I am on board with Frank’s love of A History of the World in 100 Objects and also with his SurveyCast concept. He lays it out in some detail in his post, so go check it out, but this bit resonated with me (emphasis mine):
I suppose I’m hungry for curated educational materials online. These are more than lists of books to read: they’re organized, edited, and have a clear point of view about the content they are presenting, and subvert the typical scatter-shot approach of half the web (like Wikipedia), or the hyper-linear, storyless other half that obsesses over lists. And that’s the frustrating thing about trying to teach yourself things online: you’re new, so you don’t know what’s important, but everything is spread so thin and all over the place, so it’s difficult to make meaningful connections.
Some of the teachers I remember most from college are the ones who would say something like: “Listen. There are only two movies you need to understand to understand [whole giant big cinematic movement X]. Those two movies are [A] and [B]. And we’re gonna watch ‘em.” (I feel like this is something Tim is extremely good at, actually.) It’s a step above curation, right? Context matters here; so does sequence. So we’re talking about some sort of super-sharp, web-powered, media-rich syllabus. I always liked syllabi, actually. They seem to make such an alluring promise, you know? Something like:
Go through this with me, and you will be a novice no more.
A Tumblr vanity search for snarkmarket.com reveals that someone clipped this comment of Tim’s, in which he defines constellational thinking. I just put a link to it in my browser toolbar so I can summon it at a moment’s notice. I feel like I get something new out of it every time I read it. Maybe this is the beginning of my text playlist?
So the Old Spice campaign was funny, surprising, and perfectly-calibrated. These would be reasons enough to like it. But I’m not going to let you stop there. Here’s how I think the campaign establishes an important new precedent—not for online advertising, but for online storytelling across the board.
Here’s where I think it could take us.
Start here: as it became apparent that this wasn’t just a one-time media drop, but instead an ongoing live performance—a spectacle in progress—I was reminded of something that I heard Rex Sorgatz say years ago. I’ll paraphrase, broadly: blogs are actually more related to live theater than they are to, say, newspapers. The things that make a blog good are almost exactly the things that make a live performance good—and the most important, the magic catalyst, is the interplay with the audience.
So extend that beyond blogs, to Twitter feeds and Kickstarter projects and ARGs and whatever it is that Old Spice just did. I really believe in the analogy.
I love this. Matt Jones at BERG shares a list of totally uncool technologies. Mice! Kiosks! CDs! Landline phones! 512MB flash drives!
Matt argues that these technologies all live in the Trough of Disillusionment (which is where you fall after cresting the heights of hype), and that recombining or recontextualizing these technologies…
…can expose a previously unexploited affordance or feature of the technology – that was not brought to the fore by the original manufacturers or hype that surrounded it. By creating a chimera, you can indulge in some material exploration.
The rest of the post is really interesting, and you should check it out. But I want to dwell on the word “chimera” for a second.
We obviously love hybrids and interdisciplinary thinking here at Snarkmarket. But you know, I think we might love chimeras even more.
Hybrids are smooth and neat. Interdisciplinary thinking is diplomatic; it thrives in a bucolic university setting. Chimeras, though? Man, chimeras are weird. They’re just a bunch of different things bolted together. They’re abrupt. They’re discontinuous. They’re impolitic. They’re not plausible; you look at a chimera and you go, “yeah right.” And I like that! Chimeras are on the very edge of the recombinatory possible. Actually—they’re over the edge.
Tim’s last post feels chimeric to me.
I was going for something chimeric with this post, I think.
Chimeric thinking. It’s a thing.
This link is being generated by a Snarkmarket bot programmed to identify and automatically post any content that contains “Nieman Lab” and “Matthew Battles” and “Gutenberg” and “alternate universe” and—okay you get the point. This basically just short-circuited the Snarkmatrix.
It is indeed totally stunning, and it’s got me thinking about Westerns. Among other things:
- Appaloosa, the recent Western with Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, and Jeremy Irons that I totally enjoyed.
- High Noon and Rio Bravo still explain everything.
- Following on: Howard Hawks (who directed Rio Bravo). I feel like I want to understand him and his work better. Note also the Hawksian woman.
What clicks in your mind when you think about Westerns? Any recent movies I ought to see? Any other fun stuff out there?
Update: Yes, this post was Tim-bait, and whoah yes, he delivers. I’m considering just pasting his comment into the body of the post and moving what I wrote to the comments…
Sometimes you run across an idea so counter-intuitive and brain-bending that you immediately want to splice it into every domain you can think of. Sort of like trying a novel chemical compound against a bunch of cancers: does it work here? How about here? Or here?
