March 31, 2009
The Age of Ajax
Love this five-year remembrance of the birth of Gmail -- still my favorite thing to use on the web, ever.
What Do You Learn Online?
Lifehacker's Top 10 Tools For A Free Online Education reminds me a little of the experience I had a year or so ago browsing The Pirate Bay's top-seeded e-books; a lot of computer programming and software manuals, a handful of natural language lessons, and weird DIY hacks stuff, like instructions on how to build your own solar panels or break out of handcuffs.
Anyways, it strikes me that whether officially or unofficially, plenty of people are trying to learn things using the web, and plenty of other people are working, compiling, and disseminating information to try to help people learn. Some of this is raw information, but a surprising amount is explicitly pedagogical: tips, tutorials, how-tos, complete guides. Whether it's how to beat a Zelda boss or how to get a web server working, people want to teach other, anonymous people how to do it.
I call this practice and this instinct digital humanism, and it is a big part of what the new liberal arts are all about.
I wonder: what do you try to learn online? Or more to the point, what DON'T you try to learn online? either because you don't find what you're looking for there, or because you don't look? Have you ever taught someone how to do something? Prepared a guide, manual, or walkthrough? Do you have trusted sources, portals, and networks, or do you go straight to Google? What's the value that you get from it? What, if anything, is missing?
March 30, 2009
So Much News With No Paper To Report It
Auugghh. Gavin at Wordwright links to more bittersweet news about my (and Robin's) hometown:
Maybe once a year, a city has a news day as heavy as the one that just hit Detroit: The White House forced out the chairman of General Motors, word leaked that the administration wanted Chrysler to hitch its fortunes to Fiat, and Michigan State University’s men’s basketball team reached the Final Four, which will be held in Detroit.
All of this news would have landed on hundreds of thousands of Motor City doorsteps and driveways on Monday morning, in the form of The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News.
Would have, that is, except that Monday — of all days — was the long-planned first day of the newspapers’ new strategy for surviving the economic crisis by ending home delivery on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Instead, on those days, they are directing readers to their Web sites and offering a truncated print version at stores, newsstands and street boxes.
We're all going to have to get used to using "news about Detroit" rather than "news from Detroit" more often.
A New Birth of Freedom
When Brooklyn and New York’s population was booming at the end of the 19th century, the best way to get to and from Brooklyn was via ferries. As solutions were considered, I’m sure there were those who simply thought, “More boats!” These ardent defenders of the status quo were not engineers — they were the business. Their goal was not to build something great, but to make a profit.
It was an engineer named John Roebling who proposed a suspension bridge. We take bridges for granted now, but back in the 1800s, bridges were in beta. They fell. One out of every four bridges… fell. He convinced them by designing a bridge half again as big as any before it that was six times stronger than he estimated it need to be. Roebling designed the complete specification for the bridge in a mere three months and then died of tetanus from an injury he received surveying the bridge site...
We are defined by what we build. It’s not just the engineering ambition that designed these structures, nor the 20 people who died building the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s that we believe we can and decide to act. I’m happy to report our new President agrees when he says,
“In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.”
Someone, sometime soon is going to start describing the climb out of this impressive hole we’ve dug for ourselves, and they’re going to call it “America 2.0”. Clever, yes. We need a new version of ourselves and that’s going to involve bright, unexpected ideas from those we least expect them from, and they’re going to strike you as impossible. All you need to do to understand these terrifyingly ambitious ideas is to look back at what we’ve already done to understand what we can do.
I don't know what version of America we're on. But this is a heartening idea. And the fact that we've built and rebuilt ourselves not just once, but many times over, is heartening too.
File under: Cities, Design, Recommended, Snarkpolitik
Omission Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery
There are a lot of things to recommend Amazon's list of the 100 best indie rock albums ever, but the absence of any albums by The Smiths, Dinosaur Jr., or The Flaming Lips is not one of them.
Look At Your Fish
Love this photo. I keep looking at it and thinking it's a fish. Then I convince myself it's not. But then I glance again and think, "Wait, is that a fish?"
Tim Harford at the Financial Times finds le mot juste -- not grade inflation, but grade distortion:
Grade distortion is a serious affair. Students and their teachers are forced to switch to grey market transactions denominated in alternative currencies: the letter of recommendation, for example. Like most alternative currencies, these are a hassle.
Grade distortions, like price distortions, destroy information and oblige people to look in strange places for some signal amid the noise. Students are judged not on their strongest subjects – A grade, of course – but on whether they also picked up A grades in their weakest. When excellence cannot be displayed, plaudits go instead to those who deliver pat answers without stumbling – politicians in training, presumably.
Tekkonkinkreet / Plaid
Pretty obsessed with both this title sequence -- apparently it's just a sliver of the whole thing, so I'm definitely going to track down the movie -- and the accompanying Plaid track (near the end of the post).
March 29, 2009
From East Lansing to Silicon Valley
I was back in East Lansing last week, first talking to journalism students and then giving a speech to the kids who won the same scholarship I had back in the day.
Lots to say about the experience, but my brain hasn't quite recovered enough to articulate it yet.
But check this out: MSU student Megan Gebhart wrote a blog post about part of one presentation. You're going to click the link and laugh at the post title. Yes, it's in the water out here.
Voting With Your Eyes
Josh Marshall on the paradox of electronic reading -- even people who complain about the available technologies (like Josh Marshall) find themselves unconsciously drawn to them.
I've always been an inveterate collector of books. Not in the sense of collectibles, but in the sense that once I buy a book, I never let it go. As I made my way through adulthood it was while dragging a tail of several hundred books along with me.
Finally, only a few months ago, I purged a decent chunk of my collection. And most are now in storage. But in our living room we have two big inset shelves where I keep all the books I feel like I need or want ready at hand. And last night, sitting in front of them, I had this dark epiphany. How much longer are these things going to be around? Not my books, though maybe them too. But just books. Physical, paper books. The few hundred or so I was looking at suddenly seemed like they were taking up an awful lot of space, like the whole business could dealt with a lot more cleanly and efficiently, if at some moral loss.
Don't get me wrong. Book books still have some clear advantages. Kindle is a disaster with pictures and maps. But I didn't realize the book might move so rapidly into the realm of endangered modes of distributing the written word. I was thinking maybe decades more. The book is so tactile and personal and much less ephemeral than the sort of stuff we read online.
I hope it's clear that I'm not of the attitude that this is a good thing or something I welcome. When I had the realization I described above it felt like a sock in the gut, if perhaps a fillip on the interior decorating front. All the business model and joblessnes stuff aside, that's how I feel about physical newspapers too. There's a lot I miss about print newspapers, particularly the serendipitous magic of finding stories adjacent to the one you're reading, articles you're deeply interested in but never would have known you were if it weren't plopped down in front of you to pull you in through your peripheral vision. Yet at this point I probably read a print newspaper only a handful of times a year.
When I think about it I kind of miss it. In a way I regret not reading them. But I just don't. I vote with my eyes. And I wonder whether I'll soon say something similar about books.
It's been a long, long time since a really OLD information technology went away. We're used to a continual junkheap of stuff that used to be new. CDs and cassettes had about twenty years each, gramophone records and celluloid film about a century. Newspapers, at least as we'd recognize them now, aren't too much older than that.
The book hasn't stood apart from technological change; an industrially-produced paperback book has about the same relation to a Gutenberg Bible as a new SLR camera has to a daguerrotype. But books, even printed books, are still OLD; phenomenally old compared to most dead technologies.... Read more ....
Metaphors, particularly of the "A is B" variety, are best when they can teach you something you didn't know or fully recognize before -- about either A or B. I think Noam Cohen's "Wikipedia is a City" conceit does the job.
For instance, he tackles the anti-Wikipedia movement:
People don’t treat ineffectual inventions as taboo — that is reserved for things like evolution, alcohol or, yes, cities. And just as the world has had plenty of creationists, temperance societies and ruralists, there is a professional class of Wikipedia skeptics. They, too, have some seriously depraved behavior to expose: Wikipedia represents a world without experts! A world without commercial news outlets! A world lacking in distinction between the trivial and the profound! A world overrun with facts but lacking in wisdom!
It’s all reminiscent of the longstanding accusations made against cities: They don’t produce anything! All they do is gossip! They think they are so superior! They wouldn’t last a week if we farmers stopped shipping our food! They don’t know the meaning of real work!
My favorite, though, is his analysis of one of the Wikipedia core principles, "Assume good faith":
Wikipedia encourages contributors to mimic the basic civility, trust, cultural acceptance and self-organizing qualities familiar to any city dweller. Why don’t people attack each other on the way home? Why do they stay in line at the bank? Why don’t people guffaw at the person with blue hair?
The police may be an obvious answer. But this misses the compact among city dwellers. Since their creation, cities have had to be accepting of strangers — no judgments — and residents learn to be subtly accommodating, outward looking.
Why isn't "assume good faith" a working assumption for the entire internet? Because, you know, people in cities are actually pretty nice. And people on the internet, especially in forums and discussion groups outside of Wikipedia, are often not as nice as they ought to be. The relative civility of Wikipedia should be touted more often as one of its primary virtues.
H/t to Rex at Fimoculous.
Civ, Counterfactual Progress, and the Rolling Katamari Ball of Science
This post is hard to sum up because it's sort of about everything.
Why did science and history unfold the way they did?
Why didn't somebody in China invent the electric light bulb? In an alternate reality with no Edison and, let's say, no America, does anybody invent an electric light bulb?
Is the video game Civilization's "technology tree" a good model for technology and history -- or just a dorky game mechanic? Rob MacDougall had his students think about alternative models. One of his favorites invoked the imagery of Katamari Damacy:
The student's idea was a rolling tech wheel. The spokes of the wheel represented paths of technological development you could pursue -- navigation, metalworking, what have you -- but you also had to adapt to technological contingencies in the form of the various things you rolled over. I'm not sure how this would actually work as a game, but as a crazy Katamari bricolage view of human history, it's fun to wrap your head around.
It all springs forth from a class called Science, Technology, and Global History. There is nothing not to like here. (Thanks for the link, Dan!)
File under: Snarkonomics, Society/Culture, Technosnark, Video Games, Worldsnark
Mo' Betta' Maps
I am absolutely not a GIS nerd, but I like the look of cool cartography, and I like it when people eschew the homogeneity of Google Maps and roll their own, e.g. EveryBlock.
With NERF guns, of course.
The Bonus Armies
Image by hyku via Flickr
Hilzoy figures out why folks are so p-oed about executive bonuses. It's not totally about the douchebags who ran AIG into the ground (even if they were hard-working, profitable, probably actually fairly competent douchebags). It's about the douchebags who ran the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News into the ground (and hundreds of other major businesses like it.
Philadelphia Media Holdings CEO Brian Tierney and his two underlings both got raises and bonuses just before the company declared bankruptcy and just after the papers' unions voted to give back raises to help keep the company solvent. They still laid off hundreds of people and even stiffed the government by failing to turn over the payroll taxes, insurance premiums, and union dues they collected from their employees.
On top of that, Tierney went batshit crazy:
According to Newspaper Guild representative Bill Ross, Tierney once shook up a management meeting by barking "I will not lose my f*cking house over this!" And Ross says a couple of people emerged from a private meeting with the CEO claiming that he'd spoken to them, in his 12th-floor office, with a baseball bat in his hands. Ross also adds that in January, Tierney took to patrolling the parking garage, watching to see what time employees were arriving to work and asking managers about those who were late. "That’s what I'm getting calls about now," says Ross. "He’s walking around the parking garage. If he gets hit by a car, it'll be his own fault."
You know, I live in this town, and I never heard any of these stories until now. Obviously, my two local newspapers didn't report them.
I think Hilzoy has a real point, though; outrage over lucrative bonuses paid to executives of companies in trouble IS in part a transference of anger coming from other places. But it's not just general anger about the economy or plebeian ressentiment. It's anger about this, about looting the store while pleading empty pockets.
File under: Cities, Language, Snarkpolitik
March 28, 2009
Now This Sounds Like My Kinda News
Matt, this is awesome:
"What should I know about growth and development in this town?"
After a moment of complicated blinking and throat-clearing (code, I figured, for "Is this dude serious?" "'Fraid so."), they begin to speak. What ensues is brilliant -- an hour-and-a-half stream-of-consciousness firehose of names, infrastructure financing mechanisms, development projects, ballot initiatives, and the like. Picture a cinematization of the game SimCity scripted by David Foster Wallace and David Mamet, and you'll sort of get it. I take furious notes, and leave the office to begin assembling what will become more than 800 pages of dossiers on what I just heard.
Speaking of the glossy magazine effect -- who in the world is working as the official or unofficial publicist for the Darwinian literary critics? There's another write-up of this non-phenomenon, this time in Newsweek. The writer, Jeremy McCarty, is appropriately critical, which is why I'm linking to it.
But let me reiterate -- this stuff is nonsense, bad science and bad aesthetics. Only about ten relatively marginal people care about it, even if one of them happens to be Arts & Letters Daily /Philosophy and Literature editor Denis Dutton. Serious research on the relationship between psychology and aesthetics could be so good. This is not serious.
