Why write a blog post somewhere nobody has published in five years, in a new WordPress interface where you recognize… yeah, nothing? Where somehow you can’t even upload a JPG or PNG file you downloaded from another site “for security reasons” without converting it first? Or get paragraph tags or linebreaks working inside blockquotes? (Really? On Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s own World Wide Web???)
Because sometimes there is no other place to put such things. There is no other place where you want to put such things.
I bought a new laptop late in 2020, one of the new Apple Silicon M1 MacBook Pros that was announced just after the election (which was also my birthday). It is easily the best laptop I’ve ever used, let alone owned. I’m typing on it now. (It doesn’t have enough ports; otherwise, it is as perfect a machine as has ever existed until the next one comes out.) Buying that laptop started something for me: a new round of investment in myself after a long period of being fearful and dormant. And shortly after I bought it, I covered it in Muppets stickers.
I’m hardly unique in loving The Muppets; we’re past fifty years of Sesame Street and even longer of Jim Henson’s earlier creations, meaning just about every living generation has been touched by those special creatures one way or another. But the Muppets are a talisman of something I try to guard in myself: tenderness, exaggerated emotion, a desire to experience the world as something new, an urge to creativity and renewal, a fear of rejection, and a sometimes desperate need to be loved in a world where love is often in short supply.
The most famous song from The Muppet Movie is the opening number, “The Rainbow Connection.” It’s sung by Kermit the Frog, as played and performed by Jim Henson himself, and the conceit in the movie is that Kermit is playing and singing the song alone, on a banjo. This conceit is quickly abandoned, at least aurally; a whole orchestra comes in, turning a dead-simple children’s song into something swelling and cinematic. It’s three minutes long, and sung by a puppet, performed by someone who, for all his unbounded talents for voice and performance, can’t really sing. But I think it’s the greatest song ever written for a film. (A surprisingly competitive category!) It’s really worth watching, as many times as you can.
Here is a story about the writing of “The Rainbow Connection.” And here are the lyrics:
That’s the whole thing.
As a child, I was taught that this song was about hope in tough times — a rejection of cynicism, an attempt to uphold on the threshold of the Reaganite 1980s something of the idealism of the 1960s, from Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech to the antiwar movement, only somewhat looser and more adaptable (if also more inchoate). The song also had a religious element to it: something of my mother’s highly adaptable (and thoroughly idiosyncratic) Catholicism — a belief there was a magical, spiritual universe both separate from and pervading the one we could see. The Rainbow Connection was not heaven in any proper theological sense, but it was the heaven my mother believed in. And, I think, that she still believes in.
And it is those things — insofar as it “is” anything but a sweet song with a good melody — but it’s also something else. And as you get older, and continue to deal with grief and heartache (as I have, many times), and are dealt reversals and disappointments, the other meaning of “The Rainbow Connection” becomes insistent and impossible to ignore.
It is a song about what you can and can’t believe in after a life filled with missed chances, casual cruelties, and dead family and friends. It’s a song shot full of the melancholy many of us remember most clearly in our own childhoods, an ache to your bones that has never gone away. It is every heartbreak you have ever had, every injury suffered to your body, mind, and pride. It is how you think about friendship and community when your community is broken and your friends are all so very far away. It is not about a cohort of happy dreamers, or lovers. It is about how you care for your child inside when all your illusions are gone. It is the last illusion you keep, because without it, you would have nothing left.
The questions “The Rainbow Connection” asks are genuine questions, with a more ironic edge than Kermit places on it in the song itself:
And if not this, then what? What are the alternatives? Lie down and die? Give in to the world’s cruelty and cynicism and make yourself a part of it? Tranquilize yourself and wait for something to change? Could we even do otherwise? After all… it seems like most people genuinely can do exactly that.
Seen from this perspective, The Muppets are not childlike or naïve at all. They are advancing a powerful critique of how we live and what we believe, and how we’ve come to settle for so much less than what we are capable of. There is a utopian element to “The Rainbow Connection,” but it turns out to be a very slight one. A Minimum Viable Utopia, if you will.
The other song that matters the most to me from The Muppet Movie (which, like Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Prince’s self-titled album, was released shortly before I was born) is Gonzo’s “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday.” And this song, too, has multiple layers that are worth unpacking.
Here are the lyrics:
This song is somehow even simpler than “The Rainbow Connection,” but it wears its ironies farther out on its sleeves.
The obvious (although not literal) reading of the song is that Gonzo is not talking about any past he remembers, or even really a future he’s waiting for, but about the love and newfound family he’s discovered with his friends now all around him: the Muppets to whom he’s singing the song. Again, as a child, this is what I was taught without having to be told, and for the most part, it’s what I believed.
The second, more critical take on “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday” is that it is a profound confession of abandonment and loneliness in Gonzo’s formative years. It is the absence of anything like the heartsoaring love he is stumbling to find words to describe, and his very early and extremely keen awareness of that absence, even before he knew there was hope of anything different. It is less about loss (you have to have something before you can lose it, technically) than lack.
And while you could say that Gonzo is realizing now that he’s found what he’s long been looking for, the fact that he still puts it in the future tense suggests that he’s still feeling something lacking, either in his companions or in himself. He still feels incomplete, blown apart, alone and lonely, en route to something he does not have and has never had, does not know and has never known — something that he can only describe or define by its absence. A negative theology.
