After stumbling across a circle of white-rumped shama enthusiasts while writing an earlier piece, one of my favorite reads from their ranks is Alan Pang’s post explaining why he lost interest in traditional shama competitions. The standard Singaporean competition, he writes, last as much as two hours:

Personally, i only enjoy active, swift n nice display and long melodies song type of shama. I prefer them to go around the cage flicking and flashing their tails plus some wings display at the same time. Not the stand singing type. What i meant by stand singer is flick tail once or twice sing two three notes and stay in one position all the time. This is no fun to watch for many of us but don’t forget this are the the birds that is able to last for hours! Haha…! So for those birds that showed us wonderful display, swift cage play, stretching all muscle to give us the best posture and bursting at the top of their voice with beautiful songs would be drain out by then. Then how? How about the next one hour? Frankly, i do not think Shama is by nature create to show that kind of aggression in the wild for such prolonged hours. Did we extend the competition time for human satisfaction? Haha…

Sing it, brother.

And in the video above, you can see one of Mr Pang’s shamas “singing like crazy till sorethroat,” which has accumulated a whopping 276,133 views on YouTube.

competition, journalism, television


When I heard of the death of Tim Russert yesterday, the grand inquisitor (in a good way) of Washington, I repeatedly thought of Mark Leibovich’s Chris Matthews profile from the NYT Mag in April:

On the morning of the Cleveland debate, Matthews was standing in the lobby of the Ritz when Russert walked through, straight from a workout, wearing a sweat-drenched Buffalo Bills sweatshirt, long shorts and black rubber-soled shoes with tube socks. “Here he is; here he is, the man,” Matthews said to Russert, who smiled and chatted for a few minutes before returning to his room. (An MSNBC spokesman, Jeremy Gaines, tried, after the fact, to declare Russert’s outfit “off the record.”)

I watched Chris Matthews on the MSNBC online stream last night, he was in Paris (as was Bob Schieffer). Matthews demonstrated the remarkable candor that sometimes gets him in trouble; but it was just right here. He came on after Brokaw, and said, you know, I wasn’t as close to Tim as those guys. But he kept talking, and it was clear that Matthews admired him. Leibovich wrote that Matthews seems to crave Russert’s approval. I don’t know if he ever got it or not, but that makes for a particular sense of loss when this happens.

Brokaw repeatedly mentioned Russert’s working class credentials (as well as his own and Mike Barnicle’s). It is a badge of honor, of sorts; one I sometimes try to wear. A quick look around my cohort at the journalism school ought to be enough to settle the question of whether the chattering classes tend to be seeded by the upper (or upper middle) classes. Few of my colleagues had a parent in the military, or one who worked in a factory. See? Hard to resist.

Today Leibovich has an article in the Times about Russert and his place in the Washington firmament. He does a good job of balancing Russert’s working class image with the attractions and convenience he found in his position at the top of the D.C. heap.

Another local cliché: Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. So in a town that’s in fact entirely over-populated with blow-dried preeners, it seemed entirely appropriate that the signature TV star be, if not ugly, aggressively “not pretty.” Indeed, Mr. Russert seemed to intentionally hold his face at crooked angles, like he was sidling up to a Rust Belt dive bar (as opposed to, say, his favorite lunch joint in Washington, the Palm).

Mr. Russert liked to seem sheepishly above-it-all, but was also as acutely status-conscious, befitting the local water. He was always mindful of not appearing too often on MSNBC, NBC’s cable cousin, for fear of diluting his big-league brand. He was known primarily as a TV star to most people, but often identified himself by his more hierarchical title, “Washington bureau chief.” There is no shortage of politicians, beginning with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who believed Mr. Russert could be bullying and prone to grandstanding at times, making excessive show of his top-of-the-heap position.

Still, the story that Leibovich seemed to remember the most yesterday was the same one I did:

My last encounter with Mr. Russert was at a Democratic debate in Cleveland, which he was moderating. I was with his colleague Mr. Matthews — I was writing about Mr. Matthews for the New York Times Magazine — and we ran into Mr. Russert in the lobby of the Cleveland Ritz Carlton. He had just worked out and was wearing a sweaty Bills sweatshirt and long shorts and black loafers with tube socks. An MSNBC spokesman who was with us tried to declare Mr. Russert’s attire “off the record,” which I found hilarious, and which I was of course compelled to include in the story. When I called Mr. Russert to tell him this, and he laughed so hard, I had to move the phone away from my ear.

