September 7, 2009
Inside Every Don Draper Is Alexander Portnoy
If you don't watch Mad Men, and haven't read or don't know about Phillip Roth's novel Portnoy's Complaint, this doesn't mean anything to you.
If you do, and have, these two guys seem as far apart as any two white men inhabiting New York in the sixties could reasonably be.
And yet, there's something about Draper and Portnoy's shared desire to jump out of history (the history of the world, the history of their own families), their sense that this is the time to do it, and that sex and language are the mechanisms to do so, that pulls the two together. If they met, I think they'd have a lot to say to each other.
(Inspired by this 40th-anniversary article about Portnoy's Complaint in the Guardian.)
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Society/Culture, Television
September 1, 2009
The Working Poor In America
... get stolen from, retaliated against, hurt at work and convinced not to complain, and paid less than the minimum wage, not just sometimes, but most of the time:
The study, the most comprehensive examination of wage-law violations in a decade, also found that 68 percent of the workers interviewed had experienced at least one pay-related violation in the previous work week...
In surveying 4,387 workers in various low-wage industries, including apparel manufacturing, child care and discount retailing, the researchers found that the typical worker had lost $51 the previous week through wage violations, out of average weekly earnings of $339. That translates into a 15 percent loss in pay...
According to the study, 39 percent of those surveyed were illegal immigrants, 31 percent legal immigrants and 30 percent native-born Americans... [W]omen were far more likely to suffer minimum wage violations than men, with the highest prevalence among women who were illegal immigrants. Among American-born workers, African-Americans had a violation rate nearly triple that for whites.
Excuse me; I need to go punch something. And then maybe throw up. Then punch something else.
August 24, 2009
Technologies Don't Transform, Societies Do, Pt. 2
As a follow up to my first linkpost on this topic, I'm adding an exhibit: Apple's celebrated "Knowledge Navigator" late-80s concept video. Watch it, then come back.
Here's the thing that's always struck me about this video. Technologically, it's wonderfully optimistic. (I love it when the professor flubs the name of the researcher he's looking for, and the computer figures out the right name, like a Google-search correcting spelling.)
But socially, it's incredibly conservative. Basically, it treats the computer interface as a synthesis of secretary, research assistant, and wife to the prototypically WASPy-dude professor. He doesn't even have to learn how to type! Imagine how short his Acknowledgements page will be! And his mom still nags him about his dad's birthday party! Oh, will life's problems never go away?
The assumptions are that 1) a breakthrough communication technology and 2) probably quite a bit of time passing won't produce any social changes at all. It won't create any new problems, either. It will simply make life easier.
We're actually usually pretty good at forecasting technological change. But we're astonishingly bad at predicting social responses to it. This is why most past attempts to predict the future strike us as unintentionally funny in retrospect: it's the mismatch between their creators' social imagination and our own -- or rather, between the constitutive blindnesses of their creators' social imagination and our own. We see and say things that they can't, and (often enough) vice versa.
Technologies Don't Transform. Societies Do.
Quick-hitting today, but here's an important axiom from Dan Visel at if:book --
the social use of digital media is more transformative than the move to the digital itself
Visel's responding to Eric Harvey's "The Social History of the MP3":
The first widespread music delivery technology to emanate from outside industry control, mp3s, flowing through peer-to-peer networks and other pathways hidden in plain sight, have performed the radical task of separating music from the music industry for the first time in a century. They have facilitated the rise of an enormous pirate infrastructure; ideologically separate from the established one, but feeding off its products, multiplying and distributing them freely, without following the century-old rules of capitalist exchange. Capitalism hasn't gone away, of course, but mp3s have severely threatened its habits and rituals within music culture. There is nothing inherent or natural about paying for music, and the circulation of mp3s > through unsanctioned networks reaffirms music as a social process driven by passion, not market logic or copyright. Yet at the same time the Internet largely freed music from its packaged-good status and opened a realm of free-exchange, it also rendered those exciting new rituals very trackable. In the same way that Facebook visually represents "having friends," the mp3s coursing through file-sharing networks quantify the online social life of music by charting its path.
P.S.: This observation from Harvey's essay is a great coda to my "How the iPod Changed the Way We Read" --
This might be the most profound social shift of the mp3 era: hoarding and sharing music changed from an activity for eccentrics to the default mode of musical enjoyment for millions.
August 23, 2009
The Hajj as an Engine of Peace
A team of economists did some clever research focused on the impact of the Hajj—the pilgrimage to Mecca that two million Muslims make every year—not on Saudi Arabia, not on, like, the world, but simply on the people who go.
The research design is straight outta Freakonomics: In Pakistan, more than 100,000 people apply for Hajj visas every year. Around 60% get them. The unsuccessful applicants form the perfect control group; compare their feelings about the world to their pretty-much-identical peers who snagged visas and made the Hajj, and voila, you have science.
Anyway, the findings:
Our results support the idea that the Hajj helps to integrate the Muslim world, leading to a strengthening of global Islamic beliefs, a weakened attachment to local religious customs, and a sense of unity and equality with others who are ordinarily separated in everyday life by sect, ethnicity, nationality, or gender, but who are brought together during the Hajj. Although the Hajj may help forge a common Islamic identity, there is no evidence that this is defined in opposition to non-Muslims. On the contrary, the notions of equality and harmony appear to extend to adherents of other religions as well. These results contrast sharply with the view that increased Islamic orthodoxy goes hand in hand with extremism.
And I like this detail:
We complement the harmony index by exploring the extent to which the Hajj leads to greater inclination to peace. [...] Examining some of the component questions, we find that the Hajj almost doubles the number of respondents who declare that Osama bin Laden's goals are incorrect, from 6.8% to 13.1%, and increases the fraction declaring his methods incorrect from 16% to 21%.
More factoids, not necessarily related to the research: Most Pakistani Hajjis spend four years saving for the trip. It costs about US$2,000, which about 2.5 times Pakistan's per-capita GDP. And, this part is a little dense, but how would you like to design this web app:
The Hajj lottery is conducted over parties of up to 20 individuals who will travel and stay together during the pilgrimage. Parties are formed either voluntarily, often along family lines, or by staff of the bank branches. Parties are assigned into separate strata for the two main Islamic sects (Sunni/Shia), eight regional cities of departure, and two types of accommodation that vary slightly in housing quality. A computer algorithm selects parties randomly from each stratum until the quota of individuals for that stratum is full.
Reading this paper is an opportunity to reflect on just how intense the Hajj is these days. I mean, two million people! All pushed through the same space, at the same time. In the desert. The best description I've found of the event's history and modern dimensions is in Steve Coll's The Bin Ladens. A big part of the Bin Laden fortune came from building facilities in and around Mecca to support the crush of the Hajj. Think air conditioning, and lots of it.
However, having said all that, I'm on a new Flickr hunt now. All the images we usually see of the Hajj are of the mind-blowing masses. But what about the dorky vacation photos? I like these images because they cut it back down to size. On some levels ,this is completely foreign. On other levels... it's family vacation.
(Thanks to Tim for snagging the article for me.)
August 13, 2009
I'm only now digging into Joshua Glenn's generations, recommended by Tim—but I gotta tell you, this is too much fun. Jason Kottke provides a handy menu; in particular, I recommend reading about the New Gods, the OGX, and of course: the Net generation.
That last label seems really right to me, by the way. It's become increasingly clear, based on nostalgia that's welling up even now in our late 20s, that this generation is going to find itself, at age 90, still swapping tales of the first BBSes we ever dialed, the first web pages we ever wrote. "And it was by hand, too!"
Now, I have no idea if this is true, but I like the sound of it:
Whereas OGXers and PCers enjoy brooding over the past, assembling fragments of past cultural moments into collages in various media, Netters take a less complicated approach. They just dig the past, and slip it on like a Halloween costume. (Paging Andre 3000, Amanda Palmer, Sisqo, Pink, and Jack White!) It's no longer the case that Americans in their 20s and early 30s want their reheated entertainments freshened up with air quotes. These days, they prefer taking it straight.
Funny, though, to see the list of notable births from 1979 (which is my year, too, if just barely):
1979: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Claire Danes, Kate Hudson, Foxy Brown, Rachael Leigh Cook, Mena Suvari, Rosario Dawson, Adam Brody, Brandy, Lance Bass, Pete Wentz, Norah Jones, Pink, Bam Margera, Adam Levine, Avey Tare, Nathan Followill, Alison Lohman, Brandon Routh, Chris Daughtry, Dan Auerbach, Nick Stahl. Elsewhere: Pete Doherty, Heath Ledger, Evangeline Lilly, Corinne Bailey Rae, Petra Nemcova, Sophie Dahl, Matt Tong.
Wait, is there seriously not a single writer on that list? It's all actors and musicians! Something is amiss, here.
August 4, 2009
Pepper LaBeija Has My Wisdom Teeth
Also from my I ♥ the Internet file, Kottke alerts us that the entirety of Paris Is Burning is available on YouTube, for the time being at least. It's probably fair to say this documentary changed my life. Somehow, confronted with a culture too rich and enormous for the ghetto it's been relegated to, the film manages not to gawk or exoticize or judge. Jennie Livingston takes the world of voguing and drag balls completely on its own terms, no small feat at the pinnacle of the AIDS epidemic in GLBT America. For a post-adolescent gay boy fresh out of Christian school, this was a revelation. I can't imagine that most people wouldn't find a completely different and equally valuable story in it.
August 3, 2009
All this gabbin' 'bout Shakespeare makes me wonder - what are the sacred, that is, foundational, texts for us? (Feel free to variously define "us.")
I mean Shakespeare's plays are one; I think the Bible is or ought to be another; The Simpsons, seasons 2-8; the original Star Wars trilogy; Sophocles; The Great Gatsby; Goodfellas...
I'm half kidding, one quarter reaching, and one quarter deadly serious; what cultural references are now, for you, and in your interactions with others, just assumed, like the way Moby Dick assumes King Lear, Paradise Lost, and the King James Bible?
July 27, 2009
Fun Work Could Mean Free Work
Snarkmarket (along with others) has been talking recently about the economic model implicit in the free release of New Liberal Arts and the deliberately limited revenue realized from its sale. As one of the authors of that book, I was conscious going into the project that I wouldn't be paid for my contribution, no matter how successful or influential the book might become—and with the release of Chris Anderson's book "Free: The Future of a Radical Price," this seems like a good time to discuss working for free.
Virginia Postrel's review of "Free" in the New York Times ends with the following paragraphs:
"No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money," Samuel Johnson said, and that attitude has had a good two-century run. But the Web is full of blockheads, whether they're rate-busting amateurs or professionals trawling for speaking gigs. All this free stuff raises the real standard of living, by making it ever easier for people to find entertainment, information and communication that pleases them.
Business strategy, however, seeks not only to create but to capture value. Free is about a phenomenon in which almost all the new value goes to consumers, not producers. It is false to assume that no price means no value. But it is equally false to argue that value implies profitability.
This is true as far as it goes, but I think it's more interesting as a starting point than an ending point. In particular, I feel like it misses the non-monetary value that work produces for those who do it.
Most of us, if we're fortunate, derive some form of value from the work we do, above and beyond the pay we receive. We enjoy working, or we enjoy the status that results from doing a certain kind of work—being widely recognized as a scholarly authority or having our ideas praised by people we respect and admire. To the extent that this intrinsic value is higher than the monetary value we could receive for doing something else, we will happily work for less or work for free, because the non-economic rewards are so significant.
Now, in the previous economic paradigm, it was possible to do work that you would have done for less or for free and still be paid well for it, because it was too much trouble for your employers/clients to find someone who could do the work as well and for free. But the internet drastically reduces that barrier. Imagine trying to find people to write a computer operating system and all the associated applications without expecting payment before the internet—now look at Linux.
I wonder if we're heading toward an economy where, to put it bluntly, people don't get paid for doing fun things. If something is fun—for someone in the world who finds it fun enough to become good at it, and to do it without expecting pay—it will no longer pay.
In this world, people still work for money, maybe 20 hours a week, but they don't really derive happiness from their jobs (if their job was something that people enjoyed doing, like playing in a symphony or writing poetry, it wouldn't pay—someone would be doing it for free*). They spend the rest of their time doing things for free, things that produce tremendous creative value for themselves and for others, but form a gift economy outside the normal capitalist economy.
I think most creative, intellectual, and information-oriented pursuits would end up on the free side of that divide—which is not to devalue them at all. Rather, I think that clarity about the kinds of rewards you could expect from each activity could lessen a lot of the anxiety about "how will I make a living as a writer, journalist, playwright, composer?" Maybe you won't—and that's okay.
*When I say "free," I don't necessarily mean $0.00. You might still earn some token payments for your creative effort, but not enough to contribute in a meaningful way to your income—a few hundred dollars a year, perhaps.
File under: Media Galaxy, Society/Culture, Technosnark
July 26, 2009
The Uniform Makes the Mind
So, James Fallows is talking about the Department of Homeland Security, and one of his readers writes in to suggest a very simple improvement:
Yes, the name "Homeland Security" is simply horrible, but the clothes may be the real problem. This may sound frivolous, but I don't think it is. The issue is boots. Combat boots. Boots with pants tucked in and "bloused." Black boots with thick soles. Swat teams wear them, and now Border Patrol folks routinely do. Coast Guard folks wear them, when they used not to. I believe that wearing military-type boots instead of shoes tends to make the wearer feel more military and therefore more aggressive. Customs agents used not to take undocumented people off ferries that don't cross international borders, but they took people off internal Washington State ferries last year. Coast Guard personnel used to be regarded as people who helped boaters, but now they wear boots and talk like fighters.
One great way to civilize Homeland Security would be to confiscate the boots and reissue shoes.
The boots! (Emphasis mine.)
This got me thinking: To what degree do all kinds of uniforms affect the behavior of their wearers in all sorts of ways? Yesterday, Molly Young came at it from a different direction:
The nurse's uniform of scrubs has always appeared materially and figuratively ill-fitting to me. I know there are practical considerations to factor in, but there are also psychic ones. Our uniforms dictate how we move and act, after all.
Police wear broad-shouldered mono-colored tool-belted outfits because it is practical but also because it lends swagger and enlarges their stature. Doctors are no longer required to wear white coats, but I trust a doctor more when he does.
Why, then, do nurses wear pajamas? Wouldn't they feel more efficient in crisp pant-and-blouse combos? Wouldn't their movements be more assured? It is hard not to shuffle in scrubs. It is also hard not to slouch.
(Emphasis mine again.)
We can extend it even further. Think of the "uniforms" of New York and Silicon Valley: suits vs. sandals. How do those divergent skins affect the way you think about yourself and your work? When you put on a uniform, official or otherwise, you're not just putting on a pair of pants. You're putting on an arsenal of signals and assumptions—many of them hard-won over decades or centuries by other wearers of the same duds.
When you put on a uniform, you're summoning some of that spirit to your side! Jeez, it's like a pagan ritual if you think about it that way. "O great god of hipster awesomeness, aid me this day. Lend me thy credibility. I constrict my thighs in thy name." Scrrrunch.
Is there a good history of clothing out there? Clothing is technology, after all—one of our very first. And if you think about it that way, we've been cyborgs for a long time: the boundary between body and technology blurred. And I like the idea that, like any body part, clothing doesn't just do our bidding, but provides feedback, too—it has imperatives of its own.
And now we've got people working on smart clothes laced with conductive thread. (There's a diagram in the book on the other side of that link that explains how to turn a button into, uh, a button. You know, for turning things on and off. Cool.) In decades, or a century, are we going to think, jeez, how could those people stand to lurch around in sheaths of dumb fiber? The whole point of clothes is that they connect you to everything around you. My shirt is my iPhone.
But I'm getting a bit off-track, here. Even today, our clothes are anything but dumb. They actually communicate a lot more, and a lot more effectively, than most of us do on our own. And, just as importantly, they deeply influence our behavior along the way.
This is all to say: I'm on board with Fallows' correspondent. Let's get those guards out of boots.
July 16, 2009
No, Faster! No, Slower!
One of the things I like about video on computers—vs. video on tapes and decks—is that the framerate is so much more flexible. 24fps? Sure. 60fps? Why not! 17fps? Let's give it a try.
Now of course, on a computer, all of this is still gated by the lockstep refresh of the monitor. So there's still a rigid rate being imposed at some point.
But that's not so for film, and it was especially flexible in the old days, before things got standardized. Images were captured, and played back, at all sorts of crazy framerates—and people argued about it!
I like this bit, noted by Mike Migurski:
On the active role of the projectionist: A 1915 projectionist's handbook declared -- in emphatic capitals -- 'THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SET CAMERA SPEED!' The correct speed of projection, it added, is the speed at which each individual scene was taken -- 'which may -- and often does -- vary wildly.' And it declared: 'One of the highest functions of projection is to watch the screen and regulate the speed of projection to synchronise with the speed of taking.'
Like a ship's navigator keeping a hand on the wheel. Cool.
Here's a thought experiment. Could we come up with some kind of gadget that "re-physicalizes" digital video so we could have this kind of fun again? Maybe it flashes images onto a re-writable strip of film. Maybe it's an Arduino-powered kinetoscope with images rendered in E Ink!
July 15, 2009
Ocean of Storms
It's a cliche at this point: You walked on the moon. Now what?
But even so, these photos of Apollo astronauts—then and now—are incredibly compelling.
Related: I'm now (finally) reading Moon Dust. Even just fifty pages in, it's terrific.
July 13, 2009
Ferguson/Fallows on China
This 75-minute dialogue between Niall Ferguson and James Fallows, about China and its relationship with the U.S., is nuanced, detailed, and thought-provoking.
(My view here is colored by the facts that a) James Fallows has been my favorite journalist since I started reading his Atlantic articles back in college and b) I want to somehow, somehow, learn to speak like Niall Ferguson. Scottish accent and all? I think so.)
Anyway, Ferguson and Fallows really argue here—in the way two smart people argue over dinner, not in the way that people argue ("argue") on cable news. It's always surprisingly thrilling to see people actually think on camera.
To set it up, the point they don't dispute is that, right now, the world's most important entity is "Chimerica"—the blended economies of China and America. At this point, even after the economic shocks of 2008 and 2009, they are still inseperable, and incoherent without each other.
Ferguson and Fallows disagree on what happens next. Ferguson says Chimerica is doomed, and get ready for a painful disruption. Fallows, fresh off of three years living in China, is more optimistic—he thinks the relationship is flexible, durable, and many-faceted.
I saw Niall Ferguson debate Peter Schwartz here in San Francisco, and all I gotta say is: I wouldn't want to face off with this guy across a stage. He is erudite, to be sure; but he also carries and deploys his erudition in a particularly cutting way—like an Oxford don James Bond.
Anyway, I emerged from the 75 minutes mostly on the side of Fallows—but I always appreciate Ferguson's gloomy, ultra-realist point of view. Also, Fallows follows up here.
July 12, 2009
Romance, Manuscripts, and Cyborgs
Virginia Heffernan says that internet romances "are not romances between people at all. They’re affairs with the Internet" - like World of Warcraft, where you become your own avatar:
O Computer World! At its most elementary, it’s a marvelous place, filled with risk and surprises and novelty, unbounded by space and time, where you can be a teenager again, trade gossip, avoid your overseers, gab to friends and boyfriends — all while pretending to do homework. What a perfect realm for puppy love or love with that Sanford-patented “soul-mate feel” — unconsummated love, in other words. By removing the body from relationships, electronic communication makes romantic love less animal. The lovers’ discourse becomes simultaneously more childlike and more intellectual, more spiritual.
As Chapur wrote to Sanford, “I haven’t felt this since I was in my teen ages.”
Epistolary romance seems to have existed as long as romance itself. But letters — the ink-on-paper kind, the kind Byron and Anaïs Nin wrote — had a dense materiality, with handwriting that always suggested the beloved’s hand and thus her body. Besides, wasn’t writing paper always being supplemented with dried flowers, locks of hair and wafts of perfume? It’s not clear whether mp3 love songs or links to insightful blog posts, the value-adds that now come with love e-mail, contribute a sensory dimension or only amplify how nerdy and how platonic digital romance is.
The connection to communications technology — the connection to connection — has become part of what makes us human. In the idiom of those who are swooningly in love, it makes us “feel alive.” When we’re denied the connection to connection, it’s no wonder we lust for it. Probably the pundits are wrong: there’s no special problem with marriage or romance in this country right now. Instead, our current bind is with offline reality — real life. We’ve been cheating on it, all of us, for a long time, living in a wireless fairyland where we r all so giddily hot.
I wrote my college girlfriend love letters over two summers, when she was in Texas and I was in Michigan (and then London). It is completely different. But I fell in love with her, at least in part, not least because in our freshman year, she was my first constant email correspondent.
Manuscript is different. I disagree, though, about the total virtualization/dematerialization of the body with the internet - I think at one time, exchanging flirtatious glances on Friendster, or staring into a telnet terminal in your campus computer lab, that was true. There was something cold and immaterial about that world, where you had to wait hours for a response, when you couldn't take an email with you without sheepishly printing it out on a dot-matrix.
But the ubiquity and intimacy of our net-connected objects have changed that. Heffernan's friend hands her his Blackberry with a note from his mistress, and she recoils: "I didn’t like holding the device. It felt hot and even damp, as if it had been inside a human body. Lots of erotic energy was going into that thing." It's a secondary physicality, a different kind of fantasy of immediacy - a love letter that can reach your beloved wherever she is, finding her not at her office desktop but in her purse or pants pocket. And when your phone vibrates with her new message, you have received something real, something you can touch.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark
July 8, 2009
Swimming Out Of The Death Spiral
And now for a note on the dark side of printed books: Michael Jensen, Director of Strategic Web Communications for National Academies and National Academies Press, collects and analyzes data about global warming and ecological collapse. At the AAUP meeting in Philadelphia, he presented "Scholarly Publishing in the New Era of Scarcity," an argument that the combination of financial and environmental necessity compels university presses to move away from printing, shipping, and storing books and towards a digital-driven, open-access model, with print-on-demand and institutional support rounding out the new revenue model.
(I'm posting Part 2 of Jensen's speech - the part that's mostly about publishing - here. Watch Part 1 - which is mostly about the environment - if you want to be justly terrified about what's going to happen to human beings and everything else pretty soon.)
This is one reason I'm kind of happy that we didn't print a thousand or more copies of New Liberal Arts. We can make print rare, we can get copies straight to readers, we can make print more responsible, but mostly we have to make print count. And - of course - share the information with as many people as possible.
July 6, 2009
Wolfgang and Red Riding Hood
Also: "Wolfgang Joop"!!
July 3, 2009
Free Book Idea: Too Big to Succeed
Tim and I had a fun Google Chat back in March about a concept for a book called "Too Big to Succeed." The window for a book on this theme to become a blockbuster is almost closed, so I figure it's time to stop hoarding the idea and make it a blog post.
The phrase "too big to succeed" has already infected the cultural lexicon this year. A quick sweep of Google shows it being applied to the banking industry, the auto industry, Twitter, big Pharma, China, and Washington, among other things.
It's a good phrase, springing up (as best as I can tell) in response to an even-more-popular recent construct: "too big to fail."
The concept of an entity or industry being "too big to succeed" deserves an extended riff. Do industries just have to congeal into tiny networks of giant institutions over time? And if so, does that tendency pretty much force the massive flameouts and market inefficiencies we've seen all over the economy recently?
I don't think this does have to happen, and therein lies the thesis of the book.
I think the era where every industry has to become an oligopoly is nearing an end. I don't think the shift towards mass institutions was a natural, inexorable network characteristic. If we look at the tape, I think we'll see that the oligopoly era was a network distortion produced by our industrial-age regulatory framework. And it's time to leave these things to a quiet rest.
In industry after industry, I think we've got an opportunity to shift our policies towards supporting nimble, durable markets that mimic real networks: diverse collections of nodes with a few particularly well-connected hubs. Let's look at a few examples:
The news industry
Over the past century, the news business went right past oligopoly into monopoly and got stuck there. Today, most of the journalism produced in every American city is an accidental byproduct of a giant, dying media conglomerate. As with all these other oligopolistic industries, the news titans are clamoring for a bailout, asking the government to prop them up and regulate away their competition.
But we can imagine a system of better, more sustainable journalism built on a robust network of independent newsrooms threaded throughout every neighborhood. Networks of editors could package this work for diverse sets of overlapping communities. In places like the Bay Area and Seattle, we're seeing the beginnings of this new model, but to thrive, it will require at least as much regulatory support as the big dogs got when they were buying their presses back in the day.
The medical industry
This was what got Tim and I started. Today, most health care is provided by big, unwieldy hospitals. They tend to cluster in these giant office parks, often far away from the inner city, where they're needed most. You walk in and have to navigate a maze of rooms, bouncing back and forth between receptionists and nurses and physician's assistants and doctors.
But the vast majority of medical care people need on a daily basis doesn't require a hospital to provide. As Tim said in our chat (punctuation mine), "There should be as many clinics as there are coffee shops, pharmacies, or copy stores. Universities do this (at least Penn does). We have a student health center; they have walk-in and appt hours, you pay a fee and it's free. They see you and administer standard care, run tests, give physicals and vaccines and such, and then refer you to the hospital or a specialist if it's more serious. You HAVE to go to the clinic if you're in Philly and it's not an emergency. And in part b/c it's a tailored operation, geared towards younger people, it's tremendously efficient."
The food industry
I just saw Food, Inc., yesterday, which might be what got me off on this riff again. If you read Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore's Dilemma, you know that Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan both identify monoculture (i.e. oligopoly and monopoly) as the primary villain in our awful global food situation. The last century saw food production shift from the local farmer to the multinational factory conglomerate. That shift is ruining our health, our environment, international diplomacy, and perhaps worst of all, our food. Meanwhile, the unbelievably obese food lobby has taken control of our government, writing intrusive laws to ensure its survival even as it crumbles under its own weight.
The movie industry
At this point, Hollywood basically exists to churn out quarterly blockbusters that each aim to repeat the formula for one blunt, universal emotion: love ("The Proposal"!), fear ("Saw XI"!), excitement ("Transformers!"), humor ("17 Again"!), etc. Nuance is lost, and art suffers. Like the food titans, the news kingpins, the health care lobbyists and others before them, the movie moguls are descending on Washington to seek protection as the twin forces of distribution implosion and supply explosion shred their profits.
But when my nephew is cooking up mindboggling special effects on his laptop, who needs Hollywood? The industry's product is unsustainable. You can't flog the formula forever. Let a universe of independent artists flourish, and overhaul the laws to help them make their magic.
We can lay this pattern onto the energy industry, the publishing industry, banking (of course), transportation, post-secondary education, you name it. If I were editing this book, I'd make that the first third, in fact: spend the preface and first chapter making the overall argument, then spend a few chapters exploring how it plays out in all these different industries. Follow up this part with a chapter laying out the history -- how this screwed-up oligopoly system took root in the first place. Trace it back to the industrial age and beyond.
The middle third of the book (I'm taking this straight from the gChat) could be about the rules of a new, more natural network system. The role of big companies in this ecosystem, what differentiates successful lean businesses from unsustainable niche businesses, how a network of microbusinesses can collaborate and compete effectively.
The last third might address how society generally would benefit, and how it would have to evolve to support this. This is where you explore the policy piece -- how our laws have to change. It's also where you talk about the Richard Florida stuff -- our evolving understanding of how properly organized urban environments should function -- and how this shift facilitates that.
Of course, as I said, I think the moment for this book is almost gone. From last September to this past January, we had a brief interlude of just transcendent possibility. Monumental shifts in our society seemed graspable. People talked about spending a trillion dollars over just a few years to fundamentally remake our economy, and we actually passed a stimulus package that got closer than anybody imagined.
But we're seeing that ambition melt quickly. We're on the verge of historic health reform legislation, sure, but now we're choking on a price tag of $1 trillion over 10 years, regardless of how much it saves us over the long term. Our chance to achieve forceful climate change legislation is dimming by the day. And our September lust to reform the banking industry has molded over into a desire to, er, re-form the banking industry, in much the same shape as it was in 2001 or so.
There was a window where a big, Gladwellian book selling this notion of industrial transformation -- not as some sort of hippie anti-corporatism but as a breakthrough business idea -- might have made some traction. But I think that window's almost shut. So this book is, for now, a blog post.
File under: Business, Cities, Snarkpolicy, Society/Culture
July 1, 2009
My Eight-Year-Old Self Can't Believe Any Of This
There are only 60,000 nuns left in the US Catholic Church.And the Vatican wants to start an inquisition into what's left of the orders, 'cause some o' them ladies just maybe ain't been doin' what they're told.
Well, that's just great. Thank you, Pope Benedict - you're so evil, you've got me rooting for nuns. (It's like in Return of the Jedi, when you realize Darth Vader isn't really the real bad guy.)
June 25, 2009
Where There Is Love ...
For my family, the death of Michael Jackson was one of those call-your-people-and-make-sure-everyone's-okay moments. I was checking the New York Times on my cell on the way to Tampa International Airport when the story was still that he'd been rushed to the hospital, reportedly for cardiac arrest. The way they'd written the story, though, with eulogistic snippets of bio fleshing out the news report, it felt as though the writers had pasted in text from Jackson's canned obit, which I interpreted as a bad sign. I kept saying to the folks in the Super Shuttle that I had a bad feeling about it. As I handed my boarding pass and license to the TSA inspector, she passed it back slowly, looked me in the eyes, and said, "Michael Jackson is dead."
So. Muse upon a problematic and epic life with me, Snarketeers. What have you seen that lives up to the moment? I'll kick us off with this reminiscence, by Minneapolis writer Max "Bunny" Sparber. And the MetaFilter obit thread is always a propos.
And, for the road, from Tim:
June 17, 2009
I am completely floored by these scenes of silent protest in Iran. From an eyewitness report:
...the cry goes up: Shoar nagoo! Don't shout slogans! Hands are up held up instead. It is quiet. Here and there a voice, unable to restrain itself, begins to scream "Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!" He is met instantly with hisses and whistles---saket! saket! quiet! quiet!---and the voice falls silent again.
Such calm confers dignity -- and also utility, of course. Matthew Yglesias explains:
If you were to try to fight the security forces -- shoot some policemen, say -- you'd encourage a more serious crackdown. It's through nonviolent resistance that you heighten the psychological contradictions, and encourage the regime and its enforcers to blink. From the Velvet Revolution to Tiananmen Square to the Orange Revolution to what's happening today in Iran, the brave dissidents are essentially daring the security forces to beat or kill them.
If you haven't read Unconquerable World by Jonathan Schell, now's the time. It's about, among other things, the world-shaking changes that have been wrought by nonviolence in the 20th century.
I don't read too many books more than once; I've read this one three times. Schell is not -- I need to emphasize this -- not a pacifist, and he's not naive. But even so, he looks at the evidence and concludes: There exists in the world an unstoppable force. And it looks something like this:
File under: Snarkpolitik, Society/Culture, Worldsnark
Media = Freedom?
Pete Wehner has a post at the Commentary blog comparing Iran in 2009 to the Soviet Union of the 1980's which, of course, is completely ridiculous. I visited Russia back in the day and I've now visited Iran twice. There is no comparison. The Soviet Union was the most repressive place I've ever been; its residents lived in constant terror. I'll never forget my first translator in Moscow telling me that his parents had trained him never to smile in public--it could easily be misinterpreted and then he'd be off to the Gulag. There was no internet in those days, no cellphones, no facebook or twitter.
Iran, by contrast, is breezy with freedom. It is certainly freer now, despite Ahmadinejad, than it was when I first visited in 2001. There are satellites dishes all over the place, which bring accurate news via BBC Persia and the Voice of America. The place is awash in western music, movies and books. The Supreme Leader has a website; ayatollahs are blogging. You can get the New York Times and CNN online. (I was interested to find, however, that most blogs except those, like this one, that are associated with a mainstream media outlet, are filtered by the government.) There is, in fact, marginally more freedom of expression in Iran than in some notable U.S. allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia--although the danger of imprisonment always exists if a journalist or politician takes it a step too far for the Supreme Leader's watchdogs.