You could take this a step further and say that what “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday” is really about is the fact that such a place does not exist, has never existed, and if it waits for anyone, it does not wait for the singer. Gonzo — Tim Carmody — is so irreducibly damaged by what has happened to him, so thoroughly alone, that he can only think of love and belonging as a return to a paradise he’s never known and will never in his lifetime see.
The trouble with all of this is that sometimes the impossible happens.
Here I’m going to invoke another important text from my childhood, but I won’t take any time to explicate it, because I can talk about baseball (and specifically, this single plate appearance) forever.
It is hard to talk or even to think about miracles, especially if (like me) you have long since relaxed the God hypothesis. The 18th-century empiricist / skeptical philosopher David Hume defined a miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”
Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country.
The trouble for Hume with miracles is the trouble for Hume with all knowledge (including very basic relationships of cause and effect): the evidence to genuinely believe in miracles is always lacking. It falls apart given the tiniest bit of criticism — and yet, people are inclined to believe in miracles anyways.
In fact, people all over the world, at every age and in every walk of life, may be more inclined to believe in something impossible they believe they’ve witnessed themselves, alone or in a small group, than an ordinary event witnessed again and again by millions of people. Aristotle, too, understood, this irony, writing in the Poetics that (translations differ, but here is the gist) “the poet should prefer probable impossibilities to improbable possibilities.” And if you can keep God’s hands off the probable impossible, so much the better.
The world Gonzo prophecies in “I’m Going To Go Back There Someday,” that Kermit imagines in “The Rainbow Connection,” is not supposed to exist. It is an illusion, an impossibility, even if it remains a necessary one. And yet: sometimes, somehow, after you have already set aside your own eligibility for such things, and doubted their real existence for others or their cameos in your own past, you nevertheless, to your own total astonishment, find yourself back there again.
On Saturday, February 6th, I moved back to the city of Philadelphia. I made my nostos, not to the city where I was born (Detroit, which will also always have my heart), but the city I chose when I was 22, and where I spent most of the important years of my life. I am back. I am home.
You can just visit / But I plan to stay / I’m going to go back there / Someday
A big part of my history of Flint River pollution, just published today, is about this 1999 accident where 22 million gallons of raw sewage was dumped into the river, killing fish and making the river unsafe for contact for about a year and a half. It revealed all sorts of structural problems in the way sewage was being treated in the region, and happened right in the middle of a mayor’s race and an attempt to renegotiate the city’s water contract with Detroit.
Over two days, 22 million gallons of raw human, industrial, residential, and commercial waste poured into the river. On the second night, downstream in Mt. Morris Township, Karen Winchester saw hundreds of dead fish floating down the river past her property — catfish, carp, and bluegill, 3 to 20 inches long, all belly-up. For 14 months, health officials prohibited swimming, fishing, or direct contact with the river…
Over the next year, bacteria levels continued to rise, fall, and rise again, suggesting ongoing pollution. In June 2000, the Michigan legislature passed a law requiring municipal and county authorities to report any sewage spill to the Department of Environmental Quality. It uncovered dozens more spills: as part of an amnesty program, nine communities in the Flint area reported 90 illegal sewage overflows over the preceding five years. Heavy rains, power outages, and accidents at plants or along sewage lines repeatedly dumped waste into the river. Flint itself declined to disclose any spills it hadn’t already reported. Communities began doing house-to-house checks looking for illegal hookups dumping into the sewer system or the river. Many were never found.
Despite the new law, the city continued to discharge untreated and partially treated sewage into the river during heavy rains, snowmelts, and power outages, including an 8-million-gallon spill in March 2006 and a 18.1-million-gallon spill in September 2008. The city’s takeover by state-appointed emergency managers did nothing to change the basic limitations of the river and the city and region’s ability to treat its own waste. It happened over and over again.
After each spill, many of Flint’s leaders repeated a version of the caveat James Helmstetter, the county’s director of environmental health, tacked onto his warning to residents after the 1999 spill.
“As far as we know, no [community] uses the Flint River for a drinking water source,” he said.
But! Here’s one little historical irony (or rhyme?) that got cut from the final story.
A contractor for a telecom company — probably SBC Ameritech but I couldn’t even find legal papers to say exactly who it was — was digging a trench to lay fiberoptic cable near an apartment complex on the bank of the river. They notify this third-party agency whose job it is to get permission from the city to say it’s OK to dig. The water department in turn is supposed to mark the line. This agency contacts Flint’s water department, and gets no response. They in turn tell the contractor, yup! No problems! Go ahead and dig!
The contractor digging the trench punches a giant hole in a main sewage pipe running between the city and the treatment center. Just all the filth in the universe is leaping out of this pipe. You can’t shut it off. The only thing you can do is divert some of it to other sewer lines, including into Flint Township, and dump the rest of it directly into the river. So that’s what they did. It then took the city more than two days to patch the broken pipe. With raw sewage dumping into the river the entire time.
Why didn’t the water department respond to the request to mark the line, and why were they so slow to patch the pipe? Well! First of all, they were totally understaffed and underfunded. But what staff they did have, almost all of them, were diverted to work with GM on getting a brand-new engine plant ready at the complex on Van Slyke Road, making sure they had the proper hookups for water to use on their equipment and to treat their waste to go into Flint’s sewers.
Flash forward fifteen years later. The city switches from Detroit water to water from the Flint River. GM starts noticing that the new water is corroding its parts. It starts getting its water from Flint Township — the same system that handled part of the overage when the pipe was broken. But not at every plant — just this one engine plant.