“Just do me one favor,” Mr. Russert said. “Say they were rubber-soled shoes, will you?” Done.

Black loafers?

Re-read that excerpt at the top.

anticipation, competition, politics, race, really?

It is on.

Who says politics has devolved into a slideshow? Looks more like it’s the center ring. This was recorded for the WWE, broadcast last night. I guess they really are trying to get that working class white male vote. No more direct route than pro wrestling, right?


I like how McCain suggests that he’s “the man.” Hard not to hear that and think about “the Man.” As in, don’t let the Man get you down.

While we’re at it, here’s one version of the Fatboy Slim video for “Don’t Let the Man Get You Down.” It is supposed to have multiple endings. I am not suggesting that McCain is racist.

Asia, China, competition, education, politics, really?

Please Vote For Me

The good folks at China Digital Times have pointed us to a documentary by Chen Weijun about an experiment in democracy in Chinese grade school. It’s an amazing piece. With all the electioneering and scheming, you eventually forget that you’re watching a bunch of eight-year-olds in a (nominally) Communist country.
Here’s the YouTube intro: 

In an elementary school in the city of Wuhan in central China, three eight-year-old students campaign for the coveted position of class monitor. This is the first election for a class leader to be held in China. The three candidates hold debates, campaign tirelessly and show their intellectual and artistic skills, until one is voted the winner. Their parents, devoted to their only child, take part and start to influence the results. 


The remaining chapters after the jump. Continue reading

anticipation, competition, politics

Mike BloombergNY Daily News has the story, or, rather, traffics in the speculation (the “web of intrigue,” they call it, punny and appropriate): is online. Routes you to Michael Bloomberg’s personal web site/advertisement for himself. The Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent’s people say they’re just trying to prevent web squatting. But fuel begat fire, and one wonders who might share the ticket with him. Arnold Schwarzenegger? Makes for good copy, but there is that tricky 12th Amendment (“But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States Too”).

The odds may be better for Chuck Hagel. He’s been openly critical of the Bush Administration’s handling of the war, there’s been talk about him as a candidate (from him), and he would lend even more gravitas, political and business credentials, and a war hero biography. Plus, National Journal dug up a 1996 campaign promise that he wouldn’t run for a third term, which would be in 2008. Plus, he’s from Nebraska.

The question, then, might be, who would run at the top of the ticket?

competition, consumption, music

Get Out Front: Tell everyone you’ve been listening to Spoon

Backdate your Spoon fanhood a few years for maximum benefit, same as you do with stock options. And do it now, before Spoon gets so popular that it’s too late to proclaim your enthusiasm as still unique. Tell your friends you got in on the ground floor.

If all you’ve had to go on for the last two years is Gimme Fiction, remember that Spoon has been putting its new tracks online. And if you’re lucky, you’ll have gotten your ten dollar ticket to see them at Café du Nord on Saturday night (I am not so lucky). The new album is officially released. And here’s a surprisingly poppy new song that for some reason is a little reminiscent of Billy Joel, circa 1978?, though why this is the case, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s something to do with the horns.

The Underdog

competition, education, journalism, money

Getting In

For a long time, when people asked me where I go, or went, to college, my first response was “New Hampshire,” or even, “New England.” Then they would slowly zero in: which school, or which town, until: Dartmouth.

I abandoned that initial answer too long after I had started getting the question. While I thought I was avoiding the obnoxious and overbearing pride of the Ivy Leaguer by not immediately admitting my affiliation, the avoidance began to seem self-consciously coy and precious, subtly inviting the inquisitor to continue peeling away, with growing anticipation, the layers of obfuscation. It was like Barthes’s strip tease. The final revelation was not always a great letdown, but, like the strip tease’s denouement, it sometimes was. Of course, coming from Alaska (as in many places west of Ohio), every second or third person did not know what or where Dartmouth was, so a regional response was often a very appropriate answer.

The issue of Ivy League designations is meaningful to me again because I recently had the choice of graduate programs at Columbia University and the University of California at Berkeley. I believe that some people who were in the same situation picked Columbia, in large part because it is an Ivy League school (though that factor often went carefully unmentioned). By the way, that’s Columbia’s Low Library pictured above. I think it was Nick Lemann who pointed out when I was there that it is a library with no books.

