Friday, December 28, 2007

Black Holes and Coffee Nebulae

Why Starbucks actually helps mom and pop coffeehouses. - By Taylor Clark - Slate Magazine:

So now that we know Starbucks isn't slaughtering mom and pop, the thorny question remains: Why is Starbucks amplifying their business? It's actually pretty simple. In contrast to so-called 'downtown killers' like Home Depot or Wal-Mart, Starbucks doesn't enjoy the kinds of competitive advantages that cut down its local rivals' sales. Look at Wal-Mart. It offers lower prices and a wider array of goods than its small-town rivals, so it acts like a black hole on local consumers, sucking in virtually all of their business. Starbucks, on the other hand, is often more expensive than the local coffeehouse, and it offers a very limited menu; you'll never see discounts or punch cards at Starbucks, nor will you see unique, localized fare (or—let's be honest—fare that doesn't make your tongue feel like it's dying). In other words, a new Starbucks doesn't prevent customers from visiting independents in the same way Wal-Mart does—especially since coffee addicts need a fix every day, yet they don't always need to hit the same place for it. When Starbucks opens a store next to a mom and pop, it creates a sort of coffee nexus where people can go whenever they think 'coffee.' Local consumers might have a formative experience with a Java Chip Frappuccino, but chances are they'll branch out to the cheaper, less crowded, and often higher-quality independent cafe later on. So when Starbucks blitzed Omaha with six new stores in 2002, for instance, business at all coffeehouses in town immediately went up as much as 25 percent.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Dumbest Reading of Edward Said Ever

The Bertrand Russell of Islam - December 12, 2007 - The New York Sun:

Mr. Warraq's beef with Said, however, is more a matter of reductionism than prevarication: that 'Orientalism' misses two crucial points about human nature in its discussion of relations between East and West. The first is that even the worst offenders aren't always motivated by bigotry or grand imperial designs. The second is that the institutions they erect are often more significant and enduring than their venality and greed.

Mr. Warraq praises the British of the 18th and 19th centuries for their role shepherding India's cultural renewal — not to mention in combating the corruption of British colonialism. Edmund Burke led the moral and legislative charge against Warren Hastings, the notorious head of the East India Company. James Prinsep, a secretary of the celebrated Asiatic Society of Bengal, drained the malarial swamps of Calcutta, restored the collapsing mosque of Aurangzeb stone by stone, and discovered that once-indecipherable rock inscriptions were made by the Mughal emperor Asoka Maurya. Mr. Warraq relies on several modern Indian historians, such as A.L. Basham and Nirad Chaudhuri, to emphasize the great esteem in which British Orientalists are still held — men such as Henry Thomas Colebrooke, who agitated for the end of the East India Company's monopoly and composed a systematic study of Sanskrit and Hindu law as well as the only authoritative analysis of the Veda; Sir William Jones, the 'father of Indian history' and one of the early discoverers of the Indo-European linguistic nexus (he thought Sanskrit 'more exquisitely refined' than Latin or Greek), and William Carey, the 'father of Bengali prose,' who single-handedly restored a lost literature.

This is the most lucid part of the article. I could give lots of reasons why this purported takedown of Said is problematic, but instead, I'll just quote Tacitus, quoted today in Latin primers for everybody. - By Emily Wilson - Slate Magazine:
Yet cultural imperialism is only partly a linguistic phenomenon. Ostler's claim that Latin was 'the glue that held the empire's people in place' for more than 2,000 years seems less plausible when we remember that for a long period, most educated Romans were bilingual (in Latin and Greek), and in the first and second centuries A.D., many intellectual Greek writers under the empire—such as Plutarch—had only a sketchy knowledge of Latin, or none at all. (The place of Spanish in modern America provides an interesting counterpart to Greek under Rome.) But, of course, the Romans had many other instruments by which to spread Romanitas through the world. Tacitus' account of the Roman conquest of Britain, in his Agricola (a passage quoted by Mount), provides a useful reminder of how language and education could be combined with other means of cultural domination or seduction: Roman religion, law, art, and architecture were visible signs of the empire even without the Latin language. As Tacitus remarks of the Britons, 'They even adopted our fashion of dress, and started wearing the toga; little by little they were drawn to touches of vice, such as colonnades, baths, and fancy conversations. Because they didn't know better, they called it 'civilization,' when it was part of their slavery' (idque apud imperitos humanitas vocabatur, cum pars servitutis esset). The analogy with the modern world is not hard to draw: the 'Americanization' of China, Russia, and Europe has as much to do with the spread of Nike, Coca-Cola, and modern big-business capitalism as with the spread of the English language.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Annotated Application Experiment

Since I spend a lot of time using my computer, searching for new applications, and evaluating competing software, I always enjoy hearing from friends of mine about applications they use that make their lives, digital or otherwise, a little better. Every once in a while, you have those shock-of-recognition moments, where you discover an app that you've never heard of before that does something exactly right, or find a friend who has the same enthusiasm for an underappreciated piece of software that you thought was yours alone (or virtually alone).

So what I'm proposing is an experiment of sorts, where friends and blog readers share either 1) a shortlist of their favorite applications, especially ones they would like to advertise or 2) a list of all of the applications they're running on their machine, along with a short description of what each app does.

The first, feel free to share in the comments on this weblog. If you're interested in the second, contact me and we'll swap software lists (just not where any old browser can see EVERYthing).

I'll get things rolling with a fistful of "reading" programs I've found recently that I'm trying and mostly like. I use OS X, so many of this might be less useful if you run Windows or Linux, but I'm AC/DC when it comes to OSes, so send your other-system-specific apps too.

NetNewsWire - an RSS reader with a built-in tabbed web browser; also has podcast support and tight integration with blogging applications like MarsEdit (which was spun off from the original NNW application). I use NetNewsWire more than anything else, even my team of all-star browsers (I have Firefox, Flock, Safari, Camino, and Mozilla's new Prism app on my system, and before that I had more).

Yep - a PDF reader/organizer/scanner. What's especially nice about Yep are the rich tagging functions and the quick search capabilities. Also it's just easier to view a lot of PDFs with the rest of your PDF library close by. It works very well with Leap, a OS X Finder replacement from the same company.

Papers - a really promising app that's similar to Yep (if not so slick) but also includes a web browser and inline access to search databases like Google Books, Google Scholar, PubMed, and a few others. This app is so promising, but there are three problems with it for my use.

First, it's expensive, over $40 for a single user license. I'm firmly of the belief that $10-25 is the most you should pay for an app that doesn't actually let you produce anything -- and it should preferably be free. (Yep has this problem as well.)

Second, the web support is handy, but is really an afterthought. You can't bookmark web sites (except through a ridiculously convoluted process where you treat a web site like a PDF and sort it into a folder, then re-edit it so you can find it again), there's no RSS support, and while you can handily use a proxy login to credential yourself to gain access to closed resources, that then cuts you off from open resources like Google's engines. Certainly needs some tweaking.

Third, because the app is geared towards scientific and medical researchers, besides Google, there isn't much to offer in the way of search plugins for other sites. It would be great if you could easily search Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, or text databases like EEBO or ECCO, stores like Amazon, or more webby resources like Wikipedia, Technorati, etc. In other words, the software and concepts are there, but the sense of audience is so specialized that the functionality doesn't quite come together. It's a terrific way to access online information, but it's ironically quite phobic of the web itself.

But -- there is a plug-in SDK, which potentially makes it incredibly open. It would be marvelous if teams of reader/developers tackled specific zones of knowledge -- computer science, social sciences, humanities, blogs, etc., to try to make this app as versatile as possible.

In short, if you combine these three applications -- plus the versatility of a media player like VLC -- you would have my dream of an ideal electronic reader application -- an iTunes for books.

So tell me: what applications are on your mind (and on your screen) lately?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Get Your Byline On

Macworld | Google develops Wikipedia rival:

Google is developing an online publishing platform where people can write entries on subjects they know, an idea that’s close to Wikipedia’s user-contributed encyclopedia but with key differences.

The project, which is in an invitation-only beta stage, lets users create clean-looking Web pages with their photo and write entries on, for example, insomnia. Those entries are called ‘knols’ for ‘unit of knowledge,’ Google said.

Google wants the knols to develop into a deep repository of knowledge, covering topics such as geography, history and entertainment.

Google’s project will have to catch up with Wikipedia, which includes more than 7 million articles in 200 languages. Anonymous users constantly update Wikipedia entries in an ever-growing online encyclopedia that’s edited by a network of vetted editors.

But Google asserts that the Web’s development so far has neglected the importance of the bylined author.

‘We believe that knowing who wrote what will significantly help users make better use of web content,’ wrote Udi Manber, vice president of engineering, on the official Google blog."

