The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

snarl § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-16 18:31:36
Robert § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-14 03:26:25
Bob § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-13 02:23:25
Sounds like § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-12 17:11:20
Ryan Lower § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-12 16:15:35
Jennifer § Two songs from The Muppet Movie / 2021-02-12 15:53:34
A few notes on daily blogging § Stock and flow / 2017-11-20 19:52:47
El Stock y Flujo de nuestro negocio. – redmasiva § Stock and flow / 2017-03-27 17:35:13
Meet the Attendees – edcampoc § The new utility belt / 2017-02-27 10:18:33
Meet the Attendees – edcampoc § The generative web event / 2017-02-27 10:18:17

Beyond books, there are books.

A Doll Cabinet in Iowa
 / 

Iowa.gov

In the Iowa statehouse, there’s this doll cabinet. Amid the political regalia surrounding it, the cabinet stands out, filled as it is with dozens of dolls, each with its hair immaculately styled, each dressed in a gorgeous gown, all bearing the exact same porcelain face.

The figurines reflect a tradition begun by former Iowa first lady Billie Ray in celebration of the state’s centennial in 1976. She wanted to honor Iowa’s past and future governors’ wives with commemorative dolls, molded in Ray’s own image. Each of Iowa’s 43 first ladies is represented, dressed in a Barbie-sized version of the first lady’s inaugural gown and identified (in most cases) with a small placard carrying the governor’s name — “Mrs. Robert Ray” or “Mrs. Samuel J. Kirkwood.” So in the same place where Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina were just furiously campaigning to become the first female President of the United States, several dozen women share the dubious honor of being distinguished solely by a hairstyle, a dress, and a man’s name.

I often wonder how that doll cabinet will honor Iowa’s first first spouse who isn’t white, or a woman. This hasn’t been a consideration previously; all the governors and their spouses so far have helpfully fit the pattern. But demography, along with a multi-generational pivot in American gender dynamics, have rendered that status quo shatteringly delicate. One day they’re either going to have to stuff the likeness of Mrs. Robert Ray into a man’s suit, paint that porcelain doll brown, or rethink the entire exercise.

That doll cabinet is already a museum piece, even if it doesn’t know it yet. You can look at it and see the era it represents becoming suddenly untenable. I’ve come to think of that type of moment — when you can mark the instant before and after something slips into history, just as it’s happening — as rare and intensely valuable.

A dozen years ago, Robin and I shared one of those moments. Over the course of a few weeks in early 2004, we came to realize that our then-present experience of media and technology was fast becoming an anachronism, and that there were a lot of people—journalists in particular—who weren’t aware of that. We imagined ourselves looking back on that era before tiny, powerful computers colonized every corner of the world, and marveling at how strange and foreign it would already seem just ten years later. We shaped these imaginings into a rough little movie that is still one of the most popular things I’ve ever had a hand in making, and I credit some significant part of its resonance to the way we flipped the lens — projecting not forward from our past experience, but backward from the future.

To know the future … that’s the dream, right? But it’s a dream that makes sense only if the future is merely revealed, rather than being constructed bit by bit from the traces of the present, which we still have the ability to shape. Let me argue instead for seeking future history — the ability to consider the present through the lens of the future, to find imminent anachronisms hidden in plain sight. What do we take for granted today that will come to seem remarkable tomorrow? What will the history books say about us?

A few months ago, my friends Andy, Amanda, and Amy, and I decided to build a weekend around these questions. And now I’m seeing future history everywhere.

Like all right-thinking people, I’ve been infected with Hamilton fever. The theme of the show that resonates most loudly is the obsession of all the central characters with their place in history. After one recent replay of the score, I found myself tearfully re-reading Washington’s farewell address, a message sent across the ages, to us. Of course, nearly every Presidential farewell has that time-capsule quality — it’s the last best chance for a President to spin his legacy. But fast-forward through more recent ones, and Washington’s stands out all the more. Other Presidents are aware of the watchful eyes of history, but they spend most of their parting speeches dwelling on the recent past — what they saw, what they did, why they did it. Consequently, moments in these speeches can seem parochial or short-sighted, just decades later. “There hasn’t been a failure of an insured bank in nearly 9 years,” Truman says. “The Persian Gulf is no longer a war zone,” Reagan says. We’re “on track to be debt-free by the end of the decade,” Clinton says.

Washington, though, scours his Presidency for lessons that would reverberate across centuries: Cherish your union, he tells us. “It is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize.”

