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Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Mea Culpa

For your consideration: Apologies.

It was the third episode in this list that got me thinking about the topic.  But here are three moments in my podcast listening that struck me as interesting:

  1. This American Life – “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” – After using a whole hour to explore one reporter’s experience in China visiting an Apple factory, This American Life spends a full episode retracting its coverage and apologize. (3/16/2012)
  2. Startup, “We Made a Mistake” – After slipping up by failing to inform one interviewee that they were being interviewed for a commerical, Startup did a whole episode exploring what happened. (12/9/2014)
  3. TL;DR – “Quiet, Wadhwa” – After spending a whole episode (approx 20 minutes) on how a prominent male spokesperson on women in tech is resented by some women in tech, WNYC pulled the episode because the subject of the story had not been given the opportunity to comment on the story.  (2/19/2015)
"Sorry Explored" by Joe Penniston (cc-licensed)

“Sorry (Explored)” by Joe Penniston (cc-licensed)

Other examples of mistakes and apologies from the last few years:

  • The Newsroom – The entire second season of the Aaron Sorkin show was about a massive error and a retracted episode of the show.
  • Brian Williams – Williams is on forced hiatus right now as his exaggerations about his experiences in Iraq have caught up with him.
  • Bill O’Reilly – After excoriating Brian Williams for his errors, O’Reilly is finding himself under fire for similar mistakes in his reporting.

It all started with Dan Rather, to my mind.  Rather’s downfall over the fraudulent Killian documents occurred in the early days of web 2.0 (2004), when crowd-sourcing was possible and the news media in general was just starting to understand what a powerful fact-checking engine the mob is (many eyeballs make shallow bugs).  Since then, news media have had to answer errors in ever-faster cycles, and address them more thoroughly.

But I’m interested here in the genre of the apology episode. I like to imagine that the apology episodes I’m pointing to spring from a couple factors:

First, podcasts are intimate experiences that feel more like conversations than like stage shows.  A podcaster in your ear feels identical to hearing a telephone call.  So when these intimate acquaintances let us down, it feels more personal.  We expect a personal apology.

Second, with social media, the need for public apology rises dramatically — before social media, one angry person (like, say, the soldier who posted on Brian Williams’ Facebook Page that he didn’t remember Williams being there) now has the ability to be public immediately, and the rumor spreads at the same speed it would in a crowd, but now that crowd is the whole world.

Brian Williams' Apology

Brian Williams’ Apology

Third, they create an honest atmosphere in which trust can be re-built.  The newscaster who shies away from blame makes things worse, not better, for themselves.

I’m curious about this, and have a few questions to think about as the idea continues to evolve for me.

  1. Are apologies of this size and frequency new?  I know there are and have always been retraction columns, and occasionally stories will make big news for the story itself (the Sokal affair comes to mind), but the character of these feels different to me.
  2. Does the heightened awareness among media consumers about how media is made help or hurt these apologies?  In other words, are we more forgiving now that we’re all becoming media producer/consumers?
  3. Is there a lower bar for newscasters (or podcasters) to regain the trust of the listeners than there was before?  If media makers own their mistakes quickly and try to address them ethically (as in the episodes at the top of the page), does this make it easier for them to regain the public’s trust?


What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

What If?

What If?

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
by Randall Munroe; narrated by Wil Wheaton

If you don’t read XKCD or Munroe’s weekly “What If?” column over at, you’re really missing out.  This book collects some of the best What If columns, plus adds a bunch of new ones.  It’s a simple premise: people ask Munroe questions like “Can dropping a steak through the atmosphere cook it by means of the re-entry burn?” or “What’s the highest a person can throw something?” or “How long could I swim in a cooling pool storing nuclear waste before I died?” And he answers the questions in very funny ways.

The best part of the book is the repeating feature “Disturbing Questions from the What If? Inbox,” in which people ask things like the best way to chop up a body or how many nuclear bombs it would take to wipe out the US.  I imagine they think these are innocent questions (and they probably are) but Munroe rightly recognizes the problems with them, and pokes fun.

There’s not a lot else to say about the book.  It’s great, very entertaining.  And Wil Wheaton’s narration is great, though it’s pretty “Wil Wheaton-y,” so I imagine that if you didn’t like Wheaton or his performative style (as seen on, say, Tabletop), you probably wouldn’t like his narration.  The other down-side to the audio book is that you don’t get to see Munroe’s great pictures, of which there are many in the physical book.

Highly recommended.


Tweets from 2015-03-01 to 2015-03-07

February Music roundup

I review my music playlist for each month, compiled from albums that drift across my transom and tunes I download from eMusic.

