The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

A leaky rocketship
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I’ve been trying to write this post all day. It’s hard for me to write these days because I fractured my shoulder a few weeks ago, so writing for me really entails talking to a computer, which translates my speech into text. This sounds like it would be easy, but it isn’t. You need time, electricity, and relative quiet, which turns out to be really scarce. You also need to be able to pay attention, which is also pretty scarce.

We’re not quite at the “Speakularity,” where speech in any context can instantly be converted to text and back again with a minimum of human processing. But speech recognition software has gotten incredibly good — certainly much better than it was five years ago when I was last injured and trying to write blog posts with a combination of one-handed typing and decent – but – still – rudimentary speech recognition software. Those early Snarkmarket posts in the fall of 2009 were pretty rough. I remember contacting Robin Sloan and asking him if he could proofread them for me, because I made so many typos with my left hand, and I couldn’t pay attention long enough to reread everything I’d written.

Snarkmarket is 11 years old today, and like the preteen that it is, it’s not as communicative as its parents would always wish it would be. Attention and quiet are scarce resources, and even a hardy desert ecosystem needs those two things to sustain itself. Still, it’s a relief to know that Snarkmarket it’s always here, a pied-a-terre in the blogosphere for those of us who live on social media, dark social, the official world of formal communications, the imaginary world of invented fictions, the obligations and complications that life continually calls on us to address and fulfill. Snarkmarket is here. The key to that lock will always let you in.

Six years ago today, I became one of the writers/editors of Snarkmarket, joining Matt Thompson (hahaha — you guys can’t see it, but my speech software wanted to call him “Matt #”) and Robin Sloan in convening this circus tent, this public diary of private preoccupations, this repository for 10 year time capsules, this leaky rocketship into the future. Snarkmarket has been Snarkmarket with Tim longer now than it wasn’t.

And I think — maybe Robin and Matt would contest this — but Snarkmarket deserves a place as one of the Great Blogs of the 2000s. I don’t know if anyone is keeping a list of these, or if people get together and argue whether Metafilter or Kottke.org was better and why, or if the whole Daring Fireball route was a mistake, like sports fans arguing about overrated and underrated sports teams and players, but if such a world exists, and let’s be honest, a universe with such a world inside it is better and greater than one without it, in the same way that a universe with a just and perfect God is better and greater than one without it, I submit that in this world Snarkmarket needs to be considered as one of the Great Blogs, in the same way that Tony Gwynn is one of the great baseball players, or the 1988-89 Detroit Pistons is one of the great basketball teams of all time.

Enough people — smart people, successful people, people not much younger than Robin and Matt and I, but often more successful than any of us, which, look around, is a pretty significant hurdle to clear — come up to me and say things like, “Snarkmarket helped me figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up.” enough people say these things that I increasingly have a sense that Snarkmarket was not just the most important blog to me when I joined it in 2008, but to many other people too. It played that Tony Gwynn/Kazuo Ichiro role for a lot of people — sure, other blogs had more power, but Snarkmarket was just a little smarter, a little trickier, a little more curious, a little better at getting on base.

Joining this blog was one of the most important things that ever happened to me, and that’s another way in which I can judge somewhat objectively how important it is been. In November 2008, I was on the academic job market, getting ready to interview for a few tenure-track jobs and postdoctoral fellowships, and it was weird — it was a time when people, smart people, influential people still said “you shouldn’t have a blog, you shouldn’t be on twitter, if you do these things, you should do them under pseudonyms, and if anyone asks you about it, you shouldn’t tell them, because if you blog, and it’s known that you write a blog, online, people are going to wonder whether or not you’re really serious about your work, and you just don’t want to give them any extra ammunition to wonder anything about you.”

I didn’t care. I had been waiting for one or two years, ever since Robin had suggested that maybe Snarkmarket would add a few writers and maybe I might be one of them, I think when we were on our way to the bathroom at the Museum of Modern Art on a random visit, and I was just super hungry to be handed the key to this place where I’ve been reading and writing comments since before I knew what a blog really was.

Is that still a thing, people getting excited about being able to be part of a blog? I didn’t think so, but then I became part of Paul Ford’s tilde.club and saw people falling over themselves to get an invite to SSH into a UNIX server, just to be a part of something, just to have a chance to put up some silly, low bandwidth, conceptually clever websites and chat with strangers using the UNIX terminal. It’s not like being one of the cool kids who’s in on a private beta for the latest and greatest smartphone app, where your enjoyment is really about being separate from the people who aren’t included, and the expected attitude is a kind of jaded, privileged disinterest: it’s more like getting a chance to play with the neighbor kid’s Lego set, and he has all the Legos.

Robin and Matt had crazy good Legos. I didn’t get that academic job, but I was able to take their Legos and build my way into a job writing for Wired, of all places, 30 years old and I’d never been a journalist except by osmosis and imposture here at Snarkmarket, and now I get paid every month to write for Wired, how does that happen except that this place was an extra scaffolding for all of us, for me in grad school, for Matt at newspapers across the country, for Robin at Gore TV/Current TV/Twitter, to build careers that weren’t possible for people who didn’t have that beautiful Lego scaffolding to support them (I’m wearing a sling on my arm right now with straps that wrap around my body to hold my arm in place, and a screw and washer to hold my shoulder bone together, my upper arm bone really, plus my rotator cuff, plus hold massive tendons, plus I’m thinking about those times that I would walk from my apartment in Columbus Circle down Broadway to Four Times Square in Manhattan to go to work at wired, wired isn’t there anymore, Condé Nast just moved in to one World Trade Center today, all the way downtown, but the scaffolding in Manhattan that is just constant, that is the only thing that allows the city to remake itself day after day month after month year after year, so this scaffolding metaphor is really doing something for me, plus Legos, well, Legos that just came from before, so what can I tell you, roll with it).

