June 27, 2008
Wow. An excellent, panoramic op-ed by Gary Hart in the NYT. It's about long cycles in American history, and argues we're entering a new one now.
But mostly I just liked his reference to "The Candidate":
Senator Obama has two choices. He can focus on winning the election to the exclusion of all else and, like Robert Redford in "The Candidate," ask "What do we do now?"ť after it is over. Or he can use his campaign as a platform for designing a new political cycle and achieve a mandate for starting it.
You've seen "The Candidate," right? Best political movie ever.
(Via Thomas Goetz.)
Media is Magic
(For some reason this just struck me with force: Media is magic. It's leverage. It's the only possible way -- the only possible way -- for an individual, sans army or vast fortune, to touch the lives of more than a trivial number of people. We in the web-world tend to get a bit desensitized to the scale of our work, but whoah: Tens of thousands of people? Hundreds of thousands? That is a power unknown to generations past -- again, except for the tyrants and tycoons. What good timing on our part!)
(Okay, back to work.)
The War Council
My favorite two pieces in McClatchy's magisterial investigation of Guantanamo Bay -- that is, the pieces that I found most surprising and depressing -- were:
- This piece on the ways in which detention centers became de facto recruitment centers for jihadis.
- This piece on "the War Council" of five lawyers that wrote most of the opinions that cleared the way for all these abuses. Seriously, they called themselves "the War Council."
I've been reading the series on the train in the morning, which I don't recommend, because you spend the rest of the day sorta pissed off.
June 26, 2008
Great note at the bottom of Chris Anderson's latest blog post.
The setup: He's just talked to a guy who runs massive server farms -- the kind that acts as substrate for Amazon's EC2 and similar systems. Many are in Washington and Oregon because of the cheap, clean electricity. The juice is even cheaper and cleaner in Canada... but Mr. Server Farm won't go north of the border:
Why not? Because of political instability. Canada's governments shift from right to left too often, he said, and the threat of regional secession was too real to risk putting multi-hundred-million-dollar data facilities there--between changes in the laws to even the slight risk of nationalization should the wrong person be elected, he thought Canada's political liabilities outweighed its energy assets.
I love that! Because I have officially never thought of Canada as being in any way risky.
June 25, 2008
'Like a Train Hobo With a Chicken Bone'
And he didn't just "do" it. He worked over an idea like a diamond cutter with facets and angles and refractions of light. He made you sorry you ever thought you wanted to be a comedian. He was like a train hobo with a chicken bone. When he was done there was nothing left for anybody.
June 24, 2008
More Is Different
I quite enjoyed the Wired cover story this month, which begins by arguing that a surfeit of data is rendering the notion of scientific modeling basically obsolete, and continues by walking through several ways in which this phenomenon has manifested itself out in the world. I especially enjoyed this mini-essay about the Europe Media Monitor, which looks like a useful potential news source to scan to see what the world is talking about. You can see, for example, that it identified the pre-election violence in Zimbabwe as the biggest story of the day yesterday, and pulls together reports from all over the global press on the subject.
The Gentleman from Twitter
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is twittering. Like, really twittering:
He's the best thing since the Mars Phoenix!
Monthly Payments on the American Dream
I want to talk about home ownership!
Paul Krugman is back in top form with a column that reminds me why I'm a Krug-fan in the first place.
It's about the huge preference that U.S. policy expresses for home ownership vs. renting. Krugman goes through all the micro-scale concerns -- including a great comparison that likens buying a house to buying stocks on margin -- but then there's an interesting macro-perspective:
Owning a home also ties workers down. Even in the best of times, the costs and hassle of selling one home and buying another -- one estimate put the average cost of a house move at more than $60,000 -- tend to make workers reluctant to go where the jobs are.
So at the societal scale, do strong policy incentives for home ownership create, on the whole, a less mobile workforce? I think that's interesting and worth talking about! On one hand, it's obviously good to support people as they put down roots and become a more permanent part of a community. On the other hand, it's 2008, and the economic map of the U.S. is changing fast!
Very curious about any questions, ideas, rants, links, etc. on home ownership out there. (Living in San Francisco, the issue is entirely academic, so my aim is to live vicariously through the snarkmatrix.)
June 23, 2008
Large Hadron Countdown
June 22, 2008
The Biggest Thing You've Never Heard Of
I'm in Princeton visiting Dan so it's good timing that I just ran across a story about the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) -- the biggest, most important organization you've never heard of.
When we went to Bangladesh back in 2001, it was in part because we were fascinated with the Grameen Bank, a microcredit pioneer that's well-known in the West, in part simply because they have, uh, really good PR.
