Archive for January, 2012
- For me, Lashinsky exemplifies a certain type of reporter that I really like. In all the times I’ve seen him on video (and once in person, though I can’t remember when) he’s shown a sort of brusque, restless manner leavened with deep curiosity and candor. Sort of like one of those Army commanders with a Ph.D: super smart, but not leaning on the smartness, not dwelling in it. A Lashinsky-esque reporter believes that facts laid out in order have real power, and he or she will work hard to get those facts, often by using a telephone. In the cosmology of reporting, I think of it as “old-school,” but maybe not—maybe it’s always been rare.
- But, even after months (years?) of Lashinsky-esque reporting, we still don’t know that much about how Apple works inside. Not really. And that makes me think, in turn, of the organizations I’ve been part of; it makes me think of all the stories written about them, all so woefully incomplete. But that’s the best you can do when you’re on the outside. Even in our weird information-saturated world, there’s so much we don’t, and can’t, know, even about something as mundane as a company. The writer M. F. K. Fisher said: “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg before it is broken.” Every company, until it breaks (i.e. gets its email subpoenaed Enron-style, I guess) is that egg. Every family is that egg. Every person is that egg. And that’s a wonderful thing, because it means there are always mysteries, and more mysteries, and mysteries beyond.
My favorite find was not a typeface but a person: Matthew Butterick, a lawyer/typographer (!) who both wrote a terrific review and had a couple of typefaces reviewed. One of those, Equity, is designed specifically for the needs of lawyers: contracts, court filings, crappy office laser printers, etc. It came out of Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers project, which would be pretty cool on its own, even if he wasn’t also designing typefaces.
I mean seriously: lawyer/typographer? How cool is that? Almost as cool as library police.
You must plan these operations, right? I mean, it’s not like you just randomly seize private property on a whim. This is a failure of project management. You can’t just bring in a designer at the last minute and expect them to polish your design turd. This is your chance to shine. Go wild. Animation, maybe a Matrix-style flow of numbers in the background. Ominous type. Here are some ideas:
I am over the moon about this interview over at The Atlantic. Ross Anderson dials up a philosopher of physics (!) and comes away with a long, thoughtful, surprisingly penetrable conversation. It’s the most startlingly synaptic thing I’ve read in weeks.
As you might expect from a conversation with a physics philosopher, it’s hard to blockquote—really, just go make some coffee and read the whole thing—but I did like this part, because it makes the case that physics might still be part of our human universe, not just an increasingly abstract description of some uber-folded N-dimensional meta-scrapple:
Do you think that physics has neglected some of these foundational questions as it has become, increasingly, a kind of engine for the applied sciences, focusing on the manipulation, rather than say, the explanation, of the physical world?
Maudlin: Look, physics has definitely avoided what were traditionally considered to be foundational physical questions, but the reason for that goes back to the foundation of quantum mechanics. The problem is that quantum mechanics was developed as a mathematical tool. Physicists understood how to use it as a tool for making predictions, but without an agreement or understanding about what it was telling us about the physical world. And that’s very clear when you look at any of the foundational discussions. This is what Einstein was upset about; this is what Schrodinger was upset about. Quantum mechanics was merely a calculational technique that was not well understood as a physical theory. Bohr and Heisenberg tried to argue that asking for a clear physical theory was something you shouldn’t do anymore. That it was something outmoded. And they were wrong, Bohr and Heisenberg were wrong about that. But the effect of it was to shut down perfectly legitimate physics questions within the physics community for about half a century. And now we’re coming out of that, fortunately.
Props to Anderson for introducing me to Tim Maudlin and props to The Atlantic Tech for running something like this.
Now that Megan Garber is in place with Alexis Madrigal and Rebecca Rosen over at The Atlantic Tech, it feels a little bit like a major magazine — I don’t know, say The New Yorker — decided to adopt Snarkmarket as its tech, media, and tech/media culture blog.
Since I’m technically a rival, like, it’s one thing to admire them, in a “man, those creeps can roll” sense, or to feel like the posts were written just for me, but yet another to have that uncanny shock of recognition when you see someone doing something that’s somehow more you than you.
Take this Garber story on Thursday’s iBooks announcement, “A Brief History of Textbooks, or, Why Apple’s ‘New Textbook Experience’ Is Actually Revolutionary.” Take the title and the first blockquote — James Bowen’s A History of Western Education, which in turn namechecks Donatus’ grammar, from the 4th century — and it totally seems like Garber is going for the full Carmody. Like, more Carmody than Carmody.
But! Keep reading, because Garber’s going to fool you. She’s actually coming with the full Sloan:
But! That bit of ordinariness is exactly what makes Apple’s education play so transformative. The defining element of textbooks, up to now, has been their commodity status: Being standardized, they’re also impersonal. They’re transient. They’re given to you at the beginning of the school year; you give them back at the end. (Or, worse: You buy them at the beginning of the school year; you sell them back at the end.) Textbooks are not, in any meaningful sense, yours.
