June 30, 2009
Jeff Scher's Parade
Love, love, love Jeff Scher's video about people walking down the street. It's simple and stunning.
June 29, 2009
Trollope Rides Again
It's tough to be a writer today, but then again, it's always been tough: More than in any other medium, you've got to compete with the past as well as the present. Hmm, should I dig into the new Richard Ford novel... or Moby Dick?
Of course, this is the great opportunity, as well. (At least if you believe Mr. Penumbra.)
This is all to say that I absolutely love the fact that an Anthony Trollope novel from 1875 is the top pick on Newsweek's list of books for our times. In fact, I love the whole list. It's one of the best I've ever seen -- broad without being shallow, diverse without being precious.
I'll offer a strong second to #28 ("Midnight's Children") and #36 ("The Dark Is Rising"); in fact, the Newsweek mention has inspired me to go back and read them both again.
And here's a Kindle bonus: Get your Trollope for free.
I dunno where Today and Tomorrow gets this stuff. Beautiful.
The Death of the End, the Birth of the Beginning
I don't have any answers just yet, but I like Rex's well-titled "The Death of Writing, The Rebirth of Words."
(See Roland Barthes's "The Death of the Author is the Birth of the Reader" and Jacques Derrida's "The End of the Book, The Beginning of Writing")
Melting Like Hot Candle Wax (Now With Links)
It's silly to make a CD-length mix playlist in 2009. I stopped listening to CDs altogether when I donated my long-suffering 1996 Monte Carlo a couple of years ago. And curation with limits is out. Why limit yourself to a static 80-minute document when you can have your own blog - hell, your own radio station - curating music all year long? Why not just make a big "favorites" list for your iPod and stick it on shuffle?
So it took the following extraordinary circumstances to get me to put this together:
1. I'm secretly an analog dinosaur. I wrote papers on a manual typewriter until I went to college, and made cassette after cassette of 60, 90, and 120-minute songs I recorded from the radio from the time I was six or seven.
2. I keep all of my music on an external hard drive, which went kaput. I've had to scavenge data to my overloaded laptop - which means I mostly have only a few songs/albums that I really want to listen to available to me.
3. It's hot, and it's summer, so songs about heat and summer keep coming to my mind. And they're (mostly) not the obvious ones.
4. There are a few really terrific albums that have come out in the last few months.
5. The death of Michael Jackson has me reaching around in my music archive a bit.
So here's a playlist of songs preoccupying me for summer 2009. It's titled "Melting Like Hot Candle Wax." If you're really slick, you know where that title's from already.
1. "Build Voice," Dan Deacon, Bromst 2. "Two Weeks," Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest
3. "Boyz," M.I.A., Kala
4. "Summertime Clothes," Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion
5. "Not A Robot, But A Ghost," Andrew Bird, Noble Beast
6. "Another Sunny Day," Belle & Sebastian, The Life Pursuit
7. "Summertime," Galaxie 500, This Is Our Music
8. "We Could Walk Together," The Clientele, Suburban Light
9. "Black Cab," Jens Lekman, Oh You're So Silent Jens
10. "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," Michael Jackson, Off The Wall
11. "Postcards From Italy," Beirut, Gulag Orkestar
12. "Two Doves," Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca
13. "Too Many Birds," Bill Callahan, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle
14. "The City," Dismemberment Plan, Emergency & I
15. "Here Comes the Summer," The Fiery Furnaces, EP
16. "35 in the Shade," A.C. Newman, Slow Wonder
17. "Summer In The City," Regina Spektor, Begin To Hope
What music, old or new, are you listening to this summer?
June 28, 2009
For seven months, The New York Times managed to keep out of the news the fact that one of its reporters, David Rohde, had been kidnapped by the Taliban.
But that was pretty straightforward compared with keeping it off Wikipedia.
Fun project: Plot all the routes numbered 001 on various airlines. Please note the continents not visited.
June 27, 2009
Cross-reference these two:
- Joanne McNeil explains why teenagers read better than you. ("China Mieville, at his talk at the Harvard Bookstore a few weeks ago, said he wrote his YA book 'Un Lun Dun' because he's 'jealous of the way [young people] read.'")
- Michael Chabon writes about the lost wildness of childhood. (It made me remember roaming deep in the thickets that curled around my subdivision, ears perking up when my mom called my name from far down the street -- because it was time for dinner.)
I think the rumors of childhood's death are exaggerated. I base this not on any first-hand experience with children -- I have none -- but rather on my skepticism that mass media, in any format, can ever match, in terms of pure play potential, a glade of trees and some fallen sticks.
Sanford's Odyssey, Book III
See Books I and II here.
But now, O Muse, you must sing of how Sanford, so handsome and competent as to appear on television like unto one of the deathless Gods, and like them possessed by a lust both mighty and confused, came to this pass.
As Dawn rose from her couch beside Tithonus- harbinger of light alike to mortals and immortals- the press met in council and with them, State Senator John "Jake" Knotts, the lord of thunder. Thereon Knotts began to tell them of the many sufferings of Sanford, for while he was Sanford's enemy, he also secretly pitied him away there in the house of the nymph Maria Belen Calypso.
"O Press," said he, coyly, "and all you other gods of media that live in everlasting bliss, I hope there may never be such a thing as a kind and well-disposed ruler any more, nor one who will govern equitably. I hope they will be all henceforth cruel and unjust, for there is not one of his subjects but has forgotten Sanford, who ruled them as though he were their father. Now, if there were an emergency in this state of Carolina, there would be none who could rule in his stead; for our Constitution has invested the power only in him. There he is, lying in great moral suffering in Argentina where dwells the nymph Calypso, who will not let him go; and he cannot get back to his own country, for he can find neither ships nor sailors to take him over the sea. At least, this is what rumors have told - no one, not his wife Jenny nor even his loyal security retinue, knows where exactly he may be. Furthermore, wicked people are now trying to keep his only lieutenant governor Andre Bauer, who is coming home from Charleston, where he has been to see if he can get news of the governor, from exercising constitutional authority."
"What, my friend, are you talking about?" replied Leroy Chapman, editor of The State, "does no one know where the governor is? Because we had heard that he was hiking the Applachian trail, where all princes of Hellas return to clear their head, relieve their burdens, and ejaculate their noblest utterances. Besides, someone should be perfectly able to protect Sanford, and to see him safely home again, before the press has to come hurry-skurrying back to meet him at the airport, or wheresoever he may be."
When he had thus spoken, he said to his junior reporter Gina Smith, whom he had nicknamed, for reasons of his own, Mercury, "Mercury, you are our messenger, go therefore and tell Calypso we have decreed that poor Sanford is to return home. He is to be convoyed neither by gods nor men, but after a perilous voyage of several hours upon a plane he is to reach fertile Atlanta, the land of the Georgians, who are near of kin to the gods, where you will look for his car, and then surprise him with an interview. He will then take his car to his own country, where we will pay him more attention than he would have brought back from Minneapolis, if he had been named nominee Vice President and had got home without disaster. This is how we have settled that he shall return to his country and his friends."
Thus he spoke, and Smith, who, I've just said, is sometimes known as Mercury, guide and guardian, scooper of Argus, did as she was told. Forthwith, in this telling of the tale, she did not merely look for Sanford at the airport, but she bound on her glittering golden sandals with which she could fly like the wind over land and sea. She took the notebook with which she writes down her interview transcripts or makes notes just as she pleases, and flew holding it in her hand over the Caribbean; then she swooped down through the firmament till she reached the level of the sea, whose waves she skimmed like a cormorant that flies fishing every hole and corner of the ocean, and drenching its thick plumage in the spray. She flew and flew over many a weary wave, but when at last she got to Buenos Aires which was her journey's end, she left the sea, and the majestic coastline of Buenos Aires, city by the river called by the men of that land de la Plata, and went on by land till he came to the condominium where the nymph Maria Calypso lived.
She found her at home. There was a large fire burning on the hearth, and one could smell from far the fragrant reek of burning cedar and sandal wood. As for herself, she was busy at her loom, shooting her golden shuttle through the warp and singing beautifully. Round her condominium there was a thick wood of alder, poplar, and sweet smelling cypress trees, wherein all kinds of great birds had built their nests- owls, hawks, and chattering sea-crows that occupy their business in the waters. A vine loaded with grapes was trained and grew luxuriantly about the back door of the condominium; there were also four pretty terrific restaurants grouped pretty close together, and turned hither and thither so as to make a kind of outdoor courtyard over which they flowed. It was really, really nice, even for Buenos Aires. Even a god could not help being charmed with such a lovely spot, so Mercury stood still and looked at it; but when she had admired it sufficiently he went and knocked on the door.
Calypso knew her at once- for all gods and journalists all know each other, no matter how far they live from one another- but Sanford was not within; he was on the sea-shore as usual, looking out upon the barren ocean with tears in his eyes, groaning and breaking his heart for sorrow. Calypso gave Mercury a seat and said: "Why have you come to see me, Mercury- honoured, and ever welcome- for you do not visit me often? Say what you want; I will do it for be you at once if I can, and if it can be done at all; but come inside, and let me set refreshment before you."
As she spoke she drew a table loaded with ambrosia beside her and mixed for her a really tasty nectar and ambrosia cocktail, with just a little bit of lime and mint, so Mercury ate and drank till she had had enough, and then said:
"We are speaking as goddesses - and journalists - to one another, and you ask me why I have come here, and I will tell you truly as you would have me do. The State sent me; it was no doing of mine; who could possibly want to come all this way over the sea where there are no Starbucks full of people to offer me mochaccinos or choice cookies? Nevertheless I had to come, for none of us other reporters can cross the Press, nor transgress its orders. We say that you have here the most ill-starred of all those who fought before the state aid of President Obama and sailed home in the fifth month after having refused it. On their way home they sinned against Public Opinion, who raised both heckles and cackles against them, so that all his brave companions perished, and he alone was carried hither by wind and tide. The Press says that you are to let this by man go at once, for it is decreed that he shall not perish here, far from his own people, but shall return to his house and country and give us conferences again."
Calypso trembled with rage when she heard this, "You gods," she exclaimed, "ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You are always jealous and hate seeing a goddess (or god) take a fancy to a mortal man, and live with him in open matrimony, of the shacked-up, sometimes long-distance, sometimes quickly in the bathroom kind. So when the rosy-fingered pages sweetly enticed Mark Foley, you precious reporters were all of you furious till you went and defeated his reelection in Florida. So again when Ceres fell in love with Vitter, and yielded to him in a thrice ploughed fallow field, for thrice three hundred dollars, the Press came to hear of it before so long and tried to killed Vitter with their thunder-bolts. And now you are angry with me too because I have a man here. I found the poor creature sitting all alone astride of a keel, for he was lonely, and had no adventures, in the bubble of politics you made for him, while he himself was driven by wind and waves on to my land. I got fond of him and cherished him, and had set my heart on making him immortal, so that he should never grow old all his days; still I cannot cross the Press, nor bring his counsels to nothing; therefore, if he insists upon it, let the man go beyond the seas again; but I cannot send him anywhere myself for I have neither ships nor men who can take him. Nevertheless I will readily give him such advice, in all good faith, as will be likely to bring him safely to his own country."
"Then send him away," said Gina/Mercury, "or we will be angry with you and punish you."'
