July 31, 2009
Constellations of Intelligence
Matthew Battles takes on academics and corporate types horning in on social media. This paragraph reminded me a bit of the sensibility underpinning New Liberal Arts:
In a thriving networked culture, it should be possible not merely to complement but to replace institutions and corporations with commons-native constellations of intelligence. The mainstream media quakes before the ever-multiplying range of news-gathering alternatives. In the intellectual world, the Infinite Summer—a massively distributed endeavor to collectively read and discuss the late novelist David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest—is proving the power of social media to build loosely-structured networks of brains to replace the medieval legacy of colleges, faculties, and curricula.
Ultimately, I think some blending of the academy and the social web is inevitable, but it's a genuine dilemma which one will ultimately remake the other after its own matrix. Ultimately, I would bet on the web, and here's why.
For one thing, it's not a head-to-head but a three-way competition. The base of the university is still probably wash after wash of traditional intellectual culture - medievalism, humanism, the Enlightenment. But that's been increasingly uprooted by first state and then corporate bureaucracies. The ethos of digital culture is actually more sympathetic to traditional humanism than corporate office suite. But the technology and economic possibilities of digital culture can also peel away the more futurist-thinking of the capitalist side.
The real clincher, though, is writing. If writers and students and researchers and administrators at universities begin to port their assumptions about how all of these things work into the classroom and the academic conference, then it'll be a relentless wave. Within a generation, nothing will look the same. (Nothing will be wiped out, either - universities, as the archives of the world, retain everything, like the unconscious.)
By the way, if I haven't said it already, Battles's and Josh Glenn's Hilobrow is 100% required reading. I think it's the best new blog of 2009.
File under: Learnin', New Liberal Arts, Technosnark
I'm still working on Newsweek's Trollope recommendation, and I love this bit of Trollope trivia:
Trollope wrote for two and a half hours each morning before he went to work as a clerk in the British Postal Department. The schedule was ironclad. If he was in mid-sentence when the two and a half hours expired, he left that sentence unfinished until the next morning. And if he happened to finish one of his six-hundred-page heavyweights with fifteen minutes of the session remaining, he wrote "The End," set the manuscript aside, and began work on the next book.
Wow. Routine and discipline seems to be the key to so much.
(Via Molly Young.)
July 30, 2009
The Fiery Fuzz of Streetlight Bugs
Charlie McCarthy took long-exposure photos of insects buzzing around a streetlight. Then, voila:
Things I like about this:
- The glowing arcs and curlicues evoke a bubble chamber, yeah?
- Imagine being some slow-moving creature with long-exposure eyes. And this is just how you see the world. Bugs aren't dots; they're lines!
- Charlie McCarthy is from Michigan!
It Feels A Little Like Free
I had a stray thought the other day, related to Chris Anderson's observation that what's really radical about the idea of "free" isn't its economic reality but economic psychology. Free things freak us out; either we think they're worthless or scammy or we love them so much that sometimes they actually make us economically stupid. (I once stood in line for an hour for a free burrito when I was paying a babysitter $10/hour at the same time. Say what you will about whatever I was "buying" with my money, I wasn't maximizing my utility.)
Anyways, here's the idea:
If what matters about "free" is the psychology, then the solution is to make paying something feel like paying nothing.
Think about it! When the idea of free really works, it makes us forget that it ever even cost anything at all. Reading web pages is free - once you count the money you pay for internet access. Between my phone and my house, I pay more for internet access per month than I do books - and I read a lot. Add on to that all of the ways my free behavior is paid for with information from or attention paid by me, and a ruthless calculus would determine that the internet is expensive as hell.
Almost all free things are cross-subsidized in some ways. But if the cross-subsidy is obvious - "Free phone with a two-year plan worth at least..." - then free fails. If your website suddenly has a glaring and obnoxious banner ad, then it doesn't matter if it is as free today as it was yesterday. It doesn't feel free anymore.
On the other hand, you can actually make getting something you've paid for feel like something free. Casinos are terrific at this. Everything's free, and you still spend money everywhere. Sometimes, governments are good at this too - although they sometimes create benefits that are so invisible that we don't even think about them at all, except when they fail. (Free can't work too well! Or people will still feel cheated!)
A classic example might be buying something - let's say, groceries - with a credit card. I used to pay for all of my groceries with cash or check, so I always had to be aware of exactly how much I was spending and whether I either physically had enough money on me or at least had enough in the account (and enough to still pay rent, etc.). Then I got a credit card that gave me rewards at gas stations and grocery stores - the money is like invisible bullets. I don't worry about each individual trip, I just pay the lot at the end of the month. This ramped up until I looked at a breakdown of my finances, and realized I was paying twice as much for food each month as I was a few years before. It felt more like free.
Digital media is catching on. I hardly ever used to buy anything in iTunes, because it was a total hassle. The terms of service had always changed, I had to log-in, add something to my cart, and then check-out. It was worse than going to a record-store! And a lot worse than Amazon, where I had one-click, free shipping... Anyways, I recently disabled all of the nag screens, and suddenly, I'm buying stuff on iTunes left and right. People talk about this with their Kindles, too - the fact that you can browse for, buy, and begin reading books so smoothly reduces the friction of every purchase, so you read one after another. It all goes through Amazon and you get billed at the end of the month. You know you bought something... but you kind of didn't. To quote Flanders, "it feels like you're wearing nothing at all."
Software sort of works like this too. It's easy to buy applications for the iPhone or iPod touch, because you do it all right through Apple - it syncs to your iPod and you're ready to go. It's much harder, psychologically, to go to a developer's website, fill out all of your information, decide whether or not to use PayPal or your credit card, download the application, open it up, enter your serial (which went to your old email address), register the software again, etc... At every moment, it screams, "you're paying something! You're paying something! Are you sure there isn't free software that could do the same thing?"
The real trouble, however, is advertising. If you have an ad-supported application or website, it's going to feel the most free and probably be the most popular if the ads are so discreet as to be practically invisible - you don't even realize that someone paid for you to see what you're seeing. But advertising HAS to be attention-grabbing if it's going to work.
Newspapers actually came up with a genius solution to this problem years ago - the classified ad. It's an advertisement that feels like a service. In most cases, when you were reading classifieds, you actually PAID to see them (although each ad - for the reader - was free). Now, of course, classifieds are (almost) actually free (to place and read). But you still see things like job advertisements, etc., which play out to readers more like services than ads. And because they feel like services, they feel like free.
So here's the (provisional) lesson. There is no such thing as a free lunch. But some lunches feel freer than others.
Hey, It's Just Like Upgrading Firefox, Right?
Handy! Matt Yglesias provides a checklist of changes to our political institutions that would not require, you know, a revolution—but would still change things hugely for the better. I'm on board with all of 'em.
Hey! I See You Copying That
Over at Nieman Journalism Lab, Zachary Seward explains Tracer, a utility with two functions, one terrible and the other cool:
- Terrible: It inserts extra stuff into your copied-and-pasted text. So for instance, if Snarkmarket was running Tracer, and you copied this line, when you pasted it, it would also say: "Come check out the original post at Snarkmarket!" along with a link. T-E-R-R-I-B-L-E.
- Cool: Forget the copy-paste hijacking and focus on the analytics you could get from this thing. Seward writes: "But I'm much more impressed by Tracer's backend, which allows publishers to see which pages—and, even better, which parts of those pages—are most frequently copied."
Don't miss the graphics on the Nieman Journalism Lab post.
This connects back to some of the ideas in my post about tethered books—and has some of the same creepy/cool combo, too. But, on balance, I think more granular information about how people read and use text is really exciting—simply because it could help you make your text so much better.
New (Hampshire) Liberal Arts
I was just on New Hampshire Public Radio, live, talking about New Liberal Arts. Sure to be the buzz of Manchester this morning!
July 29, 2009
Mr. Penumbra Would Like This
Each week postliteracy.org presents visitors with a single image, which will often have multiple layers of meaning in its visual content. Embedded within that image, though, is textual content hidden through steganography. The audience must decode the hidden text [...] in order to "read" the entire message.
And this sounds pretty new liberal artsy, doesn't it:
Thus, each post at postliteracy.org requires polymodal literacy—here, visual, interactive, computational, and textual literacies—to decode its full meaning.
Helpfully, they link directly to the tools required to find the hidden messages.
Quick Visual Links
A mixed bag of really cool sculptural stuff by Maryam Nassir Zadeh over at Covenger + Kester.
And PJ just keeps serving up the good stuff:
City of Inference
So, this research team at U of Washington totally out-awesomed PhotoSynth by building amazing point-cloud 3D models of monuments and cities from Flickr photos.
Only One Thing
I like this format. A bunch of designers complete this sentence—
So you’re thinking about becoming a designer? If I could tell you only one thing about going into the field, my advice would be...
—and their responses are presented as pithy one-liners paired with longer explanations in video. Random-access mixed media. This is what the web is for!
My favorites: "Hire the one who can write" and "Focus: Find a topic, [..] find a method and focus all your efforts on it."
The Most Brilliant Apps (Not Just the Best-Selling)
Question: Do you know of any blogs, or other sources, that do a good job tracking brilliant ideas in iPhone app design? Stuff like that great subway-finding app but not so widely linked; stuff that's less whoahhh and more ooh, nice, perhaps. (That link is to Daring Fireball, and yes, I know that's a good source; but I want something that goes deeper on actual iPhone app design and ideas.) I feel like there ought to be a dozen iPhone nichepapers out there. What are they?
July 28, 2009
'Maybe Media Won't Be a Job At All'
In the past, the media was a full-time job. But maybe the media is going to be a part-time job. Maybe media won't be a job at all, but will instead be a hobby.
Backing up, I love how Anderson comes into this Spiegel interview with guns-ablazing:
SPIEGEL: Mr. Anderson, let's talk about the future of journalism.
Anderson: This is going to be a very annoying interview. I don't use the word journalism.
SPIEGEL: Okay, how about newspapers? They are in deep trouble both in the United States and worldwide.
Anderson: Sorry, I don't use the word media. I don't use the word news. I don't think that those words mean anything anymore. They defined publishing in the 20th century. Today, they are a barrier. They are standing in our way, like a horseless carriage.
SPIEGEL: Which other words would you use?
Anderson: There are no other words.
Awesome! (Update: Apparently I am the only one who thought this was awesome. That's OK.)
There's a great comment thread growing out of Matt's fun-is-free post—it's worth checking in.
Think Like a Pirate
Wow. Wired's interview with a Somali pirate is amazing. Very matter-of-fact. He thinks like a CEO:
Once you have a ship, it's a win-win situation. We attack many ships everyday, but only a few are ever profitable. No one will come to the rescue of a third-world ship with an Indian or African crew, so we release them immediately. But if the ship is from Western country or with valuable cargo like oil, weapons or then its like winning a lottery jackpot. We begin asking a high price and then go down until we agree on a price.
July 27, 2009
The Nichepaper Manifesto
How is Umair Haque so good at this?
But I have never seen them so seamlessly and stylishly combined. Part of it is simply the language: Haque has a gift for punchy parallel structure. Just scan down his list of bold directives—"Knowledge, not news," "Provocation, not perfection"—and tell me you don't want a nichepaper, like, now.
I'm kinda into his neologism "commentage," too.
Anyway, if you are even 1% interested in this stuff, go give him a glance.
Sterling Cooper Hires An English Professor
That's right. There's a new redhead for everyone in the office to swoon over.
The Feed Giveth, the Feed Taketh Away
Pieter's description of his reading habits resonated with me. I, too, subscribe to an info-megaton of feeds, and derive a sort of cruel pleasure from scrolling through them at warp speed. If you don't catch my eye, too bad for you. Mark all as read.
But then, over at Laura's site—which is crisp and appealing—I find a link to Jon Kyle's, which is amazing. Look at that quote treatment. That is the best quote treatment I have ever seen on the entire internet.
Now I'm imagining those quotes, completely stripped of style, in Google Reader. Mark all as read.
Jon Kyle's site just keeps going. It's stunning.
What do we do about this? On one hand: the demands of scale; the great, brain-tingling opportunities of aggregation. On the other hand: the richness of a great frame; all that the setting adds to the stone.
I don't even really have a dream solution. These two values feel really fundamentally incompatible to me. Scale vs. specificity.
Of course, I'm not just talking about a few beautiful sites; I could put those in a bookmark folder and check 'em every so often. I'm talking about the rapidly-growing regime of words and images as portable, style-free info-bundles—which has a lot going for it!—vs. a world where words and images are fundamentally linked to their design and context, because without them they'd just be lame quotes in a Google Reader window.
Make It More Swedish, Will You?
What happens when mass-market book stores don't matter as much anymore?
Fun Work Could Mean Free Work
Snarkmarket (along with others) has been talking recently about the economic model implicit in the free release of New Liberal Arts and the deliberately limited revenue realized from its sale. As one of the authors of that book, I was conscious going into the project that I wouldn't be paid for my contribution, no matter how successful or influential the book might become—and with the release of Chris Anderson's book "Free: The Future of a Radical Price," this seems like a good time to discuss working for free.
Virginia Postrel's review of "Free" in the New York Times ends with the following paragraphs:
"No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money," Samuel Johnson said, and that attitude has had a good two-century run. But the Web is full of blockheads, whether they're rate-busting amateurs or professionals trawling for speaking gigs. All this free stuff raises the real standard of living, by making it ever easier for people to find entertainment, information and communication that pleases them.
Business strategy, however, seeks not only to create but to capture value. Free is about a phenomenon in which almost all the new value goes to consumers, not producers. It is false to assume that no price means no value. But it is equally false to argue that value implies profitability.
This is true as far as it goes, but I think it's more interesting as a starting point than an ending point. In particular, I feel like it misses the non-monetary value that work produces for those who do it.
Most of us, if we're fortunate, derive some form of value from the work we do, above and beyond the pay we receive. We enjoy working, or we enjoy the status that results from doing a certain kind of work—being widely recognized as a scholarly authority or having our ideas praised by people we respect and admire. To the extent that this intrinsic value is higher than the monetary value we could receive for doing something else, we will happily work for less or work for free, because the non-economic rewards are so significant.
Now, in the previous economic paradigm, it was possible to do work that you would have done for less or for free and still be paid well for it, because it was too much trouble for your employers/clients to find someone who could do the work as well and for free. But the internet drastically reduces that barrier. Imagine trying to find people to write a computer operating system and all the associated applications without expecting payment before the internet—now look at Linux.
I wonder if we're heading toward an economy where, to put it bluntly, people don't get paid for doing fun things. If something is fun—for someone in the world who finds it fun enough to become good at it, and to do it without expecting pay—it will no longer pay.
In this world, people still work for money, maybe 20 hours a week, but they don't really derive happiness from their jobs (if their job was something that people enjoyed doing, like playing in a symphony or writing poetry, it wouldn't pay—someone would be doing it for free*). They spend the rest of their time doing things for free, things that produce tremendous creative value for themselves and for others, but form a gift economy outside the normal capitalist economy.
I think most creative, intellectual, and information-oriented pursuits would end up on the free side of that divide—which is not to devalue them at all. Rather, I think that clarity about the kinds of rewards you could expect from each activity could lessen a lot of the anxiety about "how will I make a living as a writer, journalist, playwright, composer?" Maybe you won't—and that's okay.
*When I say "free," I don't necessarily mean $0.00. You might still earn some token payments for your creative effort, but not enough to contribute in a meaningful way to your income—a few hundred dollars a year, perhaps.
File under: Media Galaxy, Society/Culture, Technosnark
Today and Tomorrow: SECRETS REVEALED!!
So, at this point you know that I really, really like today and tomorrow. I feel like this is sorta my prototypical t&t link: presented without comment, and mostly just awed that he found it in the first place. That's what's most impressive to me about the blog: I see stuff there that I haven't seen anywhere else. Sometimes I get the feeling t&t is plugged into some other internet—some other, cooler internet.
Anyway, when I noticed that the blog was celebrating its fourth anniversary, I thought it might be a good occasion to coax Pieter, its proprietor, into giving me the password to his secret web.
(Snarkmarket) You live in Berlin; what do you do there? What kind of things do you work on besides today and tomorrow?
(today and tomorrow) I work in the digital department of an advertising agency. today and tomorrow started as my personal visual bookmarks, which it actually still is. Somehow I want to add a few items a day, so I have to invest quite some time finding them. And Berlin is a great city to spend the rest of my spare time.
My reaction to a today and tomorrow post is basically always the same: "Where did he find this??" So... where do you find it all? Is it simply from scouring other blogs? Are there any aggregators that you find useful? Any other go-to sources?
There are five sources for my content: my feedreader, bookmarks, browsing, emails, and offline.
