June 28, 2007
Down With Values
Props to Ezra Klein for coming out swinging:
I have a confession to make: I am not a values voter. I do not want a foreign policy based upon "the idea that is America." I do not think we should be guided in all things by such glittering concepts as liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith.
In fact, I'm fed up with values. Entirely. They've failed this country. As a lodestar, there is none worse.
His column is keyed to a new foreign policy book by Anne-Marie Slaughter. It's all about the responsible application of American values to world affairs; but Klein says:
The problem with Slaughter's vision, which I generally found myself in enthusiastic agreement with, is that the only one I trust to carry it out is, well, Slaughter. And possibly me.
What Klein wants is foreign policy proposals that focus on material outcomes -- not moral origins. We've had enough of the latter lately.
What timing! I'm going to see Francis Fukuyama speak tonight. He's going to revisit and re-appraise his argument from The End of History and the Last Man -- parts of which formed some of the deepest framework for the neocon misadventure. Expect a full report.
Mutation State University
From the Dept. of Alma Mater Promotion:
In the corner of a laboratory at Michigan State University, one of the longest-running experiments in evolution is quietly unfolding. A dozen flasks of sugary broth swirl on a gently rocking table. Each is home to hundreds of millions of Escherichia coli, the common gut microbe. These 12 lines of bacteria have been reproducing since 1989, when the biologist Richard E. Lenski bred them from a single E. coli. "I originally thought it might go a couple thousand generations, but it's kept going and stayed interesting," Dr. Lenski said. He is up to 40,000 generations now, and counting.
In case you glossed over it: "...have been reproducing since 1989." That is, to be clear, an 18-year-old experiment. And counting!
The Very Definition of America
Albert Einstein, 1935, a letter to a childhood friend:
I have now set up home in this curious new world and am still brooding like an old hen on the same old scientific eggs, even if the bodily warmth which one needs for brooding has rather diminished over the years. What is so nice in this country is that the people don't sit so much on top of one another and, as a result, feel more comfortable with each other. So I sit here the whole summer in a quiet bay and sail in a little sailing boat as much as I want to.
P.S. You know, I'd never realized until just now that "brooding" actually means sitting on eggs or baby birds. Changes my impression of the word somewhat.
June 27, 2007
Greenwich Office vs. Palo Alto Garage
Interesting pair of posts here.
In response to a student's question about the social value of a Wall Street career, economist Greg Mankiw argues replies that yes, investors make a big contribution to society by making the economy more efficient.
The comment thread that follows is insanely good. Very long, and very detailed, but worth a look. I thought this was the gem:
The "invisible hand" works great when it is forcing productive firms to be more efficient.
However, some activities in our complex economy don't directly produce anything -- some portions of litigation, advertising, lobbying, and stock analysis simply shuffle existing production. In these cases, profit maximizing firms aren't automatically controlled by the invisible hand.
Prof Mankiw's student is correct in asking whether one more worker in those areas will really help grow the economic pie.
Economists can find positive externalities in any of these activities. Probably the first million hours of stock analysis (or litigation, or ...) provides an efficiency gain that justifies the deployment of those talented individuals. But that doesn't guarantee that the last million is a net positive.
The "deployment of talented individuals" angle is important. Over on his blog, Robert Reich also hits it (I feel like he must have read Mankiw's post, though he doesn't mention or link to it, so, uh, maybe not):
America is the greatest entrepreneurial nation in the world. But there are really two kinds of entrepreneurs here – product entrepreneurs and financial entrepreneurs –and only one of them truly builds the economy. Product entrepreneurs find new ways of satisfying customers. Financial entrepreneurs find new ways of ... well, making money off money.
Problem is, financial entrepreneurship is becoming more and more dominant in the economy. Thirty years ago, finance was the handmaiden of American industry. Now industry is run by finance. For every budding Steve Jobs or Bill Gates there are now thousands of aspiring private equity or hedge fund managers. That’s because this is where the big bucks are. Which means, it’s where some of our most talented young people are going.
The problem isn’t just the brain drain. It’s what the brains are being used for. Competition in the real economy generates better products. But competition in the financial economy is often a zero-sum contest.
"Now industry is run by finance" -- that's an interesting claim and takes the conversation into (I think) more useful territory.
Note that I have no smart ideas or opinions about this. Just starting to wonder about it.