On this she took her leave, and Maria went out to look for Sanford, for she had heard the message. She found him sitting upon the beach with his eyes ever filled with tears, and dying of sheer home-sickness; for he had got tired of Calypso, and though he was forced to sleep with her in the cave by night, it was she, not he, that would have it so. As for the day time, he spent it on the rocks and on the sea-shore, weeping, crying aloud for his despair, and always looking out upon the sea. Calypso then went close up to him said:
"My poor fellow, you shall not stay here grieving and fretting your life out any longer. I am going to send you away of my own free will; so go, put some pants on, and use my credit card to buy a plane ticket, coach or business class, that it may carry you safely over the sea. I will put bread, wine, and water on board to save you from starving. I will also give you clothes, and will send you a fair wind to take you home, if the gods in heaven so will it- for they know more about these things, and can settle them better than I can."
Sanford shuddered as he heard her. "Now goddess," he answered, "there is something behind all this; you cannot be really meaning to help me home when you bid me do such a dreadful thing as to fly coach. Not even a well-found ship with a fair wind could venture on such a distant voyage: nothing that you can say or do shall make me get on board that plane unless you first solemnly swear that you mean me no mischief."
Calypso smiled at this and caressed him with her hand: "You know a great deal," said she, "but you are quite wrong here. May heaven above and earth below be my witnesses, with the waters of the river - and this is the most solemn oath which a blessed god can take- that I mean you no sort of harm, and am only advising you to do exactly what I should do myself in your place. I am dealing with you quite straightforwardly; my heart is not made of iron, and I am very sorry for you."
When she had thus spoken she led the way rapidly before him, and Sanford followed in her steps; so the pair, goddess and man, went on and on till they came to Calypso's condo, where Sanford took the seat that Mercury had just left. Calypso set meat and drink before him of the food that unadventurous Americans eat; but her maids brought ambrosia and nectar and delicious tapas for herself, and they laid their hands on the good things that were before them. When they had satisfied themselves with meat and drink, Calypso spoke, saying:
"Sanford, noble son of, um, Sanford, so you would start home to your own land at once? Good luck go with you, but if you could only know how much suffering is in store for you before you get back to your own country, you would stay where you are, keep house along with me, and let me make you immortal, no matter how anxious you may be to see this wife of yours, of whom you are thinking all the time day after day; yet I flatter myself that at am no whit less tall or well-looking than she is, for it is not to be expected that a mortal woman should compare in beauty with a super-hot Argentinian TV reporter."
"Maria," replied Sanford, "do not be angry with me about this. I am quite aware that my wife Jenny is nothing like so tall or so beautiful as yourself. She is only a woman, whereas you are an immortal. You have a particular grace and calm that I adore. You have a level of sophistication that so fitting with your beauty. I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of the night's light -- but hey, that would be going into sexual details..."
"While all the things above are all too true -- at the same time we are in a ... hopelessly impossible situation of love. How in the world this lightening strike of Zeus snuck up on us I am still not quite sure. As I have said to you before I certainly had a special feeling about you from the first time we met, but these feelings were contained and I genuinely enjoyed our special friendship and the comparing of all too many personal notes...
"Nevertheless, I want to get home, and can think of nothing else. If some intrepid reporter wrecks my political future when I am on the way to the airport, I will bear it and make the best of it. I have had infinite trouble both by land and sea already, so let this go with the rest."
Presently the sun set and it became dark, whereon the pair retired into the inner part of Maria's condominium and went to bed.
To Be Continued...
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Gleeful Miscellany, Snarkpolitik
The Codex Climaci Rescriptus
Sotheby's is auctioning a palimpsest manuscript of the New Testament (and parts of the old). It's written in 8th-c. Greek, 6th-c. Aramaic, and overwritten in a 9th-c. Syriac script.
Apparently the sixth-century scribes who wrote it were living in what was then Judea, somewhere in present-day Israel. The document was taken to the Sinai desert in Egypt and stowed away for 300 years at a monastery called St. Catherine's, at the foot of the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments.... Then in the ninth century, a new set of scribes dug through St. Catherine's looking for parchment, which was very expensive in those days. They pulled pages from eight different books--six in Aramaic and two in Greek--and did their best to erase the original writing. They then turned the pages upside down and wrote over the ancient text in jet-black ink. The newer text, in Syriac, is a copy of instructions on how to run a monastery, originally written by a sixth-century monk named John Climacus.
This happened all the time, and was one of the best advantages of writing on parchment. It was expensive - anything made from animals rather than vegetables always is -- but you could scrape the top layer off and use it again and again.
There's a whole aspect of monastic discipline and spirituality that's tied up with manuscript and parchment culture. Preparing vellum for writing was hard, physical work - and the scraping of the parchment became a kind of allegory for spiritual renewal and an ascetic's soul. You're literally mortifying flesh, scraping it clean, in order to fill it with wisdom and the words of God.
But at the same time, it was prosaic and practical:
"It was like using yesterday's newspaper to wrap up your fish and chips," says Bolton.
I love the description of the appearance of multiple scripts in the document:
The resulting palimpsest looks like a pirate's cipher for buried treasure, written in several mysterious scripts. The Aramaic writing, in a pale, faded brown, appears loose and fluid, with the odd curlicue swirling outside the margin. The black Syriac is careful, tight and slanting. It's not exactly a key to a puzzle written in code, but it sure looks like one.
H/t to Gerry.
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Object Culture, Worldsnark
June 26, 2009
Welcome to the Chimera
I agree with Nav; this post by Emily Gould is terrific. Less for her strong rebuttal of an errant "the internet is vulgar" argument -- which is so silly it requires no rebut -- than for this description of the internet itself:
Kunkel's experience of the Internet bears no resemblance to my experience of the Internet, but then, that's the funny thing about the Internet, isn't it? No one's Internet looks the same as anyone else's, and it's that exact essential fungibility that makes definitive assessments like Kunkel's infuriating. The Internet isn't a text we can all read and interpret differently. It's not even a text, at least not in most senses of that word. The Internet is a chimera that magically manifests in whatever guise its viewer expects it to. If you are looking at the Internet and expecting it to be a source of fleeting funniness, unchallenging writing, attention-span-killing video snippets, and porn, then that is exactly all it will ever be for you.
On one level, you might just say the internet is just a technology, and broad claims about content on the internet exist at the same level as broad claims about things printed on paper. On another level, you might say the internet is a chimera that magically manifests in whatever guise its viewer expects it to, and man, I want to be on that level.
I want the toned-down J. Crew-ized version of this look.
June 25, 2009
Where There Is Love ...
For my family, the death of Michael Jackson was one of those call-your-people-and-make-sure-everyone's-okay moments. I was checking the New York Times on my cell on the way to Tampa International Airport when the story was still that he'd been rushed to the hospital, reportedly for cardiac arrest. The way they'd written the story, though, with eulogistic snippets of bio fleshing out the news report, it felt as though the writers had pasted in text from Jackson's canned obit, which I interpreted as a bad sign. I kept saying to the folks in the Super Shuttle that I had a bad feeling about it. As I handed my boarding pass and license to the TSA inspector, she passed it back slowly, looked me in the eyes, and said, "Michael Jackson is dead."
So. Muse upon a problematic and epic life with me, Snarketeers. What have you seen that lives up to the moment? I'll kick us off with this reminiscence, by Minneapolis writer Max "Bunny" Sparber. And the MetaFilter obit thread is always a propos.
And, for the road, from Tim:
The Future Is All Filters
I made my Iran dashboard because I needed a better filter for Iran news. But filters aren't just for just for tracking global tumult; people need them on all levels. For example: My sister, an ultra-busy grad student and dancer, doesn't really have time to read Snarkmarket.
No you cannot unsubscribe from this feed and sign up for that one. I'm going to know if you do. We have analytics for these things.
Tolkein in Tehran
In Tehran, state television's Channel Two is putting on a "Lord of the Rings" marathon, part of a bigger push to keep us busy. Movie mad and immunized from international copyright laws, Iranians are normally treated to one or two Hollywood or European movie nights a week. Now it's two or three films a day. The message is "Don't Worry, Be Happy." Let's watch, forget about what's happened, never mind. Stop dwelling in the past. Look ahead.
Frodo: "I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish that none of this had happened."
Gandalf: "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."...
Who picked this film? I start to suspect that there is a subversive soul manning the controls at Seda va Sima, AKA the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. It is way too easy to play with the film, to draw comparisons to what is happening in real life...
On the television screen, Boromir, human of Aragon, falls. He dies an honorable death defending the lives of his compatriots.
"In edame dare." This is to be continued. The phrase has become our hesitant slogan, our phrase of reassurance. "In edame dare." People are not going to let up so easily.
God. Wait until they get to the Battle of Gondor.
Sanford's Odyssey, Book II
A Continuation of Book I...
Now when the child of morning, rosy-fingered Two or Two-Thirtyish, appeared, Sanford rose and dressed himself. He bound his sandals on to his comely feet, girded his flag pin about his shoulder, and left his room looking like an immortal god. He at once sent the criers round to call the people in assembly, so they called them and the people gathered thereon; then, when they were got together, he went to the place of assembly comb in hand- not alone, for his two aides went with him, for his wife would not go for fear of looking like Silda Spitzer or Dina McGreevey. Minerva endowed Sanford with a presence of such divine comeliness that all marvelled at him as he went by, and when he took his place at the podium, even the oldest councillors made way for him.
Sanford rose at once, for he was bursting with what he had to say. He stood in the middle of the assembly and the good herald Pisenor brought him the microphone. Then, beginning in media res, "Sir," said he, "it is I, as you will shortly learn, who have convened you, for it is I who am the most aggrieved. I had not got wind of any trip to Appalachia about which I would warn you, but I do love hiking there. I used to organize hiking trips, actually, when I was in high school. I would get a soccer coach or a football coach to act as chaperone, and then I'd get folks to pay me 60 bucks each, or whatever it was, to take the trip, and then off we'd go and have these great adventures on the Appalachian Trail..."
Here Sanford began to ramble. Finally, he returned to the matter at hand. "But I guess where I'm trying to go with this is that there are moral absolutes and that the law of the gods indeed is there to protect you from yourself, and there are consequences if you breach that, even if you tie yourself to the mast and plug your security detail's ears with wax so you can hear the sirens' song. Killing the sun's oxen is a consequence. This press conference is a consequence.
"My grieveance is purely personal, and turns on two great misfortunes which have fallen upon my house. The first apology is to my excellent wife, who was chief among all you here present in being dicked around with by me. She was made to tell a ridiculous story about my going 'to be alone,' 'to write,' 'to be away from my boys' on Fathers' Day.
"I would also apologize to my staff, because as much as I did talk about going to Argos, Rome, or the Appalachian Trail -- those were each one of the original scenarios that I'd thrown out to Mary Neil, that isn't what -- where I ended up. And so I let them down by creating a fiction with regard to where I was going, which means that I had then, in turn, given as much as they relied on that fanciful song of the bards, let down people that I represent across the Peloponnese. And so I want to apologize to my staff and I want to apologize to anyone who took in a poor wandering stranger who was secretly a war machine, anybody who lives in Carolina, for the way that I let them down.
"But the last is much more serious, and ere long will be the utter ruin of my career. The press, all the chief men among them, who thought I might work in the White House someday, are pestering my chief of staff to verify that I am a real, live, Republican. They are afraid to go to Mitt Romney, asking him to choose the one he likes best, and to provide interviews to them, but day by day they keep hanging about my office, sacrificing our oxen, sheep, and fat goats for their banquets, never giving so much as a thought that someone may desperately need a break from the bubble wherein every word, every moment is recorded -- just to completely break out of it, and go off and have adventures, just fly different places around the world; get myself a job; carry a hundred dollars emergency money, and either find a job there with the locals and come back, or come on home. This is not justifying, because, again, what I did was wrong, period, end of story. But still... I mean, hey. It's a bubble.
