Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Best of Technology Writing 2006

Contributing editor for Wired, Brendan Koerner has edited The Best of Technology Writing 2006*, and it cuts an interesting swathe across subjects that proved salient this past year. Despite the "technology" moniker, this isn't dry, technical reading. It's well-written, often thought-provoking articles from sources as varied as The New Yorker, Wired, Salon, Discover, The New Republic, and the Financial Times.

My thoughts on some representative pieces:

"The Book Stops Here" by Daniel H. Pink - this essay is a must-read for anyone interested in the history and mysteries of Wikipedia. It includes detailed explanation of how entries are updated and policed by compulsive contributors, but also points out some of its inherant problems. For example, is it a problem that the entry for Leonard Nimoy is longer than the one for Toni Morrison? Should novelty or cult status trump literary/historical value? Maybe the answer is yes, since the Spock character may arguably have made a deeper impact upon cultural consciousness than Morrison.

Also exceptional is "Plugged into It All" by Richard Waters, which tracks the evolution of texting and the emergence of "full-time intimacy" or "constant presence," suggesting that the activity, rather than breaking down social bonds is actually re-inforcing them, serving as a sort of social glue. Potential problems, of course, include the fact that our condition of being increasingly always available means we're multitasking more and more (like a lot of people, I wonder if we're becoming an ADD society), but it also creates unusual new social norms: among Japanese teens, allowing your mobile to run down, or - God forbid - forgetting it have become significant social blunders. And to think there was a day when folks had to catch you at your desk or at home. Seems like ages ago already. One other excellent point: texting (and obviously email and IM) have created a real social bridge for many people. Instead of calling someone (highly personal) the terminally shy can get to know someone via texting before meeting them in the flesh. This principle indubitably explains the success of online dating, especially among Gen-Xers and Ys.

"The Trend Spotter" by Steven Levy - provides an intriguing look into the career of Tim O'Reilly, he of the O'Reilly books empire, and offer some facts about him I wasn't aware of. Seems Levy has his finger in numerous pies: he started what was arguably the Web's first portal and sold it to AOL; he was an early funder of Blogger and later; and, of course, he's also responsible for the DIY mag Make, which yours truly has contributed precisely one short review to. He appears to have the Midas touch.

"The Right Price for Digital Music" by Adam L. Penenberg - Penenberg suggests offering different prices for different music for download: "a pure free-market" solution. I agree with him to an extent, but any time someone uses "pure" and "fre-market" together in the same sentence, I tend to wax a little cynical (Iraq immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein was a true "pure free market"). Offer less popular tunes for 25 cents, popular ones for a buck, sure, but Penenberg says,
If a single unit [and he means a single mp3] climbed to $5, consumers couldn't complain that it costs too much, since they would be the ones driving up the price.
Right, 'cos people don't complain about other stuff that fits that demand model, do they? Like gas. Later he admits, "charging extra for top sellers might just push legal downloaders back into the outlaw world of peer-to-peer file trading." You think? It's a short article and I expected a little more of it, but it's the only dodo I found in this collection of eminently readable essays.

*Thanks to the folks at University of Michigan Press for kindly providing me with a copy for review.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Great Fire

There may be a great fire in our hearts, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke.

- Vincent Van Gogh
Found that rather moving quote on the back of the packaging for this Vincent Van Gogh, er, action figure I bought my brother for Christmas. Check it out: You can even swap heads with intact and mutilated ears.

The quote reminds me of Thoreau's "live of quiet desperation" line, too.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Put the Lights On The Tree

It's twee. It's Sufjan. It's sweet.

Merry Christmas ya'll.*

*Also valid for the holiday of your choice.

Wooster & Spring

11 Spring Street

The Wooster Collective hosted a massive event at 11 Spring in Nolita this weekend and I caught it briefly from the outside. (The line to get in was incredibly long and I had Christmas shopping to do!) The popular attraction's getting converted into condos, so much of the graffiti's going to become extinct, though the work added to the interior for the show will be sealed behind drywall.

Stars of graffiti like Shepard "Obey" Fairey and D*Face were there. D*Face had previously popped the question to his girlfriend in graffiti on the building.

The NYT covered the event, toom and I have posted several more photos on my flickr site.

Elf Yourself

OfficeMax is sponsoring this fun site where you can plug your own noggin into a dancing elf's body.

Of course, I can't follow instructions, so you may enjoy whose face I used instead of my own.

Hint: Heeeeeeere's Johnny!

Merry Christmas ya'll!

Friday, December 15, 2006

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Shameless Self Promotion

My short story Handcuffed to a Fence in Alabama has been posted over on Gather for the Amazon Shorts contest. It's not "published" per se, it's just entered for voting. So feel free to vote away.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Soy Boys

This would be funny if the columnist weren't entirely serious: Conservative columnist and garden-variety homophobe Jim Rutz is worried that soy is making kids 'gay'.
The dangerous food I'm speaking of is soy. Soybean products are feminizing, and they're all over the place. You can hardly escape them anymore.

I have nothing against an occasional soy snack. Soy is nutritious and contains lots of good things. Unfortunately, when you eat or drink a lot of soy stuff, you're also getting substantial quantities of estrogens. ...

