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Atomized junior

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The building I work in, McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland, consists of an old and new half. The different sections, McKeldin East and McKeldin West, each made from different construction techniques and materials built in the mid 1950s and 1990s respectively. The new section is a building in the modern style, a sealed building with full air-handling, and artificial lighting necessary throughout the work day.

 There is a minor artifact among all this that set me thinking.A picture named McKeldinBlinds.jpg In the old building the windows are a mixture of oversized sash or casement windows which formerly could be easily opened with a crank.  In the new section some modern equivalent of a casement window. They can be opened and pivot outward when they do so, but this is not allowed. They are constructed as a rectangular box, two large panes of glass with a set of micro-venetian blinds installed between them. All of this in a prefabricated sealed rigid aluminum frame. When the building was new these windows were quite nice. They did not accumulate dead bugs, dust, dirt, or wads of chewing gum. For cleaning all they ever needed was a wipe with a dusting cloth, some windex at the most. The problem is that with the building now a only a dozen years old many of these blinds no longer work. They were operated by a fiddly little plastic knob which in turn operated small plastic gears. These are now stripped and the blinds stuck in their last place. It is unlikely they will ever be fixed. Parts would have to be ordered, the windows disassembled and reassembled following sets of unfamiliar instructions. The windows might even need to be sent away for repair or replaced. There will never be a season where there will enough time or money in the facility budget for this to happen. In the end a hundred years from now when this building comes down, those windows and their inoperative blinds will come down with it, just as they are today.   

  A year ago when a highway bridge collapsed and fell into a river in Milwaukee I had a similar set of thoughts. Not so much for that particular bridge, which was being attended to when it collapsed. The thoughts were provoked more by the articles that appeared in many newspapers at the time that carried data and anecdote that the nations highways and transportation infrastructure were ready to fall apart. This system, all that metal concrete and asphalt, is the nations crowning engineering and technological achievement. In quite real ways one of the central sources of our wealth, with the increasing reliance on just-in-time shipping our most critical and efficient warehouse as well. The articles warned this system is not being funded for the degree of upkeep that will allow it to keep its manufactured potential capacity. It is being allowed, in an era of tight budgets and deliberately diminished government revenue capacity, to degrade in place. It will soon become clear as maintenance bills become more acute and unavoidable, that we have been coasting for decades on the achievements and sacrifice of past generations.

  We have a bent for cultural and material complexity. One strongly organized towards processes and economies of scale in initial manufacture. Little is geared towards the efforts of upkeep and sustenance. When I was younger one might hear people speak, disapprovingly, of planned obsolescence or "the throwaway society." This was with consumer goods though, and besides the approach worked so well it seemed plainly to justify itself. With more durable goods and industrial built environment, it went quietly unnoticed how much our material world was being front loaded, with disadvantage and costs down the line.

  Our reigning belief is in technology. That technology will bring us out of any desert and into the promised land. That within our technological acumen is the solution to any problem that we create or encounter. I don't recall that anyone has come forward to formally claim technology, a mere adaptation of science to corporal need, as a force that halts or even reverses entropy. Just that everyone seems to regard it so. This distinct from, even partially opposed to, similar though broader claims for human ingenuity which however would include poetry. What our modern systems of fabrication do is give us a material world manufactured to exceptional standards of finish. Giving us an illusion of power over the natural world we do not possess so completely. Our world comes to us with it's utility baked in, airless, between two panes of glass largely incapable of reuse repair or adaptation.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Good idea / bad idea

 Recently I discovered that I believed in an odd proposition. I believe there are as many bad ideas in the world as there are good ideas. A manichaean turn of thought. Restating this brings out implications lying within. There is an even division of good ideas and bad ideas. For every good idea that comes to you, so will a bad one. There is an even distribution as well. The universe is not lumpy with ideas, a pocket of good ones here, obtainable one after another. Bad ones in another well-marked pocket safely way over yonder. We encounter both with the same frequency.    

 This is the way it is: in us, in this world, even on the internet. Certain people, I'll allow, are filters of ideas creating dark storms or protected harbors around themselves respectively.

 Some, maybe many may not believe this. There is the prevalent concept of the neat or cool idea. An indeterminate close relative of mine, like a nephew say but let's avoid unnecessary particularity, is of the age where these ideas are the best. Ideas like toy mods. Making good toys even better. For instance modding Nerf guns. The sort of improvements that  Humans vs. Zombies players make to them to have them fire further and harder.  Modding nerf bolts, so they can become something far more adventurous, as seen on tv or read about in adventure books. All these things are realized by the leading educational institution of our time. Tube-sock(et) University (101, 102) we'll call it, to avoid unnecessary litigation. Neat ideas by their very nature; the daring, original, and powerful aspects of them, make captive imagination.  These ideas are the hardest and trickiest to judge, and must be weighed the most carefully of all.