Why this half-baked not-quite-research program commands so much attention in academic and popular journalism instead of any one of a dozen honestly legitimate movements in contemporary literature and language studies will forever elude me.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Media Galaxy
Paging Nate Silver
Paul Krugman on "the magazine cover effect":
[W]hen you see a corporate chieftain on the cover of a glossy magazine, short the stock. Or as I once put it (I’d actually forgotten I’d said that), “Whom the Gods would destroy, they first put on the cover of Business Week.”
Apparently the numbers back it up when it comes to CEOs. Krugman wryly states, "[p]resumably the same effect applies to, say, economists. You have been warned."
But Dr Krugman, you presume too much! We need data, not just for CEOs, but academics, journalists, athletes, actors... Maybe being on the cover of Sports Illustrated is good index of future success (IFS) for pitchers, but a negative one for boxers. (This in fact seems likely.) Maybe it's better for athletes than managers. It might be great for actors -- given that increased visibility generally leads to better pay, more awareness, more awards... or else the whole celebrity publicity industry is just terribly misguided.
We need serious, highly-differentiated regressions on this one. Otherwise, this might just be some full-moon positive confirmation thing for everything BUT CEOs.
File under: Marketing, Movies, Snarkonomics, Sports, Television
Change Comes To Manhattan (Brooklyn, Too)
Rents in New York are falling, and credit and other requirements are becoming less strict, even for desirable neighborhoods in Manhattan. The Times even uses the word "bubble" to describe the old world order, which suggests that it's not just the economic downturn but a realistic reevaluation of inflated prices. We've noticed something similar in Philadelphia; people are offering more for less. We might even be able to live somewhere where cabs come, and good restaurants will deliver! Yay.
The story about NYC also includes what I'm pegging as a very artful non-description of a Manhattan brothel: "an acupuncture parlor down the hall that stayed open very, very late and served a male clientele."
Change Comes To Scotland
The last time I'd read about the university of St Andrews, it was about the boom in student applications (and admissions) from the US and other countries abroad. Now, the Herald-Tribune has a story about Louise Richardson, the new university president -- St Andrews' first female president as well as its first Catholic and first Irish president.
She's been brought in particularly to help appeal to international students and to bring U.S.-style fundraising. The IHT story is a little weird -- it nonsensically leads with a discussion of golf. Somewhat cooler are the details about Richardson's installation - oaths and prayers in Latin, ceremonial maces, crazy regalia. If there's a real "controversy" here, it won't be about Richardson's membership (or non) in golf clubs, but how she may shake up a place as thoroughgoingly traditional as St Andrews. Worth watching.
March 27, 2009
You Can't Trust A Man What's Made Of Gas
"The Craziest Space Racists Of All Time" at io9.com offers a decent overview of allegories of race and racism in science fiction -- although apparently racism magically enters sci fi only when it's conscious, explicit, and denounced -- but its real value is its citation of the great Mr Show sketch "Racist in the Year 3000":
A Respectable Format
Alison Bechdel's review of a new memoir in comic format. (Click the image to get the big version.) Superawesomewonderful.
Guest of Cindy Sherman
I love Cindy Sherman, so I'm fascinated by this film; my wife thinks the whole thing is creepy. What do you think?
March 26, 2009
Death Is Elastic
All you need are signficant differentials in the estate tax.
Compress Into Diamonds
I've reached the terrible moment. Google Reader has long since stopped telling me how many unread items I have, opting instead for the euphemistic "1000+". I've dumped all the folders I'm willing to dump. I am unwilling to declare bankruptcy, but I don't know how long I can stave off my attention creditors.
Here's what I've come to realize about myself: I fully accept that there's not a particular link in that ridiculous heap that will change my life. It's been a while since I worried about missing a single killer post or app or XKCD or whatever; if it's valuable enough, it'll find me, I got it.
What I most value, and what's most difficult to recreate outside of my RSS reader, is the exchange of perspective that erupts around a particular moment. Tim Geithner outlines a massive bailout plan, and my economists folder becomes an accessible but rigorous debate about scenarios and probabilities and consequences, light years more interesting and enlightening than a cluster of news stories. I found Jake DeSantis' resignation letter and the attendant comments instantly fascinating as a drama about class that doesn't quite resemble any story I remember. But the claims and counter-claims thrown about in the letter and its responses would have been impossible to untangle without the referees in my reader, who shed light even in their disagreement with each other. Atul Gawande's broadside against solitary confinement sparked a characteristically luminous exchange between Ross and Ta-Nehisi. It's not the Gawande piece or the DeSantis letter or the bailout story that I worry about missing, but what insights those writings touch off.
Babies won't die if I don't read these things. I am fully aware of all the precious, precious insight I'm forgoing to blog at this very minute. My aversion to the "Mark all as read" button is irrational; I recognize this.
But I have a proposal that could make this all a lot less difficult.
Google, I want you to give me a button labeled "Compress into diamonds." When I click that button, spin your little algorithmic wheels and turn my reader into a personalized Memeorandum. Show me the most linked-to items in the bunch, and show me which of my feeds are linking to them. And take it a step further. You've got all that trends data that reflects the items I'm reading. Underneath the hood might very well be data about the links I click on in those posts. Use that information about me to compress my unread items into diamonds I will find uniquely wonderful.
The dirty little secret, Google, is that you barely even have to make this good. Even if the diamond-making algorithm is super-basic, all it needs to do is neutralize the psychological hurdle of the bankruptcy button. I just hate the very idea of clicking "Mark all as read." Make me a cheap promise, and I will bite.
The World Has A New Hegemon
Guess who it is! (And who it isn't, anymore. Maybe.)
English Has A New Preposition
Guess what it is!
Paul Krugman Channels Woody Allen
Blogging for the NYT is a little like writing/directing your own movie:
Via Mark Thoma, Anatole Kaletsky writes:
Smith, Ricardo and Keynes produced no mathematical models.
Now, I have
Marshall McLuhanJohn Maynard Keynes right here. Let’s ask him:
Let Z be the aggregate supply price of the output from employing N men, the relationship between Z and N being written Z = φ(N), which can be called the aggregate supply function. Similarly, let D be the proceeds which entrepreneurs expect to receive from the employment of N men, the relationship between D and N being written D = f(N), which can be called the aggregate demand function...
March 24, 2009
Brushing the Cat the Wrong Direction
Anyway, point being, for me, grammar is the opposite of mundane. It's filaments, ligatures, bundles that need to be cherished and played with. Fucking up grammar just seems to me like brushing a cat the wrong direction: is anybody happy then?
P.S. His music is great.
Wounded, They Plan To Prevail
Souleymane Sy Savané [Solo] is from the Ivory Coast. Red West [William] is from Memphis. We believe it. They fit into their roles like hands into gloves. You look at Red West and think, this man has been waiting all his life to play this role. He is 72, stands 6'2." You may have heard the name. He was a member of Elvis Presley's Memphis Mafia, a friend, driver and bodyguard starting in 1955, who appeared in bit parts in 16 Elvis movies. Since then he has worked for such directors as Robert Altman and Oliver Stone.
"I wanted a real Southerner," Bahrani told me after the film's premiere at Toronto 2008. "I wanted the accent, I wanted the mentality of the South. Red sent a video of himself doing a reading of the first scene. I think I watched it for three seconds; I hit pause and said, this is the guy that I wrote about. This is the guy. I called him; I said, 'Red, can you not point when you do the reading?' And I gave him one other direction, just to see, would he hear what I said and would he do it? He did it, he taped it, he sent it back; he had listened to everything I said. I brought the guy in and, I mean, there was just no doubt about it. He was the man."
Bahrani only asked him once about Elvis. "He told a great story. I think it was Elvis' cousin that was bringing drugs to him in the end, and Red didn't like it, which was one of the big conflicts of their falling-out. He said, the guy brought drugs, and he broke his foot and said, 'I'll work my way from your foot up to your face.'
The other thing you should know about Red West is that he was in Road House, playing a character named Red Webster. That is so bad ass.
The Uses of Silence
This is something you always hear at Poynter, and if you've ever had the experience of transcribing one of your own interviews, you know the number one thing you're thinking is: "God, why won't I just shut up? Why am I talking so much?"
It actually takes a lot of self-consciousness and restraint to stay quiet, to draw out silences -- but as journalists (and apparently negotiators, doctors, and pastors alike) will tell you, that's how you get the good stuff.
Hidden Heroes of the Cold War's End
Historian of Europe Karl Schlögel on the molecular movements of history:
The grand moments with which history usually preoccupies itself are inconceivable without the molecular events that make them possible. And the Europeans who make a career out of standing and speaking for Europe are nothing at all without the unknown Europeans whose stories are never told. We all know the stages of Brussels, Strasbourg, Paris or Maastricht, upon which "Europe's representatives" play their parts. It's not enough that that we're kept up to date on all their entrances and declarations. It's always the same names, the same faces, the same gestures. In 1949, a group of townspeople from Aachen, Europeans of the first hour, created the Charlemagne Prize for "persons who have advanced the ideas of European understanding in political, economic, and spiritual relations."
In the list of those honoured since 1950, one more or less finds all the great Europeans, from Count Coudenhove-Kalergi to Vaclav Havel, from Jean Monnet to the Euro. One can extrapolate this line and list easily and without a great deal of imagination. But one could also award the prize to people who were indispensable to the Europe that has evolved since 1989. There are more than a few claimants for these honours: the transportation ministers and the engineers who built the bridges, streets, and rails that paved the way to a new Europe and brought Europeans closer to one another. The shippers and logistics experts who have made careers out of shortening distances and creating a sense of proximity should also be eligible. Nor should one leave out the transportation companies and founders of discount airlines who have radically altered the map of Europe in our heads. Now, we not only know where Palermo is, but also Tallinn; not only Lisbon, but also Riga and Odessa. They have established lines of transit between the Rhein-Main area and Galicia, between Warsaw and the English Midlands, between Lviv and Naples. The discount airlines have made Berlin a neighbour of Moscow and contributed to an increase in cosmopolitanism. Krakow now has a connection to Dublin.
Entire economies can no longer function without this flow of traffic. The renovation of apartments, the care for pensioners and for the infirm in cities - even those located far from the border - now lie in the hands of personnel crossing over our borders. The Aachen Prize Committee could easily get an idea of the eligibility of candidates by looking at their timetables, price lists, and bookkeeping methods. They would determine that there's not a place in Europe that can't be looked up. Every act of research would become a joyous virtual journey to the New Europe.
One of the arguments that Schlögel makes is that the fall of the Berlin Wall mattered less than the mid-1980s institution of an express train line between Moscow and West Berlin, connecting the Communist states to the allied "island" in West Berlin, enabling all sorts of traffic of black-market goods, ideas, and people across what had seemed like impermeable borders. "To this day, there is no memorial for the anonymous black marketeers of Patrice Lumumba University at the Zoological Garden railway station. Instead, a freedom memorial is being planned for the exact spot where absolutely nothing happened."
I really like this idea that a city is not only a place, or a set of people, but also a mental/kinetic map of all the places, people, and things connected to that place -- a perpetually unexhausted, evolving set of possibilities.
File under: Cities, Language, Snarkpolitik
Everybody in Paris Dresses Like This, Right?
The Real Industry Collapses
The Letter Kills, But the Phoneme Gives Life
Most of it's written in linguistese, but the main idea is that when we're talking, we're not manipulating a storehouse of meaningful sounds that we're carrying around in our heads, but kicking around each other's speech in a way that approximates but can't be reduced to these fixed categories. But we think that that's what we're doing, because when we learn how to read (matching symbols to sounds), that is kind of what we're doing, even if it isn't when we speak.
Here's the kicker. To explain/summarize this idea, Port writes: All alphabets are a recent technology for low-bitrate representation of language.
Let me explain why I like this.
Language is one of our oldest technologies, and probably the most important. It's inevitable that we use other technologies to try to understand how it works. One of our other really old, really important technologies is writing, which is, in its own way, an heroic and powerful attempt to understand and functionalize how language works.
But writing is too powerful; not only does it change the way that the whole field of language works, it "restructures thought," as Father Ong would say, not least by making the whole field of language look a little more like writing.
Alphabetic writing alone isn't the only communication technology that affects how we see language; clay tablets, books and scrolls, dictionaries, the telegraph, file cabinets, and computer programming all give us different metaphors for thinking about how signs and communication work. But we've got a richer set of storage and communication technologies than ever before, which means we have a broader set of metaphors. We've got more metaphorical memory and processing power, kids!
Which means that we don't have to think of an alphabet as a permanent stone etching, an engraving on the heart, of what a linguistic sound looks like. We can think about it as a low-res copy, a functional representation, that flows in and out of our memory, gets remixed and mashedup and commented on and tagged by friends -- an evolving document.
I think it's a mistake to spend too much time dwelling on whether our current technology just introduces new distortions, because it inevitably does. It's just that asking language (which is what we're talking about) to give you something else is to ask language (even written language) to do something it does not really do. And that itself is three-quarters of the insight.
March 23, 2009
Designers! Always With the Designing!
