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

Paul Rand: “Simplicity is not the goal. It is the byproduct of a good idea and modest expectations.”

The Common Test

One of my running jokes on Twitter is that I hate the rapper/actor Common. No; hate is the wrong word. The joke is that I consider Common my personal archenemy.

Now, it’s certainly true that I generally think there are better rappers and especially better actors than Common. And I think “I Used To Love H.E.R.” is a shining example of supposed consciousness and integrity hiding a lazy misogyny. But I’m mostly playing this up, because it’s funny to me how strong my feelings sometimes run — in general, not just about music or movies, and particular, about Common.

There are songs featuring Common that I absolutely love: Black Star’s “Respiration” is definitely one of them.

J. Dilla’s “So Far To Go,” with Common and D’Angelo, is another. Even if its greatness has more to do with Dilla and D’Angelo’s contributions than Common’s (and some of his lyrics make me shake my head), it’s just beautiful:

It’s probably most accurate to say: Common bugs me. Take the end of his verse on “Respiration”:

Ask my guy how he thought travellin’ the world sound
Found it hard to imagine he hadn’t been past downtown
It’s deep, I heard the city breathe in its sleep
A reality I touch, but for me it’s hard to keep
Deep, I heard my man breathe in his sleep
A reality I touch, but for me it’s hard to keep

Now, that last couplet — that’s a pretty good line. You can tell Common knows it, too, because he repeats it. Why does he repeat it?

Now, this is educated conjecture, but: he really likes it, he thinks it’s profound, and he wants to hang a lantern on it. And: it’s because the structure of the verse demands another rhyme, and he doesn’t have a better one.

As a writer and editor, this offends me. This is super-presumptive on my part, but I feel just a little bit like Lydia Davis in this terrific anecdote from her 2014 New Yorker profile that I think about all the time:

One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.

I want to like Common. But he keeps getting in the way. I wish he would get out of the way.

Note: I feel this way about a lot of people. Blake Griffin — really, the entire Los Angeles Clippers — Cam Newton (although I’m mellowing on Cam), Dwight Howard, Kyrie Irving, Pete Townshend, Paul Simon, post-Exile in Guyville Liz Phair, Batman, more of my fellow journalists and scholars than I am comfortable naming. I just want them to be better artists, public personalities, and/or humans than they are.

Now, one artist I am 100 miles per hour excited about pretty much all the time is Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick is great because, like Anthony Davis, he got great in a hurry and there’s a very good chance he’s going to get even better as time goes on. Even if the things he says sometimes makes you shake your head — and really, once you start shaking your head at hip-hop and pro athletes, you’re never going to stop — he’s so charming that you forgive him everything. (It’s the same quality that Eazy-E, Snoop Dogg, and pre-2000 Tom Cruise had.)

Here’s an example of why I like Kendrick Lamar so much. This is from “Backseat Freestyle,” a joyous, thoroughly juvenile, and exceptionally well-crafted single from his 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city.

Goddamn I feel amazing, damn I’m in the matrix
My mind is living on cloud nine and this 9 is never on vacation
Start up that Maserati and VROOM-VROOM, I’m racing
Popping pills in the lobby and I pray they don’t find her naked

Now, that second part of the first line almost always trips me up. First of all, I’m not totally convinced that it’s “damn I’m in the matrix” and not “damn I’m in the majors,” but the first is what most of the lyrics sites go with, so, ok, whatever.

Second of all, it’s not the song’s hook, but it shows up where the hook might go (before the first bridge or hook ever appears) and parallels its structure. This is how the hook goes:

Goddamn I got bitches, damn I got bitches
Damn I got bitches, wifey, girlfriend and mistress
All my life I want money and power
Respect my mind or die from lead showers

So you have this “Goddamn/damn” partial parallel in the hook, which is fully paralleled in this verse. Which makes you think, once you know the song, that he’s going to lead into “Goddamn I got bitches” rather than “Goddamn I feel amazing.” And he repeats “I got bitches” three times, which leads you to think, okay, he’s going to repeat “I feel amazing.” But he doesn’t. He goes into “goddamn I’m in the matrix/majors.”

And in fact, every single one of the hooks is just a little bit different. Sometimes after “damn I got bitches,” he adds a little contrapuntal “okay,” and sometimes he doesn’t.

It actually reminds me a little of what Paul Simon does to the hook on “Graceland.” Go to about five minutes in, and you get a fraction of the story of composing this song: the full version on Under African Skies (from which these clips are taken) is terrific.

