July 15th, 2008

How rich are you, compared to the rest of the world?


A visualization of the economic activity of all nations, defined in 100 km by 100 km squares, by the G-Econ research project.

William Drenttel on the loss and recovery of his soul after working in advertising:

It took me a decade on Madison Avenue to realize that I didn’t want to be a Mad Man, despite the thrill of the kill, the pitches, the travel. I actually came to hate advertising. I think branding is generally a plague on the earth. I’m so glad to be a designer, hardly sin-free, but closer to making things where I can say they are what they are, and not something delivered to me in a black bag in some airport.

The premiere of Season 2 of Mad Men feels far too far away.

Peter G. Peterson has been screaming for years that our politicians are driving our nation to the poor house. And he’s about to put his money where his mouth is:

(Peterson) will spend $1 billion in an effort to get the public’s attention. The money, which comes from the windfall Mr. Peterson received when Blackstone went public last year, will finance a media blitz, starting with a documentary, “I.O.U.S.A.”

Peterson comes across as your typical conservative bootstrap-romantic, but that doesn’t make him wrong.

“Has something fundamental happened to the character of our people or our societal structure, or has no one stepped up to provide the leadership?” Mr. Peterson asked. “We’re not going to know that until we try.”

The dilemma of the special-needs child:

For more than a decade, parents of children with developmental and psychiatric problems have pushed to gain more access to mainstream schools and classrooms for their sons and daughters. One unfortunate result, some experts say, is schools’ increasing use of precisely the sort of practices families hoped to avoid by steering clear of institutionalized settings: takedowns, isolation rooms, restraining chairs with straps, and worse.

The idea of equal access to education is noble, and there is good evidence that “mainstreaming” special-needs children is of such great benefit that parents are right to demand it.

But given the level of attention these children require, the possibility their inclusion may hinder the progress of others, and the ramifications of a poor decision in a country as litigious as ours, there’s no easy answer to the question, “Is this a good idea?”

Dr. Peterson, the Nebraska professor, illustrates the challenges by citing two recent cases in Iowa. In one, the parents of an 11-year-old who died while being held down called for a ban on restraints; in the other, parents charged that a school failed their son by not restraining him. The boy ran away and drowned.

The life story of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Christian bishop:

(A) man of the cloth who doesn’t seem to communicate so much as embody his love of God; […] a disciple whose elevation has brought on the Church the greatest crisis since the Protestant Reformation some 500 years ago, and may well lead to a worldwide Christian schism; a man whose life and works are going to determine, for better or worse, how the world’s 77 million Anglican Christians comprehend their god over the next hundred years; a marked man.

History marches forward, one person at a time.

Scientific American talks with movement researcher E. Paul Zehr on his book Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero:

There’s a quote from Neal Adams, the great Batman illustrator, who said Batman would win place or show in every event in the Olympics. Probably if I were Batman’s handler, I’d put him in the decathlon. Although Batman is shown in the comics as being the fastest and the strongest and all these other things, in reality you can’t actually be all of that at once.

And yes, I ordered the book.

It seems counting may not be as universal to language as we thought:

The MIT team decided to add a new twist—they started with 10 objects and asked the tribe members to count down. In that experiment, the tribe members used the word previously thought to mean “two” when as many as five or six objects were present, and they used the word for “one” for any quantity between one and four.

This indicates that “these aren’t counting numbers at all,” said Gibson. “They’re signifying relative quantities.”

The Pirahã have become a constant source of interest for researchers studying the nature of language, often upsetting assumptions scholars have held for decades.

A New Yorker piece from last year gives a fuller picture of the controversy and invites one to consider just how much we really understand about the nature of language.

July 14th, 2008

Unlike Palm, RIM’s answer to the iPhone, the Thunder, has actual innovations:

When you press on the Thunder’s screen, it pushes in “just” a little bit (the whole screen is sort of like a big button) and you get immediate “real” feedback - you hear an audible clickety sound, and can feel a buzz in your finger where you actually pressed on the display.

I haven’t noticed or cared too much that the iPhone lacks a tactile response. The audible bell is sufficient for me.

But for Blackberry users, the tactile, full QWERTY keyboard is an essential feature. Instead of simply aping the iPhone’s take on the problem, or leaving the hardware keyboard in place, RIM may succeed in improving on the idea. Obviously we won’t know until demo units are made available, but it’s interesting to see a company learn from Apple, adopting ideas that work for them (the Thunder will utilize WebKit for its browser), and improving on ones that don’t.

As always, real competition is great to watch.