When I find something on another blog, I mention it at the bottom of the post. So you should be able to recreate my feedreader pretty fast. And I can tell you, it's a very full feedreader.
I scroll really fast through my feeds, so if the title and the visual of an item don't catch my eye in second, it's gone. Most feeds are blogs, mixed with some news sites and even feeds from artists, architects, designers... I'm always disappointed when a good website doesn't have a feed.
Of course I still have a few bookmarks.
But some items I just find by browsing and searching the internet, or even offline...
I receive a lot of emails; I can't even reply to all of them anymore. But only a few of them make it on today and tomorrow. Strangely, I like it better when I find things myself.
I don't like aggregators anymore, especially those where everyone can post. It's not really cool to reblog your posts on those sites just to get some traffic to yours.
Some of my favorites:
Building on that last question: I feel like I see art on today and tomorrow that I don't see anywhere else. Where do you find it, and what's your personal filter for new art? Do you look for things that are creating buzz in the art world? Things that are just visually arresting? Something else entirely?
I visit a lot of websites of art galleries and there you can find the new and unknown artists. When I find an artist that I like, I google them and get to the next page where I find another interesting artist... and so on.
The filter is a very easy one: me. If the work doesn't catch me in second...
I never add something because there is a buzz around it, but it's possible that I found them because there was a buzz around them.
I guess you can tell that most of it is very visual work, I probably miss out on a lot of good work because I don't take the time for it. Others are about the material used, like kinetic sculptures made with ferro-fluids.
today and tomorrow is not an art or design news blog, otherwise I would cover anything what's going. today and tomorrow is a reflection of my personal taste.
In the Year 3000 They'll Wonder: Why Do All Books Have Soundtracks?
Wouldn't it be funny if the next-gen e-book arrived... as album liner notes?
July 26, 2009
A Happy Marriage
There are a lot of book recommendations coming up this week. Here's a small one to start:
Most of all, I enjoyed his rendering of New York in the 70s; it felt like a dream. I think that's the point, because the early-2000s story he cuts back and forth to is, on the contrary, entirely real, and entirely harrowing.
There are books that you plow ahead with, fulfilling your readerly duty, and then there are books that hold your attention—books with a certain magnetism, or gravity. A Happy Marriage has both.
Oh and P.S.: I read it on the Kindle.
What Do You Buy When You Buy a Kindle?
I actually think Nicholson Baker's assessment here is pretty fair:
Here's what you buy when you buy a Kindle book. You buy the right to display a grouping of words in front of your eyes for your private use with the aid of an electronic display device approved by Amazon.
I used to tell people that you should buy the Kindle if (and only if) you satisfy all of these conditions:
- You read a lot.
- You travel at least a medium amount.
- You are interested in all this meta-media, future-of-books stuff at least a little bit.
But now, with the availability of the Kindle iPhone app, and the promise of Barnes & Noble's new gambit in partnership with Plastic Logic... I'm not sure. I think I'm going to change my Kindle recommendation from BUY to HOLD.
I'm definitely glad I have one, but you can tell this whole thing is just getting started.
Oh yes. These Swedish book covers are quite fun.
I'd play a video game featuring these characters.
And I sorta desperately want to know the plot of this one. Mad moose attacks?
Suicide in Shenzen
After being interrogated by his factory managers for losing an iPhone prototype, Sun Danyong jumped from the twelfth floor of his dormitory at 3:33 A.M., on July 16th. He left behind a poignant electronic trail that provides one of the most revealing views that I can remember into life in the factories of southern China: who works where, why, and in what conditions. Much of this remains unconfirmed, but the dramatic story contained in text messages, instant messages, and bulletin-board posts would never have been recorded ten years ago.
The rest of the post is really fascinating; recommended.
The Uniform Makes the Mind
So, James Fallows is talking about the Department of Homeland Security, and one of his readers writes in to suggest a very simple improvement:
Yes, the name "Homeland Security" is simply horrible, but the clothes may be the real problem. This may sound frivolous, but I don't think it is. The issue is boots. Combat boots. Boots with pants tucked in and "bloused." Black boots with thick soles. Swat teams wear them, and now Border Patrol folks routinely do. Coast Guard folks wear them, when they used not to. I believe that wearing military-type boots instead of shoes tends to make the wearer feel more military and therefore more aggressive. Customs agents used not to take undocumented people off ferries that don't cross international borders, but they took people off internal Washington State ferries last year. Coast Guard personnel used to be regarded as people who helped boaters, but now they wear boots and talk like fighters.
One great way to civilize Homeland Security would be to confiscate the boots and reissue shoes.
The boots! (Emphasis mine.)
This got me thinking: To what degree do all kinds of uniforms affect the behavior of their wearers in all sorts of ways? Yesterday, Molly Young came at it from a different direction:
The nurse's uniform of scrubs has always appeared materially and figuratively ill-fitting to me. I know there are practical considerations to factor in, but there are also psychic ones. Our uniforms dictate how we move and act, after all.
Police wear broad-shouldered mono-colored tool-belted outfits because it is practical but also because it lends swagger and enlarges their stature. Doctors are no longer required to wear white coats, but I trust a doctor more when he does.
Why, then, do nurses wear pajamas? Wouldn't they feel more efficient in crisp pant-and-blouse combos? Wouldn't their movements be more assured? It is hard not to shuffle in scrubs. It is also hard not to slouch.
(Emphasis mine again.)
We can extend it even further. Think of the "uniforms" of New York and Silicon Valley: suits vs. sandals. How do those divergent skins affect the way you think about yourself and your work? When you put on a uniform, official or otherwise, you're not just putting on a pair of pants. You're putting on an arsenal of signals and assumptions—many of them hard-won over decades or centuries by other wearers of the same duds.
When you put on a uniform, you're summoning some of that spirit to your side! Jeez, it's like a pagan ritual if you think about it that way. "O great god of hipster awesomeness, aid me this day. Lend me thy credibility. I constrict my thighs in thy name." Scrrrunch.
Is there a good history of clothing out there? Clothing is technology, after all—one of our very first. And if you think about it that way, we've been cyborgs for a long time: the boundary between body and technology blurred. And I like the idea that, like any body part, clothing doesn't just do our bidding, but provides feedback, too—it has imperatives of its own.
And now we've got people working on smart clothes laced with conductive thread. (There's a diagram in the book on the other side of that link that explains how to turn a button into, uh, a button. You know, for turning things on and off. Cool.) In decades, or a century, are we going to think, jeez, how could those people stand to lurch around in sheaths of dumb fiber? The whole point of clothes is that they connect you to everything around you. My shirt is my iPhone.
But I'm getting a bit off-track, here. Even today, our clothes are anything but dumb. They actually communicate a lot more, and a lot more effectively, than most of us do on our own. And, just as importantly, they deeply influence our behavior along the way.
This is all to say: I'm on board with Fallows' correspondent. Let's get those guards out of boots.
July 25, 2009
Just Another Walk Down the Aisle
Just watch this video. There are many subtle things to like about it, but I don't want to give away the surprise. You won't have to wait long; the fun starts at 0:30.
July 24, 2009
A freak solar event "sterilizes" the half of the planet (people, animals, etc) facing the sun. What happens?
Okay, it's weird and bleak. But I think devoting even a few minutes of hard thought to bizarre scenarios can make you a much better thinker. It's counterfactual cross-training.
By way of analogy: I always tell people that blogging is useful, even if nobody's reading, because it forces you to have an opinion on things. You don't realize how blankly you experience most of the stuff you read every day until you force yourself to say something—even something very simple—about it.
So I think regularly engaging in a bit of counterfactual thinking can provide the same benefit—and maybe on a more macro scale. The trick is to be realistic: You're not trying to dream up a pithy one-liner, but rather a sequence of headlines that you really think might unfurl over the course of days, weeks, years.
Tyler Cowen thinks this kind of thinking is useful, too:
To some of you these mental exercises may seem silly. Indeed they are silly. But what's wrong with silly? Such questions get at the stability of social order, the sources of that stability, and the general importance of demography and intergenerational relations. Those are all topics we don't think enough about. Because we're not silly enough.
And click through to see what he thinks happens next.
Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy
There's a great scene in Star Trek IV - yes, the one where the crew travels back in time to save whales - where Scotty, the engineer, tries to control a Macintosh by talking to it. When McCoy hands him the mouse, he speaks into it, in a sweetly coaxing voice: "Hello, computer!" When he's told to use the keyboard ("How quaint!"), he irritably cracks his knuckles -- and hunts-and-pecks at Warp 1 to pull up the specs for "transparent aluminum."
As recently as 2000, it seemed inevitable that any minute now, we were going to be able to turn in our quaint keyboards and start controlling computers with our voice. Our computers were going to become just like our telephones, or even better, like our secretaries. But while voice and speech recognition and commands have gotten a lot better, generally the trend has been in the other direction - instead of talking to our computers, we're typing on our phones.
(Which is arguably the hidden message of Scotty and the Mac - even somebody with the most powerful voice-controlled computer in the galaxy can touch-type like a champ. He probably only talks to the computer so his hands are free to text his friends while he's engineering! "brb - needed on away team" -- "anyone know how to recrystallize dilithium" -- That's why he's so inventive! He's crowdsourcing!)
The return to speech, in all of its immediacy, after centuries of the technological dominance of writing, seemed inevitable. The phonograph, film, radio, and television all seemed to point towards a future dominated by communications technology where writing and reading played an increasingly diminished role. I think the most important development, though, was probably the telephone. Ordinary speech, conversation, in real-time, where space itself appeared to vanish. It created a paradigm not just for media theorists and imaginative futurists but for ordinary people to imagine tomorrow.
This was Marshall McLuhan's "global village" - a media and politics where the limitations of speech across place and time were virtually eliminated. Walter Ong called it "secondary orality" - we were seeing a return to a culture dominated by oral communication that wasn't QUITE like the primary orality of nonliterate cultures - it was mediated by writing, by print, and by the technologies and media of the new orality themselves.
“When I first used the term ‘secondary orality,’ I was thinking of the kind of orality you get on radio and television, where oral performance produces effects somewhat like those of ‘primary orality,’ the orality using the unprocessed human voice, particularly in addressing groups, but where the creation of orality is of a new sort. Orality here is produced by technology. Radio and television are ‘secondary’ in the sense that they are technologically powered, demanding the use of writing and other technologies in designing and manufacturing the machines which reproduce voice. They are thus unlike primary orality, which uses no tools or technology at all. Radio and television provide technologized orality. This is what I originally referred to by the term ‘secondary orality.’
I have also heard the term ‘secondary orality’ lately applied by some to other sorts of electronic verbalization which are really not oral at all—to the Internet and similar computerized creations for text. There is a reason for this usage of the term. In nontechnologized oral interchange, as we have noted earlier, there is no perceptible interval between the utterance of the speaker and the hearer’s reception of what is uttered. Oral communication is all immediate, in the present. Writing, chirographic or typed, on the other hand, comes out of the past. Even if you write a memo to yourself, when you refer to it, it’s a memo which you wrote a few minutes ago, or maybe two weeks ago. But on a computer network, the recipient can receive what is communicated with no such interval. Although it is not exactly the same as oral communication, the network message from one person to another or others is very rapid and can in effect be in the present. Computerized communication can thus suggest the immediate experience of direct sound. I believe that is why computerized verbalization has been assimilated to secondary ‘orality,’ even when it comes not in oral-aural format but through the eye, and thus is not directly oral at all. Here textualized verbal exchange registers psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange. To handle [page break] such technologizing of the textualized word, I have tried occasionally to introduce the term ‘secondary literacy.’ We are not considering here the production of sounded words on the computer, which of course are even more readily assimilated to ‘secondary orality’” (80-81).
This is where most of the futurists got it wrong - the impact of radio, television, and the telephone weren't going to be solely or even primarily on more and more speech, but, for technical or cultural or who-knows-exactly-what reasons, on writing! We didn't give up writing - we put it in our pockets, took it outside, blended it with sound, pictures, and video, and sent it over radio waves so we could "talk" to our friends in real-time. And we used those same radio waves to download books and newspapers and everything else to our screens so we would have something to talk about.
This is the thing about literacy today, that needs above all not to be misunderstood. Both the people who say that reading/writing have declined and that reading/writing are stronger than ever are right, and wrong. It's not a return to the word, unchanged. It's a literacy transformed by the existence of the electronic media that it initially has nothing in common with. It's also transformed by all the textual forms - mail, the newspaper, the book, the bulletin board, etc. It's not purely one thing or another.
This reminds me of one of my favorite Jacques Derrida quotes, from his essay "The Book to Come":
What we are dealing with are never replacements that put an end to what they replace but rather, if I might use this word today, restructurations in which the oldest form survives, and even survives endlessly, coexisting with the new form and even coming to terms with the new economy --- which is also a calculation in terms of the market as well as in terms of storage, capital, and reserves.
I doubt that "secondary literacy" will catch on, because it sounds like something that middle school English teachers do. But that's too bad - because it's actually a pretty good term to describe the world we live in.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Media Galaxy, Object Culture, Technosnark
Showdown in the Public Domain
I'm a little late to the party on this, but I love it:
- Some new Jamba Juice ads rip off "Get Your War On."
- David Rees issues a funny call-to-arms.
- But this is my favorite part: What's the law at work here? Is it copyright, even though "Get Your War On" is built on public-domain clip art? Is it trademark? "Trade dress"? Things get nerdy, fast, and I like it.
Oh man, how can I get in on the alpha test for this? Rhonda, a crazy hybrid 2D/3D drawing app.
New Liberal Arts in the Boston Phoenix
Woohoo! Mike Miliard provides a fine write-up, complete with commentary from Tim, in the Boston Phoenix.
July 22, 2009
This Is Not CGI
Found this via Ezra Klein, whose admonishment to watch all the way to the end for the Pixar-worthy octopus feat is worth heeding:
Love the rough-textured, rainbow-bright work of Edward McGowan.
Wednesday Comics Report
So I did go out and snag Wednesday Comics, as I mentioned. My verdict? Beautiful, inventive, and fatally flawed.
But the flaw is so simple! You see, Wednesday Comics #1 is comprised of sixteen giant pages. And each of those pages is a separate story. This renders it almost completely unreadable. Just as you build up a modicum of reading momentum—TO BE CONTINUED. And they're not even good to-be-continueds, because really, how could they be? Nothing has happened yet!
It's only worth mentioning because the whole thing would have been so sublime if they'd simply focused each issue on two or four stories instead of sixteen. I'm sure there's some sort of production logic at work here—Paul Pope is still madly scribbling out the back half of his Adam Strange story somewhere—but even so. The product, as is, is broken. It's fine fodder for "trends in media!" talk—and you know I love that—but as an actual reading experience it's no fun. Fresh formats are great, but you gotta get the fundamentals right, too.
However! A super-jumbo-sized trade paperback, collecting all of the issues, released around Christmastime, would be a fine thing indeed. I'll wait for that—and buy it with relish.
Lev Grossman's notes from Azkatraz, the giant Harry Potter convention held right here in San Francisco this weekend past. Here's an interesting hypothesis on the conjoined history of Harry Potter and the internet:
There was a great panel on the history of Harry Potter fandom online, starring Melissa Anelli, founder of The Leaky Cauldron and author of Harry: A History. She made an interesting point, which is that because Harry and the Internet both became massive mainstream phenomena at around the same time, and because Harry fans are kind of amazingly determined and resourceful, they wound up establishing a lot of the rules and social forms of online fandom in general. Harry Potter fandom is now the template for all future fandoms.
There are only so many delicious, refreshing Harry Potter-themed novelty cocktails I can drink and still feel like a man. There is no hangover like a Felix Felicis hangover.
My friend Scot just posted his stop-motion opus. It's one of those wonderful animations where heretofore inanimate objects—in this case, old camera parts—come to life, golem-like.
Two things worth mentioning:
- It's not a one-trick pony. This animation keeps surprising you with new scenes, new visual ideas.
- Notice how good, and how crucial, the sound design is!
Check it out: The Falcon.
July 21, 2009
Listen, I know you subscribe to today and tomorrow too, so I should stop posting links here, because of course you have seen them already. But come on, aughhh where does he get this stuff? So beautiful and unexpected.
Sword of Pulitzer Prize-Winning +1
If you haven't read The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao yet, you gotta. This is the only book I've ever read where I understood all of the allusions. That is because they were allusions to Superman, the D&D Monster Manual, and Darkseid's Omega effect. And it all opens with a line worthy of a Star Wars-style crawl:
They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.
Oh man, just reading that makes me want to go through the whole book again.
