Nerdy stuff, things technological in nature, unnatural and artificial.
We come from the land of the ice and snow
Curious about what songs I've listened to most, I navigated over to my last.fm profile and saw this:
Do I love "Immigrant Song?" Yes. Do I imitate its opening vocal, Robert Plant's reverberating war cry that gets as close to the heart of awesomeness as any lyric in the history of rock? Frequently. But have I listened to it 3,000+ times in the past couple of years? Roughly 5x per day?I mean, maybe? But there's something about this random (and probably wrong) statistic that makes me wonder what kinds of facts and figures will drift long into the future, passed from disk to disk, tied to my name, discovered by future people and being puzzled over. Someone in some version of the future, combing through old web stats, Immigrant Song has become, like the national anthem, and this person will think, "Doug LeMoine, man. What a maniac."
For the love of shopping
I'm doing some work in Singapore right now, and I've quickly noticed a couple of things: Singaporean people love to shop, and they love deals. But they don't have access to certain brands — American Apparel, Forever 21, Victoria's Secret, etc. To get stuff from these places, they have to order stuff over the Internet, and have it shipped across the world. And this can be really expensive.
A community of practice. The practice of finding deals.So, some industrious, deal-seeking shoppers have created LiveJournal communities in which shoppers can band together to save shipping costs from online retailers. These so-called "sprees" usually correspond to global shipping deals offered by a retailer, and they're available until certain criteria are met — minimum amounts for the shipping deal, or whenever the spree-launcher decides to take care of the order.In the above example, the spree is for a retailer called "Apparel," it's open, and there are 35 "comments," many of which are actually "orders." That's right, you submit your order in a public space, so that others can see how close the spree is to being filled.In order to build trust among their users, the community above provides a way to give feedback; they've created a separate community called "spreefeedback" where users leave comments about the trustworthiness of the users who launch the sprees. Hacky, but apparently effective. Pretty cool, huh?On related notes, Jane Fulton Suri's Thoughtless Acts?: Observations on Intuitive Design is filled with intriguing examples of everyday hacks in the physical world.
Kindle on the iPhone / Buy futures in poetry
If I were a derivatives man, I'd go to the Chicago Board of Trade and buy up some poetry futures. Sell frozen orange juice and pork bellies; buy poetry. Why? Because it is the perfect product for small screen reading. People are reading more and more stuff on smaller and smaller screens, everyone knows this, duh. War and Peace is available for the Kindle, but who wants to wrestle that monster through a keyhole? Anyway, last night, I downloaded the awkwardly named Kindle for the iPhone. I had tried to become a Kindle user (of the device — confusing, yes?). I failed at this, but I had some Kindle-ized books left over — Leaves of Grass and the Modern Library's Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson — and I downloaded those. I didn't really expect much. Twice today, I found myself reading through sections of Leaves of Grass: "A PROMISE to California, / Also to the great Pastoral Plains, and for Oregon: / Sojourning east a while longer, soon I travel toward you, to remain, to teach robust American love." Good reading as I watched the lunch crowd at Mixt Greens. The entire Leaves of Grass is available on Bartleby, by the way. Then, as I was waiting for a conference call to start, I read Emerson's poem "Self-Reliance." Hard to conduct a conference call with a mind thus expanded by poetry, but I think I can get used to it. Poetry on the iPhone! It makes a lot of sense, and Amazon did a nice job with the interface. Simple, to the point, no BS, just like reading should be.
Twitter dream team, beginnings of
I couldn't agree more with David Pogue, Twitter is what you make of it. This is what I would make of it, if only.