I wonder, though -- to what extent can media consumption, or even production, be a proxy for (or index of) material freedom? I mean, the reformists in Iran are actually fighting FOR a loosening of some of the more oppressive restrictions. In particular, women almost certainly had more day-to-day freedoms (apart from media consumption) under the USSR then they do in present-day Iran.
I appreciate Klein's point here, and trust me -- I don't in any way underestimate the power of the free circulation of information as constitutive of some degree of liberty. I just worry when people who deal in information - especially journalists - confuse the freedom of information with freedom as such. (Klein's B-story about the two states, which explains the likelihood of getting imprisoned for arbitrary reasons or dissent - is way more relevant.)
File under: Journalism, Snarkpolitik, Society/Culture, Worldsnark
June 8, 2009
SimCity... Actually a Terrible Simulation
The blog Human Transit outlines the ways in which the original SimCity -- the one I spent the most time playing -- codified a now-outmoded planning orthodoxy:
In short, Sim City could be hailed as a triumph of reactionary brainwashing -- in that it instilled in a generation of 1990s teen geeks all the worst assumptions of 1960s city planning.
But, let's not not pick on a decades-old video game. Let's imagine a new Sim-something instead -- one that codifies the values we thing are important today, in 2009.
How about SimRegion? It would be all about region-wide transportation infrastructure, water management, food production (big emphasis on that), migration, and more. Hmm. That sounds educational. And boring.
Maybe SimSocialNetwork. Forget geography. This one's all about tending an online garden of weak ties and attention-feeds. (I'm not being sarcastic. I think, abstracted in the right way, this could actually be fun and instructive.)
Or how about some kind of bifurcated simulation: SimHealthCareSystemAndIndividual. One side's macro, the other's micro. You play both, and see how decisions on one side affect the other. I like the sound of that, actually. The trick with any social simulation is that, inevitably, the way you design it says a lot about how you view the world. So the micro/macro sim would play up that tension; the models might even be designed to sort of "fight" each other. SimBourgeoisAndProletariat.
(Via Noah Brier.)
File under: Snarkonomics, Snarkpolicy, Society/Culture, Video Games
June 2, 2009
Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias are talking about "prestige cross-pollination" in economics:
"...the habit of distinguished economists using prestige acquired within their field to pass off sloppy work in other fields."
Klein backs it up:
...it's not just about commentary. Take the Obama administration. Brian Deese, the guy quarterbacking the auto restructuring, is a 31-year-old members of the economics team. Peter Orszag is probably the most powerful voice on health-care policy. Larry Summers, by most accounts, has a hand in literally everything. Economists, in other words, are the prime movers on not only the economy, but health care, climate change, housing policy and much else.
Klein finished with: "I'm not saying whether this is good or bad."
I think it's probably bad. Economics has been afforded a strange, special status in our society. It's become the master science of large-scale planning. It's become psychohistory.
Except it's not cut out to be either of those things. There are simply too many important values in the world that we can't tally in monetary terms. (And when we try, it's a hack -- better than nothing, but still a hack.)
Well, one caveat: To the degree it's been able to absorb social insights from other fields -- sociology, cognitive psychology, math, law, even some biology -- sometimes "economics" is just a convenient umbrella for a lot of very different tools.
But that integrative role needn't belong to economics alone. I think certain kinds of social scientists, and certain kinds of historians, could frame big policy decisions just as well -- or better -- than economists.
"Now do it bigger! And more humble."
June 1, 2009
Museums, Music, and Meara O'Reilly
Cross-reference these two cool museum-related posts, both with generalizable implications.
First, Nina Simon posts the presentation she gave to the Smithsonian staff. This is her three-bullet distillation, and I promise you, it's relevant to far more than just museums:
In condensed text version, here are my three steps to being a great multi-platform organization:
- Listen to and understand what your visitors/users need.
- Confidently and clearly state your institutional mission, values, and capabilities.
- Develop relationships via any and all useful platforms that allow you to connect 1 to 2.
I think step two is the most difficult, the most overlooked, and the most important. Confidently and clearly state your mission, values, and capabilities. Forget institutions... people should do this.
Second, the SFMOMA blog has a great guest post by Meara O'Reilly. The assignment: Connect items from the museum's collection to interesting artifacts from your domain of expertise. In O'Reilly's case, that domain is sound, music, and sonic illusions. (Sonic illusions!) The pairings are fun -- like a weird super-hero team-up series. Except it's art.
I really like the mash-up of image and sound here, and the length. This is no mere blog post; more like a mini-multimedia-essay. Don't miss "Rumba" by Mildred Couper near the bottom.
Also worth seeing: O'Reilly sings with (across? into?) a Chladni plate, which you might have seen at a science museum, but never like this:
To me, that seems almost like magic. And, okay, a little creepy. Wait, you're telling me those shapes are lurking in every human voice?
The Earth is Hiring (Extended Remix)
I gave Paul Hawken's "the earth is hiring" commencement speech mixed marks, but I feel like I should upgrade my assessment, because it did one of the best things any piece of rhetoric can do: It started an interesting conversation.
I have never been able to warm to an argument that posits "the Earth" as a central player. The earth is not hiring.
Rather, each graduate will help build a world from the materials left to them from past generations of humans and other living creatures. Their challenge is to work together to build a good world for themselves and for the next generations that will come.
Tim called this the "now do it bigger, and more humble" approach... and I can already tell that this going to become a recurring phrase on Snarkmarket.
But Saheli says:
...but I also think the reason why that too big/more humble canvas doesn't work for many people is their brains are not widescreen enough to properly count disappearing possibilities; and their engines are not rational enough to abstain from some large source of affection, approval and courtship. By Deifying the Earth and ennumerating Her gifts, Hawken provides that external motivator and waves away the necessity for rationally understanding the dangers of failure. So I understand your critique, but I can see why Hawken's metaphorical fancy makes more sense for a large class of college graduates.
"Their engines are not rational enough." What a great phrase.
From there we get into supernova-prevention schemes and the ethics of museum guards with guns. This is a thread you gotta read.
May 31, 2009
The F-Double-Prime Equation Of Love
In all cases, the business of theoretical physics boils down to finding the right differential equations and solving them. When Newton discovered this key to the secrets of the universe, he felt it was so precious that he published it only as an anagram in Latin. Loosely translated, it reads: "it is useful to solve differential equations."
The silly idea that love affairs might progress in a similar way occurred to me when I was in love for the first time, trying to understand my girlfriend's baffling behavior. It was a summer romance at the end of my sophomore year in college. I was a lot like the first Romeo above, and she was even more like the first Juliet. The cycling of our relationship was driving me crazy until I realized that we were both acting mechanically, following simple rules of push and pull. But by the end of the summer my equations started to break down, and I was even more mystified than ever. As it turned out, the explanation was simple. There was an important variable that I'd left out of the equations — her old boyfriend wanted her back.
In mathematics we call this a three-body problem. It's notoriously intractable, especially in the astronomical context where it first arose. After Newton solved the differential equations for the two-body problem (thus explaining why the planets move in elliptical orbits around the sun), he turned his attention to the three-body problem for the sun, earth and moon. He couldn't solve it, and neither could anyone else. It later turned out that the three-body problem contains the seeds of chaos, rendering its behavior unpredictable in the long run.
Guess we shouldn't toss DiffEq just yet.
(Via the Radiolab blog.)
May 27, 2009
The Negative Dialectics of Whiteness
The idea is that Latinos have a dual experience that whites don't have and that, all things being equal, they'll be able to pull from that experience and see things that whites don't. The problem with this reasoning is it implicitly accepts the logic (made for years by white racists) that there is something essential and unifying running through all white people, everywhere. But White--as we know it--is a word so big that, as a descriptor of experience, it almost doesn't exist.
Indeed, it's claims are preposterous. It seeks to lump the miner in Eastern Kentucky, the Upper West Side Jew, the yuppie in Seattle, the Irish Catholic in South Boston, the hipster in Brooklyn, the Cuban-American in Florida, or even the Mexican-American in California all together, and erase the richness of their experience, by marking the bag "White." This is a lie--and another example of how a frame invented (and for decades endorsed) by whites is, at the end of the day, bad for whites. White racism, in this country, was invented to erase the humanity and individuality of blacks. But for it to work it must, necessarily, erase the humanity of whites, too.
TNC of course makes the further (and necessary point) point that these are all fictions that become socially real.
P.S.: I realize the "negative dialectics" reference is probably too insidery for 98% of readers. It's a term that Theodor Adorno used for a title of his book. Hegel defined identity as "the identity of identity and nonidentity" - the idea being that any concept or act of identification glosses over differences and unifies things that are like in some ways but unlike in others. For Adorno, negative dialectics explores "the nonidentity of identity and nonidentity," i.e., disintegrating all of that.
Cf. the kind of weird quasi-discourse on whether Judge Sotomayor will or will not be the first "Hispanic" judge on the Supreme Court - the idea being that Justice Cardoza (whose ancestors, Portuguese Jews, emigrated to New York state in the eighteenth century) would qualify. If you try to pursue a purist/universalist idea of racial identity to the end, you start to focus on definitional descriptors (biological and/or cultural ancestry on the Iberian peninsula) that just wipe out all differences. "Hispanic" in this context may be as much of a lie-word -- that is to say, as powerful a concept -- as "white."
May 25, 2009
The Editor as Wizard
Joanne McNeil over at Tomorrow Museum has a terrific post about self-publishing that deals with the idea more deeply than most things I've read. There's lots to dig into, but this part resonated with me:
[...] I was talking about some of this the other night with Diana Kimball, who recently wrote a paper on the subject. [...] She made the often lost point about a major publisher's role as validation for the author, as well as the reader. The author needs to know someone with expertise and good judgment found his or her material worthwhile. Otherwise, why risk the embarrassment of bringing unsatisfactory material to a wider audience?
(Here's Diana's paper. And yes, a post that cross-references Diana Kimball and Tomorrow Museum starts to feel like a cunningly-designed trap for Snarkmarket. I'm afraid my laptop is about to shoot me with a poison dart.)
"The author needs to know someone with expertise and good judgment found his or her material worthwhile." This is a deep point. Part of what makes blogging so "do-able" is the low stakes. First, the stuff you're pointing to is already published; you're operating entirely under a pre-existing umbrella of validation. Second, the work you're doing is pretty easy, anyway. If people don't respond immediately... no big deal.
There are other kinds of work that feel much more high-stakes. A short story, a novel. An EP. A long piece of research and analysis. Or, I guess, even a certain kind of incredibly labor-intensive blog. And it does seem to me that, in these cases, the editor's touch is transformative.
That doesn't have to exist in the context of publishing as we know it today. What you're really looking for is a smart mind, "with expertise and good judgment," who you trust to evaluate your work honestly, saying: Yes. There is a place for this in the world.
That doesn't have to mean print; it doesn't have to mean payment. It simply means solving this riddle, posed by Diana:
The problem with self-published books, for authors and for potential readers, is that the physical book no longer signifies that anyone has read it. In fact, the physical fact of a self-published book is far more likely to signify that astonishingly few people have read it.
I think there's a generalizable version of that problem, even for non-books, and even for work that stays digital forever. And the solution? I imagine a tiny editor standing on top of the work, shouting: "Hell yes someone has read this! I did! And you think I publish just anything? I've got standards, people. Come check this out."
I guess it's a kind of risk-shifting: You, as the writer, musician, researcher, whatever, no longer bear it all yourself. In fact, you suddenly bear very little. And, I mean, wow, thank goodness. Making things is hard enough as it is. Let me, as editor, take the chance here; if people think your work sucks (or worse, if they don't think about it at all) I'm the one who made a mistake. You just keep working.
I'm overstating it a little for effect. But to me, it feels like alchemy, or sorcery. It changes the terms entirely.
A lot of bloggers think of what they do as "editing the web," and I wonder if more shouldn't take it a step further. They (we?) could spend curatorial capital to bring new work into the world. Hey blogger: Why don't you expand that post about Proust and Professor X into a whole little essay? We'd love to work with you on it and cross-post it on Snarkmarket when it's finished.
In other words: Yes. There is a place for this in the world.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy, Society/Culture
May 24, 2009
Two Visions Of Our Asian Future
Looking to the east for clues to the future (or the past) of the west isn't the least bit new, but these two recent takes (both in the NYT, as it happens) offer some interesting contrasts.
First, Paul Krugman looks at Hong Kong:
Hong Kong, with its incredible cluster of tall buildings stacked up the slope of a mountain, is the way the future was supposed to look. The future — the way I learned it from science-fiction movies — was supposed to be Manhattan squared: vertical, modernistic, art decoish.
What the future mainly ended up looking like instead was Atlanta — sprawl, sprawl, and even more sprawl, a landscape of boxy malls and McMansions. Bo-ring.
So for a little while I get to visit the 1950s version of the 21st century. Yay!
But where are the flying cars?
In the subway, Ms. Kim breezes through the turnstile after tapping the phone on a box that deducts the fare from a chip that contains a cash balance. While riding to school, she uses her mobile to check if a book has arrived at the library, slays aliens in a role-playing game, updates her Internet blog or watches TV.
On campus, she and other students touch their mobiles to the electronic box by the door to mark their attendance. No need for roll call — the school’s server computer logs whether they are in or how late they are for the class.
“If I leave my wallet at home, I may not notice it for the whole day,” said Ms. Kim, 21. “But if I lose my cellphone, my life will start stumbling right there in the subway.”
It has been a while since the mobile phone became more than just a phone, serving as a texting device, a camera and a digital music player, among other things. But experts say South Korea, because of its high-speed wireless networks and top technology companies like Samsung and LG, is the test case for the mobile future.
“We want to bring complex bits of daily life — cash, credit card, membership card and student ID card, everything — into the mobile phone,” said Shim Gi-tae, a mobile financing official at SK Telecom, the country’s largest wireless carrier. “We want to make the cellphone the center of life.”
It was easier in the 1950s for Americans to imagine flying cars than it was to imagine cashless subways. Hell, it may still be easier.
Height or distance? The billboard ad or the cellphone ad? Physical mobility or mobility of information? The skyscraper or the network?
File under: Cities, Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark, Worldsnark
May 19, 2009
There's been this chromatic, geometric, vaguely retro visual meme afoot for a couple of years now. Andy Gilmore is my favorite practitioner, because his stuff feels like a fresh alchemy, not just neon nostalgia. Examples:
May 16, 2009
Frühling Für Hitler Und Vaterland
A German adaptation of Mel Brooks's The Producers opens in Berlin.
May 10, 2009
The Ideas! The Ideas! Part... Whatever
Charlie Jane Anders, "Why Dollhouse Really Is Joss Whedon's Greatest Work":
The evil in Dollhouse is harder to deal with than the evil in Buffy because it's our evil. It's our willingness to strip other people of their humanity in order to get what we need from them. It's our eagerness to give up our humanity and conform to other people's expectations, in exchange for some vaguely promised reward. And it's our tendency to put any new piece of technology to whatever uses we can think of, whether they're positive or utterly destructive.
And that last bit, about technology, is the other main reason why Dollhouse is Whedon's most accomplished work, especially if you love science fiction like we do. Unlike Joss' other works, Dollhouse really is about the impact of new technology on society. It asks the most profound question any SF can ask: how would we (as people) change if a new technology came along that allowed us to...? In this case, it's a technology that allows us to turn brains into storage media: We can erase, we can record, we can copy. It's been sneaking up on us, but Dollhouse has slowly been showing how this radically changes the whole conception of what it means to be human. You can put my brain into someone else's body, you can keep my personality alive after I die, and you can keep my body around but dispose of everything that I would consider "me."
April 26, 2009
Swine Flu and the City
There's a lot to process here, but it's worth it: BLDGBLOG's post about disease and urban planning is the most interesting thing you'll read all day.
The roots of modernism in sanatorium design. Office space built around the transmission properties of the common cold. Settlers of Catan: Outbreak Edition. Doctors holding seminars in the sewers of Paris.
Like a little virus in its own right, this post will take up residence in your brain. It's made all the more satisfying for seeing its roots -- early symptoms -- over on @bldgblog.
This Is How a Public Intellectual Works TodayTM.
April 17, 2009
The Pathos Of Twitter
Virginia Heffernan looks deep into the Twitterverse and doesn't like everything she finds:
The "ambient awareness" that Twitter promotes — the feeling of incessant online contact -- is still intact. But the emotional force of all this contact may have changed in the context of the economic collapse. Where once it was "hypnotic" and "mesmerizing" (words often used to describe Twitter) to read about a friend's fever or a cousin's job complaints, today the same kind of posts, and from broader and broader audiences, seem... threatening. Encroaching. Suffocating. Twitter may now be like a jampacked, polluted city where the ambient awareness we all have of one another's bodies might seem picturesque to sociologists (who coined "ambient awareness" to describe this sense of physical proximity) but has become stifling to those in the middle of it.
I only subscribe to a handful of Twitter feeds -- about twenty, almost all people I've met and known for years -- and I protect my updates, partly to ward off feeling this way. However, I still can't escape whiners like me:
In the old days, Facebook updaters and Twitterers mostly posted about banal stuff, like sandwiches. But that was September. It's spring now. Look at Twistori, a new site that sorts and organizes Twitter posts that use emotionally laden words like "wish" or "hate" or "love," thereby building an image of the collective Twitter psyche. The vibe of Twitter seems to have changed: a surprising number of people now seem to tweet about how much they want to be free from encumbrances like Twitter. "I wish I didn't have obligations," someone posted not long ago. "I wish I had somewhere to go," wrote an other. "I wish things were different." "I wish I grew up in the '60s." "I wish I didn't feel the need to write pointless things here." "I wish I could get out of this hellhole."
Exactly. Obviously, people use Twitter to do different things. A professor of mine has, I think, perfected it as an art of academic self-promotion -- linking not just to new posts but old articles, interviews, projects, etc. But one thing that scares me about the way that I use it is that I often find myself being brutally honest about my feelings -- like I'm in therapy with Wonder Woman's lasso wrapped around my brain.
For every detached quip like "tcarmody thinks Proust would have been a great blogger. Joyce? Not so much," there's a strain of sentimentality ("tcarmody is watching my son play catch with my sister, who taught me how to play catch when I was a little boy"), self-pity ("tcarmody is recovering from surgery and apparently is pissing off everyone in his life. If you're going to be useless, don't be cranky too"), petty complaints ("tcarmody will not give up cream in his coffee. Will. Not."), and full-blown existential dread: "tcarmody is trying and failing to call in friendships and favors. Help. I need help"; "tcarmody is deeply uncomfortable and entirely alone."
Heffernan pulls back from this conclusion and settles for a vexed explanation based on long-felt class anxieties. I think something else is at work. Maybe it isn't a new epoch in the history of being, but it is SOMETHING. This isn't just ordinary moaning. Is it?
April 15, 2009
Conservation Of Outrage
When trying to explain one’s past actions, hindsight is always 20/400. With that caveat, I will say that the emotional pleasure of using the #amazonfail hashtag was intoxicating. There is no civil rights struggle in the US that matters more to me than the extension of equal rights without regard for sexual orientation. Here was a chance to strike a public blow for that cause, and I didn’t even have to write a check or get up from my chair to do it! I went so far as to publicly suggest a link between the Amazon de-listing and the anti-gay backlash following the legalization of gay marriage in Iowa and Vermont. My friend Nelson Minar called bullshit on my completely worthless speculation, which was the beginning of my realizing how much I’d been seduced by righteousness, and how stupid it had made me.
April 11, 2009
Loss Of Service
Matt Richtel whines:
Technology is rendering obsolete some classic narrative plot devices: missed connections, miscommunications, the inability to reach someone. Such gimmicks don’t pass the smell test when even the most remote destinations have wireless coverage. (It’s Odysseus, can someone look up the way to Ithaca? Use the "no Sirens" route.)
Of what significance is the loss to storytelling if characters from Sherwood Forest to the Gates of Hell can be instantly, if not constantly, connected?
Plenty, and at least part of it is personal. I recently finished my second thriller, or so I thought. When I sent it to several fine writer friends, I received this feedback: the protagonist and his girlfriend can't spend the whole book unable to get in touch with each other. Not in the cellphone era.
Then Christopher Breen whines:
As you may have heard, areas of San Francisco’s South Bay and coast lost their landline, cell phone, and Internet connectivity because an individual or individuals unknown deliberately sliced four fiber optic cables in San Jose, California. This action (currently termed “vandalism”), in addition to unplugging over 50,000 area residents, caused many businesses to shut down and threatened lives because 911 services were out for the better part of the day...
I had no Internet access. I couldn’t call the office to alert my boss that I was off the grid. And my iPhone was no good with its constant No Service heading regardless of where I drove. I was completely unplugged.
Voilà.... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy, Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark, Television
April 10, 2009
Doctor Jones's Office Hours
Good-looking people enjoy what economists/sociologists call a "beauty premium." They get paid more and are seen as better at their jobs than people of average attractiveness. It works for men and for women. Men, for example, get a premium for being taller, in shape, handsome, and with a nice head of hair.
Now here's where it gets interesting. A new Israeli study suggests that male professors get a beauty bump, but female professors don't. The researchers guess that this is rooted in a "contradiction between... role images and gender images": somehow, female attractiveness is seen as incongruous with the paternal, traditional scholar/educator role of the professor, where male attractiveness isn't -- particularly, it seems, for female students. That's the idea, anyways.
I don't endorse this conclusion, but there's definitely something going on here. A couple of things that came to my mind on reading this:... Read more ....
File under: Beauty, Learnin', Society/Culture
April 9, 2009
Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings is so perceptive, it transcends any artifact of professional training and reveals a purity of attention to and sympathy with the human universe. Consider her long post on abusive relationships:
So imagine yourself, in love with someone, on your honeymoon or pregnant, when suddenly this guy just goes ballistic, often for very little reason, and hits you. For a lot of women, this is profoundly shocking and disorienting. There are things that are comprehensible parts of the world, even if they're rare, like having your car stolen; and then there are things that are unexpected in a completely different sense, like having your car turn into an elephant before your eyes: things that make you wonder whether you're completely crazy. Being beaten up by someone who apparently loves you is one of those things.
What this means is that precisely when a woman needs as much confidence in her own judgment as she can muster, the rug is completely pulled out from under her. And it's not just that she questions her judgment because she got involved with this guy in the first place; she questions her judgment because something so completely alien to the world she thinks she knows has just happened.
April 1, 2009
A Place To Gather (And Use The Printer)
Diana Kimball praises the campus computer lab:
Computer labs offer a combination of connectivity and escape at the same time: they provide a location, a destination, where all of the necessary technological tools are assembled and maintained. They also establish in student’s minds the existence of a “computer place” on campus—the natural place to gravitate toward when your laptop has gotten a virus, or its hard drive has died, or you’re wondering how to set up your email client. Here, the IT helpdesk is right in the computer lab, reinforcing that relationship.
With laptops all but ubiquitous, community computer labs may seem frivolous. But that very ubiquity, and its inescapability, means that colleges have a responsibility to respect and support the relationship between students and computers. A computer lab sends a strong signal, offers an obvious location to honor and troubleshoot that relationship, and gives students an alternative to squinting at tiny screens.
An indication of how fast things have changed: when I started college (in 1997), not only did I not own a laptop, I didn't even own a computer. I had never owned a computer. (My first honest-to-goodness PC to call my own came in 2001, my first year of graduate school.) Every paper I wrote was improvised in a computer lab. (Hmm. Maybe I should try that again.)
Here's my vision of the future of the computer lab: rows of ready-to-go machines, yes, but also of laptop kiosks, places where you can plug in and recharge, hook up to the networked printer, and chat with the techs and support staff. Maybe even a floating reference librarian to help with research questions and writing papers. A place to gather, where the communal intellectual energy can hum and crackle and strike down with electric inspiration. And to use the printer.
File under: Learnin', Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark
March 29, 2009
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
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":
March 26, 2009
Death Is Elastic
All you need are signficant differentials in the estate tax.
March 23, 2009
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.
March 18, 2009
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
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: Building the Future with Free
March 16, 2009
Snark by Snarkwest: Late to Heffernan!
March 15, 2009
Snark by Snarkwest: Can Social Media End Racism?
March 11, 2009
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
March 8, 2009
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
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 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
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
February 20, 2009
Liberal Arts In Translation
Colleges abroad are porting the American liberal arts college, but even the branches opened by American universities are a little bit different:
Arguably the most ambitious attempt at a branch campus yet is underway in the United Arab Emirates. While there are also plans for graduate programs, NYU Abu Dhabi is to be, over time, “a full-scale liberal arts college” of more than 2,000 students.
In developing the core curriculum – the college plans to accept its first class of students in 2010 – NYU has identified four broad content areas in which students will have to take two courses each: Pathways of World Literature, Structures of Thought and Society, Ideas and Methods of Science, and Art, Invention and Technology. “They’re not foundations for the major,” explained Mariët Westermann, vice chancellor for regional campus development at NYU. “They open up a whole field of thought and action, you could say, to students.”
Westermann also referenced another aspect of the American liberal arts model that NYU is adopting in Abu Dhabi – its residential component, and its emphases on peer-to-peer learning and community. Administrators plan to require that all students live in college housing, although Westermann said exceptions will be made as needed.
“In principle, we will require 100 percent on-campus residency the way the strongest liberal arts colleges in North America do,” she said. “We’re really making those values of being in the place very central to the educational experience and central to our campus planning.”
John Churchill of Phi Beta Kappa, who's worked on liberal arts education in China, notes how firmly the idea of the liberal arts is embedded in our culture:
"These are praiseworthy efforts. But the first thing that has to be said is that the liberal arts model as we understand it in this country is an American creation... It has roots in the Oxford tutorial system and yet it is so much a part of the cultural fabric of this country. There are all sorts of linguistic and conceptual hurdles that have to be crossed before you can even begin asking the right questions about whether it’s viable or feasible or appropriate in another cultural context.... So much of what we say about liberal education in the United States has to do with preparation for citizenship in a participatory democracy, with the readiness to apply critical thinking to all claims, and the emphasis on individual development... and so forth. A moment’s reflection will show the difficulty of translating those distinctively American values into a Chinese cultural context. That’s not to say it’s not valuable. It’s not to say it can’t be done. It’s just got to be very carefully thought through."
It's almost like, by translating the liberal arts into China, Ghana, Poland, or Kuwait, you identify the invariants in the system. This appears to be (in UA-Kuwait's formulation): "critical thinking, effective communication, innovative leadership, aesthetic appreciation, cultural awareness, ethical standards and technological literacy."
And, apparently, living in dorms together. Which is not at all to be discounted! I often say that I feel like ALL young people should get the chance to go live away from home with a bunch of other young adults... if you're an electrician, living with other electricians, farmers with other farmers, etc. There's something very powerful about that rite of separation and aggregation. It's like a multi-year Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
File under: Learnin', New Liberal Arts, Society/Culture
February 19, 2009
The Late Shift
This essay by Ben Mathis-Lilley on why Conan O'Brien, haters aside, will kill as the new host of The Tonight Show, is merely probably true. However, this collective autobiography of O'Brien fans is right on the money:
Even Conan's biggest fans are worried that he'll fail or, worse, dumb down his act in an attempt to imitate Leno's lucrative inanity. In this scenario, success is a more horrifying possibility than failure. I know about that last part because I'm one of those fans, a member of the demographic most likely to view Conan with love and affection: people who reached late-night-TV-watching age at around the same time Conan's show started getting good, around 1995 or so. If you're like me, you started watching Conan regularly at around age 13 or 14, and continued as a highly regular viewer for the next eight or nine years, your loyal fandom enabled by the fact that, as a teenager and then a college student, you had no problem staying up until 12:40 every night. (Fortunately, my turn toward marginally more responsible sleep/lifestyle choices has coincided with the rise of DVR.)
In fact, this observation is so good, I can't believe BML doesn't capitalize on it. This is why Conan will kill at 11:30 -- because his fan base isn't in their teens any more. We're in our thirties, close enough, or older. We don't even like to stay up that late, we've got to TiVo the damn show. And Jay Leno's fans don't want to stay up past eleven. The show will be a success not because Conan's "matured" but because We Are Old.
I started seriously watching Conan in my freshman year of college; as a kid, I used to sneak downstairs to watch Johnny Carson. The Tonight Show w/ Johnny offered adulthood at its most enigmatic and alluring; with Jay, it seemed phony, bloated, contrived -- above all, to be avoided. Hence, cartoons and Conan.
We're the people who watch The Tonight Show now. Does it feel too soon?
File under: Media Galaxy, Self-Disclosure, Society/Culture
February 18, 2009
The Signtific Process
It is seriously fun, and very much in the spirit of improv: It's all about getting a random idea, and then somebody else says "yes, and..." and so on. Except instead of, you know, producing an evening of hilarious comedy, you produce a crazily-detailed vision of the future.
Here's the first scenario:
And here's my profile so far. Gotta amp up my dark imagination...
February 16, 2009
It's All About the Abrahams
Discussions around the consequences of a truly connected planet have been going on for some time in our organisation, and maybe also in yours. Fivedollarcomparison.org is a small step to broaden the discussion and explore how the impact might vary across cultures and contexts by asking a simple question: What can you buy for five dollars?
For five dollars, you can buy a giant bucket of potatoes in Peru, park a bike in Montreal for two hours, or get a pound of licorice in California. On the one hand, this is a vivid representation of costs of living across the world. On the other hand, I'm hungry. (Via Bruno Giussani.)
The Democratic Arts
Here's a pitch: The three great democratic arts are law, education, and journalism. You need skilled practitioners in each, free to do their work openly in the public sphere, in order to have a healthy democracy. Specifically a meritocratic democracy with true social mobility.
I've seen the phrase "democratic arts" plenty of times, but never attached to a list like this -- though it's possible I'm unconsciously cribbing it from somewhere. I like these three because, besides being concrete and important, they're each fun.
February 13, 2009
House Party At The Drop Of A Hat
The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, twenty years later:
Paul's Boutique is a landmark in the art of sampling, a reinvention of a group that looked like it was heading for a gimmicky, early dead-end, and a harbinger of the pop-culture obsessions and referential touchstones that would come to define the ensuing decades' postmodern identity as sure as "The Simpsons" and Quentin Tarantino did. It's an album so packed with lyrical and musical asides, namedrops, and quotations that you could lose an entire day going through its Wikipedia page and looking up all the references; "The Sounds of Science" alone redirects you to the entries for Cheech Wizard, Shea Stadium, condoms, Robotron: 2084, Galileo, and Jesus Christ. That density, sprawl, and information-overload structure was one of the reasons some fans were reluctant to climb on board. But by extending Steinski's rapid-fire sound-bite hip-hop aesthetic over the course of an entire album, the Beastie Boys and the Dust Brothers more than assured that a generally positive first impression would eventually lead to a listener's dedicated, zealous headlong dive into the record's endlessly-quotable deep end.
With no other album did I spend as much time transcribing and deciphering lyrics, beats, ideas -- staring at the radio, staying up all night.
February 9, 2009
The New Creativity
Have people always talked about creativity this much? I mean the details of it -- craft, process, practical wisdom. My memory says "no," but then, my memory is short.
Everybody's been pointing to Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk on the culture of creativity and genius.
Ze Frank has been thinking out loud about creativity and collaborative projects.
Imogen Heap sits in her home studio in vlog after vlog and talks you through her creative process -- insecurities and all. (This is my favorite example because it's not just reflective, it's real-time.)