I don’t work at Wired, Robin doesn’t work at Twitter, Matt is at NPR, and we are where we are because of the things that we did but also because of this place. Ars Technica ran a story about it being 10 years since EPIC 2014 – I could paste the link and maybe that would be the bloggy thing to do, but you’re big boys and girls, you can Google it after you finish reading this — and there’s great interviews in there with Robin and Matt about how they made the video, and some specific names of wars and companies aside, were basically right about how technology companies were going to take the distribution and interpretation of the news away from both traditional journalism companies and the emerging open standards of the World Wide Web. I mean, isn’t that a hell of a thing, to see the future and put it in a flash movie? Anything was possible in 2004, especially if that anything Looked like a future that was vaguely uncomfortable but not so bad, really.

I turned 35 today, and I don’t really have a lot of deep thoughts about my own life or career or where I am in it. I’ve had those on other birthdays, and I’ve had them on many days in the not too distant past. Today, though, I’ve mostly felt warm and embraced by the people all around me, in my home, across the country, on the telephone, connected to me by the mails, whose books I read (and whose books publishers send to my house, my friends are writing books and their publishers send them free to my house, that’s almost as amazing as a machine that I can control that lets me read new things all day), and who were connected to me by the Internet: on twitter or Facebook, on Slack or email, by text message or text messaging’s many, many hypostases, all around me, as real to me as anyone I’ve ever imagined or read or touched, all of them, all of them warm and kind and gracious and curious about me and how I’m doing, what I’m up to, what I’m thinking, what I want to do this week or next month or when I get a chance to read that thing they sent me. it is as real to me as that invented community at the end of epic 2015, that brilliant coda that people almost always forget, and I don’t know why because it’s actually a better prediction of our future-come-present than anything in the first video, but maybe it’s not about the New York Times, it’s just about a beautiful day outside, a traffic accident, an open door, Matt’s beautiful voice when he narrates that photograph, beckoning you to come outside to look, LOOK.

The Snarkmatrix Is infinite, the stark matrix is everywhere, the start matrix can touchdown at any point in these electronic channels and reconstitute itself, extending perpetually outward into the entire world of media and ideas and editors who are trying to understand what will happen next, and teenage kids who are trying to figure out how what they’re doing maps in any way at all to this strange, established world of culture, to writers who are anxious for any sense of community, any place to decompress between the often hostile worlds of social media and professional correspondence. People want a place, a third place, and blogs are a great form of that place, even when they’re not blogs. (I’m subblogging now. This is what it’s come to. But I think most of you feel me.)

I don’t feel like I’m at any kind of peak or hollow or inflection point of my life or career, or any vantage at which I can look forth and contemplate what’s happened or what is to come. what I feel overwhelmingly is a sense of being in the middle, in medias res, nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita, and there is no crisis, only a sense of being surrounded, enmeshed, connected, and in-between, en route. Snarkmarket remains en route. And I hope it does for another 111 years. It deserves to.

Screenshot 2014-11-04 13.24.26

4 comments

Bless the toolmakers
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CC-licensed photo from bre pettis.

Bless the toolmakers… but I’m worried that everybody wants to be one.

You look at the celebration of Steve Jobs and his Apple Inc., and you see a celebration of tools. “One of the things that separates us from high primates,” Jobs said long ago, “is that we’re tool builders.” In the next breath he made his great analogy: a computer is “a bicycle for our minds.” Classic, and true.

Today, you look at a sampling of startups and you see two things:

  1. A whole lot of incredibly smart young men who want to be the next Steve Jobs, and
  2. a whole lot of tools.

This is the reigning model for startups: make a tool and scale it up. The tool’s potential users can be rich (e.g. Salesforce) or they can be numerous (e.g. YouTube) or they can be rich and numerous (e.g. the iPhone) but any way you go, you are always a step removed from the object of attention. You are not the deal, you are not the Lil’ Wayne video, you are not the flirty text message. You are the facilitator, you are the mediator, you are the vessel.


CC-licensed photo from whiteforge.

What’s the relationship between a toolmaker and a tool user? I wonder about this a lot. I mean, when I read about Steve Jobs’ illness, I think of him with care and gratitude, and I echo Dan Sinker:

Steve Jobs had a hand in every tool that made me who I am. Forever indebted and in awe.

But… I don’t think about Steve Jobs when I’m using my MacBook. I don’t think about Thomas Knoll when I’m using Photoshop. I don’t think about the sublime inventor of the kitchen table (her name lost to history) when I sit here at mine. (I don’t think about the Ikea designer who made this particular model, either.)

Now switch from tools to media.

When I read The Anthologist, I am not really thinking about Nicholson Baker, either. Sure, I think about him when I read the book review and when I flip to the title page, but after that, I’m in the story. But!—I’m going to argue that Nicholson Baker is there with me, in my head, in a much fuller and more direct way than Thomas Knoll is with me when I’m using Photoshop.

