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

The novelist’s design
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Oh this warms my heart:

That original Kindle, code-named “Fiona” after a character in Neal Stephenson’s futuristic novel The Diamond Age, was finally ready to go in the fall of 2007.

For the uninitiated: The Diamond Age is a novel premised on a world where books are transparently online and totally alive, redrawing words and images before your eyes. Imagine all the potency and fidelity of an iPad on every thin, crinkly page.

Anyway, I’m sure many writers would disagree, but for me, this is a serious reason to write futuristic fiction: sometimes, people actually make this stuff.

The blockquote is from this long, super-detailed Businessweek piece on Amazon’s Lab126 and the development of the Kindle from 2004 ’til today. It’s worth the read if you’re interested in this stuff.

Honestly, I think Amazon is such a great company. Not as austere as Apple, you know?—somehow still a gang of nerds reading science fiction, throwing stuff together, making it all work.

5 comments

‘There is space to play’
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Tom Armitage riffs on our toolmaker post in the most excellent way:

But I thought about the article, and ruminated, and my best comeback is: blessed are the toymakers.

If you can make a tool, you can make a toy. The common output of workshop apprenticeships were both tools to be put to use, but also toys or knick-knacks to demonstrate and practice skills.

Read on—this is great stuff.

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What diversity means
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Amy Harmon, “Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World“:

Justin, who barely spoke until he was 10, falls roughly in the middle of the spectrum of social impairments that characterize autism, which affects nearly one in 100 American children. He talks to himself in public, has had occasional angry outbursts, avoids eye contact and rarely deviates from his favorite subject, animation. His unabashed expression of emotion and quirky sense of humor endear him to teachers, therapists and relatives. Yet at 20, he had never made a true friend.

There’s a tremendous gap between stories of children on the autism spectrum and stories of adults. (There’s a great joke that goes something like: Something magical happens to the autistic when we turn 21; we disappear.)

Stories of problems affecting children always draw a bigger response than those affecting adults. Remember AIDS and Ryan White? Thinking about someone as a victim and thinking about them as a problem are equally, well, problematic. But it is usually better to be a victim, and to be as pure and sympathetic a victim as possible.

There is also an imagination gap. Most readers of newspapers and consumers of serious media are typical, healthy, middle-class adults. They sympathize best with fates that are either totally fantastic or resemble their own. Most people find it easier to imagine being the parent of an autistic child. They find it harder to imagine being autistic and struggling with the problems of autistic adults themselves.

For my part, I am the former, and I find the latter extremely easy. Partly because of my son, and partly because of me.

The family had been living in Europe, where Briant had a promising career in international business and Maria Teresa, the daughter of a Brazilian diplomat, had embraced an expatriate lifestyle.

It’s hard to talk about autism without talking about class. It’s a developmental disorder that appears to disproportionately fall in successful families with histories of Aspy-like behavior. But it’s also almost impossible to tell how much this indicates a certain kind of hereditability and how much class affects diagnosis.

Autistic children with rich/educated parents will often get an Asperger’s diagnosis even if their children don’t fall under the traditional (and compared to the overwhelmingly broad Autism Spectrum Disorder, fairly specific) diagnostic rubric of Asperger’s.

The CW says that if you’re going to have a diagnosis, it’s great to have Asperger’s. Bill Gates and the anthropologist on Bones might have Asperger’s. Asperger’s still gets you access to services, but doesn’t mean you’re staring down a much more crippling disorder. “Autism,” on the other hand, is still a scary word.

Meanwhile, if you’re broke or have less education, your child’s more likely to go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, and to be treated as slow or mentally retarded. And even if you get the “right” diagnosis, the kinds of therapies offered and your ability to take advantage of them will vary wildly depending on your resources. Maybe especially time.

This is all to say that just as autism stories overwhelmingly focus on children, not adults, they also overwhelmingly focus on the wealthy, not the poor or near-poor. And the link between autism and poverty is extraordinary once a child becomes an adult — what “independence” means in that context is very different.

This is also to say that while all these additional considerations are important, fuck that shit. Because autism does cut across class and race and gender and sexual identity and physical ability, etc. And because of that, it changes what we mean by diversity, what kinds of diversity count, what diversity we ought to care about, and how we think about all of these issues of identity and privilege taken all together.

