January 31, 2009
The Keynesian theory of government stimulus rests on the idea that economies in recessions don't suffer from a real loss of wealth (like a famine that wipes out your crop) but an excess of economic capacity (when your crop rots in the silo because you can't get it to the market). Keynes contrasted the two ideas by referring to "a crisis of poverty" versus "a crisis of abundance." Money spent by the government, in addition to creating new real wealth in the form of infrastructure or whatever, works by utilizing this unused capacity -- especially the human capital, by putting people to work.
But underutilized capacity isn't just people who are out of work -- it's the goods rotting in our warehouses. The recent GDP dip was saved from staggering free-fall only by a quirk in the way these goods are measured:
The actual decline in the gross domestic product -- at a 3.8 percent annual rate -- fell short of the 5 to 6 percent that most economists had expected for the fourth quarter. But that was because consumption collapsed so quickly that goods piled up in inventory, unsold but counted as part of the nation’s output.
"The drop in spending was so fast, so rapid, that production could not be cut fast enough," said Nigel Gault, chief domestic economist at HIS Global Insight. "That is happening now, and the contraction in the current quarter, as a result, will probably exceed 5 percent."
NewsHour last night included a great report by Paul Solman on the Long Beach shipping ports. It's really a shame that the online link is audio-only, because what was most striking in the report were the visuals: huge parking lots full of unsold, brand-new Hondas and Toyotas; mounds of scrap metal; near-empty import containers; worried, untalkative, longshoremen milling around their job office; and especially the mounds and mounds of waste paper and cardboard, designated for recycling in China.
Since American and global spending are down, so are Chinese exports; therefore, Chinese packaging manufacturers aren't making cardboard boxes or wrapping paper to box and ship those goods to global markets; and so the tons of paper products we dutifully recycle are rotting in a makeshift landfill in a California shipping yard.
One of my favorite movies, Vittorio De Sica's Ladri di Bicyclette (Bicycle Thieves), includes two marvelous scenes presenting a similar image: in the first, Antonio pawns his family bedsheets to get his bicycle out of hock. With the job he can get with the bicycle, he can reclaim the sheets with his first check. The camera cranes up to show thousands of bedsheets, pawned and never reclaimed.
In the second, after Antonio's bicycle is stolen on his first day of work, he goes to one of the markets where stolen goods are sold. He and his son look over hundreds of stolen bicycles. There isn't a single buyer. The entire economy, even the unofficial black-market economies, are at a standstill. And that's where we are.
January 30, 2009
Now this is my kinda augmented reality.
'And for the Honor of Language and Ideas'
Soak up Maira Kalman's carol to the Inauguration. Luminous and lovely.
Meta comment: Isn't it great that it's one long, continuous scroll? Sooo much better than a bunch of pages you have to click between. Hello, infinite canvas.
Smart Growth vs. Dumb Growth
I'm a sucker for a big reframing, and this is about as big as they come: Umair Haque says everybody's wondering how to re-ignite economic growth, but that's the wrong question. We need to be wondering how to re-invent economic growth.
Virginia Heffernan at NYT would totally be way up high in my bloggers' fantasy draft, with Scott Horton, John Gruber, Carmen van Kerckhove, Jim Fallows, Daniel Larison, Ron Silliman, Ben Vershbow (ret.), Eileen Joy... anyways, you see where this is going.
Anyways, her new magazine essay on digital reading with her three-year-old son is eminently blogworthy, not least for the universal reference:
I'd like for Ben to sit with One More Story and come away with the impression that he'd been read beautiful books all afternoon. But Ben tends to ask for One More Story when he wants privacy, the same state of mind in which he likes videos. Books, by contrast, are for when he feels snuggly.
Which brings up something significant about books for a 3-year-old: whatever else preschool reading is, it's intimate. Before you can read, you get to see books mostly when you're cuddled up with an adult or jostling with other kids in a circle.
Heffernan goes on to say: "I'm not sure he's developing an appreciation for books. But he is learning how to enrich his solitude, and that is one of the most intensely pleasurable aspects of literacy." Other intriguing thoughts include the relationship between interactive digi-books and video games, TV, and movies, the Freakonomics thesis that having books in your house is more important than reading them to your children, and a reluctant skepticism towards viewing digital reading as "reading-plus." I don't agree with everything VH throws out there, but it's all worthwhile.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Braiiins, Learnin', Object Culture, Recommended, Video Games
January 28, 2009
The After Party
Joshua Cohen -- philosopher, thinker on global justice, occasional blogging head, and co-editor of the super-smart Boston Review -- writes about the difference between liberals: the "classical liberals" that are now (more or less) called libertarians and the "egalitarian liberals" that are now (more or less) called progressives.
Mostly I link to it for his (almost snarky?) conclusion:
With respect, classical liberals were in the rearguard in every one of [the great achievements of democracy in the 20th century]. And for a simple reason: in each case, the struggle depended on a willingness to fight against inequality, subordination, exclusion through political means, through the dread state. And if you mix your classical liberal values with the classically conservative predisposition to think that politics is at best futile, at bad perverse, at worst risks what is most fundamental, then you will always celebrate these gains when the fight is over: always at the after party, inconspicuous at the main event, and never on the planning committee.
Her Morning Elegance
I love the jaunty stop-motion bed-walking.
This is great: a librarian identifies curiously common references to "cuddling" in newspaper discussions of print and electronic books. As in, nobody is ever going to use an e-book reader because you can't "cuddle" (up with) it.
Preferably, it appears, by a fire. Because apparently everybody's got a fireplace that they read in front of, and without a proper fire, chair, smoking jacket, and appropriate analog print media, there's no reason to spend hard money on a book, magazine, or newspaper.
My favorite rejoinder is the one outlier: "Forget about the warmth a real book offers when you cuddle up with it by the fire. People spend so much time on buses and planes, in boring meetings, or at kids' soccer practices or hockey games."
I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about sites of reading and the different physical relationships to text they require. It's fascinating how particular sites and ways of reading crowd out others -- often to make a new activity seem MUCH more new than it really is.
January 27, 2009
Before I visit Washington, I want to be able to go to the web and select items I’m really interested in from the entire Smithsonian collection. When I wake up the next morning, I want in my inbox a PDF of my personalized tour to see these objects. When I’m standing in front of an object in a museum, I want to see or hear more information about it on my cell phone. When an event happens related to an object I’m interested in, I want a text message about it. I want to know when it’s feeding time for the pandas, or when Lincoln’s handball will be on public display. And I want to easily share this information with my classmates, my friends, my family.
Cohen: "This is the Smithsonian not as a network of museums but as a platform for lifelong learning and cultural engagement."
I'll add that I love the unabashed fetishism of it -- "I don't love the museum! I love the THINGS it contains!" It's a vision of cultural membership, not in a changing curatorial space, but in the artifacts and art objects themselves.
It's not using the new information networks to try to obliterate the physical world, but to exchange one relationship to it for another. And I think that's pretty cool.
File under: Beauty, Learnin', Object Culture
January 26, 2009
Shut the F--- Up, Piano Man
I love Ron Rosenbaum's takedown of Billy Joel; you really have to dislike someone to go to the lengths taken by Rosenbaum to document, distill, and identify what makes them so bad.
My favorite part, though, is Rosenbaum's side-snipe at Jeff Jarvis:
Besides, some people still take Billy seriously. Just the other day I was reading my old friend Jeff Jarvis' BuzzMachine blog, and Jarvis (the Billy Joel of blog theorists) was attacking the Times' David Carr. (Talk about an uneven fight.) Carr was speculating about whether newspapers could survive if they adopted the economic model of iTunes. Attempting a snotty put-down of this idea, Jarvis let slip that he's a Joel fan: As an example somehow of his iTunes counter-theory, he wrote: "If I can't get Allentown, the original, I'm not likely to settle for a cover." Only the hard-core B.J. for Jeff! ("Allentown" is a particularly shameless selection on Jarvis' part, since it's one of B.J.'s "concern" songs, featuring the plight of laid-off workers, and Jarvis virtually does a sack dance of self-congratulatory joy every time he reports on print-media workers getting the ax.)