P.S. The next post is about Muppets.
My Favorite Muppet
Snarkmarket pal Chris Fong saw Gonzo (and, okay, his puppeteer Dave Goelz) speak at the Yerba Buena Center here in SF. He edited together a little video and it is pretty cool.
AND -- crucial Muppet-viewing advice -- it's more fun it you drag a window over Goelz (sorry, Dave) so you just see Gonzo sitting there by himself.
June 25, 2007
Brave New Biotech World
I know this has been like The Next Big Thing for a long time, but it's sort of starting to happen. From Kottke:
A company called Lifeforce has received FDA approval to store white blood cells for people as a "back-up copy of your immune system." The idea is that those pre-diseased cells could be reproduced in the lab and infused back into your body when needed to fight off infection or deal with the aftermath of chemotherapy.
Soon there are going to be little bits of us stored everywhere. I'm serious! I know! It's weird!
But think Caravaggio, not Banksy. Sort of totally brilliant.
June 24, 2007
- Chinese Mirrors by Rick Perlstein in The Nation. Multi-book review (the best kind) with a special focus on James Mann's new book The China Fantasy. Mann's last book, The Rise of the Vulcans, about the original Bush/Cheney foreign policy team, was almost unbelievably good, so I am excited to read this one at some point.
- China Makes, The World Takes by James Fallows in The Atlantic. I know it's lame to link to a subscriber-only article, but... I don't know... email me and I'll send you a copy or something. It's reporting in the truest sense: Rather than refer to GDP statistics, or talk to "experts," Fallows goes to Shenzhen and hangs out in Chinese factories. He describes characters and scenes I'd never have imagined. Any time somebody actually does this, it reminds you how, er, rarely it gets done. Worth noting that Fallows comes away from his investigation with a fairly positive view.
(I have a special fondness for Fallows, as his pieces in The Atlantic were some of the first "Big Ideas journalism" I ever read, and pretty much cracked my head wide open circa 1998-99.)
- My Time as a Hostage, and I'm a Business Reporter by David Barboza in the NYT. The lead:
AS an American journalist based in China, I knew there was a good chance that at some point I'd be detained for pursuing a story. I just never thought I'd be held hostage by a toy factory.Via Dani Rodrik's excellent blog.
Institutions: They Came from Somewhere!
Institutions such as the school, the family, the joint stock company, the political party, the state and its bureaucracy owe their robustness and proclaimed timelessness to the fact that we cannot tell who 'invented' them. In that sense, 'fatherlessness' is an asset, as is the myth of parthenogenesis in the case of the founder of Christianity. Similarly, human reason itself, rather than some personal founder, is held to be... the source of the state as an institution.
The corporation (nee joint stock company) has actually not quite achieved that kind of timelessness yet, I don't think, but it's getting close. There's a short, sharp book called The Company by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge that describes its development from the earliest, lamest incarnations to present day multinationals, and when you see it all laid out it seems anything but inevitable. Micklethwait and Wooldridge are Economist writers and unabashed fans of the corporation, but their telling of its tale is fair.
Anyway, I'd love to see comparable books for some of those other institutions: The School, The Family, The Party, etc.
I actually do know one of at least one other, which I've plugged here before: Home: A Short History of an Idea, by Witold Rybczynski.
P.S. The link is to the blog I read that somewhere, a new favorite.
School of Games
The nonprofit John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation today announced that it has awarded a grant of $1.1 million to assist in the development of a New York City public school aimed at teaching literacy and other skills through game design and game-inspired methods to children in grades 6-12.
All players in the school -- teachers, students, parents and administrators -- will be empowered to innovate using 21st century literacies that are native to games and design. This means learning to think about the world as a set of in interconnected systems that can be affected or changed through action and choice, the ability to navigate complex information networks, the power to build worlds and tell stories, to see collaboration in competition, and communicate across diverse social spaces.
Okay, that actually manages to make it sound less cool... but seriously, come on, think about it. This is 100% the future.
June 22, 2007
Frame-Grab from the Future
So Second Life and it ilk generally leave me cold these days, but I gotta admit, these notes from a panel on virtual worlds made me shiver a little. By the time they get to the Q&A it's nuts. Definitely worth a read.
