September 30, 2007
'Rendering in Real-Time'
This might be the best metaphor I have heard about a person's brain, ever. Jon Stewart on Stephen Colbert:
"[The whole show] depends on Stephen's ability to process information as this other person," says Stewart. "I've seen talk-show hosts who can't do that for real. ... And then you watch Colbert and it's like the first time you use broadband: 'How the fuck did that happen?' He's rendering in real time."
From the Vanity Fair piece, which is good.
You've got to give it a listen if you haven't already. Immediately, you'll hear a huge difference from the boring march of words that characterizes every other radio show, ever. On Radio Lab, the words and sonic interjections are fragmented, tiled, cross-cut, layered. There's just so much more to absorb; it lights your brain up. Radio Lab is DENSE.
This is how all explanatory media should feel. We're ready for it.
P.S. I don't want to focus entirely on the meta-method stuff, though, 'cause the ideas and the reporting are also sublime. This is a must-listen.
Proof of Purchase
September 29, 2007
American Stakeholders, Part II
Remember this spring, when I was gushing about the American Stakeholder Act ($6,000 given to every child at birth for capital investments)? Apparently, no less bright a light than Hillary Clinton is all over the idea. Awesome. I wonder if the New America Foundation is working some kind of Manchurian Candidate-fu?
September 27, 2007
High and Low
Awesome riff on music over at n+1:
If you could write perfectly, you would write the way Charles Mingus composed music: uncompromising intelligence and seriousness married to shit-kicking raunch.
Frustratingly sans permalink -- it's just the site front page -- so get it while it lasts.
P.S. n+1 seemingly in parody of itself: "Against Email."
September 26, 2007
LoadingReadyRun.com gives Halo 3 the EPIC treatment. Funny how the visual language is so recognizable -- and actually quite a bit slicker in this execution! I'm impressed. (Though the voice has got nothing on Matt, and the music's no Minus Kelvin.)
Today at work, I convened a tiny confab of colleagues for an inaugural, bimonthly, lunchtime essay-reading series. We kicked it off with the National Magazine Award-winning essay Russell and Mary, by Michael Donohue, a work he apparently spent five years putting together.
I've been enjoying the blog Nonfiction Readers Anonymous for its choice snippets of random tomes.
All Aunt Hagar's Children is finally out in paperback.
September 25, 2007
Democratization of Manipulation, Part 4
September 24, 2007
Enjoyed this NYT slideshow about Mumbai. Want to visit. Bad.
September 22, 2007
September 21, 2007
And Timbaland Hasn't Changed His Clothes in Three Days
Remixing Stronger. Actually really illuminating to see these super-famous guys sitting around like schlubs, just banging on keyboards. Everybody's normal.
Where Writers Write
I absolutely love this sort of thing: images of the rooms where writers do their writing.
September 20, 2007
There Be Pirates
I realize this is 24 hours too late, but on any day of the year, the International Chamber of Commerce's Weekly Piracy Report is the best reminder that for all our iPhones and gizmos, the world is still much the same as it was 300 years ago. An excerpt from this week's report:
Five robbers, in two motor boats, armed with guns and knives boarded an anchored chemical tanker from the bow using ropes and hooks. Duty crew spotted the robbers and raised the alarm. The robbers broke the padlock on the forward store and stole ship's stores and escaped. Bonny signal station was called many times but did not respond. Master requested for additional guards from agents.Note: Armed theft is a serious crime and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, or whatever. But that somehow doesn't mitigate the vision of a crew of peg-legged, one-eyed, 'do-ragged blaggards scaling the side of a sailboat with knives in their teeth, threatening to make some scurvy sea dogs walk a plank. (Clearly I saw this on Read/Write Web.)
September 19, 2007
The Acts of King Arthur
Um, okay, who knew John Steinbeck wrote an adaptation of the King Arthur legend? Not me! But it sounds sorta mythically awesome in its own right, doesn't it? The lost Excalibur of YA fiction! Bring it on!