Anyway, I mention it because there's a terrific interview with Junot Díaz up at Guernica. It's very long and nuanced—and it finally reveals the secret origin of Oscar Wao:
Junot Díaz: That's a far better story. No, I mean, the details are okay: I was living in Mexico City, I had a group of dudes and young sisters who liked to get together—we liked to go dancing, we liked to go drinking. One night I was out very late, this was like five months, no, maybe like four months into my trip. It was very late, and we were over at a friend's house; the guy's house who I was at turned out to—in the future—turned out to be a very famous Mexican actor. But that night we were just all hanging out and it was a bunch of Mexican bohemians and me and my Guatemalan buddy. And one of these Mexican cats just pulled a book off a shelf and just cornered me and was like, "My favorite writer in the world." He was telling me, "My favorite writer in the world is Oscar Wao, I love Oscar Wao, Oscar Wao is brilliant." And I was dying because I knew he meant Oscar Wilde. That's where the book began. After that party I went home and I laid in bed, and I suddenly had this idea of this fore-cursed family. This idea of this awkward fat boy and this idea that this family would be cursed in love, that they would have great trouble finding love. You know it just felt like a real good kind of novella, telenovela type plot. I just thought, "Hey, I can work with this, you know, I can really change this into something else."
I love chains of ideas—whole works—that start like that, sparked by a single phrase, or best of all, a name. I've got a couple.
July 20, 2009
You're Gonna Need New Drivers for That Font
Oh get out of town.
The letter-forms for a new typeface, traced out by a plucky little Toyota curling and careening below a camera. Just watch the videos.
And now you can even download the font arghhh every nerd neuron is firing at once!
The Trinitron Uprising of 2009
Aha. Television's master plan, finally laid bare.
You know what they say: In Soviet Russia... television watches you.
Media and the Moon
Wow. Props to Slate; this video is sharp, funny, and deflating. It answers the question: How would TV news cover the moon landing if it happened today? Sigh—the sad thing is, I think they've got it right.
July 19, 2009
Build Me a Bridge to the Stars
Tom Wolfe on NASA's philosopher deficit. Resisted a blockquote, because the whole thing has a pleasing arc and totality.
Mark Sample spots a review of a David Foster Wallace collection authored by a Don Delillo character. McSweeney's? Nope. It was published in the book review section of the academic journal Modernism/Modernity.
Update: M/M editor Lawrence Rainey and former managing editor Nicole Devarenne 'fess up [kinda] in an open letter to Mark.
July 18, 2009
The Post-Orwellian Future of Connected Books and Everything Else
This is the post where I tell you I don't really mind that Amazon yanked "1984" from all those Kindles.
The backstory: Unauthorized editions of "Animal Farm" and "1984" were available, briefly, for sale in the Kindle store. At some point Amazon discovered this and removed them from the store, and also—this is the important part—from people's Kindles. The NYT quotes an Amazon rep: "When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers' devices, and refunded customers."
The poetry of the fact that this happened with "1984" is irresistible. And, to be clear, I agree with Jason Kottke when he says: This stinks like old cheese! It's obviously creepy in a lot of ways—and Amazon, for its part, has conceded that it was a bad decision.
But, here's the thought experiment that occurred to me: Imagine that this story didn't seem creepy. Or at least, didn't seem particularly noteworthy.
For that to be true, what kind of world would we have to be living in?
I think it looks something like this:
Nothing is sold as a static, flash-frozen object anymore. Instead, you buy things with the assumption they'll get better and better over time. In fact, one of the ways you weigh competing brands is by asking: Who has a better track record of upgrades?
- Each iPhone OS upgrade is basically like getting a new phone.
- Every month, your Prius downloads new fuel-management software, and its mileage steadily improves. (And there's an ongoing, Netflix-style competition to improve that software.)
- One day, your Oster blender beeps, because it now has a new blend mode. Puree 2.0!
Now, if that's true for objects, you know it's true for media. You don't buy tracks or albums, shows or movies anymore. It's all included in subscriptions to big libraries that are always growing.
There are many big, competing subscription services, and like the phone carriers, each is notorious for a different level of coverage and service. Apple has the widest coverage, but it also faces the sharpest legal challenges. One week, all the Bollywood movies will be blacked out on iTunes; the next week, after the dispute is settled, they'll be back. It's annoying in the same way that only getting one bar of reception in your neighborhood is annoying, and we've come to live with it.
There are lots of smaller sub services, too, most with some specific selling point: a deep jazz library, say, or the complete collection of 80s cartoons. Most people subscribe to many.
Generally, the pattern goes:
- Some new service springs to life in a blaze of publicity.
- People rush to join.
- They enjoy it for several years.
- The media starts to seem lo-rez, or it's not compatible with the newest devices, or some contract runs out.
- It shuts down.
But by the time 5 happens, there's a new 1 somewhere else. The migration from sub service to sub service is a hassle, but at least it's easier than switching insurance companies.
You'd better believe that repressive regimes are paying attention to who's watching what on the sub services in their jurisdictions. The media that doesn't live comfortably in this world is, therefore, the controversial and the political; too often, the tether feels like a trip-wire. So there are times and places when you want to truly download something—want to save a local, static, disconnected copy—and it tends to feel a bit cloak-and-dagger when you do.
(Several movie studios have been called out for trying to distribute their movies on these nonsub networks in order to create buzz—"playing at moral seriousness," one critic said.)
In this world, Googlezon's sub service for books is completely awesome.
For $4.99 a month (how can it be that low??) you get full access to all books ever printed, period. And even better: Because readers are always connected, whether it's a browser, a special app, or a device, each one of these books is surrounded with metadata about how people read them. There's a graph on every Googlezon book page showing how far people got before losing interest; it's a much more revealing review than the star rating.
Because books are all downloaded (or re-downloaded) at the time of reading, you're always looking at the very latest version. This capability creates a new expectation, and writing non-fiction is suddenly a lot more like blogging, or shepherding a Wikipedia page: your book always needs attention. It's a lot more work, actually, and you still don't make very much money.
You'd think fiction wouldn't be as deeply affected. You'd be wrong. The hot new literary form is the "living novel," constantly being re-written in real-time. This is exciting in a lot of ways; it's also frustrating. You read a section that moves you, and you want to share it with a friend—but by the time she gets to it, it's gone, replaced by some weird passage about the history of beekeeping.
And when you open your reader, you see the same thing. The section you liked has vanished. Beekeeping. Damn it.
Actually, yeah, it's really frustrating.
But it's hard to stop. Writers, especially young writers who grew up with the web, love the ability to revisit and re-edit text. It feels natural. The argument goes: "Why wouldn't I make it better? What's with this fetishization of the 'final draft'? If you want a static version so badly—print one out. But don't tell me to stop editing."
Remember that graph on every Googlezon book page that shows how far people got? In this world, every writer is addicted to that graph. "Okay, it dips at chapter three... I can tighten that up. I can keep them going." There are cautionary tales, here—writers who get "lost in the loop" and never publish a new novel because they're too busy optimizing the old ones—but there are also new books more widely-read than any in the last 50 years. The tether is a powerful tool not just for commerce, but for creativity.
And yes: The tether also means Googlezon can yank books from the shelves, and therefore from your life, at any time. There are, of course, sneaky ways to copy and save them, but there's not a huge market for the copies, simply because it's so easy to get them the legit way.
So last week, in this world, rogue editions of "Animal Farm" and "1984" were remotely deleted from a variety of reading apps and devices. It was annoying—especially for the people in the middle of reading them—but really, no more annoying than a dropped call or a momentary power outage. People routed around the damage; they found other editions and resumed reading.
And the record of that reading—page turn by page turn—flowed up through the air and into the network. It curled through a monitoring hub in Beijing, and one in Fort Meade. It glimmered across a dashboard on the desk of an assistant book editor in New York. And it found its way, finally, to Googlezon's library—a library no longer made up only, or even mostly, of books, but now, somehow, of reading itself.
How do you feel about this world?
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy, Technosnark
When Poptimism Meets Pessimism
One of my favorite "pop music meets pop culture" writers is Tom Ewing, who writes the "Poptimist" column for Pitchfork. Ewing's posts have a way of generally filtering into the cultural conversation without him necessarily getting a lot of direct credit - for example, he beat Paul Constant to the punch back in May by writing an essay on Twitter in 140-character paragraphs.
Ewing's newest column smartly juxtaposes the decline of the relevance of the Top 40 (particularly in the UK) with a certain strand of newspaper pessimism. I particularly like his definition of pop music as "a fragmented cross-section of popular culture squeezed into a tiny space, and the act of squeezing-- when things were working-- filled that space with energy and fizz."
Well worth reading the whole thing - here's a relevant sample:
Far more people worry about the decline of newspapers than the decline of the British pop charts, but their plight is comparable. Both packaged worlds of content into small things and let the different elements fight for attention. Both also enjoyed audiences who had to consume a whole to get at the parts they liked. Okay, a newspaper reader could skip over the sections they didn't care about more easily than a radio listener could, but still a good headline might turn that half-second flicker of disinterest into attention. And in that half-second chance lived serendipity and argument.
For serendipity to happen you have to be able to give people what they don't want-- or don't think they want-- as well as what they do.
Maybe that's a utopian conception of the newspaper as well as the Top 40 -- but it seems like all we do is trade in utopian conceptions. Let's kick this one around for a while.
July 17, 2009
The Fine Art of the Cut
Check out this reel of short, stark animations. You know what makes it work for me? The sudden cuts to black. Almost every single one of the animations cuts out before you've seen enough. It's totally addictive! Talk about snack-sized media.
Like, this part here, "The Mad Gremlin"—it's barely an animation at all. More of a moving comic book panel. Really dig it.
Apparently it's related to this game—Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet!
Settlers of Snarkmarket
This is a great idea! Gamecrafter is Lulu for board games.
And particularly I'm excited by the idea of a custom, one-off board game—talk about the ultimate Christmas present.
They'll even sell you the pawns.
This is the last day that Hilzoy will be blogging at Obsidian Wings and Washington Monthly. I don't think everyone yet realizes what we as her readers are losing. As I wrote to Matt after we heard the news, "she wasn't the most famous political blogger; she was just the best."
A philosopher by training, she was compelled to blog in 2002 by what she saw as the craziness of the country then - not just the bad policies of the government, but brutal invective against anyone who doubted or wanted to debate them. Now, it's calmer. As she wrote in her farewell post:
There are lots of people I disagree with, and lots of things I really care about, and even some people who seem to me to have misplaced their sanity, but the country as a whole does not seem to me to be crazy any more. Also, it has been nearly five years since I started. And so it seems to me that it's time for me to turn back into a pumpkin and twelve white mice.
One of the things that's sad for me, though, is that while Hilzoy was particularly fierce, patient, and logical in her approach to Big Issues In Politics, she was also attentive to things that typically draw much less attention. For example, her post on the unseriousness of Sarah Palin's resignation pivots from smart but general things (government is serious business, a lame-duck governor can actually usually do more to affect policy than one who needs to secure re-election) to a very specific policy issue, with data to back it up:
As of 2007 (the most recent data I could find), Alaska was the fourth worst of 45 states reporting when it came to keeping kids from being abused in their foster homes -- the homes they're given to keep them safe from abuse and neglect. Alaska's child protective services were the fifth worst in the nation at keeping kids from undergoing repeat abuse, the third worst in response time, and the sixth worst in terms of the time from an initial report of child abuse to receipt of services...
Foster care is one of those issues that liberals and conservatives ought to agree on. Kids are not responsible for being abused or neglected. They can't just take care of themselves. And someone like Sarah Palin, who is forever talking about fighting for our children, might be expected to work at this. If she was looking for a way to spend her time other than taking junkets at taxpayer expense, it might have occurred to her to fix Alaska's foster care system so that it really took care of Alaska's kids.
If I had to put a label on Hilzoy's best virtue as a blogger, it was this insistence on moral seriousness. Some of this was rooted in a basic respect for due diligence in policy decisions - see her blistering comments on the origins of the enhanced interrogation program. After all, she was a professional philosopher, who took reasoning and evidence seriously. One of my favorite posts of hers in this vein was her takedown of EO Wilson's Atlantic Monthly article on biology and morality. She just knew her stuff cold.
But I think it was also rooted in her deep empathy for people who were abused, powerless, without recourse technical arguments as a means to solve their problems. She was also unafraid to interject her own experiences into the discussion. See her rebuttal to David Brooks's complaint when a politician had grabbed his leg, which Brooks read as a signal that the code of dignity governing interactions had slipped away.
News flash: This has been happening to people forever, at least if you count women as people. Back when George Washington was writing out his "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation", which Brooks cites as an example of the Dignity Code, Thomas Jefferson was hitting on Sally Hemings. A professor whose class I was enrolled in once grabbed my breasts at a party. Every woman I know has stories like this. Maybe being groped in a public setting is a novel experience for straight guys; not being a straight guy, I wouldn't know. But if it is, that isn't because no one ever groped anyone in a public setting before.
What can I say: nobody knows if hilzoy's retirement will be like Jay-Z's. I doubt it will be like Brett Favre's, because she's too deliberate to mess around with a decision like this. I do hope that we'll be seeing her writing on politics and morality in some popular forum - because she is the real thing. And we need that.
July 16, 2009
The Robots of Wall Street
Story idea, spurred by an odd and entertaining NYT op-ed.
Yes, everybody knows that these days, most trades on Wall Street are between computer programs. But that's such a lame generalization. What kind of computer programs? What's the taxonomy? What do they look like?
The story would basically be a slide-show. Each slide would focus on one flavor of financial app. It would feature, ideally, an actual screen grab—fully annotated—or if that's not available, a wireframe, based on descriptions and sketches.
It's likely that many of these apps don't have user interfaces at all, because they don't have users. They're trading daemons—headless market-makers. In that case, I want to know how they think. Imagine a diagram of the basic logic loop that propels a trading-bot through the day. I'm not looking for Goldman Sachs' secret sauce, here; I want computational finance 101.
The screen-grabs are the key, though. Maybe I'm weird, but honestly, I'm sorta desperate to know what this program looks like:
[...] the finance industry’s standard software for structuring bonds based on pools of mortgages (yes, you may have heard of the unhappy consequences of this process) [...]
This is one of my favorite kinds of stories (in theory) because a) this knowledge is all out there, and widely distributed—just not crisply packaged, and b) to lots of people, what I'm suggesting would sound completely absurd and boring, because "the finance industry's standard software for [etc., etc.]" is just the terrible, frustrating program they use in their job every day. Yes! Both are good signs: It means there's an opportunity for journalistic arbitrage!
ProPublica in Perspective
I've been semi-following ProPublica, and I'm an unabashed Amanda Michel fan, so I found this review of the organization's work-to-date helpful. Bonus: It's written by Bill Rappley, Mediaite's 85-year-old columnist. Talk about context.
A Genealogy of Tape
After I followed Robin's link to the photos of the Apollo 11 astronauts, I wondered, "why don't we have ticker tape parades any more?" Of course, it's because lower Manhattan isn't swimming in ticker tape. We've got the words (a change in a stock price is still called an uptick or downtick) but the telegraph-and-paper-strip-printing machines are long gone.
On Metafilter, someone asked: "How long will it take to remove the word 'videotape' from the collective vocabulary?"
I caught myself yesterday asking somebody if his performance was videotaped. Of course, there is no tape involved in this process any more. Why was that the first phrase that sprang to mind even though "recorded" or "digitally recorded" are the technically accurate terms? How long does it take for language to catch up with technological obsolescence?
The short answer is that it doesn't. Virtually nothing in language goes away, so long as it's rooted sufficiently deep - it just restructures itself. Tape is a great example of this. The ticker tape era closed; the magnetic tape era opened. Tape itself went nowhere. Even the meaning of the noun - a thin, flat strip of material - didn't change. The verb did; "tape" no longer meant "to shower with paper" - that would be "TP" - it means (or meant) to record or to stick. It doesn't matter what the tape is made from, either. Tape used to just mean "ribbon," especially a cloth ribbon used to tie clothing or parcels - but that sense is now mostly displaced by tape made of paper, cellophane, and metal.
The great thing about tape is that it shuns whatever qualifiers you want to put on it, and it's still perfectly clear what it means. Tape is equally adhesive tape, audio tape, video tape, paper tape, surgical tape, the tape at the end of a race. And it always means both the physical strip of tape itself, its container, and its contents, as well as the act of putting the tape into use.
Are there other words that carry the same grammatical structures regardless of their contents? It's almost like speakers intuitively assume, "well, if 'tape' is going to mean a ribbon AND to tie that ribbon, then it HAS to mean the sticky tape AND the act of sticking it, the magnetic tape AND the act of recording to it," etc. We're effortlessly swapping contexts all the time.