Spider Blues - Spider John Koerner The Hands That Thieve - Streetlight Manifesto Lakeville - Amy Correia Oh, What a Life - American Authors

Emusic albums:

  • Amy Correia, Lakeville – Correia has a soulful style with bluesy, sad music.  Some of her songs sound like they’d work perfectly at a piano in a smoky bar.  It’s a bit like Tori Amos if she cared to try the blues.  “California” is particularly lonesome in a lovely way, “The Devil and I” has a good gravely blues line, “Beautiful/Ugly” is a wonderful lament for a lover.  A great album.
  • Streetlight Manifesto, The Hands that Thieve.  It’s been almost three years (can’t have been, but is!) since I bought a Streetlight Manifesto album.  These guys have a solid sound, reliable but unchanging.  That said, I like the new album the way I like a new James Bond movie — it’s not really going to do anything that different, but I like what it does.  Again the theme of the album seems to be “we will stand by one another when bad stuff happens.”  I like the title track quite a bit, and the “Oh Me, Oh My” is an amusing meditation on the end of the world.  “Toe to Toe” is a nice, slightly quieter bit of songistry.
  • Spider John Koerner, Spider Blues – Koerner is a great bluegrass artist, with a storytelling angle and great guitar skills.  His songs are bluesy and folksy.  The whole album is great, so it’s hard to pick out songs I like better than others.  “Baby, Don’t Come Back” is a good classic blues song; “Good Luck Child” shows off Koerner’s storytelling and harmonica skills; my favorite is “Rent Party Rag,” which helps explain how to raise money to pay your rent by having a party.
  • Smithsonian Folkways Classic Series Sampler – A compilation of folksy tunes.  “Poor Boy a Long, Long Way from Home” by Cat Iron feels like a classic old-timey bit; Jean Ritchie’s “Most Fair Beauty Bright” is a lovely fairy tale in the storytelling style of old folk songs;

Emusic parts of albums:

  • Pete Seeger, a few songs – “John Hardy,” “Johnson,” and “Washer Lad” are all crushingly sad.  People trapped in jail, in slavery, or ambushed by bandits.  Sheesh.  And then there’s the last song, a yodeler about a man who has tuberculosis, “T.B. Blues.”
  • Garfunkel and Oates, selected songs from Slippery When Moist.  This is the album they made in time with season one of their show on IFC.  “Wow” is their delightful theme song, “I Don’t Know Who You Are” is a great song about not recognizing someone who recognizes you.  Then there’s “Go Kart Racing,” which is funny but definitely NSFW.
  • Spike Jones, selected songs. Only one month more of Spike Jones and his orchestra.  It’s been quite a ride of mid-century racism and sexism and weird comedy.  The cover of “It Had To Be You” is pretty great, and “Paddlin’ Maddelin Home” is a funny song about a canoe date.

Other Sources:

  • American Authors, Oh, What a Life - The whole album sounds like their ubiquitous and uplifting “Best Day of my Life,” pleasant light pop rock.  “Trouble” is probably my favorite, but really they’re all very similar.


They’re making a movie of THAT?



The recent kerfuffle about the reboot of Ghostbusters (which sounds great to me) got me thinking about reboots and, well, toys.  We all remember the slip-ups.  Your Battleships, your GI-Joes, your endless television cartoons created just to sell toys (He-Man and My Little Pony), but it’s worth our while to take a moment to celebrate the successful adaptations.  So here are a few toys-to-movies that are definitely worth watching. (In reverse order, saving the best for last).

I’ll try to stick to movies that come from properties without a built-in storyline.  So Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which comes from a comic book, will not be included because there’s a storyline to use.

Sure, this was always going to be “Michael Bay prints money,” but the first one is a delightful popcorn blend with an amusing teenage-boy adventure storyline, fun toys, a cartoonish villain, and a teenage girl for him to lust after.  If only they’d stopped. (Also, I am aware that I have violated my central premise for this, which is the idea that these are toys-made-into-movies rather than properties without any storylines to begin with, but it’s my list, so too bad.)

The LEGO movie
This could have been SOOO bad.  But it’s great, a mix of humor and pop-culture references, with jokes for grown-ups and stuff kids like.  And, of course, a tie-in line of LEGO toys that let you build, from instructions, the toys in the movie. EVERYTHING IS AWESOME.

The entire goddamn movie is quotable.  Nearly every actor is notable and amazing. It’s funny without being awful or dated.  Go watch it again right now.  I’m going to.