Totally interesting -- and quite distinct -- model. If anyone has a beta invite to this program in their pocket, I would love to get one.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Programming Journalism, Programming Academia

Adrian Holovaty:

Now that the Django Book is finally in the can, I'm mulling the idea of writing another book -- this time, a book about online journalism. In the past two years, I've been to (way too) many journalism-related events and conferences trying to spread the good word about 'journalism via computer programming,' and I've detected a strong, I daresay furious, demand, from journalists at all levels in the org chart, for information about this new form of journalism. Higher-ups want to know why they should employ programmers; middle managers want to know how to find them and how to treat them; and working journalists want to learn these skills and strategies. The problem is that I can't point them anywhere for in-depth information. This book would attempt to solve that.

I want to take a shot at writing a manual, a manifesto, a practical guidebook to this emerging discipline of database-driven Web journalism. It would be a combination of high-level strategy and low-level technique, probably split cleanly into two parts (one for the suits, one for the non-suits).

That's about all the thought I've given to this idea. What do you think? If you're a journalist (or even not), is this something you'd be interested in?"


I'm wondering where the manifesto is on programming-driven university teaching. As in, why does all of the software that's supposed to make it easier to distribute electronic documents and create classroom spaces STINK?

And, can Zotero and make it work?

Or, can Yale figure it out?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Saturday, December 08, 2007

What's Next?

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did a joint interview with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher early last year at the AllThingsDigital conference. I'm linking to it now, because I've watched and thought about it more than a few times over the past year, and it's shaped a lot of my thinking about the developing state of technology, media, digital entertainment, sharing of information, etc.

One of the things that's remarkable about the talk -- besides the remarkable collision of brains, and the relative but still surprising absence of ego -- is how it manages to be both pretty accessible but still imaginative and thorough. There's a frank discussion about the past of personal computing and the developing vision for what can be done. Both of these guys have seen the incremental-yet-radical development of this world for the past thirty-plus years, and they're also tapped in to more research and cutting-edge stuff than virtually anyone. They're not necessarily visionaries, but it's a remarkably clear vision of the possibilities ahead for the next revolution.

Given all the talk about Kindle, etc., this is a talk that's worth checking out -- especially if you have over an hour to kill.

"The iPod moment"; A Snarkmarket Dialogue


When I remember 2001, I remember Apple launching a device that garnered some admiration for its technical savvy, but whose price and function drew something of a raised eyebrow from critics. “‘Breakthrough digital device’ might be pushing it,” wrote David Pogue, in his review of the first iPod. (“Apple, don’t flatter yourself.”) Meanwhile, the first New York Times mention of the device was hardly breathless. The article quoted three people. The first was a Gartner analyst, who said, “It’s a nice feature for Macintosh users … but to the rest of the Windows world, it doesn’t make any difference.” The second was Steve Jobs, who was paraphrased as “disputing the concern that the market was limited, and said the company might have trouble meeting holiday demand. He predicted that the improvement in technology he said the iPod represented would inspire consumers to buy Macintosh computers so they could use an iPod.” The RIAA declined to comment, and another analyst simply said, ”This raises the bar.” The one actual description of the iPod in the article called it a “hybrid of existing products.” The article included an estimate that the size of the market for all digital music devices would be 18 million units by 2005.

I remember this muted enthusiasm pretty clearly because I was one of the skeptics. What could be so impressive about a portable music player? The Walkman’s been around almost as long as I have. Storage size? Honestly? What need could I possibly ever have to carry my whole music library around with me? How much music can I listen to at one time?

32 million iPods were sold in 2005. That’s not even counting other digital music devices. This year, the 100-millionth iPod was sold. Clearly there was a market need here for a vast mobile music library that most of us were blind to in 2001.

I now have three iPods.

When folks talk about Kindle doing (or not doing) for books what the iPod did for music, they usually seem to mean creating a tiny-but-capacious e-book reader that allows us to carry our library everywhere we want. But I don’t think Bezos et al. are aiming at that at all. I suspect they’re trying to create something we didn’t know we needed. A leap of imagination so bold, it could only seem obvious in hindsight. Jury’s still out on whether or not they succeeded.* But I’m wonderfully excited by the possibility that I could one day encounter something that just transforms my notion of what a book can be.

* Personally, I felt for the Kindle the murmur of a tug I hadn’t yet felt for any other digital reading devices, although not strong enough to win me over.


I think that in 2001, the iPod was the device that made a broader cross-section of the public take mp3 players seriously, and to consider buying one. And I think the Kindle does the same with book readers. The criticism is the sign that this discussion has gone from pie-in-the-sky, wouldn't-it-be-great-if to what-can-be-done?

Also, if you look at the problems with the iPod at its launch -- too expensive, a closed system (one player, one store, one software engine, even one OS), not enough storage, a limited market, etc., then the similarities are even sharper. Apple worked remarkably quickly to overcome those criticisms, dropping prices, making the device available for Windows users, and introducing a range of devices and adding features to appeal to aa broad a user base as possible. The Kindle -- or any book reader hoping for a shot at the title -- will need to do the same.

The Kindle actually has some advantages over the first-generation iPod. It's leapfrogged to a wi-fi equipped, stand-alone device with a built-in store, just months after the iPod finally did. And by most accounts, the Kindle store works as smoothly and has the same strength of selection that initially distinguished iTunes.

But there are two clear-cut advantages I see for the 1g iPod vs. the 1g Kindle. First, even though the iPod improved its original design and interface with each iteration, nobody thought the iPod was ugly. It was able to become a prestige device in large part because it was a triumph of industrial design.

The second is more substantive. A tremendous number of people consumed music digitally between (roughly) 1997 and 2001, and were able to play that music on their iPods. The Kindle has been tremendously farsighted in including newspapers, weblogs, and online reference in addition to books, since the former and not the latter have been what we've consumed digitally. But we can't place-shift our media with the e-book reader the way we can with cds and mp3s (and now pictures and video), so a good deal of the flexibility brought by digitization is lost.

When the Kindle can let me put everything I want to read -- web pages, Snarkmarket, Yahoo Movies, a PDF I made on my PC, a comic book, a new hypertext XML book -- on the device, without making me pay again (with ad revenue or a simple HTML browser or whatever) that, I think, will be the key breakthrough. Then we'll see innovations in the design, in the way electronic texts are sold/distributed/ad-supported, in what kinds of interfaces we can use, and in the flexibility of where we get and where we can use the material. Then -- I hope -- the usage will catch up to the desire, and the new digital reading will be properly heralded with its signature device. Whatever that device -- or many devices -- turns out to be.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Let's Take This Whole Device-As-Service Thing Seriously

"Kindle Maths 101," by Ben Vershbow at if:book:

Do we really need an iPod for books? / We might, maybe (putting aside for the moment objections to the ultra-proprietary nature of the Kindle), if Amazon were to abandon the per copy idea altogether and go for a subscription model. (I'm just thinking out loud here — tell me how you'd adjust this.) Let's say 40 bucks a month for full online access to the entire Amazon digital library, along with every major newspaper, magazine and blog. You'd have the basic cable option: all books accessible and searchable in full, as well as popular feedback functions like reviews and Listmania. If you want to mark a book up, share notes with other readers, clip quotes, save an offline copy, you could go "premium" for a buck or two per title (not unlike the current Upgrade option, although cheaper). Certain blockbuster titles or fancy multimedia pieces (once the Kindle's screen improves) might be premium access only — like HBO or Showtime. Amazon could market other services such as book groups, networked classroom editions, book disaggregation for custom assembled print-on-demand editions or course packs.

Vershbow also quotes Tim O'Reilly:
Unlike music, which is quickly consumed (a song takes 3 to 4 minutes to listen to, and price elasticity does have an impact on whether you try a new song or listen to an old one again), many types of books require a substantial time commitment, and having more books available more cheaply doesn't mean any more books read. Regular readers already often have huge piles of unread books, as we end up buying more than we have time for. Time, not price, is the limiting factor.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Remarkable Things With A Pen

The New York Times spotlights The Kelly Writers House at Penn in today's paper. It's a very good read; Dr. Al Filreis (or as we will now call him, "Avuncular Al"), who runs the house, is in an especially animated pose in the featured photo. It's possible that only a room full of undergraduates can induce this kind of gesture; every time I've seen Dr Filreis (that I can recall) his head and neck have been fully orthogonal to his shoulders. But that's all part of the genius of the camera.

The article spotlights the role the Writers House plays in the undergrad life at Penn, but I can testify to its importance for Penn/Philadelphia writers (and people who like writing) of all ages. Penn doesn't have an MFA program, but some of its English PhDs are astonishingly creative: Kathy Lou Schultz, Jessica Lowenthal (who works at the house now), and Josh Schuster are just three of the poet/students that I've met while I've been here. Add people like Tom Devaney -- whose poetry I discovered through his skill at scheduling events and handling tech requirements at the House -- and various area poets like Ron Silliman or Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and the faculty (Bob Perelman, Charles Bernstein, Greg Djanikian, Herman Beavers, and Susan Stewart before that), plus the writers-in-residence and people who visit for a day -- and you have a real home for writers on an Ivy League campus.

The House reminds me of everything I love about universities -- that in addition to being places to work and to learn, they can also be a home. Not just to the students who live on campus, but to anyone who can find support and friendship and make themselves at home there.