Pardon the byzantine link, but if you click here, choose "Launch Fora Player," then click on section four, "Philosophical Perspective of Democracy in the U.S.," (whew) you'll get a neat run-down of the "skyboxification" of American life from Michael Sandel, whose book Democracy's Discontent was and still is a big deal to me. I'd never heard him talk before and it's pretty fantastic.
A New Star to Follow
Larry Lessig has a post up where he announces a new direction for his research and activism. The substance is super-interesting -- he's going to focus on corruption of the political process, in a broad sense, rather than copyright policy -- but so is the format.
I love the idea of so consciously staking out a direction -- of so publicly announcing a new set of questions. His post has this almost odd specificity to it:
[...] I have decided to shift my academic work, and soon, my activism, away from the issues that have consumed me for the last 10 years, towards a new set of issues: Namely, these. "Corruption" as I've defined it elsewhere will be the focus of my work. For at least the next 10 years, it is the problem I will try to help solve.
He explains that he's been doing copyright policy for ten years; he feels he's learned all he's going to about that set of questions, and kicked off a powerful movement; and now it's time to start over.
As Lessig defines it in his post, corruption is the central problem in our political system today: Its inability (our inability?) to acknowledge broadly-agreed-upon facts and act appropriately. See: "An Inconvenient Truth, "The Assault on Reason." (Indeed, Lessig says Al Gore is one of the people who inspired this new direction.)
But I lost track of my original point: Even if his new focus was milkshake policy, I'd be impressed by the sharpness of his shift, by the stark statement of new goals. For those of us with a million thoughts and links buzzing around in their brains, all mostly just looping in on each other (clearly I am talking about Matt here), it's a good model to consider.
June 20, 2007
A Bit of Love for Current
Imagine a television network that operates like YouTube but with a social conscience, a programming staff and a crew of professional videographers, journalists and hosts giving it shape.
Imagine it complete with viewer-made commercials.
Lately I've been happily distracted by such a network, Current TV. Specializing in short attention spans, airing mini-shows called "pods," Current TV is designed as always-on cultural background music for the iPod generation the way CNN is a constant for diplomats and editors.
The diplomats and editors will be ours as well.
Chanced Upon Absurdly
Garance Franke-Ruta awesomely begins a blog post like this: "I was rereading some 17th century essays recently..."
They were essays on youth vs. wisdom, it turns out -- here's a blockquote from Francis Bacon:
The errors of young men, are the ruin of business; but the errors of aged men, amount but to this, that more might have been done, or sooner. Young men, in the conduct and manage of actions, embrace more than they can hold; stir more than they can quiet; fly to the end, without consideration of the means and degrees; pursue some few principles, which they have chanced upon absurdly; care not to innovate, which draws unknown inconveniences; use extreme remedies at first; and, that which doubleth all errors, will not acknowledge or retract them; like an unready horse, that will neither stop nor turn.
I don't know about that whole line-up, but "pursue some few principles, which they have chanced upon absurdly" is pretty terrific and, er, rings true.
My Heart Is An Idiot
Meta-concept: a documentary in progress, in public.
Actual concept: a documentary about the guys behind Found magazine.
ACTUAL actual concept: a documentary about love!
June 19, 2007
The Assassin's Blog
Jenny 8. Lee Blogs
Jenny 8. Lee has a blog! It's keyed to her new book, and it's good. You know, blogs really are the great leveler, in that even New York Times reporters must at some point admit this:
Okay. I just registered for hosting at Dreamhost and installed Wordpress.
And indeed, as my friend promised, it was one-click installation + typing in some fields. I had a little stumble with trying to figure out a good nomenclature for the mysql database, as ‘wordpress’ and ‘blog’ (recommended) were being used elsewhere in the Dreamhost world.
Her publisher Twelve has a fun setup:
But instead, Karp launched a small imprint at Warner Books called Twelve -- the idea being that he would publish only twelve books a year and personally edit each one [...]
Seriously though, back to that MySQL thing: I love it that a generation of writers must all now learn a bit of database syntax to be successful.
Leila Fadel is McClatchy's bureau chief in Baghdad; her blog is riveting. I'd tuned out a lot of the news out of Iraq 'til I subscribed.