Joshua Glenn in the Boston Globe says:
Still, like everything Steinbeck wrote, the book teaches us about regional economic development, gender roles, class structure, and man's inhumanity to man... while remaining a gripping read.
Ha ha -- Steinbeck, the poet laureate of regional economic development. Awesome.
Look On My Works, Ye Mighty
If you weren't paying attention, Kottke's begun excavating the archival treats freed by the demise of TimesSelect.
September 18, 2007
The Sign of the Bat
Via Kottke, a look at the Batman logo and typography over the years in five parts: one, two, three, four, five. Honestly I think this is interesting even if you're not a nerd. And a really wonderful example of a careful, long-form blog-vestigation -- the very opposite of most blog doodlings (mine included) and, therefore, very much an object of my admiration.
"Blog-vestigation?" I don't know, it just seemed right.
An Old Google Easter Egg
Pleasingly dorky. It makes me happy (and optimistic for Google) that it is still online.
And the Emmy for Best Powerpoint Presentation Goes to...
September 17, 2007
Times on Times
The NYT announces its new, more open site policies in hilarious fashion. I love NYT meta-reporting!
Book Club Challenge
All right, Snarketeers, the gauntlet is thrown: Help me come up with a theme and some nominations for readings for my book club.
Every month, one of my fellow book-clubbers is assigned to nominate three or four books. When we meet to discuss the past month's reading, we choose one of the nominees for the next month. Being something of an oddball, I like to organize my nominations around themes. The last time, for example, my theme was "Masters of Humankind." The books I proposed were No god but God (God), The Year of Magical Thinking (Death), The Time-Traveler's Wife (Time), and Moneyball (Money). (The club picked The Time-Traveler's Wife. The actual selection doesn't make much of a difference to me, because I plan to read all the books I propose, and I did.)
The theme can be oblique, clever, or straightforward. (In the straightforward camp, for example, I've been considering the four elements -- Cloud Atlas (Air), Snow (Water), American Prometheus or Dante (Fire), Coal: A Human History or Salt: A World History (Earth).) They can be either a prominent theme of the book or just a play on its title. We prefer books that have been out in paperback, and a nomination almost always goes unpicked if one of us has already read it. I aim for variety in the selection -- memoir, biography, journalistic non-fiction, literary fiction, magical realism, social history.
So, whaddya say? Help me out?
Over at Steven Talcott Smith's blog, tales of non-programmers writing software. Some really fun stories in there, all of which I am entirely sympathetic to, as someone who a) admittedly does not have The Knack for programming but b) really enjoys it anyway.
And besides, knack or not, I think it's on its way to becoming a new required literacy. Sure sure, computers will get easier to program, and the gap between our intent and their instructions will close as they scootch our way -- but you'll still have to learn to think procedurally, to think in terms of objects or messages or other computer-y things.
And you'll have to learn what && means. You always end up having to learn what && means.
September 16, 2007
Bling and Beta
7:03 p.m.: "Heroes" hero Masi Oka presents the first ever Emmy Award for creative achievement in interactive television to former Vice President Al Gore's "Current: An Interactive TV Network." He also earned a standing ovation and offered this shout-out: "More to come, Current.com, next month."
I have to say: awards = pseudo-metallic dross, don't rely on external validation, who can even remember who won what last year, etc., etc., but even so it's pretty cool.
Sign up for the beta why doncha!
Update: the video!
The Memory Police
Whenever I think about our reflexive distrust of emerging technology, I remember Plato's Phaedrus, in which Socrates argues that writing is inferior to rhetoric. Socrates recounts a legend in which the Egyptian king Thamus refuses the gift of writing from the god Theuth, saying that writing will be deleterious to true wisdom. We will read, but never know, Thamus says. Writing may remind us, but it can't educate us, the way a speaker can. The irony in this passage, of course, is that Phaedrus is itself a written work.