(via Gruber)

Slate’s Tim Wu revisits Anderson’s The Long Tail and, like Elberse, decides it’s probably wrong:

It’s also clear that even in this supposed age of the Long Tail, companies that favor a slow, meticulous approach and a small catalog see enormous rewards. Look at Pixar’s many blockbusters (or those of its cousin Apple). Or witness the rise of Twelve, the book imprint founded by editor Jonathan Karp that’s given rise to a string of best-sellers during the past year.

Like Tipping Point, The Long Tail may be turn out to be more important as an invitation for discussion and thought than about a concrete, factual theory.

Even bullshit can be enlightening.

The work of Ben Pieratt.

Ben came out and helped celebrate my girl’s birthday this weekend in New York. A massively affable guy, his work is visually structured, succinct and clever.

His book covers blog is a source of constant inspiration.

He’s also responsible for the sticker on my Macbook that has managed to get me singled-out in airport security no less than five times over the last year. Didn’t really think that one through, did I?

Thanks for coming out Ben. It was great to finally meet you.

Apologies to your family for keeping you out so late.

Kurt Vonnegut on writing with style:

The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show you or make you think about? Did you ever admire an emptyheaded writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.

The subculture and legal controversy of fan fiction:

Fan fiction, as a consequence, has become highly visible to fans, non-fans, authors and media companies alike. A poster child for the new ethos of participatory culture, it is at the heart of a ‘free culture’ movement which celebrates the making of user-generated works and ‘appropriation art’, and seeks to liberalize laws to let individuals remix and mash-up others’ copyrighted works to create their own.

Fan-fiction is the lurid yet wondrous ghetto of the read/write culture.

Steven Frank wants you to stop using FTP and switch to SFTP:

This is going to sound a little weird at first considering what I do for a living, but I want you to stop using FTP.

FTP is a 23 year old protocol. Although the basics of what it does still work, there are many aspects of it which have not kept up with modern computing environments.

If your host offers a secure shell, I’d recommend you learn the beauty of public-key authentication. I’ve been using the same key pair for five years.

July 12th, 2008

Terry Rodgers paints hyper-realistic decadence.

Not even remotely suitable for work, but captivating in a Robin-Leech-voyeurism way.

Inspired by an afternoon game of Wiffle ball and Field of Dreams, two high school students in Greenwich transformed a vacant, overgrown lot into a miniature Fenway Park and began hosting Wiffle ball tournaments for their friends. Instead of being properly inspired by the ingenuity and spirit of the kids, neighbors demanded the lot be closed immediately:

It turns out that one kid’s field of dreams is an adult’s dangerous nuisance, liability nightmare, inappropriate usurpation of green space, unpermitted special use or drag on property values, and their Wiffle-ball Fenway has become the talk of Greenwich and a suburban Rorschach test about youthful summers past and present.

The pop-art of sticker cars:

The blurring of product endorsement and self-expression, the instant celebrity that the cars bring their drivers, the photos-turned-into-graphics: All very Andy Warhol.

Tacolby “Tweet” Granger of the 7th Ward said he searched his mind for a product to match his orange Grand Am — it had to be something different from the 50-or-so sticker cars he’s seen around town. Eventually Flamin’ Hot Cheetos came to mind.

“This car is hot, I’m hot, everything I do is hot, ” he said.

Lindsay Lohan’s clothing line includes a pair of leggings with built in knee pads.

July 11th, 2008

The FDIC has seized control of IndyMac Bank, representing the second-largest bank failure in U.S. history:

IndyMac’s failure had been widely expected in recent days, as regulators said it was not well-capitalized. Its stock has plummeted to mere pennies a share and some nervous depositors have been pulling their funds. The bank has been reeling from losses on defaulted mortgages made at the height of the housing boom.

Neil McAllister wonders whether web developers have too many options:

No one Web developer can excel at all of these technologies; the development methodologies behind some of them are virtual opposites. The pressure on developers, therefore, is to specialize. But how do you choose one tool to be your bread and butter from a field this broad?

McAllister tries to answer his own question though:

Experienced systems programmers will tell you that computer languages really are all the same, and that learning Python is trivial if you already know Java.

Which is partially correct, but not quite.

Web development has become an arena of conflicting philosophies and dogma. Every language, platform and framework has zealots, barking their ideology from up on high and beneath them often sit hoardes of nodding yes-man. Divisions and fractures are as rampant as within political circles. The search for the “one true way” damns us to needlessly jump from one bandwagon to another. For the last four years, it was the sacred cow of the model-view-controller paradigm. Over the last year or so, functional programming has become the hipper than hip thing to be apart of. Not to disparage either method, as each has aspects of brilliance.