Argument: It is the responsibility of the artist in the 21st century to speak and write like this. Sure, you can still lock yourself in your studio and indulge in the agony and ecstasy of isolation if you want, but that's sooo 20th century. The new world favors the public artist, the artist brave enough to speak plainly not only about ideas and inspiration, but about fear and hesitation as well.
February 7, 2009
Everybody Needs One
Sometimes a single detail makes an entire story. I think that's the case with Jodi Kantor's profile of Richard Holbrooke:
(Many people have personal trainers; Mr. Holbrooke has a personal archivist.)
I was actually thinking about archives this morning, after reading this bit from Tim's Whitman post:
But Whitman's notebooks at this time are filled with images, just jottings, of these people, what they're doing, what they look like, what their names are.
Cross-reference with Michael Bierut's wonderful stack of notebooks. I love the idea of keeping a durable, written record like this... but I am congenitally incapable of using and keeping notebooks. I'm way more comfortable with digital notes -- emails to myself, short little Google Docs, etc.
What's a good compromise? Is there some easy way to physical-ize those notes? Maybe I need an app that literally scans my stuff for certain kinds of documents, saves them, and prints 'em out en masse.
I mean, until I get a personal archivist, anyway.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Self-Disclosure, Society/Culture
February 4, 2009
So, if you're anywhere near Facebook these days, chances are good that you've seen the "25 Things" meme. The descriptions and titles vary, but the basic idea is that you have to write twenty-five things about yourself (no restrictions on what they are or how you use them) and then tag twenty-five of your friends. Once tagged, you're expected to write your own list and tag your friend back.
My little corner of Facebook has generally been resistant to these kind of digital chain letters. But this one took off. Why?
Working hypothesis: Facebook and its ilk are all about self-disclosure and keeping tabs on your friends. But they all generally proceed according to fixed categories -- favorite music, movies, books, usw. -- or through the structures of particular applications, groups, or wall-to-wall communication. The fact that the twenty-five things prompt doesn't define what you write about, that it asks you to be creative within a very broad (but finite) constraint, is an irresistable invitation. And invariably, nobody uses their twenty-five things post to say, "I love Animal Collective." It's all about filling in the gaps in the schema.
Likewise, the meme actually forces you to identify twenty-five friends whom you'd like to tag in the post. You're restrained by having to tag the person who tagged you, but otherwise, you have to do what Facebook and its ilk virtually never ask you to do -- to CHOOSE among your friends the subset whom you'd most like to know more about. Effectively, it asks you to designate superfriends.
So, in the context of a social network where you're able to know a lot of small things about a lot of people, we have an emergent structure that allows you to know a little bit more about a little bit fewer people. Because what your friends write about is still minutiae -- little stories from childhood, their favorite meal, a secret phobia -- but it's slightly more unexpected, slightly more meaningful minutiae. And through that, it gets at just a little slice of what has made social networking surprisingly fun in the first place.
It reminds me a little bit of the early days of Friendster -- when you needed to be invited by a friend, where "wall entries" were "testimonials" where you could unabashedly praise your friends or make up bizarre, impossible stories -- personal and public, sincere and self-ironized all at once.
January 31, 2009
The Keynesian theory of government stimulus rests on the idea that economies in recessions don't suffer from a real loss of wealth (like a famine that wipes out your crop) but an excess of economic capacity (when your crop rots in the silo because you can't get it to the market). Keynes contrasted the two ideas by referring to "a crisis of poverty" versus "a crisis of abundance." Money spent by the government, in addition to creating new real wealth in the form of infrastructure or whatever, works by utilizing this unused capacity -- especially the human capital, by putting people to work.
But underutilized capacity isn't just people who are out of work -- it's the goods rotting in our warehouses. The recent GDP dip was saved from staggering free-fall only by a quirk in the way these goods are measured:
The actual decline in the gross domestic product -- at a 3.8 percent annual rate -- fell short of the 5 to 6 percent that most economists had expected for the fourth quarter. But that was because consumption collapsed so quickly that goods piled up in inventory, unsold but counted as part of the nation’s output.
"The drop in spending was so fast, so rapid, that production could not be cut fast enough," said Nigel Gault, chief domestic economist at HIS Global Insight. "That is happening now, and the contraction in the current quarter, as a result, will probably exceed 5 percent."
NewsHour last night included a great report by Paul Solman on the Long Beach shipping ports. It's really a shame that the online link is audio-only, because what was most striking in the report were the visuals: huge parking lots full of unsold, brand-new Hondas and Toyotas; mounds of scrap metal; near-empty import containers; worried, untalkative, longshoremen milling around their job office; and especially the mounds and mounds of waste paper and cardboard, designated for recycling in China.
Since American and global spending are down, so are Chinese exports; therefore, Chinese packaging manufacturers aren't making cardboard boxes or wrapping paper to box and ship those goods to global markets; and so the tons of paper products we dutifully recycle are rotting in a makeshift landfill in a California shipping yard.
One of my favorite movies, Vittorio De Sica's Ladri di Bicyclette (Bicycle Thieves), includes two marvelous scenes presenting a similar image: in the first, Antonio pawns his family bedsheets to get his bicycle out of hock. With the job he can get with the bicycle, he can reclaim the sheets with his first check. The camera cranes up to show thousands of bedsheets, pawned and never reclaimed.
In the second, after Antonio's bicycle is stolen on his first day of work, he goes to one of the markets where stolen goods are sold. He and his son look over hundreds of stolen bicycles. There isn't a single buyer. The entire economy, even the unofficial black-market economies, are at a standstill. And that's where we are.
January 30, 2009
'And for the Honor of Language and Ideas'
Soak up Maira Kalman's carol to the Inauguration. Luminous and lovely.
Meta comment: Isn't it great that it's one long, continuous scroll? Sooo much better than a bunch of pages you have to click between. Hello, infinite canvas.
January 25, 2009
The Places We Live
Striking photo project showing slums around the world. I know you probably feel like you have seen a "striking photo project showing slums around the world" before, but honestly, this one is better. Sharper, more human.
Argh, I wish I could deeplink -- trust me, you gotta skip intro, click on one of the cities, then click on one of the "household" icons. They lead to wonderful little 360-degree panoramas, each with wonderfully-translated narration. It's completely engrossing.
I totally just spent all my recommendation points on M. T. Anderson, I know... but this is really great, too.
January 20, 2009
A Day Too Big for Narrative
Ha! Alessandra Stanley does my work for me: This was a day best captured by image, not narrative, she says.
All the way from LIFE's breakthrough use of rich, stand-alone photography to TIME's avalanche of online galleries and (of course) the Big Picture, there's a rich tradition here. And the best of 'em aren't linear sequences that tell a story from start to finish; they're collections of contrasting moments that, together, deliver a gestalt.
Photo galleries have been one of my favorite ways to track the entire election, and I think there's truth to what Stanley says about today:
Anchors, compelled to say something, reached for trite metaphors and hyperbolic expressions of wonder ("Our secular version of a miracle," according to one CNN commentator) that didn't begin to match the reality unfolding live behind them. The best narration was wordless.
I'll extend that critique to printed commentary, as well. The flurry of op-eds over the weekend, all packed with world-historical language trying to Put It All In Perspective, fell flat. Just give me the image.
Not even Obama's speech -- which I liked -- could match the raw image of him, uh, delivering it. William Gavin, a former speechwriter for Nixon, said this over at the NYT (emphasis mine):
But the setting -- the first African-American standing there in the bright winter sunshine as our new president -- had an eloquence all its own. I think we will remember this occasion more for the man who gave it than for the words he said. He could have stood there for 20 minutes of silence and still communicated great things about America.
I claim the image for the Team Database. Your move, narrative.
File under: Journalism, Media Galaxy, Society/Culture
January 19, 2009
Get On The Bus; or the Mimetic Desire for Democracy
I'm pretty amazed by just how many of my friends are going to the inauguration tomorrow. It helps that I live a short train ride away in Philadelphia -- Obama himself came through on the way to Washington -- but I think it's still testimony to how much enthusiasm and goodwill there is towards the new administration.
The thing is, though, when people talk about it, they tend to talk about Pres.-Elect Obama* only once you're pretty deep into the conversation. This Facebook exchange is pretty typical:
- [Friend X]: is Inaugurating. Or at least legitimizing the Inauguration by observing with sincerity, excitement, and dedication (despite the cold).
- [Friend-of-Friend Y]: You in DC? [Friend-of-Friend Z] and I are masochistically hitting the Mall tomorrow. Yesterday was pretty amazing.
- [Friend X]: We are here! What are your nighttime plans? We should attempt to run into each other perhaps? [Z] has my #. And also, it is VERY COLD. I guess that's just how much I love democracy.
When was the last time you heard twenty-year-olds talking about how much they love democracy -- and more important, viewing the ostentatious displays of democracy as something they want to get in on?
There's a theory with a fancy name called "mimetic desire." It boils down to this. You may want something or someone, but sometimes you want that something that someone else wants. I was never big into the "cult-of-personality" diagnosis of Obama supporters, but if there's any truth to it, I think it stems from this desire to get in on Obama's big vision of what democracy is all about. Our love for him is inseparable from our sense that we want what he wants.
The protagonists of disposable lesbian fiction—romances and mysteries—have had varied lines of work over the years. Back in the late 1950s and early '60s, Beebo Brinker—the butch anti-hero of the first pulps in which lesbian characters weren't all evil, sick, or suicidal—delivered pizzas and operated an elevator because those jobs allowed her to wear trousers... In the last few years, though, a new hero has emerged: Braver, fitter, and more sensitive than a cop, more honorable than a PI, the Secret Service agent is the perfect romance paragon, particularly for lesbian readers...
It isn't just a matter of looking good in a suit and being able to handle a trigger. Although lesbians no longer hide in the shadows, everyone appreciates discretion, and Secret Service agents are the ultimate strong, silent type—they fade into the background without hiding, they keep their mouths shut, and they have your back. But the question of protection is especially complicated territory for women involved with other women. Since our relationships aren't recognized by the state, we aren't always able to shield our partners from hardship and can't offer them the social-welfare benefits that marriage confers... In the real world, security is a fantasy even more desirable, and more elusive, than endless love.
Now here's where it gets (yes) even more interesting. The popular series Thomas references as her prime subgenre exemplar started in 2002. But check out Slate's terrific "Related in Slate" sidebar:
Scout Tufankjian, a photojournalist who spent almost two years covering the Obama campaign, became fascinated by his Secret Service detail; she said the experience "felt like traveling with the 40 or so older brothers and sisters I had never wanted: They were nosy and overprotective and fun to be around." Brendan I. Koerner explained who is entitled to Secret Service protection, while David Greenberg described how the protective service developed its mystique. Back in 1998, David Plotz described the gushing cultural representations of Secret Service agents as "protection porn."
Here's Plotz's truncated description of the idea (this time in hetero guise):
Protection Porn includes the movie In the Line of Fire, sundry authorized TV specials, and countless articles the service cooperated with. The notable qualities of Protection Porn: It is obsessed with the image of the stiff-suited, sunglassed, wrist-miked, stone-faced agent, and it dwells on the (admittedly impressive) fact that agents make themselves targets, spreading themselves to take bullets rather than ducking them. Unlike other law enforcers and soldiers, who have the ambiguous duty of attacking, Secret Service agents only defend. They are self-sacrificing, self-abnegating, irreproachable.
If I were to add anything to these two takes, it would be to say something like this: the dramatic arc of the secret service and/or bodyguard-themed romance inevitably begins with an adversarial relationship. Neither the protectee nor the protector trust each other, and they're resentful of the intrusion of the other onto their life/work. Only later, after near-constant nagging and dramatic demonstrations of loyalty, is trust gained and romance begun.
This is an allegory of all romantic relationships. Only it picks up at some midway point, when the relationship is contentious and you resent the other person's demands on your time and attention. (Historically, for me, this has been three months into any given relationship.) Then something happens and you clear the hurdle, convinced that your partner DOES have your best interests at heart and that your life would be unimaginable without them. And in fact, "hurdle" is the appropriate metaphor, because in the lifetime of a relationship, this is what happens again and again.
After all, what is the virtue of the protector? The protector keeps away the intrusions of the outside world, which allows for the intensity of the relationship to flourish in isolation. Protection porn is the fantasy of romance regained.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Fairy-Tale Marriage, Society/Culture
January 14, 2009
Chloé Mortaud, Miss France 2009
I love France, I love beauty pageants, and I love interracial families, and so it follows quite naturally that I love Chloé Mortaud, the new multinational, multiracial nineteen-year-old Miss France. Hassan Marsh at The Root has a great write-up here, and chloemortaud.com has plenty of good stuff too (the link goes directly to a video featuring her family and hometown, a small village near the Pyrenees). Also, slick design on that webpage -- very much that of a 21st-century beauty queen.
January 11, 2009
Now This Is Civilization
I'm typing this at the airport in Denver, at an open kiosk and charging station (!) and using free, ad-supported wi-fi supplied by the airport, while waiting for my connection. I've got my phone plugged in, too -- there's even a USB outlet to charge iPods or digital cameras.
This, friends, is genius. This is what we should have at every airport, train station, hotel, library, or other public gathering place where people come whilst in transit. Every place where you currently see a fifteen-year-old cluster of pay phones, you're going to see one of these.
It'll have internet-equpped voice and video calling too. There will be a touchscreen where you can get directions around town or order food. (Probably not at the library.)
What else will we find in the media carrels of the future?
January 7, 2009
It's What's Good In the Neighborhood
I lived in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood for a year in 2001-2002. My state senator was this guy named Barack Obama.
My favorite show on local TV there was called "Check, Please." Three people from all over Chicago would recommend their favorite restaurants -- everything from casual neighborhood hangs to places with wine lists longer than your couch -- and they would each go to all three, then review them together.
Well, Ezra Klein got a hold of an early, unaired episode of "Check, Please" featuring -- yes -- Barack Obama. He's plugging the Dixie Kitchen, one of my favorite places for catfish. So this just made me happy today.
File under: Gastrosnark, Gleeful Miscellany, Snarkpolitik, Society/Culture
January 6, 2009
A Tale of Two Painters
Wow: Just pulled up Illustration Art's feed and found, kinda out of nowhere, a really smart debate on the values of modern art in microcosm.
It comes down to two artists: Adrian Gottlieb and John Currin. Both are alive today. Both are figurative oil painters. Both are successful.
Here's where they part ways: One just sold a painting for $5.5 million dollars. The other can only sell his for a fraction of that price.
Then, make your guess.
Then, read the post.
And then -- this is the most important part -- read the comment thread. It's articulate, thought-provoking, and contentious-yet-respectful. In other words: snarkworthy.
And then (jeez, it's like school all of a sudden) tell me: Which do you prefer?
File under: Media Galaxy, Society/Culture
January 5, 2009
Jeffrey Goldberg, "Why I'm Not Blogging More About Gaza":
The more complicated answer was provided by Marc Ambinder, who analyzed my personal situation correctly: Gaza has overdetermined me into paralysis. His point: I actually feel too close to this problem, a problem that symbolizes all problems. It's true: I have friends in Gaza about whom I worry a great deal; I've seen many people killed in Gaza; I've served in the Israeli Army in Gaza; I've been kidnapped in Gaza; I've reported for years from Gaza; I hope my former army doesn't kill the wrong people in Gaza; I hope Israeli soldiers all leave Gaza alive; I know they'll be back in Gaza; I think this operation will work; and I have no actual hope that it will work for very long, because nothing works for very long in the Middle East. Gaza is where dreams of reconciliation go to die. Gaza is where the dream of Palestinian statehood goes to die; Gaza is where the Zionist dream might yet die. Or, more to the point, might be murdered. I'm not a J Street moral-equivalence sort of guy. Yes, Israel makes constant mistakes, which I note rather frequently, but this conflict reminds me once again that Israel is up against an implacable force, namely, an interpretation of Islam that disallows the idea of Jewish national equality. My paralysis isn't an analytical paralysis. It's the paralysis that comes from thinking that maybe there's no way out. Not out of Gaza, out of the whole thing.
January 1, 2009
Year of the Ox
Hello, 2009! Year of the ox! Year of work! Year of staying up late and getting up early. Year of nights and weekends. Year of noses and grindstones. Year of always produce. Year of there's no wind out here, so we'd better row.
Hello, 2009. I'm making you a mixtape. Here's the first track:
December 29, 2008
The amazing MIT Media Lab alum John Maeda is the new president of the Rhode Island School of Design. And his first order of business is collecting information:
The collecting began the week he arrived, when he asked 600 high school students attending a summer art program to applaud for the vision of the university that resonated most with them.
"A lifelong education in art and design" got polite applause. "Fostering the next generation of talent" did a little better. Then he suggested: "Building a justifiable case for creativity in our world."
"The response to that -- it was like being Bono in U2," says Maeda. "I began to understand why this calling came."
The chairman of RISD's board of trustees says:
"John said that he believes art and design will inform the 21st century as none other, that RISD has a real role to play in that. The analogy he used was MIT. Before World War II, MIT was a geeky science school. After World War II, with the explosion of science and technology, MIT's role changed. And right now he sees RISD in a similar position."
I love that proposition. I love it because I think somebody could pretty reasonably scoff at it. And if a proposition isn't scoff-able, it's probably not edgy and exciting enough.
Sounds to me like Maeda is talking about, among other things, liberal arts 2.0.
Read his tweets and RISD blog for a sense of how Maeda thinks and communicates. It's really remarkable. I've been reading haiku lately and I see some of their spirit in him. Spare, observant -- but with wit.
File under: Design, Learnin', Society/Culture
December 12, 2008
The other new trend in unemployment media is the rise of the bailout joke.
Bailout jokes range from late-night punchlines (""The three big domestic automakers are now saying they are working jointly on a new hybrid car. It runs on a combination of state and federal bailout money") to warmed-over stockbroker jokes, but what I'm really thinking about are the extended gags, like Charles Bernstein's poetry bailout or P.J. O'Rourke's bailout for print journalism:
Remember, America, you can't wrap a fish in satellite radio or line the bottom of your birdcage with MSNBC (however appropriate that would be). It's expensive to swat flies with a podcasting iPod. Newsboys tossing flat-screen monitors on to your porch will damage the wicker furniture. And a dog that's trained to piddle on your high-speed internet connection can cause a dangerous electrical short-circuit and burn down your house.
What is it that's so funny about our economic disaster? I love Depression-era jokes: it's hard to beat "the rich get richer and the poor get children." And the gap between sudden poverty and creature comforts has always been funny: cf. Will Rogers's "We’re the first nation in the history of the world to go to the poorhouse in an automobile."
But there's something fishy here, and it ain't the soup. The jokes don't seem to come out of a shared sense of struggle or even a wry awareness of relative privilege. There's almost a gleeful resistance to the idea that the current crisis is real -- a sense that wealth created by bogus paper transfers can be restored just as easily.
And maybe that's the way Paulson's first bailout package was presented -- the last technocratic trick to try to make this funny paper disappear from the books. There's something absurd and funny about that. But I hope the jokes stay at this level; I don't want to start making gags about bread lines again.
December 10, 2008
I love the word "sportswriter." No need for a hyphen (like "letter-writer"), or dressing up the word "write" by writing as "graph" instead ("biographer," "pornographer") or the suffix "-er" with "-ist" or "-ian." "Sportswriter" keeps close company with "screenwriter," "typewriter," and "underwriter," and a wall separates it from "playwright" and "author."
But at the same time, nobody writes with more authority than a sportswriter -- if you don't act like you're pope of the game, nobody takes you seriously -- in part because every serious fan has their own equally infallible proclamations to make about the game, the value of players, coaches' decisions.
And the syntax makes it seem as though "sports" is what's written, not the thing written about; a parallel universe brought into being by the talk about the game, the recording of statistics, and the narratives of players, seasons, teams, the sport itself.
Sportswriters were the first writers I was aware of who actually got paid for writing down what they thought. In particular, it was Mitch Albom -- who before becoming a schmalzy best-selling novelist was a funny, knowledgable columnist whose super-cool photo in the Free Press fascinated me as a kid.
I am a paperwriter, a bookwriter, a blogwriter, a poemwriter. But secretly, I wish I could do all of these things the way a good sportswriter does them; following my object of affection around the country, hashing out opinions and arguments through daily viva voce argument -- in print, on the web, on the radio, on TV.
What if our attachment to all of culture was like our attachment to sports -- democratic, celebrating knowledge, unwavering in its fidelity? There are plenty of things that are deeply unhealthy about our sports-obsessed culture (cf. Burress, Plaxico, et. al.) -- but I still feel like the ideal of sportswriting is as salutary as it is unshakable.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Journalism, Society/Culture, Sports
December 8, 2008
These are all old-ish posts, so maybe this blog has already made the rounds, but I am mesmerized:
Le Corbusier's daily routine. No office 'til 2 p.m.!
Philip Roth's. Solitude.
Haruki Murakami's. Physical activity, repetition.
Benjamin Franklin's. My favorite.
December 3, 2008
November 4, 2008
I didn't think today would feel like this.
My polling place was a dream. Eva's Hawaiian Cafe on Clement St. was pressed into service for democracy this morning. Everyone should vote in a cafe. Most of us skipped the booths and sat at tables in ones and twos.
I got there at 7:12 a.m. As the election volunteer was looking me up on her list, I was seized with an irrational fear: What if I'm not there? I know, I know, they would have let me vote anyway. But I couldn't shake it: I moved pretty recently. What if I messed up the paperwork?
Seriously, in the eight seconds it took her to flip to the letter 'S', I had a complete mini freak-out. I kept saying to myself:
I need to be able to vote for this man.
I need to be able to vote for this man.
I need to be able to vote for this man.
I smiled at my own weirdness as I filled out my ballot.
Then, five minutes later, in the car on the way to work, I started to cry. I have no idea why. How many people did exactly the same thing this morning? Millions? It must be millions -- a fellowship of wet-eyed citizens waiting at stoplights.
This man. His grandmother! This man. All of us.
I didn't think today would feel like this. Partially it's that I've seen the polls; I know what's happening; I know what's about to happen. It's exciting. But it's something else too, something I can't yet explain.
There is such a quiet force to the way we vote. It's glacial.
And today, we are on the move.
What was your morning like?
November 2, 2008
'I Had Grown Too Comfortable in My Solitude'
Obama doesn't play the game the way it is usually played. He also seems to have an unusual personality for a politician: early on in Dreams From My Father, he writes: "I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew." Immediately afterwards, he tells the story of an elderly man who lives in his building, who he sees sometimes, helps with the groceries, but who has never said a word to him. He thinks of the man as a kindred spirit. Later, the man is found dead; his apartment is "neat, almost empty", with money squirreled away throughout. It's clear, from the way he tells the story, that this seems to him to be one of his possible fates, and though his description of the man is kind throughout, it's also clear that Obama thinks: his fate is to be avoided.
Ask yourself when you last heard of a politician who had to warn himself away from solitude, or who saw dying alone, without friends or family, as among his possible fates. Imagine how unlikely it is that, say, Bill Clinton ever thought: I have grown too comfortable in my solitude. Politicians normally crave attention. Obama seems to me not to. That's probably one reason why he can afford to underplay his hand sometimes, and to hold back. And it's certainly part of what makes him so interesting.
(Yeah, I realize it's been blockquote-o-rama lately. Cut me some slack. I'll write more when Obama's president.)
August 15, 2008
How Is YouTube Not the Greatest Art Project Ever?
The question just occurred to me: How is YouTube not the greatest art project ever?
Imagine a slightly parallel dimension where Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim aren't web engineers from Silicon Valley but instead art scenesters from New York. They know the language of the art world; they know how to present work in that context.
But they also have tech chops -- NYU ITP grads, say -- so their project isn't a painting or an avante-garde video but a web app. It's a platform, a system.
And that project grows into YouTube -- one of the craziest, most kaleidoscopic reflections of humanity we've ever seen. It's beautiful. It totally encapsulates and embodies the spirit of the age. And, in our parallel dimension, as the YouTube guys struggle with servers and scalability, they're also submitting it to juried shows and, I don't know, biennials or whatever. They are framing it.
Isn't that high art? Isn't that incredibly successful, important art?
Now, forget the commercial objection, because for years YouTube didn't run a single ad. And let's push our parallel dimension even further and say that Google signs on not as the project's acquirer but as its patron. The Medici of Mountain View!
Am I missing some foundational idea or definition here? I don't actually know anything about art (though I will admit I am in this frame of mind b/c I just strolled through SFMOMA yesterday) -- what would the knee-jerk art-scholar reaction be?
And what do you think?
July 30, 2008
The Night They Clubbed the Deer
I'm not sure why this Texas Monthly story is so unsettling. The story itself is simple -- four high-school football stars, out goofing off one Friday night, capture and brutally slaughter two deer.
The characters are (for the most part) sympathetic, and aside from a possibly-superfluous Lord of the Flies reference, the author doesn't really stoke the drama at all. It might be the notion that four decent kids can do some completely inexplicable, violent thing, just out-of-the-blue. Or it might be the sensation of looking in on a place usually so far removed from the gaze of the world.
May 30, 2008
Nico Nico Douga
My mind is being blown in real-time.
Nico Nico Douga is sort of a Japanese YouTube, except it has a weird extra feature: You can write comments in real-time over the video. Hard to imagine; easier to see. Just watch the second video on this page (the one after the YouTube video) for a second.
Why is this interesting? Two reasons:
- Video is still so immature, and still changing so fast. Kevin Kelly thinks text is actually a big part of its future -- a sort of reunion of long-estranged formats, thanks mostly to computers and high-resolution screens. I agree, and Nico Nico Douga is a (spastic) data point in that direction.
- The web is so not a global village. It's totally compartmentalized by region and, especially, by language. So it's cool to get a guided tour of something that would otherwise be incomprehensible or, worse, invisible.
I still have no idea what to make of this site. I'm almost afraid to click around. Any thoughts/reactions?
(Via the wax.)
Update: Great Wired article on the site's founder.
May 21, 2008
Over at vita.mn, I'm ranting about how the practice of settling the tab at restaurants is woefully broken. It's launched me on a campaign to demand separate checks whenever dining with a group. Thought this was worthy of the Snarkmarket hive mind. Do you have any foolproof systems for handling checks that must be split? Are there any establishments you've been to that deal with this ingeniously?
April 30, 2008
Under Orders, Under Fire
Forgot where it was linked, but some blogger recently referred to a famous 1996 essay on the media by James Fallows that I had never read. The essay begins with a description of a public television broadcast called "Under Orders, Under Fire":
Most of the panelists were former soldiers talking about the ethical dilemmas of their work. The moderator was Charles Ogletree, a professor at Harvard Law School, who moved from panelist to panelist asking increasingly difficult questions in the law school's famous Socratic style.Fascinating, right? Read the rest of the essay, but I got you one better. Turns out the episode (and the series it was a part of) is entirely available online.
During the first half of the show Ogletree made the soldiers squirm about ethical tangles on the battlefield. The man getting the roughest treatment was Frederick Downs, a writer who as a young Army lieutenant in Vietnam had lost his left arm in a mine explosion. ...
Then Ogletree turned to the two most famous members of the evening's panel, better known even than Westmoreland. These were two star TV journalists: Peter Jennings, of World News Tonight and ABC, and Mike Wallace, of 60 Minutes and CBS.
Ogletree brought them into the same hypothetical war. He asked Jennings to imagine that he worked for a network that had been in contact with the enemy North Kosanese government. After much pleading Jennings and his news crew got permission from the North Kosanese to enter their country and film behind the lines. Would Jennings be willing to go? Of course, he replied. Any reporter would—and in real wars reporters from his network often had.
But while Jennings and his crew were traveling with a North Kosanese unit, to visit the site of an alleged atrocity by U.S. and South Kosanese troops, they unexpectedly crossed the trail of a small group of American and South Kosanese soldiers. With Jennings in their midst the Northern soldiers set up an ambush that would let them gun down the Americans and Southerners.
What would Jennings do? Would he tell his cameramen to "Roll tape!" as the North Kosanese opened fire? What would go through his mind as he watched the North Kosanese prepare to fire?
March 22, 2008
Just Under the Surface
[Quoting Melissa Harris-Lacewell.] "One of the things fascinating to me watching these responses to Jeremiah Wright is that white Americans find his beliefs so fringe or so extreme. When if you’ve spent time in black communities, they are not shared by everyone, but they are pretty common beliefs." ... What’s happening, I think, is that the Obama campaign has led many white Americans to listen in for the first time to some of the black conversation — and they are thunderstruck.Speaking as a fully assimilated Negro, with a white boyfriend and a surfeit of white friends, living in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood, it's hard for me to write about Obama's speech. There's a lingering note in Kristof's column that threatens to narrow and polarize this conversation just as it begins -- "You white folks just don't get it." Some even heard it in the speech itself, and it instantly deafened them to what was said; it sounds so much like assigning blame to non-blacks for something that they just cannot help. And for me, inhabiting the whitest world a black American man can inhabit, it's even more awkward to say that the note rings true. From the severity of the reaction to Jeremiah Wright's speeches, it seems that a large number of Americans, including many of my colleagues in the press, just had no idea.
In black communities, words like Wright's are commonplace.
Those words you're hearing over and over again on YouTube are not the rantings of a lunatic fringe, they are the frequent utterances of a sizable segment of black America. It's just that this time they've spilled out of our closed conversation in a dramatic way.... Read more ....
File under: Self-Disclosure, Snarkpolitik, Society/Culture
March 19, 2008
Margaret Mead Among the Managers
Grant McCracken offers an anthropological take on the recently-ubiquitous corporate reinvention session.
February 10, 2008
Your new favorite band: Kiosk!
It's an Iranian indie rock band (I mean... sort of) that recently made the movie to America. Here's the full story, written up by Talieh Rohani.
And here are some sample lyrics:
The power of love or love of power
Modernism versus tradition forever
Living in the evil axis
Speed freaks in jalopy taxis
February 4, 2008
Just Because We Can ...
danah boyd writes a typically thought-provoking post on the prospect of exposing users' "Social Graphs," a meme that's been heating up recently. Quick backstory in case you didn't know: Google and a bunch of techy types want to make it so you can easily port your identity and contacts to any application on the Web. The advantages include easier sign-ups for different Web applications, no longer having to maintain the same information in a bunch of different places, quickly finding any contacts who are using an application you just signed up for, etc. Those of us with MySpace/Facebook/Friendster/LinkedIn/Flickr/vita.mn/etc. accounts are planning to be, for the most part, happy.
But danah makes the good point that those stumping for this move are all tech-savvy people who mostly have no idea of what the repercussions will be for some of the most vulnerable heavy users of the Web -- teens. A typical argument in favor of more open data refers to what Tim O'Reilly calls "security by obscurity" -- i.e. we have the illusion we're secure just because all our data is usually tucked out of the way, but this is patently false, as any reporter could tell you. Exposing public data more commonly means fewer people will harbor this false sense of security, ostensibly making them more directly conscious of how they manage their personal data. But as danah points out, it could be an awfully risky way to make a point.
January 18, 2008
Not Safe For ...
January 4, 2008
Astroturfing: Always Bad; Usually Obvious
"Astroturfing is a neologism for formal public relations campaigns in politics and advertising that seek to create the impression of being spontaneous, grassroots behavior."
For example, say you founded a non-profit dedicated to vetting charity organizations and grading them on their effectiveness. Your org is attracting some high-profile attention, but you're hankering for more. So you create accounts on a few well-trafficked websites. First, you pose as a naïf, adrift in a galaxy of charities, desperately seeking guidance. Then, under different accounts, you guide your little sockpuppet and any other interested parties right to your org. Step three, profit. Right?
Right, unless you attempt your ruse at the wrong site, where the users are savvy enough to see right through your act and call you on the mat. Now, your follies are on Digg and everywhere for all the world to see, and no amount of groveling will make amends. For shame.