This was one of the early signs that there were serious problems with the city’s water, and was also emblematic of how they were dealt with — piecemeal, under the radar (although it was known), satisfying important interests, neglectful towards the vast majority of people who were more deeply affected.
And damned if this GM plant that switched its water source isn’t the same GM plant Flint’s water department was helping get up and running fifteen years before when they should have been marking that sewage line.
And oh — that engine plant switched its incoming water to Flint Township. But it continued to dump its waste into Flint’s city sewage lines.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Matt coined (or at least first wrote about) “the Speakularity” in 2010: “the moment when automatic speech transcription becomes fast, free and decent.”
Five years and change later, we’re still not exactly there! But we are closer. Like the horizon, the Singularity, or the coming of the Messiah, the Speakularity is always ever-so-slightly in the distance.
I recently reevaluated my rig for transcribing recorded audio and thoroughly reworked it. I feel much happier about this than any of my previous setups, which leaned a little too heavily on procrastination and weeping.
Also, I recently read Friend of the Snark Charlie Loyd’s entry on “The Setup” about the tools he uses, and feel correspondingly moved to actually tell people how I do things in the hope that they might add, improve, adopt, critique, be entertained, or otherwise benefit from it. You know, like how the internet used to be!
This setup requires a few pieces of software. Some of them I even paid American money for.
CallRecorder for Skype. Skype is… less than perfect. But it’s common, and you can do app-to-app calls or call an outside phone number. Most of what I do these days is interview sources and contacts on the phone. If you have a landline from which you can easily record incoming audio… do that. The rest of us sinners, we have to do this.
There are a bunch of call recording programs for Skype. There are also ways to rig Skype and your sound card to dump audio into a file. I’ve used Soundflower before. But I like Call Recorder for a few reasons:
This last part turns out to be important. It gives you a pristine audio file with no trace of your own voice. You don’t have to listen to your own stupid self! Totally worth the price of admission. Or I don’t know, rig Soundflower to do the same thing. I can’t figure it out, but you probably could.
Ok, now I do a rough pass of this separated audio in a voice transcription app. I use an older version of Dragon Dictate. Again, I use this partly because it (kinda) works, but mostly because I have it. It’s like eating what’s in your fridge before you go back out shopping. You can also use YouTube, especially if you don’t care that Google might have a copy of your audio.
You can also use IBM Watson’s speech-to-text API for two cents per minute. This has some advantages in that it’s relatively easy to script. I’ve just started messing with Watson by way of Dan Nguyen’s video transcription project on GitHub. Sometimes Watson works for me and sometimes it times out, which might be a function of my often-iffy Wi-Fi more than anything else. So usually for a first pass I try Dragon instead.
All I want for this quick-and-dirty transcription is a basic idea of what was said. Plus, it’s good to get an auto-transcription of the audio file before you start messing with it, which we’re about to do.
The next piece of software I use is an app called AudioSlicer. AudioSlicer is free but comes with some limitations, like being Mac-only and only working on MP3 files. So I may try another app like WavePad Audio Splitter. Maybe you have a favorite you’d like to share.
The important thing you’re looking for with this app is that it 1) detects silences in an audio file and 2) elegantly splits that file into multiple files, wherever silence is detected.
This, in conjunction with splitting your Skype recordings into a you-side and a them-side, is magic. Not only do you not have to listen to yourself talk, but those places where you did talk? They become punctuation for the other person’s audio. You can get audio files broken up into natural units of conversation. This, unsurprisingly, makes for audio files that make good quotes, and are a natural length for you to edit and transcribe in one go.
Now we’re on to the last app: ExpressScribe. This company also makes WavePad Audio Splitter, which makes me think they might work well together. Anyways, this is a genius little free app. It lets you load and save audio files, has a text editor right there, and adjusts speed without changing pitch. Again, it’s far from perfect, but it solves a lot of problems for you.
So you take all those split audio files from AudioSlicer or WavePad or wherever. Sometimes I sort them by size and weed out the smallest ones, which are usually just somebody saying “yup” or “uh-huh,” “ok,” etc. Then you load them into ExpressScribe. I’ve got my quick-and-dirty transcription of the entire interview, which helps guide me for the quotes I’m looking for. When I find those audio files, I run them through the transcriber again by their lonesome. (If I’m using Watson, I probably bulk upload here; Dragon, you have to do them one at a time). I pick whichever of the two transcription (pre-cut or post-cut) is more accurate, or maybe take pieces of both of them. Then using ExpressScribe, I do a fine-grained edit of the transcribed the text, checking it against the audio.
When I’m done with the transcription (either piece-by-piece or the whole thing), I put the transcribed files into my notes (which I keep in Scrivener). Now I’ve got a bunch of separate quotes that I can deploy anywhere I need them. I’ve got the audio that goes with each note, if I have to finesse it. And I have a transcription of the entire talk, for context.
If I need to, I transcribe my side of the conversation — but most of the time… this is actually unhelpful. I mean, sometimes I say something really smart on a phone call or I stupidly phrase a question in a way that you need it in order to make the answer make sense. But most of the time, even if I say something smart, it’s to try to goad the other person into saying something smarter. The more I can get out of my own way, the better.
So right now, February 2016, that’s how I’m transcribing my phone calls. I’m sure I will relentlessly fine-tune this process, especially when doing so means that I might be able to avoid actually writing or especially, actually hand-transcribing audio.
What do you use?
In the Iowa statehouse, there’s this doll cabinet. Amid the political regalia surrounding it, the cabinet stands out, filled as it is with dozens of dolls, each with its hair immaculately styled, each dressed in a gorgeous gown, all bearing the exact same porcelain face.