Certainly with music, the case is even clearer: the artist’s presence (often literally her voice) is fully and directly felt. Music, especially pop music, imposes itself. It says: I am here with you now!

Now, personally, that relationship is what I’m after. I imagine two scenarios—one where I write a story that 10,000 people read and another where I build a tool that 100,000 people use—and the first is infinitely more appealing.

I want, frankly, to impose myself.

So when it comes to toolmaking… I just don’t understand it. Of course, I understand that these markets exist—markets for sales CRM, markets for video-viewing, markets for personal communication and status-signaling gadgetry. I just can’t understand wanting to be the person who serves them.

“There is a great satisfaction in building good tools for other people to use,” Freeman Dyson said. I’m supremely glad he feels that satisfaction, and I’m glad so many other toolmakers do, too.

But, is there a chance… just a small one… that today, in the world of startups and internet technology, too many people are making too many tools?

Even as I type it, my fingers recoil, because it sounds like such heresy. The internet is nothing but tools, built and shared. Glory to Github! We need more of this stuff, not less! … Right?

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by… toolmaking?


CC-licensed photo from Meanest Indian.

It actually makes me think of the way that consulting used to be such a scourge on the undergraduate landscape, sucking up all of the ambitious, flexible minds because it was prestigious and remunerative and in a way easy. Maybe it’s absurd to think we lost novelists and musicians to McKinsey… but I think we did.

Today, if you’re a person with the toolmaking talent, you actually have a lot of options, of which making a web platform or a framework are just a couple. If you possess the skills to make powerful tools, you’ve got one up on Archimedes. “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the earth,” he said. You, the toolmaker, can make your own place.

What do I mean?

Think of the electronic musician BT, who for years has enjoyed the advantage of a signature stuttering sound effect that he coded himself. This year, he finally decided to share his software, to put it up for sale—but you can bet he’s already working on the next great effect for his own music. It’s a competitive artistic advantage. (I mean, the dude knows Csound. Nobody knows Csound!)

Or think of Pixar, the Great Toolmaker’s side project. They sell movies, not tools, but the movies wouldn’t be possible without the tools that Pixar and Pixar alone possesses. Pixar is a place where brilliant toolmakers work for a tiny user-base: the artists across the hall. That partnership, and the feedback loop between tool and user that it permits, produces jaw-dropping results.

I mean, here’s what I think: the true intersection of technology and the liberal arts

…isn’t actually Apple. It’s Pixar.

So I wish more people were making tools for a specific creative purpose rather than for general consumer adoption. I wish more people were making tools that very intentionally do not scale—tools with users by the dozen. Tools you experience not through a web signup form, but through pathbreaking creative work.

I guess I want fewer aspirational Apples and more Pixar wannabes.

Bless the toolmakers. I’m definitely not complaining here, just thinking out loud, and wondering about this kind of person, the way you might wonder about a world-class tennis player or a wandering ascetic: How can you do that? What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning? It is honestly inscrutable to me.

But I also wonder if there are some toolmakers out there right now who feel some of the same doubt. Carried along by the current of conventional (startup) wisdom and, of course, the promise of a great scalable payout, they are busy making a web-based tool for collaborative something-or-other. But in the back of their brains, something feels wrong. Some ambition is left unfulfilled.

Here’s what I say: Come on over. Come join the side that makes books and music and movies. There are great rewards here, too, but not enough toolmakers. We need you.

44 comments

The art of working in public
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I have two exemplary pieces of 21st-century writing that I want to share with you. Neither is hot off the CMSes; they’ve both aged just a little in their tabbed casks. They have something deeply in common—though it might not be obvious at first. One is from BERG’s Matt Webb, the other from the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal. This post is going to run a bit long, with a healthy blockquotient, but I think it will end up somewhere interesting.

First: over at the BERG blog, the studio’s director Matt Webb writes weeknote 315. Now, BERG’s weeknotes are always interesting, but this one is a stand-out. It’s long—very long—and transparently written in installments. You can plainly see the rings on the tree, the grain of the writing.

The post begins. Almost immediately there’s a pause, signaled by a section break. Another graf, another pause. Then a section begins like this:

A few hours later – still Saturday – I’m reading an article called A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600-2100 section by section, and interspersing this with reading the monthly Profit and Loss and Balance Sheets of the company from the past year.

And then Matt dives into the details of BERG’s P&L. More sections follow. He touches on sales strategy, supply chain management, even financial stock and flow. (That is, the real kind, not the Snarkmarket kind… but we’re winning the Googlefight, so watch out. Ours might be the real kind soon.)

Later, Matt writes…

I attempt to run the company perpetually at medium-risk, with occasional forays into high-risk to grow – trusting ourselves to surf this tightrope – don’t laugh at the mixed metaphor, that’s what it feels like – and sometimes it takes a while to get my sea legs at a new scale, to discover what a tolerance of “medium” feels like when the numbers themselves change. Your sensitivity and tolerance improve only with practice. I wish I’d been given toy businesses to play with at school, just as playing with crayons taught my body how to let me draw.

I’ve written in these weeknotes before how I manage three budgets: cash, attention, risk. This is my attempt to explain how I feel about risk, and to trace the pathways between risk and cash. Attention, and how it connects, can wait until another day.