Lost / Story-wrangling systems
I've always been fascinated by Lost, the intricately-plotted TV series about the survivors of a plane crash. On the surface, it's a new-fangled Gilligan's Island meets The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The goal is simply to get off the island, and the story of doing so is advanced in parallel with flashbacks that tell the stories of the characters. But the writers go way bigger than that, and after four seasons the story has woven threads of Lord of the Flies (in the way that social systems develop among the survivors), The Prisoner (in the discovery of a mysterious group of people living on the island, known as "the Others") The X‑Files (in the occasional supernatural events), and Rashomon (in its use of overlapping flashbacks and contested testimonies) — among, I'm sure, others.With all that is going on in the story, I've always wondered how the producers keep track of the various threads. Well, as it turns out, there's a person called "script coordinator" who is in charge of this. Gregg Nations, Lost's script coordinator, described his role in a post to The Fuselage, described as "The Official Site of the Creative Team Behind ABC's Award Winning TV Show Lost:"
A script coordinator creates the show bible, which is generally a summary of each episode and tracks the introduction of any new characters or important story points. However, on "Lostâ€ it's a little more difficult than usual. In place of a show bible I created a character bible, an island timeline and a flashback timeline.In the character bible I track important facts about the characters or other elements in the show established in the episodes, either through what the characters tell each other or the flashbacks. I track how many survivors we have, who has died and their names, when we've seen the polar bears or the smoke monster, everything about the hatch, when we've had contact with the Others, etc. Again, it's very detailed work but I think the writers appreciate having all that information at hand in a document so they don't have to worry about it.The island timeline is a record of how many days they've been on the island and what happened on what days. The flashback timeline tracks the events that happen in everyone's flashblacks.
So, the next question is: How the heck does he manage all of those bibles and timelines? Needing to visualize interconnected timelines, you'd think that he'd use something like a Gantt chart — maybe Microsoft Project? Or maybe he has some proprietary TV production software that links the timelines with character information? As it turns out, his system is a little more low-fi. In a recent profile in the NYT, Nations briefly alludes to his methods for managing the details:
Had he a background in computer science, Mr. Nations now says, he might have approached the "Lostâ€ project differently. "The best thing would have been to create a database where everything's linked, and if we're talking about Jack and what was established in his first flashback episode, you could click on something that takes you there,â€ he said. But as an accountant, he was more inclined just to make notes in a ledger. "I've just created these Word documents, and I just write everything down.â€
Nooooooooo. Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! Even the fan-generated Lost wiki, Lostpedia, is linked up in a rudimentary way, making it roughly 1000x more wrangle-able than disconnected Word documents. Still, like any Lost fan, I'm curious to know what's in the "bible," even if it would be torturous to find anything.
Simple sounds for hard times
The fallout of greed and incompetence is once again trickling down to Main Street. Kiss my ass, you greedy Wall Street bastards. And you bureaucrats and cronies can kiss my ass, too. Is there anyone out there who thinks beyond the current economic cycle? Anyone? Is anyone trying to do anything other than make themselves rich, or keep their friends in office? Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrg. When I got laid off in 2001, I did a lot of soul-searching, ate a lot of Cancun veggie burritos (they were $3.29; they're $4.99 now), and did a lot of reading at Green Apple. One afternoon, I came across Woody Guthrie's autobiography, Bound for Glory. Now there was a guy who knows a thing or two about hard times. The title is deeply ironic, as Guthrie experienced a lot of hardship, but through it all he had deep confidence in himself and deep faith that he would do great things. Greed, incompetence and bad luck afflicted him, (and millions of others), but life goes on. And if you're a person like Woody Guthrie, you take the hard lesson and you turn it into something like Dust Bowl Ballads.[You should see a little Flash player below each song title; apologies if you don't. Working on it].
Woody Guthrie, "I ain't got no home" [Download]
[audio:guthrie_home.mp3] Of course, I was never close to being caught out on a literal road with other literally displaced people, but this passage deeply affected me:
My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road,A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod;Rich man took my home and drove me from my doorAnd I ain't got no home in this world anymore.
2001 was no Dust Bowl, and I was nowhere near as destitute as Tom Joad. But the feeling of alienation and disillusion really rang true to me, the sense that "a million feet" have trod a much worse path gave me comfort, I guess. (Guthrie also hated Wall Street bastards more than anyone, which gave me a great deal of comfort). So the next track is all about turning the corner, finding happiness, and being bound for glory. It's from an incredible collection of music called Art of Field Recording, Vol. 1, a collection of recordings made in rural homes and churches over the past 50 years.
Lawrence McKiver and the McIntosh County Shouters, "Jubilee" [Download]
[audio:mckiver_jubilee.mp3] For me, this track is an excellent reminder that a few people with a lot of spirit and some knee-slapping can make something deeply affecting. It doesn't take much. And that's the first step, perhaps, to being bound for glory.