Anyways, on “Graceland” sometimes the hook is more straightforward (“I’m going to Graceland / Memphis, Tennessee / I’m going to Graceland”) and sometimes it’s a permutation (“In Graceland, in Graceland / I’m going to Graceland”). It’s tied to little mini-verses, and sometimes it migrates out of the chorus and into the verse. It’s just a continual iteration and play.

Kendrick and Paul are never happy to just repeat themselves, no matter how thoroughly they’ve nailed it. And that’s why I’m more tolerant of their tics, blind spots, and failings of politics or self-consciousness, than I am for someone like Common. Because they’re actually artists, and much closer to the kind of artist or craftsman that I would like to be.

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I really don’t know clouds at all

I watched Peter Diamandis give a presentation yesterday (at the Michigan CEO Summit) – among other things, he showed a video of Watson absolutely dominating in Jeopardy and mentioned, offhand, that Watson has an API now.

My ears perked up, and one Google search and a few clicks later, I confirmed what I’ve long suspected: AI is coming for my job.

Message Resonance

But don’t worry, fellow wordsmiths and rhetoricians: the only audience you can optimize for, under Watson’s current public incarnation as Bluemix, is the crowd of Twitter users interested in two topics:

  • Cloud
  • Big Data

And that, if you’ll forgive the somewhat laborious introduction, is why I’m thinking about clouds.

Sunrise (Abbottabad) 1

Much like its tropospheric namesake, you can see almost anything in the digital cloud if you stare at it long enough. Panopticon? Library of Babel? Sum total of human knowledge? Yes, yes, yes, all of the above. So why do we persist in using only one word to mean so many things?

I’d like to propose a new classification system. Instead of just talking about “the cloud”, as in “this app syncs with the cloud” or “I keep all my photos in the cloud now” or “Ever since Snowden, I just don’t trust the cloud” – let’s be more specific.

Clouds and Clouds

Cirrus clouds are light, wispy, more decorative than consequential.

Cirrus clouds 2

Moving over to the digital world, a cirrus cloud primarily stores metadata, and you wouldn’t really miss if it disappeared. For example, Chrome browser sync – it’s nice to have your bookmarks on all your computers, but not something you couldn’t live without. GameCenter on iOS keeps track of your leaderboard rankings and syncs your game progress, but you don’t really “keep” anything in GameCenter.

Cumulus clouds are hefty, voluminous, big.

Cumulus clouds 3

A cumulus cloud is a storehouse for heaps of data, like that 25GB of correspondence over a decade in your Gmail account, or photo backups on Dropbox, or your iTunes library.

Stratus clouds are flat sheets, sometimes layered. People don’t take many photos of stratus clouds, because frankly they’re not very impressive.

Stratus cloud 4

A stratus cloud is important, but it’s not customer-facing. Amazon AWS, Github, Heroku – workhorses, one and all, but unless you’re a developer you probably neither know nor care.

And then there are nimbus clouds – the ones that promise rain, sleet, snow, hail. Or worse.

Nimbus cloud 5

Nimbus clouds are the dark internet, the alphabet soup of NSA programs, the hacked credit card and password databases getting passed around the back alleys of the net. The cloud that rains on your parade when your identity gets stolen: that’s a nimbus.

This is just scratching the surface of cloud-related terminology, but it’s a start – and hopefully a useful one. What do you think?


  1. Photo CC-BY-SA Umais Bin Sajjad
  2. Photo CC-BY European Southern Observatory (ESO)
  3. Photo CC-BY-NC Fir0002/Flagstaffotos
  4. Photo CC-BY-SA PiccoloNamek
  5. Photo CC-BY-SA Malene Thyssen

What a dodo might teach us about books

We seem to be living in a perpetual age of the death throes of The Book. 1 There are too many pieces to count that insist that the book is dead or (despite all odds) is thriving, that paper books are different/better/worse than electronic books, that game apps will save books, blah blah blah. We seem to rehash the same surface-level observations over and over again. As my friend Alan Jacobs wondered, “Why do people still write as though they’re the first ones to think about the difference between e-books and codices?” I’ll spare you my thoughts on the subject, since I’ll only gripe about how people misunderstand the complexities of books, whether on a print or a digital platform, and who wants to read more griping?

If you want to think about these questions through experiencing them, let’s look instead at some books that live on the boundary between print and electronic. The obvious starting place is Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen (Siglio Press, 2012): it exists in a codex form that can be held in your hand but to read it, you’ll need a computer. The pages of the book are black-and-white geometric shapes that are referred to as markers or hieroglyphs or sigils. The shapes aren’t legible as words to the human eye; hold them up to your webcam, however, and the book’s website will show back to you the poem floating above the page.