The figurines reflect a tradition begun by former Iowa first lady Billie Ray in celebration of the state’s centennial in 1976. She wanted to honor Iowa’s past and future governors’ wives with commemorative dolls, molded in Ray’s own image. Each of Iowa’s 43 first ladies is represented, dressed in a Barbie-sized version of the first lady’s inaugural gown and identified (in most cases) with a small placard carrying the governor’s name — “Mrs. Robert Ray” or “Mrs. Samuel J. Kirkwood.” So in the same place where Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina were just furiously campaigning to become the first female President of the United States, several dozen women share the dubious honor of being distinguished solely by a hairstyle, a dress, and a man’s name.
I often wonder how that doll cabinet will honor Iowa’s first first spouse who isn’t white, or a woman. This hasn’t been a consideration previously; all the governors and their spouses so far have helpfully fit the pattern. But demography, along with a multi-generational pivot in American gender dynamics, have rendered that status quo shatteringly delicate. One day they’re either going to have to stuff the likeness of Mrs. Robert Ray into a man’s suit, paint that porcelain doll brown, or rethink the entire exercise.
That doll cabinet is already a museum piece, even if it doesn’t know it yet. You can look at it and see the era it represents becoming suddenly untenable. I’ve come to think of that type of moment — when you can mark the instant before and after something slips into history, just as it’s happening — as rare and intensely valuable.
A dozen years ago, Robin and I shared one of those moments. Over the course of a few weeks in early 2004, we came to realize that our then-present experience of media and technology was fast becoming an anachronism, and that there were a lot of people—journalists in particular—who weren’t aware of that. We imagined ourselves looking back on that era before tiny, powerful computers colonized every corner of the world, and marveling at how strange and foreign it would already seem just ten years later. We shaped these imaginings into a rough little movie that is still one of the most popular things I’ve ever had a hand in making, and I credit some significant part of its resonance to the way we flipped the lens — projecting not forward from our past experience, but backward from the future.
To know the future … that’s the dream, right? But it’s a dream that makes sense only if the future is merely revealed, rather than being constructed bit by bit from the traces of the present, which we still have the ability to shape. Let me argue instead for seeking future history — the ability to consider the present through the lens of the future, to find imminent anachronisms hidden in plain sight. What do we take for granted today that will come to seem remarkable tomorrow? What will the history books say about us?
A few months ago, my friends Andy, Amanda, and Amy, and I decided to build a weekend around these questions. And now I’m seeing future history everywhere.
Like all right-thinking people, I’ve been infected with Hamilton fever. The theme of the show that resonates most loudly is the obsession of all the central characters with their place in history. After one recent replay of the score, I found myself tearfully re-reading Washington’s farewell address, a message sent across the ages, to us. Of course, nearly every Presidential farewell has that time-capsule quality — it’s the last best chance for a President to spin his legacy. But fast-forward through more recent ones, and Washington’s stands out all the more. Other Presidents are aware of the watchful eyes of history, but they spend most of their parting speeches dwelling on the recent past — what they saw, what they did, why they did it. Consequently, moments in these speeches can seem parochial or short-sighted, just decades later. “There hasn’t been a failure of an insured bank in nearly 9 years,” Truman says. “The Persian Gulf is no longer a war zone,” Reagan says. We’re “on track to be debt-free by the end of the decade,” Clinton says.
Washington, though, scours his Presidency for lessons that would reverberate across centuries: Cherish your union, he tells us. “It is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize.”
It’s not just lofty Presidential speeches; tiny gestures can mark a break with the past. When Tom Vilsack ascended to the Iowa governor’s mansion, his wife Christie broke slightly with tradition: she elected to have her doll identified by her own name in the cabinet. “I’ve never called myself ‘Mrs. Tom Vilsack,’ ever,” she said. Iowa’s next first lady echoed Christie Vilsack’s choice; her doll is called “Mrs. Mari Culver.”
In 2012, Christie Vilsack tried to change another longstanding Iowa tradition: she ran for Congress. Not only had a woman never been governor of Iowa in 2012, no woman had ever represented the state in either the House or the Senate. “We really have a wonderful history,” the state’s Democratic Party chair said when Vilsack announced her exploratory committee. “With this one problem.”
Vilsack’s run failed; she was defeated by Steve King in 2012. But then something happened, just last year. A streak unbroken since Iowa entered the union in 1846 — nearly 170 years in which a long succession of men exclusively represented Iowa in Congress — ended. Joni Ernst, the daughter of another Mari Culver, became Iowa’s first ever Congresswoman. (Initially, I thought she was the daughter of the same Mari Culver who was Iowa’s first lady. But no, Joni’s mother is Marilyn Culver, not Mariclare Culver, so this post was wrong.)
For a weekend in Baltimore in April, we’re going to look for moments like this, and scour our own experiences for ideas and lessons that will endure. We’ll make a time capsule, and we’ll end with a prom; we couldn’t think of two better ways to bring a far-seeing lens to the present. It will be massive fun and I hope you join us if you can. But most of all, I want to know: What do you see around you today that will come to seem remarkable?
One of my running jokes on Twitter is that I hate the rapper/actor Common. No; hate is the wrong word. The joke is that I consider Common my personal archenemy.