Last October, Malcolm Gladwell, who brings revelatory sociology to the masses, published a story on the Ivy League mystique in the New Yorker. In particular, he described how the Ivy League has effectively branded itself as a high-demand, low-supply luxury, the result of various admissions practices that are themselves remnants of early 20th century policies stemming from conceptions of race, class, ethnicity, and morphology. The article also acts as a roundabout review of the book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel (who happens to be a sociologist at Berkeley).

Gladwell is Canadian, and applied to college using a very simple form that took him about ten minutes. The college admissions process, for him, was not the nail-biting, mind-bending, perspective-warping experience it often is for Americans. He writes:

Am I a better or more successful person for having been accepted at the University of Toronto, as opposed to my second or third choice? It strikes me as a curious question. In Ontario, there wasn’t a strict hierarchy of colleges. There were several good ones and several better ones and a number of programs—like computer science at the University of Waterloo—that were world-class. But since all colleges were part of the same public system and tuition everywhere was the same (about a thousand dollars a year, in those days), and a B average in high school pretty much guaranteed you a spot in college, there wasn’t a sense that anything great was at stake in the choice of which college we attended. The issue was whether we attended college, and—most important—how seriously we took the experience once we got there. I thought everyone felt this way. You can imagine my confusion, then, when I first met someone who had gone to Harvard.There was, first of all, that strange initial reluctance to talk about the matter of college at all—a glance downward, a shuffling of the feet, a mumbled mention of Cambridge. “Did you go to Harvard?” I would ask. I had just moved to the United States. I didn’t know the rules. An uncomfortable nod would follow. Don’t define me by my school, they seemed to be saying, which implied that their school actually could define them. And, of course, it did. . . .

from “Getting In,” New Yorker, October 10, 2005.

Does it? That is one question I had to ask myself when choosing between Berkeley and Columbia. Later in the article, Gladwell discusses the research of a pair of economists, Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale. According to their work, if a student gets into a selective school as well as a less selective one, and then chooses the second option, he or she does as well in life as those who go to the more selective school. I find that a reassuring fact.

There is a big difference here between the choice that that research describes and my choice: namely, I was not choosing undergraduate schools. In fact, Berkeley has many highly-regarded graduate programs, including the journalism school; and I don’t know that the statistics for the journalism programs would bear out the assertion that one is more or less selective than the other. My choice–and here I am fortunate–was between two very good graduate schools. But throughout the process, the implication present in many of my discussions was that success at Columbia was more likely than at Berkeley. I often reminded myself that I could do as well for myself by choosing Berkeley than Columbia.

There are no guarantees, certainly. In fact, “no guarantees” is an appropriate motto for much of my life experience. When choosing, I considered that what happens in my life–my professional life, at least–is not determined solely by my school, but mostly by me. And that helped.

Alaska, competition, photography, race, really?

Outhouse Racer: We have visual confirmation

Tony in Alaska (who also happens to be brother of “It is, in fact” founder Tim) sent in some images from last month’s Chatanika Days, mentioned in an earlier post on this site about outhouse races. Thanks for the pictures, Tony.

Tony trying out an outhouse

Some kind of race (probably drunk)

Tug of war

The Chatanika Lodge

blogs, competition, consumption, journalism, photography

Boing Boing Finally Catches Up with Me

On February 16, I wrote about the tilt-shift effect and included examples of tilt-shift photography that I created using Photoshop.

Two days ago, on the 27th, Boing Boing, the blog that leaves everyone breathless, published a post saying that you could, after all, fake the tilt-shift effect, and included a link to instructions on how to do this. Well, my goodness, who would have thought of that?

Good hustle, guys!

And now, there’s a Flickr group devoted to fake tilt-shifting as a result. Two weeks ago, you could find a small handful of Photoshopped tilt-shift pictures, at most. Now everybody’s doing it.

Admittedly, I’m no expert on this and I didn’t bother to detail the process I used to create those photos. The instructions to which Boing Boing links are pretty good—though not perfect. They don’t account for spatial relationships for individual objects when defining depth of field (although some of the Flickr discussions do), but I won’t get into that here. If you decide to make your own Photoshop tilt-shift pictures, then we’ll talk. Until then, let’s fool around with pictures of, say, that lone protester at the Great Avenue of Everlasting Peace at Tiananmen Square.