That’s how I feel about crash-only software (link goes to a PDF in Google’s viewer). Don’t pay too much attention to the technical details; just check out the high-level description:
Crash-only programs crash safely and recover quickly. There is only one way to stop such software—by crashing it—and only one way to bring it up—by initiating recovery.
Wow. The only way to stop it is by crashing it. The normal shutdown process is the crash.
Let’s go a little deeper. You can imagine that commands and events follow “code paths” through software. For instance, when you summoned up this text, your browser followed a particular code path. And people who use browsers do this a lot, right? So you can bet your browser’s “load and render text” code path is fast, stable and bug-free.
But what about a much rarer code path? One that goes: “load and render text, but uh-oh, it looks like the data for the font outlines got corrupted halfway through the rendering process”? That basically never happens; it’s possible that that code path has never been followed. So it’s more likely that there’s a bug lurking there. That part of the browser hasn’t been tested much. It’s soft and uncertain.
One strategy to avoid these soft spots is to follow your worst-case code paths as often as your best-case code paths (without waiting for, you know, the worst case)—or even to make both code paths the same. And crash-only software is sort of the most extreme extension of that idea.
Maybe there are biological systems that already follow this practice, at least loosely. I’m thinking of seeds that are activated by the heat of a forest fire. It’s like: “Oh no! Worst-case scenario! Fiery apocalypse! … Exactly what we were designed for.” And I’m thinking of bears hibernating—a sort of controlled system crash every winter.
What else could we apply crash-only thinking to? Imagine a crash-only government, where the transition between administrations is always a small revolution. In a system like that, you’d optimize for revolution—build buffers around it—and as a result, when a “real” revolution finally came, it’d be no big deal.
Or imagine a crash-only business that goes bankrupt every four years as part of its business plan. Every part of the enterprise is designed to scatter and re-form, so the business can withstand even an existential crisis. It’s a ferocious competitor because it fears nothing.
Those are both fanciful examples, I know, but I’m having fun just turning the idea around in my head. What does crash-only thinking connect to in your brain?
Update: Here’s a great analogy in the comments: gliders! Also, several people pointed out that there are plenty of crash-only business plans already… and that they are basically always fraudulent and malevolent. Er, good point.
The philosopher Dan Dennett, in his terrific book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, coined a phrase that’s echoed in my head ever since I first read it years ago. The phrase is universal acid, and Dennett used it to characterize natural selection—an idea so potent that it eats right through established ideas and (maybe more importantly) institutions—things like, in Darwin’s case, religion. It also resists containment; try to say “well yes, but, that’s just over there” and natural selection burns right through your “yes, but.”
If that’s confusing, the top quarter of this page goes a bit deeper on Dennett’s meaning. It also blockquotes this passage from the book, which gets into the sloshiness of universal acid:
Darwin’s idea had been born as an answer to questions in biology, but it threatened to leak out, offering answers—welcome or not—to questions in cosmology (going in one direction) and psychology (going in the other direction). If [the cause of design in biology] could be a mindless, algorithmic process of evolution, why couldn’t that whole process itself be the product of evolution, and so forth all the way down? And if mindless evolution could account for the breathtakingly clever artifacts of the biosphere, how could the products of our own “real” minds be exempt from an evolutionary explanation? Darwin’s idea thus also threatened to spread all the way up, dissolving the illusion of our own authorship, our own divine spark of creativity and understanding.
(P.S. I think one of the reasons I like the phrase so much is that it seems to pair with Marx’s great line “…all that is solid melts into air.” Except it’s even better, right? Marx just talks about melting. This is more active: this is burning. This is an idea so corrosive it bores a channel to the very center of the earth.)
So I find myself wondering what else might qualify as a universal acid.
I think capitalism must. Joyce Appleby charts the course it took in her wonderful new book The Relentless Revolution. “Relentless” is right—that’s exactly what you’d expect from a universal acid. I think the sloshiness is also there; capitalism transformed not just production and trade but also politics, culture, gender roles, family structure, and on and on.
I suspect, much more hazily, that computation might turn out to be another another kind of universal acid—especially this new generation of diffuse, always-available computation that seems to fuse into the world around us, thanks to giant data-centers and wireless connections and iPads and things yet to come.
But what else? Any other contemporary candidates for universal acid?
My first impulse was to post these things separately—so I decided to combine them instead. I’m pretty sure they are quite unrelated, but perhaps the illusion of connection will make some interesting things happen in your brain.