…and then of course even later in the post he ends up talking about attention after all.

Got it? Okay.

Next: over at the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal writes up the New York Public Library’s pathbreaking digital projects. Now, on one level, Alexis’s piece is more straightforward than Matt’s. It’s, like, an article. I mean, it even has a nut graf:

With all this change — not to mention a possible $40 million budget cut looming — it would be no surprise if the library was floundering like the music industry, newspapers, or travel agents. (Hey, man, we all get disintermediated sooner or later.) But that’s the wild thing. The library isn’t floundering. Rather, it’s flourishing, putting out some of the most innovative online projects in the country. On the stuff you can measure — library visitors, website visitors, digital gallery images viewed — the numbers are up across the board compared with five years ago. On the stuff you can’t, like conceptual leadership, the NYPL is killing it.

But… look at that nut graf. Look at the voice Alexis is rocking here—the NYPL is killing it—and look at that personal parenthetical: Hey, man, we all get disintermediated sooner or later. Here in the nut, in the very keystone of a long piece ostensibly about the New York Public Library, Alexis is tipping us off: This is actually going to be about me and you and the Atlantic, too.

Then, just a little bit later on, we read this:

I visited the library to see who was behind the excellent work at the library to see how they thought about what they were doing. And maybe I was hoping to pinch some lessons for my own work on how to teach old animals new tricks. The Atlantic was founded in 1857, after all, 54 years older than Patience and Fortitude.

And later, Alexis crosses the streams again…

People love the texture of old stories and the odd solidity of old photos. If you let them use those things for their own purposes, they love them even more. Take the New York Public Library’s stereogram collection. Stereograms were actually publicized by a key member of The Atlantic’s staff at the end of the 19th century, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

…again directly connecting the nominal subject of his piece (the NYPL) to the shadow subject (the Atlantic itself), which is, in fact, the shadow subject of most of his work, on most platforms.

And it’s glorious.

Okay, so now take a step back and consider these two pieces together.

They are written by two very different dudes, in different positions, with different objectives. But I want to argue that both are written in essentially the same style, with common characteristics both superficial—a smart but very informal voice that reads like a long email from your smartest coolest friend ever—and structural:

  • They both conjure a sense that the piece is almost being written as you read it. It feels like they’re just a graf or two ahead, and if you picked up the pace, you could catch them—overtake their blinking cursors. It feels slightly chaotic and totally thrilling.
  • They both let you inside their heads. With Matt you’re not just reading a list of, like, small-business tips. For the span of a few thousand words, you are riding shotgun as co-CEO of BERG. Likewise, with Alexis, you’re not just learning about the NYPL. You’re grabbing hold of the library’s old-made-new strategy and instantly spinning it around, asking yourself: How can I use this here at the Atlantic? It’s palpable, and it’s awesome.
  • But!—they don’t let you all the way inside. There’s plenty withheld here. In fact, here’s the genius of the style: they don’t tell you much at all. What’s BERG’s next big project? Uh, I don’t know. What’s Alexis’s strategy at the Atlantic? We’ll find out when he executes it. Even though their writing feels so revelatory, this isn’t radical transparency at all. It’s, what? Selective transparency? Choir screen transparency? I’m not leveling a criticism—this is a compliment.

I tend to zero in on this kind of writing because I aspire to do more of it myself, and to do it better. Working in public like this can be a lot of fun, for writer and reader alike, but more than that: it can be a powerful public good. The comments on Matt’s post all go something like this: Hey, thank you. I’m running a small studio myself, and this is really instructive. When you let people inside your head, they come away smarter. When you work in public, you create an emissary (media cyborg style) that then walks the earth, teaching others to do your kind of work as well. And that is transcendently cool.

At the same time: surprise is of the essence. And for me, it’s been increasingly difficult to communicate coherently about my day-to-day writing work without either a) being intolerably vague, or b) giving away the good stuff. I just can’t quite find the balance. I’m midway through George R. R. Martin’s latest—these are books famous for their ruthless surprises—and so I’m feeling this really keenly right now. We don’t want radical transparency from George R. R. Martin. We want radical opacity. We want maximum surprise!

But what I see in Matt’s and Alexis’s writing is a growing mastery of this balance. I think it’s an important new skill, maybe even a new liberal art. When you articulate it, it sounds almost like a koan, or part of some samurai code:

Work in public. Reveal nothing.

So what is this post, then? Me working on working in public, in public? Maybe. Actually, I think I might have a shadow subject of my own. As I’ve been writing here, I’ve been thinking (because come on, the scenario is inescapable): Can we get Webb and Madrigal to make something together? BERG and the Atlantic—what’s this going to take?

17 comments

The Cave, The Corps, The League
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I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M DOING THIS

I’m going to jump in the middle of Robin and Gavin’s exchange on the DC Comics reboot, even though I explicitly told both of them that I didn’t want to read about it and had nothing to say about any of it, because some things Robin just wrote sparked some ideas that I want to follow here.