2014-01-03 10_58_52-Between Page and Screen

Is it still a book if you can only read it with a computer? That’s not a bad question, I suppose, and I find the concept of the work interesting. But the experience of using the book drives me crazy. When I first got it, my ancient laptop didn’t have a camera; the computers in the house that did either didn’t have Flash installed or had their cameras disabled. Now that I have a fancy laptop, I have the technological requirements, but it turns out I’m not so good at orienting the book to be read by my computer. First I held the book so that it was orientated to the computer’s perspective . . .

2014-01-03 10_57_08-Between Page and Screen

And then I realized (thanks to my 12-year-old) that I should hold the book so that it faced me correctly, not the lens. Perhaps I’m so wed to the notion of reading that I automatically assume that the computer “reads” books top-to-bottom, left-to-right as I do—that is, my problem might be a feature, not a bug. But if I’m really going to judge this book as something to be read, I have to say that the poetry in it dreadful. Apparently the book first existed in a limited-edition run of 12 letter-press books; perhaps the frisson between letter-press and Flash would have shifted some of the attention away from the words. I love the idea of visual poems that move through digital space, just as I have a fondness for codices that make themselves hard to read. 2 But I’d like to see the technologies harnessed to something with words to equal the beauty of the interface.

Perhaps the opposite of Between Page and Screen—and way more fun—is Richard Moore’s Paper Pong (2008). Paper Pong is, essentially, a Choose Your Own Adventure version of Pong, in which you start on page 1 and then need to choose whether you’re going to move your paddle up (go to page 114) or down (go to page 117).


I spent a lot of time as a kid playing Pong at home, so perhaps that’s why I enjoy this book so much. But I love it, too, for its ridiculousness. It’s a paper replication of a video game! Why would you do that? Why write lines of code to create a game of Pong that you then remediate in paper form? I don’t know that there’s a good reason to do that, other than you can. And, actually, that’s a decent reason, one that drives more than a few novels. Also, it turns out I’m still pretty bad at Pong and actually lost a couple of times before I got the hang of it. It’s a bit surprising the amount of tension generated by a paper version of a video game of a ball-and-paddle game. When you do lose, you end up with the wonderful message, “Game Over / To play again, go to page 1 / To quit, close this book.”

There are other books that take the graphic approach to the question of where the boundary is between print and electronic. Silvio Lorusso and Sebastian Schmieg’s 56 Broken Kindle Screens: Photographed E Ink, Collected Online, Printed On Demand (2012) consists of 56 images of broken Kindle screens found on Flickr and then reproduced in a print-on-demand paperback. The images can be gorgeous, and I love both the way it turns broken objects into art and the layers of mediation, moving from e-ink to pixel to paper, that goes into producing it. And my scholar’s heart loves that at the back of the book are credits for each image.


Fathom Information Design’s Frankenfont (2011) prints Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in fonts taken from a collection of pdfs gathered online; the book starts off with individual letters reproduced in the most common fonts (Arial, Helvetica, and Times New Roman, of course) and gradually shifts until the letters are in unusual ones (scripts, non-Roman fonts, pictograms). It, like 56 Broken Kindle Screens, is a good concept, but in practice I find it less engaging. Perhaps if the fonts were more interesting—rather than using unusualness as a marker of font, what about wholeness? Software degrades, fonts degrade. Perhaps if there was more willingness to play with ideas of beauty and completeness I would have liked it better.

There’s also the more straightforward projects of printing out the web. Rob Matthews, in 2012, printed out 0.01% of Wikipedia as a 5000-page, 1’7” tall book (XKCD, by the way, has worked out how many printers it would take to print out the entire English-language Wikipedia). There’s the ongoing Printing out the Internet (“A crowdsourced project to literally print out the entire internet.”), which doesn’t seem as clever to me as it does to its creators, although it’s apparently somehow intended to memorialize Aaron Swartz. If that’s not enough, the Library of the Printed Web displays the terrifying number of projects devoted to variations of this enterprise. It makes me weary just thinking about it. I do love The Art of Google Books, however, and if its creator, Krissy Wilson, does end up making a book from the Tumblr (as she suggests she’s interested in doing), I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

My favorite book for thinking about technologies and obsolescence is A Dodo at Oxford: The Unreliable Account of a Student and His Pet Dodo (Oxgarth Press, 2010). This book, edited by Philip Atkins and Michael Johnson, purports to be a facsimile edition of a 1695 printed diary of an student at Oxford who owned a dodo. Atkins and Johnson tell the story of finding the book in an Oxfam, searching for more information about it, and finally editing it for us today. The bulk of the volume is their facsimile replication of the diary with their annotations in the margin explaining various historical facts and oddities; there are also a series of appendices explaining early modern printing, including the use of the long-s, ligatures, and signature marks.