See, this is the thing: there's a weird way in which the entire attack on Billy Joel just allegorizes Rosenbaum's frustration with Jarvis. Read RR's December article, "Is Jeff Jarvis Gloating Too Much About the Death of Print?" if you're not convinced.
What Are the New Liberal Arts?
In the medieval university, the seven classical liberal arts were split into two categories.
The trivium included modes of argument and thought: logic, grammar, and rhetoric.
The quadrivium were the sciences, bodies of knowledge with particular content: geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music.
Brittanica identifies the liberal arts of the modern university as literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, and science.
Wikipedia's more expansive definition is arguably better: art, literature, languages, philosophy, politics, history, mathematics, and science.
But what are the emergent liberal arts -- liberal arts 2.0?
I think the best way to think about this is not to think of the "new" liberal arts as supplanting the "old," but as a complementary set, like painting, architecture, and sculpture as the new, humanist plastic arts during the Renaissance. Like the trivium and quadrivium, we have the octet of "modern" liberal arts and a set of newer concerns.
With that proviso in mind, here is my fairly conservative attempt at a list:
Food, Ecology, and the Environment
What do you think?
Update: Let me just clarify that I'm not just using these terms in the way that they're understood in colleges and universities. So by "economics," I don't only mean what you learned in ECON 101 or the work of professional economists, but a broad and flexible consideration of labor, exchange, incentives, and value as they affect... anything.
Likewise "photography" doesn't just mean snapping pictures but learning how to read, think, produce, and talk about images, whether still or moving. Art is the aesthetic dimension of anything independent from its use. Design is the aesthetic dimension of anything dependent upon its use. And "aesthetic" is about beauty, yes, but also perception. "Food" is about cooking and eating, but also about our relationship to plants and animals and to each other and our industries oriented around nutrition. Maybe "ecology" would be a better (or at least more encompassing) term. Languages includes speaking, writing, typing, and natural and programming languages. And so on.
These are sciences with a body of knowledge, yes, but they're also ways of thinking about things, the world, individual people, societies. Your average boring object sitting on your desk or table right now can be thought of in terms of its history, its design, its economics, its politics, its physics and chemistry, etc. And if you take a look at the newspapers, blogs, and books you read, they're usually doing one or more of these right now -- reframing a problem that you thought about one way in the light of another.
"Music" or "Astronomy" are still disciplines, but they don't mean the same thing that they did in the Middle Ages. The liberal arts for the new millenium doesn't just change what the arts are -- it changes what they mean.
Robin's note: Weird, new comments seem to be broken on this post. Don't worry, we'll continue the conversation on another one, soon.
Tim's note: Comments are back!
Where's My Virtual Baghdad?
This is fun: I was a guest on the IFC Media Project mini-series. The episode I was in (about the future of news, natch) aired back in December, but sadly, no one cared about the series enough to pirate it.
But, I just got a DVD from Honest Engine, the production company behind the show, so here's a clip:
The vision is a bit facile, I know -- what makes the elf-and-orc games successful isn't their 3D-ness, really, but their intricately engineered systems of rewards. Even so, I will simultaneously a) admit that I don't really know how this kind of news product would work, and b) maintain that I really, really want it.
But hey, how about that color and background treatment? I am talking to you from inside an orb of pure thought!
January 25, 2009
Pay What You Want
Three businesses near Frankfurt -- a buffet, a movie theater, and a deli -- experimented recently with pay-what-you-want pricing, a la Radiohead.
The bad news? In the buffet, customers paid,on average, 20% less than the previous posted price.
The good news? Overall traffic to the buffet increased 30% -- leading to a net gain in revenue.
The Places We Live
Striking photo project showing slums around the world. I know you probably feel like you have seen a "striking photo project showing slums around the world" before, but honestly, this one is better. Sharper, more human.
Argh, I wish I could deeplink -- trust me, you gotta skip intro, click on one of the cities, then click on one of the "household" icons. They lead to wonderful little 360-degree panoramas, each with wonderfully-translated narration. It's completely engrossing.
I totally just spent all my recommendation points on M. T. Anderson, I know... but this is really great, too.
January 24, 2009
Mega-Recommendation: M. T. Anderson
There are recommendations, and then there are recommendations. I am about to deploy the most powerful recommendation I can muster. This is my Trident missile of recommendations. This is my Mario bouncing star power-up of recommendations.
I discovered a short stack of copies of M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing on the floor in a hidden corner of Green Apple Books many months ago. They were steeply discounted, so I guess the truth is that they were trying to get rid of them, but in retrospect, having read this book, it feels more like I stumbled onto secret treasure. Say the password, make the right hand-sign, and the clerk directs you to the hidden cache.
Octavian Nothing is a story set against the backdrop of the American Revolution, but forget everything you know about stories set against the backdrop of the American Revolution, because M. T. Anderson makes it all strange and new again. I won't give you the big plot summary here; you can find that on Amazon or Powell's.
What you should know is that the voice of the narrator is completely infectious, that the book is incredibly presented (it play-acts at being a bundle of documents from the 18th century), and, most of all, that the story communicates, more than any book or movie I've ever encountered, more even than HBO's John Adams, the contingency of the time. Anderson renders the Revolution as a crazy, dangerous scheme that is almost certainly going to fail. It's thrilling.
So, okay, fine. Fun, smart book set against the American Revolution. But before you read Octavian Nothing (or the sequel, just published recently), you gotta read Feed.
Anderson wrote it before Octavian Nothing, and I like it even better:
People were really excited when they first came out with feeds. It was all da da da, this big educational thing, da da da, your child will have the advantage, encyclopedias at their fingertips, closer than their fingertips, etc. That's one of the great things about the feed -- that you can be supersmart without ever working. Everyone is supersmart now. You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in and shit.
It's more now, it's not so much about the educational stuff but more regarding the fact that everything that goes on, goes on on the feed. All of the feedcasts and the instant news, that's on there, so there's all the entertainment I was missing without the feed, like the girls were all missing their favorite feedcast, this show called Oh? Wow! Thing!, which has all these kids like us who do stuff but get all pouty, which is what the girls go crazy for, the poutiness.
Okay, so you get what kind of book this is. Set in a dystopian near-future, it's a total riff on the media madness that surrounds us today.
But no number of clever blockquotes can convey how incredibly Anderson conjures the attitudes and argot (oh, the argot) of his teenage characters. Now can they convey how unconventional this book is -- in its merciless satire, in its determination to stay dark (and real) when it would be sooo easy and satisfying to get light and let characters off the hook and wrap things up with a bow. No bows in Feed.
And, oh, just wait 'til you read about the lesions.
Feed isn't about technology; in fact, the characters barely understand how it works. They barely understand anything about the world around them. Instead, it's about ways of thinking, and ways of living. If the story just stayed at the level of sharp satire, I wouldn't be recommending it. But that's only a springboard to something much deeper -- something deeply moral, I think.
Feed starts with this line --
We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.
-- and it ends up breaking your heart.
January 23, 2009
The New Frontiersman
This will only be interesting to you if you have read Watchmen. But if you have, look out: The New Frontiersman on Twitter, with links to crazy realizations of documents and media from the Watchmen world. (For instance.) Super-nerdy fun.
Publishing 2008 (Also: The Rumpus)
Alas, I think design may serve to obfuscate, not elucidate, in this case.
Mostly I just wanted an excuse to link to The Rumpus, which is new, and seems kinda fun and kinda snooty, and therefore I think I like it.
For instance, I've been waiting for somebody to make this list.
Retro Book Cover Delights
Virginia Heffernan on the Pleasures of TED
Once you start watching TED talks, ordinary life falls away. The corridor from Silicon Alley to Valley seems to crackle, and a new in-crowd emerges: the one that loves Linux, organic produce, behavioral economics, transhistorical theories and “An Inconvenient Truth.” Even though there are certain TED poses that I don’t warm to — the dour atheist, the environmental scold — the crowd as a whole glows with charisma. I love their greed for hope, their confidence in ingenuity, their organized but goofy ways of talking and thinking.