Justin’s aide braced herself when he raised his hand one day in a class that had focused for several months on Africa. The students had just finished reading a book on apartheid.

“Mr. Moore,” Justin complained, “I’m tired of learning about sad black people.”

The teacher, who was black, turned around.

“You know what, Justin?” he said. “Me too.”

Via Steve Silberman, who wrote a ten-years-old-and-still-amazing article and is now writing a book about all of this.

5 comments

‘Game that starts like Duck Hunt…’
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Going through an old notes file—a stash of loose ideas—and came across:

Game that starts like Duck Hunt, but then becomes this, like, pagan ritual -- the duck, when you hit it, explodes in a sea of color -- rainbow streamers -- the sky turns dark -- you have woken some dark Duck God...

Yep, still totally into that one.

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Hint: Snarkmarket is not one of them
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What are the world’s largest employers? The U.S. Department of Defense is number one. The People’s Liberation Army of China comes in second. Wal-mart third. But what about after that: four through ten? Bet you can’t guess two more.

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Sand team merchant…
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Watch the terrific novelist Nick Harkaway transform this crazy string of words…

Sand team merchant bottom gentle seven best patron demolished ride whale skinny final mystery.

…into the beginnings of a story over here. (Also listen to him talk about the process of idea generation. He says it’s like reading, but backwards. I like that a lot.)

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Pushbutton pipes
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Aha! As part of the ongoing rehabilitation of my Google Reader, I have just done two thing:

  1. Pruned my feeds significantly, dropping many (many!) that were long-dead. The RSS snake sheds its skin.
  2. Essentially “reprogrammed” the star to save the image from a post to Dropbox. This is super-cool, because at least half of my a-ha moments in Google Reader come from great (or weird) images, but I find Google Reader itself a totally lame archival system. (Also, I just really like to browse images in the OS X Finder—it’s so fast and fluid.)

How did I do that second part? It’s thanks to ifttt—read: if this, then that—a site that my polymath colleague Isaac turned me on to this week. Think of it as Yahoo! Pipes with a much simpler, more declarative interface. Or, if that analogy is impenetrable, think of it as a way to wire up different tools on the web, so that (for instance) when you post a new photo to Instagram, ifttt can also archive it to Dropbox, or when Yahoo! Weather calls for rain, ifttt can send you a text message.

My task recipe is here—you’ll have to be logged in to ifttt to see it.

Ah, but, I’m just remembering now that the site isn’t wide-open yet: so if you’re interested and think you might actually monkey with it, drop a comment here. I’ll send invites to the first three.

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The secret feeds
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The Atlantic Wire’s fun What I Read feature focuses on Choire Sicha today, and he reveals one of his treasure troves:

One of my more important bookmarks is “College.” It contains everything from The Daily Bruin to The Whitman Pioneer to The Williams Record–I have all the student papers there. A lot of them are weeklies, so around Wednesday or Thursday I check those. Reading the Harvard and Yale papers every day is actually a huge boon.

I love stuff like that! Story arbitrage. It’s not a new thing, of course. There are wonderful tales of reporters subscribing to small-town newspapers and obscure trade magazines to scout out stories that their big-city peers would never know about.

I’ve been warming back up to my Google Reader after a long estrangement, and actually sorta marveling at some of the weird stuff I’ve got tucked away in there. Gems from the synthetic biology folder. Random troves of illustration. (Lots of that, actually.) Cyberpunk fantasias and bestiaries of flight.

None of those feeds quite rise to the level of story arbitrage—though if I had one that did, I certainly wouldn’t reveal it here. I know for a fact that one or more of my co-bloggers have RSS treasure troves of their own… but likewise, I doubt they’ll give them away.

After all, in the flattened world of algorithmic aggregation, of mass curation, of rampant percolation, a person needs a few secret feeds.

P.S. The rest of Choire Sicha’s What I Read is really interesting and thoughtfully done—definitely worth a look.

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Spontaneous impression
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Emerson:

In every work of genius we rec­og­nize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a cer­tain alien­ated majesty. Great works of art have no more affect­ing lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spon­ta­neous impres­sion with good-humored inflex­i­bil­ity then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else tomorrow a stranger will say with mas­terly good sense pre­cisely what we have thought and felt all the time…

“A certain alienated majesty”—I love that.

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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