I like Mos Def's verse and chorus on that song so much that I usually forget Common is on it too— Tim Carmody (@tcarmody) January 6, 2016
(Common is not very good)
When Reed tells Doom, “I’ve always believed that you could be better than what you are” — THIS is how I feel about MY own archenemy, Common— Tim Carmody (@tcarmody) January 16, 2016
Now, it’s certainly true that I generally think there are better rappers and especially better actors than Common. And I think “I Used To Love H.E.R.” is a shining example of supposed consciousness and integrity hiding a lazy misogyny. But I’m mostly playing this up, because it’s funny to me how strong my feelings sometimes run — in general, not just about music or movies, and particular, about Common.
There are songs featuring Common that I absolutely love: Black Star’s “Respiration” is definitely one of them.
J. Dilla’s “So Far To Go,” with Common and D’Angelo, is another. Even if its greatness has more to do with Dilla and D’Angelo’s contributions than Common’s (and some of his lyrics make me shake my head), it’s just beautiful:
It’s probably most accurate to say: Common bugs me. Take the end of his verse on “Respiration”:
Ask my guy how he thought travellin’ the world sound
Found it hard to imagine he hadn’t been past downtown
It’s deep, I heard the city breathe in its sleep
A reality I touch, but for me it’s hard to keep
Deep, I heard my man breathe in his sleep
A reality I touch, but for me it’s hard to keep
Now, that last couplet — that’s a pretty good line. You can tell Common knows it, too, because he repeats it. Why does he repeat it?
Now, this is educated conjecture, but: he really likes it, he thinks it’s profound, and he wants to hang a lantern on it. And: it’s because the structure of the verse demands another rhyme, and he doesn’t have a better one.
As a writer and editor, this offends me. This is super-presumptive on my part, but I feel just a little bit like Lydia Davis in this terrific anecdote from her 2014 New Yorker profile that I think about all the time:
One recent morning, Davis sat at her kitchen table with a pocket-size black notebook and a hardcover novel by a popular writer, whom she asked me not to name. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, and I don’t like to knock other writers as a matter of principle,” she said. Though enjoyably soap-operatic, the novel, that month’s selection for her book club—local women, wine, family talk—was full of mixed metaphors. “I’ve gotten very alert not just to mixed metaphor but to any writing mistake,” she said. “A little bell goes off in my head first. I know something’s wrong here. Then secondly I see what it is.” She opened the notebook and read a sentence about an acute intimacy that had eroded into something dull. “Acute is sharp, and then eroded is an earth metaphor,” she said. She read another: “ ‘A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.’ I thought about that. You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.” There were sentences about camouflaging with a veneer, and girding with an orb, and boomeranging parallels. “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison,” she said.
I want to like Common. But he keeps getting in the way. I wish he would get out of the way.
Note: I feel this way about a lot of people. Blake Griffin — really, the entire Los Angeles Clippers — Cam Newton (although I’m mellowing on Cam), Dwight Howard, Kyrie Irving, Pete Townshend, Paul Simon, post-Exile in Guyville Liz Phair, Batman, more of my fellow journalists and scholars than I am comfortable naming. I just want them to be better artists, public personalities, and/or humans than they are.
Now, one artist I am 100 miles per hour excited about pretty much all the time is Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick is great because, like Anthony Davis, he got great in a hurry and there’s a very good chance he’s going to get even better as time goes on. Even if the things he says sometimes makes you shake your head — and really, once you start shaking your head at hip-hop and pro athletes, you’re never going to stop — he’s so charming that you forgive him everything. (It’s the same quality that Eazy-E, Snoop Dogg, and pre-2000 Tom Cruise had.)
Here’s an example of why I like Kendrick Lamar so much. This is from “Backseat Freestyle,” a joyous, thoroughly juvenile, and exceptionally well-crafted single from his 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city.
Goddamn I feel amazing, damn I’m in the matrix
My mind is living on cloud nine and this 9 is never on vacation
Start up that Maserati and VROOM-VROOM, I’m racing
Popping pills in the lobby and I pray they don’t find her naked
Now, that second part of the first line almost always trips me up. First of all, I’m not totally convinced that it’s “damn I’m in the matrix” and not “damn I’m in the majors,” but the first is what most of the lyrics sites go with, so, ok, whatever.
Second of all, it’s not the song’s hook, but it shows up where the hook might go (before the first bridge or hook ever appears) and parallels its structure. This is how the hook goes:
Goddamn I got bitches, damn I got bitches
Damn I got bitches, wifey, girlfriend and mistress
All my life I want money and power
Respect my mind or die from lead showers
So you have this “Goddamn/damn” partial parallel in the hook, which is fully paralleled in this verse. Which makes you think, once you know the song, that he’s going to lead into “Goddamn I got bitches” rather than “Goddamn I feel amazing.” And he repeats “I got bitches” three times, which leads you to think, okay, he’s going to repeat “I feel amazing.” But he doesn’t. He goes into “goddamn I’m in the matrix/majors.”
And in fact, every single one of the hooks is just a little bit different. Sometimes after “damn I got bitches,” he adds a little contrapuntal “okay,” and sometimes he doesn’t.
It actually reminds me a little of what Paul Simon does to the hook on “Graceland.” Go to about five minutes in, and you get a fraction of the story of composing this song: the full version on Under African Skies (from which these clips are taken) is terrific.
Anyways, on “Graceland” sometimes the hook is more straightforward (“I’m going to Graceland / Memphis, Tennessee / I’m going to Graceland”) and sometimes it’s a permutation (“In Graceland, in Graceland / I’m going to Graceland”). It’s tied to little mini-verses, and sometimes it migrates out of the chorus and into the verse. It’s just a continual iteration and play.