There's a lot to be said about the curious intersection between technology and memory -- how technology seems to allow us to both retain more and forget more -- but Jenny Lyn Bader managed to leave out all the interesting parts in her NYT Week in Review essay ("Britney Spears? That's All She Rote") on how people can't remember anything anymore. And along the way, she manages to fit Britney's lip-synching, organ transplant recipients, and "The Vagina Monologues" into this tortured half-argument. it's kind of a train wreck. I really have nothing especially profound to say about this essay, it just seemed a blogworthy exemplar of the awful our-culture's-going-to-hell/wasn't-it-better-when form. And she cites Phaedrus too, with no nod to the irony therein.
September 15, 2007
You need to try this right now: Grow Island. It's a sort of oblique, cutesy, super-simple SimCity. Sort of. And actually, that comparison doesn't do it justice, because SimCity, unlike this game, never really had any soul.
This earlier iteration is fun, too (there's a whole site full of them), but less systems interacting and more absurdist choose-your-own-adventure. In one go-round I got a smiling cabbage; in another I ended up with an underground kingdom of tiny cyclopean goblins.
In any case, the Japanese designer who made them is a genius. Actually, the whole thing feels kinda like a Japanese Orisinal to me -- less arcade-y, more puzzle-y, but with the same underlying sweetness.
(Via the new and excellent Rock Paper Shotgun, which tags this game, correctly, "cute as a basket full of ducklings.")
It doesn't exactly look comfortable, and it's not exactly pretty. But it's a chair-barrow with a lamp attached to it. It's even apparently got little shelves hidden beneath the armrests. I want one! Alas, all the text is in German, and I don't see anything that resembles an "add-to-cart" button.
September 14, 2007
Facebook's New Ads
Not the sort of thing I usually post here, but I don't know, this just feels like the future to me somehow. I mean, the "keywords" field? Nuts.
Prepare for Massive Amazon Wishlist Expansion
What single book is the best introduction to your field? AskMeFi-ers respond. So awesome.
Pretty Little Mistakes
Firing an employee is a messy business. No small business likes to do it. There are the headaches — and risks — involved with losing that person, of course, but there’s also the trouble of finding somebody new. The cost of employee turnover is high, both in terms of time and money.
The thing that wrenches at my gut, though, is that this employee just called back in tears. “I’ve lost everything,” he told me. “If I lose this job, I’ll have literally lost everything.”
My heart was breaking for him, and as a person I wanted to say, “Come back, come back,” but I couldn’t do it. We’ve already given him a second chance. And a third. Instead I said, “I know. This sucks. It sucks for us. It really sucks for you. But we don’t have a choice.”
A sad little story I thought was worth sharing.
(The title of this post, by the way, comes from a pretty excellent Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book for adults.)
September 12, 2007
I admit it: I pre-ordered Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science on Amazon.com back in the day... got it the day it came out... and was totally bewildered. I ended up selling it to a used book store.
But I still like the core ideas, to the extent I understand them, which is not much. The crude version is: Stephen Wolfram likes cellular automata, or simple rulesets that, when run recursively, produce interesting and surprisingly complex results, especially when you get them two, three, or more dimensions. In fact he thinks all of math and science (!) has fallen too deeply in the thrall of the equation -- not necessarily a very "natural" thing -- and has completely missed the potential analytic and explanatory power of the cellular automata.
Anyway, the point is, it's provocative even if I don't really get it, and so is his latest blog post:
Of course, as early theologians pointed out, the universe clearly has some order, some "design". It could be that every particle in the universe has its own separate rule, but in reality things are much simpler than that.
But just how simple? A thousand lines of Mathematica code? A million lines? Or, say, three lines?
If it's small enough, we really should be able to find it just by searching. And I think it'd be embarrassing if our universe is out there, findable by today's technology, and we didn't even try.
Of course, that's not at all how most of today's physicists like to think. They like to imagine that by pure thought they can somehow construct the laws for the universe--like universe engineers.
So it's basically theory via Google: Instead of deducing the laws of the universe, you arrive at them via computational brute force. Just try every combination of simple rules you can think of 'til you get something that looks like physics! Easy!
