When nothing goes out of print, old and new lose much of their meaning (Lessons from The Long Tail)

Two lessons springing from the long tail (the idea that the digital age makes permanent publication of everything more possible).

ONE: Shame, public consequences, satire

Particularly interesting last week was the flameout of Pax Dickinson, the Chief Technology Officer of Business Insider.  For those who missed the brouhaha I point you to the summary at Popehat, which includes two excellent pieces approaching the scandal from opposite perspectives.

In some ways, I do not need to add to this discussion.  Ken and Clark do a great job covering both angles.  But I also want to highlight something John Scalzi wrote on Twitter (which I saw when John Walter RT’d it):

The failure mode of clever is asshole; the failure mode of Twitter satire is fired.

As Clark pointed out at Popehat, Dickinson’s Twitter feed was quote mined in the article that started the whole brouhaha.  His most infamous tweet was a direct satire of Mel Gibson’s drunken ravings to a police officer.  But out of context it just looked shockingly rude.  Ken points out the more important issue, that some of Dickinson’s tweets weren’t just bad taste, but legally troubling (such as one about hiring practices in IT departments).

For me, the whole thing reiterates two key traits for New Media users:

  1. It’s worthwhile to do research and reserve judgment until you know what the facts are.  While I find Dickinson’s satire quite troubling and obnoxious, the clear evidence of the satirical attempt ameliorates many of the more disturbing posts he’s made.  By reserving public scorn for a few days, I don’t find myself in the position to apologize or retract my writing.
  2. The long tail remains a tripping hazard.  Dickinson’s entire Twitter history establishes his intent, but it also becomes a rich vein from which quote miners can dig all sorts of terrible gold.

TWO: The strange landscape of this summer’s music

NPR’s Planet Money did a great episode (#472, “Top of the Charts“) back in July about how two of the three “songs of the summer” were old songs.  Both Macklemore and Lewis’ “Can’t Hold Us” and Iconopop’s “I Love It” were released more than a year ago, but they wound their way to the charts via rising YouTube fame and a key television spot, respectively.

Another popular song that has a similarly strange route to the top is Anna Kendrick’s “Cups,” which was originally performed by the Carter Family in the 1930s and updated by Lulu and the Lampshades in 2009.  Kendrick’s star power (and the song’s role in Pitch Perfect) drove the song into the spotlight and pushed it steadily up the charts.

I suspect this phenomenon, in which an old song finds a slow route to popularity and/or a regular return to prominence will only accelerate as the line between new and re-new continues to blur, and the availability of everything published continues to expand.

When nothing goes out of print, old and new lose much of their meaning.

Social Commentary, Juvenile Sketches, and Friendly Platitudes

It was a weird week for graffiti on my usual route to and from school.  A new artist with a marker showed up on the LaSalle platform, drawing crude, sexist images with strange social commentary.  For example, here’s one that includes the words wheather [sic] men LIE.

Wheather Men LIE ...

I found this image on the subway platform in late August.  The image seems to have nothing to do with the message about meteorologists.  Even more strange is the next drawing, on another I-Beam, which appears to be in the same hand and by the same artist.  This one depicts a topless, headless woman with no hands or feet.  It has a caption that says Kill people.  I my interpretation of the drawing was that it was meant to accompany the other one, since they were right next to each other.

...Kill People

So the overall message was “Wheather men lie… kill people.”  But the drawings are meant to shock (and perhaps attract attention and nerds like me?).

The next week, these drawings had been removed, but a new one appeared on a different I-Beam, warning us of the dangers in smoking, but again using the topless woman motif and a strangely callous addendum.  The text on this drawing reads: Smoking KILL$.  Let ’em Die.

Smoking KiLL$ - let em Die

I can’t help but wonder at the thinking attached to these bizarre images and messages.  They’re almost surrealist in their approach, using the decapitated woman to shock the jaded Chicago public transit rider into thinking about how social inequities lead to heat deaths in poor neighborhoods every summer.  Or they’re drawings by teenage boys, who draw boobs on everything.

