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

On the internet

Go read Andrew Fitzgerald’s new collectively-directed short story. It is weird and wild—and Snarkmarket is threaded through it.

Random sample (the beautiful thing is that you can select almost any two grafs of Andrew’s story for this purpose):

In the popular children’s online role-playing game “Fur City”, a digital avatar named Mr. Tumbles, controlled by a 17-year-old Japanese girl in Osaka is pacing the cobblestone streets. He remembers it’s Tuesday and how much he loved last Tuesday. It was cupcake day at the Sugar Plum Bakery, and although Mr. Tumbles, the local calico kitten, was no fan of strawberry shortcake wrapped in ribbons and bows, he couldn’t deny that the rabbit-run bakery was paws and whiskers above any other establishment in Fur City. Today at the Sugar Plum Bakery it’s not cupcake day. The rabbits told him it was pancake day. But he knows it’s Tuesday. Something’s fishy in Fur City.

Something’s fishy on the whole Internet.

This is more than a big in-joke, though; the way it all wraps up is sincere and more than a little wonderful.


Mechanical Turk (wins every time)

I’m quite taken with George H Williams’s ProfHacker write-up of his experience using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service to transcribe some audio, all the more so since he followed FOS (Friend of the Snark) Andy Baio’s methodology. I don’t have any audio to transcribe, but if I did, I’d definitely give this a whirl.

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In the courtroom

I am loving James Grimmelman’s nuanced notes on the latest Google Books Settlement hearing—both because I’m interested in the issue and because it’s interesting to understand the actual legal process better. Okay, also because James throws in stuff like this:

Judge Chin, however, threw a curveball, asking how Rubin would respond to Sony’s arguments about competition. The substance of the question was squarely in line with the issues Rubin was arguing, but I think the unexpected form it took, like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, caught him off guard.

This is my kinda court reporting.


From stealing to sampling

This might bear watching:

T. S. Eliot once said that “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” Apparently taking this advice to heart, Helene Hegemann, a seventeen-year-old German writer, has “mixed” (her word) together a best-selling novel titled “Axolotl Roadkill.” According to an article in the Times, Hegemann lifted entire pages from a novel by a lesser known writer, and she doesn’t seem at all apologetic about doing so. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Hegemann in response to accusations of plagiarism. The judges of the Leipzig Book Fair seem to agree with her, at least in principle: even after the author admitted to copying another writer’s work, “Axolotl Roadkill” remains a finalist for the Fair’s $20,000 prize in fiction.

The Leipzig committee’s decision not to strike the book from their finalist’s list, effectively endorsing, or at least approving, Hegemann’s actions, is either an alarming or a progressive response. The cultural-relativist argument is that Germany, specifically Berlin, is a hotbed of artistic mixing and mashing, sampling and re-sampling, and that Hegemann is simply employing these same tactics in her writing. If a d.j. can thread together twenty different songs and package the end product as her own, why can’t a writer? This seems to be the question Hegemann is using as a defense. Original content, then, becomes subordinate to context, meaning that as long as a newer, larger work is being created, portions of prior works are fair game.

First, just to be clear — are we using periods and lower-case for “d.j.” now? What’s wrong with DJ? Goes well with MC, doesn’t it? Or is it “m.c.” or “emcee”?

It probably doesn’t matter, because we don’t need the disc jockey remix paradigm to try to understand what might be called “synthetic literature.” Lee Ellis looks back at T.S. Eliot, but in a skewed way:

Perhaps looking at the meaning behind T. S. Eliot’s quote can help clear up this situation. I interpret “steal” to mean, in this context, the act of taking from other texts themes, ideas, rhythms, structures, but not the sentences themselves.

No. I mean, Ellis can interpret Eliot’s sentence this way, divorced from his practice, but it doesn’t change that Eliot the artist stole. Not just the themes, ideas, rhythms, or structures, but the exact sentences.

In fact, you could say that by stealing the sentences, he emptied them of themes or ideas; a line lifted from Baudelaire (about a “hypocrite lecteur,” no less — “a hypocrite reader, my double, my brother”) and repurposed for “The Waste Land” comes to mean, by way of that refraction, something quite different. Like Borges’s “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” a word-for-word recreation of a text arguably becomes a profound transformation of that text.

On the other hand, you can’t just translate someone’s ideas, themes, or structures into superficially new sentences and act like everything is cool. If I rip off your movie idea — plot, themes, characters — but switch some of the words around, I’ve done something much more dangerous than quote a line from your screenplay (especially if it’s relatively well-known).

You could contest Old Possum’s claim that this theft was a sign of “maturity,” but you can’t just act like he isn’t doing it. Nor was his theft all that novel — the pastiche has been a literary game for a long time, and it was particularly popular in the early 20th century, from Pound to Proust.

But calling something unoriginal isn’t identical with calling it plagiarism. Without being entirely arbitrary, let me posit a few things:

  1. Plagiarism really only makes sense in a scholarly or journalistic context. It’s a mistake in the handling of sources, and can be malicious or nonmalicious, and can completely damage a work or be relatively incidental to it;
  2. In art or fiction, assuming that there is a distinction, you need a completely different set of criteria. Hegemann’s shift to “authenticity” is probably not so far off;
  3. Ultimately, judging acts of egregious theft in fiction is going to have to be like judging pornography — you know it when you see it.

So what do we have left? If we’re starting off with the assumption that artistic creation is and should always be ex nihilo — sadly, not much. Maybe instead we need to distinguish between works that are synthetic and analytic — works that combine something to produce something new, versus works that only contain what they borrow (and in some cases, contain LESS than what’s borrowed).