"No national political career can stand such recklessness; we Republicans have now no Reagan to ward off harm from our doors, and I cannot hold my own against it all. I shall never all my days be as good a man as he was, still I would indeed defend myself if I had power to do so, for I cannot stand such treatment any longer; my house is being disgraced and ruined. Have respect, therefore, to your own consciences and to public opinion. Fear, too, the wrath of heaven, lest the gods should be displeased and turn upon you. I pray you by Jove and Themis, who is the beginning and the end of councils, [do not] hold back, my friends, and leave me singlehanded- unless it be that my brave father George W. Bush did some wrong to the country which you would now avenge on me, by aiding and abetting these rumors, which are all true. Moreover, if I am to be eaten out of house and home at all, I had rather go ahead and caress some erotic curve of the hips in Argentina, for I could then take action to some purpose, and serve Meet the Press with notices that I've split the country to get my Johnson wet, whereas now I have no remedy.
"And so I've been back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. And the one thing that you really find is that you absolutely want resolution.
"And so oddly enough, I spent the last five days of my life crying in Argentina, so I could repeat it when I came back here in saying, you know, while indeed from a heart level, there was something real, there in Argentina with Calypso, it was a place based on the relationship I had as host of the feasts to the people of Carolina, based on my sons, based on my wife, based on where I was in my life's journey, based on where she was as measured by the fates, a place I couldn't go and she couldn't go.
"And that is, I suspect, a continual process all through life, of getting one's heart right in life. And so I would never stand before you as one who just says, by Zeus, I'm completely right with regard to my heart on all things."
"But what I would say is, I'm committed to trying to get my heart right. Because the one thing that -- (and here the goddess made his voice inaudible) -- and all others have told me is that the odyssey that we're all on in life is with regard to heart, not what I want or what you want but, in other words, indeed this larger notion of truly trying to put other people first."
With this Sanford dashed his staff to the ground and burst into tears. Every one was very sorry for him, but they all sat still and no one ventured to make him an angry answer, save only Antinous, who spoke thus:
"Sanford, insolent braggart that you are, how dare you try to throw the blame upon us members of the press? It is the Republicans' fault not ours, for they are very artful dudes. These eight years past, and close on twelve, they have been driving us out of our minds, by encouraging each one of us, and sending him messages without meaning one word of what she says. And then there was that other trick they played us. They set up a great tambour frame in the press room, and began to work on an enormous piece of fine needlework, with a picture of WMDs in Iraq. 'Sweet hearts,' said Rove, Cheney, and Bush, 'Al-Qaeda is indeed dead, or at least sidelined; but still do not press me to marry again immediately, wait- for I would not have skill in needlework perish unrecorded- till I have completed an invasion of Saddam's country, to be in readiness against the time when he might maybe attack us, or maybe someone else. He is very rich with chemical and even nuclear weapons, and the soccer moms of the nation will talk if he is laid out without a pall.'
"This was what they said, and we assented; whereon we could see them working on their great web of intelligence all day long, but at night they would unpick the stitches again, saying they were fooled by the CIA. They fooled us in this way for three years and we never found them out, but as time wore on and she was now in her fourth year, one of their aides who knew what they were doing told us, and we caught them in the act of trying to cover up their work with tortured confessions, so they had to get us to think that torture was actually okay, whether it really was torture or no.
"And when you're not lying to us about war, you're picking up undercover officers in airport bathrooms, frequenting prostitutes, having affairs with your staffers' wives, or hitting on the underage interns. What are you guys, Democrats?
"The press, therefore, makes you this answer, that both you and the Republicans may understand-'Quit dicking around with us, and we might not think that everything you tell us is a fucking lie'; for I do not know what will happen if you go on plaguing us much longer with the airs you gives yourself on the score of the accomplishments you made, and how you kept the country safe because Cheney is so clever. We never yet heard of such a Republican; we know all about Gonzales, Brownie, Miers, and the famous hacks of old, but they were nothing to Sarah Palin, any one of them. It was not fair of Palin to treat us in that way, making us think she was actually a serious national candidate; and as long as the Republicans continue in the mind with which heaven has now apparently endowed them, so long shall we go on calling you on your obvious bullshit; and I do not see why you should change, for you still get all the honour and glory, and it is we who pay for it, not them. Understand, then, that we will not go back to our lands in New York or Washington, neither here nor elsewhere, till you, your wife, your lover, your sons, your staffers, and everyone who knew anything about this has made their choice and given an exclusive interview and (we can hope) incriminating photos and juicy anecdotes to some one or other of us."
To be Continued...
File under: Gleeful Miscellany, Snarkpolitik
June 24, 2009
Headline of the Month
How can you not click on this headline?
The only question is: Is it a science-y blog post... or a new work of literary fiction?
"The odyssey that we're all on in life is with regard to heart." - Governor Mark Sanford, June 24, 2009Sing, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the school system of South Carolina. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own ass and bring his staff safely home; but do what he might he could not save his staff, for they perished through their own sheer folly in telling one lie after another to the Sun-god The Press; so the god prevented them from ever reaching better jobs in Washington. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever liveblog you may know them.
So now all who escaped death in elections or by men's room encounters had got safely home except Sanford, and he, though he was longing to return to his wife and country (on Fathers' Day, no less), was detained by the goddess Calypso, who had got him in Buenos Aires, into a large condominium, and wanted to marry him. But as the days went by, there came a time when the gods settled that he should go back to Carolina; even then, however, when he was among his own people, his troubles were not yet over; nevertheless all the gods had now begun to pity him except Neptune, who still persecuted him without ceasing and would not let him get away with a bullshit story about just where the hell he'd been.
The press secretary was still singing, and his hearers sat rapt in silence as he told the sad tale of long hiking trip in the Appalachians, and the ills Minerva had laid upon the Republicans. Jenny, daughter of Icarius, heard his song from her room upstairs, and came down by the great staircase, not alone, but attended by two of her handmaids. When she reached the press corps she stood by one of the bearing posts that supported the roof of the cloisters with a staid maiden on either side of her. She held a veil, moreover, before her face, and was weeping bitterly.
"Douchebag," she cried, "you know many another feat of Governors and Senators, such as poets love to celebrate. Sing the press some one of these, and let them write their stories in silence, but cease this sad tale, for it breaks my sorrowful heart, and reminds me of my lost husband whom I mourn ever without ceasing, and whose name was great over all the Carolinas and Sullivan's Island."
"Mother," answered the governor's son, confusingly also named Marshall, "let the douche sing what he has a mind to; staff members do not make the ills they sing of; it is Jove, not they, who makes them, and who sends weal or woe upon men according to his own good pleasure. This fellow means no harm by singing the ill-fated woes of the Republicans, for people always applaud the latest songs most warmly. Make up your mind to it and bear it; Sanford is not the only man who never came back from sex scandals, but many another went down as well as he. Go, then, within the house and busy yourself with your daily duties, your loom, your distaff, and the ordering of your servants; for speech is man's matter, and mine above all others- for it is I who am master here."
She went wondering back into the house, and laid her son's saying in her heart. Then, going upstairs with her handmaids into her room, she mourned her dear husband till Minerva shed sweet sleep over her eyes. But the press were clamorous throughout the covered cloisters, and prayed each one that he might receive her exclusive interview.
Then Marshall the Younger spoke, "Shameless," he cried, "and insolent reporters, let us feast at our pleasure now, and let there be no brawling, for it is a rare thing to hear a man with such a divine voice as this douchebag has; but in the morning, meet us at a full press conference that we may give you formal notice to depart, and feast at another family's misery, turn and turn about, at your own cost. If on the other hand you choose to persist in spunging upon one man, heaven help me, but Jove shall reckon with you in full, and when you fall in Gannett's forthcoming bankruptcies there shall be no man to avenge you."
The press members bit their lips as they heard him, and marvelled at the boldness of his speech. Then, Antinous, reporter from the Washington Post, said, "The gods seem to have given you lessons in bluster and tall talking; may Jove never grant you to be a Presidential hopeful as your father was before you."
3000th post! This demands a party.
Just another seven light years to go!
A Living Wage for Living Literature
If you hang around with me long enough that we get a chance to go to a fancy restaurant together, you might get to hear this parable. It used to be possible to be a professional waiter - one who thought of service as a career. And the service you received was service from a career professional. But as wages declined, so did service. A rotating cast of college students and twentysomethings can sometimes surprise you with their talent or enthusiasm, but they can't make a career of it. You come in, you do your best, and you rotate out, and what you end up with are a lot of chain restaurants where it's good to be a college student or twenty-something, good to drink a lot and eat a lot, but comparatively few places were you can feel like a gourmand.
The New Yorker's The Book Bench tells a similar story about wage cuts among younger workers in the publishing industry. The impetus to the post are cuts at William Morris, where entry-level workers saw their pay cut from 13.50/hour to 9.50/hour.
Tiny salaries in the low ranks of publishing are miserable for the young workers, but they’re probably worse for literature (You can insert “movies” for “literature,” if that’s the prism through which you want to read this.) It’s a truism of the industry that most of these jobs are held by people who can afford them—people with some parental support and no student loans. Often they’ve had unpaid internships, that most pernicious example of class privilege. Their superiors are the same people, ten years later. They—we!—are smart, cultured people with good intentions, but it’s easy to see how this narrow range could lead to a blinkered view of literature.
So, if you’re sick of coming-of-age novels about comfortable young men, a little solidarity with the lowly assistants might help.
Although now I'm scratching my head: the privilege thing I get, but are publishing companies and talent agencies overrun by dudes? I've never gotten that vibe.
June 23, 2009
June 22, 2009
The Hidden Fourth Dimension of Music
I'm picking up on a musical meme -- probably an old one, but new to me.
Start with this nice NYT write-up of a piece of music composed for long, curving lines of trombone players -- 89 in all! -- surrounding the listener.
Cross-reference with the new physical electronica -- and the argument that real sound sources, placed creatively in space, create an effect not replicable by any speakers, no matter how slick.
In an era when anybody can crank out music in stereo that doesn't sound half-bad, how do you distinguish yourself? The same way the movie studios are doing it, of course: add a dimension.
So now, I want the home version: How about an iPhone app that plays a composition on many phones simultaneously, networked via BlueTooth, and requires you to place them strategically around a space to get the full effect. Maybe dynamic performance instructions flash on-screen: "Run forward!" or "Muffle this phone with your shirt!"
If the app knew the relative locations of the iPhones -- (you, as a user, could probably give it some clues) -- the sound could swish and pan from phone to phone, in a sort of super-amorphous surround sound.
The Real Book Business
She sells 27 books every minute! She makes more money than John Grisham or Steven King. And -- this is more macro -- "of people who read books, one in five read romance."
I wonder if there's room to reinvent, subvert, honor, and blow up that genre all at once. Sorta like what Battlestar Galactica did with TV sci-fi. Can you imagine a new name on the supermarket romance rack -- in swoopy high-gloss letters, natch -- that the hipsters reach for, too? (Does this author already exist?)
The Only Blogger With Backup
With all the time and energy you've squandered on that blog, you could have written a book. So goes the self-reproach, and indeed, the book in question turns out to be 449 pages long...
All of the posts and essays included in The Wreck of the Henry Clay are available free already on this blog, so why should you buy it? I have no idea! I have given up trying to understand the internet's economics, but maybe it'll be like buying ringtones versus stealing MP3s? Who knows. It took a surprising amount of time to turn several hundred blog posts into a several-hundred-page book, so perhaps some of you will be willing to pay me for my PDF-creating skills? As I said, no idea. Let's not call this "self-published," by the way. That has a kind of disreputable sound. It's a chapbook, all right? Why am I doing this? I saw not long ago that someone had published a book of his Twitters, and I felt I was in danger of being behindhand. I am hereby restored to the bleeding edge. Also, now, when the electromagnetic-pulse device is detonated, I will be the only blogger in America with backup. And of course I'm looking forward to kicking back while the cold, hard internet cash at last streams in.