By the time we left, Grameen had been totally eclipsed in our esteem by BRAC, which does more, for more people, more efficiently, and (importantly) in a much more holistic way than Grameen. BRAC essentially fills the void left by the corruption and confusion of Bangladesh's real government. And remember, this really matters: There are more than 150 million people in Bangladesh!
I'm reminded of it by FP's list of the world's most powerful NGOs: BRAC is one of five listed, along with the Gates Foundation and Doctors Without Borders. It has an annual budget of half a billion dollars and a staff of 110,000. Wow.
Hey, just 'cause we're in the middle of the longest days of the year doesn't mean you should forget about the moon.
June 19, 2008
Rex, Clay, Rock Stars
But maybe you'll beat me to it...
My Brain Is Changing (Put That Phone Away)
It made its rounds last week, but I only just got to Nick Carr's Atlantic article on Google, brains, books, reading, and thinking.
I liked it a lot, and I think his central premise -- that using the web so much, for so long, is changing the way our brains work -- is correct. As with every kind of change like that, it's a mixed bag: terrific in some ways, awful in others.
Generally of course I'm a fan of the web way of thinking, but as it has wormed its way into the walking, talking physical world -- mostly via mobile phones but also via laptop if you're in an office like I am -- it's started to freak me out.
William Gibson's got this line that goes something like: "Our descendants are going to think it was quaint that we distinguished at all between the virtual and the real." And, oh man, to sit around a table at a bar these days, with people phasing in and out to flip open phones and tap text messages to invisible companions -- it's here. For a certain kind of person in a certain kind of place, the virtual suffuses the real and sits alongside it.
And jeez, it's distracting!
We're in this odd phase now where technology far outpaces manners and mores, so I think part of the problem is just that nobody knows how to act. (I am no paragon here; I paw my phone for texts, tweets, emails, alerts, and who-even-knows-what as much as anybody else, and mine doesn't even have a swooshy touch-screen or anything.)
I'm sure we'll develop better instincts for this stuff. Or get used to it. Or both.
But either way, it's a pretty special thing for this to be happening so quickly (it's happening quickly, right?) and to be so aware of it: to see the texture of our inner and outer lives warp and change before our very eyes.
The State of Investigative Journalism
This strikes me as a well-informed interview with Charles Lewis, "the godfather of non-profit investigative journalism," on efforts to support the form. My favorite nugget, and the one highlighted on other sites that link to this interview, is that Lewis is modeling his new endeavor on the Children's Television Workshop:
"I use the name 'Workshop' because I was always fascinated with the Children’s Television Workshop, which of course incubated Big Bird and 'Sesame Street' and other programming," he said. "I’d like to spawn new models and new entities and make it a friendly atmosphere for entrepreneurialsm — for non-profits, for-profits and hybrids of both. That’s an unusual dimension to this."
June 17, 2008
1. The flooding in the Midwest has been nuts.
2. No better way to experience its nuts-ness than Boston.com's The Big Picture. Just look at those photos! Wow.
I'm starting my next company in Vermont!
(It's a product of the New York Law School's Do Tank, which has the tagline "democracy design workshop." That could not be any cooler.)
June 16, 2008
Oh This Is Just Ridiculous
Insane browsable 3D map of Stockholm made entirely from aerial photos. And here I thought Google Earth had a lock on the gee-whiz-geography category.
Hey, I'm never going to make this, but let me get on the record for coming up with the idea: a simple iPhone 3G app that, using the phone's GPS and accelerometers, lets you snap contributions to a 3D model very similar to this one. You stand on a street corner and firehose your phone around a bit; the photos and camera orientation info get beamed up to some server, reassembled by, um, these guys apparently, and voila: crowdsourced photoreal 3D model of everything.
Thank me later.
Running the 21st Century Campaign
Obsessed with politics all of a sudden. Great panel from a Google/National Journal event if you're interested in the intersection of the internet and campaigning. Joe Rospars from the Obama campaign is (obviously) super-impressive.
Favorite phrase: "digital coattails."
P.S. I know I mentioned it once already, but seriously, if you're not reading Five Thirty-Eight, you need to be. Nate Silver has the coolest, clearest writing voice I've run across in a long time -- which is a special boon given that he's writing about insane multivariate regressions. A++.
June 15, 2008
The Music of News
In one of the many Tim Russert reminiscences circulating this weekend, Isaac Chotiner mentioned the grandiose theme music of Meet the Press, which has always been one of my favorite parts of the show. Naturally, this sent me spiraling deep into the Googleverse, where I was delighted to discover a GeoCities (!) site entitled "Network news music," containing the full themes of network news shows as they evolved over the years.
On the page for NBC, you'll find two versions of the theme for Meet the Press -- movement IV of a symphony entitled "The Mission," which NBC News commissioned from John Williams; the movement is called "The Pulse of Events." Movement I of "The Mission" opens the NBC Nightly News, and the third movement opened the Today Show for several years. Having grown up listening to many of these themes, it's a revelation to hear the motifs that reverberate through all of them when you play them in sequence.