 Some would imagine they believe something of this sort: that ideas are like wheat. Rather that consideration of ideas is like threshing. A simple matter of separating grain from chaff. The only bad ideas, the conceptual dross of the affair, are those ideas that nothing can be done with. Inedible, unsubstantial. Dismissed with the wind.

 This notion itself, that it is the efficacy of ideas that is their measure, should not be considered above the fray. Clever ideas or dumb ones, acid or base, contrary to what might be believed there are no neutral ideas. Ones neither good nor bad, that could be harnessed to fine purpose whatever their cast. All idea's as they come into being, manifestations of crystalizing thought, need to rigorously examined for their potential and long term effects. Perhaps no bad idea is completely without merit, nor good idea unalloyed. The key question may be whether the life they will take on is controllable with what resources native and material you have at hand. However, in the fullness of time no good end will come out of a bad idea beginning. Everything is all fun n' games til somebody gets their eye put out.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Circling the Drain

 The Washington Post, august institution that it is, has seen fit to cut Bill Griffith's comic strip Zippy the Pinhead. They've been cutting or shrinking their comics for some time now. The comics are becoming a nano-form. But really, cutting Zippy to save Judge Parker or Peanuts redux?  That's telltale. Zippy is the one comic I'd take to my single-palm desert island on the  half-shell. As "Canderville" pointed out the other week the comics started as a carnival barker attraction for papers. The yellow kid put the original yellow into journalism, don't mistake that.. Scaling them back now in a fight to regain readers is non-intuitive thinking, like taking the sweet and cold out of ice cream.

 This is part of their advanced program of containing costs by curtailing service and product. Towards this end they have been collapsing and reworking sections all spring. They eliminated Book-world their premier Sunday tab sized book-review outright; distributing its book reviews and commentary throughout the rest of the paper and rest of the week. Business was eliminated as a free standing section and merged to the daily A section. The Opinion and Editorial pages no longer rate a separate section on Sunday and remain on the end of the A section as they are any Monday through Saturday. The Sunday Outlook section, OpEd's former home, has been refashioned to be a half-lobotomy Style section. Allowing Style to complete its transformation into a celebrity addled lowlife entertainment device.

 Out of all this, the elimination and dispersal of Book-world especially seemed a move that can be read as de-emphasing and de-privileging the power of the printed word. None of it, where-ever it lands, could have the thematic force and literary power it had in its own section. A dubious strategy for a newspaper, but likely deliberate as the Washington Post joins the late race to some imagined future post-word world. The American Journalism Review has a story in their latest issue concerning the current practice of many newspapers to cut cost by eliminating copy-editor positions  The Quality-Control Quandary. This they note is sure eventually to impact on quality control, but quality is scarcely the point these days and I'm sure that's a bus the Post will try to jump on if they haven't already.

 While the Washington Post, and what other newspapers are still around (my beloved Boston Globe, newspaper of my youth), are complaining about the changes forced upon them. Others talk of a citizens army of technological sharers. Dave Winer, the person originally behind for the Radio Userland web logging software,  particularly has the idea that Twitter (or whatever twitter like product he favors at the moment can "replace" journalism. A significant point because his concept of Journalism, as an entrepreneur and silicon valley gadfly, is a thing that will submit to his PR blandishments. When they don't, when they do their job, he says they don't get it, and can be done away with. Weakening institutional or professional journalism will place news gathering and an informed public at significant disadvantage against increasing and professionally capable public relations teams. It is the aim of these to replace a balanced and informed populace, with a narrowly aware and emotionally beholden one.

Moreover; relying on Tweets or blogs to become the news and information gatherers places them in complex difficult and even dangerous positions without requisite professional knowledge or sensibility. As immediate sources they cannot be as effective, as secondary sources they cannot be as authoritative. Husker Du once pointed out "it don't mean a thing." Aside from that;  though, I feel no need to carry the banner of Twitter backlash  News Industry on Twitter: Full of Crazies, Not Reliable - O'Reilly Broadcast.  

 This is part of the technological upheaval of standard model. Those that have demonstrated that information once deposited onto the internet can be aggregated automatically, believe that further applications of technology can overcome limitations of the original source. A discussion on a Diane Rehm show brought up a point from the first round of aggregation. Full text vs partial text. This leads into questions on how the aggregation occurs: through RSS, manual or extracted. And what is presented: all, summaries, leds, decks etc. A primary example might be Google news vs yahoo's news (scrape, rss respectively). And in presentation Dave Winers river-of-news RSS readers vs Google reader and all other similar 3 panel readers. I never had the idea that RSS or scrapping was intended to deliver the whole article to a user. I saw it as a thing that arranged headlines with a scope note. I don't even use RSS to read other weblogs.  To the degree it was ever a choice by news providers, allowing RSS to transfer the entire text of a piece of writing was a strategic error. There was no overwhelming need for it, and it cut the basic connection to the information's originating source.