Claude Lévi-Strauss called this qualiy of language bricolage - instead of starting from scratch, we fiddle with language, we tinker with it, we make do with the parts we have on hand, like using a key to open a package or a knife to unscrew a screw. Or a piece of duct tape to fix a car. A word like tape can stretch and stick to whatever we need it to.
The great tapes that never became tapes are film reels. Celluloid and acetate film is tape, folks. But celluloid is a product that was derived from an evaporation of the collodion film that was used on glass plates in wet-plate photography. So they called it film, instead.
What's the future of tape? Will the future find need for long, thin ribbons of material? Will 3M find a way to do away with the strips bearing the adhesive altogether? Are wipes the new tape? I'm not sure. But I've got a Beckett play and an 8-Track of Five Leaves Left. I'll catch you guys in the basement.
No, Faster! No, Slower!
One of the things I like about video on computers—vs. video on tapes and decks—is that the framerate is so much more flexible. 24fps? Sure. 60fps? Why not! 17fps? Let's give it a try.
Now of course, on a computer, all of this is still gated by the lockstep refresh of the monitor. So there's still a rigid rate being imposed at some point.
But that's not so for film, and it was especially flexible in the old days, before things got standardized. Images were captured, and played back, at all sorts of crazy framerates—and people argued about it!
I like this bit, noted by Mike Migurski:
On the active role of the projectionist: A 1915 projectionist's handbook declared -- in emphatic capitals -- 'THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SET CAMERA SPEED!' The correct speed of projection, it added, is the speed at which each individual scene was taken -- 'which may -- and often does -- vary wildly.' And it declared: 'One of the highest functions of projection is to watch the screen and regulate the speed of projection to synchronise with the speed of taking.'
Like a ship's navigator keeping a hand on the wheel. Cool.
Here's a thought experiment. Could we come up with some kind of gadget that "re-physicalizes" digital video so we could have this kind of fun again? Maybe it flashes images onto a re-writable strip of film. Maybe it's an Arduino-powered kinetoscope with images rendered in E Ink!
I think DC's Wednesday Comics project sounds really fun. Every week this summer, there's a new issue—and even though each one sits on the shelf at normal comic-book-size, it actually folds out twice to 28" × 20". That is big. Seems like it would feel really exciting to get one in your hands... sit down... slowly unfold it... "Whoah! Batman!"
Each issue has a bunch of stories from various writers and artists. Here's a peek at Paul Pope's contribution, starring Adam Strange.
Here's my beef: Why can't I order these online? Or subscribe to the whole series? I am reduced to scrounging on Amazon—thin pickings, and all at a hefty markup.
Update: Just caved and called Isotope here in SF. It is an awesome comic shop. Still want to subscribe, though.
July 15, 2009
Behind the New York Review of Ideas
But a question lingers: What is this thing?
Turns out it's the project of a class at NYU's graduate school of journalism. I was curious to know more, so I did a quick email interview with Derrick Koo—an NYU grad student as well as the site's designer and developer. Here goes:
So, you mentioned that the site was the project of a class at NYU's graduate school of journalism. Which class? And did the project set out to create a website, or did that format coalesce somewhere along the way?
The class was Robert Boynton's Journalism of Ideas, so that partially answers the second question. The aim of the course was for each student to create a small body of ideas-based, magazine-style work and to compile the publishable pieces into a blog or website at the conclusion of the class. So the idea for a website was there from the beginning; but how far we took the project was left entirely up to the students.
The title—"New York Review of Ideas"—seemed to really resonate, instantly, with a lot of people. I read some comments along the lines of: "Wow. I want to read every single thing on this site. Right now." Could you talk a little bit about the thinking behind the title, the tone, and—most importantly—story selection?
The title was Professor Boynton's idea, and seemed like a natural fit for the type of ideas-based reporting we were doing. Almost all the stories we wrote began with questions of personal interest. Professor Boynton put it something like this: explore an idea you're interested in but most people would know next to nothing about, then find the people who are best qualified to explain it or embody it in a meaningful way. I think this approach allowed us to explore a really wide variety of issues, while forcing us all to adhere to a very specific purpose. As for the tone, we owe a great debt to the late magazine Lingua Franca—the ideas in some of the stories reach an almost academic depth, but they're meant to be as universally interesting as possible. I'm glad to see that readers like this choice.
For the nerds: what tools are you using to run this site? What's the CMS? Any crucial plugins?
It's really simple, actually—the whole site is built in WordPress, which I thought would be the quickest and easiest platform to publish with. The basic concept revolves around multiple category-specific loops for the simple reason that I didn't want to design just another reverse-chronological blog. Very early on, I decided that basing the design around the categories (profiles, reviews, Q&As, etc.) was a good way to keep the site focused on the ideas rather than on the "latest story," since it was never meant to be a news-oriented project. No special plugins were used aside from a "print friendly" function (added on request).
I'm always interested in the way that journalism students' vision of the kind of work they want to do matches up—or doesn't—with the way journalism really works in the world today. Were your fellow students generally excited about the prospect of publishing an idea-rich website? Lukewarm? Unmoved?
It's tough to parse out the feelings of 15 very different students, some of whom I know better than others. But most of us probably chose to take the course because of its focus on ideas-based journalism. It promised to immerse us in a much different type of research and writing than what we'd find in your average news-writing course, or even your average post-grad first job. So I'd venture to say most of us were pretty excited about working on the site—everyone pitched in to write, edit and produce it. This was the kind of work we wanted to do—and if it doesn't match up to professional opportunities, well... people want to read it, right? So maybe the way journalism really works right now isn't how it should work.
This was a one-time, stand-alone project. So, you're telling me I will never get anything new on that RSS feed I subscribed to? Seriously, nothing?
It was conceived as a one-time project, since we had no idea what kind of response we'd receive or where we'd all be after the semester ended. But just because we don't plan to update monthly doesn't mean your RSS feed will go completely unused—especially since the feedback we've received so far has been so positive.
I can't promise anything, but I bet there are a lot of current and future students who would be interested in contributing ideas-based stories in semesters to come. I, for one, am definitely open to maintaining it beyond the original scope. I really do hope it turns into something ongoing.
File under: Interviews, Journalism, Media Galaxy
Write Like It's 1856
Writing up the new Oxford Historical Thesaurus, Jason Kottke laments the lack of an advertised online version: "what a boon it would be for period novelists to able to press the 'write like they did in 1856' button."
So, being a total dork, and already in love with the not-even-shipping OHT, I tweet:
I want a "write like they did in 1856" button!
Actually, not a "write like ANYBODY in 1856" button. I want a "write like Flaubert" button. (Quiz: what writer in 1856 would you choose?)
This is harder than it sounds. 1856 might have seen just about the greatest confluence of writers ever. Do you want to write like Flaubert, Baudelaire, or Hugo? Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Melville or Whitman or Dickinson? The Rosettis, the Brownings, or George Eliot? In nonfiction, you could write like Darwin, Marx, Carlyle, Mill, Schopenhauer, Lincoln, or Emerson.
All that said, I'm sticking with Flaubert. That's the year he finished and serialized Madame Bovary. (The next year, he went on trial for obscenity, and won, on the grounds that he wasn't a pornographer, but a genius. This changed everything for modern literature.)
Gustave's my guy. Who's yours?
P.S.: On the Oxford University Press page for the historical thesaurus, it includes a link for an online version - it's almost certainly going to be subscriber-only, and the link ends up with placeholder info for now. But it will happen.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Collaborations, Worldsnark
Ocean of Storms
It's a cliche at this point: You walked on the moon. Now what?
But even so, these photos of Apollo astronauts—then and now—are incredibly compelling.
Related: I'm now (finally) reading Moon Dust. Even just fifty pages in, it's terrific.
New Liberal Arts Unboxing
Unboxing. The public documentation of possession. There's an essay waiting to be written about what it means—about consumption, sharing, voyeurism, recognition of personhood in the face of mass production, blah blah blah—but I will not be the one to write it.
Instead, I will simply report: It is totally awesome to see people unboxing something you made!
Here's Jon Hansen's snap, which has the distinction of being the first one posted.
Here's Kiyoshi Martinez—looking, as a twitter-pal pointed out, sort of like a 17th-century Dutch oil painting. The dark glimmer!
And here's Snarkmarket favorite Howard Weaver, who displays New Liberal Arts in context. Look at all those books!
Here it is on another bookshelf—"attention economics" contributor Andrew Fitzgerald's, in fact. Wow. Good company there.
Two Different Ways of Looking At "Simple"
Two different blog entries about health care ended up in my RSS reader at the same time. They argue for diametrically opposite positions based on what appear to be identical principles.
The worst thing about "comprehensive reform" efforts are that they shut the average citizen out of the legislative process by making bills so complicated that it is nearly impossible for the average citizen to properly evaluate whether on balance it is a wise or unwise measure. Who can predict all the effects of a 3,000 page bill spanning all manner of issues? Often times not even the legislature itself. Certainly not the press, which often focuses on bits of the legislation that won't actually have the most impact, sometimes because legislators themselves are deliberately obscuring what's actually at stake.
It's a conservative lesson: we should make "small, piecemeal improvements to public policy, rather than the kind of sweeping efforts that flatter vanities but fail citizens."
And here Ezra Klein presents an argument from a reader named Lensch, who compares the current reform bill being considered to the old Ptolemaic epicycles in astronomy:
We want a "uniquely American solution." So we have weak plans, strong plans, coops, exchanges, individual coverage, community ratings, etc., etc., etc. I still haven't seen we are going to handle the problem of people with pre-existing conditions. If we cover them, people will take out minimal insurance until they get sick and then switch. We need some more epicycles.
If Copernicus were alive today, I am sure he would say, "If you simply give everyone Medicare, you wouldn't need all this complication, and I'll bet it would be cheaper, too."
The practically radical answer turns out to be intellectually conservative; it's a back-of-the-envelope solution.
I don't think one answer trumps or refutes the other. I think there's another meaning of "simple" here, which both arguments ignore. The health care proposal floated in the House, is intellectually complex not only because it's designed to please different legislators and constituencies, but because it's designed to have a minimal impact on most people, particularly those who already have some kind of health care. If by a stroke of law, we switched everyone from private insurance to Medicare tomorrow, it would be chaos. That's why you get epicycles - because it turns out that asking the earth to move in this case might actually make it change its orbit.
And really, the same thing could be said about the plan to make Congress read their bills out loud and then take a day to deliberate about them. It would actually introduce a great number of brand-new complications into the legislative process, not just for them, but for us, particularly if we actually cared enough to pay attention. You mean, my politicians actually want me to pay attention to what they do and weigh in on complex issues and hold them accountable? Wouldn't it be easier just to complain that they're all crooks who don't represent my interests?
What Fun To Wreck [Language]
Conceptual writer Kenny Goldsmith introduces a new issue of Poetry devoted to probably the most divisive no-va-nt-guar-d writing in generations:
Our immersive digital environment demands new responses from writers. What does it mean to be a poet in the Internet age? These two movements, Flarf and Conceptual Writing, each formed over the past five years, are direct investigations to that end. And as different as they are, they have surprisingly come up with a set of similar solutions. Identity, for one, is up for grabs. Why use your own words when you can express yourself just as well by using someone else’s? And if your identity is not your own, then sincerity must be tossed out as well. Materiality, too, comes to the fore: the quantity of words seems to have more bearing on a poem than what they mean. Disposability, fluidity, and recycling: there’s a sense that these words aren’t meant for forever. Today they’re glued to a page but tomorrow they could re-emerge as a Facebook meme. Fusing the avant-garde impulses of the last century with the technologies of the present, these strategies propose an expanded field for twenty-first-century poetry. This new writing is not bound exclusively between pages of a book; it continually morphs from printed page to web page, from gallery space to science lab, from social spaces of poetry readings to social spaces of blogs. It is a poetics of flux, celebrating instability and uncertainty.
Anthony Grafton and Digital Humanism
I think, for folks interested in what's happening with digital books, at this point it's foundational to read Anthony Grafton's 2007 New Yorker essay on book digitization. Grafton is a historian of Renaissance humanism and early print culture; he writes with a great deal of sympathy even as he criticizes a lot of the ramshackle moves that have been made in getting print books up on the web.
It's a weird thing - I think I can say that age of digital humanism we're in shows the same enthusiasm as the Renaissance in getting old texts into circulation and generating new information, but much less care than the early humanists in making sure that the information is complete, accurate, or discriminating. And it seems as though this is what traditionalists and futurists argue about, endlessly.
This at least, is the tension in Peter Green's TLS review of Grafton's new book, Worlds Made By Words, which contains an expanded version of that New Yorker essay, plus plenty of tasty goodness about Renaissance humanists like Leon Battista Alberti, or Justius Lipsius, a Flemish philologist who "offered to recite the text of Tacitus with a knife held to his throat, to be plunged in if he made a mistake.” Green's review is titled "Google Books or Great Books," and it offers a nice peek into what Grafton's all about. Here's a slice of the good:
An editor at Cambridge University Press, reputedly the world’s oldest publisher, cheerfully admitted to Grafton that, conservatively, “95 percent of all scholarly enquiries start at Google”. Which, as Grafton says, “makes sense: Google, the nerdiest of corporations, has roots in the world of books”, to the point where (if you throw in Amazon and one or two others) “the Web has become a vast and vivid online bookstore”... Today all would-be members of the Republic of Letters, all hopeful explorers of past history, have, in a literal sense, the world at their fingertips. As Grafton says, “it is more than transformative to sit in your office at a small liberal arts or community college and call up, as you already can, thousands of books in dozens of languages, the nearest material copy of which is hundreds of miles away”.
And the bad:
Scanning by optical character recognition, ironically, commits some of the same errors as those made by careless medieval scribes, including long “s” read as “f” (German scholarship sometimes appears as Wiffenschaft), and the confusion of u and n. Thus, key in the meaningless qnalitas for qualitas (a key term in medieval philosophy) and you get over 600 hits for qualitas which you would miss if you only keyed in the correct word. Much of the old German spiky Gothic black-letter material (Fraktur) comes out in “plain text” as gobbledegook.Which Grafton synthesizes in a really lovely way, as follows:
Yes, the young scholar is told, take every advantage of the new electronic Aladdin’s cave. But – and here Grafton shows a rare moment of deeply felt emotion – these streams of data, rich as they are, will illuminate rather than eliminate the unique books and prints and manuscripts that only the library can put in front of you. For now, and for the foreseeable future, if you want to piece together the richest possible mosaic of documents and texts and images, you will have to do it in those crowded public rooms where sunlight gleams on varnished tables, as it has for more than a century, and knowledge is still embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable manuscripts and books.
Here's a thought. One term that I think we can use to bring the digital enthusiasts and the traditional scholars - besides humanism, which I still think is a super-powerful idea - is standards. One thing web and software people are actually surprisingly good at, considering the libertarian ethos that drives a lot of the best work, is at establishing standards of mutual interoperability.
What if scholarly bodies like the Modern Languages Association, American Library Association, American Historical Association, etc., worked together with the tech guys to establish standards for digital scholarly texts in their fields? Work to verify the scans, establish the bibliographies (it would really help to know, for example, if a full-preview book in Google Books is actually from a pirated or faulty edition), and verify the results? Hashtags for scanned books!
I think that could be beautiful.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Technosnark
Jay-Z and The Fog of Rap Battle
Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy goes there:
See, Jay-Z (Shawn Carter) is the closest thing to a hegemon which the rap world has known for a long time. He's #1 on the Forbes list of the top earning rappers. He has an unimpeachable reputation, both artistic and commercial, and has produced some of the all-time best (and best-selling) hip hop albums including standouts Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint and the Black Album. He spent several successful years as the CEO of Def Jam Records before buying out his contract a few months ago to release his new album on his own label. And he's got Beyoncé. Nobody, but nobody, in the hip hop world has his combination of hard power and soft power. If there be hegemony, then this is it. Heck, when he tried to retire after the Black Album, he found himself dragged back into the game (shades of America's inward turn during the Clinton years?).
But the limits on his ability to use this power recalls the debates about U.S. primacy. Should he use this power to its fullest extent, as neo-conservatives would advise, imposing his will to reshape the world, forcing others to adapt to his values and leadership? Or should he fear a backlash against the unilateral use of power, as realists such as my colleague Steve Walt or liberals such as John Ikenberry would warn, and instead exercise self-restraint?
But here's the other question: are Jay-Z and Beyoncé really in the same game? What about The Shins? In other words, maybe one set of actors are in the sphere of realist power politics, and another set are acting under a completely different set of assumptions - maybe idealist, maybe postmodern, maybe not based on the nation-state/single artist framework at all.
This was always my issue whenever we examined competing explanatory frameworks in political science: the assumption that whatever assumptions you made, they had to apply to all actors equally and individual actors consistently.