The Wanderer

The Wanderer

The Wanderer

The Wanderer
by Fritz Leiber

I’ve read my fair share of old science fiction.  (By old here, I generally mean things written before 1980.)  I acknowledge this line is relatively arbitrary, but so am I.  Some old sf gets dated pretty quickly, and feels foreign and a little weird.  The Cosmic Computer comes to mind.  Some old sf holds together pretty well, remaining both entertaining and illuminating its age well–The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, for instance.  And then there are sf books that age badly–they don’t comment on their own era except by accident and their storytelling style stales.  Just putting this out there.

Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer disappoints in far more ways than it pleases.  It’s got a killer hook — what if a hyperspace-traveling planet showed up on our doorstep, closer to the moon than we are?  Chaos would rule on the Earth, where tidal forces would go bonkers, earthquakes would wrack the land, and people would die in droves.    The Wanderer uses multiple plots to follow the experience of people all over the Earth over the course of the first three days after the mysterious planet shows up next to ours.  Awesome premise, terrible execution.  I don’t know how this book won the Hugo.

A few thoughts:

  • As an end-of-the-world tale, The Kraken Wakes is far better, using many of the same tropes a decade earlier and doing a better job of it.
  • The casual misogyny famously part of the SF boys’ club is on a rampage in this book, with women being either flighty or harlots, but always being condescended to.  Despite the book’s setting in the future, Leiber fails to imagine any change in cultural norms about, say, race or gender.
  • The cat person is amusing, but petulant and childish too.  Oh, and it’s the only representative we have of the alien race.  It was pretty hard to distinguish the character’s flaws from Leiber’s sense of how women act.
  • The people in this novel have sex at the strangest times.  And often it’s in the vein of women who don’t want to have sex being convinced by an eager man.
  • All the casual misogyny and racism aside, the book is boring.  It’s too long for the tale it tells, and several of the storylines don’t change or grow at all.

Spoiler alert: There is one aspect of this particular tale that deserves a bit more discussion — it turns out that the traveling planet is part of a huge coalition of space entities that have a set of rules about what you can and can’t do as an interstellar space faring race.  The people on the Wanderer don’t like the rules, so they’re on the run from the agency.  I’m not sure if Leiber was criticizing a rising nanny state idea (it feels like he was), but the society they’re running from reminds me a lot of The Culture from Iain F. Banks novels, in a good way.

Not recommended.

One more note — the cover above is the one on the edition I read.  It’s very confusing, as there is no large spaceship like the one in the picture in the book.  Also, the wandering planet is quite clearly described as being gold and purple, so the planet at the top isn’t even the right color.  Each of these other covers fit the story better, and the ones with the cat person are particularly amusing:

wanderer02 wanderer03 wanderer04 wanderer05

March 4, IN HISTORY (The Inauguration Edition)

This year, for the “Wednesday photos” feature, I will be including photos that reference the date of the post in their description or when they were taken.

What do Lincoln, Taft, and Wilson all have in common?  March 4 Inauguration day!

Lincoln's Second Inauguration, (cc licensed)

Lincoln’s Second Inauguration, 1861 (cc licensed)

Taft's Inauguration, 1909 (cc-licensed)

Taft’s Inauguration, 1909 (cc-licensed)

Wilson's First Inauguration, 1913 (cc-licensed)

Wilson’s First Inauguration, 1913 (cc-licensed)

After George Washington set the date as March 4 at his second inaugural, every President up to Rutherford B. Hayes was inaugurated on March 4.  Hayes was sworn in on March 5th, 1877.  Then we went back to the 4th until FDR’s second term, when the 20th amendment changed the inauguration day to Jan 20.

Enrique Flores Magón, IWW 1923 (cc-licensed)

Enrique Flores Magón, IWW 1923 (cc-licensed)

I just thought Magón’s look here was so plaintive, I had to include it too.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Obsolete before it ships

Rule 34

Rule 34

Charles Stross reflected on the relentless pace of culture and the difficulty of writing about the near future or the present in a post about his book Rule 34:

There is a certain pub in Edinburgh that I’ve used as a setting for some key scenes, because it’s quarried out of the side of a near-cliff and is notorious for having no mobile phone or wifi signal. Imagine my joy on discovering that it has acquired a strong 3G signal in the roughly two months since I checked the copy-edited manuscript. (link)

I’m watching this happen, a bit, in the context of my forthcoming book, Title Still to be Determined.  My book, which should come out sometime next Spring, is a monograph about the digital age and detective fiction.  At one point, I make an extended example of the anti-vaccine community as a group that flourishes through the Internet using gate-keeping and strong peer pressure to shape its conversations.  This is an example I wrote a couple years ago (this book has been slow in gestation) that’s now becoming too obvious.