This is just for Robin:
I have seen about 40. Let me say straight up that one of my favorites is “Simplicity Patterns,” by the designer John Maeda. His talk made clear to me the uncanny resemblance between a block of tofu (the kind Maeda grew up making in his family’s business in Seattle) and the I. M. Pei building that houses the M.I.T. Media Lab (where Maeda, who is now the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, used to work). Almost haphazardly associative, Maeda’s talk expresses respect for the mandate of the talks — to change the world — without becoming sententious. You get rapid, straight-to-the-bloodstream access to his mental life.
And I don't know what to say about this:
The other talk that does this poetically is Jill Bolte Taylor’s “My Stroke of Insight.” A brain scientist who studied the way she lost her own faculties during and after she suffered a stroke, Taylor urges the audience to pay attention to the sybaritic, present-tense right brain. Repeatedly, she recalls the pleasurable aspects of her stroke with such sensory precision that she seems to enter a rapturous trance. Not only do I buy her case for unfettered right-brain experience, but I began scheming to unfetter my right brain then and there.
File under: Braiiins, Design, Media Galaxy
The great historian and librarian Robert Darnton weighs the consequences of the Google Books settlement:
Google has no serious competitors. Microsoft dropped its major program to digitize books several months ago, and other enterprises like the Open Knowledge Commons (formerly the Open Content Alliance) and the Internet Archive are minute and ineffective in comparison with Google. Google alone has the wealth to digitize on a massive scale. And having settled with the authors and publishers, it can exploit its financial power from within a protective legal barrier; for the class action suit covers the entire class of authors and publishers. No new entrepreneurs will be able to digitize books within that fenced-off territory, even if they could afford it, because they would have to fight the copyright battles all over again. If the settlement is upheld by the court, only Google will be protected from copyright liability.
Google's record suggests that it will not abuse its double-barreled fiscal-legal power. But what will happen if its current leaders sell the company or retire? The public will discover the answer from the prices that the future Google charges, especially the price of the institutional subscription licenses. The settlement leaves Google free to negotiate deals with each of its clients, although it announces two guiding principles: "(1) the realization of revenue at market rates for each Book and license on behalf of the Rightsholders and (2) the realization of broad access to the Books by the public, including institutions of higher education."
What will happen if Google favors profitability over access? Nothing, if I read the terms of the settlement correctly. Only the registry, acting for the copyright holders, has the power to force a change in the subscription prices charged by Google, and there is no reason to expect the registry to object if the prices are too high. Google may choose to be generous in it pricing, and I have reason to hope it may do so; but it could also employ a strategy comparable to the one that proved to be so effective in pushing up the price of scholarly journals: first, entice subscribers with low initial rates, and then, once they are hooked, ratchet up the rates as high as the traffic will bear.
This is Darnton's bleaker vision; at other points, he suggests that digitization may still yet create a new Enlightenment. On balance, it looks like there are winners, losers, missed opportunities, and new possibilities, but mostly a lot of work still to be done.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin'
A Processed Think-Food
Claire Potter at HNN/Tenured Radical challenges the idea that the image of Barack Obama will raise black student achievement:
White liberals seem to be particularly entranced by the notion that persistent social equalities are a result of low self-esteem, rather than racial and class inequality. By the 1940's, self-esteem arguments had moved into progressive, anti-racist social science through the black doll-white doll test designed by influential African-American psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark, used as evidence in Briggs v. Elliott (1952), and later, to much greater effect, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). As Waldo E. Martin has noted, this test was not without critics on both sides of the issue, many of whom saw methodological flaws in the Clarks' experiments. However, the gravity of the moral issues at stake, Martin argues, meant that arguments about self-esteem resulting from the study nevertheless became powerful visual evidence in what stands out as a classic liberal decision by the Warren court.
In particular, I like her take on contemporary trends in educational assessment:
A crucial issue here is the continuing mania for using public school children as a vast pool of customers for corporations specializing in both mass curriculum distribution and in the endless testing through which students -- on pain of humiliation, summer school, and being held back a grade -- are asked to regurgitate these educational products. (I use the phrase "educational products" consciously: currently, a standard curriculum in the United States is to education what Cheeze Whiz is to cheese.)
January 22, 2009
Life in the Eternal Hotel
"Life in the eternal hotel" was the phrase I coined on what I think was my first-ever comment on Snarkmarket, now almost five years ago. The idea is to try to push how far we'd be willing to swap ownership of objects for subscribtion to services:
There are some things that we own that we expect to be permanent, or nearly so, and other things that we own that automatically have a limited shelf life: light bulbs being the best example. Nobody names a light bulb because, even if you legally own it, you don't own it in the sense of having a long-term personal investment: you use it, it breaks, and you throw it away. Speaking of which, I'd love to have services for trash bags, toilet paper, paper towels, printer ink, soap, shampoo, shaving cream, razor blades, deodorant, laundry and dishwasher detergent (or perhaps laundry and dishwashing services?), contact lenses, and (at least sometimes) food. (Not that life in the dorms was all that wonderful.) It'd be great if you could have all of those pumped into your house like gas, water, or electricity...
The question is to what degree people will be willing to accept an impermanent relationship to certain kinds of things. I doubt that there is anything intrinsic to most objects that would preclude us from using them temporarily: our impulse to name or to fetishize comes from our sense of long attachment, rather than the other way around. Of course, there are cultural differences to be overcome. Some people couldn't see themselves without owning a car, but could easily not own books (instead reading periodicals, at the library, or not at all); for me, despite my Detroitness, it's now the other way around. A better question to ask is whether we could live without any sense of permanent ownership: life in the eternal hotel.
Kevin Kelly has something similar up today, with a post called "Better Than Owning":
Sharing intangibles scales magnificently. This ability to share on a large scale without diminishing the satisfaction of the individual renter is transformative. The total cost of use drops precipitously (shared by millions instead of one). Suddenly, ownership is not so important. Why own, when you get the same utility from renting, leasing, licensing, sharing?
But more importantly why even possess it? Why take charge of it at all if you have instant, constant, durable, full access to it? If you lived inside of the world's largest rental store, why would you own anything? If you can borrow anything you needed without possessing it, you gain the same benefits with fewer disadvantages. If this was a magic rental store, where most of the gear was stored "downstairs" in a virtual basement, then whenever you summoned an item or service it would appear at your command.
The internet is this magic rental store. Its virtual basement is infinite, and it provides omni-access to its holdings. There are fewer and fewer reasons to own, or even possess anything. Via omni-access the most ordinary citizen can get hold of a good or service as fast as possessing it. The quality of the good is equal to what you can own, and in some cases getting hold of it may be faster than finding it on your own in your own "basement."
Obviously, for beauty of expression and clarity of imagery, I think "eternal hotel" beats "magic rental store."
But mull this over with me. What is happening here? And what's happened in the five years between Robin talking about Rhapsody and Kevin Kelly talking about, um, Rhapsody that may have changed how we look at this?
The Page is a Screen, the Screen is a Page
Clusterflock: Paper is the New Internet.
January 20, 2009
I love the first comment on this Huffington Post page: "That was the most memorable moment on TV - EVER.......... the end." (Via.)
A Day Too Big for Narrative
Ha! Alessandra Stanley does my work for me: This was a day best captured by image, not narrative, she says.
All the way from LIFE's breakthrough use of rich, stand-alone photography to TIME's avalanche of online galleries and (of course) the Big Picture, there's a rich tradition here. And the best of 'em aren't linear sequences that tell a story from start to finish; they're collections of contrasting moments that, together, deliver a gestalt.
Photo galleries have been one of my favorite ways to track the entire election, and I think there's truth to what Stanley says about today:
Anchors, compelled to say something, reached for trite metaphors and hyperbolic expressions of wonder ("Our secular version of a miracle," according to one CNN commentator) that didn't begin to match the reality unfolding live behind them. The best narration was wordless.