Today, you don’t go work at Marvel and DC because of what they are; you go because of what they have. It’s almost like a natural resource. Superman and Batman are potent substances. They have this incredible innate energy, this incredible mythic density, built up over decades. They really are like petroleum—a bright eon of individual organic contributions all compressed into this powerful stuff that we can now burn for light, for entertainment, for money… How do you weigh the opportunity to work on an old titan like Superman against the opportunity to create something wholly new, and to potentially profit from that creation? Is it only sentimental or emotional value that draws an artist to the former—or is there more?… Maybe what we’re talking about here is the difference between being an entrepreneur and being a custodian. We tend to think of artists as entrepreneurs, right?—inventors, trailblazers, risk-takers. To make meaningful art is often simply to try something new.

Now before I start, I want to stipulate a few things. First, I want to take seriously Robin’s two primary arguments in his post:

  1. “I want to talk not about Superman’s universe, but our own—because I think this strategy says something interesting about creative economics today.” Let’s call this the explicit argument.
  2. Comic books themselves, as content, not just the strategies of their publishers and artists, have something to say about this. Let’s call this the implicit argument.

And I want to add a third point, that I’ll call the unconscious argument. It’s something I don’t think Robin necessarily intended, but which is entailed in the way he formulates the problem:

Everywhere in Robin’s post where he writes “artists,” you can substitute “journalists“—and probably many other nodes in creative economies, broadly construed.
Read more…
7 comments

The Two Mayors
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Today, the city of Chicago elects its mayor. In other cities, there would be a primary vote, then another at the time of the general election in November. But given the scarcity of Chicago Republicans — it’s like 25 guys, and they’re all professors in three departments at U of C — the Democratic primary would effectively determine who will be mayor of the city anyways.

So, Chicago’s mayoral race is nonpartisan. And it’s at the end of February — which in Chicago, is even more masochistic than it would be in cities with a more temperate climate.

Since Chicago’s longstanding Mayor Richard M Daley announced he would not seek re-election for another, Rahm Emanuel, former Chicago-area Congressman, Democratic Party powerhouse, and (until recently) Chief of Staff for President Obama, has sought to sew this thing up. There were some brief problems establishing his residency and right to run for office, but now it looks like he’s off to the races.

Since Emanuel announced he was running for office, he’s been joined by a delightfully funny and foul-mouthed shadow on Twitter calling himself @MayorEmanuel. Like Fake Steve Jobs before him, @MayorEmanuel combines a kind of exaggeration of the known qualities of the real Rahm Emanuel — profanity, intelligence, hyper-competitiveness — with a fully-realized, totally internal world of characters and events that has little to do with the real world and everything to do with the comic parallel universe @MayorEmanuel inhabits.

For instance, @MayorEmanuel’s “about” section on Twitter reads: “Your next motherfucking mayor. Get used to it, assholes.” The idea is that if we strip back the secrecy and public image to something so impolitic, so unlikely, we might arrive at something approximating the truth. But, despite my status as a one-time — and actually, I still hope future — Chicagoan, I haven’t been a regular reader of @MayorEmanuel. My friends retweet his funniest one-liners, and that’s good enough for me.

Yesterday, however, @MayorEmanuel outdid himself. He wrote an extended, meandering narrative of the day before the primary that took the whole parallel Rahm Emanuel thing to a different emotional, comic, cultural place entirely. It even features a great cameo by friend of the Snark Alexis Madrigal. The story is twisting, densely referential, far-ranging — and surprisingly, rather beautiful.

And so, once more using the magic of Storify, I’d like to share that story with you. I’ve added some annotations that I hope help explain what’s happening and aren’t too distracting.

In its original form, it has no title. I call it “The Two Mayors.” Read it after the jump.

Read more…
7 comments

Age of majority
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Radiohead’s new album King of Limbs dropped on Friday, prompting much love from the Twittersphere. Maybe too much. The British band hits a kind of sweet spot for the educated set: progressive contemporary music that’s equally accessible whether you’re into old-school prog/classic rock, 90s alternative, or 00s house. Still, some of the exchanges seemed a little, um, exuberant:

Still, I think music fans and cultural observers need to grapple with this a little: Radiohead’s first album, Pablo Honey, came out 18 years ago. Here’s another way to think about it: when that album came out, I was 13; now I’m 31. And from at least The Bends to the present, they’ve commanded the attention of the musical press and the rock audience as one of the top ten — or higher — bands at any given moment. You might have loved Radiohead, you might have been bored by them, you might have wished they’d gone back to an earlier style you liked better, but you always had to pay attention to them, and know where you stood. For 18 years. That’s an astonishing achievement.

Here are some comparisons. The Rolling Stones have obviously outdone everyone in the rock longevity department; even if they were sometimes a punchline, they’ve made solid music and have always been insanely profitable. But really, if you take the stretch from 1964’s The Rolling Stones to 1981’s Tattoo You — which is actually mostly a B-sides album of leftovers from 1978’s Some Girls — that’s only 17 years. If you just do their first album through Some Girls, it’s only 14 years. And that’s when the Stones basically stop evolving as a band and stop being a crucial signpost for popular music.

Very few other rock bands last that long. The Beatles didn’t. Talking Heads didn’t. The Pixies and The Velvet Underground obviously didn’t. The Who only had 13 years between their first album and Keith Moon’s overdose. When Bruce Springsteen had a hit with “Streets of Philadelphia” eighteen years after Born To Run, it was an amazing comeback. R.E.M. had about 20 years of fairly consistent attention between “Radio Free Europe” and Reveal, but that’s an unknown underground band on one end and a kind of boring washed-up band on the other with a peak in the middle.