To me, it seemed (and seems) perfectly consistent to suppose that rational actors could be operating under different frameworks of rationality at different times, or even in some instances scuttling rationality altogether due to misinformation, contradictory internal forces, or misguided teleologies. "You can't build models that way," my freshman poli sci teacher said, half-joking but half-serious. No, I guess you can't.
July 14, 2009
I Got My BA In IS From the CC
President Obama was in Warren, MI today (not far from where I grew up) to give a speech about community colleges. Here's the gist:
In a speech Tuesday in Warren, Mich., he proposed sinking nearly $12 billion into revamping the country's community-college system. The plan would provide $9 billion in grant money to boost academic programs and raise graduation rates, plus another $2.5 billion to upgrade school facilities. It would also fund open-source online courses so that schools don't have to build more classrooms to admit more students.
Community colleges have long been where the bodies are in higher education, but now it's ridiculous. The economy's collapse has sent college students' enrollments rolling downhill - kids who would have gone to expensive private schools are enrolling in moderately priced public universities, the university kids are going to regional colleges, and the regional students to community colleges. If you want to get more students with college degrees, community colleges are a natural place to start.
Christopher Beam at Slate notes further advantages:
If the university system is an ocean liner, community colleges are the speedboats of higher education. If they get more money and use it wisely, the thinking goes, they can produce results in a matter of years. After all, they're designed to respond to the needs of the local community. For example, LaGuardia Community College recently introduced a program to train designers in New York City. When the fishing industry started struggling in Massachusetts, Cape Cod Community College turned its focus to nursing and other health-care-related jobs. When Connecticut introduced its first casino, one nearby community college started training croupiers. For an administration looking for shovel-ready projects, community colleges can provide a lot of shovels.
Let's imagine the community college in twenty years. It's taken up a fair amount of the role once played by larger state universities. It offers a wide range of four-year and two-year degrees, plus some applied postgraduate degrees. What's more, different community colleges, like different universities and technical schools now, specialize. Some are outstanding teachers' colleges, while others train designers, still others business professionals. But the biggest boom is in information technology - info techs work in medicine, business, law, government... You used to go to a community college to learn data entry. Now you go to learn data management, analysis, and modeling.
Think about it. Community college students (and teachers and IT departments) today often aren't as tech-saavy as their university counterparts, but they can innovate in the use of digital technology. In fact, they have to. They don't have the same physical plant and infrastructure as larger, more expensive schools. They're unlikely to have folks on campus doing original research. They're not mainframes. They're terminals. But there's a difference between smart and dumb terminals.
A community college, with an instituional subscription to the Google Books of the future, can do without a substantial library; they can do without cyclotrons or football stadiums or anything else that drains dollars and energy, public or private; I don't know, but it seems to me that we're standing at a unique juncture. Just as many of our parents (and especially grandparents) often don't quite recognize what schools are like today, those of us in our twenties might not recognize the delicate ecology of colleges and universities when our kids start filling out those applications.*... Read more ....
Boy, If Life Were Only Like This
Ezra Klein writes that "I imagine that when Sonia Sotomayor is putting together her scrapbook of memories from the time she was nominated for the United States Supreme Court, this will be a page she'll particularly treasure":
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), seeking to discredit Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s judicial philosophy, cited her 2001 “wise Latina” speech, and contrasted the view that ethnicity and sex influence judging with that of Judge Miriam Cedarbaum, who “believes that judges must transcend their personal sympathies and prejudices.”
“So I would just say to you, I believe in Judge Cedarbaum’s formulation,” Sessions told Sotomayor.
“My friend Judge Cedarbaum is here,” Sotomayor riposted, to Sessions’s apparent surprise. “We are good friends, and I believe that we both approach judging in the same way, which is looking at the facts of each individual case and applying the law to those facts.”
“I don’t believe for a minute that there are any differences in our approach to judging, and her personal predilections have no affect on her approach to judging,” she told Washington Wire. “We’d both like to see more women on the courts,” she added.
Oh yeah? Well that's funny, because I happen to have Mr McLuhan right here:
Reading the Riot Act
Legislators - in the US, but probably elsewhere too - don't read bills before they vote on them. No one could.
Congress passed the gigantic, $787 billion “stimulus’’ bill in February - the largest spending bill in history - after having had only 13 hours to master its 1,100 pages. A 300-page amendment was added to Waxman-Markey, the mammoth cap-and-trade energy bill, at 3 a.m. on the day the bill was to be voted on by the House.
Conor Fridersdorf proposes we require that politicians read laws before they pass:
Simpler, shorter laws more accessible to the citizenry would result. Legislators couldn't plausibly claim ignorance about an egregious measure slipped into a bill for which they voted. Special interests would have less ability to hide advantageous language in thickets of subsections. The majority party couldn't game the system, using timing and parliamentary procedure to pass measures that wouldn't survive scrutiny. Powerful politicians would demand better, clearer writing if they had to wade through it themselves. An ability to consider fewer total pieces of legislation might even encourage the House and Senate to better prioritize their time. Finally, the average citizen wouldn't regard the reality of their legislative system as a corrupt sham.
Okay, let's imagine this. Laws - maybe even laws above a certain threshold, whether for dollars, or years, or whatever - must be given a full public reading before they are passed. That is, read out loud.
I don't really care if or even want that every member of Congress should have to sit there and listen to it. It's a *public* reading. It's not for them, really - it's for us. In the meantime, you've got journalists and citizens liveblogging and reporting the thing, so people can check out what's inside.
Then after the public reading is finished, there's a day of deliberation before the vote, during which time folks can vet the bill and voice their opinion to their representatives.
Most people won't care. Most don't know. Maybe the laws will still be just as long, the language extra-confusing, just to obfuscate things further. That's true now. But there's a great deal more potential here, I think, for good things to happen - smart things, dramatic things, democratic things. Anyways, it's worth a shot.... Read more ....
July 13, 2009
Ferguson/Fallows on China
This 75-minute dialogue between Niall Ferguson and James Fallows, about China and its relationship with the U.S., is nuanced, detailed, and thought-provoking.
(My view here is colored by the facts that a) James Fallows has been my favorite journalist since I started reading his Atlantic articles back in college and b) I want to somehow, somehow, learn to speak like Niall Ferguson. Scottish accent and all? I think so.)
Anyway, Ferguson and Fallows really argue here—in the way two smart people argue over dinner, not in the way that people argue ("argue") on cable news. It's always surprisingly thrilling to see people actually think on camera.
To set it up, the point they don't dispute is that, right now, the world's most important entity is "Chimerica"—the blended economies of China and America. At this point, even after the economic shocks of 2008 and 2009, they are still inseperable, and incoherent without each other.
Ferguson and Fallows disagree on what happens next. Ferguson says Chimerica is doomed, and get ready for a painful disruption. Fallows, fresh off of three years living in China, is more optimistic—he thinks the relationship is flexible, durable, and many-faceted.
I saw Niall Ferguson debate Peter Schwartz here in San Francisco, and all I gotta say is: I wouldn't want to face off with this guy across a stage. He is erudite, to be sure; but he also carries and deploys his erudition in a particularly cutting way—like an Oxford don James Bond.
Anyway, I emerged from the 75 minutes mostly on the side of Fallows—but I always appreciate Ferguson's gloomy, ultra-realist point of view. Also, Fallows follows up here.
Giving Things Away Is A New Liberal Art
The title is half a joke, but half true. Part of navigating the logic, grammar, and rhetoric of this century of scarcity and abundance is going to involve not just working and understanding flows of goods and money, growing and eating things, understanding marketing or images, or managing your attention and identity (or identities), but also trying to figure out what you give away and what you charge for, what you take and what you pay for, and why and how you do all of these things.
Many, many people have been at least as interested in how and why we printed only 200 copies of New Liberal Arts and then gave digital copies away as they've been interested in any or all of the entries. And you know what? I'm kind of more interested in that too -- at least for the past thirty minutes or so.
Kevin Kelly's formulation of what we did is worth repeating: "The scarce limited edition of the physical subsidizes the distribution of the unlimited free intangible." We knew that we wanted to make an honest-to-goodness well-made book*, AND that we wanted everything to be freely available on the web. I don't think there was ever a conversation about doing it any other way.
But I think there's a difference between just selling a physical thing and giving it away for free. One of the things that I think was clever was the "ransom" model that Robin came up with, whereby the free copies were only released after the print run was sold. I think it was the motive of patronage, the aligning of the interests of the purchasers with the freeriders, that made it work.
(Aside: When I was a kid, I remember how the Detroit Lions' football games on TV used to be blacked-out in Detroit whenever the Silverdome didn't sell out. Since the Lions stunk, this happened a lot, and CBS wouldn't even show you another football game, you'd just be stuck watching reruns or infomercials instead of football, which made you hate the Lions even more.)
Janneke Adema keys in on this:
Actually this is just a variant of the delayed Open Access model, in which after a certain embargo time the books or journals are made Open Access. What I like however about the example Kelly mentions of the New Liberal Arts book, a Snarkmarket/Revelator Press collaboration, is how they combine this delayed Open Access model with a community support or maecenas model.
In another, earlier entry, she elaborates:
It looks like we might be slowly returning to the old Maecenas system, or Maecenate, when it comes to culture, flourishing as it did in the old Rome of Virgil and Horace, and still visible today in many a countries’ subsidy system, stimulating (historically) mostly the so called ‘high arts’ which in some cases and some countries have known some kind of patronage or state subsidy for ages (the Dutch system is a good example in this respect).
What seems clear however is that this new digital Maecenic culture will be quite different in many respects from so called subsidy systems. It will be way more ‘democratic’ for one, no longer favoring art picked out by committees of wise experts but directly benefiting those chosen by the public to merit their money. It will also not be a ‘traditional’ Maecenic culture in which a few rich people out of philanthropy and the goodness of their hearth give their money to the arts or the projects they endorse. This new Maecenic culture will probably be upheld by large communities of people of all income classes, all offering a little money to support their favorite band, artist or cultural entrepreneur (think of those small labels again).
The new digital Macenate! Just typing it gives me shivers of delight.
Until I read Adema's post, though, the way I'd been thinking about it was less classical, and maybe less flattering. I was thinking about Polish farmers in Prussia.
Okay, I'll explain. Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism begins with a weird and probably a little racist anecdote about Catholic farmers in the Eastern province of Germany. The farmers, and young people from the farms who'd emigrated to the cities, didn't seem to respond to economic incentives. They were traditionalists: if you showed them a new way to farm that yielded more crops, unless the difference was overwhelming, they didn't care; they'd just do it the way they always did it. If you paid them more for their crops to try to get them to produce more, they'd work less, because they could live off of the same amount of money they'd always had.
Actually Weber very smartly avoided the racist conclusion - that the Polish farmers were congenitally lazy -- that most of the Prussian farmowners who employed these Polish workers had made. Instead, he concluded that to work your butt off to make more money than you could most likely spend was actually a very strange way to live - that it wasn't, as some of the early economists and social engineers thought, a natural and universal response to maximize utility, but a historically contingent phenomenon.
He spends the rest of his startlingly brilliant book trying to trace the conditions under which that phenomenon could have emerged based on the startling economic success made by Protestant sects in Western Europe and the United States, all of which hinged on new notions of work and personal austerity that turned out to be, quite accidentally, a primary engine in the development of modern capitalism as it emerged in the West.
So, where am I going with this?
Well, the NLA model is like a color negative of the noncapitalist peasant. I say a color negative because the economic conditions have actually reversed. The peasant could earn more, but he didn't really have any place to put it. Once his physical needs were met, he had no reason to keep working. He would curtail the potential abundance of nature when the scarce physical resources were purchased.
What can do is the opposite - to unlock the potential abundance of the artificial once the scarce physical resources have been paid for. Instead of stopping work - stopping the flow of goods and closing the circuit of circulation - this opens it up. This is only natural.... Read more ....
File under: About Snarkmarket, New Liberal Arts, Self-Disclosure, Snarkonomics
The question is the subject of a contest from Dwell magazine and Inhabitat. I'm pretty curious how Snarketeers would answer this question.
Ordinary Everyday Crisis vs. Cartoonish Super-Crisis
California, strapped by an insane budget crisis, is issuing IOUs to its employees and creditors, and will soon likely be willing to accept these IOUs as payment for taxes and other state obligations. Nothing like a little extra-constitutional currency creation to spice up the economic picture of the U.S.A!
The Economist's Free Exchange offers this take on the consequences:
The highly uncertain long-term value of the IOUs may make anyone reluctant to accept them, preventing them from rising to de facto currency status. On the other hand, if enough people and institutions begin accepting them, Gresham's law may apply. Consumers may be anxious to hold on to dollars and spend their funny money wherever they can, until circulation is dominated by the IOUs.
But then, of course, economies that do business with California would have a demand for the IOUs, and other states—Nevada, and Oregon, say—or countries might begin accepting them. A constitutional challenge likely wipes all this out, but it is interesting to consider.
Another question—what to call them? I nominate the term "props", in honour of the ballot initiatives which landed California in this mess in the first place.
Meet The New Fetish, Pt. 2
If you want people to know what awesomely supercool books you are reading, you can use the internet to tell them.
Ezra Klein, "Can the Internet Be Your New Bookshelf?":
This is one of those spots where I imagine social networking really will save us. Back when I was using Facebook more, I was a big fan of Visual Bookshelf, which let you display what you were reading and, when you finished, let you rate and review the books. As a matter of signaling, it's quite a bit more efficient. Your friends don't have to catch you in a literary moment on the Metro. And being able to browse the collections of all my friends was a delight, and offered occasional surprises that helped me known them better: former football teammates who were now reading John Kenneth Galbraith, for instance, and libertarian friends who listed "The Grapes of Wrath" as one of their favorite books of all time.
I also found that displaying the contents of my bedside table helped counteract my tendency to get distracted 90 pages in and start something else. Now that the books were hanging out on my profile, I felt more pressure to finish them. Somehow, simply leaving books around my room didn't carry the same silent reproach. In fact, I sort of miss that pressure. Which is why I've added a little Amazon widget that does much the same thing to the right sidebar. Technology!
Meet The New Fetish, Same As The Old Fetish
James Wolcott laments the loss of personalized conspicuous consumption that goes with putting down a paperback and picking up a Kindle:
How can I impress strangers with the gem-like flame of my literary passion if it’s a digital slate I’m carrying around, trying not to get it all thumbprinty?
Books not only furnish a room, to paraphrase the title of an Anthony Powell novel, but also accessorize our outfits. They help brand our identities. At the rate technology is progressing, however, we may eventually be traipsing around culturally nude in an urban rain forest, androids seamlessly integrated with our devices...
The Barnes & Noble bookstore, with its coffee bar and authors’ readings, could go the way of Blockbuster as an iconic institution, depriving readers of the opportunity to mingle with their own kind and paw through magazines for free. Book-jacket design may become a lost art, like album-cover design, without which late-20th-century iconography would have been pauperized. (Try imagining the rock era without the gold lamé bravura of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong or the modernist graveyard of the Sgt. Pepper cover or Andy Warhol’s zippered jeans for the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers—impossible.)
It's half tongue-in-cheek, sure, but Rex chops it at the root:
Argh! It's not that this form of nostalgia is unworthy of some passing historical fascination, because I'm sure digitization actually does represent a drastic change in how we perceive cultural objects. Rather, the obvious annoyance in this sentimental prose is its complete lack of awareness of just how silly the fetishized cultural object was in the first place. Shouldn't we be suspicious of anyone who thinks that showing off your CD collection was ever really the point?
I am all about passing historical fascination, so I'll stick around and dig a little bit. The first and maybe obvious answer is that the cool factor will transfer to the device rather than the book. If you're reading a Kindle DX, and I'm reading on my iPhone, and somebody else is furiously typing on a Blackberry - actually, in real life, I'd be that last guy - we've all effectively announced our identities. If that's not enough variety for you, give it time: capitalism will fill your need for an individualized brand. It's not perfect, but it is really good at that.
The second and maybe even more obvious answer is that you can still bring books on the train. This is Walter Benjamin 101: the outmoded technology gets its aura back. People still collect, and record companies still produce, vinyl records. (Some of them are actually really awesomely designed.) Actually - this may be news to Wolcott, who seems to be stuck on CDs -- people consider collecting vinyl to be kind of cool. As a friend of mine recently reported, "if you're like, a 6, collecting vinyl automatically makes you a 10."
In fact, in ten years, schlepping that beat-up paperback -- or, please, one of those coffee table books -- might make you the coolest guy on the train. It's like smoking a pipe, or wearing a monocle. Your retro aesthetic will identify you, Mr Wolcott, as exactly what you are.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Cities, Design, Object Culture
July 12, 2009
The New York Review of Ideas
High, Meet Low
What's that? You want blog entries that seamlessly mix high and low, a little monocle gesture to go with your Michael Jackson moves? And Matt Thompson and Tim Carmody aren't enough for you? Okay fine. Another champion of the form is Nico Muhly. His writing communicates enthusiasm that's both educated and unabashed—a balance that's actually pretty hard to strike.