When I first applied to Penn, as a neophyte modernist scholar who had written a lot of poetry (good and not good) and founded literary magazines and was still interested in contemporary writing, I had known that Susan Stewart and Bob Perelman were at Penn, but I hadn't known how important the house was going to be for me. Karen Volkman, a poet I worked with in Chicago, tried to tell me how different it would be, all but urging me to go. I was lucky to take a course on American poetry with Al Filreis at the house my first semester at Penn, and to work on Theorizing, a KWH-hosted lecture series on literary theory I've coordinated since 2003. Every visitor who comes to campus, the first place I take them is the Writers House.

My mom suggested that I get married there (not that it's officially available for weddings). Sometimes, I wish that I had.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Handsome Carmody Dashing Genius

David Pogue on using number of search results to prove an argument: "On Google, ‘chicken armadillo’ gets 595,000 hits. ‘Banana carburetor’ gets 132,000 hits. ‘Liquefy purple warthogs’ is just about the most ridiculous improbable phrase I could come up with, and even that one gets 303 results, for crying out loud.

Once you start down this road, you’ll discover that you can prove any point at all. If you’re arguing that Microsoft tortures puppies, you could write, ‘A Google search for ‘Microsoft puppy torture’ returned 264,000 results,’ and you’d be correct (about the results, I mean—not the conclusion)."

Butchered, Redesigned, Reordered, Chopped, Snipped and Split

One of the many reasons I love Steven Morrissey, and think he may be the most interesting superstar in popular music of the past quarter-century, is that he makes distinctions like "empirical history":

The NME have, in the past, offered me their "Godlike Genius Award" and I had politely refused. With the Tim Jonze inteview, the Award was offered once again, this time with the added request that I headline their forthcoming awards concert at the O2 Arena, and once again I declined it. This is nothing personal against the NME, although the distressing article would suggest the editor took it as such. My own view is that award ceremonies in pop music are dreadful to witness and are simply a way of the industry warning the artist "see how much you need us" - and, yes, the 'new' NME is very much integrated into the industry, whereas, deep in the magazine's empirical history, the New Musical Express was a propelling force that answered to no one.


Into the 90s, the NME's discernment and polish became faded nobility, and there it died - but better dead than worn away. The wit imitated by the 90s understudies of Morley and Burchill assumed nastiness to be greatness, and were thus rewarded. But nastiness isn't wit and no writers from the 90s NME survive. Even with sarcasm, irony and innuendo there is an art, of sorts. Now deep in the bosom of time, it is the greatness of the NME's history on which the 'new' NME assumes its relevance.

As Stereogum writes, "In matters of pens and swords, you're fencing with the best." You can follow the link for longer excerpts from Morrissey's letter.

Background here: the short story is that Morrissey gave British music mag NME an interview which was edited/presented to highlight statements that appear anti-immigrant/xenophobic.

Oh, Panic on the Streets of Birmingham. Do tell us what the Brits -- and the greatest Morrissey fan in the world -- think about all of this.

The Social (Un)necessity of Narrative

Ron Silliman on narrative in poetry, the novel, and film:

I agree with Pierre Bayard that literature – he goes further & says culture – is a ‘system’ before it is individual books, individual poets, individual poems. Which is what I mean when I say that there is no such thing as a poet, there are only kinds of poets. It’s not about what you write – it’s about location, location, location. What you write is what gets you into (or out of) a particular location. I know it’s not how it feels when you or I write a poem, but that is the overarching social dynamic that takes place. One of the reasons I keep putting in links about English-language poetry stories from such diverse places as Nigeria & Pakistan is because I want to understand now what the world of my poetry is going to look like just a few decades hence, when such poetries are as much a presence in the then-equivalent of Jacket as Australian verse is now...

As I’ve argued before – and no doubt will be forced to again – poetry’s role as a carrier of narrative declined markedly with the rise of the novel. An alternative had come along that handled narrative far more efficiently. The form of the novel was explicitly designed to do so. And the history of the novel is that it too has struggled once cinema arrived because the novel's social necessity was then taken over by the flickering screen. To what degree today are novels (& especially short stories) simply plot ideas for screenplays? Quite a bit more than we might be willing to admit. This is why the ‘traditional’ novel has declined markedly, to be replaced instead by its own School of Quietude (Bellow, Cheever, Updike, Roth) on the one hand, and a series of genre alternatives, each of which is driven by the needs of its specific genre. In addition to the usual genre alternatives, sci-fi, romance, porn, such fields as ‘experimental’ and even ‘Oprah’ (aka ‘book club ‘) fiction all thrive – it is only the ‘serious, traditional’ novel that is in its death throes.

I don't know whether "efficiency" is the right word to describe the novel's displacement of poetry as a vehicle for narrative (or for film's subsequent dislocation of the novel) -- unless we're able to think about "efficiency" not as something wholly intrinsic to the medium itself, but in the context of social or systemic necessity.

Poetry (particularly epic poetry) does different things with narrative than the "traditional" novel does. If you're a fluent producer/consumer of the shape/dimensions/social context of narrative that poetry provides, then it can be an absolutely superior way to consume narrative -- at least particular kinds of narrative. It's just that the vast majority of us are no longer fluent in this mode of narrative; we've all coordinated ourselves and our aesthetic expectations around (first) the novel and then cinema.

In technological studies, this is called path-dependence. The longer you use something, and the greater the social coordination costs and returns, the more efficient a technological network becomes, not because of its inherent efficiency but because the costs of switching become too high. It's like trying to switch from a QWERTY keyboard to some other system. Sooner or later, the kids are banging out text messages with their thumbs, but it takes a lot of time.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Blogs of Innocence, Blogs of Experience

Chris Meade at if:book:

William Blake, the man who wandered through the charter'd streets of London finding in the face of every passerby 'marks of weakness, marks of woe', who engraved and painted his own books of poems, selling his songs on subscription (or failing to sell them), would have made one hell of a blogger too. I imagine him mashing up maps of Hampstead with his personal mythology, forging a new kind of book on the anvil of his laptop, engaging his community of readers in fervent debate, plying them with animations of innocence and experience.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sorting By Attention, Not Content

Sink or Swim: Managing RSS Feeds with Better Groups (43 Folders):

When given the option to group things, we tend to do it topically, with labels like “Sports,” “Technology,” “Blogs,” etc. For years, I lumped my feeds into folders like this, thinking it would help me manage them, but all it did was help me ignore just how many I’d subscribed to by tucking them away in folders. I still looked at the growing numbers of unread items and felt that endless sense of dread that I would never finish...So it dawned on me to group my feeds by the way in which I want to read them, not by topic. If there were some feeds that I didn’t mind missing, and some of which I wanted to read every single word, I should organize them that way, not by their putative subject areas.
Feed Reading (
I have several folders for reading long-form blogs:

Food and Drink

Always, Often, and Sometimes are self-explanatory. The Pending folder is for blogs that I'm trying out, Frippery is stuff that is to be read during non-work hours (ha!), and the Infoglut folder contains a bunch of blogs that have a low signal-to-noise ratio and are too high volume to keep up with unless everything else is read (any multi-author pro blogs that I read (not many) are in here)...

All this folder business might seem overcomplicated, but I find that grouping feeds by mode helps greatly. And by mode, I mean when I'm reading link blogs, that's a different style than reading/skimming long-form blogs in the Always folder. Posts from link blogs usually take a few seconds to read/evaluate/discard while the Always folder posts take longer. If they were all lumped together, I couldn't get through them as quickly and thoroughly as I can separately. A juggling analogy will help -- Wait! Don't leave, I'm almost done! -- it's easier to juggle balls or clubs or knives than it is to juggle balls, knives, and clubs at the same time...same thing with different kinds of blog posts.

Wheel, Mattress, Lawnmower

"Proof of Concept"; A dialogue.

Sid (Caesar): "The guy who invented the wheel was an idiot. The guy who invented the other three, he was a genius."

Tim: Who am I to argue with Sid Caesar? But as William Carlos Williams knew, the wheelbarrow is a pretty genius invention. Sometimes one wheel is enough.

Al (Filreis): The flaw in Cid's thinking is in the assumption of the precise number of wheels that take a concept beyond its invention. (He was such an automobile-age sachem.) But the thought about thinking is still good to me: Invention is a thing done to a concept.

Tim: I agree. I'm also reminded of Pound's quote of Leger quoting Hegel in the ABC of Reading.

Hegel/Leger/Pound: "Man should be prouder of having invented the hammer and nail than of having created masterpieces of imitation."

Tim: Then Pound goes on to quote Spinoza.

Baruch (Spinoza): "The intellectual love of a thing consists in understanding its perfections."

Ezra (Pound): "You don't sleep on a hammer or lawn-mower, you don't drive nails with a mattress. Why should people go on applying the SAME critical standards to writings as different in purpose and effect as a lawn mower and a sofa cushion?"

