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.
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.
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!
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:
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…
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.
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.
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?”
I played a funny litcrit game with a very serious journalism debate. I started drawing lines and rectangles and filling in blanks. It’s a little like highbrow madlibs. And it helped me figure a few things out.
Short summary: the debate between Glenn Greenwald and Bill Keller in the pages of the NYT articulates a lot of the big ideas people inside and outside the profession have had about the practice of journalism. (Also, about the relative merit of David Brooks, but that’s a sideline.)
But by framing it as a back and forth between two poles, it leaves a lot out. It actually doesn’t really recognize how close Greenwald and Keller really are in their basic assumptions about what kind of journalism is important and why, in their faith in the truth and in reader’s abilities to sort out really hard questions for themselves. And they’re arguing with each other, but also past each other, to targets they can’t quite bring themselves to name: people like Rupert Murdoch, and Nick Denton.
The left side is corporate or traditional media; the right is online media. The top is “serious” journalism; the bottom is tabloid journalism. For Keller and Greenwald, journalism is a calling; for Murdoch and Denton, it is a business. And without the largesse of patrons committed to the same ideals of journalism, the New York Times and Greenwald’s untitled venture with Omidyar would be very paltry businesses indeed, while Denton’s and Murdoch’s flourish, grow, and evolve. The New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, and Pro Publica, and a few others, have found a space in which they can continue to exist. But it seems to me foolish to deny that for everyone else, the business models and journalistic practices mapped by Murdoch and Denton are proving to be much more robust, repeatable, and influential.
The picture up top is called a semiotic square, and it’s a way of representing a few basic principles:
This has always felt very logical to me. Maybe it’s because it’s like a math problem. If we say, “ok, there are two kinds of numbers, whole numbers and fractions” — well, you’re forgetting about the things that are neither of those. And that’s actually MOST of the numbers. So we say, okay, there are whole numbers and fractions, and not-whole numbers, and not-fractions (irrationals). But wait — now we’re just talking about REAL numbers, and if we’re interested in NUMBERS, you’ve got to talk about imaginary numbers too. And not just imaginary but complex.
And so on. You can always, always, ALWAYS, go further down by expanding and relaxing your field of assumptions. And you can do it all with a pen and a piece of paper. (For reasons I don’t fully understand, this has always been really important for all the fields I’ve been drawn too intellectually — the only tools you need to carry them out are books, pen, and paper. Maybe a calculator, ruler and compass, and a camera.)
But because I know you can always go further down, I know that this graph of journalism is really incomplete. It’s a schema — it clarifies some things, but it obscures even more. And it makes things fixed that are really on the move. It’s like those beads-and-wire atomic models we made of elements in middle school — shit, electrons just aren’t moving around in quiet circles like that. Electrons are a MESS.
So I’d really like to get some pushback and extensions on this here. Jay Rosen was kind enough on Twitter to say that I didn’t pay enough attention to the debate over insiders vs outsiders, access vs accountability, in contemporary journalism. I talk about it a little bit in terms of complicity with the mechanisms of power. But how extensible is that to finance journalism, sports, entertainment, technology? Maybe it is, or maybe we need to blend that discussion with one of access.
And that points to another limitation: even the graph I made sort of takes investigative political journalism as being the field of discourse. And news, journalism, media is enormous! And the centrality of political accountability journalism is not at all self-evident.
Does Silicon Valley care about this shit? Does Wall Street? Does the science blogosphere? Does ESPN? Kinda. But not really. For them the field of action, of real power, of news of genuine importance, is elsewhere. It intersects with that world of electoral politics and state power, but only tangentially and accidentally.
And where do data and coding fit in? Nothing in this graph tells me whether I should learn to code, or what “learning to code” means. Which as we all know, is the most important question for journalism in human history. I mean, if I knew how to program in R, this sad-ass square could be a super-slick data visualization with crazy mouseovers and tilt-shift views and shit.
So what do you all think? If this is a place to start, how can we make it better?
It’s taken me some effort to learn how to appreciate poetry. I can make broad statements about liking books and music without having to like all books or all music, but with poetry–for whatever reason–it’s been more difficult.
However, as someone who would also say he likes math, opening a book of poems and seeing this has immediate appeal:
This is from R. D. Liang’s Knots, a book of poems about “the patterns of human bondage.” I like this. It gives me that “this looks crazy and I want to understand it” feeling.
That feeling is everywhere in math, though it has nothing to do with liking numbers or concepts: It’s a love for the notation itself, the joy of getting to move towards increasingly strange symbology as you understand more.
And reading Knots feels much the same — up to a point. My fascination thus far is wholly with its notation (e.g. the cryptic use of brackets, the strings of random numbers) and the structures in the book itself (e.g. its syntax — the “knots”). Try this one, for example:
Jack sees that
Jill does not know
Jack does not know what
But Jack can’t see
why Jill does not know
that Jack does not know
what Jill thinks
I’ve been reading these poems for the last few nights and I’ve still yet to get much closer to appreciating the subtleties of what Liang has to say about human psychology. (To me, the poem fragment above is not so much about “knowing what others know” as it is about learning how to parse the sentence to read it.) In some sense, I’m hung up solely on the way it’s presented rather than on what it means.
So I’m curious: When is it okay to not want to understand? (Or is it always okay?) Is “understanding” a poem something different from understanding other things?
An observation from Siva Vaidhyanathan:
In Holland, “media literacy” is called “media wisdom.” I love that.
The Dutch word is “Mediawijsheid.” The Dutch sometimes use “media literacy” too, to describe strict literacy, but “media wisdom” has a specific slant, similar to (but I think stronger than) the more robust sense we sometimes give literacy:
In the Netherlands media literacy is often called “media wisdom”, which refers to the skills, attitudes and mentality that citizens and organisations need to be aware, critical and active in a highly mediatised world.
Wisdom. What we really mean, what we have always meant, is wisdom.