Of course, Snarkmarket, too, has its own experiment in meatspace self-publishing on the way...
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Marketing, Media Galaxy, Object Culture
My new favorite blog is Gary Dexter's How books got their titles. Dexter gives the biographies (nomographies?) of famous books according to the following criteria:
1) the title should not be explicable simply by reading the text of the book itself; 2) each title should be the title of a book or play that has been published as such (rather than e.g. a poem or story that appears as part of a collection); 3) no quotations as titles.
Here's the story of Freud's The Ego and the Id, part of the title and concept of which was adapted from George Groddeck's The Book of the It:
In the early years of psychoanalysis, practitioners were very anxious to establish their respectability as legitimate medical men. This was still an age of sexual puritanism, in which the sexual organs and sexual functions were not generally mentioned in polite conversation, and in which sexual categories as we now know them, or think we know them -- homosexuality, bisexuality, transvestism, transsexualism -- were still at an early and controversial stage of development. In this atmosphere, George Groddeck delivered a notorious speech to the congress of psychoanalysts at The Hague in 1920, opening his address with the words: "I am a wild analyst." This was somewhat crass. Analysts were regarded by the public as "wild" already: it was exactly the image the profession wished to avoid. In his speech Groddeck went on to develop the idea that unconscious forces were the rulers of the human organism: even bodily diseases were caused by unconscious conflicts and neuroses. Groddeck moreover insisted on bringing his mistress to conferences and was the author of a risqué novel, The Seeker of Souls.
Nevertheless Freud liked Groddeck personally. He wrote to Max Eitingon that Groddeck was "a bit of a fantasist, but an original fellow who has the rare gift of good humour. I should not like to do without him." And Freud and Groddeck were in regular correspondence about their projects in 1923. Groddeck wrote to Freud, explaining his concept of the It, an idea partially derived from Nietzsche:
I am of the opinion that man is animated by the unknown. There is an It in him, something marvellous that regulates everything that he does and that happens to him. The sentence "I live" is only partially correct; it expresses a little partial phenomenon of the fundamental truth: "Man is lived by the It."
And Joyce's Ulysses:
Joyce was from an early age deeply in love with the Odyssey. "The character of Ulysses has fascinated me ever since boyhood," he wrote to Carlo Linati in 1920. As a schoolboy he read Charles Lamb's Adventures of Ulysses, an adventure-yarn version of the story which presents, in Lamb's words, "a brave man struggling with adversity; by a wise use of events, and with an inimitable presence of mind under difficulties, forcing out a way for himself." Joyce said later that the story so gripped him that when at Belvedere College (he would have been between the ages of 11 and 15) he was tasked to write an essay on "My Favourite Hero", he chose Ulysses. (The essay title "My Favourite Hero" actually appears in Ulysses, on page 638 of the World's Classics edition .) He later described Ulysses to Frank Budgeon as the only "complete all-round character presented by any writer...a complete man...a good man."
Unsurprisingly therefore, this "complete man" surfaced as early as Joyce's first major prose work -- Dubliners of 1914. Joyce had originally planned that it include a short story called "Ulysses", the plot of which was based on an incident which took place in June 1904. Joyce was involved in a scuffle on St Stephen's Green, Dublin, after accosting another man's lady-companion, and was rescued and patched up by one Albert H. Hunter. Hunter, according to Joyce's biographer, Richard Ellmann, was "rumoured to be Jewish and to have an unfaithful wife" (in both of these respects a prototype for Leopold Bloom). In 1906 Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus: "I have a new story for Dubliners in my head. It deals with Mr Hunter." In a letter written shortly afterwards he mentioned its title: "I thought of beginning my story Ulysses but I have too many cares at present." Three months later he had abandoned the idea, writing: "Ulysses never got any forrader than its title." The incident with Hunter was only written up later, in Ulysses itself, in a passage at the end of episode fifteen in which Bloom rescues Dedalus "in orthodox Samaritan fashion" from a fight. The idea of Ulysses as symbolic hero -- and as a title -- was therefore present as early as 1906.
Not all of the stories are so ponderous. Here's Marshall Mcluhan's The Medium is the Massage:
Massage? Shouldn't that be "message"? Well, yes, it should. When the book came back from the typesetter there was a misprint in the title. According to his son Eric, McLuhan took one look at it and exclaimed, "Leave it alone! It's great, and right on target!".
It was a typical McLuhan strategy. The phrase "the medium is the message"; – coined by McLuhan in the early 60s and denoting the way new media such as film and television had by their very nature begun to manipulate the way ideas were conceived and received - was already a cliché by the time the book came out in 1967, and McLuhan must have welcomed the chance to ring the changes on it. As Eric writes on the Marshall McLuhan website: "Now there are possible four readings for the last word of the title, all of them accurate: 'Message' and 'Mess Age,' 'Massage' and 'Mass Age.'"
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Recommended
Iran Filter Meta
Extra context, for nerds only: There's a bit of screen scraping involved, and for that I used Hpricot, an almost-magical Ruby HTML-parsing library, and Sinatra, a definitely-magical Ruby web framework. They make it easy to create useful micro-feeds -- for instance, http://iran.robinsloan.com/nytlede, which tells me when the newest NYT Lede entry was updated -- information that's not included in the RSS feed.
June 21, 2009
Paris, Texas (For Fathers' Day)
For my money, the best movie about fatherhood is Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard's Paris, Texas:
Travis (played by Harry Dean Stanton) emerges in the deserts of West Texas without any memory or speech. A doctor contacts his brother Walt, and driving back to California, Travis slowly begins to open up. Walt likewise reveals that he and his wife Anne have been raising Travis's young son Hunter since shortly after Travis originally disappeared. Travis and Hunter then go to find Hunter's mother, Jane (Nastassja Kinski), who's likewise vanished.
Here's a favorite exchange, taken from the screenplay [lightly formatted by me]:
Walt: Trav, I need to talk to you a little bit about Hunter.
Travis: How old is he now?
W: He's eight in January.
T: He's seven, then.
W: Yeah. [Pause] But see what I want to talk about is uh ... Well, he's-he's like part of the family now. Anne and me are like his parents now.
T: Anne's your wife?
W: Yeah. You remember her, don't you?
T: No. [Pause.] Does he think that you are his father?
W: Well ... Anne told him you were coming.
T:Well who does he think I am?
W: I-I told him you are his father. But see ... Well, you've been gone a long time, Trav.
T: How long have I been gone, do you know?
W: Four years.
T: Is four years a long time?
W: Well, it is for a little boy. It's half his life.
T: Half a boy's life. [Pause.] I remember now!
T: Why I bought that land.
W: Oh, Why?
T: Well ... Mama once told me that uh ... that's where she and Daddy ... first ... made love.
W: Oh, in Paris, Texas?
W: She told you that?
T: Yeah. [Pause.] So ... I figured that that's where I-I have began. [Pause] I mean me, Travis Clay Henderson. They named me that. [Pause.] I started out there.
W: Paris, Texas, huh?
W: So you think maybe you were conceived there?
W: You could be right, Travis.
T: Daddy always had a joke about it.
W: What was the joke?
T: He's uh ... he would introduce Mama... as the girl he met in Paris. Then he'd waited uh ... before he said "Texas" till everybody thought that ... he meant ... he would wait before he said "Texas" till everybody thought ... after everyone thought he was talking about Paris, France. He always laughed real hard about it.
This movie can (and should) wreck you, it's that good.
The web's saturated with Iran election coverage, and I felt like I needed a personal hub -- mostly to keep myself from obsessively reloading 10 different sites -- so I made this. Very minimal, but maybe it will be useful to you, too.
Update #2: Added a Persian tweet translation page. I think I want all my news in 22-pixel Helvetica now.
June 19, 2009
Ideas Ideas Ideas Ideas
China Mieville, guest-blogging on Amazon's Omnivoracious, drops some ideas he wants other people to write books around. Two of the ideas are meta-ideas. (Of course they are.)
Been having a hard time getting into The City & The City, actually. But I haven't given up. Mieville's books can be hard to kick-start but once you get 'em going... what a ride.
What Is An Academic Press (2029)?
In my back-and-forth with Robin about publishers' web sites hosting blogs by their writers, I simply assumed that everybody had read these four pieces, forgetting that I hadn't blogged about them yet! Here's my background.
- Macy Halford, "Blogademia"
- Chronicle of Higher Ed, Forum on Scholarly Publishing
- Peter J. Dougherty, "A Manifesto For Scholarly Publishing"
- Benjamin Kunkel, "Lingering"
The Chronicle Forum is particularly worth reading, especially the section at the end on new trends in scholarly writing. Here's one excerpt from Alan Thomas at University of Chicago Press:
There has been a welcome trend, still continuing, for scholars to use the security of tenure to frame book projects for wider audiences within the academy, and sometimes outside it. But for first books, things haven't changed much: The habit of writing to satisfy a dissertation committee carries over into writing to satisfy later professional gatekeepers, without enough regard for the book's potential audience. The peer-review process is sometimes to blame for that (well-meaning readers' reports sometimes have the effect of re-dissertationizing a first book), and we as editors need to help authors sort the good suggestions from the bad. One trend I don't see, but would like to, is greater attention to writing skills in graduate school. When I speak to groups of grad students, I always urge them to cultivate an ability to write in several registers (through book reviews, blogs, journalism, and so on), even as they write their dissertations.
Doug Sery at MIT press also notes that "[t]here seems to be a movement afoot to change the evaluation criteria used by universities for promotion and tenure. Specifically, there is a desire among some academics to allow participation in blogs, online journals, and other new media to count toward their promotion and tenure cases," while Doug Armato at Minnesota writes, "I see the blog form moving into scholarship through more diarylike texts. There is also a more European-influenced urge to write speculative scholarly essays or meditations with minimal footnotes and apparatus."
To me, the most natural way to convince tenure committees to count participation in new media is to get university presses to sponsor it, and the most natural way for university presses to help use new media to get better books is to help shape how it's done. University presses hosting and publishing blogs is Pareto-optimal.
In fact, I think this is going in my own essay on academia in 2029.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts
Jonah Lehrer and The Fourth Culture
I should have read Jonah Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist a long time ago. Jeffrey J Cohen's excerpt at In the Middle just bumped it to the top of my list. Here's Cohen:
Whereas C. P. Snow argued in 1959 that we require a third culture, one that bridge the noncommunicating realms of art and science, those scientists who have self-appointed themselves as this culture (especially Steven Pinker) carry a fair amount of animus towards the humanities, believing it enough if they communicate their science directly to the masses. Lehrer argues that not only does such a third culture misrepresent what Snow imagined, it often gets the humanists wrong (and misapprehends their artistic sources as well) by not having listened or read attentively. Lehrer therefore calls for a fourth culture, a space of true collaboration, and it is that call I'd like to quote this morning.
And here's Lehrer (as quoted by JJC):
[A fourth culture] seeks to discover the relationships between the humanities and the sciences. This fourth culture, much closer in concept to Snow's original definition (and embodied by works like [Ian McEwan's] Saturday), will ignore arbitrary intellectual boundaries, seeking instead to blur the lines that separate. It will freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and humanities, and will focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience. It will take a pragmatic view of truth, and it will judge truth not by its origins but by its usefulness. What does this novel or experiment or poem or protein teach us about ourselves? How does it help us to understand who we are? What long-standing problem has been solved? ... While science will always be our primary method of investigating the universe, it is naïve to think that science alone can solve everything itself, or that everything can even be solved ... When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art ... No knowledge has a monopoly on knowledge.