Ever since Shaquille O'Neal left the Lakers, I've been more love than hate. He's smart and charismatic in ways that are rare for a professional athlete, and of course he's given out the League's best nicknames — The Big Aristotle (to himself), The Truth (to Paul Pierce), The Big Fundamental (to Tim Duncan), The Big Ticket (to Kevin Garnett), and Flash (to Dwyane Wade). But now that he's started Twittering as THE_REAL_SHAQ, I'm very firmly in the Shaq love camp. He's quickly picked up on Twitter's conventions, and he's engaged a variety of fans and other folks on a variety of mundane topics. @Shaq: I feel you, my friend. Keep it up.A selection of Twitter Shaquliciousness:
- His bio, two words: "Very quotatious."
- Yesterday: "Last nite i told greg oden , 'we r not the same, i am a martian'"
- Last week: "About to go to yoga, gotta get my stretch on"
Which reminds me of another star who has a way with words: Randy Moss, who recently launched "hellified" into the everyday sports lexicon. Back in 2002, he became a permanent fixture on my refrigerator when this passage appeared in Sports Illustrated:
The perception was that [recently hired coach] Mike Tice, after one game as interim coach, was given a three-year deal last January because he convinced McCombs he could control Moss. "No," says Moss. "Mike Tice got the job because he and Randy Moss can get along. Nobody controls me but my mama and God."
There's something about that quote that sticks with me. Only controlled by his mama and God. @RandyMoss: It takes a special kind of person to even think in those terms. Keep it up.
The future of reading / A reading list
I love reading, and I've been thinking a lot about how technology is affecting the way that we read now and in the future. I keep thinking about something Sven Birkerts said in a 1998 interview with Harpers: "If you touch all parts of the globe, you can't do that and then turn around and look at your wife in the same way." [PDF] Of course, one could be turn around and look at one's wife in a more informed, more educated way, but that's not the way he sees it. I share this anxiety: I love reading the New York Times on my phone, but I can't help but sense that something will be lost if all printed matter moves in this direction.
In August 1995, Harpers Magazine conducted a round table discussion with Wired's Kevin Kelly, author Sven Birkerts, the Well's John Perry Barlow, and Mark Slouka. The results were condensed in the magazine [PDF], and the conversation outlines the two ideologies that continue to converse today: Those who believe that the paper incarnation of the book is an irreplaceable arena for the delivery of its content, and those who don't. Birkerts discusses the former in his 1995 book, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts sent a shot across the bow in a paper called "Reading at Risk," [PDF]. The researchers surveyed 17,000 people, and they concluded that the future of literary reading is bleak: "Literary reading in America is not only declining rapidly among all groups, but the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young."Still, the total number of books sold continues to rise, so is the future really that bleak? The NEA thinks so. It released a follow-on to Reading at Risk called "To Read or Not To Read." This study focuses on young readers, and links the decline in reading to "civic, social and economic" risks.Last spring, Nicholas Carr discussed Google's effect on literary reading in the Atlantic, provocatively titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid." [I discussed this in a blog post at the Cooper Journal called "Dumb is the new smart"]. In it, he interviews a blogger who confesses the following:
"I can't read War and Peace anymore,â€ he admitted. "I've lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it."
The article also sparked a discussion on brittanica.com, collected in a forum called "Your Brain Online." It's got a lot of interesting stuff from folks like Kevin Kelly, Danny Hillis and Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, who thinks that the "unprecedented abundance" of the web will function to break the vise-grip of the "literary world" on culture:
It's not just because of the web — no one reads War and Peace. It's too long, and not so interesting. This observation is no less sacrilegious for being true. The reading public has increasingly decided that Tolstoy's sacred work isn't actually worth the time it takes to read it, but that process started long before the internet became mainstream … The threat isn't that people will stop reading War and Peace. That day is long since past. The threat is that people will stop genuflecting to the idea of reading War and Peace.
Ursula Le Guin disputes the notion that people have ever read War and Peace. (Well, maybe.)
Self-satisfaction with the inability to remain conscious when faced with printed matter seems questionable. But I also want to question the assumption — whether gloomy or faintly gloating — that books are on the way out. I think they're here to stay. It's just that not all that many people ever did read them. Why should we think everybody ought to now?