I'll extend that critique to printed commentary, as well. The flurry of op-eds over the weekend, all packed with world-historical language trying to Put It All In Perspective, fell flat. Just give me the image.
Not even Obama's speech -- which I liked -- could match the raw image of him, uh, delivering it. William Gavin, a former speechwriter for Nixon, said this over at the NYT (emphasis mine):
But the setting -- the first African-American standing there in the bright winter sunshine as our new president -- had an eloquence all its own. I think we will remember this occasion more for the man who gave it than for the words he said. He could have stood there for 20 minutes of silence and still communicated great things about America.
I claim the image for the Team Database. Your move, narrative.
File under: Journalism, Media Galaxy, Society/Culture
The Birth and Death of the American Newspaper
Not the internet, silly; Jill LePore is talking about the first Death of the American Newspaper, i.e., the Stamp Act and the American Revolution. I love the story of Boston Gazette printer Benjamin Edes:
In 1774, a British commander gave his troops a list of men—including John Hancock and Sam Adams—who, the minute war broke out, were to be shot on sight, and he added a postscript: “N.B. Don’t forget those trumpeters of sedition, the printers Edes and Gill.”
By then, there were forty newspapers in the colonies. War came, to Lexington and Concord, on April 19, 1775. That night, in Boston—a city held by the British—Edes and Gill hastily dissolved their partnership. Gill went into hiding. Under cover of darkness, Edes, alone, carted his printing press and types to the Charles River, where he loaded them onto a boat moored at the bank, and rowed through the night to escape the siege. In a nearby town, he set up a makeshift printing shop, and, within weeks, managed to resume printing the Gazette, on lumpy paper, with gunky ink. In besieged Boston, British troops searched for Edes but, failing to find him, made do with his nineteen-year-old son. Peter Edes spent months as a prisoner of war. He watched from the window of his cell while a fellow-prisoner, a Boston painter, was beaten until, broken, he finally called out, “God bless the King.”
Peter Edes survived. He became a printer. The war ended. It took some time to figure out what, in a republic, a newspaper was for.
Artisan Blog Design
From Jason Kottke's response on Fimoculous:
I'm surprised (and flattered, I guess) that people want to talk about this. With everyone using newsreaders and "customizing" their blogs with default Wordpress, MT, and Tumblr templates, the days of artisan blog design would appear to have passed by, quaint and unworthy of further comment. Like Rex, I love that that's not the case, at least in a small corner of the web.
Ha ha! I love this: Kottke finds resonance in our new national robots.txt.
January 19, 2009
Language Refracting in History's Gravitational Well
Listen to it!
I heard King's "I Have a Dream" on the radio this afternoon. Despite the grandeur of the visuals of the March on Washington, and the power of the text, I think that radio is the best way to experience it. I am amazed, as a writer, teacher, poet, and speaker, at the range of King's elocutionary instrument.
He doesn't just use every sonorous rhetorical tool in the book. He makes words rhyme which shouldn't. He finds transitory consonants and bends them to fit his alliterative schemes. He has the most versatile spondaic foot I've ever heard, so much so it could pass for iambic. (Try to find a genuinely unstressed syllable -- or unstressed thought -- in the way King says "We Will Not Be Satisfied.")
And he matches and varies his pitch to highlight his parallelisms of matter and mind, in his voice and in the air; a small, thickly built man, speaking from the roots of the trees, from the center of the earth, knowing that the extension of his own gravity stretches like a column from the molten core to the orbit of the moon. He is a single still point with the granted power to bend straight the crooked lines of history.
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such
Get On The Bus; or the Mimetic Desire for Democracy
I'm pretty amazed by just how many of my friends are going to the inauguration tomorrow. It helps that I live a short train ride away in Philadelphia -- Obama himself came through on the way to Washington -- but I think it's still testimony to how much enthusiasm and goodwill there is towards the new administration.
The thing is, though, when people talk about it, they tend to talk about Pres.-Elect Obama* only once you're pretty deep into the conversation. This Facebook exchange is pretty typical:
- [Friend X]: is Inaugurating. Or at least legitimizing the Inauguration by observing with sincerity, excitement, and dedication (despite the cold).
- [Friend-of-Friend Y]: You in DC? [Friend-of-Friend Z] and I are masochistically hitting the Mall tomorrow. Yesterday was pretty amazing.
- [Friend X]: We are here! What are your nighttime plans? We should attempt to run into each other perhaps? [Z] has my #. And also, it is VERY COLD. I guess that's just how much I love democracy.
When was the last time you heard twenty-year-olds talking about how much they love democracy -- and more important, viewing the ostentatious displays of democracy as something they want to get in on?
There's a theory with a fancy name called "mimetic desire." It boils down to this. You may want something or someone, but sometimes you want that something that someone else wants. I was never big into the "cult-of-personality" diagnosis of Obama supporters, but if there's any truth to it, I think it stems from this desire to get in on Obama's big vision of what democracy is all about. Our love for him is inseparable from our sense that we want what he wants.
The protagonists of disposable lesbian fiction—romances and mysteries—have had varied lines of work over the years. Back in the late 1950s and early '60s, Beebo Brinker—the butch anti-hero of the first pulps in which lesbian characters weren't all evil, sick, or suicidal—delivered pizzas and operated an elevator because those jobs allowed her to wear trousers... In the last few years, though, a new hero has emerged: Braver, fitter, and more sensitive than a cop, more honorable than a PI, the Secret Service agent is the perfect romance paragon, particularly for lesbian readers...
It isn't just a matter of looking good in a suit and being able to handle a trigger. Although lesbians no longer hide in the shadows, everyone appreciates discretion, and Secret Service agents are the ultimate strong, silent type—they fade into the background without hiding, they keep their mouths shut, and they have your back. But the question of protection is especially complicated territory for women involved with other women. Since our relationships aren't recognized by the state, we aren't always able to shield our partners from hardship and can't offer them the social-welfare benefits that marriage confers... In the real world, security is a fantasy even more desirable, and more elusive, than endless love.
Now here's where it gets (yes) even more interesting. The popular series Thomas references as her prime subgenre exemplar started in 2002. But check out Slate's terrific "Related in Slate" sidebar:
Scout Tufankjian, a photojournalist who spent almost two years covering the Obama campaign, became fascinated by his Secret Service detail; she said the experience "felt like traveling with the 40 or so older brothers and sisters I had never wanted: They were nosy and overprotective and fun to be around." Brendan I. Koerner explained who is entitled to Secret Service protection, while David Greenberg described how the protective service developed its mystique. Back in 1998, David Plotz described the gushing cultural representations of Secret Service agents as "protection porn."
Here's Plotz's truncated description of the idea (this time in hetero guise):
Protection Porn includes the movie In the Line of Fire, sundry authorized TV specials, and countless articles the service cooperated with. The notable qualities of Protection Porn: It is obsessed with the image of the stiff-suited, sunglassed, wrist-miked, stone-faced agent, and it dwells on the (admittedly impressive) fact that agents make themselves targets, spreading themselves to take bullets rather than ducking them. Unlike other law enforcers and soldiers, who have the ambiguous duty of attacking, Secret Service agents only defend. They are self-sacrificing, self-abnegating, irreproachable.
If I were to add anything to these two takes, it would be to say something like this: the dramatic arc of the secret service and/or bodyguard-themed romance inevitably begins with an adversarial relationship. Neither the protectee nor the protector trust each other, and they're resentful of the intrusion of the other onto their life/work. Only later, after near-constant nagging and dramatic demonstrations of loyalty, is trust gained and romance begun.
This is an allegory of all romantic relationships. Only it picks up at some midway point, when the relationship is contentious and you resent the other person's demands on your time and attention. (Historically, for me, this has been three months into any given relationship.) Then something happens and you clear the hurdle, convinced that your partner DOES have your best interests at heart and that your life would be unimaginable without them. And in fact, "hurdle" is the appropriate metaphor, because in the lifetime of a relationship, this is what happens again and again.