The Flaming Lips are still pushing it. U2’s been going for about 30 years, although they’ve lost a lot of cred along the way that Radiohead hasn’t. Bob Dylan is a freak. But this is the level we’re talking about here: U2, Dylan, and Radiohead. It’s worth tipping your cap. And watching some videos.

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A hypothetical path to the Speakularity
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Yesterday NiemanLab published some of my musings on the coming “Speakularity” – the moment when automatic speech transcription becomes fast, free and decent.

I probably should have underscored the fact that I don’t see this moment happening in 2011, given the fact that these musings were solicited as part of a NiemanLab series called “Predictions for Journalism 2011.” Instead, I think several things possibly could converge next year that would bring the Speakularity a lot closer. This is pure hypothesis and conjecture, but I’m putting this out there because I think there’s a small chance that talking about these possibilities publicly might actually make them more likely.

First, let’s take a clear-eyed look at where we are, in the most optimistic scenario. Watch the first minute-and-a-half or so of this video interview with Clay Shirky. Make sure you turn closed-captioning on, and set it to transcribe the audio. Here’s my best rendering of some of Shirky’s comments alongside my best rendering of the auto-caption:

Manual transcript: Auto transcript:
Well, they offered this penalty-free checking account to college students for the obvious reason students could run up an overdraft and not suffer. And so they got thousands of customers. And then when the students were spread around during the summer, they reneged on the deal. And so HSBC assumed they could change this policy and have the students not react because the students were just hopelessly disperse. So a guy named Wes Streeting (sp?) puts up a page on Facebook, which HSBC had not been counting on. And the Facebook site became the source of such a large and prolonged protest among thousands and thousands of people that within a few weeks, HSBC had to back down again. So that was one of the early examples of a managed organization like a bank running into the fact that its users and its customers are not just atomized, disconnected people. They can actually come together and act as a group now, because we’ve got these platforms that allow us to coordinate with one another. will they offer the penalty-free technique at the college students pretty obvious resistance could could %uh run a program not suffer as they got thousands of customers and then when the students were spread around during the summer they were spread over the summer the reneged on the day and to hsbc assumed that they could change this policy and have the students not react because the students were just hopeless experts so again in western parts of the page on face book which hsbc had not been counting on the face book site became the source of such a large and prolonged protest among thousands and thousands of people that within a few weeks hsbc had to back down again so that was one of the early examples are female issue organization like a bank running into the fact that it’s users are not just after its customers are not just adam eyes turned disconnected people they get actually come together and act as a group mail because we’ve got these platforms to laos to coordinate

Cringe-inducing, right? What little punctuation exists is in error (“it’s users”), there’s no capitalization, “atomized” has become “adam eyes,” “platforms that allow us” are now “platforms to laos,” and HSBC is suddenly an example of a “female issue organization,” whatever that means.

Now imagine, for a moment, that you’re a journalist. You click a button to send this video to Google Transcribe, where it appears in an interface somewhat resembling the New York Times’ DebateViewer. Highlight a passage in the text, and it will instantly loop the corresponding section of video, while you type in a more accurate transcription of the passage.

That advancement alone – quite achievable with existing technology – would speed our ability to transcribe a clip like this quite a bit. And it wouldn’t be much more of an encroachment than Google has already made into the field of automatic transcription. All of this, I suspect, could happen in 2011.

Now allow me a brief tangent. One of the predictions I considered submitting for NiemanLab’s series was that Facebook would unveil a dramatically enhanced Facebook Videos in 2011, integrating video into the core functionality of the site the way Photos have been, instead of making it an application. I suspect this would increase adoption, and we’d see more people getting tagged in videos. And Google might counter by adding social tagging capabilities to YouTube, the way they have with Picasa. This would mean that in some cases, Google would know who appeared in a video, and possibly know who was speaking.

Back to Google. This week, the Google Mobile team announced that they’ve built personalized voice recognition into Android. If you turn it on for your Android device, it’ll learn your voice, improving the accuracy of the software the way dictation programs such as Dragon do now.

Pair these ideas and fast-forward a bit. Google asks YouTube users whether they want to enable personalized voice recognition on videos they’re tagged in. If Google knows you’re speaking in a video, it uses what it knows about your voice to make your part of the transcription more accurate. (And hey, let’s throw in that they’ve enabled social tagging at the transcript level, so it can make educated guesses about who’s saying what in a video.)

A bit further on: Footage for most national news shows is regularly uploaded to YouTube, and this footage tends to feature a familiar blend of voices. If they were somewhat reliably tagged, and Google could begin learning their voices, automatic transcriptions for these shows could become decently accurate out of the box. That gets us to the democratized Daily Show scenario.

This is a bucketload of hypotheticals, and I’m highly pessimistic Google could make its various software layers work together this seamlessly anytime soon, but are you starting to see the path I’m drawing here?

And at this point, I’m talking about fairly mainstream applications. The launch of Google Transcribe alone would be a big step forward for journalists, driving down the costs of transcription for news applications a good amount.

Commenter Patrick at NiemanLab mentioned that the speech recognition industry will do everything in its power to prevent Google from releasing anything like Transcribe anytime soon. I agree, but I think speech transcription might be a smaller industry economically than GPS navigation,* and that didn’t prevent Google from solidly disrupting that universe with Google Navigate.