In all that, they enforce the notion of the student as a cog and of learning as a machine, and effectively frame education as, first and foremost, an act of consumption rather than exploration. Memorize something — check. Take the test to prove you’ve learned that something — check. Check and check and check.
Inspiring, no? But it’s an approach that’s been as necessary as it’s been frustrating: In an analog environment, wisdom is contingent on memorized information. You have to know things before you can understand things. (Or, as Jay Rosen might put it, “You’ve gotta grok it before you can rock it.”)
Wait, was that Matt Thompson’s kung fu style sneaking in at the end there?… Turn it off, turn it off! It’s all just TOO REAL.
I watched one of the production diaries from The Hobbit recently, and now I need your help: is this—that’s a link that will take you to about 8:30 in the video—for real?
It’s not a real technique that they use every day, right? I think it’s just a little tongue-in-cheek joke for the video. It has to be.
If it’s real, it is the greatest thing I have ever seen in a production diary. Not just for the technique, but for the Bert-and-Ernie banter between the two master Middle-Earth renderers, Alan Lee and John Howe, sitting side-by-side, peeking at each other’s picture, sketching… well, you’ll see.
I’m reading Michael Rubin’s Droidmaker, a history of Lucasfilm’s work with computer graphics and computer-assisted editing, and really, a big chunk of Bay Area history I didn’t know much about. (The book’s first section was particularly interesting. It’s largely pre-Star Wars, and Francis Ford Coppola looms large in the SF filmmaking scene.)
Here’s a detail that made me smile. I love a good you’ve-got-to-hire-me story:
Sometimes it seemed as if everyone in the computer industry wanted a job with the Lucasfilm researchers. The small team were sent resumes constantly. As soon as he was situated at Bank Street, [Alvy Ray Smith] began receiving “love notes” from a scientist at Boeing. The term “notes” was perhaps misleading. Someone was sending Alvy 8x10 prints of a mountainscape…
…almost certainly of digital origin, with no explanation. These images caught his eye. He had never seen a computer-generated mountain look so detailed, and although it was likely the result of an application of mathematician Bernard Mandelbrot’s new ideas, neither he nor [Ed Catmull] was sure how it had been done or who had done it.
In time they understood that the pictures came from someone making a presentation at that fall’s Siggraph conference in Seattle. They both made a mental note to find out more about him. Alvy pinned one of the photos to the wall.
The Siggraph presentation—set to a Beatles song—was the two-minute short Vol Libre, an insta-classic in the history of computer graphics. The Boeing scientist, Loren Carpenter, went on to join Lucasfilm and co-found Pixar.
There’s no way I can’t give that a try.
(It’s not a Batman series though. Sorry if my headline got you excited; I couldn’t resist.)
I’m a bit obsessed with corporate communication, broadly defined: how do organized groups of people talk to each other? More specifically, I’m obsessed with the culture of the all-hands email or memo. The fiery rally-the-troops memo, the anodyne corp-speak memo, the new-hire announcement memo, the he’s-fired departure memo—I think they’re all fascinating.
Corporate communication needs context, though. Nick Denton gives good memo, of course, and his latest is no exception—or is it? I wonder sometimes: do Gawker Media staffers roll their eyes at Denton’s memos? Do they say: “Not this again. He’s writing for the Observer, not for us”? Optimistically (maybe naively) I would like to believe that no, they say, maybe quietly to themselves: “Damn. I’m proud to work for a guy who can write something like that.”
Now I’m trying to think of famous memos. Maybe there aren’t that many that we know about? You’d probably have to go looking for subpoenaed corporate corpuses available to the public, right? And then you’d have to find the memos. Researchers went to work on the Enron emails, and I’m sure they’re hungrily devouring the State Department cables, but the focus there is on the entire corpus, and I really am just interested in one particular kind of message: the one-to-many announcement.
So you’d be looking for cc: all. You’d be looking for the email describing the re-org, the printout announcing the acquisition, the mimeograph detailing the new cost-cutting measures. You’d be looking at the length, the vocabulary, the style. You might even be looking for Nabokovs among the cubicles.
So seriously: famous memos? (Post-2000 tech-company murmurings are disqualified.)
Here’s a really tremendously good list of long-form journalism from Noah Brier—his favorites of 2011. In particular, I was riveted by this collection of photos and captions, titled The shot that nearly killed me. Like Laura says: it’s the photo and caption together that are the real unit of visual storytelling.
(It’s interesting: I’m here in Italy for a little while, so my web reading hours are out of sync with everyone else’s in the United States. Therefore I can’t really post little links and things to Twitter… and therefore, I’m posting more here on Snarkmarket!)