After all, what is the virtue of the protector? The protector keeps away the intrusions of the outside world, which allows for the intensity of the relationship to flourish in isolation. Protection porn is the fantasy of romance regained.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Fairy-Tale Marriage, Society/Culture
Care, Without the Routine Cruelty
Atul Gawande, lucid and humane as ever, talks health care reform and the virtues of pragmatism in The New Yorker.
Bonus points to Gawande for employing my favorite social-scientific concept: path-dependence.
January 18, 2009
Cliched Image of Americana
I don't care. I like it.
Did anybody notice this ingenious little political maneuver in Tennessee last week?
Republicans stood poised to take control of the Tennessee General Assembly for the first time in nearly 140 years. Even Gubernatorial candidate Zach Wamp roamed the halls. ... When lawmakers returned from break, now an hour into session, they tackled the Speakers position. Representative Jason Mumpower of Bristol received the first nomination. Republicans hoped to end the nomination process there, but after more political wrangling, allowed Democrats to submit a candidate.
What happened next some may describe as the political play of the decade as all 49 Democrats backed Kent Williams, a Sophomore Republican from Carter County, a district just miles from Mumpower's hometown.
Found at Political Animal.
Yesterday, I did some research on a new phone I'm thinking about buying. So I googled it and went to the manufacturer's page, read some online reviews, and compared prices and plans. But my eyes were drawn to the video hits: consumers and reviewers who could SHOW me how the phone worked, THAT the screen resolution really was pretty good, or WHY the keyboard felt too cramped.
I'm not alone -- Miguel Helft at the NYT/IHT writes that YouTube is increasingly being used as a reference tool:
With inexpensive cameras flooding the market and a proliferation of Web sites hosting seemingly unlimited numbers of clips, it's never been easier to create and upload video. You can now find an online video on virtually any topic. Web videos teach how to grout a tub, offer reviews of the latest touch-screen phones and give you a feel for walking across the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy...
And now YouTube, conceived as a video hosting and sharing site, has become a bona fide search tool. Searches on it in the United States recently edged out those on Yahoo, which had long been the No. 2 search engine, behind Google. (Google, incidentally, owns YouTube.) In November, Americans conducted nearly 2.8 billion searches on YouTube, about 200 million more than on Yahoo, according to comScore.
Another good how-to genre, this time from digital to digital, are the video walkthroughs of video games. Compare those with the old text-file walkthroughs for your favorite Super Nintendo game.
Video and text searches also create (ahem) different narratives:
[YouTube's Hunter] Walk said a good example is provided by an ad for Hillary Rodham Clinton during the Democratic presidential primaries the one in which a voice asks "Who do you want answering the phone?" at the White House at 3 a.m. during a crisis. A search for "Hillary Clinton 3 a.m." on Google would bring up news stories about the ad and the controversy surrounding it. On YouTube, the same search brought up the original commercial, as well a response by the Barack Obama campaign, pundits' commentaries and an assortment of spoofs, giving users a much different understanding of how the story unfolded, Walk said.
So, here are two ways I see this going.
First, we need to leverage the power of YouTube and the power of Wikipedia together by creating a YouTubeiPedia -- a comprehensive video reference database on the web. Maybe it wouldn't need to be the Wikipedia model -- there might be room for a traditional content company like Microsoft or Brittanica or whomever to step in here. Or maybe there will be multiple, competing models with different strengths -- frank and quirky user-created content jostling with great production values. At any rate, part of the triumph of the text-search optimized Wikipedia is that we've largely missed out on some of the promise of a genuine multimedia encyclopedia. But there's clearly demand for it.
Second, we need to get on this whole visual literacy thing -- especially the ability to make visual objects themselves searchable, so that videos can give bot-crawlers the same richness of information a textual entry can. Maybe some kind of video autotagging.
My last idea is a shade more utopian, but it can work! I want a "video search" that isn't a textual search of a video database, but a VIDEO search of any kind of database. Imagine the power of being able to hold a random object in front of your webcam and being able to ask the next-gen version of Google, "what the heck is this?"
January 17, 2009
I Am A Circuit Through Which Approval Flows
I'm beta-testing Windows 7, and man, the speech-recognition training program is creepy. Instead of giving you something cool to read and letting you figure out your own mistakes and corrections like Dragon NS, it puts you through your paces by reading canned lines.
- If you don't read the canned lines, the recognition app doesn't understand you. It'll just say "what was that?" until you read what you're told.
- Even if you read it perfectly, if the app is teaching you to correct a mistake, you WILL make a mistake. Which you then have to correct in exactly the way they prescribe, even if there are multiple ways to do the same thing.
- As soon as you figure out that the app isn't really listening to anything you're saying, a little pop-up window tells you that even though the screen doesn't register your words, THE APPLICATION DOES. In fact, it's using your speech patterns to program the recognition engine. So if you say "this sucks," instead of "this is awesome," it'll somehow try to figure out what accent you have where "awesome" sounds like "sucks."
- This leads to the creepiest part. The text you read is all brainwashy. It's all "speech recognition works great! I can speak faster than I can type. I really want to do this more often." I kid you not.
I should add that the speech recognition itself does work pretty well and the visual integration with the OS pays off. MS clearly thought hard about accessibility. However, they didn't think at all about personality or humor.
January 15, 2009
Meme Engineering, Or, I Am a Conceptual Bro
Cross-reference with Tim's post: Hipster Runoff asserts that Animal Collective is a Band Created By/For/On the Internet.
Several people have pointed me to Hipster Runoff as this sort of mad savant of internet culture. Don't let his language fool you; this is some trenchant analysis:
I remember when I saw [Animal Collective] live in the post-Strawberry Jam world, it was swarming with entrylevel alts who were looking for a more meaningful experience than just a 'marginally dancey Cut Copy show.' At Animal Collective concerts, people are willing 2 unite, kind of like meaningful core during its peak days (ie the DeathCab TRANSATLANTICISM era).
He's created a whole dictionary and taxonomy for himself. And after you read him for a while, it starts to make sense.
There is nothing more annoying that Conceptual Artists/Bands who have allegedly garnered mainstream praise. For example, the Radioheads. Or maybe the zany broad BJORK. Maybe Sigur Ros or Arcade Fire (those 2 are a lil different/smaller). I think the main gimmick behind these bands is convincing yourself that their 'product' stands for something more than most music. They are pretty much a lifestyle brand for every sort of alternative ideal possible: social change, innovative instruments + recording techniques, reflections on humanity, usage of performance + visual art during the live show, environmental awareness, anti-War, embracing technology, innovative/meme-able music videos, having opinions on politics, and stuff like that which makes the band interesting/easy to write about.
Band as lifestyle brand! I don't know, I guess it's obvious on some level, but the way he articulates it is really sharp and refreshingly harsh. And the package matters: His bizarro blog dialect and earnest inline images are part of the argument, too.
You gotta read the whole post. Seriously. Even if you hate it. Especially if you hate it.
P.S. I found an Animal Collective track that I like.
This is, honestly, what I love most about Current: social news on one end, duPont-winning international reporting on the other. You don't have to choose.
A Band of Mechanical Minstrels
Matt, you take the Nintendo DS. Tim, you're on iPhone. Me, I'll play Electroplankton.
January 14, 2009
"What is in this fortress, you ask? Seven live musicians."
Conjures memories of pillow forts, somehow.
Narrative and Database
More on narrative from Lev Manovich, circa 2001:
Regardless of whether new media objects present themselves as linear narratives, interactive narratives, databases, or something else, underneath, on the level of material organization, they are all databases. In new media, the database supports a range of cultural forms which range from direct translation (i.e., a database stays a database) to a form whose logic is the opposite of the logic of the material form itself -- a narrative. More precisely, a database can support narrative, but there is nothing in the logic of the medium itself which would foster its generation. It is not surprising, then, that databases occupy a significant, if not the largest, territory of the new media landscape. What is more surprising is why the other end of the spectrum -- narratives -- still exist in new media.