This whole post is a delight. (And it really does include Michael Jackson moves.)
I love cultural arbitrage: taking words, images, ideas from one place on earth (or time in history) and importing them into a new context where they're suddenly fresh and striking again.
This is, of course, common practice, so just like financial arbitrage, it takes a lot of work to stay ahead of the pack. And systems like Ffffound and Tumblr have become great levelers: They're like financial markets, automatically "pricing in" new information about what's cool. Oh, you like that retro-chromatic look? We got a hundred a' those.
So usually, when you find a good source you keep it secret. But I'll share this one, via Paul Pope. It's a collection of super-weird book illustrations. I mean seriously, what is this stuff? It defies genre. And yet, much of it would look good on an Urban Outfitters tee.
See also: Slovenian event posters.
Webapps Without Walls
When you use mobile-optimized webpages for a while, inevitably you're going to find a few that you like better than their desktop counterparts. They're trimmed-down sure, but they give you quick access to what you really want, perfect for a quick peek to see whether you've gotten a new email, a file has uploaded, or if the weather's going to change before you go outside.
For these sort of things, you don't need to fire up your whole browser, update your extensions, and parse through all of your old auto-saved tabs just to see something that probably isn't going to be there anyways. All you need is a little web-connected widget that tells you the same thing.
Do you know how to make a widget? Neither do I. But I do know how to use an application called Fluid for the Mac to make single-site-browsers (or SSBs) to do one thing, do it very well, and otherwise get out of the way.
At its basic level, Fluid creates an OS X application using Webkit (the guts of Safari) for individual webpages. I use this for Gmail, for example. Gmail runs on my Mac with its own icon, in a window without any toolbars or other clutter, that I can start without opening my browser, and that won't crash if (or when) my browser does. It even displays dock badges - which means when I've got a new email, I can look at the dock see a little number on the application's icon. Which, by the way, I was able to pick myself - Fluid will convert almost any image into an OS X icon.
That's nice enough. But you can also tell Fluid to identify itself to web pages using other engines besides Safari's. A Fluid-built SSB can show itself in multiple versions of Firefox, Internet Explorer, or -- and this is the kicker - MobileSafari, the web browser used for the iPhone.
Weirdly, you can't select this when you first create your app. All you pick is the URL and your program icon (which defaults to the web favicon). But all you have to do, once you've created your browser, is to click on the program name, then "User Agent," to run the site as a mobile browser once you restart.
Why is this important? Well, after you create the application, you have a few more options. One that I've never used is to embed your SSB into the Desktop. This is nice presumably because you can close all of the other apps and just show the one you use most frequently. But I keep files and folders on my desktop, so it's never worked.
The other, which I like a lot, is to convert the SSB into what's called a "MenuExtra SSB." The name makes it sound like you're going to get extra menus or something, but in fact, you get a good deal less. This option runs your SSB not out of your dock, but your menu bar, up there with always-accessible apps like "Airport," "Clock," and "Volume."
If you pick MenuExtra SSB with an ordinary web engine, it's a little weird - when you click the app's menu bar icon, you get either a huge browser window or a little window where you need to scroll around to see everything. It's jarring. But with MobileSafari, it's perfect. You've got a little iPhone-sized window where you can fire up a mobile site - then quickly close it by clicking the same button.
Why would you want to do this? I use the mobile SSBs for Facebook (especially when I just want to check a message or number and not get lost in the labyrinth), Gmail (when I want to check email without having to log in to chat, or waiting forever for the application to start, or worrying about clearing spam, etc.), Google Translate (perfect for a quick lookup), Google Reader (sometimes, since I mostly use NetNewsWire), Pandora (which is currently wonderful), Google Chat (when I want to log into chat but not email - it's complicated), and Dropbox. If you don't like any of the rich client Twitter applications, it's great for Twitter, too. (I use, and like, Tweetie.)
The last one has truly been a lifesaver. I have a 50GB Dropbox account and an older computer that I sometimes use that only has an 80GB hard drive. Syncing the entire account would kill that HD - all of my clever symbolic-link ruses to try to get Dropbox to sync to an external drive have only create giant cache files full of pain. But I don't even want to have everything synced to my old computer - I just want to be able to access it sometimes. Dropbox in the menu bar lets me stay always logged-in, and quickly navigate to the file I need, download it or read it, and get on with whatever else I need to do.
So that's it. Fluid is terrific - it creates stable and powerful but lightweight web clients that just work on almost any site you can think of. You can also use the MobileSafari capability to create slick sidetabs in any regular SSB... but I think that's enough functionality for now.
PS: All of this stuff I have learned elsewhere - if you want fancy pictures or a more explicit walkthrough, google "Fluid MenuExtra" or look at the Fluid site. I'm really just trying to sell you on the idea of it - webapps without walls.
Romance, Manuscripts, and Cyborgs
Virginia Heffernan says that internet romances "are not romances between people at all. They’re affairs with the Internet" - like World of Warcraft, where you become your own avatar:
O Computer World! At its most elementary, it’s a marvelous place, filled with risk and surprises and novelty, unbounded by space and time, where you can be a teenager again, trade gossip, avoid your overseers, gab to friends and boyfriends — all while pretending to do homework. What a perfect realm for puppy love or love with that Sanford-patented “soul-mate feel” — unconsummated love, in other words. By removing the body from relationships, electronic communication makes romantic love less animal. The lovers’ discourse becomes simultaneously more childlike and more intellectual, more spiritual.
As Chapur wrote to Sanford, “I haven’t felt this since I was in my teen ages.”
Epistolary romance seems to have existed as long as romance itself. But letters — the ink-on-paper kind, the kind Byron and Anaïs Nin wrote — had a dense materiality, with handwriting that always suggested the beloved’s hand and thus her body. Besides, wasn’t writing paper always being supplemented with dried flowers, locks of hair and wafts of perfume? It’s not clear whether mp3 love songs or links to insightful blog posts, the value-adds that now come with love e-mail, contribute a sensory dimension or only amplify how nerdy and how platonic digital romance is.
The connection to communications technology — the connection to connection — has become part of what makes us human. In the idiom of those who are swooningly in love, it makes us “feel alive.” When we’re denied the connection to connection, it’s no wonder we lust for it. Probably the pundits are wrong: there’s no special problem with marriage or romance in this country right now. Instead, our current bind is with offline reality — real life. We’ve been cheating on it, all of us, for a long time, living in a wireless fairyland where we r all so giddily hot.
I wrote my college girlfriend love letters over two summers, when she was in Texas and I was in Michigan (and then London). It is completely different. But I fell in love with her, at least in part, not least because in our freshman year, she was my first constant email correspondent.
Manuscript is different. I disagree, though, about the total virtualization/dematerialization of the body with the internet - I think at one time, exchanging flirtatious glances on Friendster, or staring into a telnet terminal in your campus computer lab, that was true. There was something cold and immaterial about that world, where you had to wait hours for a response, when you couldn't take an email with you without sheepishly printing it out on a dot-matrix.
But the ubiquity and intimacy of our net-connected objects have changed that. Heffernan's friend hands her his Blackberry with a note from his mistress, and she recoils: "I didn’t like holding the device. It felt hot and even damp, as if it had been inside a human body. Lots of erotic energy was going into that thing." It's a secondary physicality, a different kind of fantasy of immediacy - a love letter that can reach your beloved wherever she is, finding her not at her office desktop but in her purse or pants pocket. And when your phone vibrates with her new message, you have received something real, something you can touch.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark
Amazon vs. Paypal
Oh, and while I'm talking up Google forms, I probably ought to report back the result of my one-question survey. With a sample size of 110, the result was 76% in favor of an Amazon.com product page and 24% for Paypal.
July 11, 2009
Tracking Your Ideas, in Time and Space, With the iPhone
Here's a little hack I put together just now. The inputs are:
- Diana's Google Forms lifetracking experiment.
- Connected to that: the overall utility and coolness of Google Forms and Google Spreadsheets. They just make it so simple to gather and work with data at human scale.
- Jimmy's tweet about Evernote's geotagging feature.
- Finally (and most importantly, I guess): my own habit of jotting ideas down in the iPhone's Notes app and emailing them to myself. I do this a dozen times a day.
So, here's the hack: a simple iPhone-optimized page that's nothing but a big text field. It's a Notes substitute. But here's what's cool:
- If you access the page with an iPhone, it snags your current location.
- When you click "done," the text and coordinates are piped into a Google Spreadsheet.
And here's the spreadsheet receiving data from that demo page.
Now, I don't know if you've tried Google Spreadsheets, but let me tell you, it is magic. Easy to use and a breeze to share—with humans and computers alike. I love the idea of having my ideas stored here, in this semi-structured format, instead of in a dumb, flat Gmail folder. I could add a "rating" field next to each one, or a field for "next steps"; I could sort and filter. And, of course, I could make a nice Google Map dotted with these geocoded text blobs. Not tonight, though.
Here's a zipped-up version of the page if you want to give it a try yourself. All you need is a place to host it and a Google Form with three fields: text, latitude, and longitude (in that order).
I love that this kind of thing is even possible!
Update: I was a little unclear, both in the post and in the zipped-up template. The "formkey" you need to connect this to your Google Spreadsheet is in the URL of the associated Google Form. (I started the whole thing by going to New > Form in Google Docs, but it's possible to add a form to an existing spreadsheet, too.) So, for instance, the Google Form for my demo is here, and the "formkey" in its URL is the crucial bit.
Update: A small change to the Google Forms "API" broke the page. It's now fixed, and the updated version is available at the same place as the old one.
Behold, the Dark Knight of... Civic City?
Wow. Gotham City was almost... um:
Batman co-creator Bill Finger explains: "Originally I was going to call Gotham City 'Civic City'. Then I tried Capital City, then Coast City. Then I flipped through the phone book and spotted the name 'Gotham Jewelers' and said, 'That's it', Gotham City."
I like their characterization of Mega City One, home to Judge Dredd. I haven't read any of those comics, but now feel like I sort of want to.
Finally: I think the one glaring omission is Astro City. How 'bout you?
In the Eye of the Bubble
Among the people I knew who started worrying about the housing bubble in the early 2000s, Dan Gillmor's warnings were the loudest. On his blog, he frequently and publicly fretted about what he saw as a disaster in the making, especially acute in California, where he lived. For whatever reason, I got the urge today to go back and look up some of Dan's old posts warning about the bubble.
Martin Fonseca, a high-school dropout, can spoil his kid and not because he climbed the professional ladder. The sole source for the dramatic difference in this immigrant family's lifestyle is the riches they amassed owning a Santa Ana home.
It's a story of wealth creation played out countless times across a county where the local median home price doubled in a mere four years to more than half-a-million bucks.
It's like watching the Titanic depart. The most striking thing about the thread is the comments, like this one from Charlie Prael:
Y'know, I'd be more concerned if this wasn't the (third? fourth?) time that the Collapse of the Great California Housing Bubble had been predicted. Remember the late 70s? Price CAN'T go any higher. They did. 1988? Nope, nobody will pay THOSE prices. 1999? Samesame. ...
Now, why am I cynical about this? Because the imminent collapse of housing prices in California has been predicted routinely for the last three years - always right around the corner, within the next six months. And it hasn't happened. Nor will it, for the structural reasons above.
Of course, Mr. Prael's memory was faulty. California's housing prices had gone through significant bubble-and-bust swings in the '90s, as you can see here.
What scares me most is the stuff like this: "Dan, please STOP advocating a real estate crash here in Northern California. It's not befitting someone of your position in the journalistic community to be arguing in favor of depression and despair."
Our ability to close our eyes and stick our fingers in our ears in moments of impending crisis is truly remarkable.
Britta Gustafson, "Learning to see wooden poles":
When I’m not in a rush to get somewhere, I look up at the tops of telephone poles. I don’t know anything about electricity, but I find myself reading glossaries of linemen’s slang and technical definitions, learning how to refer to the grey buckets that transform electricity for home use (cans, bugs, distribution transformers) and how to identify several other pole features, especially different varieties of shiny ceramic insulators.
It's a really nice photo-essay, with little detours about the pleasures of walking, childhood memories of the Mister Rogers crayon factory documentary, and generally finding joy in "functional and authentic technical equipment, the more elaborate and less appreciated the better."
My grandfather was (and my uncle is) a lineman for Detroit Edison, so like Britta, I find power lines really fascinating. The general tendency of this century has been to make our infrastructure and industrial more invisible and remote, even as it becomes more individualized and less communal. (Think about riding a train versus driving a car.) Utility lines, when you notice them, spell out the lie in all that. Of course, they're most conspicuous when they stop working. (Actually, they're really conspicuous when they're knocked over in a shower of sparks and flame, but that's a special case.)
One of my favorite parts in Terry Zwigoff's documentary Crumb is when R. Crumb explains how he takes photographs of ordinary buildings and street corners - apartments, gas stations, strip malls - so he can use them as reference for adding details like telephone and electrical poles, junction boxes, gutter grates. Otherwise, he says, you forget about these things; it's as if they were never there.
File under: Beauty, Cities, Design, Object Culture, Recommended, Technosnark
I had never heard of this disorder before:
In hyperlexia, a child spontaneously and precociously masters single-word reading. It can be viewed as a superability, that is, word recognition ability far above expected levels... Hyperlexic children are often fascinated by letters and numbers. They are extremely good at decoding language and thus often become very early readers. Some hyperlexic children learn to spell long words (such as elephant) before they are two and learn to read whole sentences before they turn three. An fMRI study of a single child showed that hyperlexia may be the neurological opposite of dyslexia.
Often, hyperlexic children will have a precocious ability to read but will learn to speak only by rote and heavy repetition, and may also have difficulty learning the rules of language from examples or from trial and error, which may result in social problems... Their language may develop using echolalia, often repeating words and sentences. Often, the child has a large vocabulary and can identify many objects and pictures, but cannot put their language skills to good use. Spontaneous language is lacking and their pragmatic speech is delayed. Hyperlexic children often struggle with Who? What? Where? Why? and How? questions... Social skills often lag tremendously. Hyperlexic children often have far less interest in playing with other children than do their peers.
The thing is, this absolutely and precisely describes me in childhood, especially before the age of 5 or 6. (This is also the typical age when hyperlexic children begin to learn how to interact with others.) It also describes my son - which is how my wife found the description and forwarded it to me.
You walk around your entire life with these stories, these tics, and the entire time, your quirks are really symptoms. It's a little strange.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Braiiins, Language, Learnin', Science, Self-Disclosure
July 10, 2009
Pity This Poor, Paltry Network
I just cannot bring myself to believe that this Pew chart of internet usage is true. Finally, more than half of American adults use the internet on a typical day -- but the proportion that engages in other more specific activities is still so, so low. "Watch a video" is at just 15 percent.
On one hand: What??
On the other hand: This just means all the really good stuff is yet to come. Patience, I tell myself. Patience.
July 9, 2009
The Clicks, They Are Involuntary
Again with the irresistible headlines from Wired Science:
Language and the New Liberal Arts
So I'm sitting here, working on making a plain-vanilla hypertext version of New Liberal Arts so folks can read it on their phones, Kindles, whatever, and cleaning up all the extra cruft to make it work -- you can just cut-and-paste from the PDF, it'll be easy, Robin says, forgetting that it's set in opposing faces that sometimes get out of order, that the all-cap fonts turn into gibberish, and that there's a freaking secret message in the thing --
And, maybe just naturally, or maybe as a function of what I'm doing, I am totally blown away - again - by Diana Kimball's "Coding and Decoding" and Rachel Leow's "Translation."
Seriously. Just check them out. They're so elegant and complimentary - Rachel's is about a kind of patient mastery and deep connection to other human beings past and present, Diana's about ambient awareness of linguistic symbols that we discover but whose deciphering is always going to be incomplete. Originally, I was going to write a separate NLA entry for "Languages" - when I first read these two, months ago, I realized that I had nothing I wanted to add.
File under: Language, New Liberal Arts, Recommended
Please Take This Simple One-Question Survey
I'm wondering about payment methods and purchase "friction." I have one question for you—click over to this Google Form and give me your gut reaction.
A Treasure-House of Language
I don't have a lot of criteria for friendship, but the one characteristic I think is invariant is a love of and care for language. If you don't take pleasure or find intellectual satisfaction in how words are strung together - maybe even especially written words - then you and I are quickly going to run out of things to say to or do with each other.