Slipping back into things

Dear Snarkmatrix,

Apologies for my recent silence. I have spent so much time at the hospital in the past few months that I should have a card to punch that gets me free sandwiches or something. But I wanted to stop and thank you for your notes and inquiries, let you know that I am working my way to being all the way back, at least on the internet… and am FASCINATED by the recent flurry of posts here about the early twentieth century, why so much of that time feels like now, not just an unchanging now, but an unchangeable now, yet still feels old and distant and foundational (or counter-foundational). Anyways, as always, you’re giving me things to think about.

(If you’re patient with me, I might even be able to write something about it)


The very foundations

This week, as all the TED micro-dispatches migrated out from Long Beach, I had this thought:

Following all the #TED tweets is totally the Allegory of the Cave. I kinda like it. Shadows of ideas.

Now that it’s over, one big theme seems clear to me. Er, I’m not suggesting that this was actually the theme of the conference! Rather, it’s just the shadow that I glommed on to from far away:

In several different domains, what we need most is innovation at the most basic level—at the very foundations.

The big three:

Energy. I was really taken by (the shadow of) Bill Gates’s presentation on carbon and energy. The thesis is simple: we need an energy miracle! The stabilization wedges aren’t enough. Incremental improvements to existing infrastructure isn’t enough. We really need some fundamentally new technologies and processes.

Education. Sir Ken Robinson made a familiar argument about education—basically that the way we do it today is stuck in 1915. But stop a second to really think about the most radical version of this argument, and what it implies. I mean, what could be more foundational, more fabric-of-space-time than school—not just the pedagogy but the social structure? What’s more universal than high school? But no, it’s a relatively recent invention, of course—and it will get replaced by something else. This innovation actually seems the most inevitable to me. It’s not a question of if, but simply of who and how: who will articulate the new models and how will they supplant traditional school. But, take note: as with climate, the “stabilization wedges” (things like Teach for America and KIPP) are great efforts, but not truly transformational. They don’t change the foundations.

Law. This was the biggest surprise to me: Philip Howard argued that law is way too complicated. Okay, that wasn’t the surprise; the surprise was that he thinks we can actually change it. This seems to me like the hardest problem, because the foundations are deepest. I mean like 12th-century England deep. I’ve honestly never contemplated the notion that we could overhaul the way law itself is written and practiced—which says a lot, because as you know I’m generally up for rethinking and rebooting. I’m going to check out Howard’s book.


I think these three domains are all especially important and interesting because they’re all meta-domains. That is to say, they determine the playing field for many other domains, so changes here cause chain-reactions. There’s huge leverage. Change any of these, and you change the economy. You change technology. You change family structures and land-use patterns.

And that’s true for energy most of all, of course. Hoping for a miracle is not a real strategy, I know; but don’t forget that the early days of steam power, oil and electricity all had a bit of the miraculous to them. Some new energy-harvesting process, or some radically more powerful kind of battery: either could transform society. Changes in energy end up changing everything else—law and education included. How exciting is that?

(Yes, I am mostly just looking for something to occupy my brain TED-wise until they post Jane’s talk.)


Making sense of YouTube

I like what Ryeberg is up to: it’s a blog of short essays or meditations on YouTube videos or (even better) juxtapositions of YouTube videos.

I mention it now because they’ve just posted two winners in a row:


The Internet of ghosts

When an incoming freshman at Harvard enters her room in the Yard for the first time, she’s greeted with a little scrap of history meant to kindle her awe at her place in the college’s legacy. On her bed will sit an envelope containing a list of names and years of graduation of all the people who have ever inhabited her room.

It’s a little like that scene in Dead Poets’ Society where Robin Williams creeps around among a group of his students murmuring, “Caaaaarpe,” while they stare at a photograph of their forebears. But it produces its intended effect. Those students who will room with the ghosts of JFK and Oliver Wendell Holmes will mention this fact in conversation for the rest of their lives. And even the lists without famous names will convey a powerful message: It wasn’t so long ago that these ancients, who graduated before you were ever born, were in this very room, feeling these same feelings you are now.

I thought of this as I was thinking of another milestone that shaped my freshman year: my introduction to Napster. Although I was as awed as anyone else by the fact of being able to download any song, instantly, for free, it wasn’t long before another element of the service made it a killer app.
Read more…



Oh. Wow. This is intense: the hidden Eustace Tilley in the New Yorker’s 85th anniversary covers. (Via Waxy.)

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Fending off the Fifty Cent Party

According to chinaSMACK‘s amazing glossary of Chinese slang and internet memes, the Fifty Cent Party is

People who are allegedly and secretly paid five mao (50 cents RMB) per post/comment that praises, supports, or defends from criticism/attack the country, government, or Communist Party. Netizens who are very nationalistic are often accused of being part of the “50 cent party” spreading propaganda or “guiding” public opinion.

So, with that context, I really enjoyed this (translated) sharp, satirical post from Chinese writer and blogger Han Han:

Moreover, if [Party members] perform well on microblogs, the authorities may notice and ask them to use their cell phones to guide public opinion moment by moment. To them, this is a disaster: at first it was 10 cents for one post, and that was good, but sending a text message to influence [public opinion] costs ten cents, plus there’s the cost of electricity for charging their phones, anyway they’re losing a little bit of money. Don’t ridicule them, they sell themselves for one mao, for a thousand kuai they would sell a kidney; to them, a little money is still money.

It’s part of this whole tongue-in-cheek riff about Fifty Cent Party members doing their job too well—a fun, strange insight into the Chinese internet.

One of my favorite things about the chinaSMACK approach is that they always translate a bunch of the comments, too. Of course, right? Brilliant! Check it out.

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