Tim: Given that Pound refers to the latter kind of writing as an "REPOSE, dope, opiates, mental beds," and later attacks Shakespeare for having "upholstered" language, Pound does seem to be positioning himself on the hammer/lawnmower end of the spectrum. The Pound/Williams generation didn't just say "no ideas but in things" -- they really did seem to try to use things to think.

Current Internet Reading, Without Comment

"Gawker and the Rage of the Creative Underclass," Vanessa Grigoriadis, New York Magazine.

Consider the Gawker mind-fuck at a time of rapid deterioration of our industry: Young print journalists are depressed over the state of the industry and their inability to locate challenging work or a job with health insurance. Although the situation may not be as dire as they might imagine—a healthy magazine is constantly on the hunt for young writers, because it wants the fresh take on the world found only in the young, and because young writers tend to be cheap—they need a release, the daily dose of Schadenfreude offered by Gawker’s gallows humor, its ritualistic flogging of working journalists and relentless cataloguing of the industry’s fall (e.g., items like “New Republic Page Count Watch”). Though reading Gawker subtly reinforces their misery, they generate an emotional bond and soon begin to tip it with their own inside information (and misinformation, as reserved for their enemies). The system keeps getting stronger, a KGB of media gossip, a complex network of journalist spies and enforcers communicating via e-mail and IM, until Gawker knocks print out of the box. With Gawker, there is now little need for the usual gossip players like the New York Observer, vastly diminished in its news-breaking capacity and influence, or even the New York Post’s “Page Six,” emasculated by the Murdoch hierarchy after the Jared Paul Stern scandal. The panopticon is complete. “Peering into my in-box in the morning is like looking at the id of every journalist in the city,” says Gawker writer Emily Gould.
"What the Gospel of Judas really says," April D. DeConick, International Herald-Tribune.
While National Geographic's translation supported the provocative interpretation of Judas as a hero, a more careful reading makes clear that Judas is not only no hero, he is a demon... Admittedly, the society had a tough task: restoring an old gospel that was lying in a box of its own crumbs. It had been looted from an Egyptian tomb in the 1970s and languished on the underground antiquities market for decades, even spending time in someone's freezer. So it is truly incredible that the society could resurrect any part of it, let alone piece together about 85 percent of it. That said, I think the big problem is that National Geographic wanted an exclusive. So it required its scholars to sign nondisclosure statements, to not discuss the text with other experts before publication. The best scholarship is done when life-sized photos of each page of a new manuscript are published before a translation, allowing experts worldwide to share information as they independently work through the text.
"The limits of 21st-century revolutions," Roger Cohen, New York Times/IHT.
3) Oil centralizes power. Venezuelan oil fetches a lower price than most because it's harder to refine, but Chávez is still pocketing between $4 billion and $6.7 billion a month, depending on whom you believe. Give anyone in an opaque, rather than open, society more than $100 million a day and he might start raving about ruling until 2050, as Chávez has. "The tendency of the petro-state is to recentralize, petrify and personalize power," said Margarita López Maya, a political scientist who long supported Chávez but is now disillusioned. From Moscow to Luanda to Caracas, this has proved the case.
"Lots of Little Screens: TV Is Changing Shape," Denise Caruso, New York Times.
“What absolutely convinced me to start a company in this area was when I realized just how large the disruption was,” said Kip McClanahan, the co-founder and chief executive of ON Networks, an online studio in Austin, Tex. “It touches everything — how video content is created and monetized, how it’s distributed and consumed. And it’s a half-trillion-dollar market, if you include the advertising that supports it and the revenue associated with subscriptions, tickets and so on.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Back On The Air, In A Spaceship

Futurama's back.

I'm watching Bender's Big Score right now. I am so happy.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Never-Industrial City

Imagine this counterfactual. Suppose that Europe and the United States had never directly participated in the Industrial Revolution. There are craft industries, plenty of entrepreneurial capitalism, development of a modern division of labor, new technologies of transportation and communication, and maybe an industrialized food supply, but no Grossindustrie in the way it emerged in the nineteenth century, with big factories, large-scale manufacturing, or huge urban populations.

No. Instead, the major powers of Europe develop big industry in their colonies. After the French Revolution, no king or queen, president or parliament wants a concentrated proletariat right outside their front door. Many of the colonial societies already have highly efficient, organized societies; the remainder can easily be conscripted into manual labor, especially the less-dangerous women and children. And unlike at home, industrialized capitalism in the colonies can be supported with brutal force with considerably less clamor.

Europe and the United States draw on the large pools of labor, concentrated in the countrysides and established cities, the wealth of natural resources, the ability to ship and trade goods globally -- essentially an industrialized extension of their activities in the colonies prior to 1800. They reserve for themselves the manufacture of arms, luxury goods, and complex new implements of technology, trades befitting the most cultured and intelligent peoples of the world.

The easy joke here would be to say, "this sounds a lot like now." But stop and think about how much would be different. Europe and the U.S. would likely still be mostly agricultural. There would have been no revolutions of 1848, no Paris Commune, no Russian Revolution. Their analogues would have been in India, Cairo, and Mexico City. The West would have fought to the death to keep and control their colonies and proxy states, now home to vast wealth and investment. Canada, Australia, India, Ireland and Hong Kong would be granted home rule, but still be members of the British Empire. The Belgians, Germans, and Dutch would fight over sub-Saharan Africa. Mexico, aided by France, would have a violent revolution against Spain and become a major modern industrial power, with France and the U.S. as cautious partners and allies.

The huge waves of migration and industrialization would never have happened -- or they would have happened in Canada, Australia, India, China, Brazil, and the Middle East. Damascus would still produce steel; Iraq would be covered with railroads. All Middle Eastern nations, flush with oil wealth and industrial development, would grow and grow and grow, but the ultrareligious Wahhabist-Marxists among their young men would always be a danger. Western cities would have tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of residents, not millions. They would be narrowly cosmopolitan centers of government, learning, and commerce. Their power would eventually fade, especially as they lost their monopoly on tools of warfare, but they would remain economically, financially, and politically strong, having created the modern economy and virtually all of the institutions of global trade and cooperation.

Or it never could have happened, because of ____________________.

Least We Can Do

This is my ten-week-old son's favorite song.

Friday, November 23, 2007

All Kindle, All the Time

Thibaut Sailly at well... has my favorite post yet on the Amazon Kindle e-book reader. After highlighting the stylistic tics and missed opportunities of the existing reader, Sailly makes an astonishingly sensible wishlist for the electronic reader of the future, including a protective booklike cover (w/ matching color and casing), streamlining of any design features that distract from the text, and waterproofing.

No crazy pie-in-the-sky prognosticating, half-baked futurism/conservatism, idiosyncratic enthusiasms, or poorly motivated kvetching. Just simple ideas to make reading a doc better.

The best part: there's a sketch!

It's so lo-fi. I love it.

Anyways, just wrapping things up. I will post later about the unacceptable abuse of poetry
by the Kindle (the formatting needs a left-flushed line). And also about how maybe the best test for an e-document reader isn't how it handles a Dickens novel, but a take-out menu, a political pamphlet, and a crossword puzzle.

The only other turkey-addled thoughts I've had is that the only possible advantages I can see to a dedicated book reader, as opposed to a more versatile handheld computer like the iPhone, are

1) Battery life (iPods and laptops gobble them up)
2) Viewing angle (again, they suck on computers)
3) In principle, waterproofing.

More later.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Monday, November 19, 2007

More Kindling for the Kindle

A round-up:

Me: "Since Amazon's getting into the music downloads business, I think turnabout is only fair play. Apple can start selling e-books on iTunes and come in with an oversized iPod touch (or a mini, highly-specialized tablet) with wi-fi, A/V outputs, touchscreen, color, email, a calendar, a real web browser and RSS, and music and movies at close to the same price point. (Maybe at a $100 premium). Maybe a stylus to highlight text, do crossword puzzles, and take notes. And it won't look like a taupe Etch-a-sketch... Seriously -- for an older, book-reading market, who probably listened to their first MP3s through iTunes rather than Napster, who often had Macs for their first computers... who else could do this?"

Saul Hansell (Bits/New York Times): "Amazon Pitches a Wireless IPod for Books... Because the display is black and white, Amazon will not sell books for it that involve elaborate illustrations. It has a keyboard that for now is mainly for taking notes on what you read... Amazon has mainly designed the Kindle for reading books and periodicals it sells, but it has added a number of other features that take advantage of its capabilities. It can read documents created in a number of standard formats. You can load documents on it by attaching it to a computer or by simply e-mailing the document to a special address given to each Kindle user. The Kindle will play MP3 music files, but for now Amazon doesn’t allow customers to purchase music directly from its store through the Kindle. And the Kindle has a rudimentary Web browser. This was added first to allow it to have easy access to Wikipedia, but it can access any other Web site, displaying mainly text."

