy who was commissioned to create background music for... a morgue. Amazing.)
It's the cadences that I love -- musical, verbal, pure sonic. These people are geniuses.
Not his best speech ever, but I love the style and format Barack Obama's state of the union rebuttal. So stark, so plain -- all the dross of TV drained away. And then the lush, glowing animation at the end -- just a couple seconds long -- sort of seals the deal.
January 23, 2008
Gossip Girl and the immersive A.R.G.
By now, the A.R.G. has had a long and storied history stretching from The Blair Witch Project to Cloverfield. The classical model of the A.R.G.: someone notices a name in a movie trailer, or a website on a television show; they look it up online, and they suddenly find themselves holding a piece in a narrative jigsaw puzzle. Others stumble into the puzzle, they form a community, and the game is afoot. Piece by piece, the players fit together a picture that helps them solve whatever mystery the game's creators have spun.
One big drawback: if you stumble into one of these games late, catching up can be a chore. As far as I know, A.R.G.s haven't exactly been a model of thematic coherence or narrative deftness; it's not like catching up on a TV show or a comic book. The chase and the unfolding mystery are the fun. So unless you have worlds of time to devote to chasing obscure clues, the game might not hold much allure for you. These are the main reasons I haven't been able to get into any A.R.G.s yet, despite my being an utter nerd.
But I find that idea -- a fictional narrative kidnaps a piece of our reality and draws us into it -- delicious. What I want is for a series to use the Internet in a way that fully blurs the edge between reality and the series.... Read more ....
Adrian, Wilson and co. have launched Everyblock, a mashup of several information sources down to the block level for different cities (currently Chicago, New York and San Francisco). The site is very pretty, especially the maps, and as you would expect, there's fun data hidden beneath every click. But it's otherwise hard for me to evaluate how cool it is, since I don't live in any of the included cities. How about it, residents?
Update: One surprise ... no RSS feeds? (Except this one.)
January 22, 2008
The Ideas! The Ideas!
Clive Thompson remains the single journalist most perfectly calibrated to my interests, and his latest essay for Wired is no exception. It's about science fiction:
If you want to read books that tackle profound philosophical questions, then the best -- and perhaps only -- place to turn these days is sci-fi. Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas.
From where I sit, traditional "literary fiction" has dropped the ball. I studied literature in college, and throughout my twenties I voraciously read contemporary fiction. Then, eight or nine years ago, I found myself getting -- well -- bored.
I had a friend in college who, upon hearing a science-fiction book recommendation that cited plot, characters, setting, etc., would reply: "Yes, yes, but what about the ideas? The ideas?"
(P.S. So yes, it's probably me who is actually calibrated to Clive Thompson's interests, given the nature of media. That's fine, too.)
The Atlantic Rides Again
The Atlantic, favorite magazine of my middle youth, was kinda lame for a while there, but it's been getting good again -- a fact that had been bumming me out because, of course, I couldn't link to the subscriber-only stories.
So let us celebrate the magazine's resurgence and web-savvy with a couple of pointers:
- The new James Fallows piece on China is exactly what got me into the Atlantic in the first place: Themes of politics and economics, hugely abstract ideas, giant global actors and their dilemmas, etc. I love it that there's none of the usual attempt to concrete-ize and personalize here: No narrative intro with a factory worker in China, for instance. The only narrative in the piece involves the voyage of a U.S. dollar to China and back. I could not love it more.
- Caitlin Flanagan's piece about Katie Couric was the last one I read in this issue, and I almost didn't read it at all. Thank goodness my train was slow, because it was a revelation, in large part because it's as much about Caitlin Flanagan as it is about Katie Couric. Beautifully written, too: Flanagan is a great storyteller and has perfect "tone control," if you know what I mean.
Ghost of Flash Movie Past
You know how sometimes you read something you said or wrote a couple of years ago and, echhh, you just can't stand yourself? Well, I was surprised to see that I sort of still agree with 2004 Sloan:
"Choice and control are just too cool, too useful, and too satisfying to resist," Sloan said. "Add distributed creation and collaborative filtering, and you can come up with systems that are so much more flexible and efficient than anything happening in a modern newsroom."