I have to deal with minor astroturfing all the time on vita.mn (and pretty ridiculous astroturfing occasionally), and it's always a forehead-slapper. It's generally easy to spot, no matter how clever the offending party seems to think s/he is, and it cultivates a heaping mess of ill will. If you ever have the urge to misrepresent yourself online in a manner you think will advantage your company, don't do it. You will be found out, and it will be very unpleasant. Your exploits may even be exposed in New York Magazine. Just remember this mantra -- "Astroturfing makes an ass out of -- never mind, just don't do it.
File under: Snarkpolitik, Society/Culture, Technosnark
December 21, 2007
This Ask MetaFilter post from two years ago is like a short story unfolding in real time. I found the whole thing oddly moving -- the initial account of what happened, the swelling chorus of encouragement from other users (each ostensibly nursing a silent grief of her own), and the resolution. For me, it echoed again this passage from Roth. Getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.
November 28, 2007
'When Someone Beeps You, You Know the Reason'
The new issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication has a terrific paper on the rules of 'beeping'. That's when somebody calls your mobile phone, lets it rings once, and hangs up. It's a totally established mode of communication in places where airtime is still precious, most notably Africa.
It's a ping in the purest sense: Exactly one bit of information is conveyed. Ah, but what a bit! The article defines a taxonomy of beeps -- the callback beep ("call me back, because I'm out of airtime"), the relational beep ("I'm thinking of you"), and (get ready) the pre-negotiated instrumental beep ("yo, come pick me up now, as we agreed").
But really, it's all about the anecdotes. Because there are all sorts of interesting social dynamics involved. For instance:
Lillian's lunchtime customers at her restaurant beep her daily, demanding a callback. She explains, "Customers beep to check on whether there is food left. Some are customers who are going to bring me money. So, when I see a number that I know, I have to call back, so I use a unit or two. They are some whom I don't call back because they have nothing constructive [profitable] to tell me." Like Patrick, Lillian says she never beeps customers.
And of course:
If you are chasing after a lady, you cannot beep. You have to call. Beeping is for friends. When a girl you do not know well beeps you, you have to call back if you are interested. You cannot even text. She has to see that the effort is being made. Borrow a friends' phone if you do not have airtime.
What I love most about this is how contextual the information is. The beep means nothing -- nothing! -- without all the social understanding surrounding it. For instance:
As Immanuel explains, a beep can mean the exact opposite of the one before it. In his case, some of his dairy farmers beep to say, "there is no milk," others to say, "there is milk." The only difference in what Immanuel sees is the number on the missed call log; he uses his knowledge of the relational context and the meaning of past beeps to determine which beeps "mean" what.
This paper reads half like an academic study and half like an awesome, weird Wired or New Yorker article. Check it out. It's a big world out there.
November 26, 2007
Come, Join My Secret Underground Cultural Restoration Society
Four members of an underground "cultural guerrilla" movement known as the Untergunther, whose purpose is to restore France's cultural heritage, were cleared on Friday of breaking into the 18th-century monument in a plot worthy of Dan Brown or Umberto Eco.
"The Untergunther"! I could not possibly love this more.
November 15, 2007
Asia, Brick by Brick
Architects from China, Japan and Thailand amongst others were given kits of white LEGO building blocks and told to have just fun. The results, from Asiatic temples to futuristic towers to sustainable old-and-new city plans are currently touring Asia.
Don't have time to paste in an image, but do click over -- the creations are quite cool. I love the mix of playfulness and seriousness on display. Also, the choice of all-white bricks was key.
November 12, 2007
Riot Cops of the World
Wow. Scary images here. I feel like these bug-eyed, glass-faced dudes are pretty key characters of the early 21st century.
November 10, 2007
That might actually be the best-executed Flash site I have ever seen -- no exaggeration.
FYI: I'm reading Witold Rybczynski's "City Life" on this chilly Saturday morning and it is lighting my brain on fire.
P.S. Yes, I am reading it today because I read that Steven Johnson interview last night.
P.P.S. WR's other books "Home" and "A Clearing in the Distance" also = cerebral conflagration.
November 7, 2007
Lenin Shot at Finland Station
Now that's a title!
From a couple of years ago, some ruminations on counterfactual from Slavoj iek. I don't agree with him on lots of things, but there are some interesting thoughts on the function of revolutions here. (Ha ha, I know what you're thinking: That's exactly what I've been looking for!)
He ends with this:
In the revolutionary explosion, another utopian dimension shines through, that of universal emancipation, which is in fact the 'excess' betrayed by the market reality that takes over on the morning after. This excess is not simply abolished or dismissed as irrelevant, but is, as it were, transposed into the virtual state, as a dream waiting to be realised.
That makes me think of the closing scene of China Mieville's Iron Council, which I won't give away -- but I will say it is one of the best and most correct-seeming conclusions to a revolution ever put to page or screen. Wishlist-worthy.
October 29, 2007
Music and Movement
Some of the strongest bonds in our society are formed by people who march together in military units, as William McNeill, the historian, has pointed out. Members of orchestras and performing groups today likewise develop bonds. As Frank Zappa told me years ago, playing music with other people can be more intimate than any other activity. The turn-taking and accommodation involved call for great amounts of empathy and generosity.
Hmm. By this logic, the strongest bonds of all must be formed in... marching band!
October 28, 2007
The IHT's interview with one of the rebel monks of Burma, who's now in Thailand, is electrifying. This graf is not the most exciting, but it might be the most revelatory:
Ashin Kovida said he had led a week of daily protests, meeting with his group of organizers in the mornings and beginning the marches at noon. He heard reports on the Burmese-language service of the BBC about other monks who had organized themselves but he never met those groups.
Forget flash mobs; how about moral mobs?
Read the story; it's amazing.
October 23, 2007
A Good Hour
So I've mentioned Larry Lessig's new ten-year project on corruption before. Now I just finished watching his inaugural "alpha" lecture on the topic and it was terrific. An hour long, but well worth it, both for a glimpse of Lessig's cool, patchwork presentation style -- I'd heard it was great but never actually seen Lessig-slides in action -- and also for the framework he provides. He is an A+ presenter and an A++ thinker, and this is an A+++ subject.
Nick Carr waxes philosophical on vampiric business models and dark pools of self. Super good.
October 4, 2007
More Hungry Planet
ZOMG so busy busy busy. So is Matt, all re-launching a site and such. Snarkmarket will be quiet for a bit.
Accept this link as a meek offering.
Humor me a moment here. Sarah Silverman and Ann Coulter share an obvious similarity: they each make a rather nice living saying things that would be unspeakable if they were not attractive Caucasian women, veiling their statements beneath a gossamer cloak of irony. I'm kind of tying my brain in knots trying to figure out whether they don't actually share the exact same appeal for our culture. It seems any statement I could imagine applying to one -- "Well, clearly she doesn't actually believe the things she says; she's playing a character" -- applies to the other just as nicely. Or is patently untrue in both cases -- e.g. "No one believes what she says; people understand she's just joking."
Sure, many people who adore Silverman would say they revile Coulter. But the grip she holds on even their attention seems to belie that -- if Coulter were a man, she'd be Fred Phelps, ridiculous enough for them to gawk at once in a while, but not a fixture of the talk-show circuit. Certainly not a bestselling author. If we get right down to it, mightn't we perversely enjoy the maniacal utterings of Ann Coulter as much as we do Sarah Silverman's shtick? You can almost imagine either woman on stage, grinning flirtily, and saying, "Six imams removed from a US Airways flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix are calling on Muslims to boycott the airline. If only we could get Muslims to boycott all airlines, we could dispense with airport security altogether."
Reading that line, though -- which is Coulter's -- maybe it's all just a matter of wit. 'Cause actually, I can't imagine Silverman saying it, not just like that, at any rate. Silverman's lines are constructed, Coulter's lines are merely dropped. Coulter might say a lot of over-the-line stuff about high pregnancy rates among young black women, but she doesn't have the art or the timing to craft the line, "The best time to have a baby is when you're a black teenager." Coulter gets attention merely for saying the incendiary, Silverman's principle skill is drawing her audience out for several lengthy seconds, trying to figure out how she's going to end her sentence, then delivering a punchline that's offensive in the most delightful, unexpected way.
But is that all that distinguishes the two? Wit? Really? I'm missing something obvious, aren't I?
September 25, 2007
Democratization of Manipulation, Part 4
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.
September 14, 2007
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 10, 2007
Ah Yes, One Global Culture
Ah hahahahahahahahahaha... ahhh... ah hahahahahahahaha.
Keep in mind that's FOUR FEET by SIX FEET big.
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?
September 3, 2007
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.
August 30, 2007
The Arc of the World
Dan just emailed me a link to this video of Hans Rosling from TED. I'd seen his Gapminder data visualizer before, of course -- but his actual talk is really really good, and made me want to go play with it again. Which I just did.
August 27, 2007
Contingency and Counterfactual
Dani Rodrik, in the closing of a post on historical determinism and development:
This may seem discouraging if you are interested not only in understanding the world, but also in changing it. On closer look, though, [Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson]'s historical determinism leaves plenty of room for human agency and policy choices to make a difference, as I have argued here. Statistically, plenty is left unexplained by historical factors.
Ha. Neat. I sort of like that: We get to be the error term.
Related: My train reading these days is Virtual History, a collection of counterfactuals edited by Niall Ferguson. Fun discovery: To spin an even mildly convincing counterfactual, you have to make sure the fundamental facts leading up to your branch-point are really solid. So oddly it's in the fake-history book that I'm learning about all these real events (a lot of World War II stuff, etc.) in more detail than I ever have before. I think Ferguson and other fans of counterfactual would say yes, that's the point.
Just discovered: Philip Tetlock, the terrific Berkeley researcher I saw give a Long Now talk on experts and forecasting earlier this year, also has a book of counterfactuals! Why was I not told of this earlier??
Psst: Any favorite what-if scenarios?
August 26, 2007
Beijing Traffic Lesson
Henry B. diagrams the Beijing left. You really need to see this. Excerpt:
[B] proceeds to swerve right, cutting off [C], a tiny red Peugeot with a gold plastic dragon hood ornament, spoiler and assorted knobs glued on. Since [B] is just accelerating, and [C] is now decelerating, this has created a low-density 'dead space' in the intersection. [D], a strange blue tricycle dumptruck carrying what appear to be 40 of the world's oldest propane tanks, sees this and makes a move.
But it's nothing without the visuals.
Via Tim Johnson.
August 24, 2007
'Having Ideas Is Not Very Parallelizable'
It's a powerful observation if you can make your way through the context (which is computer programming):
In fact, if you look at the way software gets written in most organizations, it's almost as if they were deliberately trying to do things wrong. In a sense, they are. One of the defining qualities of organizations since there have been such a thing is to treat individuals as interchangeable parts. This works well for more parallelizable tasks, like fighting wars. For most of history a well-drilled army of professional soldiers could be counted on to beat an army of individual warriors, no matter how valorous. But having ideas is not very parallelizable. And that's what programs are: ideas.
August 23, 2007
P.S. Okay, I admit it: I just wanted to steal the title "Hypercity Novo." It sounds like an anime series, doesn't it?
"Enaalso," he said in Iraqi slang. It's a new Iraqi word, a phrase used to explain being turned in by an informant to a militia and then being killed. Literally it means he was "chewed up."
August 21, 2007
William Gibson and the New Baroque
Terrific interview with William Gibson over at The Onion A.V. Club -- it includes this bit:
I don't know what constitutes "noir" in 2007. I mean, would The Wire be noir? I don't think so. Actually, noir -- I was taught in college -- is a kind of baroque pop version of literary naturalism. Anyway, that's the way some critics have looked at it. I think that a show like The Wire is the closest we come these days to naturalism. It's a genuine, authentic attempt at naturalism. I've never really attempted naturalism before, but I value it a lot, so all of its more baroque forms have been very valuable to me. One of them, I think, is noir.
I haven't thought about stuff like that since I was an undergraduate. [Laughs.] I'm amazed I can still do it.
Any more nominations for modern baroque in any medium? Or, jeez, good definitions? I feel like I know what it means but can't necessarily articulate it with any great precision.
August 20, 2007
Catacombs Are Rad
BLDGBLOG (who lives in my neighborhood now! Yes!) on underground cities. As always the key thing is that he writes about this stuff with such glee:
Today's city planners need to read more things like this! How exciting would it be if you could visit your grandparents in some small town somewhere, only to find that a door in the basement, which you thought led to a closet... actually opens up onto an underground Home Depot? Or a chapel. Or their neighbor's house.
Via Design Observer, which is so worth subscribing to.
Chance and Will
Nassim Taleb says nobody can predict anything, so:
Random tinkering is the path to success. And fortunately, we are increasingly learning to practice it without knowing it -- thanks to overconfident entrepreneurs, naive investors, greedy investment bankers, confused scientists and aggressive venture capitalists brought together by the free-market system.
Note however that the corollary is not that life is random; it's that success must therefore come through the recognition of amazing accidents and lucky breaks, and the grabbing hold of them with both hands.
August 19, 2007
Pragmatism, Politics, and God
Stop reading this post right now and go read Mark Lilla's stunning NYT Mag article adapted from his forthcoming book. The past year has seen a horde of devout atheists -- Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris -- gathering arms against religion and its place in the civic sphere. But no matter how they title their books, Harris et al aren't speaking to a Christian nation, but to a small subset of fellow thinkers. Lilla's scholarship as summarized in this article feels like the scaffold for a bridge between the staunch secularists and the political theologists. Put him in a room with Reza Aslan, and you have the makings of a serious conversation, one that might begin to answer the question, "How do we live together?" Much better than this beautiful-but-doomed dialogue, at least.
Are you really still reading my rambling? GO READ LILLA. Then read No god but God. (Then read Rousseau's "Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar," which I'd never heard of until reading Lilla's piece. It's fantastic.) Then get into a conversation with an open-minded person on the opposite side of the secularist/theologist divide.
August 18, 2007
The Global Warming Gold Rush
Still, I am excited by the prospect that there might be winners from climate change. The Arctic contains vast reserves of gas and oil (25% of the world's undeveloped hydrocarbons), minerals and even diamonds. A new gold rush is already beginning. Norway is just completing its huge "Snow White" gas development off northern Norway. Russia will ship oil in new ice-breaking tankers out of the top of Siberia and has just begun work on the enormous Shtokman field, 350 miles off its Arctic coast and a technological challenge beyond anything so far attempted in the Arctic. As the ice melts, the Northern Passage around Siberia will open to commercial shipping, cutting costs off the voyage to Europe from Japan and China. An even shorter direct route close to the North Pole may follow and then the Northwest Passage around Canada. Fish will provide another treasure. Most of the world's commercial fish come from the colder waters away from the tropics. Already the retreating ice is opening up seas that have potential as rich, new fishing grounds. The people who see a new frontier in the Arctic are some of the most remarkable men and women I've met, prepared to make huge financial gambles and push technology to new limits. Environmentalists may not like them but they are part of the story of climate change too.
Wow. Visions of Lord Asriel readying his fleet...
August 17, 2007
Deep History (in 160 Characters or Less)
Went to the Long Now talk tonight and took my parents. Unfortunately: way longer than the normal (snappy) Long Now talk. Fortunately: totally awesome subject, and loads of interesting details. The presenter was Alex Wright, an information architect. He's written a book called Glut about the history of information systems -- the deep history. Like, all the way back to bacteria.
My new habit of notetaking is to text messages to myself. Thus you can gauge the interestingness of a Long Now talk by the pile of weird short emails that's waiting for me when I get back home. Here's what I'm looking at now:
(Okay, actually, one of them is a note about a dream I remembered during the talk. I'll leave it to you to guess which.)
August 11, 2007
Democratization of Manipulation, Part 3
Hey, speaking of democracy... this set of Photoshop tutorials that shows you how to do effects from movies, besides being rad and fun, is also totally subversive.
Seriously! It's one thing to vaguely understand that all images presented by the entertainment industry are massively processed... it's another to learn how to do it yourself.
Have not finished this weekend's NYT Mag article on marriage counseling, so do not know if it's recommendation-worthy, but I do know that I liked this paragraph enough to blog it immediately:
One of her basic tasks, she told me, is "titrating anxiety," challenging people enough so that they'll feel the pressure to change but not so much as to send them spinning off in alarm or confusion. As she put it another time: "Causing the right amount of trouble is an art form."
So applicable to so many things beyond counseling!
August 10, 2007
They Should Probably Just Call it Coruscant
Masdar, the zero-carbon, zero-waste city planned in Abu Dhabi, looks like something out of science fiction. Because it is. A 3.5-mile-wide walled city in the Middle East? Hello? Totally the setting for Blade Runner 2. (Via Buzzfeed.)
August 6, 2007
Jan in Rio
August 2, 2007
Break the Sword
The madness in Minneapolis renders any potential blog-item inevitably trite and lame, but I guess if it's going to be anything, it could be this. From J. Glenn Gray's "The Warriors," via The American Scene:
It was one of the most discouraged thinkers who wrote the most hopeful of all paragraphs about a future warless world. His prophecy ought to be regarded as recognition of man's power to alter the course of events by undergoing an inner change. I refer, curiously enough, to Friedrich Nietzsche and to the following paragraph from The Wanderer and His Shadow:
"And perhaps the great day will come when a people, distinguished by wars and victories and by the highest development of a military order and intelligence, and accustomed to make the heaviest sacrifice for these things, will exclaim of its own free will, 'we break the sword,' and will smash its military establishment down to its lowest foundations. Rendering oneself unarmed when one has been the best armed, out of a height of feeling -- that is the means to real peace, which must always rest on a peace of mind; whereas the so-called armed peace, as it now exists in all countries, is the absence of peace of mind. One trusts neither oneself nor one's neighbor and, half from hatred, half from fear, does not lay down arms. Rather perish than hate and fear, and twice rather perish than make oneself hated and feared -- this must someday become the highest maxim for every single commonwealth."
There's a bit of satygraha in there, and a bit of Frodo, too. Also echoes of The Unconquerable World, which I never did write about. Maybe soon.
August 1, 2007
Nick Kristof and Greg Mankiw talk about the need for better economics education. But I scowled at Mankiw's invocation of textbooks. You know what'd be a great place to teach economics and statistics in a new, more effective way? A game school!
July 30, 2007
Liberals, Progressives, and the Future
Noah Millman on the temperamental difference between liberals and progressives over at the new American Scene. I interpret it thusly: Liberals like poetry; progressives like science fiction.
July 19, 2007
The State of San Francisco
There's a new article in The Economist about San Francisco -- it's succinct and, I think, mostly correct. This is a fun line:
Yet Kevin Starr, the state's premier historian and a San Francisco native, says that it should really be compared with a more distant place: Monte Carlo.
July 16, 2007
The Design of Social Life
Why should we train kids to think like game designers? James Paul Gee says:
[G]ame design is a core way of thinking about the world, because, in fact, social policy is exactly the same thing, how to get certain effects when you combine objects and actions under certain assumptions about goals [...]
Indeed, in our daily lives, when we are thinking proactively, we look at the world as if we could design the objects and actions around us to achieve certain goals, we "game" it. Game design is, thus, akin to the design of social life.
I mostly just like that last line.
Closely related: That new game school in NYC.
And closely related to that: Gamestar Mechanic. Here is part one of the FAQ: "Players do not just take part in a game that was made for them. Instead, they create their own games to play and share, all within a larger MMO experience." Go read about it -- it sounds totally nuts, in the best possible way.
Finally: One of the people working on Gamestar Mechanic is named Alex Games. That is awesome.
July 11, 2007
From a tipster: Peripheral Landscapes, an exposition -- in hot motion graphics format -- of Mexico City's recent history and informal economics. Starts out better than it ends, but pretty rad all the same.
Compare/contrast: the Pulp Fiction typography video.
July 3, 2007
Tell me this has never happened to you waiting for a red light:
Like me, you probably don't associate the traffic lights on Southampton Row with the end of the world. But it was while waiting there in 1933 that the Hungarian polymath Leo Szilard conceived the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, and thus the creation of the atomic bomb.
In the Telegraph, Tibor Fischer continues:
The car contains Szilard and his de facto chauffeur, Wigner (only Szilard would use a future Nobel Laureate as his taxi service). They are trying to find Albert Einstein to convince him of the need to urge the US government to start building an atomic bomb before the Nazis do.
When they finally locate Einstein and outline how chain reactions can be achieved, Einstein comments: "Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht" (I hadn’t thought of that). The resulting letter from Einstein to Roosevelt triggers the Manhattan Project. It’s an eerie example of how profoundly one man can influence history.
Someone write this book immediately: a compendium of eureka moments. It should include not just the canonical -- Archimedes in the bath, etc. -- but also the less-famous and, best of all, hitherto-unknown moments. Quantity would be the goal: an epiphany per page, hundreds of them in total, some big, some small.
The goal wouldn't be so much to infer patterns or derive some big Law of Lightbulbs (although you might end up doing both along the way) as it would be to simply create a storehouse of stories about insight... a book that, when browsed, might even generate some new ones as well.
July 2, 2007
No Caption Needed
No Caption Needed is a new blog about "iconic photographs, public culture, and liberal democracy." Am super-excited about the prospect of a continuing stream of stuff like this. First time I've seen the phrase "visual public sphere" and I love it.
June 24, 2007
Institutions: They Came from Somewhere!
Institutions such as the school, the family, the joint stock company, the political party, the state and its bureaucracy owe their robustness and proclaimed timelessness to the fact that we cannot tell who 'invented' them. In that sense, 'fatherlessness' is an asset, as is the myth of parthenogenesis in the case of the founder of Christianity. Similarly, human reason itself, rather than some personal founder, is held to be... the source of the state as an institution.
The corporation (nee joint stock company) has actually not quite achieved that kind of timelessness yet, I don't think, but it's getting close. There's a short, sharp book called The Company by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge that describes its development from the earliest, lamest incarnations to present day multinationals, and when you see it all laid out it seems anything but inevitable. Micklethwait and Wooldridge are Economist writers and unabashed fans of the corporation, but their telling of its tale is fair.
Anyway, I'd love to see comparable books for some of those other institutions: The School, The Family, The Party, etc.
I actually do know one of at least one other, which I've plugged here before: Home: A Short History of an Idea, by Witold Rybczynski.
P.S. The link is to the blog I read that somewhere, a new favorite.
School of Games
The nonprofit John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation today announced that it has awarded a grant of $1.1 million to assist in the development of a New York City public school aimed at teaching literacy and other skills through game design and game-inspired methods to children in grades 6-12.
All players in the school -- teachers, students, parents and administrators -- will be empowered to innovate using 21st century literacies that are native to games and design. This means learning to think about the world as a set of in interconnected systems that can be affected or changed through action and choice, the ability to navigate complex information networks, the power to build worlds and tell stories, to see collaboration in competition, and communicate across diverse social spaces.
Okay, that actually manages to make it sound less cool... but seriously, come on, think about it. This is 100% the future.
June 7, 2007
Families and Their Food
The best part of TIME's website is the photo essays, hands-down. Here's a new one: portraits of families around the world, along with the food they eat. They're by Peter Menzel -- they're from his book -- and they're beautiful.
Via the excellent Eyeteeth.
P.S. For some reason I was particularly charmed by the Melander family of Bargteheide.
May 21, 2007
The Layabout's Tale
All those people just hanging out in the middle of the day... who are they? It is the indispensable job of the reportorial class to actually find answers to questions the rest of us pose idly. Chris Colin does just that over in the Chronicle.
Unrepresentative, but awesome, quote:
"John," who is 18 and was strolling through Yerba Buena Gardens one Thursday morning, laid out his typical itinerary: "Watch the grass grow, get high, hit on the ladies."
How does he pay rent? "If you ask 100 girls for $10, that's $1,000, that's rent," he explained logically.
Via the Globe's Ideas section.
Maybe the Horse Isn't So Dead After All
Repeated exposure to one person's viewpoint can have almost as much influence as exposure to shared opinions from multiple people. This finding shows that hearing an opinion multiple times increases the recipient's sense of familiarity and in some cases gives a listener a false sense that an opinion is more widespread then it actually is.
Sounds totally plausible to me. There's this line later on: "The repetition effect observed in this research can help us to understand how our own impressions are influenced by what we perceive to be the reality of others."
I think about this phenomenon a lot in one particular context: It's amazing how fame and notoriety are so (and so increasingly?) local and subjective. Like, I think William Langewiesche is totally famous; you probably do not. I think The Shins are totally famous; if you are the blog-reading type you might agree, but it is not that widely-held a belief.
I understand that the realization that things are awfully subjective is not, like, a new thing, but come on! This is supposed to be fame! The whole point is to actually be famous!
May 20, 2007
A Delicate Poke to the Body Politic
From blueprint drafts to opening night, the Wire Opera House took about two months to complete. Lerner refers to such projects as "urban acupuncture" that energizes the development process.
Urban acupuncture! As a turn of phrase alone it's genius, but the underlying idea is pretty great as well.
And, a bit dumbly, I can't help but think of something almost literally like an acupuncture needle: a thin spike of mirrored steel, maybe about twenty stories tall, built on on a movable platform that you could wheel around to different points in a city. One week it'd be in the richest neighborhood, then in the poorest, then at the geographical center of the city, then at the spot where the city was founded, etc.
Historian Niall Ferguson loves simulation games. The piece (by Clive Thompson, natch) is so tightly-written that it resists blockquoting... so just go read it.
Okay, one blockquote. This is a pretty rad statement coming from a Harvard historian:
"Serious games are the next big platform," he says.
I've been reading "The End of History and the Last Man" to get ready for Francis Fukuyama's fast-approaching Long Now talk and now I'm wondering what the End of History game would look like...
I think it might involve holding down for two seconds, then pressing up and the A button to make Hegel do a lightning kick.
May 16, 2007
A Matrix of Cost/Benefit Analyses, i.e., a Parking Lot
Short, weird, awesome post on parking lots from Jan Chipchase. Love his jotted-journal-notes-to-self style.
April 29, 2007
Decades before Lex Luthor, The Joker, Diabolik, Satanik, Catwoman, Fu Manchu, Doctor Mabuse and all the rest, there was Fantomas, arguably the first costumed super-criminal ever, who terrorized Paris in his monthly magazine appearances.
I've mentioned it before, but Pope's blog is a gem -- full of fun insights and sketches.
Sunday of Wonders
I. Jan Chipchase is a kind of design ethnographer, traveling the world to see how people actually use things in their everyday lives. He takes wonderful pictures along the way -- always with unusual perspectives. He's in Turkey now:
III. Apparently, we've found the Fortress of Solitude -- note the tiny, tiny person in the lower left:
IV. French kids in free fall -- literally:
V. Finally: All that is solid melts into, er, a mess. It'll be slow going in the Bay Area for a while:
April 24, 2007
'But Faith Is Like a Pickpocket'
A blogalogue (ack!) between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan is wrapping up over on the terrific Beliefnet. Here's a bit of Harris:
You want to have things both ways: your faith is reasonable but not in the least bound by reason; it is a matter of utter certainty, yet leavened by humility and doubt; you are still searching for the truth, but your belief in God is immune to any conceivable challenge from the world of evidence. I trust you will ascribe these antinomies to the paradox of faith; but, to my eye, they remain mere contradictions, dressed up in velvet.
If God loves the world, he has a terribly noncommittal way of showing it.
Sullivan's reply is yet to come. Suspense!
Have not even begun to dig into this Foreign Policy feature yet, but it looks promising: "21 Solutions to Save the World." I'm going to read it tonight but if you get there before me tell me what's good.
The Other Jane Jacobs
Sure sure, you've heard all about Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of American Cities. It's been totally absorbed by the Conventional Wisdom and, in its way, made harmless: Oh look, a little old lady writing about neighborhoods.
3quarksdaily writes up Jacobs' other books -- the ones that make much larger, and much more radical, macroeconomic claims.
It's no mere recitation, and 3qd writer Alon Levy doesn't let Jacobs go uncriticized. His summation:
Jacobs' policy suggestions span the entire gamut from politically insane to extremely cogent.
I like the sound of that!
April 18, 2007
Lots of people have been pointing to the demise of Kongo Gumi, a Japanese temple builder. It was the world's oldest business, started in 578.
Wow, there are seriously just three digits in that year.
Here is a list of some other extremely old companies.
What's the world's oldest college? Oldest government (i.e. no revolutions)?
April 12, 2007
Everybody's on the Internet
Has anybody out there been to South Korea? Is it actually the future? It sure seems like it.
P.S. Been loving the IFTF blog (that's where this link points) lately. Definitely subscription-worthy.
April 9, 2007
Religion vs. Atheism Cage Match
I'm finding this Beliefnet exchange between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan delectable. Just the juicy, metaphor-happy game of Pong alone would be enough to make me happy. But the real fun of it is watching these two completely irreconcilable worldviews in two supremely intelligent heads honestly, respectfully clashing, striving for reconciliation. The thing is, you know that this debate isn't going to solve or change anything, or even end in any reasonably cathartic way, and I don't think I walked away from reading it with a single additional nugget of wisdom in my head. Except maybe that this is the way all hard questions in life should be fought over and decided.
March 27, 2007
Cape Town Living
More photos! PingMag writes up The Beautiful Struggle, a big ol' book of photos taken in Cape Town, South Africa. Even if you don't read the interview with the book's creator, scroll down the page and read the photo captions. Really cool stuff.
There are only a few photos on this page, but they are really phenomenal: apartments in Shanghai.
Living spaces -- real ones, not the Dwell-worthy -- are so interesting. Anybody know of any projects to document and share them?
March 26, 2007
Weird finding: MMORPG players are more likely to be first-born than middle, youngest, or only children.
Also: They are areligious and left-leaning. But,
Players who preferred to be play Paladins in WoW tended to be more conservative and religion tended to play a bigger role in their lives.
I love this stuff.
All from the Nick Yee's incomparably cool Daedalus Project.
March 13, 2007
The Man on Stage
Just saw Stephen Hawking over at Berkeley. It was one of the most amazing talks I've ever seen -- for reasons that had nothing to do with the talk itself.
I mean, it was good stuff: "The Origin of the Universe." But my mind has been blown that way a few times already and Hawking didn't say anything I hadn't already heard.
But it wasn't what he said. It was the scene.
Imagine the stage: huge, wide, dark -- Zellerbach Hall at Berkeley. There's Hawking in the middle: a crumple of brown suit in his wheelchair, in a pool of light. There's a humongous projection screen behind him and a microphone stand set up in front of him.
In the beginning there's a long pause. Really long. The applause dies down (as an aside, I've never seen an audience as warm towards somebody as this one was towards him) and then... crickets. For thirty seconds... a minute... two minutes.
Then suddenly, Hawking's synthesized voice:
"Can you hear me?"
The climactic scenes of blockbuster movies are not as thrilling. There is a gasp, and laughs, and claps, and murmurs "yes."
His voice still sounds pretty much like that original Macintosh synthesizer -- you'd recognize it as, like, "generic computer voice" -- except here in Zellerbach it's loud, amplified, everywhere at once.
He barrels into his talk, accompanied by a line of white text along the bottom of the projection screen and a set of awesomely dorky slides. Yes: To describe the very shape and duration of the universe, Stephen Hawking uses PowerPoint clip art.
But of course the entire time, he's motionless. For all we know Hawking could be a dummy, a cunningly detailed prop. The text has all been composed ahead of time, obviously. The screen is the only thing on stage that moves.
Well, almost. Hawking controls his world via a sensor that watches his eye -- I think he blinks, or at least flexes the blink-muscle, to trigger it. And when it triggers, it makes a whispery beep. So throughout his talk, you can hear a background rhythm of these beeps: faint, just on the edge of perception even with the microphone so close, but distinctly there. Like a pulse.