Apple Insider: "With the initial iPhone now out the door and two successive models well underway in Apple's labs, it's believed to be full steam ahead for the modern day Newton project. Like iPhone and the iPod touch, the new device runs an embedded version of Apple's Mac OS X Leopard operating system. Externally, the mutil-touch PDA has been described by sources as an ultra-thin "slate" akin to the iPhone, about 1.5 times the size and sporting an approximate 720x480 high-resolution display that comprises almost the entire surface of the unit. The device is further believed to leverage multi-touch concepts which have yet to gain widespread adoption in Apple's existing multi-touch products -- the iPhone and iPod touch -- like drag-and-drop and copy-and-paste. More broadly characterized as Apple's answer to the ultra-mobile PC, the next-gen device is believed to be tracking for a release sometime in the first half of 2008. Assuming the project remains clear of roadblocks, sources believe it could make an inaugural appearance during Jobs' Macworld keynote in January alongside some new Mac offerings. Still, manufacturing ramp and availability would seem unlikely until closer to mid-year, those same sources say."

Fake Steve Jobs
: "All I can say is that between this device and the Sony Reader you almost have the making of what you want. The Sony has a nice form factor and the gorgeous buttery soft faux leather case. The Kindle has better features. I know what you're thinking. Wouldn't it be just kick-ass super duper if, say, Apple came along and finally delivered the ultimate product in this category? Because you just know if we did it the thing would look gorgeous and have a beautiful feature set and would just kick everyone's ass. What if we could get it done by January and announce it at Macworld? Gee whiz. I'll have to mention this to Jony at lunchtime."

Also: "First off, Jeanie Falzone, the woman who does my karmic repatterning, says we've been putting way too much technology into the market in too short a time. She says the world needs time to absorb new technology and if we overload that delicate balance we risk throwing the entire planet into some kind of flux state that could be really dangerous. Second problem is iBook's buttery soft faux leather case. To be sure, it's buttery soft. We spent huge amounts of time working with material scientists in Japan and Germany and ended up having to create our own unique material which has the highest buttery softness of any faux leather material ever developed. The problem is the color. I know the color I want. I can see it in my mind's eye. It's hard to describe. It's a light brown, but not quite tan. It's the exact color of the cover of a first edition of William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience" which I used to have in my library, a version of which is shown above. But the color I want is the color of that book when viewed outdoors late in the day in my backyard with the sun going down into the Santa Cruz mountains. Unfortunately I no longer have my copy of this book (left it in a limo, duh) so we can't work from the original. And the other copies still in existence are not the same shade."

Bubble Generation: "The Kindle should be the hub of a thriving market, network, or community (or multiple ones) connecting every economic actor who even has a remote interest in producing or consuming print media. The problem is it's none of the above. It's just economically and strategically connecting the same old players in the same old ways."

Seth Godin:
"When Amazon came to talk to me about being included on the reader a long long time ago, I said sure, but. The but is that I wanted my books to be free and included in every reader, and my blog, too... My thought was to use it, at least for a few years, as a promotion device. Give the books for free to anyone who buys the $400 machine. (Maybe you can have 1,000 books of your choice, so there's not a lot of 'waste'.) You'll sell more machines that way, that's for sure. And the people willing to buy the device are exactly the sort of people that an author like me wants to reach... This is a disruptive approach, the sort of thing only a market leader could pull off. It changes the world in a serious way. I wanted to be part of that. I was unpersuasive. Sorry."

John Gruber (Daring Fireball): "Or what if Amazon gave you a free Kindle e-book version of every physical book you’ve ever purchased from Amazon?"

Also: "If everything is set in the exact same typeface — if Kindle’s e-books are delivered as strings of text rather than as designed pages — then the Kindle will not replace books. I think PDF is the only feasible e-book format today."

Robin Sloan (Snarkmarket): Awesomeness TBA.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

This Isn't A Device; It's A Service

Man oh man -- Steven Levy at Newsweek has a seven-page cover story on the new Amazon Kindle e-book reader and the future of books. Read it, then if you're still interested, come back for my take below.


I think the overall analysis of the picture of electronic books is right -- but there is no real reason to think that Amazon is going to be the one to figure this out. Sony, which has honest-to-goodness successful experience designing, making, marketing and selling consumer electronics and a ton of consumer media, hasn't figured out e-books or their readers. Why in the world would Amazon, whose chief material innovation has been the use of giant warehouses in the middle of nowhere, solve the riddle?

You know, everyone's been talking about the Kindle for a long time -- but I've never seen a screenshot of what a book looks like on its screen. For $400, you would think that you could get something with a bit more flair in its design -- rather than something unfortunately resembling a dot-matrix printer and at the very least, a color screen. Do you want to know what electronic documents AND books have that e-books don't? COLOR. Annie Proulx gets a line from a 1994 interview into the Newsweek article: "Nobody is going to sit down and read a novel on a twitchy little screen. Ever." Levy dismisses this as quaint, but while the screen might be less twitchy, it looks an awful lot like an old two-tone computer monitor. I am feeling the intellectual lust, but not filled with techno-lust. Not one bit.

Since Amazon's getting into the music downloads business, I think turnabout is only fair play. Apple can start selling e-books on iTunes and come in with an oversized iPod touch (or a mini, highly-specialized tablet) with wi-fi, A/V outputs, touchscreen, color, email, a calendar, a real web browser and RSS, and music and movies at close to the same price point. (Maybe at a $100 premium). Maybe a stylus to highlight text, do crossword puzzles, and take notes. And it won't look like a taupe Etch-a-sketch.

Maybe this is total Apple fanboy stuff, but if anyone has figured out electronic devices + purely digital media sales, it's Apple. I mean, an iPhone with large, readable text? I'd buy my grandma one -- she doesn't need a whole PC anyways! She could sign e-cards, and write and mail handwritten notes as JPGs instead of typing (or use handwriting recognition -- which would also pre-empt a lot of the beef people have with the iPhone keyboard). Seriously -- for an older, book-reading market, who probably listened to their first MP3s through iTunes rather than Napster, who often had Macs for their first computers, are buying new ones with iSights to video chat with their grandchildren (and because the Mac OS is easier to use) -- who else could do this?

Add people who love tablets and want Apple to make them, or who want to watch digital movies on a portable-DVD player-sized screen rather than one smaller than a playing card, smaller children whom you might not want to give either a cellular phone or a laptop or even an iPod, professionals like doctors or teachers or waitstaff, who already often walk around with largish portable devices, and about a hundred other groups of people who might be interested in such a device, and you've got a holiday-sized market just waiting to be tapped.

So, build it, Apple. Show that you're as committed to literacy as you are to media. Give them away to schools, sell them to the literati and older people and college kids. You can make it stronger, better, faster. You have the technology.

Friday, November 16, 2007

It's Friday Night, and That Means We're Going Retro

Or rather, it means trotting out a rerun. But a good rerun! Chewy enough for your weekend catch-up reading.

December 14, 2004: "Technologies of Knowledge."

Every so often in a blogger's life, the stars are aligned, and the idea you've been sitting on for a while anyway suddenly becomes newsworthy. While the dynamic duo at Snarkmarket have sent their "EPIC 2014" doomsday predictions scattering across the blogosphere, there was another print-vs.-digital clash well worth a little consequence-exploration.

This week, the always-erstwhile Chronicle of Higher Education features an article titled "College Libraries: The Long Goodbye." Apparently computers, having finally made ghastly research libraries manageable, now may be on the way to doing away with them altogether.

The bullet-point summary of the state of affairs might read something like this:

  1. Compared to software, books are expensive;
  2. Likewise, books take up too much space;
  3. And compared to outsourced tech specialists, so do librarians.
The author doesn't endorse these positions, but rather gives some arguments for the continued relevance of the research library. Some of these are quite ingenious: for example, the main problem for libraries is much less the obsolesence of print media then the sudden glut of new materials: more than three times as many books are published now versus just thirty years ago, not to mention new journals, periodicals, etc.

This might be a good moment to mention what some of us are calling the dematerialization thesis -- the argument, whether in valediction or lamentation, that digital media has overcome the meaningful physical limitations that characterized earlier forms. As far as I can tell, the locus classicus of this thesis (with respect to modernity writ large) is German sociologist Georg Simmel's 1899 book The Philosophy of Money, but another good source is Friedrich Kittler's more recent Discourse Networks 1800/1900, and its follow-up Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. There are all sorts of problems with this argument (which I'll detail at another time) but it's undeniable that faced with a space crunch, institutions are opting for what I'll call the greater material flexibility of digital media. Many libraries, perhaps most notably that of Stanford University, have made huge investments in converting or copying their collections into digital formats, and publishers have likewise targeted libraries as prime consumers of electronic texts, whether as a backup to or substitute for "the real thing."

Then today, the New York Times made the remarkable EPIC-esque announcement: "Google Is Adding Major Libraries To Its Database." It's true -- and there are no slouches, either. Stanford, Michigan, Harvard, and the always-difficult New York Public Library are all on board.

Since in-print books are going to be off the table, the real scoop is going to be in integrating these libraries remarkable collections of rare, out-of-print, and manuscript material. 99% of Americans won't care, but these are pure gold to most scholars, and until recently, most university libraries were known for hanging onto these texts like they were their balls: you used to have to either be a big name or get a big time research fellowship to even see these babies. (And I'm sure the real cream-of-the-crop will probably continue to be withheld.)