Kendrick and Paul are never happy to just repeat themselves, no matter how thoroughly they’ve nailed it. And that’s why I’m more tolerant of their tics, blind spots, and failings of politics or self-consciousness, than I am for someone like Common. Because they’re actually artists, and much closer to the kind of artist or craftsman that I would like to be.
I’ll admit it, I didn’t want 2015 to pass without at least saying hi to you, Snarkmarket. The proximate nudge for this particular greeting is Hossein Derakhshan’s Guardian essay about how the internet had changed for him when he was freed from prison in Iran, an edited, updated version of his post from earlier this year at Matter1:
The Iranian blogosphere was a diverse crowd – from exiled authors and journalists, female diarists, and technology experts, to local journalists, politicians, clerics, and war veterans. But you can never have too much diversity. I encouraged conservatives inside Iran to join and share their thoughts. I had left the country in late 2000 to experience living in the west, and was scared that I was missing all the rapidly emerging trends at home. But reading Iranian blogs in Toronto was the closest experience I could have to sitting in a shared taxi in Tehran and listening to collective conversations between the talkative driver and random passengers.
There’s a story in the Qur’an that I thought about a lot during my first eight months in solitary confinement. In it, a group of persecuted Christians find refuge in a cave. They, and a dog they have with them, fall into a deep sleep and wake up under the impression that they have taken a nap: in fact, it’s 300 years later. One version of the story tells of how one of them goes out to buy food – and I can only imagine how hungry they must have been after 300 years – and discovers that his money is obsolete now, a museum item. That’s when he realises how long they have been absent.
The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. It represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web – a vision that started with its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralisation – all the links, lines and hierarchies – and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks. Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realised how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete.
It’s a familiar complaint. Blogs like this one are speakeasies now, not raucous pubs. I don’t actually know if fewer people are “reading blogs” or if it’s that the web has grown so much larger that the boutique communities of yesteryear merely feel less significant. But I will say, I find enduring and immense value in this place, in the fact that you’re here, reading these words, however you’ve found them. Speakeasies can be marvelous spots.
For my birthday this year, my beloved Bryan took me to a performance called “Then She Fell,” staged in a humble building in a quiet part of Williamsburg, late-ish on a Sunday night. Bryan and I, along with 13 other guests and a cast of actors almost as numerous, spent the next two hours together walking through a delightful and thought-provoking story loosely based on Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland. A few of us had a tea party with the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbits and the queens. I was pulled into a brief but intense conversation with Alice about true love and the value of obedience. The two hours I spent enacting my part in this play were two of my favorite hours of the year, but this, essentially by definition, could not be an experience for “everybody.” It was a performance for and with a couple dozen people, and that very smallness and intimacy was its essence.
So it is with this, and you.
I’ve marked my years through Snarkmarket. It’s been ten years since the second, and last, version of EPIC, a.k.a. the Googlezon video.2 Ten years ago, I recorded a reminder to myself on Snarkmarket to go check out what was in Howard Dean’s sealed records from his time as governor of Vermont.3 A decade hence, I trust this leaky rocketship will still be cruising somewhere beyond Pluto, and that you’ll be here, watching. I promise to pour us a drink.
May 2016 bring you more life than any year before it. And if it is now long past 2016 for you, may the worst of your years lie long in your past, and may the best of them lie ahead.
1 At Matter? On Medium? I’m self-conscious about my prepositions and my objects.
3 I did remember to check on this last year, after Dean’s archives opened to the public. From the accounts of local reporters who trawled through the records, there was really nothing revelatory in the files. Perhaps one day when I’ve got lots of spare time, I’ll make a fuller accounting.
I watched Peter Diamandis give a presentation yesterday (at the Michigan CEO Summit) – among other things, he showed a video of Watson absolutely dominating in Jeopardy and mentioned, offhand, that Watson has an API now.
My ears perked up, and one Google search and a few clicks later, I confirmed what I’ve long suspected: AI is coming for my job.
But don’t worry, fellow wordsmiths and rhetoricians: the only audience you can optimize for, under Watson’s current public incarnation as Bluemix, is the crowd of Twitter users interested in two topics:
And that, if you’ll forgive the somewhat laborious introduction, is why I’m thinking about clouds.
Much like its tropospheric namesake, you can see almost anything in the digital cloud if you stare at it long enough. Panopticon? Library of Babel? Sum total of human knowledge? Yes, yes, yes, all of the above. So why do we persist in using only one word to mean so many things?
I’d like to propose a new classification system. Instead of just talking about “the cloud”, as in “this app syncs with the cloud” or “I keep all my photos in the cloud now” or “Ever since Snowden, I just don’t trust the cloud” – let’s be more specific.
Clouds and Clouds
Cirrus clouds are light, wispy, more decorative than consequential.
Moving over to the digital world, a cirrus cloud primarily stores metadata, and you wouldn’t really miss if it disappeared. For example, Chrome browser sync – it’s nice to have your bookmarks on all your computers, but not something you couldn’t live without. GameCenter on iOS keeps track of your leaderboard rankings and syncs your game progress, but you don’t really “keep” anything in GameCenter.
Cumulus clouds are hefty, voluminous, big.
A cumulus cloud is a storehouse for heaps of data, like that 25GB of correspondence over a decade in your Gmail account, or photo backups on Dropbox, or your iTunes library.
Stratus clouds are flat sheets, sometimes layered. People don’t take many photos of stratus clouds, because frankly they’re not very impressive.