It's finds like these that remind me how much I love the Web.
See also: this analysis of network news music from Slate.
What a neat idea, from Alfonso Serrano by way of Felix Salmon:
Personally, I think this is a really good idea: give every print subscriber one Class B voting share of NYT stock, and then give them one more share every three months thereafter, assuming their subscription is still in good standing. The securities would automatically convert to Class A shares if they were sold or transferred, or if the subscriber let his subscription lapse.
I'm sure there's some SEC craziness that renders this totally implausible, but even so, it's appealing.
(Link via my dad!)
June 14, 2008
Open That Drafty Window
"I try to observe the 42-degree rule," Mr. Furst said, explaining the cutoff temperature for working in the studio. "I've got radiators and an L. L. Bean vest I wear. I think that was the secret of the Romantic poets: they wrote cold."
June 13, 2008
Beyond the Law
For more than six years, the United States has held hundreds of men at Guantanamo — "the worst of the worst," in the words of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But the truth was different. McClatchy tracked down 66 men released from Guantanamo in the most systematic survey to date of prisoners held there. Many had no connection to terrorism, but their experience turned them against America.This sounds like it builds on the work done in the masterful This American Life segment "Habeas Schmabeus," which won a 2006 Peabody Award. (And also brought me close to tears. This American Life has done an incredible job of portraying the tragedy of wrongful imprisonment. The episode "Perfect Evidence" just wrecked me.)
June 12, 2008
Intro to U.S. Politics
Yes, I'm about to link directly to a Powerpoint file. I know that's wack. But it's really a fun read (flip?) -- Kennedy School prof David C. King's overview of U.S. political culture, pre-Revolution to present. Good grounding in the structure of government (watch for the budget pie-chart) and the deep roots (and in many ways, deep uniqueness) of our present politics.
Okay it's over.
Here's King's homepage.
How to Pronounce Beijing
Oops. Trying to be a smart-pants -- "bay-zhing" -- I was totally saying it wrong.
House of Leaves
Mpls Meetup: 7/11 Weekend
OK, if we were actually to to do this meetup exactly a month from now in Minneapolis (7/10-7/13), who could make it? I've got a comfy leather couch, a queen-sized aerobed in my spare bedroom (weightroom), floor space for anyone who doesn't mind it, and I might be able to rustle up a friend or two to host some folks as well. I can promise a rip-roaring time, an itinerary packed with culinary and cultural delights, at least one save-the-world-caliber conversation, and lefse.
All I want for Christmas is a solemn promise that no one will ever use the word "cybergenic" unironically again for the rest of my life, please.
June 11, 2008
For all the television news coverage, Americans have the slimmest sense of what the war actually feels and looks like—crumbling deserts, blasted buildings, angry crowds, random firefights. The image of Iraq is flickering and formless. Each year of the war seems like the last, and the patrols and meetings with Iraqis that soldiers conduct every day don’t make for good television ratings. With the exception of Falluja, there have been no memorable battles. The mundane character of counterinsurgency, the fact that journalists have become targets, and the media’s sheer lack of imagination have combined to make this most covered of modern wars one of the least vivid. Iraq is more remote in our consciousness than Vietnam ever was. It has been strangely difficult for Americans even to picture the place. I’ve been asked more times than I can remember, “What does it look like over there?” If you think of World War II or Vietnam, a dozen photographs immediately come to mind. But Iraq has not been a photographer’s war. What are its iconic images? Digital snapshots by military policemen in Abu Ghraib, footage of beheadings posted by jihadis on the Web. There was no shortage of superb photographers taking extraordinary risks in Iraq, and perhaps time will sort from their work a handful of images that will define this war in the same way that, for example, Robert Capa’s photographs of Omaha Beach and Nick Ut’s of children fleeing napalm defined earlier ones. But almost five years into this war, there is only blank space where America’s picture of Iraq should be.
Fiction With An API
Per Henry Jenkins, fiction is best understood as a platform: a system to build on. The thing you build can be as narrow as your own interpretation, or as expansive as fan fiction, fan art, movies, video games, or even physically-realized artifacts from the fictional world.
So one way to judge the success of a story is to look at how much additional creativity it inspires. By this measure, Harry Potter is a modern masterpiece, and Shakespeare is the king of all time. Seems about right to me.
P.S. No, I have never actually finished one of Henry Jenkins' blog posts, either. But the first three to four paragraphs are always super-smart.
June 10, 2008
This new BMW concept car just dropped like a bomb in the auto/tech nerdosphere, and for good reason: It's the kind of thing that, seen once, changes the way you think about cars -- high-tech objects -- forever. I think it's absolutely brilliant, and I want one now.