"But unlike most newsrooms, these processes don't come with values baked in," Sloan added. The goal is that they are "executed by people who are dedicated to the notion of fairness, integrity, and truth-telling. On an individual level -- especially insofar as we are bloggers and media-makers -- we can decide we want to adopt those values for ourselves."
Not long ago I met Sam Gustin, who wrote this most recent Googlezon retrospective, and found him a thoroughly modern reporter: trained in shoe-leather fundamentals (in part during a stint on the New York Post metro desk -- yow) but also totally conversant in, and excited about, new formats (he writes for Portfolio.com now -- everything from blog dispatches to reported essays like this one).
Also: In the comments over at Portfolio, the editor of The Issue chimes in, which reminded me that I was going to link over there. Worth a peek.
January 20, 2008
Bang the Drum of Time
Here's another one from Current UK that doesn't make any sense when you describe it: People, ages one to one hundred, bang a drum. See? Indecipherable. But you have to go watch it, because it will put a little extra shine on your soul this weekend. (Those guys are on a roll!)
January 18, 2008
Portrait of the Language as a Young... Er... Tongue?
Brilliant photo mosaic of the English language. This is another one of those things that's hard to describe -- but see if you can guess where all the plant-related words are.
Not Safe For ...
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!
Ah, remember how large the Newbery Award used to loom? It seemed like every other book in the elementary school library bore one of those golden foil badges. Was just reminded of this by a lovely Ypulse post about the latest winner, a book called "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!" by Laura Amy Schlitz:
Originally written in the form of monologues to be performed by her students, the Baltimore librarian wanted to make sure every one could get a part in the production of this piece. And no one wanted a small part.
There are 17 roles, a substantial piece for every single person in her fifth grade classes. She said in an interview that she wrote it with all of her students in mind. She remembered being so disappointed and sad when she would get a token tiny part in the school plays of her own childhood. If for only three minutes, she wanted everyone to be big, to be a star.
I am so going to read this book.
January 16, 2008
Machines and Style
The wow-never-thought-about-it-that-way comment of the day:
I'm hoping the muscle car style dies with the internal combustion engine just as the Edwardian style died with the steam engine.
From Steve DeKorte, he of the Platonic blog design.
Writing in China
Very interesting (and long) write-up of literature in China over in the Guardian. There's this whole burgeoning scene of new writers with (of course) hugeaudiences, totally invisible to (ignored by?) the English-speaking world. Wish I could download Mandarin reading skills.
This bit caught my eye:
The general manager of Penguin China, Jo Lusby, is even more emphatic. "All credible interesting writing in China begins online at the moment," she says. "It's given an added boost because it exists in a relatively free space outside of the tight constraints of traditional publishers."
(Crossposted to Current.)
What's All This Fancy Stuff For, Anyway?
My favorite MacWorld analysis of all comes from Short Schrift:
At any rate, if Jobs' vision of Apple is an increasingly large number of devices on which we can watch Zoolander, I find myself much less enthusiastic about that vision or that world.
Agreed. Let's use technology to disrupt old formats and invent new ones -- not just deliver the same ol' stuff more efficiently.
January 13, 2008
Eustace Tilley is that be-monocled dandy who you associate with the New Yorker. He was on the cover of the first issue in 1925, and now they're having a contest celebrating his foppish visage. (Not a fan. I think he's freaky.)
Mark Chadwick's entry definitively and preemptively gets my vote: He took the algorithmic approach and created a mosaic out of every single cover of the New Yorker.
January 12, 2008
The Old Cement Bridge
January 10, 2008
Inside the Black Box
The best thing about it only being January 10 is that I can say, without reservation, that this is the best thing I've read all year: n+1's interview with a hedge fund manager. It includes a useful window into a little-known, but super-interesting, component of modern markets: quantitative trading driven by computer programs!
n+1: And so the computers themselves are making these trades?