The story itself is charming—the narrator is bequeathed the Dodo by a dying Dutchman and then struggles to study and keep healthy the bird, all while enduring the usual poor-student travails—and the book is gorgeous. But what does this have to do with technology and obsolescence? I’m hesitant to give away too much of its wonder, but it’s no coincidence that Atkins and Johnson choose to tell the story of an extinct bird in a format that emphasizes its distance from our technologies today. It’s not only the replication of seventeenth-century print features, but instance after instance of subsequent histories, including some openings reproduced as blue-line corrections to the text, prophetic dreams about bicycles and other not-yet-inventions (you can read one of those dreams in the image above), a bookmark about the dangers of smoking, and inserts of photos of electricity pylons being built. The entire codex interweaves questions of technology, extinction, and discovery. Is the book a museum like the Ashmolean, an object to be studied like the Dodo, something that dreams the future? A Dodo at Oxford is smart and funny. Go read it the next time someone tells you that books are (omigod are not!) dying.

Perhaps the main thing to remember as the fruitless debate circles and circles is that any opposition between print and digital is, today, ridiculous. You might think you’re reading a paper book, but it was, I promise you, produced through digital means. The person who wrote it is overwhelmingly likely to have used a computer to do so, it was edited and typeset using software, its distribution is enabled and tracked with databases, and it is reviewed and discussed in both electronic and physical spaces that are enabled by technology. 3

It’s not a black-and-white world out there. Our methods of producing and consuming books will continue to be as multiply shaded as our reactions to them has always been. So here’s to reading instead of fretting!


  1. I recommend reading Robert Bolick’s excellent account of the long history of the so-called death of books.
  2. In the category of books that thwart you, see Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, which is gorgeous and impossible.
  3. Matt Kirschenbaum’s forthcoming book Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing will drive home the point that all books today are digital products.) 

I think we found the Snarkmarket clubhouse

This 3D-printed “room” — really more of an architectural sculpture, as you’ll see — was designed by Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger. They call it a (the?) Digital Grotesque, and in its totality, it’s pretty astounding —


— but it was the close-ups, in the video, of the object’s various twisting crenelated modules that made my jaw drop. Beautiful.


From the hands that made…

I really like trailer #2 for The Boxtrolls here–specifically the fact that it’s basically an advertisement for human hands. (Penumbra readers know Mat Mittelbrand is all over this.)

Oh and speaking of animation, have you seen the Bravest Warriors? Highly snackable video popcorn. Tons of fun.



Frank Chimero has just posted a new essay, wonderfully wrought and lucidly written. For me, the most important part is right in the middle, in Frank’s conscription of flux into our nascent UX lexicon. He bolsters it with a bunch of examples, all terrific and/or delightful and/or revelatory.

If interfaces can be low flux (like this very web page!) or high flux (like this one), Frank is most interested in the middle of the range. I’m inclined to agree with him, and not only because this description —

… Medium level flux is assistive and descriptive animation, and restructuring content based on sensors. It clarifies interactivity by allowing elements to respond to that interaction and other, measured conditions.

— is so appealing. “Restructuring content based on sensors”! Ah! I love it precisely because I don’t know — and I’d argue that we, broadly, collectively, don’t know — what it means yet. We are living in the moment when we get to find out.

Frank is good at this — the naming of things. Remember steadfast and hot-swap?


Ideas in the attic

Here’s a useful image from the latest installment of Jack Cheng’s email newsletter:

… Let go of ideas and metaphors and turns of phrase you’ve been saving for the right book or moment or person. Their source is abundant and grows more so with movement, and when you keep them locked away they turn into deflated soccer balls.

That’s exactly right. And is there anything sadder than a deflated soccer ball?

An essential subscription.


What can I say? It seemed cool at the time

We’re going to look back on this era of parallax scrolling web features with embarrassment — the kind you feel when you discover, say, an old picture of yourself in baggy jeans and a grungy plaid button-up. It’s not a bad thing; sometimes we have to go through these phases. But we shouldn’t mistake them for anything other than that: phases. Strange and fleeting fashions. Fads.

Vox Media has given us an opportunity to compare two treatments of the same subject, one in parallax plaid and the other in a classic white HTML-shirt:

As a reading (and thinking?) experience, I think the Verge’s low-key treatment is many times stronger. I’d be curious to know if you disagree.

I was just scrolling through this great NYT feature on the ramifications of long-term unemployment in Europe, exulting at the flat elegance of it. Make no mistake: this is a beautiful page, and it took hard work from a talented designer to make it so. But the result serves the text and images — not the other way around. This is the treatment we’ll carry forward into the future. This is the shirt we’ll keep.