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

An image for winter

The fact that this is snow — I mean, really? REALLY? — seems important to me. Like, if you sat beneath a fig tree and meditated on that fact for a few years, you’d probably somehow understand everything.


It’s winter here. There are no mathematically-perfect ice crystals; we don’t get those in Berkeley. But boy is it cold.

One comment

A book for winter

I believe that shout-it-to-the-rooftops book recommendations should be treated like super bombs in video games: rare commodities that must be husbanded closely, saved for special moments. 1

It’s because the investment is so asymmetrical, right? On the recommender’s side, a moment of enthusiasm; on the recommendee’s side, what? I already have ten books on my pile!

So here’s my great detonation for winter. You’ll hear not a peep from me until some future level, when my stock of super bombs has been replenished.



On the surface, Nicola Griffith’s book is not the kind I usually gravitate towards — which, maybe, ought to make the recommendation count for even more? Hild is set in 7th-century England, and it traces the life of its namesake, the woman known today as St. Hilda of Whitby. I got my hands on an advance copy earlier this year and found myself utterly absorbed. It’s been a long time since I was so happy reading a book this fat; a long time since I was so sad to see it end.

Full disclosure: Hild is published by FSG, and was edited by Sean McDonald there — so it’s the same team that brought you Penumbra. It is a very (!) different kind of book, and yet… Clay Jannon would like Hild. In fact, he’d love it. Early reviews have compared the book to George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and it does push many of the same buttons — there is plenty of royal intrigue — but this story is also subtler and, I think, less cynical.

As I read, I found Hild’s way of thinking seeping into my brain. She is a scientist before science, a flâneuse before modernity. She is a watcher, a pattern-finder, a naturalist growing into a politician. In an email, I told Nicola that after I read her book, I found myself

paying more attention the natural world, & not just in passing, but with patience. I thought specifically of Hild the other afternoon when I was in my backyard & saw a giant spider on its web. I bent down close, inspected it, watched it for a while. It really does require patience, and a conviction that, you know, this is a totally legitimate way to spend your time.

This truly is a winter book — big and heavy, with a warm heart. It will look good wrapped in colorful paper. I bought three copies for that purpose. I don’t know what else to say. The power of the super bomb recommendation is that you don’t have to say it just right; all you have to do is press the button. You only get a couple of these. You should only use them when it counts. This books counts.


  1. As opposed to personalized book recommendations, which are totally different — more like boss weapons in Mega Man.

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.


‘Maybe I’m a kid still’

This is the best book review (or: essay pegged, nominally, to a book or group of books) I’ve read all year. I could blockquote every other graf of Sarah Nicole Prickett’s here, but this one was particularly resonant; following a blockquote of her own, a bit where Donna Tartt describes Park Avenue, Sarah writes:

This is not how Park Avenue looks. Nor is it how Park Avenue feels, I bet, to most New Yorkers. It is how Park Avenue sounds if you have never been to New York and you whisper it to yourself and maybe I’m a kid still, but this is why I read novels — for the sense that all material is imagined.

Me too.


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.


The 90% solution

San Francisco has installed a whole fleet of those take-’em-one-place, leave-’em-another bikes, just like the ones that have been so successful in New York. (It’s the same company behind most of these.) Initially, I turned my nose up at them, and not for any good reason — just because they looked dorktastic. This is a city of cyclists, I sniffed, and they give us those clunkers? Heavy, dopey, swaddled in plastic…


But then I was downtown, with a need to get to North Beach, just a few blocks up, and something softened my grinchy heart and I decided to try one. You can see this coming: it was fabulous. The experience of snagging a bike, riding it for five minutes, then leaving it behind forever is magical. And the bike itself was, indeed, heavy and dopey, but it was also tough and stable and surprisingly zippy. It turns out that simply having a bike, any kind of bike, gets you 90% of the pleasure. You don’t need much; two wheels and a seat. Everything else — the weight, the paint, the sleek skinny tires — is gravy.

I suspect there’s a metaphor lurking here. In any case, I just purchased my annual pass — $90 for unlimited rides. What a world!


Still can’t do this with CSS

I am in feed acquisition mode again after years of pruning. Here are two current favorites that pair well.