HFM: You build the models and the computer does the trading. You actually do all the analysis. But itís too many stocks for a human brain to handle, so itís really just guys with a lot of physics and hardcore statistics backgrounds who come up with ideas about models that might lead to excess return and then they test them and then basically all these models get incorporated into a bigger system that trades stocks in an automated way.
n+1: So the computers are running the...
HFM: Yeah, the computer is sending out the orders and doing the trading.
n+1: Itís just a couple steps from that to the computers enslaving --
HFM: Yes, but I for one welcome our computer trading masters.
People actually call it "black box trading," because sometimes you donít even know why the black box is doing what it's doing, because the whole idea is that if you could, you should be doing it yourself. But it's something that's done on such a big scale, a universe of several thousand stocks, that a human brain canít do it in real time. The problem is that the DNA of a lot of these models is very, very similar, it's like an ecosystem with no biodiversity because most of the people who do stat-arb can trace their lineage, their intellectual lineage, back to four or five guys who really started the whole black box trading discipline in the '70s and '80s.
If you read on from that point in the article you'll learn about "ten-sigma events" -- if that doesn't sound like something from a dystopian anime series, I don't know what does.
There's also some really great discussion -- and explication -- of the whole sub-prime thing. It's long, but the conversational style makes it pretty digestible.
(Thanks to PoN for the link.)
January 9, 2008
News on a Shirt II
FYI, I am loving my t-shirt about the falling price of the U.S. dollar.
January 8, 2008
Pundits: The Eyeball Monster
There's a giant eyeball monster in Super Paper Mario that tracks you in every direction as you move around a room and shoots laser beams at you. To defeat it, Mario has to flip into 3D mode and run around and around it until it tries to shoot, gets confused, and implodes.
Eyeball monster = media pundits. Mario = '08 Presidential candidates. It's fun to watch.
Let Us Now Praise Famous... Er... Bowls
Funniest thing ever, five minutes ago: Patton Oswalt doing his riff on KFC Famous Bowls.
Funniest thing ever, now: Patton Oswalt writing about actually eating a KFC Famous Bowl for the first time.
(From Marc Andreessen's blog, of all places. Weird!)
January 7, 2008
January 6, 2008
How Do You Look?
Here's a quirky, innovative piece from Current UK. I just spent five minutes trying to describe it, but kept deleting what I wrote because it didn't make any sense. You'll see what I mean. Odd, simple, recursive, riveting.
Philip Pullman used to write in a shed in his backyard. Roald Dahl did, too. But here is my new favorite story of a writer and his lair, from Witold Rybczynski's heart-bendingly good book The Most Beautiful House in the World:
George Bernard Shaw was largely indifferent to his physical surroundings -- his house at Ayot Saint Lawrence, where he lived during the last forty-four years of his long life, was a nondescript Victorian rectory. But Shaw too was a builder, and the writing room that he erected in his garden was a Shavian combination of simplicity, convenience, and novelty.
He called it "the Shelter," but it was really a shed, only eight feet square. It contained the essentials of the writer's trade -- a plank desk, en electric lamp, a wicker chair, a bookcase, and a wastepaper basket. Beside the desk was a shelf for his Remington portable -- like [Mark Twain], Shaw was an early amateur of the typewriter. There was also a telephone (modified to refuse incoming calls), a thermometer, and an alarm clock (to remind him when it was time for lunch).
Inside the door was a mat where the fastidious writer wiped his shoes. The shed was austere -- a vegetarian's workplace, one might say; the pine boards and framing were painted white on the inside and left to weather on the exterior. The door, which was placed in the center of the wall, included a glass pane and had a fixed window on each side; a small window on the rear wall opened for ventilation.
The Shelter incorporated an unusual technical feature. Shaw wrote in the morning, and it was to warm the unheated interior that he had located almost all of the glazed openings on one side. To increase the effectiveness of these windows, he devised a curious solution: instead of resting on a foundation, the floor was supported on a central steel pipe, which permitted the entire room to be manually turned, like a revolving Victorian bookstand. This way, Shaw could benefit from the morning sun at different times of year. According to his secretary, however, the hut was never rotated; once it was loaded with furniture and books, it was probably too heavy to move.