I’m stepping way out on a limb in all of this, it should be emphasized. I know very little about the technological or market realities of speech recognition. I think I know the news world well enough to know how valuable these things would be, and I think I have a sense of what might be feasible soon. But as Tim said on Twitter, “the Speakularity is a lot like the Singularity in that it’s a kind of ever-retreating target.”

The thing I’m surprised not many people have made hay with is the dystopian part of this vision. The Singularity has its gray goo, and the Speakularity has some pretty sinister implications as well. Does the vision I paint above up the creep factor for anyone?

* To make that guess, I’m extrapolating from the size of the call center recording systems market, which is projected to hit $1.24 billion by 2015. It’s only one segment of the industry, but I suspect it’s a hefty piece (15%? 20%?) of that pie. GPS, on the other hand, is slated to be a $70 billion market by 2013.

5 comments

Kanye West, media cyborg
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Tim Maly’s #50cyborgs project is unfolding this month, 50 years after the coining of the term “cyborg.” Here at Snarkmarket, our Tim has already contributed. Here’s my addition.

So, I love Tim Maly’s kickoff post: What’s a cyborg? It’s fun, revelatory, provocative, and it uses design to tell its tale. (You know I love that.) Tim laces the post with striking images, and he labels them: This is a cyborg. This is not a cyborg.

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But I think he misses one.

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Because this is a cyborg, too.

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I’m not saying that because of the sampler on the pedestal or the vocoder attached to the microphone (although somebody could do a great #50cyborgs post about the recent robotization of pop vocals). I’m talking about the frame itself. About the image of a star on stage in front of 11 million people. About the digital distribution of that image to screens and eyeballs around the planet. And, most importantly, about the fact that Kanye West has the media muscles to make that happen.

Isn’t there such a thing as a media cyborg?

After you read Tim’s post, you start to see cyborgs all around you. It’s not just people with, you know, gun-legs; it’s anybody who uses a cell phone or wears contact lenses. It’s anybody who brings a tool really close in order to augment some capability.

Aren’t there people who have brought media that close? Aren’t there people who manipulate it, in all its forms, as naturally as another person might make a phone call, or speak, or breathe?

When you think of someone like Kanye West or Lady Gaga, you can’t think only of their brains and bodies. Lady Gaga in a simple dress on a tiny stage in a no-name club in Des Moines is—simply put—not Lady Gaga. Kanye West in jeans at a Starbucks is not Kanye West.

To understand people like that—and, increasingly, to understand people like us (eep!)—you’ve got to look instead at the sum of their brains, their bodies, the media they create, and the media created by others about them. All together, it constitutes a sort of fuzzy cloud that’s much, much bigger than a person.

This hits close to home for me. In fact, it’s the reason I do a lot of the things that I do. At some point in your life, you meet a critical mass of smart, fun, interesting people, and a depressing realization hits: There are too many. You’ll never meet all the people that you ought to meet. You’ll never have all the conversations that you ought to have. There’s simply not enough time.

You know those movie scenes where two characters miss each other by just a fraction of a second, and how it’s so frustrating to watch? You want to reach into the screen and go: Hey, stop! Just slow down. He’s coming around the corner! Well, that’s life—except in life, it’s multiplied a million-fold in every dimension. You can miss somebody not just by a second, but by a century. You can miss somebody not just by a couple of steps, but by the span of a continent.

Media evens the odds.

Media lets you clone pieces of yourself and send them out into the world to have conversations on your behalf. Even while you’re sleeping, your media —your books, your blog posts, your tweets—it’s on the march. It’s out there trying to making connections. Mostly it’s failing, but that’s okay: these days, copies are cheap. We’re all Jamie Madrox now.

Okay, let’s keep things in perspective. For most of us, even the blogotronic twitternauts of the Snarkmatrix, this platoon of posts is a relatively small part of who we are. But I’d argue that for an exceptional set of folks—the Kanyes, the Gagas, the Obamas—it is a crucial, even central, component.

Maybe that sounds dehumanizing, but I don’t think it ought to be. We’re already pretty sure that the mind is not a single coherent will but rather a crazy committee whose deliberations get smoothed out into the thing we call consciousness or identity or whatever. Use your imagination: what if some of that committee operates remotely? If 99.99% of the world will only ever encounter Kanye West through the bright arc of media that he produces—isn’t that media, in some important way, Kanye?

Again: I don’t think it’s dehumanizing. I don’t think it’s dystopian. Any cyborg technology has a grotesque extreme; there are glasses and there are contacts and there are these. So it’s like that with media, too. We all do this; we all use media every day to extend our senses and our spheres of influence. At some scale, sure, things gets weird, and you lose track of you, and suddenly you’re being choked to death by your own robotic arm. But way before you get to that point, you get these amazing powers:

  • The power to reach beyond yourself, outward in space and forward in time.
  • The power to have conversations—really rich, meaningful conversations—with more people than you could ever break bread with.
  • And, increasingly, the power to get reports back from your little platoon—to see how your media is performing.

We’re all media cyborgs now.

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P.S. Don’t miss Kevin Kelly’s contribution to #50cyborgs!

41 comments

Only crash
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Sometimes you run across an idea so counter-intuitive and brain-bending that you immediately want to splice it into every domain you can think of. Sort of like trying a novel chemical compound against a bunch of cancers: does it work here? How about here? Or here?