For my part -- and it's taken me a looooong time to come around to this view -- I think one of the paradigmatic approaches to this problem of disciplinary edges is to spend a lot of time thinking about media. You simply HAVE to think about the brain, the body, culture, languages and codes, history, society, politics, commerce. Guys like Pinker want to settle old scores, spend a lot of time worrying about relativism. The people who are thinking seriously about media (inside and outside of the academy) have already moved on.
File under: Braiiins, Learnin', Media Galaxy, New Liberal Arts, Science
June 18, 2009
Thomas Baekdal has a nice schematic history of news and information from 1800 to 2020. I like his 1900-1960 entry:
By the year 1900, the newspapers and magazine had revolutionized how we communicated. Now we could get news from places we have never been. We could communicate our ideas to people we had never seen. And we could sell our products to people far away.
You still had to go out to talk other people, but you could stay on top of things, without leaving the city. It was amazing. It was the first real revolution of information. The world was opening up to everyone.
During the next 60 years the newspapers dominated our lives. If you wanted to get the latest news, or tell people about your product, you would turn to the newspapers. It seemed like newspapers would surely be the dominant source of information for all time to come.
Except that during the 1920s a new information source started to attract people's attention - the Radio. Suddenly you could listen to another person's voice 100 of miles away. But most importantly, you could get the latest information LIVE. It was another tremendous evolution is the history of information. By 1960's the two dominant sources of information was LIVE news from the Radio and the more detailed news via newspapers and magazines.
It was really great times, although some meant that "The way for newspapers to meet the competition of radio is simply to get out better papers", an argument that we would hear repeatedly for the next 50 years.
The stuff about 2020 seems very familiar.
Via Lone Gunman.
June 17, 2009
Four New Roles for Publishers
Nice post over at O'Reilly TOC. I like Andy Oram's forthrightness here:
The bedrock principle in [the new media] environment is that the publisher is no longer a gatekeeper. Anything can go online to be linked to, rated, berated, or anything else people want to do with it. Since we are no longer gatekeepers, publishers have to focus on how we add quality.
Sounds nice--but that puts us in a real quandary, because the elements of quality we have seized on so proudly over the decades no longer matter as much. We have to recognize the new environment we're in and find new meaning for ourselves.
My favorite of his four new proposed roles is the last one, "integrating facets of a large-scale text," which is, besides being a useful service, also just a nice-sounding phrase.
I am completely floored by these scenes of silent protest in Iran. From an eyewitness report:
...the cry goes up: Shoar nagoo! Don't shout slogans! Hands are up held up instead. It is quiet. Here and there a voice, unable to restrain itself, begins to scream "Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!" He is met instantly with hisses and whistles---saket! saket! quiet! quiet!---and the voice falls silent again.
Such calm confers dignity -- and also utility, of course. Matthew Yglesias explains:
If you were to try to fight the security forces -- shoot some policemen, say -- you'd encourage a more serious crackdown. It's through nonviolent resistance that you heighten the psychological contradictions, and encourage the regime and its enforcers to blink. From the Velvet Revolution to Tiananmen Square to the Orange Revolution to what's happening today in Iran, the brave dissidents are essentially daring the security forces to beat or kill them.
If you haven't read Unconquerable World by Jonathan Schell, now's the time. It's about, among other things, the world-shaking changes that have been wrought by nonviolence in the 20th century.
I don't read too many books more than once; I've read this one three times. Schell is not -- I need to emphasize this -- not a pacifist, and he's not naive. But even so, he looks at the evidence and concludes: There exists in the world an unstoppable force. And it looks something like this:
File under: Snarkpolitik, Society/Culture, Worldsnark
Media = Freedom?
Pete Wehner has a post at the Commentary blog comparing Iran in 2009 to the Soviet Union of the 1980's which, of course, is completely ridiculous. I visited Russia back in the day and I've now visited Iran twice. There is no comparison. The Soviet Union was the most repressive place I've ever been; its residents lived in constant terror. I'll never forget my first translator in Moscow telling me that his parents had trained him never to smile in public--it could easily be misinterpreted and then he'd be off to the Gulag. There was no internet in those days, no cellphones, no facebook or twitter.
Iran, by contrast, is breezy with freedom. It is certainly freer now, despite Ahmadinejad, than it was when I first visited in 2001. There are satellites dishes all over the place, which bring accurate news via BBC Persia and the Voice of America. The place is awash in western music, movies and books. The Supreme Leader has a website; ayatollahs are blogging. You can get the New York Times and CNN online. (I was interested to find, however, that most blogs except those, like this one, that are associated with a mainstream media outlet, are filtered by the government.) There is, in fact, marginally more freedom of expression in Iran than in some notable U.S. allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia--although the danger of imprisonment always exists if a journalist or politician takes it a step too far for the Supreme Leader's watchdogs.
I wonder, though -- to what extent can media consumption, or even production, be a proxy for (or index of) material freedom? I mean, the reformists in Iran are actually fighting FOR a loosening of some of the more oppressive restrictions. In particular, women almost certainly had more day-to-day freedoms (apart from media consumption) under the USSR then they do in present-day Iran.
I appreciate Klein's point here, and trust me -- I don't in any way underestimate the power of the free circulation of information as constitutive of some degree of liberty. I just worry when people who deal in information - especially journalists - confuse the freedom of information with freedom as such. (Klein's B-story about the two states, which explains the likelihood of getting imprisoned for arbitrary reasons or dissent - is way more relevant.)
File under: Journalism, Snarkpolitik, Society/Culture, Worldsnark
June 16, 2009
To Shame Them For the Rest Of Their Lives
And curse the men's cowardice with the light of their courage.
File under: Journalism, Snarkpolitik, Worldsnark
The Writing Life
I can only imagine how addictive (and ridiculous) this is for people with real books, and real sales. It's simultaneously an economic metric and a proxy for your self-esteem. Dangerous.
For the record: 130 Kindle copies sold to date. And about a hundred times that many web views... which feels about right.
What Is The Revolution?
This is beyond words. A demonstrator is protecting a man sent to attack him. There are photos of the wounded and dead, but there are more pictures like this as well.
When you no longer need to kill your enemy, then the revolution becomes possible.
File under: Journalism, Snarkpolitik, Worldsnark
I don't know why, but I've always thought of surgery as primarily a cerebral pursuit; a great surgeon is so because he's clever and smart. A short passage from Gawande's [commencement] address reveals that perhaps that's not the case:
In surgery, for instance, I know that I have more I can learn in mastering the operations I do. So what does a surgeon like me do? We look to those who are unusually successful -- the positive deviants. We watch them operate and learn their tricks, the moves they make that we can take home.
So surgeons learn surgery in the same way that kids learn Kobe Bryant's post moves from SportsCenter highlights?
Actually, Gawande reminds me a little bit of Tony Gwynn's method of obsessively recording pitchers to see what pitches they might use against him:
What began as a casual "let's take a look at how I swing" Has developed into a Spielberg-like production.
On the road, Gwynn carries two extra bags packed with video equipment and supplies. He has tapes of himself against every pitcher he has faced in the National League, showing every at-bat he has been able to film.
In his hotel room, before every game, he uses a small video replay machine to review the tape of that night's pitcher.
"I kind of take things to an extreme," said Gwynn, who edits and compiles his own tapes. "I know all I have to do is see the ball and hit the ball and I will put my bat on the ball. I know that, but it's not enough...
"I don't keep a journal. Most of it is mental anyway. Once you watch these tapes as much as I do, you know. I think I would be as good a hitter without the tapes, but this is fine tuning. I really don't look at myself that much, but rather I look at how the guy has pitched me in the past. Maybe they will try it again, maybe not. But it will be in my mind knowing what they might do, and that is an advantage to me as a hitter."
June 15, 2009
How I Spent Last Weekend
This weekend past, I went down to TechShop to make a special bonus for the people who purchase a physical, hold-it-in-your-hands New Liberal Arts book. (Available soon.)
I was aided by this fine fellow (watch in HD!):
In time, this will all make sense.
How to Invent
According to Jeff Bezos, inventing is easy. You just have to sign up for these three things:
"There are a few prerequisites to inventing.... You have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to think long term. You have to be willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time. If you can't do those three things, you need to limit yourself to sustaining innovation.... You typically don't get misunderstood for sustaining innovation."
I think most people probably underestimate how hard it is to stomach being "misunderstood for long periods of time." Like, long periods of time.
But I agree. Determination, discipline, and stubbornness are what get good ideas out into the world.
Live Swimsuit Intervention
Imagine an art exhibit that features a giant swimming pool, sans water. Imagine yourself standing there, scoping it sound, thinking: Okay, that's neat.
Now imagine that a trio of museum-goers... the ones standing just behind you... suddenly strip down into bathing suits and swim trunks. Giggles and shouts.
They run into the pool, and leap into the air.
Love it on every level.
Well, That Is Quite Large
This image looks so good it almost looks bad: a gamma ray burst.
The New Liberal Arts and the New Professors
So I'm writing a short essay for a forum on the future of scholarship and the profession at The Chronicle of Higher Ed, I think on the New Liberal Arts.
Like you, i've spent a lot of time thinking about WHAT the NLA should be, but relatively little on how that would change colleges, universities, and the lives, research, and careers of professors.
So... What should I say?
June 13, 2009
The Boss Sure Can Write
Wow. Bill Keller's memo from Tehran can be read almost as a direct rebuke to the Daily Show segment on the NYT. (Which, by the way, I didn't think was very funny. The mean-spirited field segments have always been my least favorite part of that show.)
Kinda like: "How's this for yesterday's news?"
Something else to notice: Bill Keller can write like a dream.
On the streets around Fatemi Square, near the headquarters of the leading opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, riot police officers dressed in Robocop gear roared down the sidewalks on motorcycles to disperse and intimidate the clots of pedestrians who gathered to share rumors and dismay.
"Another four years of dictatorship," a voter muttered, and "this is a coup d'etat." Several others agreed. Some women wept openly. Some talked of "mutiny." Others were more cynical.
"It was just a movie," said Hussein Gharibi, a 54-year-old juice vendor, scoffing at those who got their hopes up. "They were all just players in a movie."
Crisp, imagistic ("dressed in Robocop gear"), revealing. Pretty amazing when the top (editorial) executive is also one of the best writers.
Path-Dependence, Increasing Returns, and Technological Competition
I think anyone interested in technological change ought to read W. Brian Arthur's legendary paper on path-dependence (PDF) :
Modern, complex technologies often display increasing returns to adoption in that the more they are adopted, the more experience is gained with them, and the more they are improved. When two or more increasing-return technologies "compete" then, for a "market" of potential adopters, insignificant events may by chance give one of them an initial advantage in adoptions. This technology may then improve more than the others, so it may appeal to a wider proportion of potential adopters. It may therefore become further adopted and further improved. Thus it may happen that a technology that by chance gains an early lead in adoption may eventually "corner the market" of potential adopters, with the other technologies becoming locked out. Of course, under different "small events"--unexpected successes in the performance of prototypes, whims of early developers, political circumstances -- a different technology might achieve sufficient adoption and improvement to come to dominate. Competitions between technolologies may have multiple potential outcomes...
The argument of this paper suggests that the interpretation of economic history should be different in different returns regimes. Under constant and diminishing returns, the evolution of the market reflects only a-priori endowments, preferences, and transformation possibilities; small events cannot sway the outcome. But while this is comforting, it reduces history to the status of mere carrier--the deliverer of the inevitable. Under increasing returns, by contrast many outcomes are possible. Insignificant circumstances become magnified by positive feedbacks to "tip" the system into the actual outcome "selected". The small events of history become important. Where we observe the predominance of one technology or one economic outcome over its competitors we should thus be cautious of any exercise that seeks the means by which the winner's innate "superiority" came to be translated into adoption...