So that said, I think a good index of both your wordnerdery and the likelihood of the two of us becoming and remaining fast friends is your excitement in reading about the new Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which will be published - in two glorious volumes! - this fall:
The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, published by Oxford University Press, is the culmination of 44 years of painstaking work by scholars at the University of Glasgow.
It not only groups words with similar meanings but does so in chronological order according to their history - with the oldest first and most recent last. According to its publisher, the OED, it's the largest thesaurus in the world and the first historical thesaurus in any language.
With 800,000 meanings, 600,000 words and more than 230,000 categories and sub categories, it's twice as big as Roget's version.
And if that doesn't have him turning in his grave, it also contains almost every word in English from Old English to the present day, or 2003 to be precise - the cut-off date for the new dictionary.
· The largest thesaurus resource in the world, covering more than 920,000 words and meanings based on the Oxford English Dictionary · The very first historical thesaurus to be compiled for any of the world's languages from medieval times through the present · Synonyms listed with dates of first recorded use in English, in chronological order, with earliest synonyms first · For obsolete words, the Thesaurus also includes last recorded use of word · Uses a thematic system of classification · Comprehensive index enables complete cross-referencing of nearly one million words and meanings · Contains a comprehensive sense inventory of Old English · Includes a free fold-out color chart which shows the top levels of the classification structure · Made up of two volumes: The main text, comprising numbers sections for semantic categories, and the index, comprising a full A-Z look up of nearly one million lexical items
Sweet mercy. Bless you marvelous pedants and this magnificent thing you have made.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Learnin'
Next Time, Bigger And More Humble
Selected early reviews of New Liberal Arts:
Kevin Kelly, "Innovative Publishing Model":
It really doesn't matter what's in the book. The model is brilliant, if you have an audience. The scarce limited edition of the physical subsidizes the distribution of the unlimited free intangible... As it happens, the PDF reveals that the content is pretty thin. But it did not have to be. Their premise is great (the new literacies), and their biz model innovative. We can hope they try again. I am impressed enough with the experiment to use this model on my next self-published book.
The readers at Book Cover Archive: "This may be the only use of Century Gothic I'll ever appreciate," "friggin sold out! love that quarter binding..."
Aside from the PDF’s inherent weaknesses as e-book format, this is a pretty cool idea. The tiny press run gives value to the hardcover, certainly pays for the free PDF giveaway, and gets the interest up for the next book to be thusly released... In any case, given that it took only eight hours for New Liberal Arts to sell out, the Snarkmarketers might want to think of printing more next time.
Mark Allen: "New Liberal Arts is a free PDF ebook about things Jason Kottke often refers to as “Liberal Arts 2.0” and is written by a lot of really smart people about some really interesting topics such as brevity, micropolitics, mapping, reality engineering and a bunch more. It also has an innovative publishing model. It’s only about 35 pages of content, and each page is a discrete, bite size idea that will likely send you off in a completely new direction for the rest of the day."
And nobody (besides late-rising Californians) has even seen the physical book yet! (Which, just to be clear, is a perfect-bound paperback, not a hardcover.*)
July 8, 2009
Quiver for Brushes
I just bought one of Ashlee Ferlito's terrific tiny paintings. Can you guess which?
That Magic Threshold
I have a question.
Per Farhad Manjoo, domains are for suckers. That goes both for buying them and keeping track of them. Why bother remembering talkingpointsmemo.com when I can just type "josh marshall" or "tpm" into the address bar in Firefox or Chrome (not Safari, though) and jump directly to the site?
Here's the question: Talking Points Memo is the first Google result for both "josh marshall" and "tpm"—that's how those browsers know to take me there straightaway. However, robinsloan.com is the first result for "robin sloan"... but I do not get the boom-tube treatment. So what's the missing piece? Do you need a certain number of links backing you up to activate the shortcut? A certain number of queries per day? Any ideas?
More examples: "nick kristof" takes me straight to Kristof's NYT topic page. "matt thompson" takes me to the Google results page. "farhad manjoo" takes me to Manjoo's Wikipedia entry. "jason kottke" takes me straight to kottke.org. "epic 2014" takes me straight to EPIC 2014. "tim carmody" takes me to Google results. Argh! Are we really that obscure?
Man on Plinth
Eyeteeth explains a cool new art project:
Since Monday, artist Antony Gormley has been asking Britons to use Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth to make "a portrait of the UK now." For the next 100 days, he's opened up the remaining empty plinth -- built in 1841 to support an equestrian statue of William IV, but never completed due to lack of funds -- in central London to anyone for an hour, to do whatever they'd like.
There's a live stream!
NEW LIBERAL ARTS: The PDF
I wondered for a moment whether we should wait a week, or ten days, to post the PDF—wait, that is, for all the printed copies to arrive. But then I got impatient. Here it is.
If you bought one, resist temptation! You're going to enjoy opening it up in the mail a lot more than scrolling through it in the browser.
More meta-commentary on the book and the whole process—soon.
Update: Kevin Kelly says the content is "pretty thin," but also that "I am impressed enough with the experiment to use this model on my next self-published book." Cool!
Swimming Out Of The Death Spiral
And now for a note on the dark side of printed books: Michael Jensen, Director of Strategic Web Communications for National Academies and National Academies Press, collects and analyzes data about global warming and ecological collapse. At the AAUP meeting in Philadelphia, he presented "Scholarly Publishing in the New Era of Scarcity," an argument that the combination of financial and environmental necessity compels university presses to move away from printing, shipping, and storing books and towards a digital-driven, open-access model, with print-on-demand and institutional support rounding out the new revenue model.
(I'm posting Part 2 of Jensen's speech - the part that's mostly about publishing - here. Watch Part 1 - which is mostly about the environment - if you want to be justly terrified about what's going to happen to human beings and everything else pretty soon.)
This is one reason I'm kind of happy that we didn't print a thousand or more copies of New Liberal Arts. We can make print rare, we can get copies straight to readers, we can make print more responsible, but mostly we have to make print count. And - of course - share the information with as many people as possible.
Are you on the east coast, or (gasp) in the Eastern Hemisphere, and can't wait until your copy of the New Liberal Arts is delivered or late-rising Californians post the free PDF?
You can already read four of the New Liberal Arts entries for free, online, now:
July 7, 2009
Why Books Are Great, In One Link
From a neat presentation by the super-smart Matt Webb. He's talking about Bruno Munari, who in turn is talking about all the interesting ways there are of drawing a human face.
So, page one. As Webb says: "It's great prose, makes a lot of sense. And then you're halfway through a sentence, and you turn the page, and..."—(Click the "next" link on Webb's page, you'll see.)
What's great about this? The full-bleed-ness. There is no full-bleed on the web. And that totally sucks! It's such a crucial, powerful tool. Books and magazines get full-bleed. TVs and video game consoles get full-bleed. Even the Kindle and iPhone get full-bleed! But not the web. You don't ever get the full screen, the entire page, the total experience. In fact—the way browsers are going—you get less and less.
The Real Reason to Make Books: You Get to Make Book Covers
While I'm here: Wow, I really did not expect those books to sell out so fast. Now I wish we'd printed twice as many. But, a limited edition is a limited edition! PDF coming soon.
NEW LIBERAL ARTS: 200 Down
Only 41 left! All gone. Look for the PDF tomorrow!
Thanks, everyone -- we sold out in eight hours.
I hate to bump the New Liberal Arts off the top of the front page - go check it out! Buy it! Do it now! - but I've got a related meatspace publishing story to tell you. My Chronicle of Higher Education forum contribution on scholarship and teaching in 2029 - "The Faculty of the Future: Leaner, Meaner, More Innovative, Less Secure" - is out now, but the online version is sadly behind a very 2009 subscription firewall. So you'll have to have a login to read what Mark Bosquet, Anthony Grafton, Joseph Hermanowicz, Evelyn Hu-Dehart, Peter Stearns, and Cathy Ann Trower wrote. But here's my piece as it appears in full:
How is academe different in 2029? Let's begin with the basics: reading, writing, and teaching. If anything, Google is even more important. The 2009 author/publisher settlements that allowed Google to sell full access to its book collections didn't revolutionize books in retail, but subscription sales to institutions did fundamentally alter the way libraries think about their digital and analog collections. Access to comprehensive digital libraries allows teachers at any institution to compile virtual syllabi on the fly, seamlessly integrating readings, assignments, communication, and composition..... Read more ....
Automated subscriptions powered by Google's search services deliver articles on any topic or keyword of interest instantaneously; hyperlinked citations and references appear with the original document, as threads in a continuing conversation, creating the first genuinely hypertext documents.
Apple's popular iRead application (launched in 2011) enables reading, writing, and recording on virtually any device. Some teachers and students still use laptops or tablets, but others prefer handhelds, like phones or game consoles. But users' inherited assumptions about the casual use of these devices make both teaching and research more closely resemble the activity of online social networks than traditional lectures, seminars, or conferences. Courses typically emphasize collaborative research leading to immediate publication of short bursts of text. Reader feedback then powers incremental improvements and additions.
The curriculum, especially in the humanities, valorizes thoughtful curation and recirculation of material rather than comprehension or originality. The traditional unidirectional model of knowledge transmission (best represented by the now-deprecated "lecture") has been effectively discredited, although it persists through habit, inertia, and whispered doubts about the efficacy and rigidity of the new model. Many professors periodically pause to lecture, but only apologetically, or when distanced by ironic quotation marks.
The 'teens are as widely remembered for technical innovation and radical dissemination of knowledge as the '20s are for job loss, technological retrenchment, and economic concentration. In 2019, when Google used its capital to snap up the course-management giant Blackboard and the Ebsco, LexisNexis, and Ovid databases, it effectively became the universal front end for research and teaching in the academy.
Many university presses were shuttered in the transition from print to digital, especially those affiliated with public universities looking to shed costs following the catastrophic collapse of the University of California system following state budget cuts in 2020. The remaining presses make up for lost textbook sales by hosting blogs where established scholars and high-octane amateurs brush shoulders (and compete for shared advertisement revenue). These in turn drive production of traditional monographs, whether published electronically, in print, or both. Scholars also directly market their services as virtual lecturers to students and other institutions. All authors now have a broader view of their audience, across institutions, disciplines, and peer levels.
Everyone is excited, but everything is uncertain. No one knows what will happen next. Just like 20 years ago
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts
NEW LIBERAL ARTS: On Sale Now
Listen, I think you are really going to like this book. It's a distillation of so many of the themes we orbit around here at Snarkmarket, presented through the prism of many minds, all very different, and all wrapped up in the form of a slick, slim volume that you'll be happy to hold in your hands.
And again—I don't want to give anything away, but—there's a secret that can only be unlocked if you possess the physical object(s).
Keep in mind: This project isn't over! Really, it's only now that it can begin. We've collectively created a coherent piece of work worth sharing with the world. But, as New Liberal Arts itself tells us, ahem, on page 41:
Ideas succeed not by being good or bad, but by being sold effectively.
As it happens, I think we've got some really good ideas in here—but we do need your help selling them. And there is a lot you can do to pitch in. Blog this, tweet about it, Facebook-share it, or best of all, recommend it directly to a friend (or three) who you think might like it.
Together, we'll sell these books, by hook or by crook*, and then—here's the fun part—together we'll ask: What next?
*Or in eight hours, apparently.
July 6, 2009
Wolfgang and Red Riding Hood
Also: "Wolfgang Joop"!!
My Travel Kit
During my year of shuttling back and forth between Missouri and Minnesota, I honed my travel regimen down to a precise science. I've got my High Sierra Wheeled Backpack, my Monster Outlets-to-Go travel power strip, spare contacts, spare eyeglasses and two zippered bags for liquid and dry toiletries, all ready to go whenever I need them. Most of my liquids -- lotion, shaving oil, hand sanitizer, eyedropper (for contact solution) -- are either refillable or are normally sold in TSA-acceptable containers, like deodorant and roll-on styptic pens.
What's always bedeviled me, though, is the toothpaste. Travel-size toothpaste can be surprisingly elusive, and the container isn't refillable. Or so I thought. I mean, it's not like you could just put the nozzle of your regular toothpaste tube up against the nozzle of the travel tube and squeeze, right?
Wrong. It totally works. And just you watch, I will still be using the same grody .75-oz tube of Crest in 2011.
Three Thoughts On Early Cities
Cities may be engines of innovation, but not everyone thinks they are beautiful, particularly the megalopolises of today, with their sprawling rapacious appetites. They seem like machines eating the wilderness, and many wonder if they are eating us as well. Is the recent large-scale relocation to cities a choice or a necessity? Are people pulled by the lure of opportunities, or are they pushed against their will by desperation? Why would anyone willingly choose to leave the balm of a village and squat in a smelly, leaky hut in a city slum unless they were forced to?
Image via Wikipedia
Well, every city begins as a slum. First it's a seasonal camp, with the usual free-wheeling make-shift expediency. Creature comforts are scarce, squalor the norm. Hunters, scouts, traders, pioneers find a good place to stay for the night, or two, and then if their camp is a desirable spot it grows into an untidy village, or uncomfortable fort, or dismal official outpost, with permanent buildings surrounded by temporary huts. If the location of the village favors growth, concentric rings of squatters aggregate around the core until the village swells to a town. When a town prospers it acquires a center — civic or religious — and the edges of the city continue to expand in unplanned, ungovernable messiness. It doesn't matter in what century or in which country, the teaming guts of a city will shock and disturb the established residents. The eternal disdain for newcomers is as old as the first city. Romans complained of the tenements, shacks and huts at the edges of their town that "were putrid, sodden and sagging." Every so often Roman soldiers would raze a settlement of squatters, only to find it rebuilt or moved within weeks.
The origins of modern human behavior are marked by increased symbolic and technological complexity in the archaeological record. In western Eurasia this transition, the Upper Paleolithic, occurred about 45,000 years ago, but many of its features appear transiently in southern Africa about 45,000 years earlier. We show that demography is a major determinant in the maintenance of cultural complexity and that variation in regional subpopulation density and/or migratory activity results in spatial structuring of cultural skill accumulation. Genetic estimates of regional population size over time show that densities in early Upper Paleolithic Europe were similar to those in sub-Saharan Africa when modern behavior first appeared. Demographic factors can thus explain geographic variation in the timing of the first appearance of modern behavior without invoking increased cognitive capacity.
While it's very nice to have some statistical evidence for this idea (even if I can't pretend to understand the "Bayesian coalescent inference" method used by the scientists to calculate the population densities in the late Pleistocene), it's worth pointing out that the density explanation isn't particularly new. In The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs forcefully argued against the "dogma of agricultural primacy," which assumed that farmers and agricultural innovations made civilization possible. Jacobs argued that the dogma was exactly backwards, and that it was the density of urbanesque clusters which generated the innovations that made farming possible. As Jacobs writes: "It was not agriculture then, for all its importance, that was the salient invention...Rather it was the fact of sustained, interdependent, creative city economies that made possible many new kinds of work." After all, you can't learn how to grow food until you've got a system for transmitting knowledge, which is why population density is so essential.
Gratuitous Space Battles
Seems like the essence of a good video game is (sometimes) figuring out what a player really wants to see on the screen, and then engineering a system to conjure up that screen as reliably as possible.
I feel that the designers of Gratuitous Space Battles have done exactly this.
NEW LIBERAL ARTS: Get It Tomorrow
A project that began earlier this year now bears fruit: slim, rectangular fruit.
New Liberal Arts, a Snarkmarket/Revelator Press collabo, is 80 pages long, with 21 pitches for new liberal arts from some of the smartest minds we could find. The pitches range from attention economics to video literacy; you are gonna love what you find in this book.
It goes on sale tomorrow at 9 a.m. PST, so be sure to check in early—there are only 200 copies. Each one is $8.99. The idea is that after we sell those, we'll release the PDF, so when you buy a book, you're also buying a little slice of free for everybody. Or something like that.
But bear in mind: New Liberal Arts has a secret—one that can only be unlocked out there in the world of atoms and new-book-smell, not here in the world of pixels and PDFs.
To warm you up, we'll be posting a few new liberal arts this week. It breaks my heart, because they look so lame here on the blog, without Brandon Kelley's wonderful design—but I do want to give you a taste.
The first, micropolitics, is from Matt. He was the most prolific contributor to this book, with 3.5 entries to his credit, and I have to tell you, each one is an E.B. White-worthy gem—compact, lucid, thought-provoking. I'd pay the cover price for his contributions alone.... Read more ....
The Geography of New Media
If you hang around in the NYC media bubble long enough, you develop the social depression of a collapsing industry. The west coast is full of a giddy frisson about the inevitable demise of big media, while the midwest is skeptical of everything that gets force-fed to them from the coasts. NYC, which has essentially zero awareness of any of this, continues to constantly be shocked! when a TMZ or Pitchfork or The Onion comes along from the hinterlands with a massively successful enterprise.