I mean, come on.
Reminds me of the elegance of canvas stretched over a wing. Maybe that's our future as well as our past?
Mutual Admiration Societies, Etc.
Snarkmarket's got scenius.
If anything made it necessary for Robin to curb his allegiance to the now-deprecated Bloglines RSS reader, it's this. GReader recognizes the immortal Contra cheat code.
Listen, I know Compete's numbers are wack, but even so, this is great.
June 9, 2008
J.K. Rowling at Hogwarts... Er, I Mean Harvard
Aha! Another terrific 2008 commencement speech! This one's from J.K. Rowling:
Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people's minds, imagine themselves into other people's places.
Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.
Missed connection: Casper
The Tomb of Icarus
June 8, 2008
Blue States, Red States, Orange Feed Icons
Ooh, my new favorite site, and yours too if the clarity of Obama vs. McCain has re-invigorated your interest in the election. Thx Dan.
June 7, 2008
Newspaper Eulogy: A Footnote
So to sum up the session, five people from Newspaperland spent an hour in somewhat gross adulation of The Newspaper. They each began their remarks with an earnest tale of how they became swept up in the newspaper biz, and concluded by bemoaning the misfortunes that have befallen their beloved industry. And then, goaded on by the moderator, each panelist discoursed at length on such thrilling topics as "Why everyone should give money to a newspaper" and "Why reporters should get paid more."
When we finally got to the question-and-answer part of the session, I asked, "What do we mean when we talk about 'saving The Newspaper'?" A newspaper is actually a collection of rather disparate things, I pointed out. And I inferred from the panelists' remarks that some of The Newspaper's contents seem more urgent candidates for salvation than others.... Read more ....
NCMR '08: Newspapers, not dead yet?
NCMR '08: New media, new models session
June 6, 2008
NCMR '08: Free speech session
June 5, 2008
"I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such, some of which play in a symphony necessary to my being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of me,of us,no harm. I am vastly outnumbered by my tiny companions; better put, I become an adult human being in company with these tiny messmates. To be one is always to be one with many. Some of these personal microscopic biota are dangerous to the me who is writing this sentence; they are held in check for now by the measures of the coordinated symphony of all the others, human cells and not, that make the conscious me possible. I love that when “I” die, all these benign and dangerous symbionts will take over and use whatever is left of “my” body, if only for a while, since“we” are necessary to one another in real time."
The Rolling Exhibition
Kevin Connolly was born without legs, a fact which causes some folks to stare. (He's also hot, which can't hurt.) He generally gets around on a skateboard, riding close to the street, from which vantage point he often draws stares from curious passers-by. One day, he started taking photos of the spectators. He ended up with 32,000 photos in all, which he's edited into a collection he calls "The Rolling Exhibition."
June 3, 2008
"We divide up the colors among us," said Zeng, working his way briskly along a line of 10 identical contemporary-style paintings, applying a stripe of brown, while a teenage partner worked on the red. Surrounded by dozens more identical pieces at the sprawling Artlover factory, he explained: "By dividing up the work, contrasting colors stay clearest."
June 2, 2008
So, not to completely nerd out on you, but this is neat:
Hard problem: This whole "cloud computing" thing requires that you be able to communicate in two directions with lots of machines at once: tell them what to do, yes, but also check to see what they're up to, and if they're still running at all.
Fun solution: Why not just treat them all like chat clients and use Jabber?
That's an oversimplification, but I just love the idea of essentially managing a complex computing cluster via glorified IM. Here are the details from Ezra Zygmuntowic.
Put That In Your Easy-Bake Oven and Burn It
"I had corn dogs, chocolate cake and rum for breakfast yesterday. Then I went on a hike, and explored an abandoned mine shaft that I don't think I was supposed to enter. I didn't have to get anyone's permission or tell anyone where I was going. Later, I touched a girl with my penis, and nobody yelled at me or sent me to talk to the councilor about it. I watched a scary movie that had boobies and swears in it, and then I stayed up until 2 AM because I didn't feel like going to bed.
"Childhood has nothing on adulthood. Being a grown-up is an awfully grand adventure." -- My new favorite MeFi commenter
June 1, 2008
What Does It Mean to Be Human?
Sort of a mini-Edge Question over at Wired Science: What does it mean to be human?
I liked Daniel Dennett's answer:
We are the first species that represents our reasons, and can reason with each other. "The planet has grown a nervous system," he said.
That's a nice twist on the usual (to my mind, pretty fluffy) gaia-talk. Language is important because it's an interconnect. Earth has supported nodes for a long time: bacteria, fish, dinosaurs, dragonflies, all that. But humans (and other smart species, like chimps and dolphins) introduce edges for the first time -- connections -- so suddenly larger patterns can start to form.
It's just math!