On the one hand, I like that people are now waking up to the dangers of our reduced herd immunity, though I wish we’d not needed the Disneyland Measles Outbreak to get the conversation started.  On the other hand, I’d rather not see any examples or parts of my book become more common than they already are.  Can everyone stop writing about the Internet for the next fifteen months or so?  Thanks.

Hyperdrive and Endeavor

Hyperdrive Endeavour

Hyperdrive, series 1 and 2
Endeavour, series 1 and 2

Hyperdrive is a classic British Space sitcom that follows the hapless office drones of the HMS Camden Lock through the Galaxy promoting England’s interests in commerce.  Endeavour is a prequel series developing the early life of British favorite detective Inspector Morse (Endeavour is his first name).   One is goofy and light, with cardboard sets and a silly attitude; the other is gloomy and dark, rampant with corruption and society’s flaws.  Let’s look at them together!

  • Both shows turn on both strong actors, with Nick Frost bringing an earnest embarrassment to his role as Captain Mike Henderson, and Shaun Evans bringing a powerful meditative feel to Morse.  Both men are outsiders for those around them, though Henderson enjoys some admiration from colleagues while Morse is an outsider to everyone but his supervising DI.
  • Set design on both shows plays a huge role in the feel of the respective series.  Endeavor drips with 1960s rain and gloomy clouds, shaping the feel of the police station just barely able to outpace its own corruption to solve crimes.  One can’t help but find Hyperdrive ridiculous, as the on-ship and planetside sets are all bonkers.  These differences lead to wildly different outcomes for the characters.  In Hyperdrive, incompetence has little effect and doesn’t shape the narrative at all; Endeavor roils with the flaws of its police, setting Morse up as a Serpico-type figure.
  • Both shows, in their own way, teem with British-ness. They spring from English television tradition — Hyperdrive drawing on a staid sitcom style blending Fawlty Towers with Red Dwarf, while Endeavor not only draws on the British appetite for long-ish detective tales, but emerges out of them, as a prequel to a long running series which itself spawned a sequel in which a working-man DI recruits a smarty-pants DS.  Indeed, the Morse from Endeavor has more in common with Hathaway from Inspector Lewis than anyone else on TV.

Both shows are enjoyable, though the probably appeal to vastly different crowds.  Endeavor is due for a third season, but Hyperdrive seems to be done.


Tweets from 2015-02-22 to 2015-02-28

Whither game reviews?

How shall I write about games on my blog?

Hockey at Sunset by monkeyshine

A photo of a game I will never play (cc-licensed by monkeyshine)

As you’ve surely noticed, I’m playing a lot of board games lately and would like to write something about them on my blog.  I hesitate to do reviews because there are lots of good game reviewers who give games several plays before they review them, and depending on the game it would take me months before I had enough play under my belt to review a game.  So here are some other ideas:

  • continue what I’ve been doing – irregular random compositions about games as they emerge
  • reviews – I don’t care, Brendan, that you haven’t enough time to play games thoroughly before you review them.  Review away!
  • Why I play ____ – semi-regular feature, maybe twice a month, with just stuff about why we play a game.  Not really a review because I won’t be assessing quality so much as what we like.
  • Game Design notes – semi-regular feature in which I highlight one aspect of a game I really like from a design perspective.
  • Other?

I am open to suggestions.  Post them in the comments.

Sous Chef

Sous Chef: 24 hours on the lineSous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line
by Michael Gibney, narrated by Fred Berman

Sous Chef is part detailed explanation, part memoir, part battle narrative.  It recalls a day in the life of the assistant chef at a mid-level “star rated” restaurant in New York.  Gibney does a great job explaining both what the day is like and why it’s like that.  The book mixes some philosophy of cooking in with science and restauranteurship.  Very enjoyable.  A few extra thoughts:

  • I used to think a “sous chef” was in charge of sauces.  Turns out it means “assistant chef,” a second in command, but more like a chief of staff than a vice president, to use a political analogy.  Calls the head chef “Chef,” and is called “Chef” by those under him.
  • I like the smattering of Spanish throughout the book, given without translation.  I didn’t understand it, but it fits the sense of the world better.
  • The level of intensity required of chefs in restaurants is crazy.  I suspect this is why so many shows focus on kitchens — they’re intense places to work.  My favorite part of the book is when the second seating on the Friday night takes place, and the narrator (who speaks in second person, making you the sous chef) gets into a flow state.  Check out the clip below.
  • Like the other restaurant book I enjoyed, Waiter Rant, Gibney slips into poetic language occasionally, creating city tableaux.  It works okay, but some of his prose gets a little purple.
  • I love the early discussion of the way teamwork and cohesion function as part of a good kitchen.  I’d think this book is required reading for any aspiring chefs, both as warning and as guidebook.