That’s how I feel about crash-only software (link goes to a PDF in Google’s viewer). Don’t pay too much attention to the technical details; just check out the high-level description:

Crash-only programs crash safely and recover quickly. There is only one way to stop such software—by crashing it—and only one way to bring it up—by initiating recovery.

Wow. The only way to stop it is by crashing it. The normal shutdown process is the crash.

Let’s go a little deeper. You can imagine that commands and events follow “code paths” through software. For instance, when you summoned up this text, your browser followed a particular code path. And people who use browsers do this a lot, right? So you can bet your browser’s “load and render text” code path is fast, stable and bug-free.

But what about a much rarer code path? One that goes: “load and render text, but uh-oh, it looks like the data for the font outlines got corrupted halfway through the rendering process”? That basically never happens; it’s possible that that code path has never been followed. So it’s more likely that there’s a bug lurking there. That part of the browser hasn’t been tested much. It’s soft and uncertain.

One strategy to avoid these soft spots is to follow your worst-case code paths as often as your best-case code paths (without waiting for, you know, the worst case)—or even to make both code paths the same. And crash-only software is sort of the most extreme extension of that idea.

Maybe there are biological systems that already follow this practice, at least loosely. I’m thinking of seeds that are activated by the heat of a forest fire. It’s like: “Oh no! Worst-case scenario! Fiery apocalypse! … Exactly what we were designed for.” And I’m thinking of bears hibernating—a sort of controlled system crash every winter.

What else could we apply crash-only thinking to? Imagine a crash-only government, where the transition between administrations is always a small revolution. In a system like that, you’d optimize for revolution—build buffers around it—and as a result, when a “real” revolution finally came, it’d be no big deal.

Or imagine a crash-only business that goes bankrupt every four years as part of its business plan. Every part of the enterprise is designed to scatter and re-form, so the business can withstand even an existential crisis. It’s a ferocious competitor because it fears nothing.

Those are both fanciful examples, I know, but I’m having fun just turning the idea around in my head. What does crash-only thinking connect to in your brain?

21 comments

Stock and flow
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I was an economics major in college, and I’ve been grateful ever since for the few key concepts it drilled into me: things like opportunity cost, sunk cost, and marginal cost. I think about this stuff all the time in my everyday life. Sometimes I consider the marginal cost of, like, making myself another sandwich.

But one of the biggest takeaways was the concept of stock and flow.

Do you know about this? Couldn’t be simpler, and really, it’s not even that much of an a-ha. There are two kinds of quantities in the world. Stock is a static value: money in the bank, or trees in the forest. Flow is a rate of change: fifteen dollars an hour, or three thousand toothpicks a day. Easy. Too easy.

But I actually think stock and flow is the master metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:

  • Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that reminds people you exist.
  • Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

I feel like flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons—but we neglect stock at our own peril. I mean that both in terms of the health of an audience and, like, the health of a soul. Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill. Well, you can. But then one day you’ll get off and look around and go: oh man. I’ve got nothing here.

But I’m not saying you should ignore flow! No: this is no time to hole up and work in isolation, emerging after long months or years with your perfectly-polished opus. Everybody will go: huh? Who are you? And even if they don’t—even if your exquisitely-carved marble statue of Boba Fett is the talk of the tumblrs for two whole days—if you don’t have flow to plug your new fans into, you’re suffering a huge (here it is!) opportunity cost. You’ll have to find them all again next time you emerge from your cave.

Here’s a case study: my pal Alexis Madrigal here in SF has got the stock/flow balance down. On one end of the spectrum, he’s a Twitter natural and a Tumblr adept. Madrigal’s got mad flow; you plug in, and you get a steady stream of interesting stuff every day. But on the other end of the spectrum—and man, this is just so important—he’s working on a deep, nuanced history of green tech in America. He’s working on a book intended to stand the test of time.

You can tell that I want you to stop and think about stock here. I feel like we all got really good at flow, really fast. But flow is ephemeral. Stock sticks around. Stock is capital. Stock is protein.

And the real magic trick in 2010 is to put them both together. To keep the ball bouncing with your flow—to maintain that open channel of communication—while you work on some kick-ass stock in the background. Sacrifice neither. It’s the hybrid strategy.

So, okay, I was thinking about stock and flow while I was doing the dishes just a second ago, and wondered: wait, there are all these super-successful artists and media people today who don’t really think about flow. Like, Wes Anderson? Come on. He’s all stock. And he seems to do okay.

But I think the secret is that somebody else does his flow for him. I mean, what are PR and advertising? Flow, bought and paid for. Messages metered out over time. But rewind history and put Wes Anderson on his own—alone in the world—and I don’t think you get the same result. His stock is strong stuff: hugely compelling, utterly unique. But how does he tell people about it?

So if you are in the position to have somebody else handle your flow while you tend to your stock: awesome. But that’s true for almost no one, and will (I think?) be true for even fewer over time, so you need to have your own plan for this stuff.

Anyway: this is not a huge insight, I know. Mostly I just wanted to share the lingo, because it’s been echoing in my head since my first microeconomics course. Today, whenever I put my hands on the keyboard, I’m asking myself: Is this stock? Is this flow? How’s my mix? Do I have enough of both?

65 comments