They also happen to be the texts whose conspicuous materiality (there he goes again) actually makes them best suited for popular digitization. Imagine -- now not just scholars, but undergrads and even middle and high schoolers can see and examine rare, delicate, or simply unavailable primary documents from anywhere in the world without having to travel long distances or actually get their grubby little hands all over them. For my money, the real steal won't be in electronic texts as such, but digital facsimilies of the real thing. Not only will books no longer go out of print -- they'll no longer even need to be printed. Yet we'll be able to maintain a significant degree of contact (ha ha) with the now-outmoded print culture of the past.

This is where Google has really surprised me. It may have been expected that Google would enter into the spheres of e-mail, blogging, social networks, and the like: these are the sort of fields that a start-up can start up, with the now-industry-standard limited exposure among a few dedicated partisans, eventually breaking into a wider, more lucrative market. But Harvard and Stanford are about as establishment and big-time as it gets, and between this venture and the new, hopefully improving Google Scholar, the big G has found a way both to go unexpectedly highbrow and perhaps to decisively entrench itself as the search engine of choice: the monstrous, ultimate technology of knowledge, decisively putting the autonomous nodes of the research library and the limited search engine to rest.

Six days later: Technologies of Knowledge, Pt. 2.

The Google Library Shockwave keeps rolling along. See my first "Technologies of Knowledge" post for my preliminary comments, but also read this new essay "Paradise is paper, vellum, and dust" in the London Times Online.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

What Black Magic

The ever-renewing wit that is Get Fuzzy:

Today's Comic

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

This Is Just To Say / Posing As A God

PennSound's William Carlos Williams page is believed to contain every existing recording of the great poet (arguably America's central poet in this century) reading and talking about his poetry. And it's free, all, gloriously free! My current favorite is his 1955 interview, about Ezra Pound:

I met him. But what my first impression was, I don't remember. He was a -- blond, guy, with his hair -- beautifully disordered. And, uh... eh... His hair was always a prominent part of his appearance. And, uh... eh... He had really beautiful -- blond, reddish, hair. Which he wore wildly around his head, as a halo. I suppose he was posing -- as a God! (Laughs.) He always posed as somebody or other.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Carrie Brownstein from Sleater-Kinney has at least two projects to read/watch -- neither of which, alas, is either a solo album or an announcement that she's forming a supergroup with Jack White, Steven Drozd, the Friedbergers, and Spencer Krug.

But don't despair! This is good stuff!

She has a smart, lively, and thoughtfully questioning (questioningly thoughtful?) blog on music, hosted by NPR, called "Monitor Mix." She writes that "I would rather discuss and examine what it is that people actually consume than to tell you what you should be listening to. There are already plenty of great blogs and online resources that tell us what the best new music is or that unearth rarities and lost classics. Though I might occasionally review a piece of music, I would rather explore the contexts and the ways in which we enjoy or maybe even despise it."

Why 'Monitor Mix'?

I wanted 'Blogstein' but the powers that be liked 'Monitor Mix'. Plus, alliterations always sound nice.

What's the purpose of 'Monitor Mix' blog?

It aims to be an entertaining, insightful, and not too serious take on music and culture. I think fellow cynics and curmudgeons will relate and optimists will learn how to tone it down. Feelings of hopefulness will be encouraged but not nurtured.

Who can comment?

Spell checkers. And the rest of you, sadly.

Do you have rules about what people can or can't say in the comments?

Arbitrary ones.

Typically the posts start or end with a question: What band did you love devoutly but don't listen to anymore? What are your musical dealbreakers? And: "If you carry a cat around on your shoulder when you go out, or a bird, or a lizard, what music do you listen to?"

There is definitely a distinct and hitherto frustrated need that this blog meets, and for that we should rejoice.

But wait, there's more! Brownstein also has a video/musical/comedy project on the web. And this time her collaborators aren't rockin' lady bandmates or their supergroup dream counterparts, but Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen, who isn't a bad musician himself.

It's called ThunderAnt. Typical sketches include "Feminist Bookstore," an interview with Saddam Hussein (as an aging folk-rocker), and a little minimalist romantic sketch called "This is Nice."

And... that's it, 'cause there isn't that much of it. But it's nice, and Brownstein holds her own as a straight-(wo)man partner to Armisen's muted zaniness.

Monday, November 12, 2007


I noticed today that my rate of posts in 2007 has easily outpaced any year since I started the blog. But I also had the chance to re-read my posts from 2004 -- and they're actually really good! (It reminds me a little bit of when I cracked open my literature and philosophy essays from my sophomore year and found them mostly uninformed but totally cogent, fun to read, and perfectly argued. I wondered then, and now, just what happened.)

I think I devoted more time and thought per post then, but it's fun to see the range of interests that I already had established -- literature, movies, music, electoral politics (especially big that year, mostly poured into Young Philly Politics this year), and cities.

Anyways, if you're relatively new to the blog, or just feeling nostalgic/curious, check out the old stuff. You won't be sorry.

Winter, Greatness

The Economist on the wonder that is Chicago.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Advertisements For Ourselves

Louis Menand on the importance of Norman Mailer:

Mailer was simply making apparent something that modern literature and, in particular, modern journalism preferred to disguise, which is that a book is written by a human being, someone with professional ambitions, financial needs, tastes and distastes, and this human being is part of the story whether he or she appears in the story or not. It was not important for readers to like this person; it was important to know him. Mailer did not put the first person into journalism; he took it out of the closet.

After the Gramme

There's a new Newsweek article on the maybe-return of an emphasis on improving handwriting in K-12 education. Maybe I'm prejudiced, since most of my elementary school Bs come from grades in handwriting. But give it a read.

Some of the material is really intriguing:

Emily Knapton, director of program development at Handwriting Without Tears, believes that "when kids struggle with handwriting, it filters into all their academics. Spelling becomes a problem; math becomes a problem because they reverse their numbers."
Of course you could also write, "when kids struggle with ______, it filters into all their academics" and be more-or-less right; this doesn't really justify making handwriting a higher-stakes part of education.

Other ideas just seem like red herrings (the etiquette of handwritten thank-you cards, the new essay component of the SAT -- which actually doesn't emphasize or grade handwriting at all, at least officially).

One thought that came to mind, though, is how for most of human history, writing -- i.e., the physical/graphical etching out of letters, not literacy or composition -- has been degrading menial labor, fit for slaves and scribes and monks and scriveners and (in this century) typists and secretaries. My wife pointed out that in hospitals, you can tell someone's status by how legible their handwriting is (the easier it is to read, the lower status the writer has) -- the hidden social signals of doctors' bad handwriting. And you can see this still in the denigration of handwriting -- teaching script is rote, contentless learning, suitable maybe for the illiterate and for the disciplining of bodies, but not today's modern, first-world, knowledge-worker children.

But as the reproduction of writing has grown more technological and less mechanical, writing has grown more democratic. Virtually everyone is now expected to type their own documents, and the secretary/typist is the vestige only of the most powerful people. And manuscript writing has in turn acquired the prestige that we see so often in outmoded technologies -- Walter Benjamin might say that it's regained its aura, the halo of creative, individual sacrality that surrounds Renaissance paintings or similar now-unique objects.

This power has always been in the signature, the autograph, the original manuscript. But those objects aren't ephemeral. What do we do with a mode of communication that's still essential to learning, newly (re)associated with a kind of prestige of immediacy, yet more and more disposable, possibly to the point of disappearing from the paper and electronic record entirely?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Cult of Personality

I stopped subscribing to Matthew Yglesias's RSS feed (along with his compatriot Andrew Sullivan) just because I couldn't keep up with the torrent of their combined outputs. The noise-to-signal ratio on both bloggers is uncomfortably high, but what a signal! And what noise! Luckily, I still have both bloggers on my Google Reader blip, so I catch up with them from time to time.

Today, Yggy has a smart post on the warm reception given to Ashfaq Kiyani, a Pakistani general and presumed successor to Musharraf as head of the army. It boils down to the notion that U.S. policy has made mistake after mistake by looking to the perceived character/attitude of individuals, rather than understanding the structural interests of nations.

There are so many examples of this mistake in our foreign policy, that it almost makes you forget the one BIG counterexample. One global power's policies towards the rest of the world really did hinge on the fact that one person came to power, along with his entourage. If only OUR structural national interests had trumped the whims of our own group of madmen. The world would be a saner and safer place.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

On The Menu

Anyone who's met me knows that I love to eat. And, I am an extremely democratic eater, which is a good fit for Philadelphia, which is an extremely democratic place for good food. From cheesesteaks, pretzels and cheap soul food to fine French dining, and especially the thick, yummy middle of Italian, Jewish, and Indian cuisine, Philadelphia has it all. Here is a short round-up of a few of my favorite things.