The title of her recent Harper's essay pretty well sums up her position: "Notes on the alleged decline of reading." It roars through the various aspects of the state of reading and publishing, quickly turning into a ringing indictment of corporate publishers:
The social quality of literature is still visible in the popularity of bestsellers. Publishers get away with making boring, baloney-mill novels into bestsellers via mere P.R. because people need bestsellers. It is not a literary need. It is a social need. We want books everybody is reading (and nobody finishes) so we can talk about them.
On that social note
I was just looking at my beat-up copy of "The Dharma Bums," and I felt a sort Chris Matthews-esque tingle. I bought it during high school at Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kansas, and it sparked my fascination with the West Coast, years before I ever traveled here. Would I ever read it again? Probably not. In fact, just now, I could barely read even a couple of pages without feeling like Kerouac was on auto-pilot. But I like the idea that my bookshelf is a kind of externalization of myself, a collection of important influences and expressions. The future of my books appears to be not so different than the present: A combination of talismans, objects of beauty, and points of reference.On the subject of reference, in (wait for it) a Harper's essay called ""A Defense of the Book," William Gass talks about the pleasures of not having the world at your fingertips:
I have rarely paged through one of my dictionaries (a decent household will have a dozen) without my eye lighting, along the way, on words more beautiful than a found fall leaf, on definitions odder than any uncle, on grotesques like gonadotropin-releasing hormone or, barely, above it — what? — gombeen — which turns out to be Irish for usury.
And holy crap, there's a whole lot more Gass at Tunneling. Articles, links, thoughts. I love the Internet.
Last weekend, I had an unlikely opportunity: I was invited to sit on a panel that discussed the future of small literary presses, non-profit publishing, and — in general — books that took place at Coffee House Press in Minneapolis. I love books, reading, and non-corporate media, so I jumped at the chance to talk about this stuff in public. You may ask: Why me? I have a person on the inside who knows that I like to talk.1 My fellow panelists were a murderer's row of publishing insight. Rick Simonson is the co-founder of Copper Canyon Press and a book buyer at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle; Richard Nash is the publisher of Soft Skull Press; Patricia Wakida runs Wasabi Press; and, Michael Coffey is the Managing Editor at Publisher's Weekly (and the author of an excellent baseball book, 27 Men Out).When we got started, I suspected I'd been tossed in a shark tank wearing a meat necklace. I found myself rattling on about things in my frame of reference — technology, social media, iPhones, Kindles, stuff wanting to be free — and I worried that all of it was simply chumming the waters for my fellow panelists who (a) know a lot about publishing, and (b) clearly recognized that their business models are being eroded by technologies that offer new ways to read (i.e., everything with a screen) and supply chain disintermediation, i.e. Amazon.
Side note: The weather was beautiful
As it turned out, we had a series of productive conversations. My colleagues and the audience were keen to know about how companies go about determining the right way to conceive technological products, and to implement them appropriately. Meanwhile, I learned a lot about small presses, publishing, and the ways that editors at literary presses think about their work. Allan Kornblum, the founder of Coffee House Press, saw himself as "the inheritor of the Maxwell Perkins tradition" in creating deep and lasting relationships with artists, supporting them and providing a consistent venue for publication. Fish said that he wanted "to create art objects that last." Both of those goals make a lot of sense to me, and they seem like a firm foundation for a business in transition.
So, what is the future of reading, anyway?
I'm going to put together another post about my thoughts on this topic, and in the meantime I'm going to be digesting some of the work that my fellow panelists referenced during our discussions; this list includes Ursula Le Guin's "Notes on the alleged decline of reading" that I saw in Patricia's pile of notes; Michael mentioned Bill McKibben's new book, Deep Economy in making a comparison between regional literature and a larger movement toward regional and local economies; Richard spoke a couple of times about literary subscription programs, such as Soft Skull's annual edition, and Powell's indiespensable list. 1 I was there because my friend Fish (the senior editor at Coffee House Press) thought that my experience with technology and online product strategy would complement the deep expertise of the small press luminaries on the panel. Or perhaps he just wanted to see what happened when I said the words "Kindle" and "free" around Michael Coffey. In the end, there would be no way of knowing.