Great images in the post, too, as always. Wolfram famously self-published his book (actually, it's even better: He founded a new company to publish it) because he couldn't find any existing publishers willing or able to reproduce his illustrations at the resolution he demanded. Awesome.
China and Taiwan
Tim Johnson has notes on some new developments involving a proposed referendum in Taiwan.
He links to a speech by Thomas Christensen, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia. I actually found it a fascinating read: pure diplomacy, totally scrubbed clean, and yet with a surprising amount of frank realpolitik. (Frankpolitik?)
September 11, 2007
We Can Imagine a Better Democracy
Sure, they're just words, but even so: Nice words. From UK prime minister Gordon Brown, via the civic-minded Peter Levine:
At this point, Brown begins to outline practical ideas for increasing citizen voice in policy. "We have already taken the step of publishing the legislative programme in draft, inviting comments and views, and for the last six months I have been discussing and working through how to do in a more consultative way that involves people in debating the issues that matter -- drugs, crime, antisocial behaviour, housing development or even foreign policy issues like Iraq where there are public discussions."
The first step will be to "hold Citizens Juries round the country. The members of these juries will be chosen independently. Participants will be given facts and figures that are independently verified, they can look at real issues and solutions, just as a jury examines a case. And where these citizens juries are held the intention is to bring people together to explore where common ground exists."
Brown explains that "Citizens Juries are not a substitute for representative democracy, they are an enrichment of it. The challenge of reviving local democracy can only be met if we build new forms of citizen involvement to encourage them in our local services and in new ways of holding people who run our services to account. So we will expand opportunities for deliberation, we will extend democratic participation in our local communities."
The Citizen Juries sound similar to deliberative polling, an idea I've always liked. Honestly though, we don't even need anything as formal and involved as all that to get better at democracy. A little more openness would go a long way, along with a corps of legislators more interested in communicating than... whatever it is they're interested in now.
It's totally possible, especially if the internet keeps sort of reformatting social assumptions at the same rate it has been, but it is a project on the scale of a generation. Things won't magically get better in 2008. (Well: No, actually they will. But that's only because things are so bad right now. There will still be lots of work to do. Insert analogy about a house with leaky plumbing and bad insulation, but also, the roof's on fire, etc.)
Commemorations in Pen, Ink, and Watercolor
Nicely done on the NYT op-ed page.
September 10, 2007
Ah Yes, One Global Culture
Ah hahahahahahahahahaha... ahhh... ah hahahahahahahaha.
Keep in mind that's FOUR FEET by SIX FEET big.
35 Years, 10 Seconds
Time-lapse video of Tokyo's skyline. It's crazy. The progress looks cartoony and alien... almost insectile!
Via Long Views.
September 8, 2007
Great great GREAT NYT story about the Prairie View Marching Storm. The video is really good, too -- although, as always, the thunder of a good marching band eludes recording somehow.
Look Around You
We just wasted an hour watching episodes of Look Around You, e.g. Maths. Even when it's not funny... it's funny!
September 7, 2007
Disease Resistance for the Weekend
We mostly think of individuals as the units of natural selection. When it comes to disease resistance, the unit might actually be the family. That's cool.
Diplo for the Weekend
September 5, 2007
Measuring Development (Maybe Defining It First)
Apropos of a few email threads lately, here's a passage from Charles Mann (who wrote the book "1491") quoted by Matt Yglesias (emphasis mine):
David Aviles, Ian Ebert and Lauren Tombari all ask (to quote Mr Aviles), "If [Indians] had such a large population, why hadn't they developed as much as other countries?" The answer to this very important question is complicated, but part of it surely is that evaluating relative levels of technological development is not so easy, and that it isn't at all clear that native peoples were less developed in this area than Europeans or Asians. As the historian Alfred Crosby has repeatedly observed, societies tend to measure "progress" in terms of things that they are good at. Europeans were good at making metal tools and devices, so we tend to look for them -- Indians didn't have steel axes and geared machines, so they must be inferior. But many Indian societies were extremely deft about agriculture. Looking at a Europe afflicted by recurrent famine, one can imagine them viewing these societies as so undeveloped that they were unable to feed themselves. It's hard to say which view is correct.