First, there’s Erik Wakkel, a medieval book historian in the Netherlands. He tends to share delightful marginalia and scraps of illumination, like this dragon.


Or this sketch of Tolkien’s.


Second is Harvard’s Houghton Library, easily my favorite tumblr in the world. There’s something about this mode of presentation — a continuous feed, new images every day, rather than a static exhibition, a vast archive — that makes these very old books feel new again. Stock as flow.

I think this one is basically my typographic ideal for Snarkmarket:



snark vs. Snark

Those of us who have been following Snarkmarket for a long time often bond over the common experience of having to explain to friends and newcomers that despite our gleeful habit 1 of using Snark as a prefix for everything Snarkmarket (Snarkmatrix, Snarkmarketeers, Snarketeers, Snarkives, Snarkserpent, Snarkicon, Snarkseminar, Snarkfriends) Snarkmarket is not very snarky at all. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite of snarky. But what does that mean? 2 Read more…


  1. Really, the very presence and flavor of glee in this habit almost proves how unsnarky we are.
  2. animated Gif of a running Teal dear. tl;dr


    If you think this post is too long, and it probably is, just take a look at the Venn diagram I made and check out the PSD file and make/annotate your own.

“Give me a hand…”

I don’t have the time anymore to sink into playing million-dollar blockbuster videogames, but occasionally I’ll watch other people play, as recorded on YouTube. It’s fascinating to see and hear people reacting to things happening onscreen. The closest thing that we had to this before the Internet were DVD-commentary-tracks, and while those have an appealing sense of authority and finality in a director-driven industry, player-commentary Youtube videos are actually perfect for games. What better way to represent games as systems, where all kinds of things can happen depending on what players do, than having hundreds of videos by players taking hundreds of different paths?

This morning I watched James Howell’s multi-part commentary on The Last of Us:

The Last of Us is by Naughty Dog, known for crafting expensive, well-written games that are as fun to watch as they are to play. (Their previous games include a trilogy of treasure-hunting adventures that feel like extended Indiana-Jones movies.) Unlike their earlier work, though, The Last of Us is set in a post-apocalpytic world with zombies, and notably focuses on cooperating with characters the player gets stuck with. This means moving through levels and solving puzzles together, boosting each other up to high ledges, and carrying around planks of wood to span wide gaps.

It’s not particularly ground-breaking or challenging as gameplay, but James argues that these basic actions are used over and over again as a vocabulary for talking about trust. Over the course of the game, the main character Joel has to work with a cast of characters, who he (dis)trusts on varying levels – and it’s expressed in gameplay as he lets some help him and tells others to just stay put.

There’s a whole set of variations, though – it foreshadows betrayal when someone accidentally drops Joel while pulling him up to a ledge, it shows distance and tension when characters forget to boost each other up, and when an initially distrustful pair begins to show cohesion and teamwork as they open gates together and fend off zombie attacks off one another, it’s a glorious feeling.

Characterization by systems! Storytelling in interactivity! There’s so much space to explore here.

Having a vocabulary to explore this in all its subtleties is amazing for another reason, too – I point to Tim’s post about journalism dynamics as Batman vs the Justice League – because many of us don’t know how to talk about freelancing on our own, or being part of a loose collective or even an institution. What does dysfunction feel like? How can you recognize it? It’s hard to spot the warning signs unless you’ve gone through it (and have the battle scars to match). But in these systems of interactivity, between the zombies and the shooting, are safe zones from which to look at and play with this stuff.


Chronic traumatic masculinity


Brian Phillips has written a terrific essay for Grantland on the culture of ritualized pain and intimidation in football, and the ways that sports fans share, enable, embrace, and vicariously live out fantasies through it. It’s called “Man Up: Declaring a war on warrior culture in the wake of the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal.”

I love football — it’s so much fun, it’s beautiful, it’s thrilling, it’s an excuse to drunk-tweet in the mid-afternoon — but it has also become the major theater of American masculine crackup. It’s as if we’re a nation of gentle accountants and customer-service reps who’ve retained this one venue where we can air-guitar the berserk discourse of a warrior race. We’re Klingons, but only on Sundays. The Marines have a strict anti-hazing policy, but we need our fantasy warrior-avatars to be unrestrained and indestructible. We demand that they comply with an increasingly shrill and dehumanizing value set that we communicate by yelling PLAY THROUGH PAIN and THAT GUY IS A SOLDIER and THE TRENCHES and GO TO WAR WITH THESE GUYS and NEVER BACK DOWN. We love coaches who never sleep, stars who live to win, transition graphics that take out the electrical grid in Kandahar. We love pregame flyovers that culminate in actual airstrikes.