That's a better articulation of what (I think) I was trying to get at: You can map narratives onto our weird web-world, but it's something fundamentally different underneath.
We've built up some good media-thinking momentum here lately, so help me out with a gut-check:
Imagine a well-packaged little "magazine" for the iPhone and iPod Touch. It would be free or $0.99. In an "issue," it would have a short story, a video, something with sound, a gallery of great photography, and a mini-game or two. All formatted specifically and cleverly for the device. In my head, the issues aren't dated, but themed: more Radiolab than The Economist.
Does this sound like:
- an interesting use of a fundamentally new medium! And come to think of it, it would be fun to read/watch/play such a thing waiting in line for coffee in the morning. Or,
- a cruel throwback to mid-90s CD-ROM "magazines," exemplifying the worst of old media: No links! You can't print it out! Why is it stuck on this tiny, tiny screen??!
I'm especially interested in hearing from members of the snarkmatrix who actually own iPhones and iPods. Can you credibly imagine yourself finding out about such a thing -- let's say I had recommended one here, for instance! -- and then downloading and using it?
Farewell, President Gore
And Gore's decision to single-handedly venture into a flattened house in Mississippi and free a trapped two-year-old showed him to be an irresponsible showboat. Sure, President Gore knows CPR, hears like a German shepherd, and has the strength of 10 men -- but we didn't need to see it.
Chloé Mortaud, Miss France 2009
I love France, I love beauty pageants, and I love interracial families, and so it follows quite naturally that I love Chloé Mortaud, the new multinational, multiracial nineteen-year-old Miss France. Hassan Marsh at The Root has a great write-up here, and chloemortaud.com has plenty of good stuff too (the link goes directly to a video featuring her family and hometown, a small village near the Pyrenees). Also, slick design on that webpage -- very much that of a 21st-century beauty queen.
The Inaugural Inaugural
The Milestone Documents blog is counting down the top five inaugural addresses. (Even the act of assembling such a list sounds like the nerdiest bar game ever, the kind I would play with Sarah Vowell in my fever dreams.)
[Edit: Indeed, on the Milestone Documents front page, Kennedy's speech is today's "Spotlight Document," along with the tagline: "From George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy, presidents have used the inaugural address to outline their agendas and provide a vision of how they intend to govern. Which addresses have had the biggest impact?" So what's the suspense here? Which one is number one?]... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Snarkpolitik
Here in Washington, the compound adjective of the moment is “shovel-ready.” That’s the description of stimulus projects that are ready to go on the day President-elect Obama takes office. For the most part, as the term implies, it refers to large infrastructure projects like the building of new roads or bridges..
But one obvious project that’s also ready to go on day one is the scanning of the contents of the Library of Congress. Today there’s a ceremonial event at the LC to showcase the thousands of books already scanned as part of the LC’s partnership with the Internet Archive, and to highlight the potential of a mass digitization project. It goes without saying that this project could be extended easily to other cultural heritage institutions. IA already has a dedicated scanning center in the LC, and just needs the funds to expand its project
Cohen goes on to defend the virtues of a mass public digitization project vs. the Google Books model. Let me add a dissenting voice to the chorus, though -- or rather, a complimentary optimism about the possibilities of for-profit digitization.
In particular, I'm holding out for some kind of universally-adopted, ad-supported, revenue-sharing remunerative model whereby books that are in copyright (whether they're in print or not) can be made more widely available for reading and/or preview. In short, I want the radio for books. And for private institutions like libraries and universities, I want something closer to a real virtual library, preserving old and new books alike. And I will posit that a large, for-profit entity like Google is in the best position to do that.
NB: I am not in any way discounting the value of digitizing out-of-print and rare books, journals, etc. My professional life as an academic depends on these projects. But I do think that it is far from the full story looking at how this whole show moves forward.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin'
January 13, 2009
I saw this game at Target over the holidays and it freaked. me. out. BLDGBLOG has the whole story, complete with screenshots.
January 12, 2009
This New York mag story is double-awesome: It's written by the terrific Emily Nussbaum, and it features a big, bad-ass black-and-white photo of Snarkmarket pal Andrew DeVigal (and colleagues)! News-nerds triumphant!
January 11, 2009
Now This Is Civilization
I'm typing this at the airport in Denver, at an open kiosk and charging station (!) and using free, ad-supported wi-fi supplied by the airport, while waiting for my connection. I've got my phone plugged in, too -- there's even a USB outlet to charge iPods or digital cameras.
This, friends, is genius. This is what we should have at every airport, train station, hotel, library, or other public gathering place where people come whilst in transit. Every place where you currently see a fifteen-year-old cluster of pay phones, you're going to see one of these.
It'll have internet-equpped voice and video calling too. There will be a touchscreen where you can get directions around town or order food. (Probably not at the library.)
What else will we find in the media carrels of the future?
January 10, 2009
California, for Warmer Weather
Not to jinx anything, but I'm giving a job talk on Monday.
Please, please, please, let my plane get out of Philadelphia tomorrow. (They're predicting snow.)
Stumbling Away from the Story
I'm just gonna throw this one out there and let it simmer a bit over the weekend: What if narrative thinking is on its way out?
Here's a starting point: Google is the anti-narrative king of the web.
Classic Yahoo! was narrative; it was all paths and branches and journeys. Google was, and is, a story that happens all at once. Faced with the search box, you have the entire web in a sort of quantum superposition; anything could happen. Then you search and, wham, one thing really does. But you don't really know how, or why.
In general, we're finding that the way people use the web is less narrative and more random than we ever expected. It's probabilistic. The table of contents -- the navigation bar -- gets smaller. The search box gets bigger.
On the web, we don't understand, consider, and act; we stumble.
Think next of WIRED's "the end of theory" and of Wolfram's a new kind of science. Both propose a new, more probabilistic way of doing science -- and yes, I know, both are almost entirely rejected by mainstream science at this point. But even so, they give our assumptions a healthy twist. What if you could arrive at useful conclusions without knowing how you got there? Doesn't this actually happen a lot already?
Think, finally, of news. Think of the kind of story we're confronted with these days: 9/11, Enron, Iraq, the money meltdown, Mumbai. Sure, you can build a really revelatory narrative around something like 9/11; you can almost make it seem inevitable in retrospect. You can tell a story about a giant pool of money.
But how closely do those narratives map to reality? Sometimes I think events today more closely resemble a giant wall of sticky notes. Draw lines, make clusters, add more facts as you find them; do your best to hold it all in your head. But it doesn't all add up. There are contradictions. But hey, that's the world -- and maybe we need better tools to understand it that way.
We argue: Stories are those tools. It's stories that allows us to understand these things at all: "Once upon a time, this happened, then that happened." Our brains are wired for narrative.
But I don't buy it. Our brains are constantly changing, and I think the internet is a bellwether: We are not using the web in a narrative way. We're using it in some weird, new way that we don't have good words for yet. It's all juxtaposition and feeds and filters, searching and stumbling and sharing. And importantly, it's starting to make sense. It's not gut-churning chaos out here, unmoored from the safe haven of story. It's actually getting kinda comfortable.
So does that new way of thinking start to infect everything else? It's not just a superficial perspective, but almost a new operating system entirely; I think it's going to go really deep.
How do things change? The internet's leading the way. New media follows close behind -- video games, new forms of music, movies, theater. What about journalism? Science? Medicine? Law? Relationships?
I'm pretty obsessed with this idea lately, so expect to hear more about it. I'm curious to know what it cross-connects to in your brain; not like, "please comment directly on the thesis of this post" (though I am sure there are some sharp debunkings waiting for me), but rather, what does this make you think about? What's related?
January 9, 2009
Characters With Character
January 8, 2009
Waltz With Bashir
Lebanon -- the subject of Waltz With Bashir -- isn't Gaza, and of course all war in the Middle East isn't the same, but even so, this movie has a lot to offer, especially right now.
(Um. Take a minute before you read the next post or your brain will explode from the sudden shift in gravity.)