Forgot to blog this last week: Suzanna LaGasa at Chronicle Books gets great mail.
The Gift of Babel
Saw Dan Everett's Long Now lecture on Friday, and it was great, but there was one idea that was extra-great, and I wanted to share it.
As a refresher, the story of the Tower of Babel goes like this:
Long ago, in the city of Babel (Babylon), all of humanity spoke a single language. Things were going well, and we were prosperous and prideful, so we decided to build a tower... that reached all the way up to heaven. To punish our hubris, God drove us from the city and made us speak many languages instead of just one.
(The King James Bible version is here.)
So the idea here is language-as-punishment, and it certainly resonates: Even today, in 2009, we are all cut off from so many other people, all divided by walls of mutual unintelligibility.
But Dan Everett has a different story to tell:
Long ago, in the city of Babel (Babylon), all of humanity spoke a single language. Things were going well, and we were prosperous and productive, so we decided to build a tower... that reached all the way up to heaven. To reward our great work, God gave us the gift of many languages, and sent us out into the world to name the plants and animals we found there, each in our own way.
Everett used the wonderfully evocative phrase "10,000 Adams." The idea is that every human language (of which there are about 7,000 extant today) has its own way of naming and talking about the world, and the distinctions are important, interesting, and often useful.
Linguistic diversity makes us richer, not poorer.
The Tower of Babel thing was hardly the central point of Everett's talk -- the Long Now blog entry does a good job capturing the real meat of it -- but it was the point that charmed me most. I'm a sucker for good revisionist mythology.
And as a speaker of English only (terrible, I know) I tend to gravitate towards the curse-of-Babel view of things. But Everett has shifted my stance. I'll try harder to pick up another language instead of sitting around waiting for Google to put an electronic babelfish in my ear.
Because if Everett's right, the babelfish won't do the trick. There is information and inspiration embedded in each of these 7,000 languages, and the only way to really get at the Gift of Babel is to speak more than one.
There's Solitary and Then There's Solitary
The other day, a group of my friends, including two other PhDs, discussed the high rate of depression among graduate students. "It's the stress," one said; "the money!" laughed another. But I made a case that it was actually the isolation, the loneliness, that had the biggest effect. After all, you take a group of young adults who are perversely wired for the continual approval that good students get from being in the classroom with each other, and then lock them away for a year or two to write a dissertation with only intermittent contact from an advisor. That's a recipe for disaster.
So I read Atul Gawande's account of the human brain's response to solitary confinement with an odd shock of recognition:
Among our most benign experiments are those with people who voluntarily isolate themselves for extended periods. Long-distance solo sailors, for instance, commit themselves to months at sea. They face all manner of physical terrors: thrashing storms, fifty-foot waves, leaks, illness. Yet, for many, the single most overwhelming difficulty they report is the 'soul-destroying loneliness,' as one sailor called it. Astronauts have to be screened for their ability to tolerate long stretches in tightly confined isolation, and they come to depend on radio and video communications for social contact...
[After years of solitary, Hezbollah hostage Terry Anderson] was despondent and depressed. Then, with time, he began to feel something more. He felt himself disintegrating. It was as if his brain were grinding down. A month into his confinement, he recalled in his memoir, "The mind is a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? There's nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mind's gone dead. God, help me."
He was stiff from lying in bed day and night, yet tired all the time. He dozed off and on constantly, sleeping twelve hours a day. He craved activity of almost any kind. He would watch the daylight wax and wane on the ceiling, or roaches creep slowly up the wall. He had a Bible and tried to read, but he often found that he lacked the concentration to do so. He observed himself becoming neurotically possessive about his little space, at times putting his life in jeopardy by flying into a rage if a guard happened to step on his bed. He brooded incessantly, thinking back on all the mistakes he'd made in life, his regrets, his offenses against God and family.
But here's the weird part -- all of this isolation actually serves to select for a particular personality type. This is especially perverse when solitary confinement is used in prisons -- prisoners who realign their social expectations for solitary confinement effectively become asocial at best, antisocial generally, and deeply psychotic at worst.
Everyone's identity is socially created: it's through your relationships that you understand yourself as a mother or a father, a teacher or an accountant, a hero or a villain. But, after years of isolation, many prisoners change in another way that Haney observed. They begin to see themselves primarily as combatants in the world, people whose identity is rooted in thwarting prison control.
As a matter of self-preservation, this may not be a bad thing. According to the Navy P.O.W. researchers, the instinct to fight back against the enemy constituted the most important coping mechanism for the prisoners they studied. Resistance was often their sole means of maintaining a sense of purpose, and so their sanity. Yet resistance is precisely what we wish to destroy in our supermax prisoners. As Haney observed in a review of research findings, prisoners in solitary confinement must be able to withstand the experience in order to be allowed to return to the highly social world of mainline prison or free society. Perversely, then, the prisoners who can't handle profound isolation are the ones who are forced to remain in it. "And those who have adapted," Haney writes, "are prime candidates for release to a social world to which they may be incapable of ever fully readjusting."
I think we just figured out why so many professors are so deeply, deeply weird.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Braiiins, Learnin', Recommended, Science, Snarkpolicy
Legit Money, Printing Paper
Idris Elba, best known for playing Stringer Bell in seasons 1-3 of The Wire, is now playing Charles Minor, Michael's new boss on The Office. (Which, when you think of it, if David Simon had ever gotten around to telling the story of put-upon postmillennial office workers in America, is essentially the same story.)
Part of Stringer's conceit on The Wire is that he wants to turn drug dealing into a modern business. He wants even his front businesses to run well. But it's still dissonant, to say the least, to watch this Baltimore man-god walk among the paper salesmen in Scranton. Rex and the commenters at Fimoculous cracked me up.
Rex: Yeah, that totally threw me too: Stringer Bell on The Office last night...
kittyholmes: I guess he's finally using all those business classes.
jed: Well, he did run the copy shop.
An Icon Already
The Tata Nano is the cheapest car in the world -- and one of the most striking, too.
I know, I know, a giant swarm of Nanos is the last thing our atmosphere needs... but really, can we deny people a car this slick? Here's a nice slideshow, with factoids, from TIME.
But seriously: The environmental concerns are not insignificant.
King of New York
Nancy Franklin on the not-so-secret geography of NBC's Kings:
Watching the show, you feel a tension as you try to decide whether it's holding a mirror up to the present or whether it's making an argument about where the world may soon be headed. We have already noticed, in the aerial establishing shots of Shiloh, that "Kings" is filmed in Manhattan, and that the city isn't just a film location. It's never stated, but it's clear that Shiloh was New York City, before it was destroyed to the point where even its name disappeared. There are inconsistencies that give you pause: the Time Warner Center is still standing -- in fact, it's the home of the King's court -- but the Empire State Building, I noticed with an actual start, is gone, as is the Chrysler Building. A tall building that resembles the planned Freedom Tower is (thanks to special effects) in midtown. The exterior of the palace is a well-known apartment building, the Apthorp, on the Upper West Side, a block from Zabar's and H & H Bagels. (We don't see those emporiums in the show, but I'm going to assume that they still exist in the world of "Kings"; otherwise, let me tell you, there is real cause for despair in the realm.)
I like the show, but it might be a bad sign for its longevity that even I, who made a point of watching and actually liked the pilot episode, missed the broadcast of episode two last night (and rewatched Lost online with my wife instead). Oops.
March 22, 2009
Best In Show (TV Edition)
It's weird to talk about "the best show on TV" now that The Sopranos and The Wire are off the air, and the end of Battlestar Galactica brings that particular third-way contrarian option to a close.
There's the old Yeats joke; when Swinburne died, WBY said, "Now I'm king of the cats" -- and he was (probably) for the next thirty years. It's strange now that the new king of cats might actually be on broadcast TV rather than cable -- but Mad Men aside, that's where we seem to be -- and there are a LOT of genuinely ambitious network shows out there.
Rex makes the case for Dollhouse, which has indeed picked up. If you were (figuratively) buying stock in a show, it'd be a hot bet. But I'm going to stick with Lost in the drama category (no one does it like you), 30 Rock for character-based comedy (Liz Lemon is our decade's female answer to Homer Simpson), and The Daily Show/The Colbert Report hour for sheer cultural relevance -- simply put, nothing else is essential.
Sorry if those answers seem boring, but that's just how it is sometimes.
March 21, 2009
The Participatory Panopticon Does Discovery
New Liberal Arts Mini-Update
Things are cooking along with the New Liberal Arts: Almost all of the entries are done, locked, and looking wonderful. There are just a few more outstanding -- you know who you are. And the design is shaping up, too!
Plus, I've finalized the plan for the secret physical-object surprise -- the little extra that will make the printed book a real treat.
Fake TV does a White Album mashup, The Beatles vs. Joan Didion.
Mostly an excuse to remind everybody how heart-stopping The Year of Magical Thinking is.
Get Up and Move
Super-interesting article on Russian repatriation in the NYT, mostly because it feels like the setup for a cool novel.
Anyone else get the sense we're about to see a lot more moving around than usual? Global recession, global warming, bursting bubbles, rising powers -- the real map of the world, the map of where people (especially young people) actually live, is about to get re-drawn.
March 20, 2009
Nuovi Ladri di Bicyclette
A.O. Scott on the new Neorealism in American cinema:
WHAT KIND OF MOVIES do we need now? It’s a question that seems to arise almost automatically in times of crisis. It was repeatedly posed in the swirl of post-9/11 anxiety and confusion, and the consensus answer, at least among studio executives and the entertainment journalists who transcribe their insights, was that, in the wake of such unimaginable horror, we needed fantasy, comedy, heroism. In practice, the response turned out to be a little more complicated — some angry political documentaries and earnest wartime melodramas made it into movie theaters during the Bush years, and a lot of commercial spectacles arrived somber in mood and heavy with subtext— but such exceptions did little to dent the conventional wisdom.
And as a new set of worries and fears has crystallized in recent months — lost jobs and homes, corroded values and vanished credit — the dominant cultural oracles have come to pretty much the same conclusions... But what if, at least some of the time, we feel an urge to escape from escapism? For most of the past decade, magical thinking has been elevated from a diversion to an ideological principle. The benign faith that dreams will come true can be hard to distinguish from the more sinister seduction of believing in lies. To counter the tyranny of fantasy entrenched on Wall Street and in Washington as well as in Hollywood, it seems possible that engagement with the world as it is might reassert itself as an aesthetic strategy. Perhaps it would be worth considering that what we need from movies, in the face of a dismaying and confusing real world, is realism.
Postwar Italy turned inward after fascism, wartime defeat, and economic collapse to create some of the greatest films in history, by Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, the young Federico Fellini, and possibly my favorite postwar filmmaker, Vittorio De Sica. These films, usually using amateur actors (with glorious exceptions like the great Anna Magnani), location settings, and astonishingly free yet lucid cinematography and editing, portrayed hidden corners of the world from the networks of the Italian resistance to the pawnshops of the impoverished Italian (non)working classes.
The best heir to De Sica's throne is doubtlessly Ramin Bahrani, whose debut Chop Shop has been the best new independent movie I've seen in years. He's got a new one, Goodbye Solo, that also looks great. If Chop Shop was Bahrani's Bicycle Thief, then Goodbye Solo looks like his Umberto D.
... Read more ....
March 19, 2009
When I first heard that Sopranos creator David Chase was making an HBO miniseries about the movie business, I thought it would be a roman a clef or something entertaining but insidery like The Player or "Entourage." But this actually sounds pretty cool:
The series, "Ribbon of Dreams," will begin with the behind-the-scenes roles played by two fictional characters -- one a cowboy with some violence in his past, the other a mechanical engineer -- who work for the famous early film director D. W. Griffith. It will follow them and their professional heirs through the development of the movie business..
The project is expected to cover each period of Hollywood movies, beginning with silent westerns and comedies, through the golden era of the studio system, to the emergence of auteur film directors in the 1970s, and up to the current mix of studio blockbusters and independent films. The cast of characters will also include many of the biggest names of Hollywood's past, including John Wayne and Bette Davis
I love this stuff, and I bet I will be very into this.
March 18, 2009
There are about a dozen awesome new businesses lurking in the comments to Jason's question: What could really use redesign?
In particular, I liked the suggestions of the lawnmower and the classroom.
Blood and Treasure: Genealogy and Contexts
About three years ago, Robin noticed a strange phrase making the rounds in political talk about the costs of the Iraq war: "blood and treasure." I'd noticed it too, and when he posted about it, I started to do some digging into its origins. I thought that it would be a nice tidy little search, make for a fun thread and discussion, and we'd figure out that it came from Washington, maybe, or Lincoln, or Clausewitz.
As it turned out, I spent the better part of a year trying to find out where "blood and treasure" came from. I exhausted databases. I learned languages. I asked everyone I knew about it. I gave lectures on it. I contemplated scrapping my planned dissertation to write about it instead, and when that seemed like a bad idea, I contemplated leaving graduate school to write a book about it instead.
"Blood and treasure" is in its own way the key to all mythologies. Tracing the phrase traces the history of human thought about violence, whether in politics, history, religion, philosophy, or literature. I wanted to share here a fraction of what I have found so far.... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Learnin', Self-Disclosure, Snarkonomics, Snarkpolitik, Society/Culture
My favorite new (to me) word of 2009 so far: deaccession.