As a community, it often seems that we are ever upgrading our hammer while looking at the exact same nails.

For me, dogmatism is the sign of stupidity. The belief, whether expressed or implied, that someone has found the “silver bullet” ignores the hundreds of other silver bullets available at a moment’s Google. Ruby, Python, PHP, jQuery, YUI, Prototype, SproutCore; All of these solve a certain class of problems in elegant ways. Each fails to solve one problem or another with equal elegance. Because philosophy plays such a major role in platform design, and philosophies are nothing if not subjective and narrow, no single solution will ever be “the solution”. Failing to recognize that causes the countless and endless debates that take place across newsgroups, blog comments and email lists.

McAllister mentions in passing the real answer to this question:

The most agile developers, however, are those who approach programming with a firm grounding in computer science.

Better stated, the better developer understands the fundamentals and can adapt his knowledge to any platform. While preference and efficiency should come into play, it should not be an overriding dogma. You may know you’re fast in PHP, but maybe the solution would come faster in Python, Ruby, or even Lisp. But you’d only know that if you studied one of them.

Instead of specializing in one platform, it seems easier to instead specialize on the problem of development, working with several different philosophies, dependent on the constraints and problems of the project. Understanding the basic technologies in deeper ways than merely the abstraction a single platform presents you.

The abundance of choice is not a concern, it is an asset. It provides our community with a more varied, more specialized toolbox, allowing us to select the optimal platform for the problem in front of us. We’re not confined to looking at any one problem from only a single perspective. We are not building a tower of babel; We’re building a great library.

As for his final question:

(D)oes keeping up with the latest trends in Web development feel like treading water?

No. It feels like an education.

In what would become an iconic photo, Ahmad Batebi held aloft a blood-stained T-shirt of a friend who had been severely beaten during the Iranian Student Protests of 1999. The photo’s appearance on the cover The Economist lead to Batebi’s arrest, conviction and a 10-year prison sentence for “creating unrest” by the Iranian courts.

While on leave to receive needed medical treatment, Batebi escaped:

He suffered a partial stroke that left the right side of his body without feeling. He needed medical attention. The regime did not want to be blamed for him dying behind bars, he says, so he was allowed out for treatment. Three months ago, on the day of the Persian new year, he escaped into Iraq. On June 24th he arrived in America.

Tragic and inspiring.

The Oxford English Dictionary, in limerick form:

You like burgers, so she’s vegetarian.
She buys ‘new’ because you’re antiquarian.
Every stand that she’ll take
Is for argument’s sake,
Because Mary’s a rampant contrarian.

The first episode of Adam Curtis’ 2007 BBC Documentary The Trap looked at how game theory influenced the course of government, public life and psychology since the Cold War.

Focused mostly on the UK, Curtis weaves the work of John Nash, R.D. Laing, David Rosenhan and Margaret Thatcher into a flawed, paranoid, but strangely compelling narrative.

A journey by train:

Somewhere near the eastern slope of the Colorado Rockies, I’m chatting with a family of five in the observation lounge, taking in the still and clear morning. To the north of us, the mountains are rugged, the tracks clinging to a massive sandstone face, wrapping along the escarpment toward the Continental Divide. The Zephyr’s lounge has pivoting cushioned seats and broad panoramic windows that stretch up the walls and curve overhead, yielding views that you would never get from the window of a plane. “We figured we’d make the train a part of our vacation,” the mother tells me. Firs give way to spruce and then to ponderosa pine. The journey feels, at this moment, important.

The majority of Ben Jervey’s piece on Amtrak isn’t nearly this romantic. He’s faced with numerous delays, staff incompetence and a growing hatred of freight trains. Interlaced however is a wonderful rumination on the political and business oddity that is Amtrak.

July 10th, 2008

A visualization of Walmart’s growth in America over the last 46 years.

The decline of the college yearbook:

(T)he main cause is not the cost so much as the replacement of print with electronic media by and for the Facebook and MySpace generation. With social networks linking hundreds of friends and offering digital photographs and videos the traditional yearbook looks like a bit of a dinosaur.

In 1904, Congress ordered the publication of Thomas Jefferson’s personal Bible: a version Jefferson had created by cutting, pasting and rearranging the gospels of the New Testament:

In a letter sent from Monticello to John Adams in 1813, Jefferson said his “wee little book” of 46 pages was based on a lifetime of inquiry and reflection and contained “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

Those interested can read the full text of it online, though a printed copy seems more appropriate given Jefferson’s love of books.