This is a really good point, and I am guilty as charged re: judging development in terms of the things we're good at.
But seriously, I am really guilty, and I can't even think of kinds of technology other than ours (computers, hybrid cars, plasma TVs, DNA sequencers, etc.) worth having or developing in the world today. The best I can muster is something about the ingenuity of the billion-or-so slum dwellers the world over -- e.g. they can make water purification systems out of rusty buckets and plastic tarps! -- but I don't really believe it deeply. Or rather, that stuff is cool, but I think they ought to (and do) ultimately aspire to computers and DNA sequencers too!
So whatcha got for me, Snarkmatrix?
September 4, 2007
The Internet is the New _____
Is the internet today's punk rock? So asks Wieden + Kennedy's global director of digital strategies.
Actually I totally agree with his opening sentiment --
Frankly, I don't know what Punk Rock is
-- but even so, there's something about the comparison that's appealing. His post is a good read, and not only because it's insanely optimistic about democracy and includes some hefty quotes from The Chairman.
Also: How can you not print-to-read-later an essay called The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head?
We've Been Stuck With Violins for Centuries
Given how many hours I spent with a crappy Casio keyboard, I'm pretty sure 12-year-old Robin would never have come out of his room if he'd had one of these.
What's cool about it is not the synthesis (which is kinda boring), and even not the interface per se, but rather the interface in a physical context -- all those buttons! How can you not want to monkey with it?
September 3, 2007
The Mystic Experience of Space
This new movie about the Apollo program sounds terrific:
The astronauts also talk about seeing "the whole circle of the Earth" at once, as Mr. Duke puts it. "That jewel of Earth was just hung, up in the blackness of space," he says, holding his hands out, cupped, as if to cradle the sphere.
Whenever astronauts speak about the experience of seeing earth from space, it makes you wish everybody could see it that way. Er, I mean, I guess they sorta can. But I imagine it loses quite a bit in the translation.
Actually, wait -- I like this one better -- it looks like the picture you'd snap out the window of a Virgin Galactic flight to the moon!
On a Completely Different Note
Is it weird to follow ruminations on the American character with an awesome drumming gorilla? Somehow it's not.
The Sheltered Star
To a nation hitherto self-contained and confident, the new responsibilities do not come easily. We have never bothered to understand alien ideas ('isms' were something to fear or deride), and 'selling America' had simply meant dispensing American largesse. We now see the extent of our involvement and the vulnerability of our talismans: natural resources and 'know-how.' We see that world problems are not merely American problems writ large, that it will take more than a little common sense and a few 'man to man' talks with the Russians to solve them. Finally, we can appreciate the degree to which our strengths and weaknesses as a people have been conditioned by the American past, how we have been blessed and victimized by our history. Because of our wealth and isolation and our vast inland empire, because of the advantages we have enjoyed as a result of European rivalries, we did not develop some of the qualities and abilities we now so desperately need.
Written in 1952.
It's just one salient bit from the latest edition of David Warsh's Economic Principals -- definitely worth a read. The last two grafs in particular are pretty tremendous.
September 2, 2007
Across the Dial
So, I've never heard anything quite like this: a recording of New York radio the night John Lennon was shot -- not just one station but a whole swath of them, complete with bursts of static in between, courtesy of some invisible listener ambling down the dial.
It's pretty amazing. I wish there were more readily-available recordings of TV and radio coverage still mired in the moment. And then on top of that, it's fascinating when you go beyond a single example into a sort of longitudinal survey.
Bill Moyers' show on the media in the lead-up to the Iraq war is actually a great example -- even just a few years out it's already revelatory and horrifying, and I'm sure it will only get better (worse) as the years go by.
The Best Thing I've Read All Weekend
Rainer Maria Rilke by way of Alex Soojung-Kim Pang:
Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
How cool a name, by the way, is "Rainer"?