Is This What They Call Cosmic Irony?
Insurance companies say they have no choice but to honor contracts, and banks are pleading that their assets will be worth more if you just give them a little time.
For anyone, especially in business, who has tried to make those same arguments to insurers and bankers, to no avail, it's painfully rich.
Democracy As An Information Technology
Sparta had a great army, lots of places had great olive oil, and plenty of city-states had plebiscite democracy. So why was life in Athens so great?
[Josiah] Ober's hypothesis is that Athens's participatory institutions essentially turned the city into a knowledge-generating and knowledge-aggregating machine, and also supported the effective deployment of useful knowledge over time. Athenian institutions and culture functioned so that the right useful knowledge made it to the right people at the right time, resulting in the production of consistently better-than-average decisions. Athenian institutions and culture also functioned to provide an effective balance between innovation, on the one hand, and, on the other, learning or routinization, which brings efficiency. To overcome the problem of dispersed and latent knowledge, the Athenians used "networking and teaming." To overcome alignment problems, they built up stores of common knowledge through extensive publicity mechanisms and an emphasis on "interpresence"--frequent and large public gatherings--and "intervisibility" in public spaces, the capacity of all members of an audience to see each other as well as the speaker; and these stores of common knowledge worked particularly well to sustain systems of reward and sanction able to motivate ordinary citizens. To minimize transaction costs in areas such as trade, they standardized rules and exchanged practices and widely disseminated knowledge about them. The Athenians invested more resources than did their competitors in ensuring that their laws did not contradict each other, and in archiving and widely publishing final versions.
One particular example that the reviewer Danielle Allen (aka The Smartest Classicist I Know) examines is a ship-building competition authorized by the citizens of Athens: not only did public competitions like these encourage innovation in building, but since they were publicly judged, they helped disseminate expert knowledge throughout the populace, as the people learned what made one ship better than another.
Allen also looks long at what lessons American democracy can learn from Athens; one big (if obvious) conclusion is that the polis is a lot more nimble than an empire or even a republic, but from the interconnected micropolitical structures of the polis, one might actually be able to sustain a the macropolitics of a democratic republic:
As Ober notes, the immediate usefulness of the Athenian model pertains not directly to nation-states that are vastly larger than the city-state of Athens, with its population of approximately 250,000, but to the wide variety of smaller scale organizations that make up the sub-units of any given nation-state. To unleash the full value of participatory democracy at the level of the nation-state, a citizenry would do best to focus on tapping participatory democracy at the local level and throughout the variety of organizational types that make up modern society. Then there would be the further question of how well each of these sub-units is connected to the rest. If participatory democratic practices on a smaller scale and in various contexts do indeed increase the knowledge resources of the citizenry of a nation-state as a whole, then the structures of representative government, too, should function better.
It's a very Athenian conclusion, that democracy is a function of knowledge (and vice versa), but I think it's a welcome one.
File under: Cities, Journalism, Recommended, Snarkpolitik
March 17, 2009
Twelve Angry iPhones
Pretty sure this is what you call a conceptual scoop:
The use of BlackBerrys and iPhones by jurors gathering and sending out information about cases is wreaking havoc on trials around the country, upending deliberations and infuriating judges.
Last week, a building products company asked an Arkansas court to overturn a $12.6 million judgment against it after a juror used Twitter to send updates during the civil trial.
Suuuper interesting. Great work by John Schwartz and the NYT.
Snark by Snarkwest: From Film to Video Games
Snark by Snarkwest: Building the Future with Free
The Age of Bespoke Everything
Clive Thompson on Etsy, microbusiness, and personalized aesthetics.
Arise, Father Coughlin
Barry, a true nerd, also programmed the web game called Nation States, which consumed approximately 10% of my 2003.
Architect as Spy
@bldgblog summarizes tales of architects as spies after asking this question. Wow, talk about something that's impossible to link to... better click over to his tweet-stream fast, before he posts too much new stuff! It's super-interesting.
March 16, 2009
Screencasts in Amber
Just a heads up: If the terms "ethnomethodology" and "cognitive anthropology" sound interesting to you (and how could they not??) you should check out Matt Burton's great comment in a recent thread.
In Other News #notsxsw
Matt's been stuck at SXSW, disconnected from the outside world, stuck in an echo chamber of hashtags and open bars. Finally, it came: a cry for help.
Okay, Matt, here are five things you might wanna know about:
- A space shuttle launched for the first time in a long time, and everybody said it was beautiful.
- Lotsa people are arguing about AIG bonuses.
- The chief justice of Pakistan's highest court was reinstated after two years.
- A coup in Madagascar!
- Lots of chaos in Bangladesh lately, but the very latest is amazing: After a recording of the prime minister was posted to YouTube, the government decided to... block all of YouTube.
Snark by Snarkwest: Bruce Sterling Speaks
Snark by Snarkwest: Curiosity in Marketing
Snark by Snarkwest: Late to Heffernan!
Augmented Reality Toys
This whole theme is particularly poetic because it plays on what's already magic about kids and toys: There is so much happening that an observer can't see. In a very real sense, toys are already surrounded by layers of augmented reality. But the technology that powers it isn't fancy goggles; it's just imagination.
I remember playing with Transformers and other assorted robots as a kid and being impatient for the "toy fugue state" to kick in. Like reading a book, you know? There's a big difference between the moment after you've just opened a book -- just-reading-each-word-in-order -- and the cruising speed that comes later, when the pages have melted away and something totally different is happening with your eyes and your brain.
The same thing exactly would happen to me as I "got in the groove" of playing with toys. It was sorta like flow for kids! Does this ring a bell with anybody else? Any similar experiences?
Jakob Nielsen leaps into action and lays out some tips for Kindle content.
I've been enjoying mine more and more, by the way, but it's interesting to compare it to the iPhone. The iPhone's magic is that it's so flexible, and so good at so many things; the Kindle's magic is that it's so good at one thing (readin' books!) but, honestly, pretty terrible at everything else. I gave up on my Kindle-ized New Yorker subscription, for instance; I found it totally unreadable.
Snark by Snarkwest: Another Games Panel
March 15, 2009
The Continuum from Google to Zappos
One interesting SXSW session from yesterday was Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh's keynote on what makes his company tick. Among his most arresting lines was this (in paraphrase): Contrary to popular belief, the most important goal for us is not customer service. It's culture. Hsieh proceeded to outline an exhaustive strategy for enforcing a fairly specific corporate culture, including the creation of an annual "Culture Book," which features statements from Zappos employees characterizing the culture of the company.
Hsieh's presentation was striking because it seemed to cut firmly against the grain of the current prevailing attitude towards corporate culture. We hear a lot nowadays that the best CEOs work hard to produce a sort of rigorous autonomy among their employees. Google, of course, famously permits its employees to spend a day a week merely following their own curiosity in the pursuit of work. The Obama campaign was praised for replicating the organizing structure of a good jazz group - a legion of micro-maestros, all empowered to excel at their own strategies in their many focused domains.
The Zappos of Hsieh's description, on the other hand, is in some sense a very top-down, command-and-control environment. Prospective employees are carefully screened for conformance to a preordained culture, and anyone hired can be severed for failing to conform to that culture. One of Hsieh's "10 commandments of Zappos" (how often do you hear "ten commandments" these days in companies?) - "build a positive team and family spirit" - is about eradicating the division between work and life, according to the company's recruiting manager. "Employees work together, play together, break bread together and come to think of each other as members of an extended family," she says. I.e., Zappos aims to encompass the entirety of its employees' lives. This runs counter to, say, Best Buy's much-praised embrace of allowing its employees unprecedented flexibility in scheduling and telecommuting.
Of course I'm simplifying. The "commandments" ostensibly allow room for plenty of employee autonomy. "Be adventurous, creative and open-minded" is on the list. Which reminds me of trying to come up with funny post-song banter for a cappella concerts in college. At some point, after even our lamest ideas had stopped trickling out, someone would croak out an exhausted, "Be funny!" And we'd all laugh. Because, of course, you can't command humor into existence. Can you command creativity? And can you really make jazz when all your musicians were pre-screened for favoring the same improvisations and flourishes?
Also notable was the warm reaction Hsieh's sessions got. Aside from some jokes about the cultish picture he was painting, and some grumbling about his sort of flat presentation style, the Twitterverse was surprisingly (I thought) aglow about what Hsieh was saying.
Is the dynamic changing? Is top-down the new bottom-up? What's the right balance between Zappos' approach and Google's, or Best Buy's?
Later, also: Robin got at some similar questions in his post about Apple, the iPhone, secrecy and transparency.
The Ghosts in the Machine
After taking a moment to digest some of the insights from the two awesome panels this morning, this thought is still dancing in my head a bit. At one point, John Mark Josling said (in paraphrase), I want to push the idea of deepening the social aspects of software. What if Photoshop had a sandbox that could enable you to watch designers/photogs editing a photo in real-time, so you could replicate their actions later? What if Fireworks allowed you to view "ghosts" of other editors creating projects?
I'm fascinated by that notion, especially as apps like Photoshop take their place in the cloud. What if you could "follow" Quentin Shih on Photoshop Express, getting notified whenever he was editing an image, and watch his virtual ghost create art in real-time on your screen? Or watch the ghost of Kutiman splicing and editing hundreds of YouTube clips?
This gets back to Robin's notion of the emerging "public artist." It also ties in with my argument about the responsibility of journalists to encode into their work information about how to replicate that work.
The New Haussmann
The challenge however is not to reshape Paris, but rather to extend its inherent beauty to its outskirts, les banlieues -- a web of small villages, some terribly grand and chic (Neuilly, Versailles, Saint Mandé, Vincennes, Saint Germain-en-Laye), others modest and provincial-looking (Montreuil, Pantin, Malakoff, Montrouge, Saint Gervais) and others still, socially ravaged and architecturally dehumanised (La Courneuve, Clichy-sous-bois). And also to link them. But how do you bring together so many different styles and the city's "enormous disparity", as Richard Rogers calls it, into one Grand Paris -- especially when the city is so clearly defined geographically by its gates, shadows of former fortifications, and now le périphérique, the circular road encasing Paris? The simple answer is: by being bold. But also by understanding the fabric of French society and its psyche...
As a Parisian born and bred, I thought the most convincing presentation came from Parisian architect and sometime presidential candidate Roland Castro. He seems the only one to really understand the Parisian mentality, the importance of architecture and politics, grandeur and charm, poetry and citizenship. He not only suggests moving the Elysée Palace to the tough north-eastern suburbs, but also proposes to create new cultural landmarks and governmental buildings, together with a New York-style Central Park on the grim housing project of La Courneuve. The idea is to inject grandeur (as conveyed by the cultural and official institutions) and if possible, beauty, to Paris's many environs.
Snark by Snarkwest: Can Social Media End Racism?
Snark by Snarkwest: Interface Lessons from Game Design
What Are People Doing In the Cloud?
Matt's experience at South by Southwest suggests that a lot of the big social networking companies actually don't have (or won't share) a whole lot of insight into what their users are doing on line, or how it's changed their lives. But is this because their systems are too simple (they just host/carry what other folks are doing) or too complex (too much information, too much noise -- they can't monitor it all)?
Clive Thompson's new article on netbooks and cloud computing suggests that it might be a little bit of both:
In The Innovator's Dilemma, Clayton Christensen famously argued that true breakthroughs almost always come from upstarts, since profitable firms rarely want to upend their business models. "Netbooks are a classic Christensenian disruptive innovation for the PC industry," says Willy Shih, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied both Quanta's work on the One Laptop per Child project and Asustek's development of the netbook...
A really powerful application like Adobe Photoshop demands a much faster processor [than a netbook's]. But consider my experience: This spring, after my regular Windows XP laptop began crashing twice a day, I reformatted the hard drive. As I went about reinstalling my software, I couldn't find my Photoshop disc. I forgot about it—until a week later, when I was blogging and needed to tweak a photo. Frustrated, I went online and discovered FotoFlexer, one of several free Web-based editing tools. I uploaded my picture, and in about one minute I'd cropped it, deepened the color saturation, and sharpened it. I haven't used Photoshop since...
It used to be that coders were forced to produce bloatware with endless features because they had to guess what customers might want to do. But if you design a piece of software that lives in the cloud, you know what your customers are doing—you can watch them in real time. Shirazi's firm discovered that FotoFlexer users rarely do fancy editing; the most frequently used features are tools for drawing text and scribbles on pictures. Or consider the Writely app, which eventually became the word processor part of Google Docs: When Sam Schillace first put it online, he found to his surprise that what users wanted most was a way to let several people edit a document together.
I'm really fascinated by this idea -- little companies with serious chops doing simple things (whether building netbooks or cloud apps) that users actually need and want. It's like the Unix philosophy expanded to clients and hardware!
This is actually one reason why (unlike Clive) I'm a little down on the idea that the web browser will just become the do-everything client that interacts with every cloud service. (Thompson writes, "I wrote this story on a netbook, and if you had peeked over my shoulder, you would have seen precisely two icons on my desktop: the Firefox browser and a trash can. Nothing else.")