I almost want to put some tag on it, though, like NSFW, except somehow warning you how just utterly harrowing and beyond the pale it is:
Back at the office the reports started to come in. Five Sunni mosques attacked in Basra, three set on fire or bombed in Baghdad, three south of Baghdad. Muted compared to last years attacks. I sent everyone home before the three-day-curfew began, save two of our guys.
Sahar, one of our Iraqi reporters, called and told me about a woman in Adhamiya. Her husband, her protector, could not get home before the curfew started. As darkness fell upon Baghdad the cancer-ridden woman shook with fear, her three children around her, as mortars fell nearby. She would be alone tonight and two more nights.
I called downstairs for stress-relievers -- chocolate and coffee. One of my favorite hotel staffers brought them up from the cafeteria.
"What do you think about this?" I asked.
"Just drop two nuclear bombs on us and finish this," Dhia said wiping his hands together as if to wash his hands of Iraq.
"But we'd die," I replied.
"So what. I just want to finish from this," he said. With a sad laugh he walked away toting his metal tray.
Here's Fadel's intro to the blog.
June 17, 2007
Maybe We Could Get Matt to Narrate This
Ah hahaha -- speaking of sharp and funny -- please note "In the Year 2030, the Young Hotshot at My Office Tries to Walk Me Through 'Centaur,' Apple's New Mind-Orb-Based Operating System."
'Steal from The Simpsons, Not Henry James'
Novelists can take from these new art forms [e.g., sitcoms and HBO-quality TV dramas] new structures and techniques for telling stories, as Joyce did from cinema. But who has? Weirdly, the modernists have a more accurate take on now than the most recent Booker winners. Finnegans Wake reads like a mash-up of a Google translation of everything ever. But John Banville and Anita Desai read like nostalgia (for Nabokov, for Dickens, for traditional virtues, for the canon). They feel far less contemporary than The Waste Land -- which is what Bakhtin would call a novelised poem: a poem that escapes Aristotle's Poetics and hitches a ride on the energy of the novel ... Since Joyce and Woolf (and Eliot), the novel's wheels have spun in the sand.
So steal from The Simpsons, not Henry James.
The line "Finnegans Wake reads like a mash-up of a Google translation of everything ever" is gold.
Seriously, though: I want a sharp, funny, forward-looking novel that reads like a cross between Samurai Champloo, Joss Whedon's run on "Amazing X-Men," and a Facebook wall. Not another tome about, like, "the nature of memory and loss"* set in 1965 Buenos Aires.
*Not actually a quote from anything but it might as well be.
USB Pinkie Drive
My favorite thing in my All-Ett these days is the impossibly tiny Kingmax 2-gb Super Stick. The dimensions? 1.3" x 0.1" x 0.5". Two gigabytes. That's more capacity than my high school desktop PC. And it's made of reinforced steel or something, honestly. Best part? It costs $16.
Why hasn't this device taken over the world yet?
June 15, 2007
The Park at the Center of the World
The incomparable Witold Rybczynski writes up proposals for a new park on Governors Island in New York City. Really really interesting. And I agree with his pick for the best design.
P.S. Slate's slideshow format = not great, I know.
P.P.S. Read Rybczynski's book Home. It's transcendently good.
It's Hard to Tell the Difference
From the mind that brought you the public domain photoblog Thank You, The Man comes...
It has a nice ring to it.
June 14, 2007
Art for Our Time
June 13, 2007
Nothing you can tell me will convince me this is real. Nothing.
The Lamest Duck
Another TIME.com slideshow: This time it's President Bush's recent trip to Europe. Most of the images aren't of Bush at all, though; they're of the weird moments and empty spaces that surround any State Visit.
No idea if this is intended, but it feels a lot like a photo op-ed. The pictures definitely seem to make an argument: about the hollowness of pomp, about the scene behind the TV cameras, about being alone in the world.
Doodle Doodle Doodle
(Man, I could just say "doodle" all day.)
June 12, 2007
Gorilla vs. Monkey
Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, the guys who created The Gorillaz, have written an opera called Monkey. Of course.
It sounds sort of super-awesome:
"Opera is just a term for drama in theatre that's led entirely by music", says Jamie. "People are scared of operas, especially when they're in Mandarin. People will be astounded by this show, but they have to take that leap of faith. The first four months was complete confusion. It was quite scary doing this. But that's where the excitement is for me, the challenge. Now we have 81 minutes of non-stop, in your face entertainment. You won't have the opportunity to get bored! There's no curtain and no pauses. We have dragons and water and horses and lots of animation and flying sequences. It's full on."