Palm, a company which recently announced its fourth straight quarter of losses, is clearly ready to turn things around. This Friday, in parallel with the launch of Apple’s second-generation iPhone, Palm will release a version of their Centro smartphone that’s blue:

Be sure to check back here on Friday to find out how we’ll be making these eye-catching Centros more affordable than ever for back-to-schoolers from July 11 to September 20, 2008.

One really has to wonder whether Palm knows how sad they’ve become.

July 9th, 2008

Girl, it’s time to automate.

God, I hope this is real. I can’t stop watching. Thank you, PJ.

Update: Oh, it’s real. Apparently, this is some type of trend with lab equipment manufacturers.


July 9th, 2008

It gets easier.

During our move to New York, I remember watching my girl getting lost in memories. She’d been living in the same place for five years. Every nook of her basement apartment in Chicago hid an artifact and every artifact begged for reflection. As I ran up and down her stairs, assembling, organizing and taping, I would catch her in these moments where it was clear that the next phase of her life was starting, and that the old one was slipping away. She was a mix of nervousness, anticipation and regret. I was an impatient machine: barking commands and commanding she move on to the next corner.

I’ve never lived any where longer than two years. I have no excuse. I wasn’t an army brat; My family wasn’t in a relocation program or hiding from the mafia. We just moved. And when we stopped, I started.

I’ve moved four times in as many years. DC, Chicago, New York, San Francisco. I’m heading back to Chicago in a few weeks1, and I can already feel the city tugging me at. The to-do list getting organized in my head.

Movers need to be arranged. Boxes packed. Goodbye parties avoided and contacts kept at a distance. Better to disappear slowly. Grand exits are only appropriate if you’re never coming back.

Every item in my apartment has already been assigned a value and weight. Many won’t make the next leg. There are books I’ve only read once; Utensils that haven’t aged well. There are clothes I’d rather forgot I ever owned and gadgets made obsolete. Anything I keep is one more box to unpack when I arrive, and I’m often in a hurry to get settled.

I won’t get lost in memories when I pack. I’m the same impatient machine privately as I am publicly. Done correctly, I can pack my entire life in one evening. Two if there’s something good on TV.

I won’t miss this apartment, or this city. I’m taking everything with me that they gave me. Knowledge, memories, friends: they travel with you, bouncing around in your brain available whenever you’d like. San Francisco isn’t going anywhere.

Across the country, there’s some empty space just waiting for me to shuffle into. To fill with junk, cigarette smoke, programming books and loud music.

It’ll be different than this one, but it will be the same.

And two years from now, who knows where I’ll be. But I’ll be in a space filled with my shit, some of which I have now, some of which I’ve yet to acquire. I’ll be with her, and I’ll be OK.

Life could certainly be worse than that.

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. ~ Lao Tzu.

  1. And if you happen to know of an apartment, please, I beg of you, email me. Craigslist is a cruel, and vacant mistress in the search for a home. 

Andrew Poole on serifs and their contribution to readability:

What initially seemed a neat dichotomous question of serif versus sans serif has resulted in a body of research consisting of weak claims and counter-claims, and study after study with findings of “no difference”. Is it the case that more than one hundred years of research has been marred by repeated methodological flaws, or are serifs simply a typographical “red herring”?

Take that, Bringhurst.

Tweets from a Zombie attack.

Stephen Elliott’s interview with Hans Reiser:

I was curious whether I would learn something about his character I hadn’t known before. I was face-to-face with my murderer for the first time. Part of me wanted to like him, to believe there’s a shred of decency in everyone.

Elliott doesn’t paint a kind picture of Reiser, a man who is clearly intelligent, but lost either in self-denial, self-pity or, as Elliot suggests, little more than himself.

July 8th, 2008

Flickr and Getty are teaming up:

The great folks at Flickr and Getty Images are joining forces to build a platform that will enable the creation of a first class collection of royalty free, rights ready, and rights managed photographs that will debut later this year.

The catch is that the program won’t be open to everyone. At least not initially:

Getty Images’ photo editors will identify photos that they would like to feature in the collection and reach out directly to members of the Flickr community via a new platform that we are developing for them.

Why not build an open platform any member could elect to participate in?

A standard of quality is needed but there are other ways to accomplish that without pre-selection by a staff. Flickr has developed numerous tools on their site to help users find and highlight images of value. Why, after spending all that effort on proving that the pool of talented amateurs is so incredibly vast, do you elect to go so positively closed? Why ignore all of those tools, all the work you’ve done? Why revert to the old model?

Worse, Getty is not the photographer’s friend. They often price photography out of the reach of many projects and budgets. Whereas two years ago I used to use Getty for my stock photography needs, today I’d rather search Flickr and fire off an email to negotiate a price with a talented amateur. The quality of work you can find on Flickr, for the price, is one of the best deals on the web.