Finally, lest you think all Chicago has mean or crazy graffiti, take in this nice message from your friendly neighborhood construction worker:

Happy Day

Snapshots of traffic police in Chicago


I don’t envy the job of traffic police in Chicago.  People drive fast, they ignore signals, they honk, they text, they act like idiots.  And your job is to stand there in the middle of the street and make them drive more sensibly.  Yikes.  That said, I’ve also seen a couple things that were alternately funny and somewhat disturbing.  Here are two memorable police moments (in reverse order of timeliness), all from my walk between LaSalle station and my building on Congress parkway:

  1. Last week, I walked toward a street where I had the light and was planning to cross.  In front of me, another pedestrian had just made his way across the street in front of a CPD SUV sitting at the stoplight with its emergency lights flashing blue.  I saw the officer inside scowling at the pedestrian, as I would have if I were the officer.  He’d walked in front of a police car with its emergency lights on.  What the heck! So I stopped on the corner, waiting for the officer to proceed into the intersection.  Instead, the officer looks up, sees me waiting, and then turns off the emergency lights.  I still had a walk signal, so I crossed the street, reassessing my initial reaction — what had the officer been scowling at?
  2. The heroic traffic conductors working State and Congress are awesome.  Daily I see them pointing, blowing whistles, and shepherding traffic faster than the lights can.  My favorite moments come when they holler at inattentive drivers, trilling their whistles at cars who should be moving but aren’t or waving back over-eager stoplight waiters edging forward before their time.

The City & the City

The City and the City
The City and the City

by China Mieville

Mieville flexes his inspiring, impressive author muscles again, making me jealous and happy at the same time.  He’s a great writer, and this book goes in a different way than many of his others have gone.  (To be fair, I’ve only read two others, Perdido Street Station and The Scar, which are both novels in the New Crobuzon world.)

The City and the City tells the story of two cities that are topplegangers of one another — they have a shared physical space but are two separate countries, with two separate populaces and two separate governments.  There are some parts of the city that are completely Ul Quoma, other parts that are completely Bezel.  And then there are shared spaces where people from both cities mingle while assiduously pretending they don’t. Oh, and it’s a murder mystery involving someone from one city killed and dumped in the other city.

Some thoughts:

  • Mieville, like so many great writers, develops a fantasy world that just works like it does.  He doesn’t go out of his way to explain how it works (nor why), but we quickly come to accept that it is the way it should be.
  • The parallels with the eastern bloc and its tiny post-Soviet nations shape the story in significant ways.  One half of the city refused Western help and yet has found its own niche in the modern world.  The other accepted Western help and has foundered in it, failing to climb up at all.
  • I love the invocation of secret societies, of nationalist and unification political groups, of varying methods of policing, arcane technology, and archeology.  All these things dot the story.
  • Yet we never get an explanation of how or why the city IS the way it is.  We just know that to cross from one city to another illegally is BREACH, and brings down the eponymous mystical, slightly magical authority of the interstices and the gutters between the cities.
  • We read this book for my SF book club, and one of our members (newly immigrated from France) emailed me to ask about the words breach and crosshatching.  I puzzled for a little while before I felt I could explain them adequately.  You can read the summary of our discussion on our book club blog.
  • My question to anyone else who’s read this — is it your impression that there are two distinct topographies, and that citizens of the two cities can only see one another in and from within and through the “cross-hatched” zones, or is it your impression that physically, this is one city with two groups living in it?  Or, to ask it another way, in the areas of the city that are ONLY Bezel, is there a corresponding area in the Ul Qoma map that matches that area?

One can’t help but read the story in the context of ideas about urban spaces.  Lynch’s idea in Image of the City, that we each learn our cities by use and experience more than by the bureaucratic shaping of city planners combines with Davis’ City of Quartz suggestion that we control populations through our own reverence for accelerating panopticism.  Trying to help undergraduates wrestle with the idea of white privilege, I invoke my own experience driving in the United States.  In my entire lifetime, I’ve been pulled over once.  For a broken tail light.  On a rural road in the middle of the night.  Most black people have an entirely different experience of community policing.  My experience of the roads is far different than theirs.  A second example — when I travel downtown, I use my electronic CTA card, which is linked to my credit card which is linked to my bank account which is linked to my employer.  Circuits of transactions occur without me worrying or even noticing the cost, $3 being part of my routine budget as a middle-class white-collar worker (or are academics said to have some other kind of collar?  Am I a middle-class mortarboard worker?).  Someone who has to use a cash card and remember how much is on it and perhaps beg fellow travelers like myself for 75 cents so he can get on the bus after his train ride has a much different experience of the same city.