Under increasing returns, competition between economic objects--in this case technologies--takes on an evolutionary character, with a "founder effect" mechanism akin to that in genetics. "History" becomes important. To the degree that the technological development of the economy depends upon small events beneath the resolution of an observer's model, it may become impossible to predict market shares with any degree of certainty. This suggests that there may be theoretical limits, as well as practical ones, to the predictability of the economic future. (all emphases mine)
Here Arthur uses the examples of nuclear reactors and steam-vs-petrol car engines -- other classic examples are the QWERTY keyboard and the Microsoft OS, both cases where learning effects and coordination costs might lock-in an inferior (or at least quirky) product. (I'm also rereading Henry Petroski's The Evolution of Useful Things, which takes a similar historical-accident-over-essential-function approach to design history.)
File under: Design, Object Culture, Technosnark
June 12, 2009
The Original Technocrats
Alexis Madrigal (@alexismadrigal) points to an article by John G. Gunnell about the history of technocracy:
The term "technocracy," though originated in the United States in 1919 by an engineer named William Smith, first became common when it was adopted by a movement that developed in the early 1930s as a response to the Great Depression. That movement, which for a time gained considerable notoriety and a substantial following, began with a group of technicians and engineers dedicated to social reform whose concepts were modeled on the technological republic in Edward Bellamy's late-19th-century utopian novel Looking Backward. They were also influenced by the economic theories of Thorstein Veblen and the principles of scientific management growing out of the work of Frederick W. Taylor, both of which suggested, much like the later work of James Burnham in The Managerial Society, that politicians and industrial entrepreneurs should, and would, give way to technical elites. Although the movement may have appeared somewhat bizarre, it reflected a characteristic American faith in the compatibility of technology and civic vitality. The aim was to abolish corrupt politics and an obsolete economic system and expand administrative and technical rationality. "Technocracy" has been applied retrospectively to many of the technological utopias and dystopias that are so persistent a feature of Western literature and political theory.
It's sometimes easy for us to forget that the early twentieth century was a time of huge media revolutions -- radio, cinema, phonographs, among others -- and that the engineer was very much at the center of it. There was also, I think, a really powerful charismatic quality associated with scientists, inventors, and capitalists, of the secular-aristocracy-without-history mode previously available probably only fully to generals. I mean, Steve Jobs had nothing on Thomas Edison. That dude literally appeared to be a magician. (For a great take on Edison-as-magician-inventor, see Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's novel, The Future Eve -- part of the inspiration for Fritz Lang's Metropolis.)
Also, something I try to keep in mind is that then as now, "bureaucracy" is really used in two senses -- both pejorative, sure, but functionally distinct. Bureaucracy can be cold, efficient, disciplined -- in short, inhuman. But bureaucracy can also be petty, irregular, inefficient, feudal. You can be subject either to the impersonality of the machine or the fickle whims or incompetencies of an individual.
Traditionally, bureaucrats were minor officials, positions traded within and among families, indifferent to rules guiding their idiosyncrasies -- think about Kafka's The Trial, and it's pretty clear that this is the kind of bureaucrat most of us truly dread. Max Weber's model for the perfect bureaucracy wasn't the modern office but the modern army. And when you think about the idea of a civil servant -- professional, well-qualified, uncorrupt, willing to sacrifice for the public good, fastidious about following process and law -- you can see the ethos of military discipline in a positive sense.
I wonder whether the idea and ideal of the technocrat - the true social engineer - is dead for us. What kinds of technologies would genuinely revolutionize -- aw, that's saying too much -- substantively improve our politics, communities, society? Could an inventor genius somehow come along and charm us all once again?
Number Four With a Bullet
I'm coming for you, Jhumpa:
The New Physical Electronica
I have decided that if you are a band with guitars, bass, drums and nothing else, I have no time for you.
But that doesn't mean you have to use a laptop.
In their project Rhythm 1001, the group Invisible jams on plastic cups, typewriters, chairs, robo-tambourines, weird things with pegs, voice-mail tapes:
I love the fact that it's simultaneously so electronic -- a whole crazy spaghetti network of servos and controllers -- and so not electronic. No MIDI score here; it's all human performers.
Oh yeah and I also love the fact that it's so beautiful.
(Via Peter Kirn.)
June 11, 2009
Snarkmarket Process Bonus: Mr. Tyndall
Two rejected sketches of Mr. Tyndall from Penumbra:
Both not crazy enough. Also, the second one looks a little like Roger Ebert, yeah?
Our Daily Bread
Today Lifehacker brings us a ridiculously good idea. You make and refrigerate a week-or-two supply of no-knead bread dough. When you're ready for a fresh loaf, you pull off a chunk and stick it in the oven for half an hour. Voila! Cheap, convenient, delicious, homemade bread! These folks turned this idea into a cookbook.
The Economists Went to Their Homes
The New Yorker Book Bench reports: "Yesterday, Ha'aretz -- Israel's oldest newspaper -- sent home all of its regular reporters and contributors, and replaced them with famous literary scribes."
This was the business report from Avri Herling:
Everything's okay. Everything's like usual. Yesterday trading ended. Everything's okay. The economists went to their homes, the laundry is drying on the lines, dinners are waiting in place... Dow Jones traded steadily and closed with 8,761 points, Nasdaq added 0.9% to a level of 1,860 points.... The guy from the shakshuka [an Israeli egg-and-tomato dish] shop raised his prices again....
Pretty cute. More than cute. Reminds me of what Chip Scanlan at Poynter used to say: Newspapers shouldn't just be in the information business; they should be in the wisdom business.
Be a Space Man. Think About the Future.
Oh jeez. Beautiful. The trailer for a new Louis Vuitton campaign, featuring Sally Ride, Buzz Aldrin, and Jim Lovell. Shot here in SF by Autofuss with their giant computer-controlled cameras. (You can see them in the background, circling like lunar movie-droids.)
Kindle Store Data Point
For the record: It takes about 25 sales to make it into the top 10 best-selling "technothriller" list in the Kindle store. (Technothriller!)
Question for you: Any blogs or boards where you think I ought to be promoting this? Kindle-centric blogs... book blogs with a penchant for new forms... hubs for short fiction? Just curious. Leave a comment or email me, robin at snarkmarket.
While I'm writing: Gotta give manifold props to John August, whose Kindle short story The Variant was what convinced me to put Penumbra on the Kindle as well. He's also written up some observations of the Kindle market as a whole, and the general takeaway seems to be: The numbers are all really low. The best-selling books in the Kindle store sell around 500 copies a day. And okay, that's actually a lot. But it's not iPhone-scale at all, and of course the numbers drop off steeply from there. How many Kindles are there in the world? Less than a million, right? It's still a tiny universe.
June 10, 2009
Snarkmarket Punctuation Drama
So in the post immediately preceding this one, I used this construction:
Is that right? The original phrase is "health care," with no hyphen, but when you turn a phrase into an adjective, you always drop in hyphens, right? Likewise, in the title of my short story I used:
...because the whole three-word phrase is a single adjective. Is that right?
As long as I'm at it, one more punctuation issue that's been bothering me. In my head, the words following a colon get capitalized (or not) like so:
I stole three things: a shirt, a tie, and a surface-to-air missile.
But I had a good reason: The fashion police were after me.
The first one isn't capitalized because it's not a complete sentence. The second one is, because it is. Do I have that right? I use a lot of colons. This is important.
Why Is Gawande So Good?
And now I can confidently agree, it's great. But why is it so great?
Here's my theory:
- It's a first person narrative -- and not tentatively so. There are I's everywhere in this piece, and it's wonderful.
New rule: The more abstract and complex the subject matter, the more important it is to anchor it to an identifiable human point-of-view.
- The use of place in this piece is also really important. Yes, the piece focuses on different health-care costs in different parts of the country, so it makes sense. But, even absent that connection, I think anchoring ideas to places is generally a good idea. Think of a memory palace. Our brains have super-powerful circuitry for thinking about and remembering places, and when you connect ideas to places (even imaginary places) you co-opt some of that power. It's like a computer scientist finding a way to do a calculation on the GPU to take advantage of that crazy speed and parallelism.
New idea: Use place in narrative as a hack to engage the 3D-sensing-mapping brain.
- It's a hero's quest. Really! In this piece, Atul Gawande is Luke Skywalker leaving Tatooine. Frodo going to Mordor. He has an urgent quest (to solve this health-care puzzle); he enters new, unexplored territory (McAllen, Texas); he meets friends and foes along the way. It's Joseph Campbell meets Peter Orszag. Near the two-thirds mark he literally mentions flying home; that's important. It gives the piece a familiar, satisfying arc.
New venture: Policy think-tank co-founded by George Lucas and Peter Jackson?
So there you go.
Now This Is My Kinda Contest
The new contest that Google is running with the Guggenheim is absolutely terrific:
Today, Frank Lloyd Wright's 142nd birthday, we're excited to announce the Design It: Shelter Competition. Held by the Guggenheim Museum and Google SketchUp, the competition is inspired by Wright's assignment for his apprentices at Taliesin: If you wanted to study to be an architect with Wright, you had to design and build a shelter in the desert outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Then you had to live and study in it.
Unlike the Taliesin assignment, the shelters in this competition are virtual. To enter, use Google SketchUp to design a small structure where someone might sleep and work. Your shelter should be created for a specific site anywhere in the world and geo-located in Google Earth. It also should conform to size constraints and must not include running water, gas or electricity.
Here's the official contest site.
There's a bit of the "editor as wizard" effect here -- the power of a framework or context. (There's a better way to articulate this but I'm in a rush.) I could have, at any point since SketchUp's introduction, designed a site-specific shelter and posted it for all to see. But... that would have seemed kinda lame, and certainly disconnected.
But now? Watch for mine on Snarkmarket sometime in the next couple months.
This io9 essay on Dollhouse reminded me of something I bet a lot of slightly-less-hardcore Joss Whedon fans didn't know: Years ago, Whedon wrote a couple of action movie screenplays that got reviewed at Screenwriter's Utopia. The review includes a summary of one of the movies (called "Afterlife") that clearly prefigured the ideas Whedon's exploring in Dollhouse. The premise changed a lot in the intervening years, but it's somewhat fascinating to look at the progression.
June 9, 2009
NLA Video Update
This is turning into the best Tuesday ever.
The Seven Types of (Twenty-Four-Hour) Book Store Customer
Let me tell you: Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store does not operate around the clock due to an overwhelming volume of book-buyers.
In fact, whole nights go by without a single customer. Just me, my laptop, and the dusty heights.
But oh. That single customer.
There is, I have learned, a community of very strange men clustered in this part of San Francisco. They visit the store late at night. They come wide awake, and completely sober. And they are always nearly vibrating with need.
(Yes, I'm going to be doing this all week.)
Mr. Penumbra's Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store
Okay! My short story, "Mr. Penumbra's Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store," is available now on all platforms in all universes!
It's a 6,000-word story about recession, attraction, and data visualization. The keywords on Amazon are: books, book stores, cryptography, dating, the economy, Google, San Francisco.
"Customers who read this item also also read: the internet."
But I have to tell you: It looks gooood on the Kindle.
Finally, you'll enjoy this bit of background: The seed for the story was a tweet! Back in November, Rachel wrote: "just misread '24hr bookdrop' as '24hr bookshop'. the disappointment is beyond words."
That's the kind of phrase you copy and paste into your idea-file, if you're smart. Then, you rediscover it months later, and what does it turn into? Go find out.