I guess this is what happens—or doesn’t happen—when your (my) blog is not known to the outside world. I forgot that the whole point of putting anything on the internets is simply a pretense for engaging in rabid self-promotion. People who had no interest in this when I mentioned it are suddenly riding the wave because everyone else is doing it. Glad you could join the herd…I guess there’s room for one more. As a bonus, in Boing Boing’s follow-up post, a program manager for Microsoft Earth managed to promote his blog and highlight his talented and probably unappreciated, underpaid Microsoft colleagues. Excellent!

But with all of these people doing this technique now, won’t it get a little old? Or is this eccentric little effect—used most often (until a few days ago) by artistic photographers, but now mass-produced by anyone with the software and time—not subject to diminishing returns? Makes me wish I’d read Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by now so I could insert a pithy quote here.

Maybe every new fake tilt-shift will be like a little, bejeweled Fabergé egg. Mine will certainly be so precious. Or maybe this trend will follow the pattern described by corporate “cool hunters” like Look-Look’s Sharon Lee and Dee Dee Gordon (whose ideas were built upon by Malcolm Gladwell and are being capitalized upon by Auren Hoffman, et al.), which is to say :

[Q:]Let’s talk about what makes a Look-Look kid. How do you pick a kid to be part of your organization? What are you looking for? What makes a Look-Look kid?Gordon: A Look-Look kid is someone who is a forward-thinking individual, who looks outside their own backyard for information, who is someone who is a leader, who isn’t afraid to speak their mind, isn’t afraid to like investigate new things. . . . It’s someone who has a lot to say, someone who sees things that most other kids wouldn’t.

[Q:] What is the theory beyond that? Why don’t you want an average kid to know what average kids are doing?

Lee: We look for kids who are ahead of the pack, because they’ll influence what all the other kids do. We look for the 20 percent, the trendsetters, who are going to influence the other 80 percent.

[Q:] How does that work? How does a trend spread?

. . . Actually, it’s a triangle. At the top of the triangle, there’s the innovator, which is like two to three percent of the population. Underneath them is the trendsetter, which we would say is about 17 percent. They pick up on ideas that the innovators are doing, and they claim them as their own. Underneath them is an early adopter–it’s questionable exactly what their percentage is–but they are the layer above mainstream, which is about 80 percent. And they take what the trendsetter is doing, and they make it palatable for mass consumption. They take it, they tweak it, they make it more acceptable, and that’s when the mass consumer picks up on it and runs with it and then it actually kills it. [Emphasis added]

[Q:] You said it eventually killed it. How quickly are these things given birth to and then killed? How condensed is this period of time from when a trend starts to when a trend is killed?

Lee: It used to take a year-and-a-half to two years for something to move. And now it can take a couple of months. . . .

Frontline, “Merchants of Cool,” 2001

When the mass consumer picks up on it and runs with it and then it actually kills it. Think about that for a minute. Let that idea seep into your brain through your trucker’s hat.

So, then, what’s the life expectancy for fake tilt-shift being a fun, new concept? A couple of months? Maybe—in 2001. Dear Readers, it is now 2006 and something called “blogs” exist and most blogs eschew original content in favor of pointing to one of the 500 or so actually interesting things on the internets, and one of the the top three or four blogs on the entire planet is seriously called “Boing Boing,” and the rate of the novelty value of any new meme is undergoing rapid inflation, which is to say their half lives are getting shorter and shorter. The life expectancy for fake tilt-shift (as a novel trend) might be a couple of weeks; within days of its Boing Boing birth it grew from a cute little concept into something bloated and unwieldy, collapsing under its own weight and consigned to a fenced enclosure in the backyard. Its novelty finally expired a few short minutes ago. Rest in peace, fake tilt-shift photomanipulation technique. It was a good run. I’ll always remember you.

animals, competition, photography

Most Viewed Photo? No Contest.

I should have seen it coming. Will Smith had about 5 months to crawl to the top of my “most viewed” list on Flickr. He did it in the course of a day. Su Lin the panda has had about 4 days so far, and she beat Will in one day. It looks like it will be tough to catch up to her (though my Flickr view numbers are modest compared to many others):

Plus, “Su Lin exploring” is my most interesting photo, according to Flickr. I’m not sure how Flickr measures interestingness, and they aren’t really telling. It’s a mystery, reminiscent of Google’s page ranking system.

But Su Lin was so interesting that she made it onto Flickr’s Interestingness Calendar on February 2 as the third most interesting photo uploaded onto Flickr that day.