It’s not just lofty Presidential speeches; tiny gestures can mark a break with the past. When Tom Vilsack ascended to the Iowa governor’s mansion, his wife Christie broke slightly with tradition: she elected to have her doll identified by her own name in the cabinet. “I’ve never called myself ‘Mrs. Tom Vilsack,’ ever,” she said. Iowa’s next first lady echoed Christie Vilsack’s choice; her doll is called “Mrs. Mari Culver.”

In 2012, Christie Vilsack tried to change another longstanding Iowa tradition: she ran for Congress. Not only had a woman never been governor of Iowa in 2012, no woman had ever represented the state in either the House or the Senate. “We really have a wonderful history,” the state’s Democratic Party chair said when Vilsack announced her exploratory committee. “With this one problem.”

Vilsack’s run failed; she was defeated by Steve King in 2012. But then something happened, just last year. A streak unbroken since Iowa entered the union in 1846 — nearly 170 years in which a long succession of men exclusively represented Iowa in Congress — ended. Joni Ernst, the daughter of another Mari Culver, became Iowa’s first ever Congresswoman. (Initially, I thought she was the daughter of the same Mari Culver who was Iowa’s first lady. But no, Joni’s mother is Marilyn Culver, not Mariclare Culver, so this post was wrong.)

For a weekend in Baltimore in April, we’re going to look for moments like this, and scour our own experiences for ideas and lessons that will endure. We’ll make a time capsule, and we’ll end with a prom; we couldn’t think of two better ways to bring a far-seeing lens to the present. It will be massive fun and I hope you join us if you can. But most of all, I want to know: What do you see around you today that will come to seem remarkable?

Comments

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?

Notes:

  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
Comments

A leaky rocketship
 / 

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

A Palimpsest of Code

I don’t know enough to assert one way or another whether the Google Books ruling is ultimately a “good” or a “bad” decision. What I do know is that it is fascinating.

US District Judge Denny Chin’s decision is, to my mind, far more interesting than a legal ruling has any right to be. I say this because at the core of the legal decision is a mind-twisting idea:

The display of snippets of text for search is similar to the display of thumbnail images of photographs for search or small images of concert posters for reference to past events, as the snippets help users locate books and determine whether they may be of interest. Google Books thus uses words for a different purpose — it uses snippets of text to act as pointers directing users to a broad selection of books.

Similarly, Google Books is also transformative in the sense that it has transformed book text into data for purposes of substantive research, including data mining and text mining in new areas, thereby opening up new fields of research. Words in books are being used in a way they have not been used before. Google Books has created something new in the use of book the frequency of words and trends in their usage provide substantive information.

Google Books does not supersede or supplant books because it is not a tool to be used to read book. Instead, it “adds value to the original” and allows for “the creation of new information, new aesthetics, new insights and understandings.” Hence, the use is transformative.

Think about that: turning text, already one form of “data”, into another form of data is “highly transformative”. It’s a translation of sorts, but if translation is a kind of chemical reaction, then the source material here is both reactant and catalyst, the thing being changed and the thing left untouched.

It’s as if on a printed page you have letters and words functioning one way, and then underneath it, as a kind of a trace, is an  entirely separate code system that contains meaning temporarily invisible to the reader. It’s a palimpsest of code!

Now, here’s what I’m wondering: What are the narrative possibilities of a text that is always operating in two, mutually incompatible but still comprehensible languages — as if a printed page or a section of text always has hovering just above or below a holographic page of code? What might a book look like or do if it put itself forth in two distinct ways, as always both prose and programming language, narrative and the database?

In a sense, we have something like an analogous precedent. You could, if you wanted to, read Ulysses utterly unaware of the sprawling network of references, focusing on the ostensible narrative. “Underneath” — or perhaps more accurately, alongside — is another sign system of meaning, working its way “invisibly” through the text. Diving into that set of code opens and up and eluciates the text in no end of rich, meaningful ways, situating the novel in both its aesthetic and ideological context.

Can we do that with code? What I do not mean is an executable hidden in the margins, opening up a game or a movie about the book. Instead I’m talking about bits of meaning, marked out in inconspicuous ways that only reveal themselves if the interpreter approaches them in the right “language” — patterns, repetitions, cadences, or rhythms, only readable by the machine but full of human possibility.

Imagine a novel about a musician that reveals its off-kilter time signature through measured instances of the word “beat”, or a text about the immigrant experience that ran unseen contradictory interpretations of key moments backwards through a narrative.

Have we been going at the connections between literature and code all wrong? Should we instead be focusing on an interrelationship between the two that is as constitutive as it is invisible, unreadable?

11 comments