The City and the City makes literal the figurative lines of class and society that we each enact daily.  Whereas the citizens of Ul Qoma “unsee” Bezelians wearing shabby clothes and driving shitty cars, Chicagoans do the same for the indigent in our city.  It’s an effective metaphor, and a great book.

Chat Roulette

So, like the good humanities scholar I am, I’m writing about something without having tried it.

ChatRoulette is a fascinating idea, both for its brazen webby-ness (chat with people you don’t know!), its instant and obvious trollery (dudez show their junk!), and the potential for hilarity.  The two funniest ideas I’ve heard out of it so far: 1) reaction videos to appalling images (Goatse, to start; if you don’t know what that is, you probably don’t want to), and 2) Piano improv.  Check out this video, courtesy of BoingBoing:


What I find fascinating about all this goes to the old William Gibson canard (paraphrased here), the Web finds its own uses.  What the owners of ChatRoulette thought people would do with it isn’t what people might ultimately do with it.  Here are some other ideas I have off the top of my head:

  • Chat Roulette chain letters: make a sign with a funny message that asks other people to mimic the message; try to get as many Chat Roulette users to show the message as possible.
  • Using only your face, see how many <5 second connections you can get in a row.
  • See how long you can go without giving any input, like the Chinese media interviewer who went by the pseudonym Mrs. Silence (or something like that).
  • Collect locations

But I can’t bring myself to play it because I really don’t want to see some guy’s butt.

Life in the City

Two anecdotes. One charming, one, um, not.

Car Covered in Snow by benchilada
Car Covered in Snow by benchilada
  1. Walking home from school on a snowy day last week, Avery pointed to a car still covered in snow and said “That car needs to be shaved.” Avery was comparing the snow to shaving cream and, since I get shaving cream off my face by shaving, so too must car owner shave their cars.
  2. Riding the subway home on a particularly cold day last week, I looked up and noticed a man standing in the space between two of the cars. You can get there from either car by opening the emergency door (which it says not to open but which people do quite regularly anyhow) and stepping out. Usually, people don’t stay between cars, but this guy seemed to be doing so. After a few moments, I figured out that he was peeing. Interestingly, when choosing between facing south, and having the potential of being seen by people standing on the platform, and facing north, toward the rush-hour freeway.  When another passenger and I noticed each other noticing the man, I said “Life in the city!”

Godwin’s Law

I left my office last Friday to head home.  I armed myself against the outside world with my Shure ear-plug headphones and my librivox copy of Great Expectations. As Pip and I approached the corner across from the library, I saw a semi-circle of folks standing around a man lecturing.  It’s a popular corner–there’s usually someone from Greenpeace asking if I have a minute to save the planet.  Then I saw the sign he was holding.  It sat on his foot, waist high, my President’s face with a little Hitler mustache.  Below, in gold lettering, were the words Stop Obama’s Nazi Health Care Regime.

I’ve certainly encountered my share of Nazi-invokers.  I’m aware of Godwin’s Law:

As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.  The term Godwin’s law can also refer to the tradition that whoever makes such a comparison is said to “lose” the debate. (Wikipedia)

But this experience was different.  It was in person.  It was about an issue I have strong personal stake in.  It was something I feel to be one of the biggest moral crises our nation has faced in some time.  And it made me angry.  I walked past the man and his crowd quickly, knowing immediately that I would never convince this person of the shocking errors of his position.  I would never convince him of his raging obtuseness, of the reprehensibility of his position, of the intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice he showed in reducing such a complex issue to name calling.  As I stood just past him, my blood boiling in my veins and my feet tingling in a way I have rarely felt before, my mind raced:

  • His table of self-righteous fliers with George Washington on them sat just feet away.  I pondered knocking it over, rolling the card table under the bus passing just in front of me.  I wondered what would happen if I just punched him.  Really.  I considered punching him.
  • I pondered crashing into a screaming tirade.  You should be ashamed of yourself.  The program you speak of seeks to provide health care to people who don’t have it.  Regardless of your philosophical disagreements with it, equating the program to the systematic extermination of millions of people marks you as a reprobate.  Your family should weep for you. Like this.
  • I wondered at the race dynamics at work in this confrontation.  The two men manning the table and holding the signs were both black.  I wonder how the crowd would have reacted if they’d been white.
  • I considered staying to try and talk sense into the guy.  But I worried that my outrage over his sign would have pushed me into the first or second option above.
  • I wondered whether he was making a brilliant rhetorical move, perhaps holding an inflammatory sign that made me take notice in a way the polite green-jacketed environmentalists never do.  What if I started to confront him only to learn that the sign was a bait and switch to lure in the LEFT and capture them in a petition or money drive?