A stratus cloud is important, but it’s not customer-facing. Amazon AWS, Github, Heroku – workhorses, one and all, but unless you’re a developer you probably neither know nor care.
And then there are nimbus clouds – the ones that promise rain, sleet, snow, hail. Or worse.
Nimbus clouds are the dark internet, the alphabet soup of NSA programs, the hacked credit card and password databases getting passed around the back alleys of the net. The cloud that rains on your parade when your identity gets stolen: that’s a nimbus.
This is just scratching the surface of cloud-related terminology, but it’s a start – and hopefully a useful one. What do you think?
Every album by The Wrens so far has turned out to be a time capsule prophecy of my life in the decade to follow — just open it up ten years later, listen to it again, and it turns out there was your whole life, written for you by a band’s songwriters who’d already gone there and were sending you a message back, like constellations five to ten light years away, only it went in reverse, and you are actually seeing the future in the stars. Superluminal astronauts desperate to get a message back to the past, and the only way is through slightly overwrought guitar pop songs.
They’re releasing another one, signed with a label, recording is almost done. Their fans may be few, but we are loyal and we are mighty, and we have been making ourselves ready, here on the other side of the universe.
Call it dad rock if you want. I, for one, am anxious to learn what my forties will be like, and grateful to know that if the pattern holds, no matter what happens, at least I’ll live that long.
I’ve been trying to write this post all day. It’s hard for me to write these days because I fractured my shoulder a few weeks ago, so writing for me really entails talking to a computer, which translates my speech into text. This sounds like it would be easy, but it isn’t. You need time, electricity, and relative quiet, which turns out to be really scarce. You also need to be able to pay attention, which is also pretty scarce.
We’re not quite at the “Speakularity,” where speech in any context can instantly be converted to text and back again with a minimum of human processing. But speech recognition software has gotten incredibly good — certainly much better than it was five years ago when I was last injured and trying to write blog posts with a combination of one-handed typing and decent – but – still – rudimentary speech recognition software. Those early Snarkmarket posts in the fall of 2009 were pretty rough. I remember contacting Robin Sloan and asking him if he could proofread them for me, because I made so many typos with my left hand, and I couldn’t pay attention long enough to reread everything I’d written.
Snarkmarket is 11 years old today, and like the preteen that it is, it’s not as communicative as its parents would always wish it would be. Attention and quiet are scarce resources, and even a hardy desert ecosystem needs those two things to sustain itself. Still, it’s a relief to know that Snarkmarket it’s always here, a pied-a-terre in the blogosphere for those of us who live on social media, dark social, the official world of formal communications, the imaginary world of invented fictions, the obligations and complications that life continually calls on us to address and fulfill. Snarkmarket is here. The key to that lock will always let you in.
Six years ago today, I became one of the writers/editors of Snarkmarket, joining Matt Thompson (hahaha — you guys can’t see it, but my speech software wanted to call him “Matt #”) and Robin Sloan in convening this circus tent, this public diary of private preoccupations, this repository for 10 year time capsules, this leaky rocketship into the future. Snarkmarket has been Snarkmarket with Tim longer now than it wasn’t.
And I think — maybe Robin and Matt would contest this — but Snarkmarket deserves a place as one of the Great Blogs of the 2000s. I don’t know if anyone is keeping a list of these, or if people get together and argue whether Metafilter or Kottke.org was better and why, or if the whole Daring Fireball route was a mistake, like sports fans arguing about overrated and underrated sports teams and players, but if such a world exists, and let’s be honest, a universe with such a world inside it is better and greater than one without it, in the same way that a universe with a just and perfect God is better and greater than one without it, I submit that in this world Snarkmarket needs to be considered as one of the Great Blogs, in the same way that Tony Gwynn is one of the great baseball players, or the 1988-89 Detroit Pistons is one of the great basketball teams of all time.
Enough people — smart people, successful people, people not much younger than Robin and Matt and I, but often more successful than any of us, which, look around, is a pretty significant hurdle to clear — come up to me and say things like, “Snarkmarket helped me figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up.” enough people say these things that I increasingly have a sense that Snarkmarket was not just the most important blog to me when I joined it in 2008, but to many other people too. It played that Tony Gwynn/Kazuo Ichiro role for a lot of people — sure, other blogs had more power, but Snarkmarket was just a little smarter, a little trickier, a little more curious, a little better at getting on base.
Joining this blog was one of the most important things that ever happened to me, and that’s another way in which I can judge somewhat objectively how important it is been. In November 2008, I was on the academic job market, getting ready to interview for a few tenure-track jobs and postdoctoral fellowships, and it was weird — it was a time when people, smart people, influential people still said “you shouldn’t have a blog, you shouldn’t be on twitter, if you do these things, you should do them under pseudonyms, and if anyone asks you about it, you shouldn’t tell them, because if you blog, and it’s known that you write a blog, online, people are going to wonder whether or not you’re really serious about your work, and you just don’t want to give them any extra ammunition to wonder anything about you.”
I didn’t care. I had been waiting for one or two years, ever since Robin had suggested that maybe Snarkmarket would add a few writers and maybe I might be one of them, I think when we were on our way to the bathroom at the Museum of Modern Art on a random visit, and I was just super hungry to be handed the key to this place where I’ve been reading and writing comments since before I knew what a blog really was.