The problem is that while doing everything most of us want to do over the web is possible, doing it all in the web browser isn't very satisfying. It means that every time I'm trying to do a specific task, I've got a whole bunch of stuff I don't need -- bookmarks to other sites, browser extensions I'm not using, link-and-click interfaces that aren't optimized for this specific task. You can solve this a little bit with Flash or AJAX interfaces, but it doesn't seem like a very good trade if I'm trading a bloated client app filled with tools I don't need for a bloated browser with tools that aren't even relevant to what I'm doing.
Especially on the smaller screens of phones or netbooks, we need interfaces that allow us to focus totally on what we're doing, without extra junk getting in the way.
This is why I actually prefer (with some limitations) the iPhone interface to the netbook's -- lots of little web-capable clients that just work with one cloud service, or one KIND of cloud service. You can see this already in dashboard gadgets and little tray apps like Twitteriffic, Dropbox, or Skitch -- that ideally don't interact with your browser at all. This is also why I'm more sanguine about a netbook that's more like an oversized iPhone than a shrunk-down laptop.
There's obviously room for compromise -- e.g. do you want/need a hardware keyboard or a software one, or are you willing to trade it for extra screen -- that will be similar to the kinds of hashing out we did with PDAs and early laptops before that. But it is going to change -- and we'd better all start paying attention to the folks at these little companies (plus smart observers) who actually know what's happening and why.
March 14, 2009
Too Big for Your Brain Alone
Magic Molly points to an essay about YouTube, which I want to pass on because it succumbs to a common fallacy of writing about the internet. I see it a lot, and it's worth mentioning so you'll start to notice it, too.
To kick things off, Mark Greif talks about YouTube's most popular clip ever, The Evolution of Dance. Then he dives into "the two major reference points of YouTube video as it exists right now," which he identifies as "the talent show" and "bits of television pulled from elsewhere." He notices some patterns and points out some videos he likes. And he closes by saying YouTube ought to find a way to archive more TV. It's all well-written, and fine as far as it goes.
The problem is that it doesn't go very far at all.
The most popular clip on YouTube is not like the most popular show on TV. When American Idol airs, around 15% of people watching TV at that moment are watching it. That tells you something about TV as a whole, and even about our culture as a whole. But The Evolution of Dance -- or any clip on any of YouTube's most popular lists -- represents such an infinitesimal fraction of YouTube's total viewership that it tells you basically nothing about YouTube as a whole.
YouTube registered 6.3 billion video streams in January 2009.
Think about that. Or don't, because it's a number so big that it kinda just makes a brain go "plonk." That's the point. Like Google itself, YouTube exists now at web scale. And that's a domain where our intuition, and our usual modes of analysis, don't work anymore.
In his essay, Mark Greif talks about YouTube as if it's a magazine, or a TV network -- something you can get your head around and draw conclusions about. You know: YouTube is X; YouTube is not Y.
But YouTube is so big that X is more or less everything (with a few exceptions, like porn, and to his credit, Greif points that out) and Y is rapidly approaching zero. Trying to find patterns in YouTube is like trying to find patterns in the internet itself.
But let's say you really want to find those patterns. It's not all white noise; there's got to be something interesting to discover. This is the important bit, and the reason I bothered to post: You can't do it by clicking around.
The guys at Videosurf, a slick video search engine that crawls YouTube, will tell you that somewhere around 20% of all YouTube videos are... slide shows. Yes: still images in sequence. There are more slide shows on YouTube than music videos. More slide shows than the talent show clips Mark Greif talks about, and more slide shows than bits from TV.
But it's really hard to see that as a YouTube user. The slide shows hang out on the skinny end of the long tail. To understand with any confidence just how significant they are, you need... well, you need a video search engine.
Now, this isn't the case if you just want to operate in the hey-look-this-is-cool mode. Virginia Heffernan is a great example; she doesn't claim to be saying Big Things About YouTube. Mark Greif, on the other hand -- along with lots of other bloggers, media theorists, TV executives, and entrepreneurs -- seems to be doing just that.
To understand these new kinds of systems, and to say interesting and useful things about them, is beyond the powers of a media critic alone.
Or maybe I should put it like this: A media critic in the age of scale can't just know how to write an essay. He needs to know how to write a web crawler, and how to interpret the results.
Crackle, Meet Sizzle
"Ah, yeah. Nothing like the sizzle of an MP3."
"What's an MP3, dad?"
"You kids and your music clouds..."
Snark by Snarkwest: Bite-Sized Info for a Hungry World
This Is Our Media Revolution. Who Will Be Our Manutius? What Our Octavo?
During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change -- take a book and shrink it -- was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word, as books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, expanding the market for all publishers, which heightened the value of literacy still further..
That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn't apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can't predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.
And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won't break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren't in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.
There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie
Also see Shirky ventriloquize our own Matt Thompson: "Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead."
Snark by Snarkwest: Emerging Trends of Mobile Technology
March 13, 2009
This Is Not A Game
Jon Stewart's The Daily Show has never, in my memory, turned its entire half hour into an interview of a single guest -- and they get huge guests. But that's what they did yesterday for CNBC's Jim Cramer. And it's a doozy.
Last week, as part of its Santelli-inspired critique of CNBC, Stewart ran two series of clips of Cramer offering pretty terrible financial advice, first with a bunch of other CNBC pundits, and then (after Cramer loudly and publicly complained) of Cramer by himself. In this interview, Stewart shows unaired clips of Cramer (who used to run a hedge fund) from 2006:
- talking about how easy it is to manipulate the markets through the media;
- admitting that he used to do it, particularly to make money on a short sell;
- suggesting that other hedge fund managers do the same, as it's a fast and satisfying way to make money;
- offering specific advice on how to do this right then with a particular stock (Apple Computer).
As Stewart says, we want Jim Cramer the journalist to protect us from Jim Cramer the financial schemer. Instead of being a watchdog, CNBC became a cheerleader.
The entire interview is amazing. I've got the clips (including those from previous shows that lead to this) embedded after the jump, but let me also quote James Fallows and Sean Quinn on what went down.
Yes, it is cliched to praise Stewart as the "true" voice of news; and, yes, it is too pinata-like to join the smacking of CNBC.... But I found this -- the Stewart/Cramer slaughter -- incredible...
Just before leaving China -- ie, two days ago -- I saw with my wife the pirate-video version of Frost/Nixon, showing how difficult it is in real time to ask the kind of questions Stewart did. I know, Frost was dealing with a former president. Still, it couldn't have been easy to do what Stewart just did. Seeing this interview justified the three-day trip in itself.
On the day in October 2004 that Jon Stewart made up his mind to end CNN’s Crossfire, viewers didn’t have advance warning. By contrast, last night’s epic takedown of CNBC and
Fast MoneyMad Money host Jim Cramer that built over an eight-day period, including the advance hype of a Thursday morning front-page, above-the-fold story on America’s most widely-circulated newspaper, USA Today.
It did not disappoint. In addition to an extensive confrontation that included footage of Cramer admitting to the ease of manipulating markets, Stewart indicted CNBC’s “sins of commission” in fueling hype that led to the economic crisis.
Quinn also pulls the money quote from Stewart:
I understand you want to make finance entertaining, but it’s not a (bleeping) game. And when I watch that, I get, I can’t tell you how angry that makes me. Because what it says to me is: you all know. You all know what’s going on. You know, you can draw a straight line from those shenanigans to the stuff that was being pulled at Bear, and AIG, and all this derivative market stuff that is this weird Wall Street side bet.
Watch it, it's worth it.... Read more ....
File under: Media Galaxy, Recommended, Snarkonomics
March 12, 2009
If I Had Invented Music
If Robin Had Invented Language
I just ran across Siftables, another Media Lab concept that doesn't suggest any immediate practical applications, but sent my imagination on a little trip. (The closest it got to a destination was this thought: "Wow, our kids are going to have even cooler toys than we did.") "Siftables" lacks poetry, though. Might I recommend "Robinblox" or "Roblox"?
I think Google should use Hal Varian as a spokesman more often. He is awesome. I'm not just saying that because I was an econ major.
Also: Everybody's talking about Google Voice, but don't miss... Google Noticeboard! No seriously, it's cool. Handy app for the parts of the world without 3G. Or dial-up.
Oh Right... Design
As you know, I am not a fan of the newspaper as a physical format. But I gotta say... Look at those pictures! Look at those fonts! Verdana and Georgia this ain't.
It's arresting how beautiful the pages are -- and how different from each other.
Question to smarter web-heads out there: What's the light at the end of the tunnel for web typography? What technology or standard should I be watching for?
Man, Snarkmarket has been 100% meta-media lately. Will try to change it up a little, I promise.
Beckett in the 1930s
In 1929 Beckett had already spent some time in Italy and in Germany, where he had relatives, and, after a dazzling career as a student of French and Italian at Trinity College Dublin, had just settled into a two-year post as exchange lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure where McGreevy, a much older Irishman, had been his predecessor. McGreevy, still living in Paris, had introduced Beckett to many of his friends, including James Joyce and Richard Aldington. The decade that followed was, for Beckett, restless in the extreme. He returned to Dublin, took up and then renounced an academic job at Trinity; wrote a little book on Proust, a great many poems, some of which were published, some stories, including the masterpiece “Dante and the Lobster”, which appeared under the title More Pricks than Kicks, and two novels, the first of which, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, failed to find a publisher, and the second, Murphy, was published as the decade came to an end; tried to settle in London and underwent pyschoanalysis with Wilfred Bion; experienced the death of his beloved father and of a favourite dog; tried again to settle in Dublin; undertook a six-month trip to Germany to study the art in its great museums; and finally settled in Paris, where he met and started living with Suzanne Descheveaux-Dumesnil. Almost at once, war broke out, and in June 1940, along with a large part of the population of Paris, the pair headed south in the face of the oncoming German army. If, at the start of the decade, Beckett was known in Dublin circles as a highly promising academic with an illustrious career ahead of him, by the end of it he was known to a small coterie of Irish and French intellectuals as a bohemian writer of obscure verse and almost equally obscure fiction, a shy, hard-drinking man of remarkable learning and a savage and witty turn of phrase. Had the war engulfed him as it engulfed so many of his contemporaries it is doubtful if we would now be reading his collected letters.
Whew! "The editors have transcribed more than 15,000 letters, written in the course of sixty years from 1929, when Beckett was twenty-three, until his death in 1989. Of these they plan to give us some 2,500 complete and to quote in the notes from a further 5,000." As Beckett said (in one of his letters, naturally) about reading Proust: "To think that I have to contemplate him at stool for 16 volumes!"
Teaching as Anti-Teaching / Writing as Anti-Writing
My friend (and fellow Penn Comparative Literature alumnus) Mark Sample on what's uncritical about the critical essay:
[C]ritical thinking stands in opposition to facile thinking. Critical thinking is difficult thinking. Critical thinking is being comfortable with difficulty. And this is something else that separates the expert learner from the novice learner: experts are at ease with uncertainty, while novices are uncomfortable with what they don’t understand, and they struggle to come up with answers — and quickly come up with answers — that eliminate complexity and ambiguity. The historian and cognitive psychologist Samuel Wineburg calls this tendency to seek answers over questions “schoolish” behavior, because it is exactly the kind of behavior most schools reward.
I want my students to break out of this schoolish mode of behavior. Instead of thinking like students — like novices, I want them to think more like experts, and I must coach them to do so. It requires intellectual risk-taking on their part, and on my part, it requires mindfulness, patience, and risk-taking as well.
This is the primary reason I’ve integrated more and more public writing into my classes. I strive to instill in my students the sense that what they think and what they say and what they write matters — to me, to them, to their classmates, and through open access blogs and wikis, to the world.
In addition to making student writing public, I’ve also begun taking the words out of writing. Why must writing, especially writing that captures critical thinking, be composed of words? Why not images? Why not sound? Why not objects? The word text, after all, derives from the Latin textus, meaning that which is woven, strands of different material intertwined together. Let the warp be words and the weft be something else entirely.
With this in mind, I am moving away from asking students to write toward asking them to weave. To build, to fabricate, to design. I don’t want my students to become miniature scholars. I want them to be aspiring Rauschenbergs, assembling mixed media combines, all the while through their engagement with seemingly incongruous materials, developing a critical thinking practice about the process and the product.
"Aspiring Rauschenbergs!" I'm way more
committed reflexively attached to writing (writ large) and literature (read wide) than Mark is -- but still, this makes me feel even more excited to seek out new modes of anti-teaching. Let's stay on the move.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts
The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Typing
Increasingly, Chinese people don't actually have to write (rite? right?) out these characters by hand. More and more, they key them in with mobile phones or at computers. And when they do that, it's just as easy to 'write' a traditional-style, complex, information-dense character as a streamlined new one. (Reason: you key in clues about the character, either its pronunciation or its root form, and then click to choose the one you want.) So -- according to current arguments -- the technology of computers and mobile phones could actually revive an important, quasi-antique style of writing.