But mostly, I chose not to go back because I felt shockingly unhinged.  My body was betraying my emotions in ways I rarely felt, quivering with anger and afraid I might be tempted to do something.  As it was, I stewed for at least 20 minutes, riding the El most of the way home before I could think about something else.

Godwin’s Law now carries new meaning for me.  It doesn’t just signal an intellectual sinkhole from which few arguments can recover or a shallowness of thought to watch out for.  It also helped uncover the depth of my feelings about intelligence and honesty, and my deep-seated intolerance for fools proud of their ignorance.

Four people waiting to turn left

My walk to work is not this scenic.*
My walk to work is not this scenic.*

On my walk to work each morning, I usually pass a line of people waiting to turn left onto a busy street.  Today, I looked at the people in four of the cars:

  • Bald, mid-thirties white guy with two-day beard and his finger buried in his nose.  Driving a gray Porsche or other care that looks like one.  Looking morosely out the window.  It occurs to me that he looks a bit like a Law and Order Eastern European mafia extra.  Shifts to scratching the outside of his nose when he sees me walking by.  I’m reminded of the 1990s.
  • Late-thirties or early-forties black woman, hair pulled into a pony tail, putting on lip-liner using the mirror on her sun shade.  Teal Ford Taurus.
  • Late twenties black man with close cropped goatee and blue cap.  Staring forward, tired as me.
  • Silver SUV with hefty white guy with salt-and-pepper goatee.  Talking vigorously to his carpool-mate, a woman I only catch a glimpse of before the cars roll around the corner.

I wonder if they’re blogging about me.

*”Walking in the snow” Photo by Maclomhair, released under CC license.

when I needed you

Avery and I went out yesterday morning for a walk and, along the way, were good stewards of our neighborhood, picking up the candy wrappers left behind by less responsible (or less supervised) children than Avery. (To be fair, Avery is a terrible litterbug whom I’m constantly reminding: “No, we don’t drop Capri Sun pouches in Target’s Circo Toddler section.”) Among the wrappers and detritus we collected was this gem:
my side through thick and...
we first got back together
So what do you think, readers? Is this a break up note, a “don’t break up with me” note, or just a note to say how much they care?

I Know My Rights

Riding the El home from work one autumn afternoon, a man walked into the car and sat behind me. I sat in bookish silence, staring down at the page without reading because the man behind me was talking on his cell phone. From his conversation, I gathered he was in his mid- or early-twenties.

“Oh Man! We went to this party last weekend and got so drunk. Shit. There were all these hot bitches there too.”

Having heard enough to suspect that the conversation would continue in that vein for some time, I turned away from vicarious Bacchanalia to my scholarly tome pondering new media. We rode the train together, the partier and I, through the West side of Chicago; he yammered on and on, a steady drone harmonizing with the muted roar of the train as it rumbled toward the sunset. I did my best to tune out his gruff timbre and swarthy syntax.


The familiar robotic voice announced that “This is Austin. Ridgeland is next,” so I closed my book and gathered my bag from between my feet. I tuned into his conversation and discovered that adventures in libido were no longer at issue–now we were discussing the vagaries and injustices of the U.S. legal system.

“I know all about my civil rights and my rights were violated five times.”

Five times? I thought. This guy can’t catch a break. My interest piqued and I sat up straight. My burning desire for justice and a juicy story kept me rapt.

“I served this country in Vietnam. I gave my time and put my life on the line and now my civil rights are being violated.”

Bastards, I thought.

“I know my rights and they were violated. Goddamn pigs.”

My companion wasn’t giving his conversation partner on the other end of the phone much opportunity to talk, but perhaps relieving himself of the burden was the goal today. We were moments from my stop, so I rose and made my way toward the door in front of me.

“I know my rights,” he repeated, “I know the Constitution. ‘We the People, of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union…’ ”

The train eased to a halt and I stepped toward the doors. I glanced at my companion, needing a glimpse of this bearer of woe. He was between forty and fifty, a white man with a shaved head. His well-worn leather jacket and haggard eyes reminded me of someone you’d see in a biker bar on television. His screen credit would be “local tough number 2,” and he’d answer the detective’s question about whether he’d seen anything with a flippant answer like, “I see lots of things.”