I wish I could really capture how his synthesized voice felt. Booming out in that hall, in odd computery cadences, the tonal modulations almost musical sometimes, and a crisp digital sibilance... the guy I went with said "it sounded kinda like the voice of god" and he was totally right.
March 12, 2007
A Short Chain of Lives
It was a beautiful summer* night here in San Francisco, so what better to do now than ponder the shape of history?
Here is a hint: It is something like a dime sitting on top of the Empire State Building.
And here is a treat: There is a commenter on Daily Kos who was born in 1929! Oh, how I pledge to prowl the holo-grid when I'm 78...
*I know, weird, right?
March 8, 2007
Giant Transforming Architecture
Either one is fine by me.
Natural Social Networks
This seems smart: social networking sites run by airlines. Of course, the target isn't people like me, who always just grab the cheapest fare on Orbitz; it's business travelers, e.g. the Southwest devotees who fly from San Francisco to LA twice a week. I mean, I feel like these folks have a thin, oh-it's-you-again social network built already.
What other businesses regularly convene groups of people in the same space who might have something in common?
Here's my nomination: grocery stores! What if Whole Foods set up a social networking site? I actually think it could become like the best dating site in the world pretty quickly. Either that or the most awkward. Maybe both.
March 4, 2007
A New Axis to Grind
Prospect did a very Edge-y thing and asked a hundred smart people what the big important axis of the 21st century is going to be -- think left/right except, you know, futuristic. I liked this one from Mark Cousins:
By the end of the 21st century, politicians and the idea of the executive will have disappeared entirely. As everyone will be connected to some evolved form of the internet, all political decisions will be made by daily and weekly referendums. Right and left will still be underlying polarities, but will disperse into the hundreds of decisions a citizen will make annually. There will be no political class to pillory. Instead, the new dilemma will be how to delineate a constituency. By nation? Supranational region? Continent?
Note that I do not actually think this is true. But, I like it.
I have to say, as with the Edge question-fests, I really appreciate the people who engage honestly with the question, instead of using it to simply describe how they think the world ought to be.
So my favorite answer might be Michael Ignatieff's:
Everything that happens to us will be unexpected. There is no reason to be discouraged about this. Practical political life is the art of managing the unexpected, just as life itself is a matter of rising to the occasion.
(Via 3qd. Check out the second reply they highlight. Eep!)
March 3, 2007
'Livable Utopian Subsets of the World'
Short interview with Jonathan Lethem in the Boston Globe's great Ideas section this week:
IDEAS: You allude to autism often in your work. In the new novel, you just about declare Carl to be a high-functioning autistic. Why so much interest in autism and Asperger's syndrome?
LETHEM: It's evocative for me. I'm enticed by it.
IDEAS: Not that I'm diagnosing you.
LETHEM: But don't be afraid of diagnosing me. I see Asperger's as a defining property in a lot of areas where it is denied by the participants. So I don't want to be denying it in myself.
And when I think about Asperger's syndrome I think about communities and subcultures, for example, the science fiction subculture, and science fiction conventions. What kind of people go there, to feel they have a people? When I go, it feels to me that they are bound by a thinly coded, super high-functioning Asperger's affiliation. And there's the Internet, which is a kind of autistic Greenwich Village, a place where people wander around trying to figure out whether they fit.
There are subcultures in a lot of my work. I see them as places where people try to make livable utopian subsets of the world.
That is awesome.
Recommended: Lethem's early (and not-that-well-known) book "Gun, With Occasional Music" is weird and terrific.
February 21, 2007
Random Race-Related Reflections
The "Society/Culture" category on Snarkmarket is getting ridiculous.
1) This one really isn't about race, per se, but it's about Barack Obama, for whom race will be the designated press narrative pretty much through the duration of the 2008 election. And it's less a reflection than a question: I know Timothy Noah's been doing the Obama Messiah Watch, tracking Obama hype through the pressosphere, but is anyone doing an Obama backlash watch? I feel like every campaign reporter in America has gotta want to be the author of the Obama Controversy. Someone with a sharper attention span than me should totally be keeping track of the attempts. Wonkette, meanwhile, has a list of valid reasons for a Baracklash.
2) I'm slowly catching up on the first season of the Boondocks, and it's super-smart. Much higher and more consistent quality than the strip. The cast of characters is just brilliant -- unconventional configurations of familiar racial archetypes. And I love the texture of the show, like the recurrent 'Gangstalicious' single "Thuggin' Luv" you hear from episode to episode. Favorite moments?
- The alternate-history Martin Luther King, Jr., episode, where he survives his assassination and awakes from a 40-year coma to witness 9/11. When his response includes an appeal to non-violence, civic leaders immediately distance themselves from the legend, saying, "That's not the Martin Luther King, Jr., I know!"
- The courtroom party at the end of the R. Kelly episode.
- The news footage of the Gangstalicious fight at the Grammys.
Philosophers and Webcams
Have you seen BloggingHeads.tv? It's a vlog show that's sort of defiantly lo-fi, and spectacularly weird and cerebral -- but often too inside-baseball for me. I really enjoyed bits of two recent episodes, though: Robert Wright's chat with Francis Fukuyama (Francis Fukuyama!) and with Joshua Cohen. Fukuyama you know; Cohen is a prof at Stanford and editor of the awesome Boston Review.
P.S. Did you know Fukuyama has a blog? I love 2007.
February 19, 2007
Riffing on an Arthur C. Clarke idea about the unpredictability of science, Kevin Kelly is musing about expected and unexpected inventions (via Infocult). Clarke actually created a chart of inventions or discoveries most scientists could have foreseen before they came about (e.g. automobiles, flying machines, telephones), and ones they couldn't have predicted (e.g. sound recording, relativity, atomic clocks). Kelly does the same thing, putting organ transplants, the cell phone, and the test tube baby in the realm of the expected, and DNA fingerprinting, radar, and artificial sweeteners in the unexpected camp.
The criterion, Kelly explains, is the "perplex the ancient" test. If Da Vinci were brought back to life, would he be utterly mystified by the technology, or would he grasp the concepts behind it?
For instance, genetically modified crops would surprise no one, because the technique is simply breeding by another means. On the other hand, the underlying concepts of DNA fingerprinting would be mysterious, magical, problematic, and take great lengths to explain. The World Wide Web is the long sought after universal library and answer machine. But virtual reality doesn’t have a good analogy.This got me wondering -- what if you tried a perplex-the-ancient test with things outside of technology? Say cultural developments, for example. What in contemporary culture that might astound the savviest anthropologists of old? Would the end of privacy (great article, btw) shock Mr. de Tocqueville? Would Oscar Wilde have foreseen Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?
File under: Society/Culture, Technosnark
February 8, 2007
Jonathan Lethem has plagiarized together an entrancing paean to intellectual theft:
Artists, or their heirs, who fall into the trap of attacking the collagists and satirists and digital samplers of their work are attacking the next generation of creators for the crime of being influenced, for the crime of responding with the same mixture of intoxication, resentment, lust, and glee that characterizes all artistic successors. By doing so they make the world smaller, betraying what seems to me the primary motivation for participating in the world of culture in the first place: to make the world larger.You might not agree with all of it, but boy howdy, is it a rollicking great read. Definitely do not miss the footnotes:
The effort of preserving another's distinctive phrases as I worked on this essay was sometimes beyond my capacities; this form of plagiarism was oddly hard work.
The Tale of Teddy Ruxpin 2.0
But in the meantime, while we thought about what sort of things the Home Server might do, I came up with the (again, patented, but the patent dropped) idea of an internet-connected teddy bear that contacts a web site to tell stories. People would tell stories to the web site, and in return for these stories, they would be paid per listener. Bear purchasers would pay a monthly subscription fee. The child would get access to every single story ever told via the breadth of the lazyweb, and the parents could configure the bear to tell only certain kinds of stories (e.g. nonviolent, child age 4-6, Jewish, with a moral message, etc. Stories would be reviewed and tagged.)Excerpted from one of my favorite MetaTalk posts of all time. (Waxtastic.)
February 7, 2007
Kids These Days Have It So Good
Aaand to be 10 again.
Come on, seriously, that car over there gives you spy vision.
February 5, 2007
Old Man Minsky
[Your new book] "The Emotion Machine" reads like a book about understanding the human mind, but isn't your real intent to fabricate it?
The book is actually a plan for how to build a machine. I'd like to be able to hire a team of programmers to create the Emotion Machine architecture that's described in the book -- a machine that can switch between all the different kinds of thinking I discuss. Nobody's ever built a system that either has or acquires knowledge about thinking itself, so that it can get better at problem solving over time. If I could get five good programmers, I think I could build it in three to five years.
From a little later on:
Has science fiction influenced your work?
It's about the only thing I read. General fiction is pretty much about ways that people get into problems and screw their lives up. Science fiction is about everything else.
Also, Minsky says wistfully of the old Bell Labs: "I worked there one summer, and they said they wouldn't work on anything that would take less than 40 years to execute."
February 2, 2007
The Climate Cavalry
Listen, I know I'm biased, but this is so awesome: Al Gore has trained an army of Inconvenient Truth presenters. I love it because it's so old-school... kind of like a distributed Chautauqua or something.
January 20, 2007
Architecture for Humanity
By embracing open-source technology and removing barriers to the improvement, distribution, and implementation of well-designed solutions, we can, more than ever before, ensure that communities in need receive innovative, sustainable and, most importantly, dignified shelter. Since the mid-1990s, the sharing of information and technology has steadily gained popularity in the high-tech and arts communities. Why not adopt this approach in the area of humanitarian reconstruction and long-term development?I'm a bit skeptical, but it's also well-established that I'm a sap and an open-source triumphalist, so I wish them luck.
January 16, 2007
The iPhone, Secrecy, and Excellence
Two households, both alike in dignity:
Radical transparency. Or, call it the cult of openness. I am totally an adjunct member of this cult: When in doubt, put it online! The whole philosophy is best articulated, I think, by Chris Anderson over at WIRED, from whom I'm snagging the term: Take a look.
The Jesus phone. Apple guarded its newest project with a level of secrecy worthy of Cold War spymasters. The result: an object of almost unimaginable sophistication and artistry. Oh, and a delightful surprise on a Tuesday morning.
Those two schools offer fundamentally different answers to questions like: How should we make things? How should businesses operate in the world?
So how do we reconcile them?
Clive Thompson is writing about radical transparency (for WIRED, natch) and he allows that not all things should be transparent:
Obviously, transparency sucks sometimes. Some information need to be jealously guarded; not all personal experiences, corporate trade secrets, and national-security information benefit from being spread around. And culturally, some information is more fun when it's kept secret: I don't want to know the end of this year's season of 24!
But does that go far enough?... Read more ....
File under: Media Galaxy, Society/Culture
Funny, It Feels Cool Even Without All the Extra Zeroes
I am getting set to re-loan the money (it was just $25) to Jessica Arreaga of Ecuador. Only $350 more to go and she can buy a grill to sell shish kabobs. Any other micromoguls out there who want to pitch in?
January 11, 2007
Larks and Owls
January 8, 2007
Climate Is a Mental Construct
Clive Thompson asks the question of whether the U.S. is geographically unable to perceive global warming. Of course, I'm in Minnesota in January and my lake is still liquid, which suggests the answer is "No."
Liquid!! There are still ducks on it!!
January 2, 2007
New Perspective on AIDS in Africa
Emily Oster shares three things you don't know about AIDS in Africa. Which it's very possible that several of you already do know. But I found them novel. (Freakonomical, but they seem to have deleted the post.)
December 27, 2006
'Visit Bangladesh Before the Tourists Come'
Now that is an optimistic slogan.
December 25, 2006
The Intelligence Pyramid
I think of knowledge as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid is data; the next layer of the pyramid is information; the next layer of the pyramid is intelligence; and the top of the pyramid is wisdom. I like to tell my clients that we’re in the business of giving them intelligence and wisdom, and if they want to collect data, or if they want to collect information and process it themselves, that’s their business.Of course, this pyramid is hardly Underhill's invention, but I like that he specializes. I'd swap "knowledge" with "intelligence," as I have. Totally an aesthetic thing, I just think "intelligence" is a word more suited to apply to the whole structure. Pure data can be characterized, in the CIA sense, as "intelligence," while "knowledge" is a trickier fit. I like this explanation of the four concepts.
I'd say journalism suffers from not articulating these concepts as decisively as Underhill does. When asked what we're "in the business of" giving to folks, most journalists would probably shrug and say, "Journalism." Which is absolutely not a separate plank on the intelligence pyramid, our overinflated egos notwithstanding. (Some would answer "stories," which I think is a less-than-artful way of dodging the question.) If you squint your eyes a little bit, you could might imagine journalism's version of this pyramid as Underhill's version, split into two halves -- the "objective" half (data and information), and the "subjective" half (knowledge and wisdom). Squint a little bit more, and you might even see how these concepts form your average newspaper -- data and information being the substance of the reporting and presenting process, and knowledge and wisdom being fodder for news analyses, commentaries and editorials.
But I've seen reporters recoil at the notion that the foundation for all their work is gathering data. And while most journalists seem to be content with providing mere "information" for a time, 90% of them seem to harbor secret ambitions to impart "wisdom." It would be worth saying, I think, that actually gathering data is a noble end in itself, as is providing information. It would also be worth giving more journalists access throughout their careers to the fields of knowledge- and wisdom-dispensing. (I.e. Rather more clear subjectivity added to the "objectivity" soup.)
File under: Journalism, Society/Culture
December 21, 2006
The Journal of Consilience
PLoS ONE features reports of primary research from all disciplines within science and medicine. By not excluding papers on the basis of subject area, PLoS ONE facilitates the discovery of the connections between papers whether within or between disciplines.
But this is perhaps the most important distinction:
Too often a journal's decision to publish a paper is dominated by subjective criteria, which can be frustrating and delay the publication of your work. PLoS ONE will publish all papers that are judged to be rigorous and technically sound. Judgments about the importance of any particular paper are then made after publication.
Read that last sentence a few times. That's kinda the genius of the entire internet, isn't it? Publish first, filter second!
(Via David Weinberger.)
Pick Your Path
I'd do 'Intelligent Design' on the third day.
December 15, 2006
Take Back Bangladesh
The ray of light? Take Back Bangladesh.
December 11, 2006
You Can Actually Get College Credit for This
Check out the comments brewing under the last post. Makers of possibilities! Seekers of solitude! Author-functions! Good stuff.
December 10, 2006
What's An Author?
What's an author? Why, just the sum of her readers, of course!
This is not to say that all networked writing will take place in vast wiki collectives. The individual author will be needed more than ever as a guide through the info-glutted landscape. But writers' relationship with their readers will change as writing moves from the solitary desk to the collaborative network. No longer just an audience, readers will become assets, and eventually writers will be judged not for the number of books they sell but for the quality and breadth of their networks.
And then imagine that perhaps it is not actually a new phenomenon. What's Plato but the collection of people who have read, discussed, and saved Plato? What's Rachel Carson without the same?
I am newly in love with the idea of authorship as the creation of a community -- by whatever means necessary or possible -- around your ideas.
English majors, have at it.
(Link from Forbes.com's great and completely-out-of-left-field report on books.)
December 5, 2006
Ezra Klein offers a good reminder: The internet only goes so far. The source post he links to is pretty sharp, too.
December 1, 2006
Probably the Most Masculine Thing in the Universe
Also, totally what YouTube was invented for: shared videos of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team doing their pre-game haka. So awesome.
November 27, 2006
Cease and Desist, My Fellow Human Being
How refreshing: A Google engineer sends the cease-and-desist email himself and writes it in the style of, you know, one thinking person communicating with another. Compare/contrast to the usual law-drone copy.
November 21, 2006
Blogs, Physics, and Nerd Love
This tale of blog-mediated romance is nerdy and sweet.
November 19, 2006
Like a Brain, Like a Heart
Take a look at this graph and try to tell me the internet isn't going to eventually wake up and, like, try to find other internets to play with.
November 15, 2006
Go Slow, Picasso
Even if this Malcolm Gladwell speech (PDF) was only so-so I'd probably still perfunctorily link to it. So, consider it a bonus that it's GREAT!
In it he talks about the differences between prodigies and late bloomers in art; as his prototypes Gladwell uses Picasso and Cezanne. (If that's too boring for you, he also compares The Eagles to Fleetwood Mac and Apple to Dell. And pharmaceutical R&D makes a cameo, too!)
It's a transcript of a recording, not just a speech text, so it has a really nice rhythm and tone. (Actually, it appears that the transcription was underwritten by the economist who Gladwell cites heavily in the speech... pretty slick.)
Gladwell's bottom line (which is almost beside the point in a speech as fun and discursive as this): Our culture has gone a little too wild for prodigies. We ought to make room for late bloomers again.
(Points of Note came outta nowhere with this one!)
Update: Rachel applies the Picasso/Cezanne paradigm to academic life.
The Yield Curve
Okay, this is cosmic: Ben Hyde explains the yield curve (in short: it's a map of interest rates for various points in the future, and is a rough measure of investors' optimism) and links to a super-cool animation that shows its fluctuations from 1977 'til now.
It takes a bit of reading to understand exactly what it is what you're looking at, but once you do, it's pretty amazing.
For instance, here's the yield curve for December 1979:
And for January 2004:
And based only on what you know about those two moments in time, you can probably begin to guess how to interpret the curve. So what do you think today's looks like?
November 5, 2006
One Day Snarkmarket Will Get One of These and Oh, the Wish We'll Make
Latest winners of the TED Prize just announced. Jeez... if there any two people in the world who could make Bill Clinton (one of this year's winners) seem kinda lame and dull by comparison, it's James Nachtwey and E.O. Wilson.
Re: Nachtwey, you should see "War Photographer" if you haven't. It is actually in the dictionary under "harrowing."
Re: the TED Prize in general, what I wanna know is, have they made any progress on last year's?
November 3, 2006
A Negative Theology of Spam
I'm telling you, this gem of an essaylet from Short Schrift is the kind of thing E.B. White would have written if he had a blog:
Like all good lapsed Catholics, I believe in sin but not salvation. Likewise, I believe in spam. You could say that I only believe in spam. The "spam" folder gives us the assurance -- perhaps false -- that our other messages are NOT spam, that they demand at least reading and sorting, if not a reply. We can believe that the message for which we've been waiting, the good news, is on its way, because we have a sure means of detecting false prophets.
November 2, 2006
Life Ain't a Picnic (Or a Garden)
I am only halfway through Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma," but that's far enough to appreciate Tyler Cowen's critique of the book in Slate. Cowen respects the moral weight of Pollan's arguments, but says they're simply impractical:
The ideas are powerful, but the garden is not a useful way to think about food markets. Pollan does not acknowledge how much his garden construct is historically specific. Early crop-growing, circa 5000 B.C. or even 1700 A.D., was no fun. The labor was backbreaking, and whether it rained, or when the frost came, was often a matter of life or death. And proper gardens -- as a source of pleasure rather than survival -- became widespread only with the appearance of capitalist wealth and leisure time, both results of man's dominion over nature. The English gardening tradition blossomed in the 18th century, along with consumer society and a nascent Industrial Revolution.
In other words, the garden ideal is possible in some spheres only because it is rejected in so many others. It is the cultures of the scientists and engineers that have allowed gardens -- and also a regular food supply -- to flourish in the modern world.
Right now I'm also reading a book called "The Primacy of Politics," which is Sheri Berman's argument that the real story of the 20th century is the reconciliation of democracy and capitalism. (It's amazing; will blog more about it later.) Nowadays we assume they fit neatly together (triumph of liberalism in all spheres, End of History, etc.), but not that long ago, the assumption was reversed: People thought they were totally incompatible.
So this makes me wonder: Maybe the next great reconciliation we've got to forge is between health and morality and efficient, industrial-scale agriculture?
October 30, 2006
Nice reminder from Foreign Policy: There are, in fact, universities outside North America, Europe and Japan.
Neighboroo is a new mapping site with loads and loads of data overlays. It's interesting both at the micro level (to suss out your zip code) and the macro level (to see the U.S. in different ways).
Also new: Outside.in, which is also map-driven but instead of data it's blogggs!
October 27, 2006
Mother of Exiles
I always forget how great it is:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
What an American document. What a great (though often unrealized) American ideal.
October 16, 2006
Whoah. Earthquake baroque. Way too cool.
October 15, 2006
Secrets Buried Deep in Time
Who wrote the Voynich Manuscript?
Why are there 63,360 inches in a mile?
And what will be the ultimate fate of the universe?
October 13, 2006
He Deserves It
Muhammad Yunus and Bangladesh's Grameen Bank just won the Nobel Peace Prize.
I met Yunus in Bangladesh. Without detracting from his accomplishments, which are vast, I will report that he is at least as good at self-promotion as anything else. That's why Grameen gets such disproportionate global attention compared to, for example, an organization like BRAC, which also does microcredit in Bangladesh and, by many reports, does it better.
More than anything else, I am delighted that a Bangladeshi organization won the prize. That country is such a puzzle: one of the most populous in the world (almost 150 million people!) but nobody pays any attention to it.
Update: Istiaque uddin Rifat is a Bangladeshi blogger; check out his reaction:
This day is one of the happiest days for our nation since its independence. Dr. Yunus made the nation proud. Dr. Yunus's name will be uttered with "Mother teresa" and "Nelson Mendela", two legend who won Noble peace price. Now we can say we are from Dr. Yunus's country. From today we have a new identity.
October 11, 2006
The Tense Middle
We can change the middle; we can disturb the equilibrium. From NPR's cool series where people explain their deepest beliefs.
Mad Maps Beyond Thunderdome
I can't tell what this blog "Subtopia" is supposed to be about, exactly, but this collection of maps is rad.
(A link this weird could only come from 3qd.)
The Pulse of the Planet
Eeeeeep. Breathing Earth. Pretty mesmerizing.
October 9, 2006
More Fun for Everybody (Even in Nairobi)
Kiva, recall, is the web app that lets you make tiny loans to tiny businesses in places like Uganda, Kenya, Mexico, and Ecuador. But Kiva doesn't deliver the money itself; it's just a tool that local organizations (like this one in Nairobi) use to connect to lenders and keep everything organized.
Surprising feedback from the organization's staffers:
The credit officers at WEEC find their jobs more enjoyable with Kiva because the personal side of our site gives them a reason to be more involved in the lives of the masai women. The officers feel sort of like journalists or social workers. Kiva has caused them to be closer to their clients and they feel like this will eventually result in higher repayment rates.
Well, not that surprising. In fact I think social software has the potential to make a lot of jobs more enjoyable.
October 5, 2006
Questioning Her Commitment to Sparkle Motion?
October 2, 2006
What efforts are currently being made to preserve human knowledge and culture (great literature, scientific theory, et cetera) for far-future generations, or in the event of a worldwide catastrophe?I never knew about the Rosetta Project, but it sounds fantastic, as does Norway's doomsday vault.
September 29, 2006
Get Out the Vote! All Twelve of Them
Don't ask me why I was reading about 19th-century British politician Robert Peel, but do check this out:
The young Peel entered politics at the young age of 21 as M.P. for the Irish rotten borough of Cashel City, Tipperary. With a scant twenty-four voters on the rolls, he was elected unopposed.
Twenty-four voters! I love it.
September 21, 2006
A Project's Melody
Whoah, I love this: Over on Edward Tufte's site, there's a long wavelength conversation about the pros and cons of Gantt charts that's been going on, slowly, for four years. The contributions are all really smart.
Search for "notation of orchestral music" on the page for a fun surprise.
September 19, 2006
The Education of Sky McCloud
MIT's Henry Jenkins (cool) on Scott McCloud (cooler) and his daughter Sky (apparently, coolest). Weird, I know, but just read it. Very bloggy; the kind of reflection and discourse that doesn't really fit anywhere else, you know? Glad there's a place for it.
The World in Crosshatch
Among this year's just-announced MacArthur Fellows is David Macaulay, the author of the great illustrated books "Castle" and "Pyramid" and (most recently) "Mosque."
Like many other boys inclined towards nerd-dom, I pored over Macaulay's books as a kid -- just absolutely picked the pages apart. I'm sure I didn't realize at the time what an influence they were having. It's impossible to spend any time with those books and not come away forever interested in design, architecture, systems, and history -- you know, all the good stuff.
Uh, wow. This is even more wow-it's-really-2006-isn't-it than usual: Fleishman-Hillard is hiring someone to man an avatar from 7-11 p.m., Monday to Friday. So yes, basically a paid online role-playing gig. I'm just afraid the 'role' is going to be, like, a talking stick of deodorant or something...
September 18, 2006
Dreams of the Future
Battlestar Galactica creator Ron Moore on James Tiberius Kirk. Really great. If you haven't seen Trekkies you gotta check it out: It's entirely moving to hear Star Trek fans talk about the show and its vision of the future. They sound, in fact, a lot like Moore:
And as I grew into an adult, and my political views took shape, I treasured “Star Trek” as a dream of what my country could one day become -- a liberal and tolerant society, unafraid to live by its ideals in a dangerous universe, and secure in the knowledge that its greatness derived from the strength of its ideas rather than the power of its phasers.
September 16, 2006
Design and Innovation
I can't believe Jonathan Ive is only 39! Somebody let that guy design a car, please. Or, like, our government.
September 13, 2006
There Is No Word for How Meta This Is
September 11, 2006
The Art of Verification
This is, by a wide margin, the coolest use of EPIC I have yet seen: A professor at Lehigh Carbon Community College in Pennsylvania sets it up as the subject of an exercise in critical media consumption and information verification. Nice use of a wiki, too. Note the contribution of student sleuth Jennifer Jones midway down.
September 9, 2006
An End to Ghostly Labors
So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hard-headed: the hard-headed economist will point out the opportunity costs of making what can be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past. But we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work.
"The most ghostly kinds of work." That seems so correct: It's the Phantom Zone of Outlook and Powerpoint. Gahhh.
It's a really nice piece, jam-packed with ideas that resonate really well with the present Make moment. For instance:
In what has to be the best article ever published in an education journal, the cognitive scientists Mike Eisenberg and Ann Nishioka Eisenberg give real pedagogical force to this reflective moment, and draw out its theoretical implications ("Shop Class for the Next Millennium: Education Through Computer-Enriched Handicrafts," in the Journal of Interactive Media in Education). They offer a computer program to facilitate making origami, or rather Archimedean solids, by unfolding these solids into two dimensions. But they then have their students actually make the solids, out of paper cut according to the computer’s instructions. "Computational tools for crafting are entities poised somewhere between the abstract, untouchable world of software objects and the homey constraints of human dexterity; they are therefore creative exercises in making conscious those aspects of craft work ... that are often more easily represented ‘in the hand’ than in language." It is worth pausing to consider their efforts, as they have implications well beyond mathematics instruction.
There is a thread of romantic fantasy -- a la the Arts and Crafts Movement -- in here, but even so, it's good reading.
Also: We are totally overdue for a Marxist reading of 37signals and the other small software shops that exalt flexibility and freedom above, it seems, all else. Read the section of the essay titled "The Degradation of Blue-Collar Work" and tell me if you disagree.
September 8, 2006
The Word of the Day
Update: I suggested this to Grant Barrett and he did a Double-Tongued Word Wrester entry on it! Sweet.
September 5, 2006
Finally, Some Respect
Ooh, an interesting rule of thumb from Burning Man founder Larry Harvey:
WN: This is the 20th Burning Man. What surprises you most about where it has come?
Harvey: It's evidence of an old rule that you have to be around 20 years and survive and grow before anyone will take you very seriously if you're doing something with a visionary aim. Suddenly in our own town, San Francisco, people with influence and whose participation we welcome are taking (us) seriously. We've become marvelous proper people. We've become respectable in that sense. That's because there (are) so many people who command respect and are influential in the world's affairs who have come here and identified with it.
And it takes about 20 years to earn respect. Unless you're just doing what everybody else does. Then you can become a wunderkind in six months. But our course has been eccentric, so the world turns its back on you until it catches up with you. And then they say, Oh, oh, it's not just ... and you can run down the list of pejoratives and mischaracterizations and all the cliches that dogged us for the first two-thirds of our life. But we've outgrown it. We've outgrown it politically, and in the public's perception. Oh, not entirely... But now the story is the movement and not the event.
Patience, visionaries! Patience.
August 17, 2006
A (Really Expensive) Room of One's Own
Daniel Brook ruminates on hyper-gentrification in The Next American City:
"How can you live in San Francisco and write a book?" is, to reluctantly borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, a 21st-century question. In the past, the City by the Bay was always considered a writer’s metropolis. A hundred years ago, it was Jack London territory. Mid-century brought Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Today, Michael Lewis, Amy Tan, and Michael Chabon call the Bay Area home. These established celebrity authors can afford to live in San Francisco, but an undiscovered Kerouac or a budding Ginsberg never could.
While San Francisco’s dot-com boom may be over, the high cost of living reﬂects a "new normal." Post-bust rents remain 76 percent higher than the pre-boom rents. Writing a ﬁrst book here sounds preposterous because it is preposterous. That basic commodity Virginia Woolf identiﬁed as the prerequisite for the writing life -- a room of one’s own -- is now a four-ﬁgure monthly proposition.
Lots more in the magazine, too; check out Joel Kotkin on the triumph of the suburbs, etc.
July 5, 2006
This is weird: CityGML is a markup language for describing cities. Reminds me of FOAF, for good and for ill.
June 28, 2006
Waterfall vs. Scrum
The "scrum" is an interesting approach to working with teams, discussed here in the context of game development but certainly more broadly applicable.
No project-management philosophy works exactly as advertised, of course -- but different approaches do make a difference.
Wired has a roundup of mistakes that nearly led to nuclear war. Notable:
October 25, 1962 A guard at an Air Force base in Duluth, Minnesota, shoots someone climbing a fence (not knowing it’s a bear), which triggers a miswired alarm at an Air National Guard base in Wisconsin. Nuclear-armed F-106 fighter jets scramble.
I can't decide if these are grimly funny or just grim.
June 17, 2006
Open Peer Review
Chris Anderson links to an interesting experiment:
The scientific journal Nature is conducting a fascinating experiment in "open peer review", which it describes this way:In Nature's peer review trial, lasting for three months, authors can choose to have their submissions posted on a preprint server for open comments, in parallel with the conventional peer review process. Anyone in the field may then post comments, provided they are prepared to identify themselves. Once the usual confidential peer review process is complete, the public 'open peer review' process will be closed. Nature will report on the results after the trial period is over.
June 15, 2006
Noted: The best brainstorming happens outside of groups. Thus, if you want good ideas, don't rope everybody into a 60-minute whiteboard session. Instead, send them all off to their own little hidey-holes, and then re-convene later -- with instructions to bring your best ideas.
June 11, 2006
More Commencement Speech Goodness
Whitney Houston's commencement speech at East Southern University. Hee.
May 21, 2006
Last week's New Yorker featured an interesting piece by Steven Shapin on the American organic food industry and how it's come to mirror the rest of Big Ag. I've moved Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma to the top of my reading list.
Favorite part of the article? My rediscovery of the word "immured," which is how Shapin describes a shipment of organic asparagus that had been held up in distribution from Argentina. The word conjures up images of Fortunato shouting for Montresor. Almost as fun as my discovery of the German word for "bra": büstenhalter.
May 10, 2006
The amazing Jonathan Harris is at it again, having completed another super-interesting project with a fantastic interface. (Actually, a pair of them.) This time, he and his collaborator Sepamdar Kamvar have outdone themselves with We Feel Fine, a Java applet that offers a peek at blogged emotions, in aggregate or as snapshots. WFF also enabled a spin-off project called Love-lines, done in Flash. Play around with these for a while, they'll awe you. (Infosthetic.)
May 7, 2006
Holy crud. It's one thing to have your mind blown... it's another to have it blown again and again in a kind of rapid combustion cycle. That's what Matt Webb's presentation on cool ideas from science fiction just did to mine.