Hmm -- Fallows is definitely one-up on me, since he reads Chinese and I don't, but I wonder whether other considerations (e.g. screen size and corresponding size of characters) might still put some pressure towards some kind of simplification of the character form. A lot of that information-density just turns into noise if it has to be packed into a tiny space.
Alternatively, kids (it's always kids, at first) might start using "abbreviations" that minimize the number of keystrokes required to type useful phrases -- maybe by not choosing the precisely "correct" character but an approximation of it (the root or a related pronunciation or whatever), like our "lol," "brb," "btw," etc.
In short, technology rarely has a purely stabilizing effect on tradition -- it might help block a particular chirographic attempt at reform/revolution, but only to displace it in favor of its own matrix. (And yes, I just quoted Spock from The Wrath of Khan.)
March 11, 2009
The Future Is Not Just New Ways to Deliver the Same Ol' Stuff
I always love reading about the NYT's talented R&D team, but I'm also always a little disappointed when all of their projects seem to focus on different ways to present and deliver... newspaper articles.
If a news organization isn't thinking about entirely new formats, like Matt is, it's not thinking hard enough.
And I would really like to ban the word "content." It's too convenient. It allows us to abstract away all of the really important details, and assume that, you know, content is this constant thing, an element like hydrogen or carbon, and our job is just to find cool vessels to put it in. And that's totally not the case. The real action is redesigning what goes in the vessel.
Op-ed columns as prezis, anyone?
The Wrong Twenty-Nine-Year-Old
One of the ironies of this is that Douthat is really just David Brooks with a beard -- not necessarily a bad thing, but he's not very "young" at all. If anything, he's maybe too much the natural candidate; it's weird for the Times to make it out like they're reaching here (while at the same time denying that that's what they're doing).
As for the title of my post -- I'm being a little cheeky, because I'm also twenty-nine, but I don't think the Times should have hired me; if they were looking for a young conservative, I think they should have hired Douthat's Grand New Party co-author Reihan Salam, who is genuinely young and weird in addition to being talented and smart. I'll be happy to be wrong, but I predict that Douthat at the Times will try too hard to be gray and lame; Salam would have been offbeat and fun, like Maureen Dowd is allegedly supposed to be.
Secrets and Easter Eggs in the Watchmen Titles
One reason why Alan Moore (like lots of other people) may have thought that Watchmen was unfilmable was the use of subtle associations and tiny messages that could only be revealed by long scrutiny of the individual pages and panels. According to Moore, in Watchmen we see:
sort of "under-language" at work ... that is neither the "visuals" nor the "verbals" but a unique effect caused by a combination of the two. A picture can be set against text ironically, or it can be used to support the text, or it can be completely disjointed from the text -- which forces the reader into looking at the scene in a new way... the reader has the ability to stop and linger over one particular "frame" and work out all of the meaning in that frame or panel. (Quoted in "Reading Space in Watchmen.")
Well, movies don't allow that same kind of attention at full speed in the theater. They DO allow it in the freeze-frame -- and Zack Snyder's Watchmen title sequence actually slows down and freezes the frame for you. Now Meredith Woerner's got the goods on the easter eggs in the title sequence for Watchmen, and at least one is a doozy:
The opening shot, with Nite Owl giving a fist full of justice has a big Batman reference. First, check out the posters to the right. Look familiar? And isn't that Mr. and Mrs. Wayne at the back entrance of the opera, being saved from a bloody death? And according to commenter Rainbucket, the opera bills say: "Die Fledermaus" (The Bat). So can we safely come to the conclusion that the original Nite Owl stopped Batman from popping up in their universe?
P.S.: I haven't listened to these yet, but apparently there are some Watchmen podcasts that go through the book panel-by-panel the same way Woerner goes through the title sequence. These via Mystery Man on Film.
Technologies have a social dimension beyond their mere mechanical performance.Â We adopt new technologies largely because of what they do for us, but also in part because of what they mean to us. Often we refuse to adopt technology for the same reason: because of how the avoidance reinforces, or crafts our identity.
Most of Kelly's aticle focuses on tool cultures among Highland tribes in New Guinea, but Kelly's also recently written about technology adoption among the Amish -- which is, of course, unusually explicit about the relationship between technology and group identity.
I'm not sure about this hedge, though:
In the modernized west, our decisions about technology are not made by the group, but by individuals. We choose what we want to adopt, and what we donâ€™t. So on top of the ethnic choice of technologies a community endorses, we must add the individual layer of preference. We announce our identity by what stuff we use or refuse. Do you twitter? Have a big car? Own a motorcycle? Use GPS? Take supplements? Listen to vinyl? By means of these tiny technological choices we signal our identity. Since our identities are often unconscious we are not aware of exactly why we choose or dismiss otherwise equivalent technology. It is clear that many, if not all, technological choices are made not on the technological benefits alone. Rather technological options have unconscious meaning created by social use and social and personal associations that we are not fully aware of.
But aren't these choices still deeply social? Partly it's about access: if you don't have daylong access to the web (or access to the web at all) you ain't twittering, son. But you're also not likely to do it if your friends and coworkers and neighbors don't twitter. Group identity is a lot more complex in the modernized west, sure -- but pure individual choice it ain't. In fact, our adoption of technology actually helps us form new groups and social identities that are not quite tribal/ethnic -- or it helps us reinforce those bonds.
P.S.: My title, "tool culture," isn't from Kelly's article, but from paleoanthropology. One of the things I love about the study of groups like the Neanderthals is that we have evidence of their tool use long after we have fossilized remains. We can actually distinguish between Neanderthal and human settlements based on their tools.
Neanderthals and homo sapiens definitely coexisted. People aren't sure whether Neanderthals interbred with modern humans or not, which makes it hard to know when exactly the Neanderthals died out. Wouldn't it be interesting, though, if a group of anatomically modern humans adopted Neanderthal tools? That technologies could reach not just across ethnicities, but across species as well?
File under: Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark
"We noticed that American products and the American way of eating are trendy at the moment," Judith Witting, sales manager for Sprehe, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Americans are more relaxed. Not like us stiff Germans, like (Chancellor Angela) Merkel."
The idea, she claimed, was to get in on the Obama-mania which is continuing to grip Germany. The word "fingers" in the name refers to the fact that it is a finger food. "It's like hotdogs," Witting said. "No one would ever think they are actually from dogs."
For Americans in Germany, though, there is a risk that the product might be seen as racially insensitive. Fried chicken has long been associated with African-Americans in the US -- naming strips of fried chicken after the first black president could cause some furrowing of brows.
Witting told SPIEGEL ONLINE the connection never even occurred to her. "It was supposed to be an homage to the American lifestyle and the new US president," she said.
March 10, 2009
I Used To Be Able To Get Into These Parties
Steve Marsh might be the second-best writer in the entire Greater Twin Cities Metropolitan Area. And he's written what might be the best introduction to a magazine website party photo gallery this week. It's insider-y and superficial and pompous and awful and I love it. The event being photographed is the third annual Fashion Fight Night, which I'll let Steve describe:
It's fashion photographer vs. fashion photographer, with each ring holding a photographer, a model, and a team of stylists. Each snapper would shoot for three five-minute rounds, and then their results—the photographs—would be projected on a big screen hanging on the wall, and the crowd would hoot and holler, and the judges would cast their votes and come to a decision. At which point the ring announcer, KFAN radio's Dan "The Common Man" Cole, would lift the arm of the winning photographer.
March 9, 2009
Retronovation n. The conscious process of mining the past to produce methods, ideas, or products which seem novel to the modern mind. Some recent examples include Pepsi Throwback's use of real sugar, Pepsi Natural's glass bottle, and General Mills' introduction of old packaging for some of their cereals. In general, the local & natural food and farming thing that's big right now is all about retronovation...time tested methods that have been reintroduced to make food that is closer to what people used to eat. (I'm sure there are non-food examples as well, but I can't think of any.)
No sooner does Jason oh-so-gently throw down the gauntlet than Waxy, who almost certainly meant nothing of the kind, answers the question by linking to an amazing post about a transcript of a story conference between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasdan about Raiders of the Lost Ark:
(Key: G = George; S = Steven; L = Larry)
G — The thing with this is, we want to make a very believable character. We want him to be extremely good at what he does, as is the Clint Eastwood character or the James Bond character. James Bond and the man with no name were very good at what they did. They were very, fast with a gun. they were very slick, they were very professional. They were Supermen.
S — Like Mifune.
G — Yes, like Mifune. He's a real professional. He's really good. And that is the key to the whole thing. That's something you don't see that much anymore.
Mining 1930s throwaway serials and 60s genre films to create the blueprint for 1980s blockbusters = retronovation, definitely.
But while we're on the subject, let me say a little about the word itself. I write a lot of things super-fast. But I toiled over this word. "Retrovation"? I asked. "Retrinnovation"? It was Mayostard/Mustardayonnaise all over again. "Retronovation" is the clear winner, not only because it sounds better, but because it's etymologically correct: retro + nova => "backwards new." (Or, "return to begin.") Also, hats off to Jason for omitting the hyphen (i.e. "retro-novation"). Fie on the hyphen! The hyphen is only there to draw attention. In fact, I've retronovatively changed the word in my original post to scrap the hyphen I put there. Vive retronovation! Old is the new now!
Now THAT'S Metadata
I want an iTunes list view that looks like this.
Super-interesting Facebook usage data from Cameron Marlowe. I find it reassuring that even FB users with hundreds and hundreds of connections only maintain reciprocal communications with around a dozen of them. (Via Waxy.)
Hacking Your Own Comfort Level into the System
Oh man, I am super-proud of myself. Yesterday I hacked up a Ruby script that loads my Twitter feed and deletes any tweets more than a week old that I haven't marked as favorites. It's set to run every few hours.
For me, this is perfect: Twitter is now totally ephemeral, a stream of real-time notes that disappear after their utility is spent, instead of piling up like so many 140-character skeletons in the cyber-closet.
It's more like a live conversation than an email exchange, actually! Just words floating up into the night air...
Am I the only one who feels this way? Every time I looked at my tweet tally -- 300, 400, 500 -- I'd think: "Ugh. What is all that stuff back there?"
Deliberately Unsustainable Business Models
Nina Simon on the need to sometimes burn bright:
I once asked Eric Siegel, the Director of the New York Hall of Science, why museums are rarely innovative shining stars on the cutting edge of culture. He commented that as non-profits, museums are built to survive, not to succeed. Unlike startups and rock stars, museums aren't structured to shoot for the moon and burn up trying. They're made to plod along. Maybe it's time to change that.
If you're not reading Nina's Museum 2.0 blog... you should be!
March 8, 2009
Capitalism and the Clock
Oh, this is just too good. Neil Postman talks about the invention of the clock:
But what the monks did not realize is that the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours but also of synchronizing and controlling the actions of men. And so, by the middle of the 14th century, the clock had moved outside the walls of the monastery, and brought a new and precise regularity to the life of the workman and the merchant. The mechanical clock made possible the idea of regular production, regular working hours, and a standardized product. Without the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible.
I mean, on the most basic level, imagine a world without clocks. Talk about the fish not being able to see the water anymore. Wow.
It's from a speech Postman gave way back in 1990. And the clock thing is really just an aside; the real subject is computers, information, means and ends, and almost every paragraph is blockquote-worthy.
But I'll pick this one:
Here is what Henry David Thoreau told us: "All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end." Here is what Goethe told us: "One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it is possible, speak a few reasonable words." And here is what Socrates told us: "The unexamined life is not worth living." And here is what the prophet Micah told us: "What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?" And I can tell you -- if I had the time (although you all know it well enough) -- what Confucius, Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Spinoza and Shakespeare told us. It is all the same: There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.
Yeah. The future needs to be more than ease.
The Detroit Unreal Estate Agency
Detroit's glimmer of hope... or its last gasp?
In a way, a strange, new American dream can be found here, amid the crumbling, semi-majestic ruins of a half-century's industrial decline. The good news is that, almost magically, dreamers are already showing up. Mitch and Gina have already been approached by some Germans who want to build a giant two-story-tall beehive. Mitch thinks he knows just the spot for it.
Actually, the real glimmer of hope is the "large, stable Bangladeshi community" mentioned in the op-ed. People! Detroit needs people!
Better Bike P.R.
Robert Sullivan in the New York Times, has some suggestions to remedy the venial sins of cyclists:
NO. 1: How about we stop at major intersections? Especially where there are school crossing guards, or disabled people crossing, or a lot of people during the morning or evening rush. (I have the law with me on this one.) At minor intersections, on far-from-traffic intersections, let’s at least stop and go.
NO. 2: How about we ride with traffic as opposed to the wrong way on a one-way street? I know the idea of being told which way to go drives many bikers bonkers. That stuff is for cars, they say. I consider one-way streets anathema — they make for faster car traffic and more difficult crossings. But whenever I see something bad happen to a biker, it’s when the biker is riding the wrong way on a one-way street.
There will be caveats. Perhaps your wife is about to go into labor and you take her to the hospital on your bike; then, yes, sure, go the wrong way in the one-way bike lane. We can handle caveats. We are bikers.