 Some argue now this was one of a number of management missteps rather then technological inevitability, in the shepherding of journalistic content. Giving it away, free is not a revenue stream. The Associated Presses decision to license its content to Internet portals is one of the sorest points for newspapers and is the subject also of a critical article in the American Journalism Review.  From the AP's perspective the article relates once before the wire service tried to withhold content/product, from new technology; from radio in the 1920s and 30s (AP wire is a creature of the newspaper industry). UPI stepped in and gained significant market share, by 1941 AP had given in. It is reasonable that the AP wire be a hosted services by design. That their product appear on a hosting newspaper, radio, or TV station's web site, whatever the page or link the user was on or followed. Portals who buy or turn around the wire service for news dangle rights, the scrapes and RSS blocks that make them an attractive service, then provide copy on pages that generate ad revenue back to them, cut newspapers out and made them superfluous. The AFP seems to have an attempted solution in place. They don't dump their news feed directly to the Internet. Google Yahoo etc can only provide a link from a subscribed host which then gets eyeballs on their own ads and traffic to their site. These practices form what is known as structured content:

[AP president Tom] Curley can foresee someday offering varied levels of access to AP content. While some stories or news videos would remain universally available, others could be coded to provide intermediate access, giving a viewer a brief synopsis. And still other kinds of content could be fully protected, offering perhaps no more than a headline for free. ... The idea is beset by a number of questions, most pointedly: How much would advertising revenue suffer when only paying customers are allowed to enter a site and traffic inevitably falls? A Costly Mistake? | American Journalism Review.

  From my perspective as an end user if structured content rules the day and content successfully retreats into walled gardens, accessible by payments additionally to an immediate right to read a story, a subscription or micro-payment ought to gain the user a gifting URL. An email/blog this story URL, allowing the user to share and create a dialog on an article. They could even charge extra for this, differentiated between business and non business users, if they feel the need to.  Newspapers would rather all dialog occur on their own comment sections, but that is not going to happen. Nor, I'm sure they will allow, will the best conversations take place there.  Interest communities today are increasingly, because they can be, non geo-specific (several years ago I attended a talk where a Prof. Langdon Winner made this specific point 17Nov05). Focus comes to a story in graduated fashion and from around.

  There is another notion about that news appetite now demands immediate reporting and the technological and distribution means that support this. The 24-hr News Cycle. Call it the campaign for realtime. This means the Internet, it means news aggregation. Even TV and radio which can distribute in real-time, need this to gather news in realtime. The recent Senate hearings on the future of journalism had pronouncements of this sort:

"[P]aper and ink have become obsolete, eclipsed by the power, efficiency and technological elegance of the Internet...Most experts believe that what we are seeing happen to newspapers is just the beginning - soon, perhaps in a matter of a few years, television and radio will experience what newspapers are experiencing now." Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet : U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation

 Through much of the commentary on the state of newspapers in the press recently especially when newspapers weigh in on themselves is the idea that something unfair has happened to (print) journalism. That we (the buying public and government) ought adapt ourselves to the relief of their needs and traditions. At this point I recall that the news, the fourth estate, has gotten many nearly all major "ground" stories of last decade wrong.  The warning voices on Iraq, WMD, Al Qaeda connections, the ease of certain glorious and useful victory were drowned out by voices repeating political assurances and urging us forward. A similar story on the financial crisis can be told, by the late spring of 2007 the Post and other papers were running stories on the the potential for a wave of foreclosures and questioning parts of the mortgage market, but if they were aware of its potential to bring the financial markets of the world to a virtual stand still they kept that well hidden. Mostly they were content to remain cheerleaders of feverish bull. The Press no longer operates in public interest but as adjunct to and explainer of power. As even Post writer Howard Kurtz relates  most people believe that newspapers problems are of their own making Under Weight of Its Mistakes, Newspaper Industry Staggers. An unoriginal tale of failure to engage with a changing world. Most people are content to allow newspapers to fall by the wayside and see what comes next Media Notes: Can Newspapers Be Saved? Believing that in this  it is not the papers nor even the model of journalism embodied by print. Rather only a more abstract idea of free flowing information as disengaged from institutional interest s as possible that matters.