This is My Milwaukee
I recommend a ten-minute video with some trepidation, but honestly, this is really funny and sort of preposterously well-done. It's apparently the kick-off video for an ARG, but even if it wasn't, I'd be a fan.
(There's a science-fiction story hiding here, though it isn't evident in the first few minutes. Hang in there.)
Humanism in Electronic Pop
It's been almost five years since I realized that I was in love with the Brooklyn-based, Baltimore-bred band Animal Collective. I had fired up Sung Tongs, expecting something vaguely similar to Iron and Wine's The Creek Drank the Cradle, Devendra Banhart's Rejoicing in the Hands, or Joanna Newsom's "Bridges and Balloons," all of which, like the Collective, had been branded as "freak-folk" by that year's musical ethnographers. The other signposts indicated were the Smile-era Beach Boys.
Instead, there was this weird sound -- "Leaf House" -- that didn't quite work in headphones or at parties or in your car, but rattled around in your brain. The harmonies on "Who Could Win A Rabbit" paid off the Beach Boys campfire rumors, but I still didn't quite know what to do with it. Finally, "Kids on Holiday" won me over. Its lo-fi strum, its fleeting, wavering, erotic yelps, and solemnly intoned lyrics about a Felliniesque trip to the airport, replete with surreal details ("the smell of pajamas") and quotable asides ("Where the hell have I got to?"). It was Pet Sounds, but polymorphously perverse.
This is a very roundabout way to say that AC's new album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, is out -- and it's very different from those weird not-quite-folky sounds on Sung Tongs. But it's even more awesome. I'm pencilling Animal Collective in as the best indie-alternative band of the decade.
The Seminary Co-Op
Man, all of my old haunts in Hyde Park are now famous. The Los Angeles Times writes up Barack Obama's favorite bookstore:
"Just a few days before the election, Barack was in here with his daughters," Cella recalls in a soft voice. He smiles. "I suppose I should say, 'the president-elect,' right? People around here are just so excited.
"There was a crew from 'Good Morning America' in here the other day," he adds. Journalists have been stopping by regularly to get a sense of the place that feeds Obama's intellectual hunger.
What makes the Co-op appealing to discerning customers such as the Obama family is the atmosphere and eclectic yet also wide-ranging selection of books. Credit for those virtues, many say, belongs to Cella, who has run the place since 1968. The Co-op is like a theme park for the mind: Walking through it, each twist and turn is likely to reveal a new intellectual thrill. You might come across a book you didn't know existed -- but whose theme instantly intrigues you -- or a book for which you've been searching all your life. The store is an adventure in itself, a series of forking, book-lined paths that wind around through room after room after room, and each subsequent area brims with amazing volumes. There is the philosophy room, the religion room, the history room, the language room -- and on and on it goes, an enchanted forest of multicolored spines and preoccupied customers.
The Co-Op does bring the goods. I love David Derbes's rat-a-tat catalogue of treasures:
"Want the 'Oxford Classical Text of Tacitus'? 'Annals'? The standard Freud in German? The Steinsaltz Talmud? A Hittite dictionary? Five volumes of Michael Spivak's 'Differential Geometry'? George F. Kennan's memoirs? Carl Sandburg's life of Lincoln? Sara Paretsky's essays? They're all on the shelves of the Seminary Co-op."
Rachel Leow bookporned the Co-Op in March. You have to see her pictures for the close attention she pays to the (ahem) unique architecture of the shop. And I want Good Morning America to ask some hard questions about the strength of the Southeast Asia section!
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Snarkpolitik
January 7, 2009
It's What's Good In the Neighborhood
I lived in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood for a year in 2001-2002. My state senator was this guy named Barack Obama.
My favorite show on local TV there was called "Check, Please." Three people from all over Chicago would recommend their favorite restaurants -- everything from casual neighborhood hangs to places with wine lists longer than your couch -- and they would each go to all three, then review them together.
Well, Ezra Klein got a hold of an early, unaired episode of "Check, Please" featuring -- yes -- Barack Obama. He's plugging the Dixie Kitchen, one of my favorite places for catfish. So this just made me happy today.
File under: Gastrosnark, Gleeful Miscellany, Snarkpolitik, Society/Culture
A Look Back at Looks Ahead
Even more fun than reading predictions for 2009: reading predictions for 2008. NYMag's predix for the biggest business stories of 2008 royally missed the mark (e.g. Goldman Sachs will end the year at $300/share ... ouch). ReadWriteWeb's predix mostly bombed (Hakia goes mainstream? massive Facebook/Google decline? Twitter and Tumblr acquired?).
(I found this by searching Fimoculous.)
Ooh, here's a good one from Daily Routines: Erik Satie.
He did a lot of walking:
On most mornings after he moved to Arcueil, Satie would return to Paris on foot, a distance of about ten kilometres, stopping frequently at his favourite cafes on route.
And I love this:
Roger Shattuck, in conversations with John Cage in 1982, put forward the interesting theory that "the source of Satie's sense of musical beat -- the possibility of variation within repetition, the effect of boredom on the organism--may be this endless walking back and forth across the same landscape day after day ... the total observation of a very limited and narrow environment." During his walks, Satie was also observed stopping to jot down ideas by the light of the street lamps he passed.
January 6, 2009
Intelligent Life in the Universe
Magic Molly with an appealing recommendation:
This quarter's American Scholar contains, among other treats, a list of Fifteen Cosmological Questions compiled by an astronomer. It's like a Seventeen quiz, only it exercises the imagination instead of the ego.
American Scholar you. are. killing. me.
A Tale of Two Painters
Wow: Just pulled up Illustration Art's feed and found, kinda out of nowhere, a really smart debate on the values of modern art in microcosm.
It comes down to two artists: Adrian Gottlieb and John Currin. Both are alive today. Both are figurative oil painters. Both are successful.
Here's where they part ways: One just sold a painting for $5.5 million dollars. The other can only sell his for a fraction of that price.
Then, make your guess.
Then, read the post.
And then -- this is the most important part -- read the comment thread. It's articulate, thought-provoking, and contentious-yet-respectful. In other words: snarkworthy.
And then (jeez, it's like school all of a sudden) tell me: Which do you prefer?
File under: Media Galaxy, Society/Culture
I love Holger Pooten's images of snack cascades and exploded electronics. And, I think the images are posted in exact order of interestingness, from top (most interesting) to bottom (least). Almost logarithmic!
I Hardly Know Her
January 5, 2009
Jeffrey Goldberg, "Why I'm Not Blogging More About Gaza":
The more complicated answer was provided by Marc Ambinder, who analyzed my personal situation correctly: Gaza has overdetermined me into paralysis. His point: I actually feel too close to this problem, a problem that symbolizes all problems. It's true: I have friends in Gaza about whom I worry a great deal; I've seen many people killed in Gaza; I've served in the Israeli Army in Gaza; I've been kidnapped in Gaza; I've reported for years from Gaza; I hope my former army doesn't kill the wrong people in Gaza; I hope Israeli soldiers all leave Gaza alive; I know they'll be back in Gaza; I think this operation will work; and I have no actual hope that it will work for very long, because nothing works for very long in the Middle East. Gaza is where dreams of reconciliation go to die. Gaza is where the dream of Palestinian statehood goes to die; Gaza is where the Zionist dream might yet die. Or, more to the point, might be murdered. I'm not a J Street moral-equivalence sort of guy. Yes, Israel makes constant mistakes, which I note rather frequently, but this conflict reminds me once again that Israel is up against an implacable force, namely, an interpretation of Islam that disallows the idea of Jewish national equality. My paralysis isn't an analytical paralysis. It's the paralysis that comes from thinking that maybe there's no way out. Not out of Gaza, out of the whole thing.
Ze Frank Rides Again!
Hype Machine Hype
All right. So. Everyone tweeted and linked to Hype Machine's 2008 music zeitgeist simultaneously.
And wow, seriously, this is a neat set of web pages.
Something about the whole presentation is just really clean and... correct, you know? It all actually motivated me to create a Hype Machine account. And let me tell you: I do not create accounts on websites anymore.