NO. 3: How about we stay off the sidewalks? Why are bikers so incensed when the police hand out tickets for this? I’m only guessing, but each sidewalk biker must believe that he or she, out of all New York bikers, is the exception, the one careful biker, which is a very car way of thinking.
NO. 4: How about we signal? Again, I hear the laughter, but the bike gods gave us hands to ring bells and to signal turns. Think of the possible complications: Many of the bikers behind you are wearing headphones, and the family in the minivan has a Disney DVD playing so loudly that it’s rattling your 30-pound Kryptonite chain. Let them know what you are thinking so that you can go on breathing as well as thinking.
As a pedestrian and transit rider, I heartily concur -- cyclists shouldn't believe themselves incapable of doing harm just because they are marginally less sucky than motorists. And longtime readers, if you're wondering, yes -- I am still pissed off at Will Wilkinson.
Hat tip to LF, Hong Kong Snarkorrespondent.
File under: Cities, Society/Culture, Sports
Kinetic typography refers to the art and technique of expression with animated text. Similar to the study of traditional typography of designing static typographic forms, kinetic typography focuses on understanding the effect time has on the expression of text. Kinetic typography has demonstrated the ability to add significant emotive content and appeal to expressive text, allowing some of the qualities normally found in film and the spoken word to be added to static text.
A classic example of kinetic typography is the Saul Bass-designed title sequence for North By Northwest:
This concept reminds me of Walther Ruttmann's great documentary film Berlin, which did kinetic typography the old-fashioned way: take a big, horking street sign and zip past it on a train:
But kinetic typography in these senses are in some sense old hat -- how are we taking kinetic type and making it new?
Here is a YouTube playlist of new, digitally produced exemplars of kinetic typography, assembled by João Bordalo:
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Design, Movies
North by Northwest, Then West Some More
New York to San Francisco in one week on an Amtrak sleeper car. My wife forwarded me this email with one sentence: "This is my dream trip."
The Uncertain and the Genuinely Bad
There are two reasons why people lose economic confidence. In the first case, there's enough instability that you just don't know what's going to happen. In the second case, you have a pretty good idea about tomorrow, but you know that things are going to be genuinely bad.
If you know things are going to be genuinely bad, then given sufficient resources, you can prepare for them: save money, make a budget, gather information and make plans. In particularly, if you know (for example) that your income is going to drop or your rent is going to go up by a preset amount, you can budget accordingly. But if you really have no idea about tomorrow -- whether you could get your pay cut, or get outright fired, whether gasoline prices could halve or double -- then you just lurch from day to day, not knowing quite what to do, afraid to spend, afraid to save, generally, afraid.
This is where colleges and universities are now:
Colleges — facing a financial landscape they have never seen before — are trying to figure out how many students to accept, and how many students will accept them.
Typically, they rely on statistical models to predict which students will take them up on their offers to attend. But this year, with the economy turning parents and students into bargain hunters, demographics changing and unexpected jolts in the price of gas and the number of applications, they have little faith on those models.
“Trying to hit those numbers is like trying to hit a hot tub when you’re skydiving from 30,000 feet,” said Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College in Ohio. “I’m going to go to church every day in April.”
As the article points out, this uncertainty generally favors students -- colleges are throwing the kitchen sink at applicants, throwing aid packages, higher admit rates, etc. -- except in those cases where universities (like in California) don't know whether they can seat everyone they admit in the event of a budget failure.
It's also pretty hellish on teaching applicants, too. I'm on the academic job market this year, and as the first wave of the economic catastrophe hit endowments and state budgets in October and November, schools cancelled tenure-track searches, suddenly uncertain about whether they could invest in long-term positions. Don't worry, everyone said. There will be plenty of visiting and term-limited positions -- after all, the schools still need someone to teach the courses, right? Then, the enrollment projections got all screwy. Before, schools weren't sure whether they could take a chance on hiring you for a lifetime. Now they don't know whether they can hire you for a year, or if there will be one or ten dozen students when you get there.
On the other hand, both of the two schools where I already work are unusually aggressive in getting me to stick around for next year. I'd like to think it's just because I am so awesome, but I know that economic catastrophe puts the entire already-migratory part-time teaching corps in flux: folks content to work for not a lot of money suddenly find their spouses out of work or forced to move. Some places know that they're going to have way more students and less time and money to devote to them -- so any teacher they can count on to reliably fill a classroom for adjunct money is like a U.S. treasury note: sure, it's not ideal, but where else are you going to put your cash?
It's all gone screwy, and nobody seems to know what's going to happen -- in the one industry where we still enjoy a competitive advantage with the rest of the world. And it's made an already weird job process a hundred times weirder.
How is it affecting your industry?
March 7, 2009
The Names of Letters
In English, the names of (some) vowel sounds are given by a smaller subset of those sounds -- so "A" involves one of the pronunciations of "a," ditto "E," "I," and "O," with the exception of "U," which by all rights ought to be "oo" instead of "yoo." Let's just chalk this up to the Y-as-an-assistant-vowel phenomenon, whereby the "U" in words like "cute" or "fume" is pronounced "yoo." And "I" is a dipthong, but that's neither here nor there.
Consonants are generally either given by a pronounciation of a consonant plus a vowel ("B" = "bee") or a vowel plus the consonant ("S" = "ess"). "W" is weird, as is "H," "Y" is and always shall be a mess. "Q" is, surprisingly, not bad; even if it slights the typical sound of the consonant -- arguably, so does "C."
Consonants are even harder than vowels to articulate completely in isolation, so it seems obvious that you need SOME vowel with the consonant. But why do some letters get the vowel in front and others the vowel in behind? And while most letters get the short e in front or the long E behind, this isn't universal - "J" and "K" could just as easily by "Jee" and "Kee" (assuming that "G" was "ghi" or "gay" or "goo" or something else).
You could say that as a general rule, names of letters avoid being homonyms with meaningful words, but "B," "C," "J," "P," and "T" violate this rule -- in the case of "B," pretty drastically.
I'm willing to entertain the possibility that there is some partial motivation for the sounds we use -- maybe "M, "N," or "S" appear more often at the end of words than other letters, so they get known by an end-consonant sound.
Think with me -- imagine an alphabet where all the names of consonants were reversed, so that:
"B" = "ebb"
"C" = "ack" / K = "eck"
"D" = "edd,"
"M" = "mee"
"N" = "nee"
and so on. What would be wrong with that pronunciation of the alphabet?
March 6, 2009
Ron Charles looks for college radicals -- er, kids reading radical books:
Here we have a generation of young adults away from home for the first time, free to enjoy the most experimental period of their lives, yet they're choosing books like 13-year-old girls -- or their parents. The only specter haunting the groves of American academe seems to be suburban contentment.
Where are the Germaine Greers, the Jerry Rubins, the Hunter Thompsons, the Richard Brautigans -- those challenging, annoying, offensive, sometimes silly, always polemic authors whom young people used to adore to their parents' dismay? [Abbie] Hoffman's manual of disruption and discontent -- "Steal This Book" -- sold more than a quarter of a million copies when it appeared in 1971 and then jumped onto the paperback bestseller list. Even in the conservative 1950s, when Hemingway's plane went down in Uganda, students wore black armbands till news came that the bad-boy novelist had survived. Could any author of fiction that has not inspired a set of Happy Meal toys elicit such collegiate mourning today? Could a radical book that speaks to young people ever rise up again if -- to rip-off LSD aficionado Timothy Leary -- they've turned on the computer, tuned in the iPod and dropped out of serious literature?
Gotta love that "13-year old girls" crack -- because 13-year old boys, you know, they're all reading Middlemarch. Is Steal This Book "serious literature" now? This whole schtick is some kind of weird fever dream, muddling nostalgias, a botched amalgam of Thomas Frank and Harold Bloom. It can't quite make up its mind which version of cultural decay it wants to endorse.
Speaking from ground zero, kids are as hard up for reasonably radical social messages as ever -- remember No Logo? Remember Fight Club? My students do. It wasn't so long ago.
Ultimately, though, radical literature is only as strong as the social movements that nourish it. Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Hunter S. Thompson, and co. had lots of readers because Something Big was happening, people were organizing and doing things, living new ways and trying new politics, and other people wanted to know what it was all about. If people are tuning into the internet rather than books, or rather than the newspaper, or rather than television or anything else, it's not least because it's on the internet that they're finding out all about what's new. Which means that all of those other media begin to serve a slightly different function. I think escapist YA lit is stealing more of its audience from television and the movies than campus radicals, but that's just my guess -- which is apparently as good as Charles's.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Society/Culture
The Future of Video
March 5, 2009
The Joy of Paper Tape
There are so many reasons to enjoy Maximum PC's"Computer Data Storage Through the Ages -- From Punch Cards to Blu-Ray," but I like the way it relates the technologies to the broader culture. For instance:
Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and magnetic tape all rose to prominence in the 1950s, and it was the latter that helped shape the recording industry. Magnetic tape also changed the computing landscape by making long-term storage of vasts amount of data possible. A single reel of the oxide coated half-inch tape could store as much information as 10,000 punch cards, and most commonly came in lengths measuring anywhere from 2400 to 4800 feet. The long length presented plenty of opportunities for tears and breaks, so in 1952, IBM devised bulky floor standing drives that made use of vacuum columns to buffer the nickel-plated bronze tape. This helped prevent the media from ripping as it sped and up and slowed down.
Likewise, audio quality of cassette tapes improved, "ushering in the era of boom boxes and parachute pants (thanks M.C. Hammer." And "the floppy disk might one day go down as the only creature as resistant to extinction as the cockroach."
But my favorite digital storage media, hands-down, is paper tape:
Similar to punch cards, paper tape contained patterns of holes to represent recorded data. But unlike its rigid counterpart, rolls of paper tape could feed much more data in one continuous stream, and it was incredibly cheap to boot. The same couldn't be said for the hardware involved. In 1966, HP introduced the 2753A Tape Punch, which boasted a blistering fast tape pinch speed of 120 characters per second and sold for $4,150. Yikes!
One thing I've always wondered about these early paper-based computer programs is whether they were copyrighted -- and whether that, in part, led to the adoption of paper. One of Thomas Edison's clever exploitations of copyright loopholes was to take celluloid moving pictures (which weren't initially eligible for copyright) and copy them onto a long, continuous paper print -- this meant that an entire feature film could be copyrighted as a single "photograph."
I also wonder if/why early computer programmers didn't use celluloid instead of paper. You can move it a lot faster than paper tape, and it's generally stronger -- except, perhaps, if you punch it with lots of little holes.
File under: Movies, Music, Object Culture, Technosnark
Kottke reports that there's a "Pepsi Natural" on the way to market -- featuring cane sugar in lieu of corn syrup, and served in that most magnificent of beverage transportation devices, a solid glass bottle.
Needless to say, I approve of both of these retronovations. In fact, I make semi-regular trips to my local Mexican wholesaler to pick up soda served this way. But I'm strictly a Coca-Cola man. Let's hope Coke follows Pepsi's lead, and soon.
This is the part of the post where I quote Andy Warhol:
What's great about this country is America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.
Let's make sugar cheap, corn expensive, and bring back those Cokes!
Augmented Reality Advertising
The Dow Knows All
Cologne, Drezden, Grozny
Some time yesterday afternoon, the six-story Cologne Archives, housing documents dating as far back as the tenth century, as well as the private papers of writers such as Karl Marx, Hegel, and Heinrich Böll, and also all of the minutes taken at Cologne town council meetings since 1376, collapsed as if hit by a missile, only there was no missile, but rather, some sort of structural flaw that caused the building to start cracking and tumbling down. Most visitors, plus some construction workers on the roof, were able to get out in time, although two or three persons may be buried underneath the rubble. Ironically, the Archives contained many documents that had been recuperated from library buildings destroyed by Allied bombing during the Second World War, and a small nuclear bomb-proof room that had been constructed in the basement to house the most rare materials was, at the time of the building's collapse, only being used to store cleaning materials.
Wow the Future Wow Wow
Get Off the Bus
There are few things more useful than a clear, candid case study -- especially in domains full of talk and theorizing. Case (study) in point: Amanda Michel's CJR post-mortem on the Huffington Post's Off the Bus citizen journalism project, which she led.
Here's a taste:
OTB was the fourth organization I had launched, and I had become a working existentialist: you are what you do. Rather than write manifestos or abstract guidelines, I focused our membership on immediate goals and challenges. Our projects built a culture based on journalistic standards that drew heavily, but not exclusively, from so-called Old Media. We sent back pieces for rewrites and subjected our contributors to different degrees of editing. Deadlines and assignments weren't just practical necessities; they were our best marketing tools. [..]
Stories, not technology, were our best organizing tools.
What I love about this piece is that it's fully "operationalized" -- it's almost a guidebook to running an operation like this. Nicely done.
Oh yeah, and: Amanda is joining ProPublica!
March 4, 2009
Too Old to Teach
The moral of Paul Tough's stellar Whatever It Takes might be that sixth grade is far too late to start instilling sound learning habits in a student who hasn't had a good educational foundation. Geoffrey Canada's quixotic quest to bring left-behind sixth-graders up to their grade level in reading and math is somewhat heartbreaking. He ends the book still hoping that it's possible to accomplish, but I finished it much less optimistic.