Fred Berman does a good job with the book, bringing a gravelly bark to the tale and handling the variety of languages skillfully.  Worth a look, or listen. (Caviat – I haven’t read any other chef memoirs before, so I can’t compare it with those.)


February 25, IN HISTORY

This year, for the “Wednesday photos” feature, I will be including photos that reference the date of the post in their description or when they were taken.

1964, Championship fight between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston: Miami Beach, Florida (cc-licensed)

1964, Championship fight between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston: Miami Beach, Florida (cc-licensed)

1911, Confetti Throwing at the Departure of the Geo. Washington

1911, Confetti Throwing at the Departure of the Geo. Washington (cc-licensed)

1916, Display of pig carcasses outside J. Morgan's butcher shop on Broad Street, Waterford

1916, Display of pig carcasses outside J. Morgan’s butcher shop on Broad Street, Waterford (cc-licensed)

Also (from Wikipedia):

  • 1836 – Samuel Colt is granted a United States patent for the Colt revolver.
  • 1901 – J. P. Morgan incorporates the United States Steel Corporation.
  • 1907 – Mary Chase born, American playwright, author of Harvey (d. 1981)
  • 1986 – People Power Revolution: President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos flees the nation after 20 years of rule; Corazon Aquino becomes the Philippines’ first woman president.


Maze Runner

The Maze RunnerMaze Runner
by James Dashner

Thomas wakes in a wide clearing, surrounded by boys who tell him that he’s now trapped in the center of a massive maze that changes every night and is patrolled by robotic-organic death beasts with blades and needles.  The boys know they’re being watched by the “Creators” and they get many of the supplies they need to survive, but ultimately they need to do something in order to escape.  And all their hopes rest on the shoulders of the boys who spend the day exploring the maze.

A diverting Y.A. adventure book that captures the genre’s rules well, if a bit derivatively.  A few thoughts:

  • I know the new kid needs to prove himself, but I find the “new kid is the best at it all” trope that’s a central part of the Y.A. genre getting a bit tired.  Thomas shows up and he’s far more brave, more clever, more maze-runnery than any of the kids who have been surviving here for two years.  I’d love to see a Y.A. book that takes a more balanced approach.  But that’s no fun.
  • The best part of the book was the grievers, the robots with organic outsides and rubber and gears and wheels and claws and knives and needles and and and.  Dashner was smart to make them shimmery and hard to see–it makes them almost Lovecraftian in design, equipped to drive their victims mad before they chop them up.
  • I am disappointed that it had to be all boys.  Again.  And not differentiated by skin color, either.  I guess they could have been of varying hues, but by making race invisible in the story, the book ignores race completely.  This may have been part of the idea (post-apocalyptic worlds are race-blind?) but since our world isn’t race blind, I feel like the book spurs an erasure of difference in its lack of description.  (NOTE: It’s possible that the book included more descriptions or signs of race than I’m remembering, in which case I guess I’m showing some blind spot of my own.  To my mind, the only signifier of race in the book was the use of the name Minho, which gave him an Asian look in my mind.)
  • Everything is a remix, of course, but here are a few of the dominant flavors in The Maze Runner:
    • Lord of the Flies – Golding’s book about a bunch of boys trapped somewhere, trying to survive.  The central conflict here arises in the dispute about leadership among the boys.  The Glade seems to have had its own struggles with this, as they have a banishment ritual and a long pole and everything.
    • Cube - The film about a bunch of people trapped in a deadly maze with no memory of how they got there is more immediate, as the victims have no food or water, so they’re limited to a couple days at the most. (Wikipedia indicates this film was inspired by a Twilight Zone Episode)
    • Ender’s Game (or other kids-in-experiment stories) – the youth social circles and the lone genius who can solve their problems brings this Orson Scott Card classic to mind.
  • I am interested to see how they adapt the novel into a film.  It’s eminently filmable as a story, with the right kind of plot structure and even the right length of story.
Still from the Maze Runner movie

Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Kill the pig! Bash him in!

One spoilery thought:

  • The overall mystery of the book works well, as we only get tiny pieces of the outside world in drips and drabs.  Thus, the reader spends most of their time trying to guess what all this is about.  And I guess I am stuck like the rest in that since I don’t know what it’s all about, I can’t comment on, say, the value of making a maze as a test.  Or any of the other plot points.

Tweets from 2015-02-15 to 2015-02-21