US Map of the World
This map displays US states renamed as foreign countries with similar GDP. California, for example, is re-christened France (whose GDP is $2.15 tril), Michigan becomes Argentina, and Texas becomes Canada. As the footnotes on the map indicate, it's not a straightforward comparison, because it doesn't include population. But it's a pretty darn interesting visualization nonetheless.
June 11, 2007
Wild Orchids and Trotsky
Jurgen Habermas writes a short obituary for philosopher Richard Rorty, who passed away on Friday. "One small autobiographical piece by Rorty bears the title 'Wild Orchids and Trotsky.' In it, Rorty describes how as a youth he kicked around the blooming hillside in north-west New Jersey, and breathed in the stunning odour of orchids. At the same time he discovered a fascinating book at the home of his leftist parents, defending Leon Trotsky against Stalin. This was the start of the vision which accompanied the young Rorty to college: philosophy is there to reconcile the celestial beauty of orchids with Trotsky's dream of justice on earth."
Update: Ah, here's the actual piece by Habermas.
David Brin's Respect
Discover Magazine has a short interview up with science fiction author David Brin. They ask him how he's chalked up such a good record as a prognosticator, and this is what he says:
Peering ahead is mostly art. We all have tricks. One of mine is to look for "honey-pot ideas" drawing lots of fad attention. Whatever's fashionable, try to poke at it. Maybe 1 percent of the time you'll find a trend or possibility that's been missed. Another method is even simpler: Respect the masses. Nearly all futuristic movies and novels -- even sober business forecasts -- seem to wallow in the same smug assumption that most people are fools. This stereotype led content owners to envision the Internet as a delivery conduit to sell movies to passive couch potatoes. Even today, many of the social-net and virtual-world companies treat their users like giggling 13-year-olds incapable of expressing more than a sentence at a time of actual discourse.
Good, prescient stuff throughout.
And! If you haven't read the thrilling tale of the Streaker and her neo-dolphin crew, then by all means, do so immediately!
June 9, 2007
Short Stack Stories
Nina Katchadourian tells little tales via titles on book spines, e.g.
Click through and look for the one called "Shark Journal."
Incidentally, I've been moving books today and thinking about arranging them by color.
June 8, 2007
This Will Be Hilarious for 18 More Months
The SuperNews soundboard. Awesome.
June 7, 2007
Families and Their Food
The best part of TIME's website is the photo essays, hands-down. Here's a new one: portraits of families around the world, along with the food they eat. They're by Peter Menzel -- they're from his book -- and they're beautiful.
Via the excellent Eyeteeth.
P.S. For some reason I was particularly charmed by the Melander family of Bargteheide.
Weird Stuff from Finland
June 5, 2007
Threadless for Bumper Stickers
Ha! I bet you thought I was posting an actual link to a site that was, in fact, Threadless for bumper stickers. But if such a thing exists -- which it must -- I'm not cool enough to know about it. Enlighten me, o ye crowd-wisdom.
June 4, 2007
Cut the Flow of the Cola
"I want you to know that the gum arabic which runs all the soft drinks all over the world, including the United States, mainly 80 percent is imported from my country," the ambassador said after raising a bottle of Coca-Cola.
I love the world.
Just Hop on My Skylab
This is my favorite Double-Tongued Dictionary entry in a looong time: skylab. File under: English, Philippines, transportation. There's even a video!
This Much I Will Concede to New York City
I have long bristled at New Yorkers' insistence that New York pizza is the One True Pizza and all others are pale imitations (or, perhaps, gross inflations).
Well, I'm in New York, and completely by chance I dropped into Rigoletto on the Upper West Side for a couple of slices. Two bucks each (!), so I wasn't expecting much.
They were seriously the best two slices of pizza I've had in... er... forever.
And Rigoletto isn't even close to the best-rated NYC pizza place on Yelp. I think I might have to hit Joe's before I leave.
June 1, 2007
The Diamond Age Starts... Now?
Physicists just figured out how to address a single carbon-13 nucleus as a memory register -- a quantum bit -- at room temperature. That's an important distinction; all quantum memory to date has relied on freakish near-absolute-zero conditions in the lab.
P.S. It also involves lasers. Of course.