(Matt Webb is, incidentally, one of the guys who wrote Mind Hacks.)
If you don't take the time to click through his presentation, at least check out Catalhoyuk, the ancient city with no streets where people got around by walking across roofs and climbing down chimneys.
Also, there's a web site track your personal light cone -- the reach of the photons reflected off of earth on the day you were born. Mine passed the star Chi Draconis six weeks ago. Whoah.
But seriously, just click through his presentation, cuz it's amazing.
P.S. Okay, one more: Here's a wall chart of all the biochemical processes on earth. Just, you know, for reference.
April 20, 2006
People throw skeptical glances my direction when I say I enjoyed living in Fresno. But it's true. I often describe Fresno as having been completely emptied of people sometime in 1943, and repopulated only in the last few years. That's not how it was at all, but the city is filled with traces of incredible, abandoned Americana -- gorgeous motel signs, classic theaters, dive bars, thrift stores. The city is phenomenally diverse, more culturally varied than even the rest of California, which itself makes the rest of the US look inbred.
When I interviewed for the job in Fresno, among the things that drew me to the city was coming across one of those old, beautiful motel signs. It was just sitting in a parking lot, leaning against a building in the middle of nowhere (it was downtown, but "middle of nowhere" still kind of applies). I figured the sign had to have a story, and I loved the thought of being a reporter there and getting to unearth that story.
Months later, I found out that the sign was leaning against the building that housed the H Street Collective, a space for some of Fresno's most brilliant artists to practice and display their work. H Street was a beautiful nightmare. Its walls were covered to the last inch in the most grotesque, eyepopping, otherwordly art. The bathroom of the collective was the artists' sandbox, stuffed with visual ideas and experiments, half-painted creatures, obscenities, paint on the floor, on the toilets, on the stall doors.
The H Street that was is no longer. But you can still find the work of some of the artists on many of the walls of Fresno. And one of my favorite H Street artists, Mehran Heard, has an awesome Web site.
File under: Gleeful Miscellany, Recommended, Society/Culture
April 14, 2006
Thx for the Add!
April 11, 2006
The Real Boy in the Bubble
April 5, 2006
Bad news, Michigan posse: Detroit Sold For Scrap.
March 31, 2006
But in the meantime, I like this: Jane Pinckard dubs El Bulli grub nerd food. In other words: Isn't it cool that El Bulli concerns itself so fully with experimentation and imagination instead of just, say, organic simplicity?
Here in the Bay Area, we live under a tyranny of Alice Waters - a benevolent dictatorship, to be sure, full of good intentions, but her basic philosophy, which has since spread to all parts of the U.S., strictly stipulates that food is naturally good and ought not to be tampered with more than necessary. Good, high quality food can shine best with minimal handling. Her techniques evince a deep respect for the natural structures of meat, vegetables, pastas, spices, and so on. Her food is delicious, and her work with farmer's markets and school's eating programs are very deservedly much admired.
But surely there's got to be good, healthy food that looks forward, too. El Bulli shows the way.
March 30, 2006
Red Badge of Verbiage
Every subculture has its code-words and pass-phrases. One that I particularly revile is "blood and treasure," a favorite of warrior-politics neocons. It's handy, actually, because anytime anybody says something like "You cannot expect Americans to spend blood and treasure blah blah blah" with a straight face, you automatically know they are not credible.
I'm not even going to link to the place where I just saw it because it's so vile. Anybody know the etymology of the phrase, though? I just did some quick Googling but didn't find any leads.
Another angle: What are some other classic subcultural code-phrases?
"I'm familiar with the argument" is one I hear a lot in academic and quasi-academic circles, and always seems to be sending a meta-message. Any others spring to mind?
March 22, 2006
A Sturdy Footbridge
On Tuesday I gave a speech at my old high school to welcome a new crop of inductees into the National Honor Society. (I was president of the school's chapter back in '97-98.) The text is in the extended. I love giving lofty, abstract commencement-ish speeches more than just about anything in the whole wide world.... Read more ....
Drove to Chicago / All Things Know, All Things Know
Appearances often deceive, but, in one respect at least, the visitor's first impression of Chicago is likely to be correct: this is a city buzzing with life, humming with prosperity, sparkling with new buildings, new sculptures, new parks, and generally exuding vitality.
You know, I gotta say, Chicagoans past and present are more passionate about their town than any other group of city-dwellers I've met. (And there are a lot of Bay Area zealots here in SF, so that's saying something.)
Alas, if only it wasn't THE COLDEST PLACE ON EARTH in the winter.
March 15, 2006
Anytime this Greasemonkey script sees a price written in U.S. dollars on a Web site, it adds the current equivalent value in barrels of crude oil. I'm going to enable it for a while and see if it heightens my awareness of what "the price of oil rose $4 a barrel" means in everyday terms, or if it just annoys me. (Greasemonkey? Infosthetic.)
March 10, 2006
I gotta find a good biography of Einstein. Everytime I come across some throwaway musing by the guy I am stunned. Case in point:
One of the strongest motives that lead persons to art or science is a flight from the everyday life. With this negative motive goes a positive one. Man seeks to form for himself, in whatever manner is suitable for him, a simplified and lucid image of the world, and so to overcome the world of experience by striving to replace it to some extent by this image. This is what the painter does, and the poet, the speculative philosopher, the natural scientist, each in his own way. Into this image and its formation, he places the center of gravity of his emotional life, in order to attain the peace and serenity that he cannot find within the narrow confines of swirling personal experience.
Interesting to imagine the crazy paint-splattered-on-the-walls artist as someone actually fleeing the real world, daubing together a bridge into some neater mental universe.
P.S. You should subscribe to Chip Scanlan's blog; it's good!
February 23, 2006
Columbine-area teen in custody after MySpace.com posting showing guns. Best headline ever. It condenses almost all the over-hyped media youth-bashing of the last five years into one succinct line. If only the copy editor had thrown in some stuff about video games and goths.
Seriously, though, this is getting ridiculous. I was on a local radio show this morning being interviewed about MySpace. (Some might call me a media whore. I prefer to think of it as being democratic in my approach to granting interviews.) I did my best to cut through the hype and talk about how slightly modified versions of this exact same narrative have been circulating through the press forever. Poisoned Halloween candy. Dungeons 'n' Dragon cults. Grand Theft Auto. I'm guessing the number of these stories has increased since the arrival of the Internet, but I'm not even sure. As far back as I can tell, the overriding media narrative about youth has been, "Your children are in grave danger. Panic."
Yes, your children are in grave and perpetual danger. Welcome to existence. Over time, we've exchanged sabre-toothed tigers for more sophisticated predators. And most of those are far more dangerous, far more sophisticated, and far less well-known than your standard neighborhood MySpace pedophile/stalker. Now you may panic.... Read more ....
File under: Journalism, Society/Culture
February 16, 2006
Silencing Voices of Moderation
This Washington Post story is the only news account I've seen of the events that led up to the recent violence in the Middle East and Pakistan that didn't make me want to cry.
February 13, 2006
Cogs in the System
January 25, 2006
Blink Don't Wink™
I am all for the Blink Don't Wink™ campaign. As The Assimilated Negro says:
There is no situation where a wink is appropriate. There’s no biological, or physiological, or any-ological pedigree that supports a need for a human being to wink.
A. MEN. No one in the history of humankind has ever pulled off the wink. I say we start some coordinated campaigns, and I'd like to nominate "Winkers are Wankers" as an additional tagline.
January 24, 2006
Wanna Be Like Mike?
In case you haven't seen it, make sure to catch this Salon article that's making the rounds about Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries, 61 (pictured at right, photo by Tom Tavee / Salon). It's the best article I've read about A&F since reading this one in college.
I have always hated A&F. During high school, on trips to the mall with my best friend, he always wanted to go in, and I'd usually oblige him. I remember the layout of the store, the lighting. I'd wait for my friend to be helped by one of the employees so he could make his purchase and we could leave. I'd watch the employee stand lamely by a pile of t-shirts, unfolding and refolding them to look busy, until someone else walked into the store. And if that someone was a decent facsimile of the models grinning in the store windows, the employee would spring into action, asking if he could be of any assistance, pointing out the items on sale.
I got the message, even if my friend ignored it or didn't care, always buying something anyway. The employees were there to help A&F Boys, and we were clearly not a pair of those. A&F Boys were athletic. They were outdoorsy. They were young. They were maybe a little gay. But they were definitely, definitely white. My blackness (and the half-Asianness of my best friend) was rarely as palpable as it was in Abercrombie & Fitch.
I think what A&F offered -- belonging, assimilation -- was a dear enticement to my friend. The girls were all swooning over Abercrombie's "Woods" cologne. And the clothes definitely drew compliments for him. Why I ever followed him in, I can't tell you.
But after high school, I don't believe I ever set foot in one again, even though the A&F Boy aesthetic gradually became less racially coded. (Partly due to lawsuits, although the store in uber-liberal Cambridge, MA, employed at least a few people of color.)
The tragic insight at the core of the Salon article is how the man who created and enforced this ideal -- Mike Jeffries -- cannot attain it himself, no matter how much he wants to. The article suggests that Mike Jeffries feels every bit as excluded as I did when standing in an Abercrombie store. He created a heaven so perfect even he could not gain entrance. And who knows if this is true? But it's a sad, powerful story.
January 23, 2006
Gary Wills in TNYRB on Jimmy Carter's religion:
His attendance at church was not announced; we reporters had to ferret that out by ourselves. Carter is an old-fashioned Baptist, the kind that follows the lead of the great Baptist Roger Williams -- that is, he is the firmest of believers in the separation of church and state. Unlike most if not all modern presidents, he never had a prayer service in the White House. His problem, back then, was not that he paraded his belief but that he believed. All this can seem quaint now when professing religion is practically a political necessity, whether one believes or not. There is now an inverse proportion between religiosity and sincerity.
I know at least a few Snarkmarket readers will totally dig the Roger Williams reference. Rhode Island whaaat!
January 16, 2006
Adventures in Sociology
Hey, check this out! I've got a blog!! Who knew??
Really I'm just momentarily retreating from hibernation to bring you two interesting links from MetaFilter. The first is a question: How much has your own attractiveness or sense thereof determined with whom you are or have been romantically involved? I always wonder about something very slightly different -- how much has my sense of my own attractiveness determined what I find attractive in others?
The second is a comparison of Germany and the US, of general social attitudes on everything from transportation to privacy.
January 5, 2006
But Will It Be Staged With LEGOs?
Hey, speaking of robots...
To which I say: COOL.
The Shipbreakers of Bangladesh
Check out this cool photo essay on ForeignPolicy.com.There's something very Tatooine-like about those huge rusted hulks towering over the sand...
Also Bangla-riffic: Eliza Griswold's recent primer on the rise of militant Islam in the 'desh.
December 27, 2005
Micro vs. Macro in a Duel to the Death
Get ready: I am about to compare Wikipedia to Wal-Mart.
Chris Anderson says the magic of Wikipedia (and other internet systems, e.g. Google) is that they work on hugely macro "probabilistic" scales. Think of it like this:
To put it another way, the quality range in Britannica goes from, say, 5 to 9, with an average of 7. Wikipedia goes from 0 to 10, with an average of, say, 5. But given that Wikipedia has ten times as many entries as Britannica, your chances of finding a reasonable entry on the topic you're looking for are actually higher on Wikipedia. That doesn't mean that any given entry will be better, only that the overall value of Wikipedia is higher than Britannica when you consider it from this statistical perspective.
OK, but what are the broader consequences? Might not this statistical optimization of "value" at the macroscale be a recipe for mediocrity at the microscale -- the scale, it's worth remembering, that defines our own individual lives and the culture that surrounds us?
So here goes: This seems analogous to the debate over Wal-Mart.... Read more ....
File under: Snarkpolicy, Society/Culture, Technosnark
A post by Douglas Rushkoff about Hanukkah and a Slate article about Kwanzaa each make the same point: call them made-up holidays if you want, mock their dubious origins, but recognize the very valid role each holiday plays for its culture by asserting "distinctiveness in the face of the forces of assimilation." And speaking of holidays of dubious origin, I've taken to answering "Merry Christmas!" with "Io, Saturnalia!" although my family does celebrate a pretty traditional Christmas. So far, I've only gotten smiles in response. Next year I may try "Blessed Solstice!"
December 22, 2005
Revolution or Evolution?
Grant McCracken riffs on three models for how the Net is changing the world: 1) It's cutting out the middlemen. 2) It's allowing microcultures to flourish. 3) It's reforming the idea of the idea. The post isn't really dense or light, but slightly abstract and pretty interesting. McCracken doesn't necessarily contend that all or any of these models is actually true.
This post is putatively to mention that NYU journalism professor Mitchell Stephens, author of the rise of the image the fall of the word, has begun a new blog tracking the history of atheism. (He's writing a book on the topic.)
December 13, 2005
Little Wheels Turning
The first round of lendees just paid off their loans, co-founder Matthew Flannery reports. A little while ago I threw a few bucks into a loan for a store in Tanzania... I'll keep you posted as it kicks into gear.
Flannery's blog has been really good so far; I recommend it if you're at all interested in this kind of stuff. He is a former TiVo engineer turned microfinance portal developer! Nice.
December 8, 2005
I really love living in the 21st century.
India is digitizing its ancient medical texts in order to stave off biopiracy.
(Via the Mutiny. No mere link; there is some elegant commentary there.)
December 2, 2005
The End of the Internet
Here's a scary, thought-provoking essay by Doc Searls, spinning out the implications of this exchange between a BusinessWeek reporter and the CEO of SBC:
How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google (GOOG), MSN, Vonage, and others?
How do you think they're going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?
The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! (YHOO) or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!
It's on the backs of these "pipes" that all the content on the Internet is delivered to us, Searls points out. And the companies that laid these pipes did so at considerable expense. And Searls draws together comments from industry execs and drafts of legislation to show these companies gearing up to collect on that investment:
The carriers have been lobbying Congress for control of the Net since Bush the Elder was in office. Once they get what they want, they'll put up the toll booths, the truck scales, the customs checkpoints--all in a fresh new regulatory environment that formalizes the container cargo business we call packet transport. This new environment will be built to benefit the carriers and nobody else. The "consumers"? Oh ya, sure: they'll benefit too, by having "access" to all the good things that carriers ship them from content providers. Is there anything else? No.
Searls imagines three scenarios: 1) The one where the telcos get their way. 2) The one where municipal WiFi and private investment (like GoogleNet) carries the day. 3) The one where we users of the Internet reframe the debate from being about "pipes" and "packets" and "carriers" to being about "markets" and "worlds" and "places." In other words, the Internet isn't just a lot of bits of content ("property") going from one end to another. It's a place where people go to create and connect. "We go on the Net, not through it," Searls says.
This is a vast simplification of Searls' argument. Much good stuff is in there, including his pointers to worldofends.com, where he and David Weinberger have written up some fascinating thoughts on things like why the Internet is stupid.
Go read it, and also read the if:book entry that pointed me to it. Since running across these, I've started to pay a lot more attention to what the telcos seem to be fighting for, and Searls' guess doesn't seem very outlandish at all.
PS: I can't imagine any developments, no matter how fiendish, would actually herald the End of the Internet, but it makes a nice attention-grabber. Sorry. :)
File under: Society/Culture, Technosnark
November 26, 2005
The Elderly and the Internet
Got an email from the new-ish Oxford Internet Institute promoting an upcoming talk, and thought it was interesting enough to just copy and paste:
Computers with Internet access and training were given to Elderly Australians in a project to assess the impact on their quality of life. The interviews indicated that they loved the learning experience, were proud of their achievement and found the Internet to be a source of wonder and amazement as well as a good way to stay in touch with their loved ones. However, the questionnaire survey showed that their quality of life had decreased over the time, both absolutely and relative to a control group. What does this tell us about the Elderly and the Internet, and what does it tell us about qualitative and quantitative research.
I don't have any specific thoughts on the matter, other than... how interesting! Wish I could check it out.
November 16, 2005
Grateful to Granny
Really, only grannies clip coupons and scrutinize sub-penny disparities in price between cross-town supermarket rivals.
November 3, 2005
Wait, seriously? The US has more people incarcerated than China? The highest absolute number of prisoners in the world and the highest per-capita?
November 1, 2005
Michael Specter's excellent article in last week's New Yorker about Africa, malaria, and the quest for a vaccine is sadly not online. But a gallery of incredible related photos by Samantha Appleton is online, and highly recommended.
PS: Today was my first extended tour through Flickr Explore. I plan to have a different computer desktop every day now. It's frickn amazing.
October 25, 2005
Real-Life Contextual Advertising
Although I'm kind of against floor ads (because 1) do you really want people walking all over your brand name? and 2) what will we do when we have no more surfaces left to advertise on?), I've gotta admit this is hella clever. (Via AltText.)
October 19, 2005
American Academies, Cont'd
Mark Oppenheimer must be praised for the following: He makes some of the typical, Allan Bloom-style complaints -- colleges put too much of an emphasis on diversity and sports and not enough on the Classics -- but has an argument I have not seen before, which is that students should have fewer pursuits but take the few they have more seriously.
At first I thought I agreed with that -- it sounds like Howard Gardner's notion that you get to complex thinking through depth, not breadth -- but then I found out this guy literally thinks students should spend four years studying one specific thing. Like "Act 4, Scene 1 of 'Troilus and Cressida'" specific. So, not so much.
P.S. This is one of those situations where I liked the commentary but couldn't wade through the source. Blogs are handy like that.
When I was tiny, among my favorite toys was the Playmobil gas station, which I guess offered its own commentary on the times. But this Playmobil airport security checkpoint set makes me a bit sad. Not Armageddon (that's so ten months ago), but sad. (Via Off Center.)
October 14, 2005
Adjusting Your Hum
Scientists used to consider the frequency band of 500 hertz and below in the human voice as meaningless noise, because when a voice is filtered, removing all higher frequencies, ne hears nothing but a low-pitched hum. All words are lost. But then it was found that this low hum is an unconscious social instrument. It is different for each person, but in the course of a conversation people tend to converge. They settle on a single hum, and it is always the lower status person who does the adjusting. This was first demonstrated in an analysis of the Larry King Live television show. The host, Larry King, would adjust his timbre to that of high-ranking guests, like Mike Wallace or Elizabeth Taylor. Low-ranking guests, on the other hand, would adjust their timbre to that of King. The clearest adjustment to King's voice, indicating lack of confidence, came from former Vice President Dan Quayle.
Related: This 2000 Discover essay on "the psychology of dominance."
October 11, 2005
What Year Is It Again?
This is kind of pathetic on CNET's part. Six women bloggers in CNET's list of 100? Six? (Susan says five, but Staci Kramer of PaidContent.org adds herself in the comments.)
October 4, 2005
Shopping in the Museum
I love this advice on how to actually enjoy art museums over at Marginal Revolution!
At the Detroit Institute of Arts I often played the "pick your favorite painting (or sculpture, suit of armor, etc.) in this room" game, and it's true, it totally improves the experience.
In the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg a friend and I tried to guess each others' favorites in each room -- also fun.
September 30, 2005
Religion: Good or Bad?
One of those big-ass philosophical questions that occasionally makes its way into my head is whether religion is a net positive or a net negative for society. Of course, religion is cited as the force behind some of the most awesome acts of human altruism. And of course, religion is cited as the force behind some of the most despicable acts of human destruction. A study published in the Journal of Religion and Society has the balance tipped towards religion as a net negative. I bet we could totally solve this question once and for all right here in the comments.
So, religion: good or bad? Go!
September 27, 2005
All Kurzweil, All the Time
So Robin got to hear Ray Kurzweil. Jealous? Want some of that Kurzweil action for yourself? Try listening to a lecture he gave in May in Boston. WGBH, Boston's super-awesome public radio station, podcasts its weekly lecture series on its Web site. The lectures are all over the map, from panel discussions with the folks behind The Little Prince opera to interviews with some pretty cool authors. A handy alternative to C-SPAN's Booknotes, which also rocks. (Via Learning the Lessons of Nixon.)
September 17, 2005
A neat little two-pager on John Roberts and the right to privacy in the NYT's Week in Review. It really is interesting that we, as a society, take it so seriously, isn't it?
September 15, 2005
I have been meaning to write this post forever -- ever since, in fact, I walked into the Montgomery MUNI station one afternoon several months ago and saw every surface covered with Dove's new ad campaign. I don't know if you've seen it -- the signature image is the one at the top of this post.
My first reaction was totally positive. I was like, hell yeah! Diverse depictions of beauty! Rock on!
But my appraisal soured as I read some criticism. For instance, from Alas (a blog):
Let's not forget how very little Dove is giving us. All the women in the Dove ads are conventionally attractive; all of them are below the average dress size of American women. No one in Dove-land is fat, no one in Dove-land is disabled, and no one in Dove-land has any wrinkles.
And Mind the Gap says:
But at the risk of sounding like a humourless, spoil sport, never satisfied feminist I’m now going to come out and say “I’m not happy.” What’s not to like? Well I don’t like the fact that the empowerment is very little, very late, and I don’t like the questions about my own feminist thinking which this campaign raises. What really bothers me is not the fact that the Dove campaign is not radical, it is the frightening probability that, in the context of our current culture, this campaign is extremely radical. As feminists, this is what we should be worried about.
I think those are pretty good critiques. But I've been thinking about it -- I think about it every time I see one of the ads, and that's a lot, because they're all over the place -- and on balance I find this campaign to be excellent, for a couple of reasons.... Read more ....
September 4, 2005
This link to the Web site of a professional photo retoucher has been floating around for a few days now, but I hadn't clicked on it. When I did ... wow.
It's mostly images of models and celebrities, including many shots of Alicia Keys and Halle Berry. I was actually surprised at how good most of these models looked in the original photograph. I was expecting Attack of the Pores; instead I got Return of the MAC.
What's shocking is exactly what the photo artist has removed or "enhanced" in image after image. He relentlessly edits out things like elbows, wrists, muscles, skin, hair, anything that disrupts the illusion of a perfectly curved body. And it's only by looking at the before and after photos that it would dawn on you, "Wait, this model apparently has no knuckles." It's literally dehumanizing, and not even in a post-post-feminist kind of way.
Talk of the Town
The New Yorker special section on Katrina includes a shell-shocked commentary from New Orleanian Nicholas Lemann as well as from the typically incisive David Remnick, and an illuminating 1987 piece by John McPhee.
September 3, 2005
Logistics and Leadership
Saheli breaks it down in a post titled, aptly, "WTF":
And even if it isn't about race, why the hell is it about poverty? What the bloody hell is up with this? What is up with our system wherein if you are poor you get left behind? The message we're sending the world is that in America, if you are poor, if you don't have a car, if you can't all fit into your car, you will get left behind to die in sewage. As I wrote Tauscher and Boxer and Feinstein--I've never been so ashamed and so dissapointed with my government.
August 31, 2005
World Keeps on Turning
worldometers.info makes me simultaneously depressed and ecstatic. Then it evens out into a kind of awe.
August 24, 2005
The Suburbs of Mexico City
August 23, 2005
The Depth of Time
Lots of quasi-random links today, I know: But I really enjoyed this rumination on the true scale of evolutionary time in the NYT.
It's a useful thing to remember the true scale of the universe -- in all four dimensions -- from time to time. Unfortunately it makes new Google applications seem slightly less exciting, but oh well.
Holding Colleges to a Higher Standard
I had kinda forgotten about The Washington Monthly and its spunky spirit -- their new college rankings are a reminder. Way cool.
August 10, 2005
Manage to India
Mr. Maldonado and Mr. Simonsen, of Riverside, Calif., are part of a virtual invasion of India by American students. Graduate students from top schools in the United States, most from master of business administration programs, are vying for internships at India's biggest private companies. For many, outsourcing companies are the destinations of choice.
August 6, 2005
Architecture for Humanity
Old Map, New Technology
...widely regarded by scholars as one of the most important historical documents of the city ever created. This project is a collaborative exploration of the exquisite Nolli engraving, through its historic significance and contemporary application.
I like this thing because a) maps are cool, and b) it's an example of a university doing something really cool, cutting-edge, and extremely accessible to the general public.
And note that the original map engraving you're exploring with the Flash engine is six feet high by seven feet wide -- yow!
August 3, 2005
Things That Will Be Free
Now, for that concrete prediction: a complete curriculum in English and a number of major languages will exist by 2040, and translation to minor languages will likely follow soon after.
I think curricula are things we don't think enough about. I mean, I'm sure there are some people who spend quite a bit of time thinking about them. But for the general population, after school -- and even during school! -- you don't spend much time inspecting the stuff that is, you know, MOLDING THE VERY OUTLOOK AND SKILL-SET OF FUTURE GENERATIONS. (I don't think it's controversial to concede that curricula play a significant role in determining the character and quality of education -- but feel free to disagree with me.)
Anyway, I think I'd be pretty enthusiastic about a Wikicurricula project.
Although: A comment on one of Wales' posts led me to this essay, which I am currently chewing on.
July 31, 2005
Quite a Combo
Bikinis and museums? Unexpectedly hot in juxtaposition.
July 28, 2005
A team of engineers at the University of Liverpool has helped reproduce an ancient Iraqi harp ... the Lyre of Ur. I don't know why, but that just seems cool.
July 26, 2005
Oh yes: There will be a Voltron movie. Even (especially?) if it's bad, it will be good.
Noted: Pharrell Williams is doing the score!
Also noted: God I love that robot.
July 16, 2005
I read the latest Harry Potter book this weekend. And I don't think it's giving anything away to say that the big theme of this volume is leadership.
I also just read a book called "The Crazed" by Ha Jin, which is not about leadership so explicitly, but is certainly about moral courage and guidance. (It takes place in China in the lead-up to the massacre at Tiananmen Square, if that's any indication.)
So I have been thinking a bit about moral leadership today. And, to my distress, as I look around the world, around the public sphere, I can't find any.
At least not the kind I want.
(Note: A cut-and-pasted line from Harry Potter in the extended entry. It doesn't give anything away, but fair warning all the same!)... Read more ....
June 30, 2005
Timely, too, considering you still read stories like this:
A group of white men set upon three black men on the streets of Howard Beach, Queens, early yesterday, beating one with a baseball bat and fracturing his skull, the police and prosecutors said.
The white men, who emerged from a black 2005 Cadillac Escalade before dawn, sent the black men fleeing into nearby swampland and through the streets of the largely white, insular neighborhood. ...
Mr. Minucci, the accused, said that the three black men might have been looking at his jewelry earlier last week, and that he was responding to that when he came across them around 3 a.m. yesterday. For their part, two of the black men, according to police, admitted under questioning that they had been in the area with hopes of stealing a car.
Sad. Every which way.
June 29, 2005
Best. Commencement. Speech. EVER.
I take it all back. Sorry, Mark Danner. David Foster Wallace clearly gave the best commencement speech this year at Kenyon College, filled with his trademark meta-metadiscursion, but much less pithy than his usual fare. It teeters at one point right on the edge of trite, but slams it all home marvelously, I think.
June 20, 2005
Supernova: Whole New Internet?
Janice Fraser, the author of this article, is facilitating a discussion about what's new on the Internet -- what developments like Flickr, Technorati, Del.icio.us, &c. mean. Do they signify a broad advancement in the pattern of innovation?
She starts off with a slide explaining her thesis: "The new internet embraces openness, relinquishes control, and assumes an unknowable future that will be realized through collective effort."
So where does this leave us? We're turning away from publishers providing content and embracing people as content providers, Janice says. We're mistrusting centralized authority in favor of collective wisdom. We're rejecting a packaged experience for an authentic one.... Read more ....
June 14, 2005
So Cool... Yet So Creepy
Perhaps you are familiar with American Apparel. Quick run-down: The clothes have a classic '80s vibe; they're all solid colors, with no logos; and they're all produced at a factory in Los Angeles, by workers making a fair wage with solid benefits. That LA facility is actually the biggest garment factory in the entire United States. Business is booming.
However, AA founder and CEO Dov Charney is freaky.
That probably wouldn't matter much, except that it finds concrete expression in AA's business: The stores are tiled with old porn magazines. The NYT's Alex Kuczynski thinks that's creepy, and I do too.
It's just so bizarre, you know? Every other aspect of the entire operation is so straight-edge and socially responsible. And then there's porn hanging above the dressing rooms.
Anyway, whatever. As weird as it is, it's not enough to kill off my fascination with the company and what it's managed to do.
This ties into a documentary I saw recently called The Take. Without going into excruciating detail, it was about workers in Argentina who rallied around a new business model when hard-core international capitalism failed them. And it's like, yeah: There are other ways to run cagey, competitive businesses. We can invent new models.
And I love it when these new models get applied to stuff that's very "heavy." I mean, there's a co-op bakery in my neighborhood, and it's really great, but, whatever, it's a bakery.
In contrast: The focus of The Take was a foundry. It dealt in molten metal. And of course American Apparel is very industrial -- the company can crank out a million t-shirts a week. That's big stuff, both practically and poetically: Textiles and garments have been at the center of industrialization and labor for, well, forever.
So, I'm curious: What other industry is ripe for an agile new entrant, a la American Apparel? Except without the porn this time?
June 13, 2005
'Members of the Class of September 11'
Why English majors "see developing the moral imagination as more important than securing economic self-justification," why conversations with mass murderers are often disappointing, why the readers of Snarkmarket are all doomed, and more, in my favorite graduation speech of 2005 so far, by Mark Danner.
May 29, 2005
The Myth of the Creative Class?
Regarding our recent discussion on suburbs and cities, here's an interesting article from Joel Kotkin debunking many of the "creative cities" ideas that have been so popular in the wake of Richard Florida. (Suburbs vs. urbs roundup: Tim | Terrance | Kevin.) According to Kotkin:
The renaissance of American cities has been greatly overstated--and this unwarranted optimism is doing a disservice to cities themselves. Urban politics has become self-satisfied and triumphalist, content to see cities promote the appearance of thriving while failing to serve the very people--families, immigrants, often minorities--who most need cities to be decent, livable places. The myths that have grown up surrounding the urban renaissance are now often treated as fact. As an urban historian who lives in a major city, I believe that recognizing these myths for what they are is a critical first step towards the redemption of urban America.
Related: Peak oil doomsayer James Howard Kunstler and natural capitalist Amory Lovins have a go at the question of whether the 'burbs end with a bang or a whimper. The resultant thread on WorldChanging is better.
May 23, 2005
The Herndon Climb
I think this may just supplant the Poe Toaster as Best Tradition Ever. Every year, all the "plebes" at the U.S. Naval Academy use each other's bodies as ladders to climb a lard-slathered obelisk, which they then crown with the hat of an upperclassman. Wow.
May 17, 2005
Why Wite-Out Still Smells Crappy
An enduring drawback of correction fluid is the solvent vapor. That could be fixed, but not without damaging the psyche of faithful consumers, said Mr. McCaffrey of Liquid Paper: "People who have grown up using a product tend to equate its smell with quality, and you don't want to change that - whether it's crayons or correction fluid."
May 16, 2005
The Perfect Site for Me
Halfbakery. This site's been around forever, but I've spent precious little time there. Until now. This is awesome!
May 15, 2005
The Places I Have Come to Fear the Most
I have a reflexive dislike of the suburbs. I grew up in Orlando, in one of its suburbs stacked on suburbs, all in distant orbit around a tiny center of faux-urbanity we called downtown. (Which in turn hovered in distant orbit around a giant center of faux-reality we called Disney World.)
Orlando feels horribly lifeless to me. I often say that in Orlando, you have to drive 20 minutes to get to the convenience store. I can't think of a single good Mom-and-Pop shop around where I grew up. When I go back to visit, there are no places where my friends and I can sit idly and chat until the wee hours. For a while, we seriously took to frequenting the lobbies of the nicer hotels.