The salty: Well, maybe Philadelphia doesn't exactly have it all. Delicious proscuitto, dry rub bacon, cold cuts, and smoked salmon and trout, yes. But while the local potato chips are fine, I've begun importing my stash from Detroit, in the form of a box full of 1 oz. Halloween-sized bags of original Better Mades. My fix has a regular supply, and I don't eat a pound in a single sitting. (Delicious and responsible.) Plus, individual bags gives you a terrific whole-chip-to-crumb ratio.

The creamy: For cheesey imports, DiBruno Bros (either in the Italian Market or off Rittenhouse Square) can't be beat, but for staples, I turn to the Clark Park farmers' market. My Amish dairy hook-up supplies me with fresh raw milk -- really, the most fantastic stuff I have ever had -- and raw milk cheeses. The cheddar is fine, but the colby, which is aged less and has a more mild but complex flavor, is the very best. I didn't know what people were going on about with raw milk, but I am a true believer now. Luckily for me, it's legal to sell and drink the raw in Pennsylvania, without some of the quasi-legal contortions people go through in other states.

The sweet: The farmers' market is also my go-to stop-and-shop for small cakes, especially pumpkin, carrot and zucchini bread, and for fruit. My wife and I have both fallen head-over-heels in love with Asian pears. They are so juicy, lightly sweet, and full (I eat them right through the small core), and absolutely ready-to-eat. I don't know how we'll make it through the winter without them. Also available not far from the park: cupcakes and cherry walnut bagels from the Green Line Cafe, and croissants, tarts, and other pastries at the Restaurant School (up around 43rd and Walnut).

The robust: La Colombe coffee (roasted right here in Philly), particularly the rich Corsica blend. Half-and-half or light cream, and a packet of Splenda. My idea of heaven. You can buy the coffee by the bag or super-cheap by the cup at the Restaurant School, crazy expensive everywhere else.

The spicy: My wife has mastered the art of the Thai curry. First, curry paste and coconut milk from the Fu Wah Mini-Market. Fresh shrimp, which you can get at Whole Foods but we buy at a New Jersey Costco, or chicken thighs. Mushrooms, peppers, and onions from the market. Jasmine rice prepared with peas, cumin, and plenty of turmeric for color, boiled in a mixture of coconut milk and chicken stock. It's the sort of dish that makes you never want to go out or order in again. (But we do!) Fu Wah is also the home of unbelievable Vietnamese spicy tofu hoagies, cheap (less than 4$) and vegetarian (which, democrat that I am, is nice, but I don't particularly care) and right around the corner.

Sometimes it takes you years to figure out your own gastronomic map of the city, or even your own neighborhood. This is my sixth year in Philadelphia, and I still feel like I'm figuring things out. But it sure is delicious to continue to try.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Good Kind of Literary Hoax

We're all used to the bad literary hoaxes -- rigged poetry contests, Harvard freshmen plagiarizing their first novels, memoirists selling fiction as self-help, or actresses appearing as invented personae. But all this scandal has given the literary hoax a bad name. What about the good literary hoaxes: the Ossians, the pseudo-Ciceros, the Futurist Manifestoes, the Borgesian pranks and gags that enrich us all?

Well, this one is a doozy. An argument's been mounted that the famous poem "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island," by Frank O'Hara -- a.k.a. my favorite poet -- was actually written as an homage to O'Hara after his death by his good friend and fellow poet Kenneth Koch, then smuggled into O'Hara's literary papers with a forged date on a purloined typewriter.

On this reading, the poem-as-hoax is a beautiful gift -- first given to Koch by O'Hara in inspiration, then by Koch to O'Hara in authorial attribution. Or as the Sun says in the poem itself, "Go back to sleep now, Frank, and I may leave a tiny poem in that brain of yours as a farewell."

The article itself is a tidy bit of authorial gamesmanship. It's purportedly a "tape-essay" by three Japanese authors (one of whom is also allegedly a pseudonymous author who either faked his own death or was presumed dead), "edited" by Kent Johnson and Javier Alvarez.

So take the full story with a pound of salt. I don't have my copy of Joe LeSueur's book handy, so I can't verify that the story mentioned about the poem's origin appears there. But regardless, it's a beautiful idea, all the more so if it were true.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Rhetoric Beat

Brent Cunningham at the Columbia Journalism review thinks we need one:

What if on 9/11 our major media outlets had employed reporters whose sole job it was to cover the rhetoric of politics—to parse the language of our elected leaders, challenge it, and explain the thinking behind it, the potential power it can have to legitimize certain actions and policies and render others illegitimate? As the press and public officials struggled to find the proper language to describe what was happening on their television screens (or outside their windows), these reporters would have been scrutinizing that language, and, let’s assume for sake of argument, having their analytical work displayed prominently—on the front pages of newspapers and Web sites, and in substantial TV news segments.

Jobs for lit and rhet/comp majors, and others schooled in the art of critical analysis? Let's do this thing.

(Via Romenesko.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Vulgar Toothpick

Slate reports that the mysterious object of Henry James's novel The Ambassadors has been found out.

"It's a little thing they make—make better, it appears, than other people can, or than other people, at any rate, do," says Strether. When prompted to explain further, he again equivocates, describing the business as "a manufacture that, if it's only properly looked after, may well be on the way to become a monopoly." Impatient with Strether's "postponements," Gostrey asks him whether the article in question is something improper—perhaps even unmentionable?..

In the 1880s, Forster patented a revolutionary new machine that polished, rounded, compressed, and sharpened toothpicks. This new toothpick was a marvel, according to Petroski, "ahead of its time as a designed object." Now consider Strether's first impression of Chad Newsome, whom he hasn't seen in five years when he finally tracks him down:

Chad was brown and thick and strong; and of old Chad had been rough. Was all the difference therefore that he was actually smooth? Possibly; for that he was smooth was as marked as in the taste of a sauce or in the rub of a hand. ... It was as if in short he had really, copious perhaps but shapeless, been put into a firm mould and turned successfully out.
James had a habit of associating his characters with a specific piece of scenery or work of art, or, in The Ambassadors, manufactured object—recall Sarah Newsome Pocock's safety-match smile. Of Chad Newsome, it might be said that he was as compressed and polished as one of Forster's toothpicks.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Poverty of Print

From Anthony Grafton, in a New Yorker article about the digitization of libraries:

If you visit the Web site of the Online Computer Library Center and look at its WorldMap, you can see the numbers of books in public and academic systems around the world. Sixty million Britons have a hundred and sixteen million public-library books at their disposal, while more than 1.1 billion Indians have only thirty-six million. Poverty, in other words, is embodied in lack of print as well as in lack of food. The Internet will do much to redress this imbalance, by providing Western books for non-Western readers. What it will do for non-Western books is less clear.

He also includes a 5000-year history of how librarians have tried to organize and circulate an excess of material. It includes a whole paragraph of the early Christian bishop/librarian Eusebius. If that doesn't turn you on, I don't know what will.

Monday, October 29, 2007

No Better Man To Strategize Your Online Products

The New York Times calls this article "An Advocate for TV That Viewers Create," but I totally prefer the International Herald-Tribune's "Al Gore's other cause: Current TV." Check out this quote, by our boy wonder blogger:

"If you build it, they will not necessarily come," Robin Sloan, an online product strategist for Current, wrote in a blog entry. "We have, a number of times, assumed that if we built the Web architecture for citizen journalists to send in their reports, they just would."
They didn't just quote Robin -- they quoted his blog, which is infinitely cooler.

Man, I've totally got to find a way to get my name into the paper of record.

Sasha Frere-Jones Advocates (Musical) Rape

You can't make this stuff up. From his blog:

I am also aware of, and comfortable with, the non-musical meanings of the word “miscegenation.” There are long American traditions of both advocating miscegenation (Ralph Waldo Emerson’s concept of the “smelting pot” is one of the better known tropes) and trying to prevent it, either by outlawing mixed-race marriage or banning representations of miscegenation in film. Also, I wanted the word to emphasize the rough nature of pop, a genre rooted in theft, jury-rigged machines, and barely legal alliances. The birth of rock and roll itself was not a happy event for everyone involved. Miscegenation involves sex (which, as I point out at the end of my piece, is the original meaning of “rock and roll”) but it doesn’t always involve consent. Miscegenation felt like the right word, warts and all.
I wrote before how I thought Sasha Frere-Jones's piece played off of racialized and heteronormative tropes about sex, but this is ridiculous.

I can't even sort this out. Is it a primitive black male sexuality that Frere-Jones wants to celebrate with a rape fantasy, or a kind of white slavemaster's prerogative over black music/women? Then again, there aren't any women in SFJ's account of rock and roll, up to and including its indie rock and hip-hop present -- so the whole thing could be a kind of butch, homosexual rape that somehow doesn't make either participant gay (since SFJ definitely wants to avoid that). So is Mick Jagger sodomizing Little Richard, or is it the other way around? One way or the other, as Snoop Doggy Dogg says on SFJ's favorite album of the 1990s, The Chronic, "I'm hollering 1-8-7 with my dick in your mouth, bitch!"