But this Phawker series is a hellish look at what happens after we've stopped trying.
Time and Materials
For my money, this is 10X cooler than Girl Talk: Kutiman makes amazing original songs out of YouTube music clips. I've seen videos sorta like these before, but none this accomplished.
I think my favorite is track six. Wow.
Also, he explains the process.
Inside Bear McCreary's Brain
I'm gonna return to this theme of the new creativity, and the ways we're getting to see inside the creative process these days.
Bear McCreary, who writes the music for Battlestar Galactica, has an epic, three-part series of posts up about the latest episode. The plot hinged on music and music-making:
I admit I wrote these entries for myself, because this episode truly changed my life and my perspective on what music can accomplish in film and television.
It's a lot to read, and probably not, er, penetrable if you're not a Battlestar Galactica fan, but there are some really interesting, nuanced observations to be had if you are. It's like a DVD commentary super-expanded into nine extra dimensions of space and time. Here's part one; part three was my favorite. Via @flyjetalone.
While we're at it: You always wondered what the Sesame Street writing process was like, didn't you?
March 3, 2009
Well, There It Is: Kindle + iPhone
Starting Wednesday, owners of these Apple devices can download a free application, Kindle for iPhone and iPod Touch, from Apple's App Store. The software will give them full access to the 240,000 e-books for sale on Amazon.com, which include a majority of best sellers.
The move comes a week after Amazon started shipping the updated version of its Kindle reading device. It signals that the company may be more interested in becoming the pre-eminent retailer of e-books than in being the top manufacturer of reading devices.
But Amazon said that it sees its Kindle reader and devices like the iPhone as complementary, and that people will use their mobile phones to read books only for short periods, such as while waiting in grocery store lines.
"We think the iPhone can be a great companion device for customers who are caught without their Kindle," said Ian Freed, Amazon's vice president in charge of the Kindle. [emphasis mine]
Mr. Freed said people would still turn to stand-alone reading devices like the $359 Kindle when they want to read digital books for hours at a time. He also said that the experience of using the new iPhone application might persuade people to buy a Kindle, which has much longer battery life than the iPhone and a screen better suited for reading.
I think is pretty cool, and can potentially benefit everybody -- if reading e-books on the iPhone takes off, iTunes could make a play for the market. In the meantime, it might even help them sell some iPhones -- for Apple, the money's in the hardware. Meanwhile, Amazon gets to take a crack at a bunch of readers who can now read e-books on a device that, whatever its relative limitations for reading, is one they already own.
John Gruber has a short review of the app at Daring Fireball.
As the only Kindle-less Snarkmaster, let me say this: I'd really like a freeware Kindle Reader for my MacBook. I like to read to relax, sure; but I also like to read where I do my work (a good deal of which involves reading books). I'm sure whatever prohibitions you'd wind up having to put on the books (no cut-and-pasting?) would make the experience stink. But it is one I would be willing to accept.
Let me put forward this thesis. There will be a lot of portable digital reading devices in the near future: dedicated readers, phones and PDAs, digital paper that you can wad up and throw away, tiny projectors that can use any sufficiently bright surface. But the most important one is and will continue to be the laptop computer. People in the electronic reading business need to continue to think about how they can make that experience both better and sustainable.
And let me also advance thesis #2: Don't let the race to greater portability convince you that this is the end of the game. We need software and hardware that take advantage of BIG reading surfaces -- from the TV-sized screen in your kitchen or living room to Penn Station and the Library of Congress. We don't all always read tucked away in our own private worlds, nor should we -- sometimes reading needs to be a spectacle, on a big public wall, where you can always be dimly aware of it, where it can't ever be fully ignored.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark
Note to Self
Do you, like me, send a lot of email to yourself? Links, notes, ideas, to-dos?
If no: Disregard.
If yes: So, in Gmail, you accomplish this by typing "me" into the to: field. And I just figured something out. If you open your Gmail contacts and change the "Name" field for your own address to something quick and unique, you accomplish two things: One, eliminate the risk of sending personal to-dos to friends whose names begin with the letters M-E -- which I have done. (I send a lot of these. And I send them very quickly.) Two, make it quicker to type. For instance, my new alias for my own address is "QQ" -- totally unique, and a lightning-fast double key-tap! Especially on the iPhone.
P.S. Please call me QQ from now on.
New Liberal Arts on Michigan Public Radio
Hey, awesome! Jennifer Guerra at Michigan Radio did a piece on the new liberal arts, keyed to our book project, and it aired this morning. It features me, Gavin, and Emily Zinneman, who teaches creative writing at University of Michigan:
"So much of creative writing -- especially stories -- is about character," explains Zinnemann. "And that's something that the students have a hard time understanding sometimes. But Facebook is a really familiar language that all the students speak. I feel like students are familiar in reading character and picking up on real subtle clues the way that grad students in English might read Shakespeare. They read Facebook in the same sort of way."
I love it!
Anyway, a big thank you to Jennifer. And do check out her story.
And! Another NLA book update coming later this week.
College and University Roundup
A fistful of education-related tabs that have been sitting in my RSS reader, waiting for me to say something insightful about them:
- The Library Web Site of the Future (Inside Higher Ed): "Several years ago academic institutions shifted control of their Web sites from technology wizards to marketing gurus. At the time there was backlash. The change in outlook was perceived as a corporate sellout, a philosophical transformation of the university Web site from candid campus snapshot to soulless advertiser of campus wares to those who would buy into the brand... I was one of the resisters. Now I think the marketing people got it right. The first thing librarians must do after ending the pretense that the library Web site succeeds in connecting people to content is understand how and why the institutional homepage has improved and what we can learn from it. Doing so will allow academic libraries to discover answers to that first question; how to create user community awareness about the electronic resources in which the institution heavily invests." My thoughts: Isn't it weird to have a portal at all? Why not something like Firefox's Ubiquity, that just lets you type "pubmed liver cancer" to connect directly to the resource? (Note: part of the genius of Ubiquity is that it shows you what commands are possible! it is potentially more user-friendly than any drilldown portal.)
- To Keep Students, Colleges Cut Anything But Aid (New York Times): "The increases highlight the hand-to-mouth existence of many of the nation's smaller and less well-known institutions. With only tiny endowments, they need full enrollment to survive, and they are anxious to prevent top students from going elsewhere. Falling even a few students short of expectations can mean laying off faculty, eliminating courses or shelving planned expansions. 'The last thing colleges and universities are going to cut this year is financial aid,' said Kathy Kurz, an enrollment consultant to colleges. 'Most of them recognize that their discount rates are going to go up, but they'd rather have a discounted person in the seat than no one in the seat.'" My thoughts: It's weird. If students don't enroll, we'll have to lay off faculty. So, in order to pay for an increased aid budget, we must lay off faculty.
- In Tough Times, Humanities Must Justify Their Worth (NYT): "As money tightens, the humanities may increasingly return to being what they were at the beginning of the last century, when only a minuscule portion of the population attended college: namely, the province of the wealthy. That may be unfortunate but inevitable, Mr. Kronman said. The essence of a humanities education -- reading the great literary and philosophical works and coming 'to grips with the question of what living is for' -- may become 'a great luxury that many cannot afford.'" My thoughts: Boooooo. This article, like its retrograde view of what the humanities are about, stinks.
- See Also: Siamese Twins (Wyatt Mason/Harpers): "Fowler's Modern English Usage, in any of its incarnations, is pure pleasure. There's doubtless a medicinal value to its entries, but they entertain so deeply and purely that it all goes down very sweetly. Over the years, I'm sure I've read it more for pleasure than with purpose, less in the hope of resolving a confusion over 'pleonasm' than to discover that 'pleonasm' was something at all. Where the New Oxford American Dictionary defines the term as 'the use of more words than are necessary to convey meaning, either as a fault of style or for emphasis,' Fowler's offers a little lesson." My thoughts: I love this.
- Collective Graduate School Action (The Economist): "If you're going to go back to school, now is the time to do it. Not only is the opportunity cost of the time spent extremely low -- wages aren't likely to rise any time soon, and there may not be a job available anyway -- but so to is the opportunity cost of the money invested. What, you'd rather have that tuition sitting in the market right now? Or in a home?" My thoughts: Clearly, it depends on the school and your goals. But not everyone should listen to that siren song. I entered graduate school during the last Big Recession. Now I'm leaving during the next Great Depression. There are no sure-fire ways to ride these out -- and a dissertation can be as much an anchor as a lifeboat.
March 2, 2009
The Future, It Will Be So Easy
It's hard not to be stirred by Microsoft's video vision of the year 2019 -- I mean, listen to that music! -- but, really, it's quite empty. To be fair, it's a vision of the future of productivity, so by definition it's all process, no product. But even so... is our high-tech future really just an asymptotic approach to zero effort? Is it only about making things easier than they already are?
I can't decide if that's utopian or dystopian.
Related: If you live in SF... check it out!
Amateur Antiquaries of the Future
Where are the antiquaries of yesteryear? Do they now collect twentieth century pulp fiction? Classic sci-fi? Modernist design magazines? Is it too expensive to collect earlier works? Are collectors and antiquaries the same thing, anyway?Part of a longer, typically smart post about amateur scholars' access to materials -- particularly those electronic databases for which colleges and universities pay through the nose. Vive Digital Humanism!
Jonathan Hoefler on the beauty of collage: Vaughan Oliver (designer for The Pixies et al.), Shinro Ohtake, Eduardo Recife, Chip Kidd, and more.
Above: Joseph Cornell, Untitled Collage.
Junior Boys Feat. Norman McLaren
Wow, two great tastes that taste great together: Junior Boys and Norman McLaren. It was Andrew Simone's recent post that prompted me to do some Norman McLaren searching. All of his videos are on YouTube, but they're also on the National Film Board of Canada's wonderful site in super-lux quality.
The Suburbs Strike Back
The mutual dependency of city and suburb is both physical and psychological. City dwellers and suburbanites need each other to reinforce their own sense of place and identity despite ample evidence that what we once thought were different places and lifestyles are increasingly intertwined and much less distinct.
The revenge of the suburb on the city wasn't simply the depletion of its urban population or the exodus of its retailers and office workers, but rather the importation of suburbia into the heart of the city: chain stores and restaurants, downtown malls, and even detached housing. If the gift of urban planners to suburbia was the tenets of the New Urbanism, it has been re-gifted, returned to cities not as tips for close-knit communities but as recipes for ever more intensive consumer experiences.
Suburbia has returned to the city just as most suburbs are experiencing many of the things about city life it sought to escape, both positive and negative: congestion, crime, poverty, racial and ethnic diversity, cultural amenities, and retail diversity. At the same time, cities have taken on qualities of the suburbs that are perceived as both good and bad, such as the introduction of big box retailing, urban shopping malls, and reverse suburban migration by empty nesters, who return to the city to enjoy the kind of life they lived before they had kids to raise.
For every downtown Olive Garden there is an Asian-fusion restaurant opening in a strip mall; for every derelict downtown warehouse there is an empty suburban office building waiting to be converted into lofts; the Mall of America is the largest shopping center in the country, but SoHo may be the nation's largest retail neighborhood; and everywhere we have Starbucks.
Blauvelt's exhibit on suburbia, Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes, is at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis -- in the Target Gallery. Where else?
March 1, 2009
Who Is Things?
Just who is behind Things Magazine? Every time a new scattered yet somehow deeply coherent post shows up, I am assured ten new tabs in my browser window. And yet there are so few words, really -- it's hard to get a sense of context or personality. And I can't find a single name on the site.
For now I'm just going to assume it's an A.I.
The New Media and the New Military
Whoa -- retired Marine officer Dave Dilegge and military blogger Andrew Exum (spurred by Thomas Ricks's new book The Gamble) look at the effect of the blogosphere on how the military shares information and tactics:
Ricks cited a discussion on Small Wars Journal once and also cited some things on PlatoonLeader.org but never considered the way in which the new media has revolutionized the lessons learned process in the U.S. military. [...] Instead of just feeding information to the Center for Army Lessons Learned and waiting for lessons to be disseminated, junior officers are now debating what works and what doesn't on closed internet fora -- such as PlatoonLeader and CompanyCommand -- and open fora, such as the discussion threads on Small Wars Journal. The effect of the new media on the junior officers fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was left curiously unexplored by Ricks, now a famous blogger himself.
It seems clear that blogging and internet forums disrupt lots of traditional thinking regarding the way information is generated and disseminated -- but it's a testament to how powerful it can change readers'/writers' expectations that that disruption can carry through to the military, the top-down bureaucracy if ever there was one.
In related news, the recent New Yorker article about the low-recoil automatic shotguns mounted on robots was awesome.
Just as at a certain point, the military decided it was a waste to have a professional soldier cook a meal or clean a latrine, we'll come to see it as a waste for a professional soldier NOT to provide decentralized information that can help adjust intelligence and tactics: all soldiers will be reporters. Soon all of our wars are going to be fought by robots, gamers, and bloggers. Our entire information circuitry will have to change.