When I was a sophomore away in college, my parents suddenly moved away from the house I'd lived in since 4th grade. To this day, I haven't even gone back to see what the house looks like. I have tons of memories of that time in my life, but the house, lifeless and suburban, figures in none of them. Meanwhile, my grandmother's house in Chicago, where I spent only a week each year until my late teens, is a living place brimming with unforgettable corners.
So it feels instinctively right to me when I hear James Howard Kunstler describe suburbs as resource-sucking parasites, or when I read essays like David Owen's magnificent "Green Manhattan" (about how super-urbs like Manhattan "offer one of the few plausible remedies for some of the world's most discouraging environmental ills") and Michael Pollan's equally magnificent "Why Mow?" (about how the once-democratic suburban lawn has become a symbol of near-totalitarian conformity).
How could anyone choose a suburb over a city? I ask myself. Cities engender creativity and comity and efficiency. The Renaissance could never have taken place in a suburbanized Europe.
But I occasionally get jolted out of my city-worship when I encounter a bit of reality like this post by Terrance at the Republic of T:... Read more ....
May 9, 2005
If there's one link worth double-posting to Snarkmarket on an otherwise-quiet posting day, it's this. The Passion of the Present, a blog that has been tirelessly chronicling the ongoing genocide in Darfur for almost a year. It's been almost a year since I wrote this. I haven't played the "Paris Hilton vs. Darfur" game since, but whether the ratio's gotten better or worse, the slaughter continues.
We know the ending to this story. Eventually, the conflict will come to an end, after a couple years of unthinkable death. We'll put on a brief, solemn, nationwide show of mourning and regret, crying "Never again!" Ten years down the line, we'll light candles, hold memorials, maybe even make a movie.
I'm bad at preaching. I do it for my own sake. When my children ask, "Where were you when Africa disappeared?" who knows how I'll reply? I hope I don't have to say that I just wasn't paying attention. I think that might be the worst possible answer.
April 27, 2005
Homeless By Choice
I don't know how this is so fascinating, but dagnabit, I couldn't stop reading. It's a blog about how to rock homelessness.
I'm sitting here in my temperature-regulated apartment, eight feet away from my washer and dryer, twelve feet from a hot shower and two feet from my bed. I imagine stowing away in my car for the night on a residential street, hoping no thieves or police disturb my sleep. I imagine waking up, driving to an unfamiliar gym, and feigning interest in a new membership for the hope of free access to the bathing facilities. There's a perverse twinge of romance in all of this. Or is it perverse?
It is a well kept secret that homelessness can be freedom and comfort can attend it. The secret is well kept because revealing that you are homeless in this society is dangerous. There is stigma. There are even laws prohibiting it. Imagine that. There are laws against being homeless. Let me say that one more time. There are laws against being homeless.
I don't know if you can help reading this site and wondering if you could do it. Then again, I could also be really strange.
Let me give you an example of a successful bloodless conflict. I was packing up a storage unit one day, and I had only that day to finish. In the same facility a man was screaming at his soon-to-be-ex-wife on a cell phone, and creating an atmosphere that I found intolerable. I decided to stop this guy from yelling. I yelled at him forcefully, Hey! Shut the hell up!
Well, predictably this brought the man's wrath toward me. He started yelling at me and making aggressive gestures, and at that moment I did something he could not have expected. I submitted. I wimped out. I apologized and said I should mind my own business. I backed down.
Now, the soon-to-be-ex-wife was no longer on the phone, so he couldn't yell at her. He had no way to yell at me, or continue to bring a fight to me, because I had backed down. He grumbled and muttered and hurled a few insults at me, but he stopped yelling and I got back to work in blissful quiet. Understanding the nature of winning, the precise goals I was trying to achieve, allowed me to give my opponent the illusion that he won while I got everything I wanted.
And no one got hurt. Always seek the scenario in which no one gets hurt.
April 21, 2005
Cross-posted from the Beehive, 'cause I'm just that lame, sorry.
Tucked into The Fresno Bee's wire feed is this nugget -- The Gap will be opening a new chain targeted to boomer women, called ... wait for it ... "Forth & Towne."
From the press release:
"We created an address with the name 'Forth & Towne,' because we wanted it to evoke a sense of place -- to signify a special and unique shopping destination," explained Gary Muto President, Forth & Towne. "'Forth' references our fourth brand, and 'Towne' conveys a sense of community that we want to create for our customers when they shop with us."
Would it be snarky to point out that they misspelled both "fourth" and "town"? I'm sure they'll correct that oversight by the store's fall launch.
"Fitting rooms will be at the center of the store, with 'neighborhoods' of merchandise around them," Gap CEO and President Paul Pressler told the AP.
Oh! Cu-ute! So the checkout counter will be sort of like 'City Hall,' and the sales racks will be the 'crack slums,' right? And instead of mopping the store, it'll be like 'neighborhood beautification' or whatever. I can't wait to shop there. Oh wait, I'm not a boomer woman. Totally forgot. Just over-enthusiastic.
In addition: Steve at the other snark blog points out that the F&T ampersand just dodges what would be a very unfortunate acronym, given the store's target demographic.
April 3, 2005
The Lexus, the Olive Tree, and Other Bad Metaphors
But please, before you wade into Friedman prose that extends a good 15 pages beyond his usual allotted space, arm yourself with the quality snark of press critic impresario Matt Taibbi:
The hallmark of the Friedman method is a single metaphor, stretched to column length, that makes no objective sense at all and is layered with other metaphors that make still less sense. The result is a giant, gnarled mass of incoherent imagery. When you read Friedman, you are likely to encounter such creatures as the Wildebeest of Progress and the Nurse Shark of Reaction, which in paragraph one are galloping or swimming as expected, but by the conclusion of his argument are testing the waters of public opinion with human feet and toes, or flying (with fins and hooves at the controls) a policy glider without brakes that is powered by the steady wind of George Bush’s vision.
So when you encounter Friedgrafs like the following ...
At one point, summing up the implications of all this, Nilekani uttered a phrase that rang in my ear. He said to me, ''Tom, the playing field is being leveled.'' He meant that countries like India were now able to compete equally for global knowledge work as never before -- and that America had better get ready for this. As I left the Infosys campus that evening and bounced along the potholed road back to Bangalore, I kept chewing on that phrase: ''The playing field is being leveled.''
''What Nandan is saying,'' I thought, ''is that the playing field is being flattened. Flattened? Flattened? My God, he's telling me the world is flat!''
... you'll have been duly prepared for Friedie's tortured relationship with imagery and the English language. Somewhere along the way, he'll try to coin a new noun form of the word "flat," no doubt trying to seed the culture with another goofy buzzword.
All this and more can be found in the excellent MetaFilter thread on the essay.
March 20, 2005
March 18, 2005
To attain the rank of grand master of memory, you must be able to perform three seemingly superhuman feats. You have to memorize 1,000 digits in under an hour, the precise order of 10 shuffled decks of playing cards in the same amount of time, and one shuffled deck in less than two minutes. -- Slate
March 16, 2005
The M.I.A. Saga Continues
March 15, 2005
Super M.I.A. Bros.
Also: Ciara vs. Paul Simon. Download this now. DO IT.
March 12, 2005
Upside to the Plague
Well, that's handy: Centuries of plague made 10% of Europeans safe from HIV. Also noted: "The plague" was probably not bubonic plague, but rather "a continuing series of epidemics of a lethal, viral, haemorrhagic fever." Eep.
March 9, 2005
Metatagging the Urbs
I realize that since it has now appeared in Newsweek, Yellow Arrow is a) no longer cool and b) tired. But as NBC's late-'90s summer rerun promotional department would say, "If you haven't seen it, it's New to You™!!"
Thanks to Katherine von Jan at Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve for pointing this out.
March 6, 2005
A++++ Super-Fast Shipping! Will Use Again!!!!
I just got back from another conference on the future of news, where many cool thoughts were exchanged that will find their way to this blog in due time.
Stephenson studies social networks. She goes into a company--her clients include J.P. Morgan, the Los Angeles Police Department, T.R.W., and I.B.M.--and distributes a questionnaire to its employees, asking about which people they have contact with. Whom do you like to spend time with? Whom do you talk to about new ideas? Where do you go to get expert advice? Every name in the company becomes a dot on a graph, and Stephenson draws lines between all those who have regular contact with each other. Stephenson likens her graphs to X-rays, and her role to that of a radiologist. What she's depicting is the firm's invisible inner mechanisms, the relationships and networks and patterns of trust that arise as people work together over time, and that are hidden beneath the organization chart. Once, for example, Stephenson was doing an "X-ray" of a Head Start organization. The agency was mostly female, and when Stephenson analyzed her networks she found that new hires and male staffers were profoundly isolated, communicating with the rest of the organization through only a handful of women. "I looked at tenure in the organization, office ties, demographic data. I couldn't see what tied the women together, and why the men were talking only to these women," Stephenson recalls. "Nor could the president of the organization. She gave me a couple of ideas. She said, `Sorry I can't figure it out.' Finally, she asked me to read the names again, and I could hear her stop, and she said, `My God, I know what it is. All those women are smokers.'" The X- ray revealed that the men--locked out of the formal power structure of the organization--were trying to gain access and influence by hanging out in the smoking area with some of the more senior women.
This fascinated me because I'm beginning to take a serious interest in Internet trust currencies -- everything from eBay trusted merchants to the LinkFilter system of hits and points.
The other day, a poster on the MetaFilter ombudsite MetaTalk suggested a complicated post rating system founded on the principles of battle in online role-playing games:
Metafilter hitpoints! We all get 5000 to start. Once you level up via unattacked thread posting, you can cast healing spells on your favorite, but inexplicably hated MeFi pals, or do double damage with Fireballs. Anybody who reaches zero has their account closed, unless someone ells resurrects you by sacrificing 3/4 of their remaining points.
It inspired a long thread of quality snark.
But there might be a journalism-related nugget in here. I was in a small group session with Jeff Jarvis where we came up with a model for a future news organization that highly resembles some of Robin and my EPIC prototypes from early 2004. (Karen Stephenson, Andreas Neus and I are three of the folks whose names Jeff Jarvis has forgotten in the past 48 hours. Sad!)
One of the four planks of our news model was this idea of trust aggregation:
Let's say that five people cover the school board. Whom do you trust? It might be the one with the most links, or the most positive reviews, or the most traffic, or the most experience, or the fewest corrections and complaints, or the one who has the contempt of the people in power you hate, or perhaps training, or even editing. It may also be the reporter -- staff or independent -- who is the most transparent, who tells you how she votes so you can judge her reporting. Trust is your decision. We report; you decide.
The model Robin and I were batting around was a little better, I think, though more complicated. Who has the time to go around picking every news source they trust or don't trust? And 'sort by corrections' seems to lack nuance. Ours was a distributed trust system, involving the weighting of trust (or influence, I'd say) -- if I like your stuff, then those whom you like are rated-up accordingly in this system. Anonymous sources became losers in our media environment because without a trusted identity to trade on, they don't make it into many stories.
I imagine in our system one could also sort by corrections.
But the MetaTalk post inspires me to think there might be even more imaginative trust structures out there we could learn from. Who might be the smokers in EPIC's trust ecology?
March 4, 2005
SFist does these little interviews with local cool folk, and they are often quite good. This week's is no exception. The subject, Jeff Chang, wrote a neat-lookin' book: Can't Stop Won't Stop, a history of the hip-hop generation. Apparently it is "one of the most urgent and passionate histories of popular music ever written." Nice!
February 27, 2005
Dear Ol' Dad
There were times that Dad’s pranks bordered on cruelty. One of his oil-company workers, a one-legged man he nicknamed “Crip” Smith, complained about everything. Dad and Crip’s co-workers got tired of the old man’s bellyaching and decided to take revenge. One morning Crip called in sick and Dad volunteered to send by lunch to his grateful but suspicious employee. Dad and his chums caught Crip’s old black tomcat, killed it, skinned it, and cooked it in the kitchen of one of Dad’s little restaurants. They called it squirrel meat and delivered it to Crip on a linen-covered tray. When Crip returned to work the next morning, Dad and his co-conspirators asked him how he liked his meal. They knew he would complain even about a free home-cooked lunch, and when Crip called it “the toughest squirrel meat” he had ever eaten, they were glad to tell him why. —The Reverend Jerry Falwell, in “Strength for the Journey: An Autobiography.”
And a satire, from Ian Frazier in The New Yorker.
Flowers for Calvin and Hobbes
Someone posted that on MetaFilter (somewhat grungier), and everyone agreed that it was incredibly depressing. Of course, I thought I'd share it.
But to cheer you up, someone also posted this on MetaFilter, a link to a collection of online scans of all ten years of Calvin and Hobbes, the strip that entered syndication the day I turned five. Can you believe this December will mark the tenth year since Bill Watterson stopped drawing C&H?
Here's a Torrent link to a PDF of all those strips (187 mb).
Soon, however, you won't even have to turn to the glorious Intarweb to get your fix of Calvinball. The entire strip is being compiled into one giant collection, to be released in September.
A couple of years ago, an article appeared in The Cleveland Scene about Bill Watterson, his reclusiveness, his artistic integrity and his future plans. It was quite a good read (also discovered, I believe, via MetaFilter).
MetaFilter's down at the moment I'm posting this, but when it comes back up, I'll edit this entry.
February 23, 2005
You Gotta Be Good, You Gotta Be Strong
So I went to WIRED's Rave Awards last night. Oh, wait, did I say "went to"? I meant "rocked out VIP-style (balcony access, suckas!) at."
But only because fimoculous.com gave me a ticket. (Thanks, Rex!) He was nominated for best blogger, but the big winner was Kevin Sites, who apparently "reported" from "Iraq." Whatever. Rex has a TiVo.
At the awards I met Xeni Jardin, who is perhaps not actually famous but certainly nerd-famous.
I also met John Vars, who's part of the small team behind Dogster and Catster. Note that these sites appear to actually be better-designed and more useful than, say, Friendster. Also note the dog diaries. Written... in... first... person.
Entertainment was provided by neo-hippie symphonic rock collective The Polyphonic Spree. They are pictured, fuzzily, above. If you don't know the P-S you should check out their music (here's a bizarre but wonderful introduction); it is described (both positively and negatively) as "happy-clappy" and I like it. In measured doses.
Two more pictures after the jump. Because I am the citizen journalist of rock!... Read more ....
February 6, 2005
Janky picture courtesy of my LG VX6000 "camera" phone
So, in case the blur of over-exposed pixels above doesn't quite speak for itself: It's a bunch of Indian-American college students busting it out at Bollywood Berkeley, a Hindi film dance team competition (!) at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco last night.
The idea, loosely, is to replicate those dance scenes in Bollywood films. There's always:
- a guy
- a girl
- the guy's posse
- the girl's friends
- costume changes
And these dance teams -- from Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA, UC Irvine, etc. -- inject a pretty strong dose of hip-hop, too. So it's total booty fusion.
And you should have seen this place. A thousand people in the sold-out hall, probably 95 percent Indian and Indian-American, from USC sorority girls in halter-tops to their grandmas in traditional salwar kameez. Families arrived in long lines, three generations strong, all eyes roving for a row of eight or ten seats to accomodate them.
When the show finally started, it was a weird overlay of cultures: college chants from the crowd ("U-S-C! U-S-C!" vs. "Let's go Staan-foord") and Indian jokes from the MCs ("So, we're getting started at 7 p.m. Indian Standard Time... 7:30.").
The guys' dances were a particular revelation: Somehow in Bollywood they've developed a language of motion that is totally masculine -- macho, even -- without being subdued. I mean, these guys were literally jumping all over the place, flailing their arms and kicking their legs, but there was nothing goofy or effeminate about it.
As for the girls, I will say just this: I am totally pro-midriff.
I really appreciated the sincerity of the show. There are plenty of opportunities to be cynical when you're emulating these cheesy movies. But while the teams made plenty of knowing winks at the form, their performances weren't satires. They were fun, sexy, accomplished celebrations of simple love: choreographed tales of woo.
For the record, Berkeley won, to the whoops and cheers of a thousand unironic Indian grandparents.
January 18, 2005
I have discovered a blog that views the world entirely through the lens of fugliness.
December 29, 2004
Thirst Is Nothing.
Personal Activaire is a full service music source for people with iPods. All models accepted.
Tap into burgeoning underground music scenes. Listen and live to the sounds of NYC, London, Berlin, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Tokyo...
Perfect for people on the go! This service is ideal for those who have very little time, but who want to hear and become knowledgeable about current quality underground music. We bring you the best albums from rock, electro, hip hop, minimal-techno, house, and electronica labels from around the world.
Apparently, if your 70-hours-a-week I-banking gig has you too over-scheduled to go cruising the back alleys of Tokyo on your own, just FedEx your iPod to this company, and for a measly $200 a pop, you'll get it back, loaded with 10 albums from the sonic fringes of the global indie underground.
Note that the assurances of connectedness to the far reaches of the obscure come with no actual markers of musical taste. Except for a ridiculously long list of independent record label links. I imagine this is a sample of the undiscovered urban wilderness I'll be exploring, right? That's so gorram crunk. I'll make sure to catch them live on the BBC.
I'm in love with this. Just seven years after the Gladwell article, we can finally buy our own personal Coolhunters.
December 28, 2004
Who is Robert Spitzer?
According to The New Yorker, Robert Spitzer "revolutionized psychiatry."
Make that, "according to Alix Spiegel, writing for The New Yorker." The distinction is important, because a cursory Google-fueled traipse through the Internet reveals that Alix Spiegel is Robert Spitzer's chief (only?) biographer. Spiegel-authored pieces on Spitzer also appear on NPR and This American Life.
The question "Who is Robert Spitzer?" is important, because if you believe Spiegel, Spitzer might be the father of modern psychiatry. So if Spitzer turns out to be a genius, then this psychiatry business may have something to it. But if he's a quack, who's to say his baby's not as well?... Read more ....
December 27, 2004
Saheli has compiled an excellent list of organizations assisting in disaster relief, as well as some commentary on the tragedy.
December 12, 2004
The Myth That Acting White's a Myth
The sociological debate over whether black Americans deprecate academic achievement has been raging for decades now with much heat and little light. The item in today's NYT Magazine about "The 'Acting White' Myth" is no better than any of the other mostly uninformed articles on the topic.
I've been following this debate for years. Two years ago, I started a MetaFilter discussion on the topic, and today's NYT article brought it up again. So I chimed in with my attempt to explain why sociological studies come to different conclusions on the subject of alleged black intellectualism.
The phrase "acting white" was unearthed in the sociological community by professors Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu in 1986. The chief problem with these professors' findings was one of nuance, and they drew much criticism for their paper on the subject. But in 2002, another pair of researchers attempted to polish Fordham and Ogbu's thesis with a second study. And here I'll copy and paste from my comment in today's MetaFilter thread.
What this second study found was that black students were much likelier to reject a plethora of signal behaviors that typically correlate with academic achievement. It's not the achievement itself. It's the act of cultural treachery that comes with it. From the study:
Another young man, now a record producer and rap recording artist, had gone away to Exeter, the elite private preparatory school, and come back dressing and speaking differently from when he left. He was accused of acting white. His interpretation of why former friends in the community were a little “put off” or “taken aback,” was not that they resented his success. Instead, his interpretation was sensitive to their concern that he might be trying to escape the stigma. He said they wondered if he had “sold out” to the Other part of society that looked down on people like themselves. He responded by finding ways to share his success and, “By letting them know that I’m not ashamed. I can still speak slang. I can still rap, even.”
Looking at it from this perspective, you can begin to understand why, for example, in the first MetaFilter thread, tyro_urge's experience as a young black man had differed so much from mine. I've never grown up within hip-hop culture. I've been surrounded by whites my whole life. I talk "white," I dress "white." I definitely "act white," and I heard that charge over and over growing up, from other black folks, especially cousins. At the same time, I felt no real pressure to focus on adopting any typically black signal behaviors, because there was no black population at my high school to attempt to fit in with.
Even at my university, the black community was somewhat stratified between those who had achieved academic success while appropriating the signal behaviors of "hip-hop culture," and those who had achieved it while appropriating those of "white culture." There was little ostracism between these members of the black community at my college, but we didn't always hang out, by default.
So there's the disparity. If you try to find blacks who are against the idea of academic achievement or professional success, as in the New York Times article, you're going to fail. I mean, that's just stupid. But look for black youths who insist that those in their peer groups have to, essentially, be down with hip-hop culture above all else, and Ogbu's findings start to make sense.
December 8, 2004
December 7, 2004
Armageddon Can't Get Here Too Soon
I know what you're thinking, and you're wrong. It's not the end of civilization as we know it. It's still just the beginning of a really, really crappy one.
November 23, 2004
Most accounts I've heard of the genocide in Rwanda include at least one mention of Paul Rusesabagina, a Kigali hotel owner whose derring-do saved hundreds from the slaughter. If you haven't heard his story, Philip Gourevitch tells it in this excellent episode of This American Life (it's the third story, and starts about 38 minutes in). Basically, Rusesabagina uses three unlikely weapons -- liquor, influence, and the telephone -- in his battle against the unthinkable. But he employs a wonderful savvy and a knack for misdirection. "I think the key thing about Paul," Gourevitch says, "is his instinct that everything is negotiable."
Paul's story, and (I hope) the story of the genocide, will be told in theaters for the first time next month, with Don Cheadle in the main role. The main site is awful, but it's got clips from the film (hint: to turn off the music, click the microscopic text in the upper-right corner), and offers an excellent repository of links about the tragedy that I hadn't seen (like this page, where you can hear an incomprehensible-but-nevertheless-chilling sample of the RTLNM radio network, the chief instrument the killers used to incite the genocide).
Whither the Liberal Arts? (Plus An MSU Shout-Out)
Cool article in the BoGlo's Ideas section about the fate of the liberal arts education.
Indeed, if you look at the humanities today, there is considerable excitement and growth at places that don't look or feel anything like Dartmouth or Harvard or MIT, for that matter. Michael Bub, for example, a star in literary studies and a leader in the field of disability studies, is based at Penn State University the kind of place that Gaita might say isn't hospitable to serious scholars because it offers degrees in a range of decidedly non-liberal-arts fields. Or look at the development of a serious philosophy program at Texas A&M University, or at how H-NET, a series of websites and Internet-discussion groups created by Michigan State University, has created "communities of scholars" across the humanities and social sciences, and around the world.
"Garbage is garbage," Menand said, "but the history of garbage can be scholarship."
October 25, 2004
I'll join the chorus of handwringing on the Internet for the lack of an online version of David Owen's article in last week's New Yorker. I could write about it, but Tim's already done that quite well enough for the both of us. So I'll go the crowd one better, and reproduce a few paragraphs for your pleasure and edification:
Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think of New York City as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams, but in comparison with the rest of America it's a model of environmental responsibility. By the most significant measures, New York is the greenest community in the United States, and one of the greenest cities in the world. The most devastating damage humans have done to the environment has arisen from the heedless burning of fossil fuels, a category in which New Yorkers are practically prehistoric. The average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn't matched since the mid-nineteen-twenties, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T. Eighty-two per cent of Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That's ten times the rate for Americans in general, and eight times the rate for residents of Los Angeles County. New York City is more populous than all but eleven states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank fifty-first in per-capita energy use.
"Anyplace that has such tall buildings and heavy traffic is obviously an environmental disaster — ecxept that it isn't," John Holtzclaw, a transportation consultant for the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me. "If New Yorkers lived at the typical American sprawl density of three households per residential acre, they would require many times as much land. They'd be driving cars, and they'd have huge lawns and be using pesticides and fertilizers on them, and then they'd be overwatering their lawns, so that runoff would go into streams." The key to New York's relative environmental benignity is its extreme compactness. Manhattan's population density is more than eight hundred times that of the nation as a whole. Placing one and a half million people on a twenty-three-square-mile island sharply reduces their opportunities to be wasteful, and forces the majority to live in some of the most inherently energy-efficient residential structures in the world: apartment buildings. It also frees huge tracts of land for the rest of America to sprawl into.
Sure, New York can be a dingy, cramped-up little asthmatic space, but honestly, could a Renaissance ever happen in San Antonio? Why don't we respect our cities more?
October 23, 2004
Making the Big Move
From Slate's "Today's Papers" this morning:
The Washington Post leads with the lack of any hard evidence that, as previously feared, terrorists are plotting an attack around Election Day. The New York Times leads with Ohio GOP officials dispatching 3,600 recruits to polling places--many in "heavily Democratic urban neighborhoods"--to challenge voters they suspect to be ineligible. Somewhat peculiarly, the Los Angeles Times leads with the Mongolia government's initiative to give surnames to its citizens, who have long used only their first names.
Yo, I think you mean "somewhat awesomely"! Check this ouuut!
ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — School principal Baast chose the name "Nomad" in keeping with his wandering spirit. Defense Minister Gurragchaa — the only Mongolian to venture into space — settled on "Cosmos." And anthropology student Vanchigdash picked the Mongolian word for wisdom. "It makes me feel rather wise," he said. "I'm very proud of my new name."
How can you not love that?
If I was a Mongolian, I'd choose "Prime" for my last name.
P.S. My traditional Mongolian first name would be "Optimus."
October 20, 2004
Speaking of Mythic Grandeur
I'm not even that much of a baseball fan, but if you're not into this you have no soul: Down three games to zip in the American League championship, the Red Sox rallied back against the Yankees, and now the series is tied.
The final game is tonight.
This would be amazing no matter which teams it involved. But Red Sox vs. Yankees is extra-epic because of the Curse of the Bambino.
Also, Sox pitcher Curt Schilling was bleeding at the ankle as he pitched Game 6.
Everybody knows blood gives you +10 mythic points.
So come, join the West as we marvel to Game 7 at 8 p.m. EST. Bask in the drama over at Diary of a Red Sox Fan. This is straight-up elves vs. orcs.
October 18, 2004
While We're Talking About Cults ...
That November evening marked the beginning of what would become one of the most sensational child abuse cases the Bay Area has seen. In the investigation that followed, it was revealed that the four women -- Carol Bremner, then 43; Deirdre Wilson, 37; Mary Campbell, 37; and Kali Polk-Matthews, 19 -- were part of a mom-and-pop cult led by a dreadlocked, self-styled mystic named Winnfred Wright. Together, the women had borne him 13 children, who, investigators found, had been living in almost total seclusion in the family's rented house in Marinwood, north of San Francisco. The children didn't go to school, or to the doctor or dentist; they ate a strict, nearly vegan diet. Many of them were suffering from rickets, a disease caused by a vitamin D deficiency. A few of the children were in advanced stages of the illness and had noticeable bone deformities. ...
Far from being monsters, Wright's wives were actually smart, gutsy, warmhearted people. Bremner and Wilson had been popular student leaders at the center of their respective college-activist communities. They had been, those who knew them said over and over again, critical thinkers and independent women, the last people you'd imagine getting suckered into a cult. Campbell had been a vivacious Manhattan secretary; her family had always believed she would become a teacher because of her love for children. There was no sign she could become the kind of mother who'd let her baby die of malnutrition.
September 22, 2004
August 1, 2004
So you've seen the pictures of John Kerry in a protective blue jumpsuit, crawling around inside the space shuttle Discovery with John Glenn. Looks dorky, it's like Dukakis in the tank helmet, whatever, no actual events are occurring in the world, etc.
Of course, Kerry was wearing completely standard-issue scientific gear. He was dressed the way scientists dress all the time. Which is what makes this little media pile-on so chemotherapeutically nauseating -- because of course, the point is that scientists are about as "unmanly" as you can get. [...]
Hey, I've got an idea. If political pundits and right-wing assholes find scientists such laughable fools, why don't they all go live on an island somewhere utterly devoid of scientific progress past, say, the 13th century? Then they can all foam at the mouth with scurvy and beat each other to death with human thighbones.
I was going to write something about the popular perception of scientists and engineers, the coolness of FIRST, blah blah blah, but forget it. Just bask in Clive's righteous indignation.
July 23, 2004
Filtering Distributive Intelligence, and More!
I'll make my return to the Snahkmahkit with this paean to the beauty of distributive intelligence.
We've all heard of Google Answers, where anyone can slap a dollar amount on a question and buy the answer, and anyone else can see it.
Other cool things on the Web today:
(mostly from that craaaaazy Red Ferret)
- BookMachine - You're in the bookstore, looking for a book, but helas!, it's not in stock or out of print. Zip on over to the BookMachine, which will find your book in its online database, let you peruse through the first few pages, and print out the soft-cover, perfect-bound masterwork for you in five minutes. (thanks, TRFJ!)
- Croquet - You're working on a project with some geographically remote friends. Y'all hop on Croquet together, and your cyber-avatars interact with each other and each other's software in a 3D MMORPG-like environment. (See screenshots to mimic understanding. Thanks, Emergic!)
- Open-Source Web Design - Self-explanatory. Making the Web pretty. (I kees you, Red Ferret!)
- Odyssee - Turn every movie into the Back to the Future ride at Universal. And if you've never been on the BttF ride, you poor, deprived child. Basically, imagine watching Lord of the Rings in seats engineered to move along with the action onscreen. Yeah. (You can't do it for every movie, only the ones for which they have codes available -- everything from Big Fish to LOTR. BFF TRFJ!)
July 11, 2004
Happiness = (# of Blog Readers * Average Coolness)/π
How can you not love economists? Eric Dash reports on a new study on money, sex, and happiness in the NYT:
A lasting marriage, by comparison, offers about $100,000 worth of happiness a year - that is, on average, a single person would need to receive $100,000 annually to be as happy as a married person with the same education, job status and other characteristics. Divorce, on the other hand, imposes an emotional toll of about $66,000 a year, though there may be a short-term economic gain from the immediate relief provided by leaving your spouse.
Of course, the enduring problem with studying happiness is this: "Happiness is notoriously difficult to define, and the surveys make no attempt to do so; the respondents simply record how happy they believe themselves to be on a sliding scale."
I'm of two minds. One says, false consciousness be damned, if we can't trust people to know what's best for themselves, we're screwed.
The other says, um, clearly people don't know what's best for themselves--e.g. cigarettes, cocaine, Tijuana Flats queso for lunch*, "What's the Matter with Kansas," etc.
*It's just sooo cheesy and good...
Now, it's possible that there are downward-shifting errors (irrational pessimism? the frump factor?) to match the upward-shifting errors of false consciousness (in the broadest, least-Marxist sense, here), and it all comes out in the wash.
But maybe we shouldn't be asking people about their own happiness in the first place, and instead we should rely on a cocktail of more concrete measures, like the Human Development Index somehow brought down to individual scale. Health, both physical and psychological, would probably be the key metric.
Or perhaps it's much simpler, and The Sims has it right:
no hunger + energy + empty bladder + hygiene + fun + nice surroundings = happiness
June 30, 2004
This SEED Needs Money To Grow
The SEED Public Charter School in D.C. is a public boarding school (!) that just sent its first graduating class to college. All of it. Here's the demographics, courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor:
Ninety percent come from homes below the poverty line; 88 percent come from single parent or no parent households, and 93 percent are the first generation in their families to go to college.
Plenty more in the CSM about SEED's program, and a more personal view in The Washington Post (in an article titled "SEED's Harvest" -- clearly this school was named expressly for the benefit of headline writers everywhere).
Now, this boarding-school goodness doesn't come cheap: It's about 25 grand per year, per student. Some critics say that invalidates the SEED model; if it needs grants from Bill Gates and Oprah to make ends meet, it clearly isn't applicable to other urban public school systems. That was my initial reaction as well.
... the best way to get more funding is to show that more funding actually helps if used correctly-- which this program seems to do.
Hmm. Oh yeah.
So basically what you're telling me, SEED, is that you are Hogwarts, and with just a little bit of moolah (and come on, we can spare it -- here in Florida we pay $18,000 to incarcerate somebody for a year), you can transform kids with few prospects into college-bound wizards and witches?