I'm suddenly reminded of a moment in SFJ's podcast when he complains that James Mercer from The Shins whines too much about lost love. SFJ's advice boils down to, "Grow some stones, stop singing like Morrissey, and show that girl what a man you are, R. Kelly style."

I really think that The New Yorker needs a new pop music critic. One who actually listens to pop music, and writes to the standards set by Alex Ross, Joan Acocella, David Denby, Louis Menand, Calvin Trillin, James Surowiecki, Seymour Hersh, George Packer, Malcolm Gladwell, David Remnick, and Peter Schjeldahl. Think about what those writers write, and then think about Sasha Frere-Jones. I know we don't have a country full of Lester Bangses right now, but I bet that if you made an offer to Greil Marcus, he'd say yes. It's enough to make you sad.

The Rural Midwest Is A Real Sleeper

Andrew Bird and the band Dianogah have a free set of mp3s available from their Daytrotter session. (Be sure to also visit this link to download "The Giant of Illinois.")

Armchair Apocrypha's "Fiery Crash" gets a much-improved full-voiced treatment from Bird, along with a richer, fuller acoustic texture, even if it loses some of the propulsiveness of the original studio release. "Lull," from Weather Systems, still my all-time favorite of Bird's recordings, gets similarly drawn out, becoming "a little too laid-back," as Sylvia noted, but still astonishingly beautiful. Let's hope the promised re-take on the next album is more "Skin (Is My)" than "I"/"Imitosis."

The instrumental "A Breaks B" adds some much-needed energy, with Bird's frenetic violin helping tilt the sonic resonance from mid-period Tortoise to a less-electric Books. The sound recording on "Plasticities" is a little buzzy, but it still highlights that song's lovely, inspired introduction and verses, which gobble up the once-electric chorus. I wish Bird had rethought this section altogether rather than dropping the musical change outright. The guitar line in Armchair Apocrypha might be the dumbest riff ever, but this version, at over seven minutes long, is too samey and shapeless, even with Bird's fine multitracked solo at the end.

The song that will attract the most attention, though, is the delicate, slightly melancholy "The Giant of Illinois," a strong companion to Bird's "Don't Be Scared," penned by the same band. Go check it out.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Musical Analogy of the Day

If, as I believe, Animal Collective's Feels is a polymorphously perverse Pet Sounds, then AC's Avey Tare is a fusion of Mike Love with those two most eclectically perverse of frontmen: Damo Suzuki from Can, and The Pixies' Black Francis.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Love and the Theft Never End

First of all, I am not Tim Mohr.

However, judging by this post he wrote for the Playboy Blog on Sasha Frere Jones's "A Paler Shade of White," either he read my post on the same subject (in which case I should be upset) or we (Mohr, Slate's Carl Wilson, and myself) are all on to something.

And that something is (and here I'll borrow Tim Mohr's words): Sasha Frere-Jones is a jackass. And a sloppy one, at that.

(Via Stereogum.)

Give Me Your Poor

You know, since I read Carl Wilson's "The Trouble With Indie Rock," I've been thinking a lot about his thesis that the real change in indie rock, perhaps more in this decade than the last, has been in the class background and identity of the artists and audiences, rather than their ethno-musical pedigree. This argument picks up on page 2 of Wilson's essay, where his analysis of Frere-Jones's essay diverges from mine. Here is a good summary section:

Ultimately, though, the "trouble with indie rock" may have far more to do with another post-Reagan social shift, one with even less upside than the black-white story, and that's the widening gap between rich and poor. There is no question on which side most indie rock falls. It's a cliche to picture indie musicians and fans as well-off "hipsters" busily gentrifying neighborhoods, but compared to previous post-punk generations, the particular kind of indie rock Frere-Jones complains about is more blatantly upper-middle class and liberal-arts-college-based, and less self-aware or politicized about it.

With its true spiritual center in Richard Florida-lauded "creative" college towns such as Portland, Ore., this is the music of young "knowledge workers" in training, and that has sonic consequences: Rather than body-centered, it is bookish and nerdy; rather than being instrumentally or vocally virtuosic, it shows off its chops via its range of allusions and high concepts with the kind of fluency both postmodern pop culture and higher education teach its listeners to admire. (Many rap MCs juggle symbologies just as deftly, but it's seldom their main point.) This doesn't make coffeehouse-indie shallow, but it can result in something more akin to the 1960s folk revival, with fretful collegiate intellectuals in a Cuban Missile Crisis mood, seeking purity and depth in antiquarian music and escapist spirituality. Not exactly a recipe for a booty-shaking party. While this scene can embrace some fascinating hermetic weirdos such as Joanna Newsom or Panda Bear, it's also prone to producing fine-arts-grad poseurs such as the Decemberists and poor-little-rich-boy-or-girl singer songwriters who might as well be James Taylor. This year even saw several indie bands playing in "Pops" concerts at summer symphony programs; that's no sin (and good for the symphonies), but it's about as class-demarcated as it gets.

Right after I read this, I put my contrarian hat back on and rattled off three counterexamples to Wilson's thesis. But those counterexamples started to bother me. Wilco, Modest Mouse, The Flaming Lips -- these were all older indie bands, old and successful enough not to even be indie anymore (all three are on major labels). They were all a part of the early-to-mid-nineties wave of wide interest in punky, alternative, blue-collar rock inaugurated by bands like The Replacements, Husker Du, and above all, Aberdeen's own Nirvana. These weren't bands started by record-label scions, art-school composers, or post-graduate hipsters with nothing better to do. These were small-town losers with nothing to do at all but get stoned or drunk and make music. And almost all of your favorite indie and alternative acts were like that: Elliot Smith, Pulp, Guided By Voices, Neutral Milk Hotel, Slint, Built To Spill, The Jesus Lizard, The Breeders. Even the rest of the Pixies (besides Kim Deal, who never went to college) were college dropouts.

The question is, where are those small-town losers now? If you really think about it, the big indie bands that can claim or at least represent some kind of blue-collar background are all older, and they've all been around for about ten years or longer: Besides the bands above, there's Chan Marshall, Bill Callahan, Will Oldham, Jack White, and a few others. Has indie rock been ceded to the college kids in the metropolis? And if so, why is that?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Philadelphia Comes Ugly, Minneapolis a Utopia

According to Travel and Leisure magazine, Philadelphia ranks dead last for attractive people in the city. Reuters has the story:

For unattractiveness, Philadelphia just beat out Washington DC and Dallas/Fort Worth for the bottom spot. Miami and San Diego are home to the most attractive people, the poll found.

But [senior editor Amy] Farley pointed out the results don't mean people in Philadelphia are ugly or the city is a bad place to visit.

"We were asking people to vote on attractiveness, not unattractiveness. Travel & Leisure editors believe there are a lot of attractive people in Philadelphia," she said.

"The relative attractiveness of its residents is only a minuscule factor in evaluating a city's merit."

Bear in mind, Philadelphia isn't the ugliest city in America -- just 25th out of the 25 cities they surveyed. (Minneapolis is 8th? I've gotta fly out of that airport more often.) But Reuters rubs it in:

Philadelphians' self-esteem has been undermined by national surveys showing they are among the fattest people in the United States. The American Obesity Association ranked the city in the top 10 for overweight people every year between 2000 and 2005.

And sporting pride in a city known for the fierce loyalty of its fans has been hurt by not having had a national champion in any of its four main sports since the 76ers won the National Basketball Association title in 1983.

That is just cold blooded.

Philadelphia also ranks 20th out 25 for friendliest cities, and 14th out of 25 for most intelligent. Minneapolis is 3rd and 2nd, respectively.

That's it -- let's spring for parkas and a minivan, and move.

* Hat Tip to PON for the link. Cross-posted at Young Philly Politics.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

He Recycles

I'm not always a fan of the New York Times's Vows section, but Deneta Howland and Bryan Sells' story is one of the better ones I've read in quite a while.

Bryan Sells knew he was attracted to Deneta Howland the moment they met in 1989. She was the first person he saw when he arrived as a freshman at Harvard for a community volunteer program. “My cab door opened, and Deneta was there to greet me,” said Mr. Sells, now 36, remembering the sunny day and the vibrant smile of his group leader.

They were both native Virginians and shared a passion for social justice, becoming friends while painting a mural at a homeless shelter in Boston.

My favorite part, though, is this: "Mr. Sells worked up the courage by the next summer to invite her to an Anita Baker concert. Dr. Howland assumed his interest was platonic. He assumed Anita Baker would put anyone in a romantic mood. They were both mistaken." And I can tell you -- in 1990, Anita Baker was the move any white guy would have made. It took Mr. Sells another decade of dogged persistence to seal the deal.

My wife spotted and read this article to me, and after we talked about it for a little while, I asked her to show me a picture of Dr. Howland and Mr. Sells. I said about Dr Howland, "She is six kinds of attractive." She said of Mr. Sells, "He needs a beard." All of this tells me that my wife and I are perfect for one another.