And of course this affects the players. Locker-room guy-culture is one thing; the idea that any form of perceived vulnerability is a Marxist shadow plot is something else. It’s a human inevitability that when you assemble a group of hypercompetitive young men some of them will go too far, or will get off on torturing the others — which is why it’s maybe a good idea, cf. the real-life military, to have a system in place to keep this in check. What we have instead is a cynical set of institutional fetishes that rewards unhealthy behavior. The same 110-percent-never-give-an-inch rhetoric that makes concussed players feign health on game day encourages hazing creep after practice. Don’t believe that? I’ve got a helmet-to-helmet hit here for you, and that’ll be $15,000, petunia.

This of course reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s amazing essay on pro tennis, “The String Theory” (which I riffed on with respect to broader athlete culture during a guest stint at Kottke.)

But it also resonated with this story Adam Rothstein pointed me to today, about the culture of police officers and police encounters. It’s called “An Ex-Cop’s Guide To Not Getting Arrested.

Every interaction with a police officer entails two contests: One for “psychological dominance” and one for “custody of your body.” Carson advises giving in on the first contest in order to win the second. Is that belittling? Of course. “Being questioned by police is insulting,” Carson writes. “It is, however, less insulting than being arrested. What I’m advising you to do when questioned by police is pocket the insult. This is difficult and emotionally painful.”

Make eye contact, but don’t smile. “Cops don’t like smiles.”

Winning the psychological battle requires you to be honest with cops, polite, respectful, and resistant to incitement. “If cops lean into your space and blast you with coffee-and-stale-donut breath, ignore it,” Carson writes. Same goes for if they poke you in the chest or use racial slurs. “If you react, you’ll get busted.” Make eye contact, but don’t smile. “Cops don’t like smiles.” Always tell the truth. “Lying is complicated, telling the truth is simple.”

He also says you should be dignified — unless it looks like you’re about to lose both the psychological contest and the one for custody of your body. In which case, you should be strategically pitiful.

I want to be clear — this is insane. This is all some real PTSD shit. These are mechanisms that make a bit of strategic sense in dealing with an abusive parent, or surviving in the Jim Crow South. They are not and must not be tools for dealing with civil servants upholding law and order, in playing a game, or dealing with your colleagues in the workplace. (Always remember, pro sports are both of the latter.)

I mean, maybe we are all suffering with a form of PTSD, after centuries of patriarchy, racial violence, labor violence, and warfare whose legitimacy suddenly (from the long view of eternity) seems suspect. And if PTSD is the wrong acronym, let’s borrow the new term of art football has made famous. What we have is chronic traumatic masculinity syndrome.

Just like NFL players suffer long-term brain damage from both hitting with and suffering damage to their heads, we as a culture are suffering from long-term damage both from and to an parodic and extremely pathological image of masculinity.

As it’s being chased out of places where it used to be welcomed — the household, the workplace, even the military — this strain of CTM pops up in a concentrated form, like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, in a handful of spaces. Pro sports. The police. Wall Street. Rap music. Reddit threads. (NB: I like all of these things, at least MINUS the bullshit masculinity people feel the need to display there.)

It’s a toxic expression of our long-toxic history, that not only subjects, objectifies, and physically and emotionally abuses women, but stops seeing men as people with feelings, with internal organs other than the ones they use to hit each other, but as generators of violence, and statistics.

“Law enforcement officers now are part of the revenue gathering system,” Carson tells me in a phone interview. “The ranks of cops are young and competitive, they’re in competition with one another and intra-departmentally. It becomes a game. Policing isn’t about keeping streets safe, it’s about statistical success. The question for them is, Who can put the most people in jail?”

CTM has no easy solutions or easy cure. But just like in football, the activism will have to start from within. And we’d better find a way to get real with the story, pronto.