This might be the future of all media, yeah? Can we get a Book Machine running on our Kindles already?
O Sweet Verse
There's a poem in the New Yorker. It's called Alien vs. Predator. Reads like nerdcore hip-hop bluster run back-and-forth through Google Translate too many times. I like it:
That elk is such a dick. He's a space tree
making a ski and a little foam chiropractor.
I set the controls, I pioneer
the seeding of the ionosphere.
I translate the Bible into velociraptor.
Sometimes a Phrase Is All You Need
Lake Michigan Stonehenge
The substance of this post over on BLDBLOG is interesting -- prehistoric ruins on the floor of Lake Michigan?? -- but honestly, it's the images that get me. Just the pure graphic characteristics of them.
They look like transmissions from another planet.
A GHOST PLANET.
Kevin on Rex
Anyway, I'm really only posting it to repeat this line:
First of all, Sorgatz apparently reads all blogs so his perspective of the landscape is stunningly broad.
January 4, 2009
Games, Art, the Usual
John Lanchester in the LRB does what I thought was impossible: advances the state of the conversation about games and art a bit. He's quite tough on video games, but reading his piece, you also get the sense that he actually plays lots of them. He knows his Fallout 3 from his LittleBigPlanet.
I like this line:
Miyamoto has, throughout his career, engaged with the question of arbitrariness by making his games more arbitrary, more silly -- by making that silliness part of the fun.
And this seems like a fair verdict, for the time being at least:
Not all games are cynically, affectlessly violent, but a lot of them are, and this trend is holding video games back. It's keeping them at the level of Hollywood blockbusters, when they could go on to be something else and something more.
I've gotten a bit bored with video games and meta-video-game commentary alike lately. I think my problem is so much of the innovation and excitement at the moment is around clever mechanics: the Wii, the iPhone's touch controls, games like World of Goo and (see below) Zen Bound. And I am bored with that stuff. I want to see games with different content -- and that's why I like Lanchester's piece.
(Via Matt P. and Rachel.)
This iPhone game looks bananas. Like... I don't even know if I want to play it. It's beautiful and evocative, but beautiful and evocative in the way that the first phase of some dark ritual would be, ya know?
January 3, 2009
Why We All Need More School
The Edge Annual Question -- "WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING? / What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?" -- is here. The usual suspects give their often-too-usual answers, and I (as usual) am taking about a week to read and process it all.
However, I'm already charmed by "Never-Ending Childhood," the entry from UC-Berkeley psychologist Allison Gopnik:
Humans already have a longer period of protected immaturity — a longer childhood — than any other species. Across species, a long childhood is correlated with an evolutionary strategy that depends on flexibility, intelligence and learning... We start out as brilliantly flexible but helpless and dependent babies, great at learning everything but terrible at doing just about anything. We end up as much less flexible but much more efficient and effective adults, not so good at learning but terrific at planning and acting...
Recent developments in neuroscience show that this early plasticity can be maintained and even reopened in adulthood. And, we've already invented the most unheralded but most powerful brain-altering technology in history — school... School lets us all continue to be brilliant but helpless babies. It lets us learn a wide variety of information flexibly, and for its own sake, without any immediate payoff. School assumes that learning is more important than doing, and that learning how to learn is most important of all. But school is also an extension of the period of infant dependence — since we don't actually do anything useful in school, other people need to take care of us — all the way up to a Ph.D. School doesn't include the gradual control and mastery of specific adult skills that we once experienced in apprenticeship. Universal and extended schooling means that the period of flexible learning and dependence can continue until we are in our thirties, while independent active mastery is increasingly delayed.
So, in the information age, the longer our immaturity, the more time we have to learn, the more things we can learn, and the better we will be able to handle the new stuff the universe is throwing at us. So far, all good.
Child-like brains are great for learning, but not so good for effective decision-making or productive action. There is some evidence that adolescents even now have increasing difficulty making decisions and acting independently, and pathologies of adolescent action like impulsivity and anxiety are at all-time historical highs. Fundamental grown-up human skills we once mastered through apprenticeship, like cooking and caregiving itself, just can't be acquired through schooling. (Think of all those neurotic new parents who have never taken care of a child and try to make up for it with parenting books). When we are all babies for ever, who will be the parents? When we're all children who will be the grown-ups?
These are troubling questions -- and they all point to a single, albeit uncomfortable answer:
Robots.... Read more ....
Best Threads of 2008, Pts. 1 and 2
I just read Kottke's self-assessment of his best posts/threads from 2008. One in particular -- a loooong comment thread on the intentional mispronunciation of words -- was a surprise to me, since I don't usually read comments on JK's blog (often 'cause he doesn't enable 'em).
But! This reminded me that Snarkmarket has probably got thousands of readers who hardly ever look at the comment threads after they digest the nice juicy post or link elsewhere. So I thought, as Snarkmarket's long-time commenter-in-chief, I would put together Snarkmarket's Best Threads of 2008.... Read more ....
In an alarming yet little-noticed series of recent studies, scientists have concluded that Canada's precious forests, stressed from damage caused by global warming, insect infestations and persistent fires, have crossed an ominous line and are now pumping out more climate-changing carbon dioxide than they are sequestering.This fact might be the best illustration I've seen of the unexpected consequences of climate change. "Inexorably rising temperatures are slowly drying out forest lands, leaving trees more susceptible to fires, which release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere." What a catastrophic chain of events. How frightening to imagine that global warming is powerful and sinister enough to co-opt the very forces that ordinarily keep it in check.
January 2, 2009
TV on the Computer, or the Other Way Around
I just became a Boxee alpha tester, and while it isn't flawless, it's the best setup I've seen yet for watching TV shows and movies on the computer, particularly a computer hooked up to a television screen. Haven't used its social recommendation engine yet (if you're using it too, let me know), but the Hulu and Netflix integration set it apart from XBMC, Plex, Front Row, et al.
I watch a lot of computer-based TV, particularly since I don't have cable. My setup -- first-gen MacBook Pro with busted screen, Western Digital 500GB external, Wireless-G router, Samsung 26" HDTV, Apple remote, and a Logitech keyboard (DiNovo wireless for Mac). I've got a DVI-HDMI cable and a simple stereo output running between the notebook and the HDTV. Best experiences - 30 Rock on Netflix and Hulu, The Daily Show at ComedyCentral.com, all five seasons of The Wire backed up on my external drive, and Yo Gabba Gabba through iTunes.
I've been mulling over a bunch of different ideas about this computer-media server-television hybrid, but first I guess I'll just ask the 'matrix -- how do you guys watch TV with/without your computer? What do you like or not like about it? What are you still trying to figure out?
January 1, 2009
Year of the Ox
Hello, 2009! Year of the ox! Year of work! Year of staying up late and getting up early. Year of nights and weekends. Year of noses and grindstones. Year of always produce. Year of there's no wind out here, so we'd better row.
Hello, 2009. I'm making you a mixtape. Here's the first track:
Wisdom Gleaned In San Francisco
All of these insights have their deep and shallow versions.
- Practical knowledge is impossible without knowing what information to discard.
- Vapor in the atmosphere makes light visible.
- Every cuisine is the triumph of centuries of vernacular chemistry.
- The idea of the future is a lens that brings spaces closer together.
- All of our neighborhoods hold familiar secrets, depths we've never plumbed.
- Consider your arguments and carefully circumscribe your conclusion. Then exceed those limits by at least twenty percent.
- Aesthetically, we respond to nuanced humanity and inhuman purity, the shaving mirror and the telescope, the contingency of a moment and the point of view of the eternal universe. Everything else rings false.
- An unheralded virtue: vigilance against an urge for thrift, misplaced.
- Any task of memory or thought benefits from an association (even an artificial one) with vision.
- Maps fool us into believing that cities exist in two dimensions, when they actually persist in (at least) four.
- Food, Books, Weather, Conversation -- excellence in these four things is an apologia for an unhappy memory or an indifferent universe.