I can't believe I ever scoffed at that. Since when did the central challenge of public education become finding ways to stretch a measly $4000 (the average expenditure per public school student in the U.S., more or less)? We oughtta be encouraging experiments like SEED and then trumpeting their successes -- to policymakers, yes, but also to philanthropists.
Sure enough, Eduwonk reports that SEED is planting-- err, planning to set up shop in some new communities. (Har har!)
Sam Raimi's Big Idea
Okay, so Sam Raimi's idea might seem flaky...
The proposal: Position cameras above all major American cities and shoot one frame -- a 24th of a second of film -- each day at noon. The frames would be strung together gradually to create a continuous chronicle of each city's development.
"It's the same idea of all time-lapse photography, but over an outrageous amount of time," Raimi told The Associated Press in an interview to promote "Spider-Man 2." "So you could watch the city of Los Angeles rise, and maybe an earthquake might come in 300 years or a tidal wave."
...but how cool would it be it someone had started this 50 years ago? It would be fascinating to see the last half-century of human habitation in LA -- ooh, or Detroit, I wanna see Detroit -- condensed like this.
Is he imagining a satellite, though, or just a camera bolted to the top of a hill?
I think the aerial view would be more interesting -- maybe it could be a blimp or a balloon or something, not a satellite -- 'cause you'd really get to see the macro patterns of growth, the rings of development (leaving orbits of decrepitude in their wake).
It's all very Long Now, you know?
June 24, 2004
Internet Marketing Works
OMG, I just clicked on a banner ad for the first. time. in. my. life.
But it was for the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, so I don't think that really counts. It's like clicking on a banner ad for Batman: Who wouldn't??
June 17, 2004
Read These Books Now
Here's a Philip Pullman love-fest from the BoGlo's incomparable Ideas section.
But the thing is, Philip Pullman deserves love-fests:
Philip Pullman's trilogy, "His Dark Materials," is marketed for readers 12 and up, most of whom know nothing of the sources behind Pullman's gripping story about two children who join forces with an armored polar bear, a Texan hot-air balloonist, a pair of fallen angels, and a host of other fantastic characters to crisscross parallel universes in order to defeat a theocratic state bent on destroying human consciousness and thus the world itself. [What more do you need to know?? --Snark.]
But like the Harry Potter series (to which they are infinitely superior), Pullman's novels are a crossover hit. In 2001, the third volume, "The Amber Spyglass," became the first young-adult novel to win Britain's prestigious Whitbread Prize. The quality press in America has tuned in to their appeal: Louis Menand of The New Yorker recently assessed the hit London stage adaptation, and Michael Chabon, himself the author of a delightful young-adult novel about baseball in parallel universes, published a substantial appreciation of the trilogy in The New York Review of Books.
June 12, 2004
Lots of Zeroes Here
Check out the weird powers-of-two pattern in the top tier of GDP: the U.S. at 8 trillion, Japan at 4, Germany at 2, France (and more) at 1-ish.
This chart, from 2000, has General Motors as the largest corporation and Wal-Mart as number two, but that's flipped in the intervening years.
I'm not sure how useful charts like these actually are. What exactly is this showing us? It's not like this is money in the bank.
And I'm not so sure these figures map particularly well to power or anything else interesting. Wal-Mart is the world's largest corporation, but I don't think it's the most powerful, influential, or important.
June 9, 2004
Jim Secreto reports from Pushkar, India, where meat and eggs are outlawed:
There is a fun story to it all: I found one restaurant that was still serving food despite the absolute lack of tourist and ended up going there a few times. On my third visit, the boisterous, pot-belled boss called me over and whispered, in hushed, quite tones, "I have egg. I make omelets. You want you let me know." He proceeded to show me an actual egg, and he and I nodded in mutual understanding that the egg availability should be kept on the down low. I didn't try the contraband eggs, but I couldn't help wondering what the consequences are for getting caught with eggs. Are egg dealers dealt with more harshly than egg users? Are the authorities more lenient toward first time egg offenders?
I should have asked.
June 4, 2004
But the scale of the suffering and the scope of the commitment, they often numb us into a kind of indifference. Wishing for the end to AIDS and extreme poverty in Africa is like wishing that gravity didn't make things so damn heavy. We can wish it, but what the hell can we do about it? Well, more than we think. We can't fix every problem -- corruption, natural calamities are part of the picture here -- but the ones we can, we must. The debt burden, as I say, unfair trade, as I say, sharing our knowledge, the intellectual copyright for lifesaving drugs in a crisis; we can do that. And because we can, we must. Because we can, we must. Amen.
This is the straight truth. The righteous truth. It's not a theory; it's a fact. The fact is that this generation -- yours, my generation -- we're the first generation that can look at poverty and disease, look across the ocean to Africa and say with a straight face, we can be the first to end this stupid extreme poverty, where, in a world of plenty, a child can die for lack of food in it's belly. We can be the first generation. It might take a while, but we can be that generation that says no to stupid poverty. It's a fact, the economists confirm it. It's an expensive fact but cheaper than say the Marshall Plan that saved Europe from communism and fascism. And cheaper I would argue than fighting wave after wave of terrorism's new recruits. That's the economics department over there, very good. It's a fact. So why aren't we pumping our fists in the air and cheering about it? Well probably because when we admit we can do something about it, we've got to do something about it. For the first time in history we have the know-how, we have the cash, we have the lifesaving drugs, but do we have the will?
Samantha Power, an author of incredible moral force, said recently that the fate of Africa will define us. She suspects that in thirty years, our children will be asking, "Where were you when Africa disappeared?"
And for me the proving ground has been Africa. Africa makes a mockery of what we say, at least what I say, about equality. It questions our pieties and our commitments because there's no way to look at what's happening over there and it's effect on all of us and conclude that we actually consider Africans as our equal before God. There is no chance.
Now, I've been down the path of global-poverty-guilt before. That's where you start to look at every Slurpee and think, "Those ninety-four cents could have made a difference... in Africa." But bump that. Worthless. What's needed is real action, strenuous action, and just a tiny -- miniscule -- bit of sacrifice.
Here's more, much more on AIDS in Africa if you're interested.... Read more ....
May 29, 2004
I Broke Ya Nokia
Fifteen minutes into the movie Mean Girls, this woman strolls into the movie theatre, pressing an infant to her chest with one hand, and a cell phone to her ear with the other. She shuffles across an entire aisle full of people to get to her seat (which happens to be my aisle), crosses in front of me, then plops down right next to me to continue her conversation. The baby coos at me. I shoot a dirty look at it in the dark.
I could probably have tapped the woman on the shoulder and asked her to be quiet, ensuring two hours of mutual scowling awkwardness between us.
Or (I actually thought), if I wanted to do it guerilla-style, I could have discreetly turned on my SH066PL2A cell phone jamming device.
Sitting in the theater, I didn't know whether such devices were commercially available, but listening to the woman babble, I thought, "Wow. What a retail coup that would be! Cell phone jamming!"
Some quick Google-fu reveals that, although illegal in the U.S., jamming is pretty popular across the Atlantic. This Slate article says it won't stay underground for long, even here. (U.S. customers are the biggest foreign market for the personal jamming devices, according to the article.)
I think if I had access to such a technology, I couldn't bring myself to use it. But I wonder. And I wonder what society will do when our ability to intrude on the "private" spaces of total strangers gets even more virtual.
May 20, 2004
That's "food for the soul" -- the inscription on Berlin's Royal Library.
I've always loved libraries. I was impressed by LA's Central Library last week, but whoah, it's a rusty bookmobile next to this: the Seattle Central Library. It's new. It's amazing.
The link above is to a photo gallery; you can also read about the library at The Seattle Times' website.
It was designed by Rem Koolhaas. (Here's a PDF with images of his other work.) Check out this great description of its distinctive look:
"It looks like a dictionary opening up the mind to the windows of the world," said a security guard at the Federal Courthouse.
As you may have heard, they found the Library of Alexandria... but really, who needs it? We're doing fine in the temple-of-knowledge department.
(Photo by Benjamin Benschneider of The Seattle Times.)
May 14, 2004
Young Readers, Old Souls
Why is it that the great children's book authors are so often so wise? (I'm not sure it's a property of all great authors; although I could be wrong.)
My allegiance to Phillip Pullman, author of "The Golden Compass," etc., is well-known.
I've never actually read the classic "A Wrinkle in Time." I know it's supposed to be great, though, and this interview with Madeleine L'Engle confirms that, true to form, she is brilliant and charming. And, like Pullman, a bit cantankerous.
The interview is pegged to the "Wrinkle in Time" TV movie that aired this week, so it starts like this:
So you’ve seen the movie?
I’ve glimpsed it.
And did it meet expectations?
Oh, yes. I expected it to be bad, and it is.
She goes on to talk about the important stuff: God and Harry Potter.
(Link via Scott McCloud's blog.)
From This to That
Was just IMing with a high school friend who's in Kathmandu.
And with a college friend, whose friend just returned from Bangladesh. (A degree of separation, it seems, but not really: All who have been to Bangladesh are part of a secret society.)
At a recent journalism conference, Doug McGill said: Anybody who's lived overseas has a different perspective on the world. They have certain insights, vocabularies.
That's probably not always true; much depends on the nature of your stay.
But for a positive example, I cite the latest entry in Jim Secreto's blog. (He's the aforementioned friend-in-Nepal.) It's well-observed, well-written, and well-titled: "The place where the world changes from this to that."
May 10, 2004
LOS ANGELES -- Let me tell you, California is the new hotness. A lifelong flat-state fella (come on -- the one five-foot rise in St. Petersburg is called "Thrill Hill"), I am awed by this state's rolling geography. The hillsides, the crags of rock jutting out into the ocean (see how I just toss out "ocean" like it's no big deal?), the blue-gray silhouette of the mountains in the distance -- all together, it makes you feel like you're actually living on a planet. Like, if you ripped up all the houses and streets, there would still be something here. (Clearly, if you did that in Florida, the Gulf of Mexico would just rush in and cover the whole thing.)
The short of it: There is geography here. There are valleys and ridges and all those things I used to read about in kids' books but, I gotta be honest here, had a hard time imagining. It's not my fault. Some glacier scraped Michigan flat a long time ago. (And Florida? Man, don't even get me started. Even the pop in Florida is flat.)
I dipped my toe into the Pacific yesterday, but I suspect I won't get to the mountains on this too-short trip. I'll keep seeing 'em, though -- keep risking freeway disaster to gawk at them -- and every time I do, the world will get a little bit more interesting.
May 7, 2004
Our Latent Cruelty
If there's one story I can't imagine writing as a journalist, it's this -- the hounding-of-the-family-members-after-someone-commits-an-atrocity story:
In one image, Private England is clenching a cigarette between her teeth while giving a thumbs-up in front of naked Iraqi prisoners. In another that became public on Thursday, she is holding a leash attached to a naked prisoner's neck.
The photographs have left her family and friends aghast and searching for answers. They are convinced that she would never have thought up anything so cruel on her own and that she must have been following orders.
Of course they are. Few families walk around suspecting their own of harboring despotic tendencies. What are they going to say? "That Lynndie. She always tortured insects and small mammals as a kid. I knew no good would come of it."
Not a comforting thought, but we are all probably much more capable of atrocious behavior than we can imagine. Another article in today's NYT recalls a 30-year-old study:
In 1971 researchers at Stanford University created a simulated prison in the basement of the campus psychology building. They randomly assigned 24 students to be either prison guards or prisoners for two weeks.
Within days the "guards" had become swaggering and sadistic, to the point of placing bags over the prisoners' heads, forcing them to strip naked and encouraging them to perform sexual acts.
The landmark Stanford experiment and studies like it give insight into how ordinary people can, under the right circumstances, do horrible things — including the mistreatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
What is the distance between "normal" and "monster"? Can anyone become a torturer?
The answer to that last question, the article suggests, is "yes." We aren't all secret sadists, quietly wanting to inflict pain on our neighbors, but removed from our current frame of reference, quite a number of us -- we should probably assume all of us -- would do the worst.
Scary. Good to know?
April 26, 2004
I Eye My Coke Warily
Let me just repeat: Gah!!!
(Link via Boing Boing.)
April 14, 2004
The Dead City
A motorcycle ride through the ghost town of Chernobyl:
A story about a town that one can ride through with no stoplights, no police and no danger of hitting any living thing.
Watching all these movies about the end of the world, I sometimes forget that it basically happened, in a shimmering cloud over Russia in 1986. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, many more died in radioactive fire, and a whole generation wear the meltdown in their bodies.
This website helped me remember. It starts off slow, but once the author gets going, the visuals are creepier than anything Danny Boyle could dream up -- a real, recognizable city, suddenly emptied of all life.
If anything can reduce American reliance on fossil fuels in the near term, it's a turn to nuclear energy, but that's politically untenable, because the mere mention of the word "Chernobyl" conjures up images of babies not even a politician could love.
My uninformed impression of the history of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island is that public and political enthusiasm for nuclear technology sent us off into ReactorLand before we knew what we were doing, and then everything exploded. But one thing we learned is that there is major risk to the stuff, and due to the complexity of the technology, we can only mitigate that risk, not eliminate it.
It would be good, though, I think, if we could both confront that risk and consider its advantages with equal boldness.
(Last reminder: Don't forget to look at the creepy photos.)
April 7, 2004
The Final Flight of Saint-Ex
An underwater salvage team has discovered pieces of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's plane in the Mediterranean.
Saint-Exupéry wrote "The Little Prince," which Agence France-Press calls "one of the best-selling titles on the planet, after the Bible and Marx's Das Kapital." He and his plane disappeared in 1944.
The plane was a P-38 Lightning: a beautiful, almost insectile combat craft.
Here are some Saint-Exupéry quotes. I like this one:
The machine does not isolate us from the great problems of nature but plunges us more deeply into them.
April 4, 2004
Clergy vs. the Pledge of Allegiance
You know by now about Michael Newdow, the atheist who issued the legal challenge to the Elk Grove Unified School District, suing to have the words "under God" stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance. You may know that Newdow argued his own case before the Supreme Court of the United States, and apparently did a damn fine job of it.
But that may not even be the most compelling or striking thing about this case. Check out this spectacular amicus brief filed by 32 clergy of various denominations, arguing for Michael Newdow.
Their argument hasn't been entirely unmade by others in the debate over those two words, but nowhere else have I seen it made so forcefully. Part of the school district's argument in this case, and the foundation of the Justices' arguments so far, has been the idea that "under God" is a little bit of "ceremonial deism," that it doesn't actually mean anything, it's just a little nod to history and tradition.
The clergy say that if that's true, if "under God" has no meaning, then school districts are instructing children to take the Lord's name in vain, to violate the Sixth Commandment. It cheapens both patriotism and religion, they argue.
And the brief is not without its healthy share of snark. Marvel at the snark-quotes in this passage:
The United States is creative but unpersuasive in its efforts to imagine other possible meanings for the religious affirmation in the Pledge. It says the Pledge merely "acknowledges" the "historical" and "demographic" facts that the Nation was founded by individuals who believed in God and that most Americans still believe in God. ... But that is plainly not what the Pledge says. Teachers might easily ask children to pledge allegiance to "one Nation, most of whose citizens believe in God," or to "one Nation, founded by a generation that mostly believed in God."
That's some sass.
Anyway, see Leon Wieseltier's New Republic essay on the topic for more.
Another Ask MeFi Moment
First, read the question and try to solve the puzzle (it's pretty easy). Then join the commenters in trying to figure out the code. Then, toward the bottom of the thread, marvel as the code is cracked and revealed.
Open-source, distributed problem-solving. Amazing.
March 30, 2004
If the City Seems Empty This Weekend, Here's Why
I totally want to go to this, and, um, apparently I'm not the only one:
The last time AirFest was held, back in 2001, about 1-million people attended over two days. Organizers are bracing for an even larger crowd this year because of the hiatus...
A million people! Dude, that's forty percent of the entire population of Tampa Bay. Even if you split it up between Saturday and Sunday, and even if everyone's not going to be there at once, that's still a couple hundred thousand people together on one relatively compact square of concrete.
Doesn't the ground start to sink or something?
March 29, 2004
Mourn Not For TV
Is the headline of this NYT article really "Leisure Pursuits of Today's Young Man"?
Clearly the subhed should be "A Comprehensive & Interesting View of His Current Habits & Recreations, Presented With Full-Color Illustrations."
Goofy titling aside, it's a good story -- about young men's media habits -- and check out the weird synchronicity: Warren Spector, who I just linked to below, gets quoted on games and stories.
The best game companies offer something that many say ordinary network television programs have all but given up on: storytelling. A player becomes the hero of the tale, and might be faced with life-or-death situations trying to break and every action has to be thought through.
"We can provide the overarching narrative that makes all of those choices and all of those events meaningful and significant and big," said Warren Spector, the head of Ion Storm, a game company whose wares appeal to young adults more than children. "You throw that together, and you've got something -- maybe revolution is too strong a word -- but you can pull people away from other media."
Sometimes the links just click. Pimpin was never easy till now.
March 25, 2004
Eight Million? That's Nothing
Of course maybe this just strikes me because I've been reading "Midnight's Children" and therefore think Bombay is the craziest, coolest city ever.
March 24, 2004
A Little Bangla Humor
So I was Googling for Bangladesh links last night (come on, it was a Tuesday) and I found this great site by a young Canadian economist.
And in that great site, I found this great page of Bangla-quotes by Tanya Palit, a Michigan State student who went to Bangladesh a year after I did.
And it is the funniest thing ever. Or, at least my Bangla-buddy Dan and I thought so. But I wonder: Is it funny to anyone else? Say, those who have not been to Bangladesh? Tell me, Snarkmarketeers.
March 18, 2004
Apparently the NCAA men's basketball tournament costs U.S. companies millions in lost productivity in the month of March.
It is only appropriate, therefore, that I take a few moments out of my productive work-day to talk brackets.
Now, I am no college basketball grandmaster. I go to ESPN.com once a week to see how Michigan State is doing, but thazzit. Therefore, I cannot rely on actual NCAA expertise as I fill out my tournament bracket.
So instead, I use a set of arbitrary rules! (I am, of course, not alone in this.) Here they are, in descending order of influence. Given two schools:
- Alma Mater Clause: If one is MSU, it wins. Otherwise:
- Zags Clause: If one is Gonzaga, it wins. Otherwise:
- Nerd Clause A: If one has the word 'Tech' in its name, it wins. Otherwise:
- Nerd Clause B: If one is in the Ivy League, or is Stanford, it wins. Otherwise:
- Public Trust Clause: If only one is a state school, it wins. Otherwise:
- If It Must Come To This Clause: The school with the shorter name wins.
And that's it. Hey, pimpin was never easy till now.
March 9, 2004
Goodness From the World of Linguistics
The old Lingua Franca is dead. Long live the new Lingua Franca. The two have nothing to do with each other, to be sure. The old Lingua Franca was a magazine about academia. The new LF is an Australian radio show about language, and it's phenomenal. To wit, a defense of the art of euphemism:
As you mature and leave behind childish things, it's important to learn how not to say what you mean. For a start, saying what you mean presupposes that you actually know what you mean (increasingly unlikely as you grow older, particularly when you reach your 'golden years' as we all say). Apart from that, it's quite simply dangerous. As any ape knows, sending a clear signal about what you mean can get you killed in no time at all. Not having language, apes groom each other instead as a way of saying, 'I'm on your side, I think you're wonderful; here, let me just get that tick out of your hair, and you know, if there's the odd baboon cutlet going around when you've finished eating, do toss it my way, if it's not too much trouble.' If you're very, very nice to an alpha male chimpanzee, he might even let you fondle his scrotum.
Not all the episodes have full transcripts or recordings, but many do. Do go and have a look around the site.
March 1, 2004
Truth or Treason?
Environmentalism is one of those crazy issues where the "conservative" position is the most progressive. "Liberal" environmentalists go on and on about the need to preserve the status quo, while "conservative" corporatists want to dash headlong into all manner of genetic experimentation and wildlife restructuring without considering the potential effects.
I started this article because I thought it might give me an insight into the mind of a moderate, someone who balances both sides. It's about Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace, a self-proclaimed rational environmentalist, who currently advocates for the genetic modification of food and against regulation of things like PVC production.
It's an interesting article, but I didn't come away thinking of Patrick Moore as a moderate, even though the article was quite sympathetic to him. He is not well-liked by environmentalists (a former Greenpeace director calls him a "corporate whore, an eco-Judas, a lowlife bottom-sucking parasite who has grown rich from sacrificing environmentalist principles for plain old money"). And he is apparently quite well-supported by organizations who probably don't have the best interests of the planet at heart. So I take Moore's brand of environmentalism with a heaping teaspoon of salt. But I'm also not very swayed by opponents of GM food.
Basically, I'm just confused.
February 23, 2004
There's no reason for me to link to this story, other than taking yet another opportunity to point out that Camille Paglia is Cruella deVille. She is the scourge of all womankind and should be eaten by grues.
February 18, 2004
I Would Not Sing You to Sleep
Heartbreaking Washington Post Magazine story about a South Asian-American poet who killed her 2-year-old son and herself.
AND: OK, I won't just leave it at that. Why is it heartbreaking?
It's steeped in her poetry. Paula Span, the author, pulls in these opaque fragments of poems, and they're excellent. Early on, Span cites this devastating piece by the woman, called "Lullaby":
I would not sing you to sleep.
I would press my lips to your ear
and hope the terror in my heart stirs you.
And you can't help but see her writing that poem to her murdered son.
You can't read a good poem by a dead author without missing what's been lost, wondering what they were thinking, and lamenting that you can't know. It's just the same reading this. As with any article about a suicide, this one spends the whole time probing the question of why she did it, while always being upfront about the fact that we can never know. Reetika Varzani was foreign-born, and wrote between these two worlds -- India and America. America, where her own father disappeared one day, and she later found he'd taken his own life.
But that's just one seemingly significant piece in this huge puzzle portrait of a mind that you can almost feel beneath the text, as her words weave in and out. It's not at all like reading "The Bell Jar," I promise.
February 13, 2004
Numbers by the Numbers
As a college economics major, I love it when we're able to assign specific prices to things that were once forsaken to the realm of qualitative mumbo-jumbo.
So of course I dig this post over at Collision Detection.
So in nine days we'll know the market value of 867-5309. As of this writing it's $1,475.00.
Last year in China, a phone number comprised entirely of 8's -- very lucky, according to Chinese numerology! -- was auctioned off for around $300,000. (The winner was an airline, which planned to use the number for its 24-hour service hotline.)
Now, I don't know if any kind of robust market is actually going to spring up for phone numbers.
But it'd be cool if it did! We could run statistics on the numbers and their prices and test for the positive effects of repeated digits, repeated sequences, sequential digits, etc.
So yes, by "cool" I mean "dorkily satisfying."
February 5, 2004
One Social Network is Enough
So, I am certainly glad to have gotten the tap, if only to be able to see the site, and if only because it means I have at least one super-techno-cool friend.
But I'm not sure yet if I want to invite anyone else.
If all my friends were dweebed-out Boing Boing readers like me, then sure. No question.
But they're not.
I don't think any of my friends are into the Internet-for-Internet's-sake. I'm pretty sure that none of them has even heard of Orkut; I heard about it the day it was launched (as did you, I suspect, my blog-reading brothers and sisters).
Me, I sometimes get a little thrill from CSS code. My friends think CSS is that popular show on CBS. (No, I'm just kidding. A few know CSS. But they regard it as a tool, not an ideology, which is a mindset I aspire to, but... it's just... that it's so... elegant...)
So what do I say to my level-headed friends? "Here's another social networking site for you to type all the parameters of your life into, again! And it has something to do with Google, maybe! Come on!"
Do I expect any of them to write me another testimonial, this one so the Orkut crowd can see how cool I am? Jeez, I don't know if I even want to write any more testimonials. As it is, I copied-and-pasted my Friendster profile stuff into Orkut. I suspect my friends would do even less; some of them are only borderline Friendster users (name, location, thazzit!) as it is.
I think Friendster might have the first-mover advantage on this one, at least for me. I just don't see how trying to replicate my social network on this new site is going to be anything but an annoyance -- to my friends!
(Of course, in ten years, when we're all walking around with our OrkutBadges that wirelessly identify us to the persistent digital mesh and go 'bloong' whenever a friend's friend is eating at the same McStarbuck Bread Company as us, let's forget I ever wrote this.)
January 15, 2004
You know, really, not that many American soldiers have been killed in this war in Iraq so far, comparatively. Add up all the coalition combat and non-combat deaths, and you get something like 592 soldiers. Compared to Vietnam's 58K or Korea's 54K, that's nothing.
At least, that's the narrative I hear in the back of my head sometimes.
But I opened my Esquire magazine this month and found one story that really reminds me why war is always a sad thing, even if the deaths don't number many tens of thousands, even if it turns out to be necessary. The magazine asked the families of the fallen to pass along the soldiers' last letters home. Read one:... Read more ....
January 14, 2004
Soon People Will Be Like, "TV? What's That?"
First there was the Pew study earlier this week that revealed young people's rapid shift away from network TV as a source of political news. Mostly, they're going to the Internet, but also to cable TV and newsmagazines.
Ask not for whom the page loads, TV. It loads for thee.
Call me a net-centric techno-nerd, but I see absolutely no downside to a public shift from TV to the Internet, especially in the realm of political coverage. Am I missing something?
(P.S. If you actually call me a net-centric techno-nerd you'll get hurt.)
January 13, 2004
Pool of Laws
Edge.org's big question this year is: "What's your law?"
Third culture impresario John Brockman explains:
There is some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that you've noticed in the universe that might as well be named after you. Gordon Moore has one; Johannes Kepler and Michael Faraday, too. So does Murphy.
Since you are so bright, you probably have at least two you can articulate. Send me two laws based on your empirical work and observations you would not mind having tagged with your name. Stick to science and to those scientific areas where you have expertise. Avoid flippancy. Remember, your name will be attached to your law.
Some are cynical (a la Murphy). Many are obtuse. But some are pretty cool.
Polymath Kai Krause:
Kai's Example Dilemma
A good analogy is like a diagonal frog.
Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett:
Dennett's Law of Needy Readers... Read more ....
On any important topic, we tend to have a dim idea of what we hope to be true, and when an author writes the words we want to read, we tend to fall for it, no matter how shoddy the arguments. Needy readers have an asymptote at illiteracy; if a text doesn't say the one thing they need to read, it might as well be in a foreign language. To be open-minded, you have to recognize, and counteract, your own doxastic hungers.
January 10, 2004
Welcome to Blogs
Do you think people who've never heard of a blog actually find this article interesting?
The linked journals also form a community, an intriguing, unchecked experiment in silent group therapy -- a hive mind in which everyone commiserates about how it feels to be an outsider, in perfect choral unison.
Well isn't that poignant.
Really, what is the New York Times Magazine's target audience? I'm more and more beginning to suspect it's a group of time travelers from half a year ago, curious about what cultural developments have transpired in the interim. Next week in the NYTM: What is a "metrosexual"?
UPDATE: There's some quality snark about this article flying over on MetaFilter. Sample:
"It was early September, the start of the school year in an affluent high school in Westchester County, just north of New York City, where I was focusing my teen-blogging expedition. The halls were filled with students and the walls were covered with posters urging extracurricular activities. (''Instant popularity, minus the hazing,'' read one.) I had come looking for J., a boy I'd never seen, though I knew many of the details of his life." - Such the brave anthropologist, this Nussbaum, hacking her way with a machete through the dense tropical jungles which encircle NYC, to dare to meet the exotic, tribalistic young savages of the Westchester County suburbs!
She's lucky that these bone-in-the-nose primitives did not just throw her into a big kettle and boil her for dinner.
January 3, 2004
This Is a Little Depressing
December 30, 2003
The Village Genius
Here's a good WaPo series (Parts 2 and 3) on a woman from a rural Kenyan village sent to college in America, on a scholarship and with considerable financial help from her fellow villagers. She was sent with the agreement that she would return to the village after she got her degree, build a school there, improve the water system, and possibly even bring electricity.
It's a good read, looking at American culture, and at an American college, through an unfamiliar lens. The portrait it paints of rural Kenya is most fascinating. Do the villagers have unrealistic expectations for what a college degree means, or is it legit to think that one person with a degree could transform life for the folks back home? I mean, I'm pretty proud of my degree and all, but I don't know if it would equip me to start even the most humble school. And I sure don't know anything about irrigation or electricity.
I guess if I went to college with such predetermined needs for what I wanted to learn or accomplish, I might have gotten some great insights into bringing irrigation or electricity to a rural village. Kakenya Ntaiya, the woman in the article, started out planning to be an economics major. I wonder, would an economics major feel s/he's graduated with the skills necessary to reform the life of a town? Prod, prod.
December 26, 2003
Earthquake in Iran
This is the best site I've seen so far for news on the horrible earthquake in Iran. The site is going with reports on Iranian television that at least 4,000 people have been killed and 30,000 injured.
Update: In case you hadn't heard. 20,000 people dead, by latest official estimates. With that, I'll stop the depressing count of death. What a sad thing.
Update II: OK, I lied. 25,000. I know, I know. This doesn't help. If you're like me, your mind reels. You can neither fathom 25,000 dead, nor muster up anything but a vague sort of concern. We think of ourselves as thoroughly decent people, yet we can't even summon up any sort of tears for this massacre, when just last week, we were fighting them back watching Gandalf cheer Peregrin Took in preparation for certain death. How awful am I, we think, if the imminent deaths of two fictional characters cause more emotion than the very real deaths of 25,000? In fact, we're more concerned about our relative lack of concern than about the Iranian apocalypse itself. (Yes, I know, I'm projecting. Bear with me.) Well, yes, no bones about it, we're awful, as sentient beings go. But, as humans, with a few fortunate exceptions, we're mostly all this awful. So what are you going to do?
No guilt trip here, see? We're all aware on some level of our considerate shortcomings, and if you're again like me, you can find some strange sort of frightening solace in the knowledge that one possibly-imminent day you too will die, and with a few fortunate exceptions, no one will be all that concerned.
Meanwhile, give a little. Pretending to care at least is something.
December 17, 2003
Best-of the Best-ofs
I'll start...... Read more ....
December 14, 2003
I am very happy Saddam was captured. I hope justice will be brought on the evil man, and to his wounded country. Great job, 4th Infantry Division.
I also hope The Washington Post puts this David Finkel article back up in a prominent spot on the front page. My infant crush on the WaPo has now developed from an unfertilized ovum into a full-fledged zygote with this piece. A sample:
Everyone turns to look at Hill, the only one with a hand in the air, and suddenly her status is clear. They will lose their jobs by the end of December. She will still be working in January. They are seasonal. She is permanent. They are Sales. She is Sparkle.
November 20, 2003
A Vomitous Sea
From an e-mail interview with Berkeley Breathed on Salon.com:
I think there's both a saturation point and a failure point in events being beyond satire. I started stripping in 1981, the same month that MTV started. Daily satirical comment was either "Doonesbury" or "The Tonight Show." The horizon was clear. We had the whole playing field. You young punks just try to imagine that there wasn't even a World Wide Web. Michael Jackson jokes passed as edgy comedy in "Bloom County."
Now. Lord, now. The din of public snarkiness is stupefying. We're awash in a vomitous sea of caustic humorous comment. I hope to occasionally wade near the black hole of pop references only obliquely without getting sucked in with everyone else. Full disclosure: I'll admit that I had a momentary lapse and recently inked a strip where Opus' mom sees a picture of Michael Jackson in 1983, proclaims Jacko's old nose irresistible and voices an urgent wish to nibble it off down to the nub.
Wait, if we're lost at sea... then we need a (snark)master and commander! Arr, mateys, I nominate Ma--
Oh wait, the position is taken.