Soy is feminizing, and commonly leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality. That's why most of the medical (not socio-spiritual) blame for today's rise in homosexuality must fall upon the rise in soy formula and other soy products. (Most babies are bottle-fed during some part of their infancy, and one-fourth of them are getting soy milk!) Homosexuals often argue that their homosexuality is inborn because "I can't remember a time when I wasn't homosexual." No, homosexuality is always deviant. But now many of them can truthfully say that they can't remember a time when excess estrogen wasn't influencing them.
What's so disheartening about this sort of nonsense is that chaps like this will ignore tons of science, which indicates that homosexuality is quite natural, but they don't mind embracing nonsensical pseudo-science when it suits their prejudices.

Note that Rutz offers no evidence for his theory, only the idea that soy is feminizing, thereby nonsensically conflating femininity with homosexuality.

I'd like to hear his explanation for where lesbians come from. Too much steak as a child, maybe? And do they serve a lot of soy in Catholic seminaries? And why isn't the incidence of homosexuality far higher in China, Japan and Korea, than here? Places where soy has been consumed for some 2000 years. (I've copied Mr. Rutz on this post in the hopes that he'll address these questions.)

More: Here's an article from Mothering, which goes into much more responsible detail than Rutz's without resorting to homophobia.

And PZ Meyers actually does some proper research and confirms it's nonsense.

Interestingly enough, a Google search reveals that Rutz's article was originally entitled "A devil food is turning our kids into homosexuals." Guess he thought he ought to tone it down if he was going to convince anyone.

Actually, Rutz should write another column apologize for creating what'll likely turn into another damaging urban legend. One than manages to spread pseudo-science whilst simultaneously vilifying an entire segment of society.

Friday, December 08, 2006

In Music News

Groaner: What a hellaciously bad headline: Grammys Oblige Blige and Other Chicks. Just wrong on multiple levels. Bad, forced pun. Cheap 'n' easy resorting to "chicks." What should I expect from E! Online though, eh? Mary J. deserves better.

Old School: Peter Frampton scores two Grammy nominations, including one for this amazing instrumental cover of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun." He's 56 this year.

Massive in the Area: And here's the mesmerizing tail-end of a live performance by Massive Attack of one of their best songs, "Safe From Harm." It's an outro (featured at the end of Michael Mann's The Insider incidentally), which comes after all the lyrics. Love the bassline.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Creeping Rooneyism

Steve Martin interviews the wonderful cartoonist Roz Chast at the New Yorker festival. Learn about "creeping rooneyism," "mouth clearance" and Donna Karan's nightmare. I always love Chast's stuff. She and Martin are working on a children's alphabet book together, too.

The NYer has a few other videos from the festival online, including Malcolm Gladwell talking about what makes a great story or a hit song.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Choose Life

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

- Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow

Havel in the House

Vaclav Havel
The intellectual should constantly disturb, should bear witness to the world, should be provocative by being independent, should rebel against all open and hidden pressure and manipulations, should be the chief doubter of systems, of power and its incantations, should be a witness to their mendacity. ... An intellectual essentially doesn't belong anywhere; he stands out as an irritant wherever he is.
- Vaclav Havel in "The Politics of Hope" from Disturbing the Peace
I happened to hear that former Czech President and playwright Vaclav Havel might be making an appearance at Joe's Pub on Lafayette tonight. He's in town to receive Obie awards he won but couldn't accept in the 70s. So, yes, that's Vaclav Havel along with Michelle Shocked and Trey Kay of Uncle Moon. The musicians performed The Velvet Underground's "banana album," with Shocked playing Nico.

Havel's one of the few people living on the planet who I feel comfortable applying the label "hero" to. I missed most of the show, but the doormen kindly let me in gratis to hang out at the bar. As I quaffed a Guinness, Havel sat no more than 10 feet away with his posse, then passed by me as he moved onto the stage for a brief appearance. He was then whisked away before the show ended. I hung around for a for more songs, as Uncle Moon performed some of their own stuff, then walked back to my apartment.

That's life here in the East Village, where coincidentally, you'll find the KGB Bar a block from my apartment. Now, Havel might really get a kick out of visiting there.

Monday, December 04, 2006

I Remember You Well

Chris in the Hotel Chelsea lobby

At the Chelsea Hotel. Thanks to the Hotel Chelsea blog for making my photo of Chris their Lobby Photo of the Week.

The fantastic painting in the background is by Joe Andoe. If you haven't visited the Chelsea, be sure to check it out. They have some wonderful artwork in the lobby. And then there's the whole magnificent history of the place.

More of my pics over at Flickr.

Synchronicity: The NYT has an article on the Chelsea blog.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Aura

I saw the Argentinian director Fabián Bielinsky's second and sadly last film The Aura this weekend, and I'd have to place it in my list of top ten movies of the year. Bielinsky died not long after he completed. His other movie, Nine Queens, received great reviews, too. The Aura concerns a mild, rather introverted taxidermist (played expertly by Ricardo Darín, who looks rather like Joe Mantegna), who fantasizes about perpetrating the perfect crime. He also happens to be epileptic, which the film uses to great effect. Though part of the film follows some tried heist movie paths, it also contains many moments of eerie and unsettling beauty. Additionally, it unfurls at a lazy, unhurried speed, completely unlike that of any other heist flick you're likely to see. It's film noir at its best, and it seems that at least Bielisnky's early death at 47 left him with a perfect record. I'd link to the trailer, but I think it gives too much away. Just go see it.

Friday, December 01, 2006

World AIDS Day

Light a candle on their site and Bristol-Meyers Squibb will donate $1 to the National AIDS Fund - up to 100,000. Check out loads of AIDS facts on the site, too.