June 8, 2009
SimCity... Actually a Terrible Simulation
The blog Human Transit outlines the ways in which the original SimCity -- the one I spent the most time playing -- codified a now-outmoded planning orthodoxy:
In short, Sim City could be hailed as a triumph of reactionary brainwashing -- in that it instilled in a generation of 1990s teen geeks all the worst assumptions of 1960s city planning.
But, let's not not pick on a decades-old video game. Let's imagine a new Sim-something instead -- one that codifies the values we thing are important today, in 2009.
How about SimRegion? It would be all about region-wide transportation infrastructure, water management, food production (big emphasis on that), migration, and more. Hmm. That sounds educational. And boring.
Maybe SimSocialNetwork. Forget geography. This one's all about tending an online garden of weak ties and attention-feeds. (I'm not being sarcastic. I think, abstracted in the right way, this could actually be fun and instructive.)
Or how about some kind of bifurcated simulation: SimHealthCareSystemAndIndividual. One side's macro, the other's micro. You play both, and see how decisions on one side affect the other. I like the sound of that, actually. The trick with any social simulation is that, inevitably, the way you design it says a lot about how you view the world. So the micro/macro sim would play up that tension; the models might even be designed to sort of "fight" each other. SimBourgeoisAndProletariat.
(Via Noah Brier.)
File under: Snarkonomics, Snarkpolicy, Society/Culture, Video Games
La Gaya Scienza
According to Jonathan Jarrett,the whole humanities vs. science contention is (at least in part) an artifact of the English language:
This here is the ceiling of the old lecture hall of the Austrian Academy of the Sciences, at least as it translates into English. But, what's the French or German for science? `Science', `Wissenschaft', respectively, both of which also mean just `knowledge'. All the Romance languages have some version of Latin `scientia', which likewise means just `knowledge'. And that's what the artwork here was painted to express, wisdom being handed down by teachers and on tablets to a romantic and fascinated world. All kinds of knowledge.
The idea that science means the Popperian world of reproducibility, experiment and testing, by contrast, is modern and English. It's slowly being enforced on other languages' academies, but it's not something that people in the Middle Ages, where geometry was one of the Liberal Arts, or even the nineteenth century, would have recognised. Even now, the German-speaking states almost all have their Akademie der Wissenschaften, France has the Centre National des Recherches Scientifiques and Spain the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, and these are the premier research institutions of the humanities in their respective lands. But in Britain, which I know best, the current split between the Arts & Humanities Research Board, now Council, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Council, previously the Science and Engineering Research Council and previously the Science Research Council, goes essentially back to the difference between the Royal Society, founded 1660 in some form, and the British Academy, founded 1902. I don't know what the equivalent bodies in the USA would be but it would be an interesting comparison. [Note: My guess would be the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. --TC]
Elsewhere we don't have to have this separation, and one of the most interesting things about Snow's piece is therefore its potential to explain why in fact we do. And, indeed, it's pleasant to see that some people have used Science! and graphs and maps to argue that in fact, we don't, we just think we do. As a computing-in-the-humanities sort of guy, I can get behind that.
I don't absolutely buy this, but I think there is something to it. When I translate "Wissenschaft," I sometimes use "science," but more often I find myself writing "scholarship" - which is as close to a word covering both the humanities and sciences in a traditional liberal-artsy sense.
More to the point, I think the science/humanities divide is less a difference in the way Anglo-Americans and contiental Europeans think about the humanities, than a difference in the way we think about science.
In the US, at least, nearly ALL science is seen as applied science -- that is, closer to the PRACTICE of engineering, or medicine, then it is to history or sociology or (god forbid) comparative literature. None of those things can build a bridge or whup those Communists. But if you start to talk about "research," or especially "scholarship," then you start to see commonalities. Someone doing medical research, even for a for-profit purpose, is in a different business from someone working in a clinical practice, just as a lawyer is different from a law professor.
The beef with the humanities seems to be that there are no corresponding practitioners, no practical applications -- with the possible exceptions of K-12 teachers and professional writers (journalists, novelists, historians who write for trade presses). Couple that with a rump humanism that actively valorizes the uselessness, timelessness, and universality of the arts, and you get some misunderstandings at best and real problems at worst.
The shift that's happening seems to be with the younger generation of culture workers. (Here I'm relying in part on Alan Liu's thesis in The Laws of Cool.) One reason why I think the idea of Liberal Arts 2.0 / digital humanism seems to have some traction is that the work that younger people includes more of what we would traditionally call the humanities, and is governed by an ethos that is closer to what we would call humanism. If we begin to think of our technological galaxy as a media galaxy, then we start to see some clearer points of overlap between science culture and humanities culture.
Somewhere Friedrich Kittler points out that there's only been one time before now that the entire West was governed by the same information technologies. That was during the European Middle Ages, when the university's technologies of the book, the library, the postal service, the lecture, etc. were pretty much the only games in town. If you get bifurcated discourse networks, you'll get a bifurcated culture. You can't just try to understand a cultural rift; it will only close once its precondition changes.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts, Science, Worldsnark
Sneak Preview: Mr. Penumbra's Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store
Thanks to MorBCN for the CC-licensed source image.
Coming Tuesday to Kindle and the web.
I'm pretty excited about this. I did a test download onto my Kindle and, wow! It really feels like you published something!
Bit of a surprise, though: I tried to make it free for Kindle download, but Amazon wouldn't let me. Ninety-nine cents is the minimum. And yet, there is stuff in the Kindle store priced at zero cents. If you know the secret, and share it with me before Monday afternoon, I will price my story at zero cents. Otherwise, $0.99 it is.
June 7, 2009
I'm left feeling incredibly unsure about how to express my negative feelings, having attempted this paragraph half a dozen times. I don't want to give anything away that happens in the game, but I do want to discuss my experience of playing as Ruby, and why it genuinely upset me. I think this is The Path's greatest achievement -- to be capable of being genuinely upsetting.
And then check out the comments. This is not the kind of convo you usually get about a new game release. Granted, this is all on Rock Paper Shotgun, which is already sort of the New Yorker of game blogs. But even so.
Sounds and Pictures
Things I'm digging right now:
- This old Tungg song: Bullets. It wasn't until the third listen that I decided it was being sung by happy, dancing zombies. Or hobbits. Or zombie hobbits? (Be sure to get past the odd little sonic intro.)
- I think I mentioned him before, but man, I just cannot get enough of Hudson Mohawke. Two of my favorite tracks are on this page in different forms, but I really think it's worth getting the whole album. Here's some more context.
- I love Jillian Tamaki's sketchbook. These animals are appealing without being overcute. (Total Babar vibe, you know?) There are glimpses into her process. And overall I'm just blown away by the variety of tone and style. Like, wha? Whaaa?
- Tornadoes in Brooklyn has been on a roll lately. Love these images of the magical (?!) former Soviet Union. These ones creep me out. And look at the texture of the sky here. Is that real? I'm kinda suspicious. Look at these signal flags! Wrapped up like Batman's utility belt... for a boat.
- Let's get a Snarkmarket treehouse.
June 6, 2009
Making Those Schrifts A Little Shorter
Before coming to Snarkmarket, I blogged solo for four years at Short Schrift. After trying a handful of different ideas, I wound up having SS mirror my posts here -- but usually with a lag, since I update a bunch of posts at once.
Well, today I'm changing the format of Short Schrift to make it more like a link blog/reading diary. Snarkmarket will be the home of ideas, questions, problems, and commentary, while Short Schrift will be more, um, gestational. My first "new" post is here: "Bursting the Higher Education Bubble." Old and new readers alike, check it out. And look at some of the archives too! There's a lot of stuff in there that I'm still thinking about. I would love for you to think about it too.
June 5, 2009
How Do You Follow The Web?
Me, I subscribe to a lot of sites, so I get auto-updated. I use an RSS reader, NetNewsWire, with Google Reader as a woefully unsynced backup. I keep feeds sorted into folders by category, and I just tweaked the categories:
academia blogs books and libraries CFPs digital life downloads friends' blogs friends' personal history ideas journalism mac magazines media music must reads my blogs news online mags politics radio sports tv and movies
I also have a couple of things emailed to me semi-regularly: new comments or links to Snarkmarket, Counterfictionals, or Short Schrift, mentions of my name, and new search results for "blood and treasure." (Weird, I know.)
How do you do it?
Time to Write a Few Prob-Eds
Julian Sanchez, "The Perils of Pop Philosophy":
The function of the ordinary pop-science/social science/philosophy piece is to give the reader a sort of thumbnail-sketch of the findings or results of a particular sphere of study, while op-eds and radio talkers make the thumbnail case for a policy position. The latter are routinely criticised for their shrill content, but the really toxic message of contemporary opinion writing and radio is the meta-message, the implicit message contained in the form, more than any particular substantive claim. In an ordinary op-ed, the formal message is that 800 or 1000 words is adequate to establish the correct position on any question of interest...
What might be more helpful, at least in some instances, is an article that spends the same amount of space setting up the problem, and getting across exactly why it’s so difficult for brilliant and highly educated people to agree on an answer—especially when many people outside the field tend to have an opinion one way or another, and believe that they’re justified in holding it with some confidence. Not just a clash between two confident but opposed views—we get plenty of that all the time, and it’s part of the problem—but an examination (assuming good faith) of what’s keeping these smart jousters from reaching consensus. Not “the case for policy A” vs “the case for policy B” but “the epistemic problems that make it hard to choose between A and B,” as though (I know, it’s crazy) the search for truth were more than a punch-up between mutually exclusive, preestablished conclusions. The message is not (to coin a phrase) “we report, you decide” but “we report on why you’re not actually competent to decide, unless you’re prepared to devote a hell of a lot more time, energy, and thought to it.”
Sanchez adds that "these would, of course, tend to be incredibly frustrating articles, and given that journalism’s already on the skids, perhaps this isn’t the time to be proposing that publications deliberately frustrate their audiences." Maybe. But referencing Sanchez's earlier essay on the problem of one-way hashes, articles that clearly map out a problem and give you the vocabulary and background you need to understand it definitely serve a purpose; sometimes readers are shopping for opinions, but equally often they're rummaging for language itself - definitions, analogies, anecdotes. Maybe this could be a way to solve our problem of the arcane economist?
Also, do you know who's really good at doing this already? Doctors. Medical advertising and some reporting often peddle newfangled and overhyped solutions, but I think doctors and medical researchers are actually very good at "state-of-the-field" reporting.
This touches on an idea I've been kicking around for a while -- doing a Radio Lab-style podcast or report on current research in the humanities and social sciences. Basically you'd read a bunch of journals, newspapers, and blogs, interview people, and put together a 45-minute program. I would LOVE for a Jad Abumrad-esque figure to take a half an hour to explain what's important about, I don't know -- disability studies, or new digital archives, or theories of affect, or Giorgio Agamben.
Yes, I know a sociologist would come up with a completely different list of things to care about. But science, medicine, and technology are getting all the love, and we've got to start SOMEwhere. So think about it -- what kind of brainy cultural movements or ideas have you encountered kicking around lately that you might want to take for a quick foundation course?
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Journalism, Learnin', Radio
June 4, 2009
The Golden Age of Television
This poll of TV critics on the best television shows, performances, etc., of the past decade reveals a handful of things:
- The decade's almost over, folks. The Naughty Aughties. We hardly knew ye.
- This decade's been a golden age for scripted drama. Here are the nominees: "Friday Night Lights," "Lost," "Mad Men," "The Sopranos," "The West Wing," and "The Wire"; the just-missed list includes "24," "Battlestar Galactica," "Big Love," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Deadwood," "Grey’s Anatomy," "House," "Rescue Me," and "The Shield." Neither list includes "Six Feet Under," "Rome," "Dexter," "ER," "Boston Legal," "In Treatment"... fill in your favorite drama here. (Not all of these are my cup of tea, but they were all contenders.)