It was only as I left the train, the words of the Constitution wafting out after me, that I realized he didn’t have a phone.

Zombies at Manifest

Manifest is Columbia’s Urban Arts festival, a public performance held to celebrate all the cool and crazy work the students at my college do.  As part of it, the school has a program called “TICTOC,” which provides grants for students to produce performance art as part of the program.  One of my students applied for and received a grant to do a zombie thing:

Res Corporealis: Material Bodies
Location: Roaming
Time: 3:30-6:30 PM The living dead infiltrate TICTOC in Nicole Huser’s (Cultural Studies undergraduate) spectacle. Instead of being limited to the consumption of flesh, these zombies have a hunger for all consumer goods and dig deeply into popular culture and popular assumptions. (link)

Way to go, Nicole!

San Francisco Stories


I was in San Francisco for PCA 2008 last week. Some additional commentary on the panels will follow, but here’s a bit about my days in the city.

I took a long walk around the city on Good Friday, about six hours, and enjoyed it immensely. The most striking thing about the city is its architecture. The vast hillsides and outrageous property values result in a mix of eclectic styles with a compact layout. The row houses were particularly cool to look at, and I ended up taking lots of pictures of buildings.

I had lunch with a friendly light-bulb salesman named Dan, who offered some advice when he saw me perusing my copy of “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail.” I took some of his advice, but didn’t have time to go out to Golden Gate Park for a bike ride. Next time, Dan. We chatted about old films, kids these days, and ubiquitous computing. I suspect I was open to this conversation mostly because I was in conference mode, and inclined to chat with strangers. I don’t know that I would have lunch with a stranger in a Chicago eatery. More’s the shame for me.

Filbert Stairs 3
My favorite part of the walk was the Filbert steps, a wooden staircase that runs down Telegraph hill between two sets of houses. The stairs feel cozy and quaint, and you have to work not to look in peoples’ back windows. As I walked down the steps, I heard squawking and was happy to find a telephone line full of the wild parrots of Telegraph hill. I geeked out, taking several photos and even some video of the birds. Like the true nerd I am, I also pointed them out to other Filbert steps walkers, “Check out the parrots!” I say, grinning and full of delight.

Pier 39 frothed with humanity, and I strolled through the arcade, an ice cream cone in hand.   On the railing by the water overlooking Alcatraz, I found a BookCrossing book, which I picked up and plan to read soon.  Then I will release it back into the wild.  What fun!  I will have to pick a place where the book is likely to be picked up by a tourist, so it will travel further than Chicagoland.

The walk from the Hyde street railway station back to Chinatown was about 20 blocks, mostly uphill, but quite enjoyable.  I found this nifty little “mini park” between two houses and lots of neato houses and other bits of local color. In Chinatown, I had some tea at the Ten Ren Tea Company and marveled at the racks upon racks of t-shirts for $1.99 and $1.88, variously.    I arrived back at my hotel at 6:15pm exactly, right when I was supposed to meet a friend for dinner.

Overall, the city was lovely and fun to walk around.  I didn’t get to see Alcatraz up close because I stupidly didn’t book weeks in advance, nor did I have time to get out to Golden Gate park, but otherwise it was a very enjoyable walk.  If you want a more photographic description, you can check out my flickr photoset.

…finds a use for things.

Yesterday, I noticed this on my way to work:


Then my office-mate alerted me to a sticker I might like on the way from my office to my local neighborhood SUBWAY. I had my camera ready and documented a number of stickers:

stickers1 stickers1cl
stickers2 stickers2cl
stickers3 stickers3cl
stickers4 stickers4cl

Obviously, many of these stickers are the work of the same mysterious artist, who made most of her images on stickers, but also posted a large image of the most iconic character in the series. But what of the other images? Is this a meme? The public art sticker?

Could this be the model for an assignment? One can use the Web’s knowledge of the power of iconicity to structure one’s stickers, one needs to make stickers provocative enough to be noticed by the pedestrian, to make text/image glib enough and ‘chunked’ enough to be absorbed in passing. Is this mysterious artist writing the city? Is this different than graffiti? Jeff?