  One of the remedies I've heard repeatedly pushed is to allow a relaxation of media cross ownership rules Washington Help Ailing Newspaper Industry? : NPR. This, it is always stressed, will allow great economies of scale as the owners of radio, tv, and newspapers can field a single army of reporters. I remain open, but dubious here. A distinction between in-market and inter-market concentration needs to be made. A distinction between, combining and pooling new-gathering activities perhaps an efficient economy, and concentration of ownership which is a media concentration of voice and view.

 The ultimate value of news, the endeavor of the fourth estate is as a stop against power opposed to a mere flogger of ephemeral information-like content; ball scores (Nats lose, and repeat) and movie times. Can it affect the behavior of those with power over our lives? Power they gain from us. If it cannot, if restrictions on the way it can be used and shared particularize and reduce its ability to create a informed modern citizenry to confront power. Then it does not have value and ought not claim its worth to society, or the price they would set on it. The dialog, the conversation and assessments that occur alongside realtime news and the 24-hr news cycle, needs to occur with the same velocity and liquidity.  In any case it needs to occur with the same velocity as power is exercised over our lives. What will be valued and paid for is what can do that.

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Friday, May 1, 2009

I saw on Metafilter He was in Mordor, wasn't he? | MetaFilter that there is a forty minute long internet movie called The Hunt For Gollum  coming out next week. It is, as you might guess, a JRR Tolkien inspired LOTR thing. It premieres 03 May 09 during a London Science Fiction Festival, after which point it will be available from the project's web site. From the precis and trailers available the story they tell is drawn from the appendices of Lord of the Rings. Briefly Gandalf (a wizard) becomes suspicious of Bilbo's (a hobbit) ring (a magic ring). He enlists Aragorn (Mr. Strider, a dunedin) to find Gollum (hard to describe but not unlike Dick Cheney) and learn more about its origin. I have to admit that while I read the Hobbit as a kid, I did not read the trilogy until the movies came out. My sisters and niece said I would enjoy them more if I read the books.

 This film the brainchild of Chris Bouchard. It is a fan organized non-profit film project.  Independent Online Cinema, and Rickety Shack films, which are I imagine his production and rights companies, encompass the project. He composed the film's soundtrack too. The web site describes the affair as a Collaborative Online project. Rooting about on the site it is apparent that everything used for it was borrowed or donated, including people and their time. At that, the whole thing seems carefully, professionally, and systematically attended to. Yet they claim the film, shot direct to digital with mid-range pro-am Sony and JVC digicams, was completed for the expense of some 3000 pounds. Which is what 7 to 8000 dollars? That's hardly money at all. I truly wish I had the knack or talent to try something like this.

 As I looked over this, I thought of another similar film I had heard about, also through Metafilter, as it happens, Iron Sky. Two words: Moon Nazi's. They escaped in their souped-up V2's, now their coming back to get us! From Finland, and the makers of something called Star Wreck: in the Pirkinning (!). Chris Bouchard even has another one of these internet movies coming out soon an epic horror called Human Residue (2009). There is a lot of weirdness, entire categories of weirdness, out there on the internets; I guess I just haven't been keeping up. I'm dedicated to my own project of destroying newspapers by reading all their content online for free. The "THfG" website (more to the point here) refers to a sister fan film project that it is sharing crew and equipment with: the movie "Born of Hope". This film follows the story of Arador and his son Arathorn, who are (I'm just guessing here) the grandfather and father of Aragorn. It is being made by Kate Madison as producer and mostly shot in a Sturbridge-village like place, an Anglo-Saxon settlement recreation near Bury St. Edmunds. THfG was shot in a park in North Wales. I'm still not sure how people make money on this sort of thing, but if they're happy why should I complain?

 This next part functions like an addendum to the main as I did not finish (or even write much of) this until after Sunday and having seen the film.

 First and main impression it is an earnest homage not only to Tolkien but especially to Peter Jackson. The other related observation is that unlike much of this sort of thing it is not reliant on ironic distance. There is no snark to this. As well no over-use of leavening humor to compensate for the leaden weight of most fan fiction, when throwing itself out to a wider audience. It follows lines laid down by Jackson's project - which he himself peeled out of layers of Lord Of The Rings commentaries and establised popular imagery. It was quite moving and well done. It told a small well defined story and still managed to give it the look and feel of sweeping grandeur.

 For myself  a lurking practical question was: do these under-cut Jackson's upcoming projects and if not why not? The thing to point out here is that there is a lot of room in Tolkien's metaverse. You could send a small army of filmmakers in there and have them not get in each others way. One other thing these projects do which could be usefull to New Line Cinema frankly is that they keep the franchise alive and in peoples hearts while Jackson and del Toro get their act together: "It has been announced by Guillermo del Toro that shooting for this film will not start until 2010:  imdb The Hobbit (2012)." Unless I hear otherwise I may choose to believe there may indeed be some level of awareness between these projects.

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