I love the one-way telephone.
And seriously, this book was terrific -- not just quirky housing anecdotes (though there are plenty of those), but deep, accessible thoughts on what houses can and do mean to us.
January 4, 2008
Astroturfing: Always Bad; Usually Obvious
"Astroturfing is a neologism for formal public relations campaigns in politics and advertising that seek to create the impression of being spontaneous, grassroots behavior."
For example, say you founded a non-profit dedicated to vetting charity organizations and grading them on their effectiveness. Your org is attracting some high-profile attention, but you're hankering for more. So you create accounts on a few well-trafficked websites. First, you pose as a naïf, adrift in a galaxy of charities, desperately seeking guidance. Then, under different accounts, you guide your little sockpuppet and any other interested parties right to your org. Step three, profit. Right?
Right, unless you attempt your ruse at the wrong site, where the users are savvy enough to see right through your act and call you on the mat. Now, your follies are on Digg and everywhere for all the world to see, and no amount of groveling will make amends. For shame.
I have to deal with minor astroturfing all the time on vita.mn (and pretty ridiculous astroturfing occasionally), and it's always a forehead-slapper. It's generally easy to spot, no matter how clever the offending party seems to think s/he is, and it cultivates a heaping mess of ill will. If you ever have the urge to misrepresent yourself online in a manner you think will advantage your company, don't do it. You will be found out, and it will be very unpleasant. Your exploits may even be exposed in New York Magazine. Just remember this mantra -- "Astroturfing makes an ass out of -- never mind, just don't do it.
File under: Snarkpolitik, Society/Culture, Technosnark
January 3, 2008
Into the Fold
Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson on Obama and Iowa:
Obama's been drawing record crowds from San Francisco to Des Moines -- but there was always the question of whether he could produce a similar effect among real live voters.
He did so in a way that no one predicted. 57 percent of the caucus goers tonight had never caucused before. Most impressive: As many people under thirty showed up as senior citizens.
That's fucking nuts is what that is. That's the Rock the Vote political wet dream that never ever comes true... actually coming true.
What this portends for Obama as a national candidate is something truly special. He's not only proven that he can draw the support of independents and open-minded Republicans. He's the one guy who can make the Democratic pie higher, bringing new, unlikely voters into the fold. If he could replicate this kind of support among young people in a general election, it's game over.
Save the Earth, Read a Paper
Chris Anderson does a back-of-the-envelope carbon footprint calculation for an issue of Wired vs. the same issue online. The results surprised me. (Of course, it being Chris Anderson, it's certainly not as back-of-the-envelope as it comes off; he drops some mad knowledge in the commentz.)
January 2, 2008
Here Comes the Stuff
- I got a Chumby. I was vaguely embarrassed about this for a while, but wow, my family and I had a lot of fun with it over the holidays. Well, to be specific: We didn't actually do anything with it. The Chumby kinda just sat around. But it kept cycling through Flickr photos, through weather reports from San Francisco (a riot in Michigan, let me tell you) -- just this little pulsing presence in the bookcase.
- I read a Neil Gaiman short story on the plane home about a gargoyle. I love the idea of the gargoyle: small, ugly, but a potent protector.
- I know this is old news, but how great is it that long-lived background processes on UNIX servers are called daemons?
- There was a lot of whimsy and wizardry floating around in the early days of computing.
- Which brings us to this: Mike Kuniavsky's speech about ubiquitous, embedded computing, and the notion that maybe a good metaphor for our interactions with this stuff will be... magic. (You can get the gist just by flipping through the PDF if you don't have time for the MP3.) I like it.
January 1, 2008
Up in the Air
So I spent New Year's Eve in a Boeing 767, cruising from Chicago to San Francisco. It was good timing: As midnight swept across the continent, time zone by time zone, we'd get passed -- and then race ahead again! Frankly I wish the in-flight movie had been something a bit more festive and thematically appropriate than "Rush Hour 3."
Update: But of course the downside is that I missed this!