I can’t make predictions about how this will play out. Flickr has proven themselves time and time again as an innovative and community focused site. But the recent departure of the site’s founders leaves me worried that without them, that culture will change.

This interview between Jonathan Klein, CEO of Getty, and Kakul Srivastava, GM of Flickr, isn’t exactly encouraging:


From our perspective, on the Flickr side, we’re not expecting this will be a huge stream of monetization for our members. For some it might be, but that’s not really the driving force.


So yes, it is competitive, but what it also is doing is it’s bringing this body of imagery within the established ways of doing things in our industry, which is also protective to photographers. I think photographers would be much more concerned if 2 billion images from Flickr would find their way into microstock.

The interview reads as though the community is completely secondary to this discussion.

Time’s cover story this week: Mark Twain, America’s First Superstar:

Whether Twain was talking about racism at home, the foreign misadventures of the Western powers or the excesses of the era of greed he initially flourished in after the Civil War, his target was always human folly and hypocrisy, which turn out to be perennial topics for further study.

For Christmas last year, my company assembled an “inspiration” book. Each team member was responsible for contributing a few pages of photography, illustration or layout. Something to show off what we were capable of, or inspired by.

I mentioned I’d love to do a treatment of Twain’s The War Prayer. I’d never seen an edition that did it justice. Like most folks, I’m sure my bosses assumed that, being by Twain, it was probably light-hearted and only mildly political.

About a week before deadline, they read it.

I ended up doing two quick 2-page spreads with “inspirational” quotes and classic design objects.

There is what everyone remembers about Twain, and there is what he actually was. And for whatever reason, the gap between the two seems abnormally wide.

Watch Hans Rosling narrate the progress of developing countries over the last forty years, dispelling common myths about disparity with the enthusiasm of a coked-up weatherman armed with better stats.

Kevin Phillips on why the economy may be worse than we know:

Readers should ask themselves how much angrier the electorate might be if the media, over the past five years, had been citing 8 percent unemployment (instead of 5 percent), 5 percent inflation (instead of 2 percent), and average annual growth in the 1 percent range (instead of the 3–4 percent range).

Phillips documents the seemingly tiny, perhaps even rational changes various administrations have made to three key economic indicators over the past 40 years and argues that they’re painting a false picture of our economy’s real state.

Emotionally, it resonates. Don’t things always seem slightly bleaker than the numbers say? Not drastically, but just enough you feel there’s a disconnect somewhere. Maybe the stats are juked.

How to say nothing in 500 words, an old tutorial from Paul McHenry Roberts on how to eliminate padding in your writing:

The student’s tendency to hedge stems from a modesty that in other circumstances would be commendable. He is, he realizes, young and inexperienced, and he half suspects that he is dopey and fuzzyminded beyond the average. Probably only too true. But it doesn’t help to announce your incompetence six times in every paragraph. Decide what you want to say and say it as vigorously as possible, without apology and in plain words.

None of it is new advice, but it’s all damn good advice.

Warren Ellis on link blogs and the need for new content:

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could stand up now and say, okay, these are the post-curation years? The world does not need another linkblog. What is required, frankly, is what we’re supposed to call “content” these days. When I were a lad, back in the age of steam, we called this “original material.” Put another way: we like it when Cory and Xeni are the copy/paste editors for the internet, but we like it better when Cory writes a book and Xeni makes an episode of BoingBoingTV.

In my youth, I actually tried corresponding with Ellis after realizing I could instant message anyone with an AOL account, which lucky him, he had.

I asked, then begged he read a few scripts for comics I’d written that were, in retrospect, utter shit. He was and remains a literary hero of mine. I wanted nothing more than a few pointers, and possibly a multi-million dollar deal at DC or Marvel. Either would have been perfectly acceptable.

He very patiently explained that he couldn’t even read my work, due to legal issues, several times over several months. I was fourteen, and thought persistence was everything. I hounded him one evening, writing one of those brave, forward and just a bit rude emails that you’re just sure will get the recipient to take you seriously.

He promptly blocked me.

If you haven’t read it, pick up Ellis’ masterpiece Transmetropolitan. It is one of those rare series that is not only accessible, but original, twisted, thought-provoking and hilarious.

July 7th, 2008

Sign names in deaf culture:

When a sign name is given to you, it’s special. A bit like losing your deaf virginity. It’s thought up after an intense period of observation, when people have worked out firstly whether they like you enough to give you one (a sign name, that is), and they’ve taken all your habits and mannerisms into account to find a name that best sums you up.