The reasons for this amounts to a lack of vision. Even smart people, vampirically bound to the past, seem completely blind to developing new formats. The standard for online innovation right now is "launch another blog," which no one seems to recognize is about as depressing as launching another newspaper.
Sign One that Mediaite will be smarter than HuffPo: this Jeffrey Feldman column that turns Nico Pitney vs. Dana Milbank into Marshall McLuhan vs. Thomas Jefferson. Me likey, Jeffrey. Me likey a lot.
July 4, 2009
The Problem Is the Wall
Ezra Klein recently moved from the American Prospect to the [depending on your perspective] loftier perch of the Washington Post. I'm guessing this has also gotten him better access to the halls of power; he seems to be snagging higher-profile interviews more often (e.g. Atul Gawande, Ron Wyden, Tom Daschle, Bernie Sanders).
But his heightened proximity to the legislative sausage factory might be having a depressing effect. Lately, he's gotten more and more negative about the deficiencies of our government structure. Most of our biggest problems, he's been saying, can't really be pinned on individual actors like Obama or, say, Tom Harkin. They're systemic.
To illustrate, he offers a nice fable:
Imagine a group of men sitting in a dim prison cell. One of the walls has a window. Beyond that wall, they know they'll find freedom. One of the men spends years picking away at it with a small knife. The others eventually tire of him. That's an idiotic approach, they say. You need more force. So one of the other men spends his days ramming the bed frame into the wall. Eventually, he exhausts himself. The others mock his hubris. Another tries to light the wall on fire. That fails as well. The assembled prisoners laugh at the attempt. And so it goes. But the problem is that there is no answer to their dilemma. The problem is not their strategy. It's the wall.
Evolution 2.0 (and 3.0 beta)
This is kind of a cool idea. Let's say that evolution writ large is only accidentally about the preservation, transmission, and development of living species, but essentially about the preservation, transmission, and development of information. On this view, organisms are just a means to an end, particularly well-adapted couriers for all of this chemical data.
If that's the case, then maybe there isn't anything particularly special about the specific form of that data (i.e. DNA) or the way it's been transmitted in humans (sexual reproduction). That's just one way of doing things - in nonconscious, nonverbal, or nonhistorical species, genetic transmission, instinct, inherited traditions are the only means you've got. But once modern humans arrive on the scene, with all their increasingly sophisticated means of representing information, then Evolution 1.0, internal transmission of information, isn't the only game in town -- you've also got Evolution 2.0, characterized by the external transmission of information.
Once you reframe evolution in this way, then you can say that our species' rate of evolution "over the last ten thousand years, and particularly... over the last three hundred" is actually off the charts.
So the guy who's arguing this is a physicist named Stephen Hawking. (Maybe you've heard of him - he's awfully smart, and was part of Al Gore's Vice Presidential Action Rangers.) He also says that our tinkering with evolution ain't over:
[W]e are now entering a new phase, of what Hawking calls "self designed evolution," in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA. "At first," he continues "these changes will be confined to the repair of genetic defects, like cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy. These are controlled by single genes, and so are fairly easy to identify, and correct. Other qualities, such as intelligence, are probably controlled by a large number of genes. It will be much more difficult to find them, and work out the relations between them. Nevertheless, I am sure that during the next century, people will discover how to modify both intelligence, and instincts like aggression."
If the human race manages to redesign itself, to reduce or eliminate the risk of self-destruction, we will probably reach out to the stars and colonize other planets. But this will be done, Hawking believes, with intelligent machines based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules, which could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.
I can't decide if this is totally anthropocentric, or exactly the opposite. But it's kind of exciting, isn't it? I'm evolving the species right now, just by typing this! And so are you, by reading it! And so are Google's nanobots, by recording all of it in their fifteenth-gen flash brains!
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Science, Technosnark
July 3, 2009
Free Book Idea: Too Big to Succeed
Tim and I had a fun Google Chat back in March about a concept for a book called "Too Big to Succeed." The window for a book on this theme to become a blockbuster is almost closed, so I figure it's time to stop hoarding the idea and make it a blog post.
The phrase "too big to succeed" has already infected the cultural lexicon this year. A quick sweep of Google shows it being applied to the banking industry, the auto industry, Twitter, big Pharma, China, and Washington, among other things.
It's a good phrase, springing up (as best as I can tell) in response to an even-more-popular recent construct: "too big to fail."
The concept of an entity or industry being "too big to succeed" deserves an extended riff. Do industries just have to congeal into tiny networks of giant institutions over time? And if so, does that tendency pretty much force the massive flameouts and market inefficiencies we've seen all over the economy recently?
I don't think this does have to happen, and therein lies the thesis of the book.
I think the era where every industry has to become an oligopoly is nearing an end. I don't think the shift towards mass institutions was a natural, inexorable network characteristic. If we look at the tape, I think we'll see that the oligopoly era was a network distortion produced by our industrial-age regulatory framework. And it's time to leave these things to a quiet rest.
In industry after industry, I think we've got an opportunity to shift our policies towards supporting nimble, durable markets that mimic real networks: diverse collections of nodes with a few particularly well-connected hubs. Let's look at a few examples:
The news industry
Over the past century, the news business went right past oligopoly into monopoly and got stuck there. Today, most of the journalism produced in every American city is an accidental byproduct of a giant, dying media conglomerate. As with all these other oligopolistic industries, the news titans are clamoring for a bailout, asking the government to prop them up and regulate away their competition.
But we can imagine a system of better, more sustainable journalism built on a robust network of independent newsrooms threaded throughout every neighborhood. Networks of editors could package this work for diverse sets of overlapping communities. In places like the Bay Area and Seattle, we're seeing the beginnings of this new model, but to thrive, it will require at least as much regulatory support as the big dogs got when they were buying their presses back in the day.
The medical industry
This was what got Tim and I started. Today, most health care is provided by big, unwieldy hospitals. They tend to cluster in these giant office parks, often far away from the inner city, where they're needed most. You walk in and have to navigate a maze of rooms, bouncing back and forth between receptionists and nurses and physician's assistants and doctors.
But the vast majority of medical care people need on a daily basis doesn't require a hospital to provide. As Tim said in our chat (punctuation mine), "There should be as many clinics as there are coffee shops, pharmacies, or copy stores. Universities do this (at least Penn does). We have a student health center; they have walk-in and appt hours, you pay a fee and it's free. They see you and administer standard care, run tests, give physicals and vaccines and such, and then refer you to the hospital or a specialist if it's more serious. You HAVE to go to the clinic if you're in Philly and it's not an emergency. And in part b/c it's a tailored operation, geared towards younger people, it's tremendously efficient."
The food industry
I just saw Food, Inc., yesterday, which might be what got me off on this riff again. If you read Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore's Dilemma, you know that Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan both identify monoculture (i.e. oligopoly and monopoly) as the primary villain in our awful global food situation. The last century saw food production shift from the local farmer to the multinational factory conglomerate. That shift is ruining our health, our environment, international diplomacy, and perhaps worst of all, our food. Meanwhile, the unbelievably obese food lobby has taken control of our government, writing intrusive laws to ensure its survival even as it crumbles under its own weight.
The movie industry
At this point, Hollywood basically exists to churn out quarterly blockbusters that each aim to repeat the formula for one blunt, universal emotion: love ("The Proposal"!), fear ("Saw XI"!), excitement ("Transformers!"), humor ("17 Again"!), etc. Nuance is lost, and art suffers. Like the food titans, the news kingpins, the health care lobbyists and others before them, the movie moguls are descending on Washington to seek protection as the twin forces of distribution implosion and supply explosion shred their profits.
But when my nephew is cooking up mindboggling special effects on his laptop, who needs Hollywood? The industry's product is unsustainable. You can't flog the formula forever. Let a universe of independent artists flourish, and overhaul the laws to help them make their magic.
We can lay this pattern onto the energy industry, the publishing industry, banking (of course), transportation, post-secondary education, you name it. If I were editing this book, I'd make that the first third, in fact: spend the preface and first chapter making the overall argument, then spend a few chapters exploring how it plays out in all these different industries. Follow up this part with a chapter laying out the history -- how this screwed-up oligopoly system took root in the first place. Trace it back to the industrial age and beyond.
The middle third of the book (I'm taking this straight from the gChat) could be about the rules of a new, more natural network system. The role of big companies in this ecosystem, what differentiates successful lean businesses from unsustainable niche businesses, how a network of microbusinesses can collaborate and compete effectively.
The last third might address how society generally would benefit, and how it would have to evolve to support this. This is where you explore the policy piece -- how our laws have to change. It's also where you talk about the Richard Florida stuff -- our evolving understanding of how properly organized urban environments should function -- and how this shift facilitates that.
Of course, as I said, I think the moment for this book is almost gone. From last September to this past January, we had a brief interlude of just transcendent possibility. Monumental shifts in our society seemed graspable. People talked about spending a trillion dollars over just a few years to fundamentally remake our economy, and we actually passed a stimulus package that got closer than anybody imagined.
But we're seeing that ambition melt quickly. We're on the verge of historic health reform legislation, sure, but now we're choking on a price tag of $1 trillion over 10 years, regardless of how much it saves us over the long term. Our chance to achieve forceful climate change legislation is dimming by the day. And our September lust to reform the banking industry has molded over into a desire to, er, re-form the banking industry, in much the same shape as it was in 2001 or so.
There was a window where a big, Gladwellian book selling this notion of industrial transformation -- not as some sort of hippie anti-corporatism but as a breakthrough business idea -- might have made some traction. But I think that window's almost shut. So this book is, for now, a blog post.
File under: Business, Cities, Snarkpolicy, Society/Culture
A California Constitutional Convention
With the state's fiscal woes mounting and Sacramento seemingly frozen in place, a group of California leaders has proposed a constitutional convention as a way to fix the Golden State's deeply entrenched structural problems.
But how do you organize the convention? I really like the sound of this scheme:
RANDOM SELECTION: This method might sound the strangest but actually may hold the most promise. It has been used in Canada and elsewhere. A scientific sampling of Californians would be randomly selected from the statewide voter list, like a jury pool.
The Bay Area Council, a group of business leaders, has proposed randomly selecting 400 Californians to create a body of average citizens who could bring their common sense and pragmatism to the problems at hand. Those delegates would be paid to participate for eight months, starting with an intensive two-month education process in which they would hear from many experts about the problems and potential solutions for California.
It's like deliberative polling with teeth!
It's not without problems, of course -- but to me they seem like better problems than the ones you get with appointed or elected bodies. And keep in mind, a randomly-selected group would be generating policy options which would then be voted on by everyone else in California, so it's not like we would, er, skip democracy entirely.
This Is What the Alien Invasion Looks Like
Another winner from Today and Tomorrow. Pretty sure this scene would be completely gross seen through eyes not belonging to an amazing photographer. This is the danger of great photography, yeah? The world doesn't look like this. Or even like this.
Riding in Style
Yo I totally want one of these vehicles. How can something so Seuss-ian actually be real?
July 2, 2009
Kickstarter is quickly becoming one of my favorite things. Here's a list of recently-funded projects.
Geeking Out, c. 1990
I love this; Hewlett-Packard is selling an exact copy of its HP-12C financial calculator for the iPhone.
The iPhone version of the HP-12C is a near carbon copy of the actual machine. It not only looks the same, but it actually runs the same code as do the physical calculators. The iPhone version is actually a bit better than just a clone of the original, though, because HP includes a simplified portrait-mode calculator (the 12C is a landscape-mode device). When used in portrait mode, you can use the number keys, along with all the usual math operators and a couple of other functions such as square roots and memory—perfect for those times when you just need a basic calculator.
The real power of the HP-12C is found when you rotate your iPhone to landscape mode; what appears on the screen then is a photographic reproduction of the actual HP-12C calculator, complete with the gold-brown-orange-blue color scheme that made the original so…endearing? Because the app uses the actual calculator’s code, absolutely everything works just like it does on the real calculator.
I used a calculator just like this to win a middle school mathematics competition - in those days, it was called a "Calculator Competition," because you could (gasp!) use a calculator. There was a school-wide thing, then a regional, and then a state final; it was a whole thing. The state final was the first time I'd ever seen a graphing calculator; that shiz blew my mind.
July 1, 2009
Volcano, Meet Cloud; Cloud, Volcano
A plume of smoke, ash and steam soars five miles into the sky from an erupting volcano.
The extraordinary image was captured by the crew of the International Space Station 220 miles above a remote Russian island in the North Pacific.
The round hole in the clouds is thought to have been caused by the shockwave of the initial explosion. At the centre lies the billowing mushroom tower of grey and brown ash.
For volcano experts, the most exciting part of the image is the layer of smooth white cloud that caps the plume - a little like a layer of snow on a mushroom.
This cap of condensed air is created from the rapid rising and then cooling of the air directly above the ash column. When moist, warm air rises quickly it creates a cloud.
File under: Beauty, Media Galaxy, No Comment, Science
This Post Is About the Windows Operating System
(Pardon the geeky, utilitarian interruption, but this Windows volume control app just changed my life. Which will sound silly to you... unless you've ever tried to change the volume on Windows, in which case you too will be scrambling to click that link and download this app.)
Oh wow. Sixty Symbols defines a bunch of classic, crucial constants in physics and astronomy -- for instance, h, Planck's constant -- via short, snappy videos. It's clever and consumable. A+.
What Canadian Expats Miss About Canada
The NYT asked:
In history class, in seventh grade (or as we like to say in Canada, grade seven) we learned the story of the American Revolution — from the British perspective. Turns out you were all a bunch of ungrateful tax cheats. And you weren’t very nice to the Loyalists. What I miss most about Canada is getting the truth about the United States.
— MALCOLM GLADWELL, a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author, most recently, of “Outliers: The Story of Success”
I also liked this quip from Simpsons writer Tim Long:
I miss the snow. Yes, I know the United States gets snow, but to my Canadian eye, American snow is like American health care: sporadic, unreliable and distributed unevenly among the population.
My Eight-Year-Old Self Can't Believe Any Of This
There are only 60,000 nuns left in the US Catholic Church.And the Vatican wants to start an inquisition into what's left of the orders, 'cause some o' them ladies just maybe ain't been doin' what they're told.
Well, that's just great. Thank you, Pope Benedict - you're so evil, you've got me rooting for nuns. (It's like in Return of the Jedi, when you realize Darth Vader isn't really the real bad guy.)
Behold, the Macro-User
Wow. Google explains some new Gmail features with graphs of aggregate user behavior. That is amazing. I want to see the whole Gmail user behavior dashboard! I want to see the top 100 labels that people use! I want to see everything!
Language Is A Technology That Restructures Language
Lera Boroditsky has a super-interesting essay at Edge on her work empirically testing the proposition that language structures thought. (Blërg - resisting urge to... blockquote.... sigh.)
So Boroditsky's got some clever tests, including asking speakers/writers of a different language to arrange pictures chronologically (Roman languages tend to arrange chronology from left to right, Hebrew from right to left, and fascinatingly, the Kuuk Thaayorre in Australia do it from east to west), and testing incidences of adjectives speakers of languages with gendered nouns assign to those nouns - Germans think keys (male) are hard and jagged and bridges are slender and beautiful, where Spanish-speakers (whose gender assignations switch the nouns) correspondingly flip associations.
But... okay, look. I believe in this thesis. But the tests to my mind are not conclusive evidence. Here's why.
You can't get into a person's head.
Is is that simple? It is.
Because (stay with me) all of these tests don't show that speakers of different language think differently, but that they represent thought differently. The way we write changes the way we talk, and the way we represent thought in space. The way we talk also changes the way we write. And the way we talk changes the way we talk. You don't have any evidence - at least, any evidence that doesn't assume the premise - that Germans actually THINK bridges are more graceful or beautiful than Spaniards do - just that they're more likely to use adjectives with feminine associations with feminine nouns. What this suggests immediately is that language is a complex and interconnected system where terms and kinds group together, and small linguistic changes actually trigger a series of different linguistic associations and values. It DOESN'T immediately prove that language structures thought - understood as something independent from its representation.
Because if language is the vocal and visual representation of concepts, then ALL of Boroditsky's tests are instances of language. Language structures language. And once you assume unproblematically that language directly represents thought, then you naturally discover that thought and language are inseparable. Which is what was to be shown. But this is logically a tautology - even if its empirical specifics of how that tautology manifests itself are fascinating.
Let me reframe this, then. What I think these experiments show is that in moments where we may think we are simply registering our pure and unmediated experience of the world, we're really on auto-pilot - language is in fact doing our "thinking" for us. But this kind of not-quite-thinking doesn't automatically deserve to be called "thought" at all.