The writer David Markson died. Sarah Weinman has a terrific post about him, as well as pointers to other terrific posts. She says:
In a way, David Markson needed the Internet, or more accurately, vice versa, to find his rightful place in the literary world. Quotation approprations, short declarative sentences, quick bursts with acres of thought, meditation on artists and writers at work, and a tremendous study of consciousness marked Markson’s output since WITTGENSTEIN’S MISTRESS (1988) opened with the phrase “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.” And as our collective attention spans decreased and dovetailed from mass-market pursuits, there was Markson to clue us in to something greater, more amorphous perhaps, but something that pinged the outer reaches of what he termed “seminonfictional semi-fictions.”
I mean: exactly, right? I’d love to know if Markson used the web much, and/or what he thought of it. Because Sarah is right: his books read like refractions of everything we’re worried (and excited) about right now, right here, on these screens.
Now: if “artists and writers at work” is a subject that appeals to you, I want to specifically recommend The Last Novel. It’s short. It’s declarative and bursty, as Sarah says. It feels good in the hand. It’s one of the few books in the universe I’ve read more than twice. And I think it should be required reading for writers, designers, and makers of all stripes.
I have a secret agenda, of course: I want David Markson’s books to last a thousand years. In order for that to happen, Team Markson needs to grow. You need to fall in love with one of his books, too, and pass it on.
Maybe I’ve said this before in some other post, but let me say it now, on its own and clearly: my single favorite characteristic of the iPhone and the iPad alike is the full bleed.
I mean, finally: no more windows! Death to the desktop! Goodbye to all that—on the iPad and the iPhone (and, to be fair, on game consoles and some other things, too) every experience gets the entire screen, edge to edge. This is a big deal. The difference between this picture…
…and this picture…
…is not ten or twenty percent. It’s everything. It’s the difference between being on your computer, watching a video—and being in Mr. Fox’s den.
There’s an analogy to that argument from Chris Anderson: the difference between one cent and free is not one cent. It’s an order of magnitude, a step function. It’s everything.
Full bleed means you can dim the lights. Full bleed means you get to set the rules. Full bleed means you get my full attention (and not just for video, either). Full bleed short-circuits the cruel clicky calculus of the web. Thank goodness.
A little while ago, on a lark, I watched Three Days of the Condor on Netflix. (By the way, have you seen this deck on Netflix’s present and future? It’s basically all about people streaming Three Days of the Condor, and movies like it, on a lark.)
If you haven’t seen it: it’s a muted spy thriller from 1975. Robert Redford plays a CIA employee—well, here’s how he explains it:
Listen. I work for the CIA. I’m not a spy. I just read books. We read everything that’s published in the world, and we—we feed the plots—dirty tricks, codes into a computer, and the computer checks against actual CIA plans and operations. I look for leaks, new ideas. We read adventures and novels and journals. I—I can—who’d invent a job like that? I—listen! People are trying to kill me!
I mean: exactly, right?
There are no explosions, and only a few bullets. There’s some great whirring-clanking computer analysis, and some even better phone-system hacking.
The movie reminded me—no surprise—of All the President’s Men, which is one of my all-time favorites. So here’s what I want to know:
- Is this genre of muted mid-70s suspense movie (optionally starring Robert Redford) a recognized thing? Does it have a name and/or a key director?
- What haven’t I seen? (Hint: I’ve only seen the two I just mentioned.)
- And here’s the really urgent question: why don’t they make these anymore? I like them so much, and it’d be so do-able. Talk about low-budget; they’re basically set in offices. You could shoot one on a Canon 5D Mark II. All the nerds would watch it.
Really. The Last Novel.
Mostly I want to point to Rob Greco’s wide-ranging post on empathy here. Empathy might actually be the master virtue—the one that makes any of the rest worth having—and Rob serves up a great collage of ideas and further reading including, of course, this all-time Snarkmarket favorite.
BUT I am also going to use this as an opportunity to describe a little thing that I do—a thing I have done since 7th or 8th grade, at least, and still do all the time today.
It goes like this:
Sitting in any space with other people—a classroom, a city bus, even a big wide-open park—I’ll sometimes let my mind wander and imagine the space from someone else’s vantage point. It’s as simple as that. No deep emotional imagination involved; it’s really just visual.
But the important thing is that I am included in the transformed scene. Doodling on a legal pad, hunched into a laptop, reading a book, whatever. The core of the exercise, I think, is that you see yourself as just another person in the space—an opaque bag of bones—instead of as, you know, the movie camera. The privileged POV.
Does that make any sense? It’s stuck with me as a habit, I suppose, because it’s so simple. This isn’t level 12 meditation. It’s just a little flip, a little dose of visual imagination. But I always find it entirely transporting. And it tends to put me in my place.
Anybody else ever do this?