- When you look at comedies, the drop-off in quality is a lot more sharp. Here are the top shows: "30 Rock," "Arrested Development," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "The Daily Show," "Everybody Loves Raymond," and "The Office." The runners-up? "The Big Bang Theory," "Flight of the Conchords," "Frasier," "Freaks and Geeks," "Friends," "Sex and the City," "The Simpsons," and "Two and a Half Men." Now, I really like "Flight of the Conchords" and "Freaks and Geeks," but even compared to "Arrested Development," they're blips. And once you remember that you're talking about the 2000s and not the 1990s, most of the rest of the good shows fall off that list too.
- I'm sorry, but the dramatic actor category is all messed up. All of the "Just Missed" actors are better than everybody in the category except Gandolfini. Ian fucking McShane, people. Ian McShane. This is worse than giving Emmys to James Spader.
- We need more recognizably great comic actresses. Tina Fey's created our generation's Homer Simpson in Liz Lemon, but otherwise, the waters there look thin. No love for any of the ladies on "Arrested Development"? Or the voice actresses from "The Simpsons," "Futurama," or "King of the Hill," all of whom were consistently great?
- Either Variety or the TV critics' association doesn't care about writing or direction. Kinda weird.
Is That a Big Idea In Your Pocket?
This is a great line, from Ben Brantley's review of a new play:
Topical plays tend to make their characters tote a Big Theme as if they were pack animals, scrunched into awkward postures by the weight of the idea on their backs.
James Fallows reports on the vibe in China today:
CNN is still blacked out whenever words like "In China today...." or "Twenty years ago in Bei...." come across the airwaves. Whereas BBC TV is airing uncensored footage of tanks in the square twenty years ago and repeatedly using the phrase "Tiananmen massacre." And just as I type, the admirable Quentin Somerville of the BBC is talking, live from Beijing, about the "ruthlessness at the heart of the Communist government." (And just this second, in a Borges-worthy moment, Somerville said that international coverage was being blacked out across China -- so I got to see him saying that I was not able to see him. Still, the general point is true.)
And Nick Kristof mentions:
China has blocked the use of "June 4" in Internet postings. So people are referring to the crackdown on "May 35."
Does that sound like Orwell or what? "...and the clocks were striking thirteen."
And check. this. out: a new view of the man, and the tanks, never before seen. Wow.
Apparently, the Earth Is Only Pretty When It's Empty
I think the conversation about "The Earth Is Hiring" sensitized me to this point: Watching the trailer for Home, I couldn't help but think, "Oh, I get it. The beautiful shots are the ones without humans."
And then, later on, the rapid-fire cuts of cities are supposed to be emblems of corruption and destruction. Except, of course, dense cities are better for the planet than other living arrangements. (I mean, come on. Look at that.)
This is all to say: I'm tired of the old visual tropes. I want some pro-planet media made with a more Worldchanging sensibility. Hmm... I guess the challenge is that stirring tribal music goes better with fly-overs of blue whales than cutaways of city-wide gray-water systems.
Islam and America
This was by far not one of the big grafs in Obama's Cairo speech, but for some reason I found it really stirring:
I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America's story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote, "The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims." And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our Universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers -- Thomas Jefferson -- kept in his personal library.
Oh right. History.
Luxuriating In Print
We slapped Dave Eggers around a little bit for his "nothing has changed" speech to the Authors' Guild, but his mass email for lovers of print is way more nuanced and inspiring in a constructive, non-cheerleaderish way:
Publishing has, for most of its life, been a place of small but somewhat profit margins, and the people involved in publishing were happy to be doing what they loved. It's only recently, when large conglomerates bought so many publishing companies and newspapers, that demands for certain margins squeezed some of the joy out of the business.
Pretty soon, on the McSweeney's website— www.mcsweeneys.net— we'll be showing some of our work on this upcoming issue, which will be in newspaper form. The hope is that we can demonstrate that if you rework the newspaper model a bit, it can not only survive, but actually thrive. We're convinced that the best way to ensure the future of journalism is to create a workable model where journalists are paid well for reporting here and abroad. And that starts with paying for the physical paper. And paying for the physical paper begins with creating a physical object that doesn't retreat, but instead luxuriates in the beauties of print. We believe that if you use the hell out of the medium, if you give investigative journalism space, if you give photojournalists space, if you give graphic artists and cartoonists space — if you really truly give readers an experience that can't be duplicated on the web — then they will spend $1 for a copy. And that $1 per copy, plus the revenue from some (but not all that many) ads, will keep the enterprise afloat.
As long as newspapers offer less each day— less news, less great writing, less graphic innovation, fewer photos— then they're giving readers few reasons to pay for the paper itself. With our prototype, we aim to make the physical object so beautiful and luxurious that it will seem a bargain at $1. The web obviously presents all kinds of advantages for breaking news, but the printed newspaper does and will always have a slew of advantages, too. It's our admittedly unorthodox opinion that the two can coexist, and in fact should coexist. But they need to do different things. To survive, the newspaper, and the physical book, needs to set itself apart from the web. Physical forms of the written word need to offer a clear and different experience. And if they do, we believe, they will survive. Again, this is a time to roar back and assert and celebrate the beauty of the printed page. Give people something to fight for, and they will fight for it. Give something to pay for, and they'll pay for it.
Eggers is basically now saying not that nothing has changed, but that EVERYTHING has to change. But it needs to change not because we've just progressed forward from print to digital, but that by first betting on the infinitely expanding profit potential of mass publishing and then paring the experience back to try to meet that bet, we've made a huge mistake.
So, in some sense, we need to go back to basics; but in another, we need to rethink our direction forward based on what's best for the people and the product, not the margins. We were pushing so hard for so long in one direction that we capsized the boat.
It's still a conservative vision, but it's a David Simon/Michael Moore kind of conservative -- i.e., a nostalgic but critical liberalism, in the tradition of John Ruskin. And that's a good mood to strike, if not for everybody -- not least because it's not at all intended to be a model for everybody.
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Design, Journalism, Media Galaxy, Object Culture, Snarkonomics
June 3, 2009
Google Wave Solo
Is there anything lonelier than a Google Wave developer sandbox account with only one user?
No. No there is not.
I thought I was going to be able to invite other people, but alas. Sandbox for one. This is creeping me out. So long, Wave. See you when you actually get released.
June 2, 2009
Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias are talking about "prestige cross-pollination" in economics:
"...the habit of distinguished economists using prestige acquired within their field to pass off sloppy work in other fields."
Klein backs it up:
...it's not just about commentary. Take the Obama administration. Brian Deese, the guy quarterbacking the auto restructuring, is a 31-year-old members of the economics team. Peter Orszag is probably the most powerful voice on health-care policy. Larry Summers, by most accounts, has a hand in literally everything. Economists, in other words, are the prime movers on not only the economy, but health care, climate change, housing policy and much else.
Klein finished with: "I'm not saying whether this is good or bad."
I think it's probably bad. Economics has been afforded a strange, special status in our society. It's become the master science of large-scale planning. It's become psychohistory.
Except it's not cut out to be either of those things. There are simply too many important values in the world that we can't tally in monetary terms. (And when we try, it's a hack -- better than nothing, but still a hack.)
Well, one caveat: To the degree it's been able to absorb social insights from other fields -- sociology, cognitive psychology, math, law, even some biology -- sometimes "economics" is just a convenient umbrella for a lot of very different tools.
But that integrative role needn't belong to economics alone. I think certain kinds of social scientists, and certain kinds of historians, could frame big policy decisions just as well -- or better -- than economists.
"Now do it bigger! And more humble."
Fredo Rides Again
Who cares, because I love it. It's the same layered sound as Sad Song, along with an even more free-form approach to video. 4:3? 16:9? Boring! Inspect one of the circles, or the hexagon, to see what I mean.
Cross-reference this with the combinatorial Cold War Kids and you are on your way to something important.
Update: Wow, there's more (older stuff?) I hadn't seen. Moon After Berceuse is a time-merge media music video. Imagine playing in an ensemble with alternate versions of yourself. Or time-traveling backward and forward, 30 seconds at a time, to fill in different parts of a song. My head just exploded.
Lost Memory of Tianenmen
God, this is amazing. James Fallows writes:
I have spent a lot of time over the past three years with Chinese university students. They know a lot about the world, and about American history, and about certain periods in their own country's past. Virtually everyone can recite chapter and verse of the Japanese cruelties in China from the 1930s onward, or the 100 Years of Humiliation, or the long background of Chinese engagement with Tibet. Through their own family's experiences, many have heard of the trauma of the Cultural Revolution years and the starvation and hardship of the Great Leap Forward. But you can't assume they will ever have heard of what happened in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago. For a minority of people in China, the upcoming date of June 4 has tremendous significance. For most young people, it's just another day.
Emphasis mine. It's one thing to have an event downplayed, recast, mythologized, whatever. It's another to have it erased.
June 1, 2009
Museums, Music, and Meara O'Reilly
Cross-reference these two cool museum-related posts, both with generalizable implications.
First, Nina Simon posts the presentation she gave to the Smithsonian staff. This is her three-bullet distillation, and I promise you, it's relevant to far more than just museums:
In condensed text version, here are my three steps to being a great multi-platform organization:
- Listen to and understand what your visitors/users need.
- Confidently and clearly state your institutional mission, values, and capabilities.
- Develop relationships via any and all useful platforms that allow you to connect 1 to 2.
I think step two is the most difficult, the most overlooked, and the most important. Confidently and clearly state your mission, values, and capabilities. Forget institutions... people should do this.
Second, the SFMOMA blog has a great guest post by Meara O'Reilly. The assignment: Connect items from the museum's collection to interesting artifacts from your domain of expertise. In O'Reilly's case, that domain is sound, music, and sonic illusions. (Sonic illusions!) The pairings are fun -- like a weird super-hero team-up series. Except it's art.
I really like the mash-up of image and sound here, and the length. This is no mere blog post; more like a mini-multimedia-essay. Don't miss "Rumba" by Mildred Couper near the bottom.
Also worth seeing: O'Reilly sings with (across? into?) a Chladni plate, which you might have seen at a science museum, but never like this:
To me, that seems almost like magic. And, okay, a little creepy. Wait, you're telling me those shapes are lurking in every human voice?
The Earth is Hiring (Extended Remix)
I gave Paul Hawken's "the earth is hiring" commencement speech mixed marks, but I feel like I should upgrade my assessment, because it did one of the best things any piece of rhetoric can do: It started an interesting conversation.
I have never been able to warm to an argument that posits "the Earth" as a central player. The earth is not hiring.
Rather, each graduate will help build a world from the materials left to them from past generations of humans and other living creatures. Their challenge is to work together to build a good world for themselves and for the next generations that will come.
Tim called this the "now do it bigger, and more humble" approach... and I can already tell that this going to become a recurring phrase on Snarkmarket.
But Saheli says:
...but I also think the reason why that too big/more humble canvas doesn't work for many people is their brains are not widescreen enough to properly count disappearing possibilities; and their engines are not rational enough to abstain from some large source of affection, approval and courtship. By Deifying the Earth and ennumerating Her gifts, Hawken provides that external motivator and waves away the necessity for rationally understanding the dangers of failure. So I understand your critique, but I can see why Hawken's metaphorical fancy makes more sense for a large class of college graduates.
"Their engines are not rational enough." What a great phrase.
From there we get into supernova-prevention schemes and the ethics of museum guards with guns. This is a thread you gotta read.