Is that still a thing, people getting excited about being able to be part of a blog? I didn’t think so, but then I became part of Paul Ford’s tilde.club and saw people falling over themselves to get an invite to SSH into a UNIX server, just to be a part of something, just to have a chance to put up some silly, low bandwidth, conceptually clever websites and chat with strangers using the UNIX terminal. It’s not like being one of the cool kids who’s in on a private beta for the latest and greatest smartphone app, where your enjoyment is really about being separate from the people who aren’t included, and the expected attitude is a kind of jaded, privileged disinterest: it’s more like getting a chance to play with the neighbor kid’s Lego set, and he has all the Legos.
Robin and Matt had crazy good Legos. I didn’t get that academic job, but I was able to take their Legos and build my way into a job writing for Wired, of all places, 30 years old and I’d never been a journalist except by osmosis and imposture here at Snarkmarket, and now I get paid every month to write for Wired, how does that happen except that this place was an extra scaffolding for all of us, for me in grad school, for Matt at newspapers across the country, for Robin at Gore TV/Current TV/Twitter, to build careers that weren’t possible for people who didn’t have that beautiful Lego scaffolding to support them (I’m wearing a sling on my arm right now with straps that wrap around my body to hold my arm in place, and a screw and washer to hold my shoulder bone together, my upper arm bone really, plus my rotator cuff, plus hold massive tendons, plus I’m thinking about those times that I would walk from my apartment in Columbus Circle down Broadway to Four Times Square in Manhattan to go to work at wired, wired isn’t there anymore, Condé Nast just moved in to one World Trade Center today, all the way downtown, but the scaffolding in Manhattan that is just constant, that is the only thing that allows the city to remake itself day after day month after month year after year, so this scaffolding metaphor is really doing something for me, plus Legos, well, Legos that just came from before, so what can I tell you, roll with it).
I don’t work at Wired, Robin doesn’t work at Twitter, Matt is at NPR, and we are where we are because of the things that we did but also because of this place. Ars Technica ran a story about it being 10 years since EPIC 2014 – I could paste the link and maybe that would be the bloggy thing to do, but you’re big boys and girls, you can Google it after you finish reading this — and there’s great interviews in there with Robin and Matt about how they made the video, and some specific names of wars and companies aside, were basically right about how technology companies were going to take the distribution and interpretation of the news away from both traditional journalism companies and the emerging open standards of the World Wide Web. I mean, isn’t that a hell of a thing, to see the future and put it in a flash movie? Anything was possible in 2004, especially if that anything Looked like a future that was vaguely uncomfortable but not so bad, really.
I turned 35 today, and I don’t really have a lot of deep thoughts about my own life or career or where I am in it. I’ve had those on other birthdays, and I’ve had them on many days in the not too distant past. Today, though, I’ve mostly felt warm and embraced by the people all around me, in my home, across the country, on the telephone, connected to me by the mails, whose books I read (and whose books publishers send to my house, my friends are writing books and their publishers send them free to my house, that’s almost as amazing as a machine that I can control that lets me read new things all day), and who were connected to me by the Internet: on twitter or Facebook, on Slack or email, by text message or text messaging’s many, many hypostases, all around me, as real to me as anyone I’ve ever imagined or read or touched, all of them, all of them warm and kind and gracious and curious about me and how I’m doing, what I’m up to, what I’m thinking, what I want to do this week or next month or when I get a chance to read that thing they sent me. it is as real to me as that invented community at the end of epic 2015, that brilliant coda that people almost always forget, and I don’t know why because it’s actually a better prediction of our future-come-present than anything in the first video, but maybe it’s not about the New York Times, it’s just about a beautiful day outside, a traffic accident, an open door, Matt’s beautiful voice when he narrates that photograph, beckoning you to come outside to look, LOOK.
The Snarkmatrix Is infinite, the stark matrix is everywhere, the start matrix can touchdown at any point in these electronic channels and reconstitute itself, extending perpetually outward into the entire world of media and ideas and editors who are trying to understand what will happen next, and teenage kids who are trying to figure out how what they’re doing maps in any way at all to this strange, established world of culture, to writers who are anxious for any sense of community, any place to decompress between the often hostile worlds of social media and professional correspondence. People want a place, a third place, and blogs are a great form of that place, even when they’re not blogs. (I’m subblogging now. This is what it’s come to. But I think most of you feel me.)
I don’t feel like I’m at any kind of peak or hollow or inflection point of my life or career, or any vantage at which I can look forth and contemplate what’s happened or what is to come. what I feel overwhelmingly is a sense of being in the middle, in medias res, nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita, and there is no crisis, only a sense of being surrounded, enmeshed, connected, and in-between, en route. Snarkmarket remains en route. And I hope it does for another 111 years. It deserves to.
Imagine, if you will, the following as narrated in a British accent. Or don’t. It’s really up to you.
It was a late spring afternoon when the reader discovered a new post at a beloved but recently quiet site. The reader’s initial enthusiasm was somewhat dampened when it was discovered that the post took a video game as its jumping off point. “Wasn’t the last post about a video game?” the reader sighed, but continued anyway. This was, after all, the sort of site where interest was often found in unexpected places. Whether motivated by fascination or nostalgia, the reader moved past the somewhat awkward third person narration of the opening paragraph, and began to read in earnest.
While videogame developers like BioWare (Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect) and Quantic Dream (Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls) have generated a great deal of sound and fury by designing games on the premise of meaningful narrative choices, there has been in the past few years a quiet movement of smaller games such as Pathos, Unmanned, and The Stanley Parable which throw into question the very possibility of meaningful choice in an “interactive” narrative environment. Read more…