irony, journalism

You should check it out.

An exchange I spotted this morning on Twitter:

Good luck finding a copy.

Spotted this morning on Twitter:

Storified by Tim Lesle · Wed, Aug 15 2012 18:38:28

The best ideas come to me when I’m in the showerLIL E
@THEREAL_LIL_E there’s science behind this.G Ryin G
@GRyin for real? Cause that’s when I think the mostLIL E
@THEREAL_LIL_E this author, Jonah Lehrer explains it it his book "Imagine: How Creativity Works". you should check it out.G Ryin G
@GRyin yeah I am just cause u said that cause I never think of nothing super dope unless I’m in the showerLIL E

Good luck finding a copy. Jonah Lehrer’s book seems not exactly available. I suppose you could get it at your library, but it might be a while. At my library, at least, there are 50 holds on it.

screenshot showing there are 50 holds on the Imagine book according to the San Francisco library website

And while the media are aflutter over Lehrer and his fact problems, how long does that story take to spread into the wider population? Does it?

In any case, I don’t think the shower point has been discredited.

money, technology

Whither Flickr?

Several months ago:

A friend then remarked that Flickr’s URLs were annoying (yes), and I added:

Well, Mat Honan at Gizmodo has made me feel a bit better about myself. Turns out, it’s probably not my fault. But I also now feel quite bad for Flickr and all of us who’ve been using it for so many years. As Mat portrays it, the post-acquisition Flickr history is a sad story of personality conflicts and crushing bureaucracy, one that turned a place on the internet that I loved going to into a ghost town—or a Potemkin village in which the activity of your Flickr friends, if they are active at all, are auto-postings done via Instagram or IFTTT. Who’s fault? It’s Yahoo! what done it.

Or not done it, as the story emphasizes—when opportunities to turn Flickr into something better, maybe bigger, came up, Yahoo just kind of stepped on the thing, placed its brand, it’s identity, it’s heavy bureaucratic Yahoo stamp on it.

Indeed, it was the first social network that I really engaged in. Yes, I did sign up for Friendster and added like eight pictures, and I might have a MySpace page that I never did anything with, so I’m actually not sure if I do have one. But Flickr was the one I invested in—and still invest in, paying for the Pro account so as not to lose the accumulated uploads and the comments and favorites and stats that have stuck to them like so many barnacles. Fortunately, there is the tiniest glimmer of hope at the end of the story that maybe Flickr will still be…something. I hope so, anyway.

Is the Flickr case a cautionary tale about what could happen to your startup when somebody bigger swallows it up, which seems to be the preferred exit for many tech entrepreneurs these days? Or just a cautionary tale about how screwed up things at Yahoo can be, even outside the boardroom? (The answers are “yes”, and “sure, why not,” respectively.) Either way, Mat’s story is worth a look:
How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet

China, journalism

The Mike Daisey Almosts

This American Life's retraction notice.One of the interesting results of the retraction of This American Life’s Mike Daisey monologue on the Foxconn factory in China is the shoulda/coulda/woulda-ing of the press corps, particularly those who have some experience covering tech, China, and/or Mike Daisey. After hearing the original broadcast, Marketplace’s China correspondent thought some of the details were odd, and he followed up on his suspicions. Many others, it seems, did not, or were persuaded not to.

A few examples:

    • James Fallows calls it “The Sad and Infuriating Mike Daisey Case” and makes good points on how this will hurt Western press in China, and, especially, how the criticisms made by Daisey and others about Foxconn sucks up attention from more egregious labor problems. Fallows also describes having felt a sense of unease about the monologue’s veracity after first hearing it—a point that seems common to these posts.
    • Adrian Chen at Gawker details a sit-down with Daisey last fall to ask him about possible factual inconsistencies. And Daisey completely pulls the wool over his eyes:

      Throughout our interview, he’d been so convincing; his lies were so detailed and full of compassion and humor. And now I wondered why I was wasting my time trying to poke holes in his facts when I should be writing about the awful things he saw. We talked for a bit more and he invited me to his show. I went, and dropped the story.

    • Evan Osnos, for The New Yorker, details all the warning signs that China hands picked up on, and then makes this great point:

But when I heard it, a part of me was embarrassed by the prospect that maybe Daisey had found stuff that we in China had not. Lots of people had reported over the years on underage workers and harsh conditions, but very often the stories require complicated qualifications, debates about the efforts that factories take to guard against hiring underage workers (and—more qualifications—about the ones who slip through anyway). But, I concluded, weird things happen in China all the time. Even driving down the highway exit was sort of plausible. And, more seriously, I feared that maybe Daisey had approached the subject with such fresh outrage and investigative vigor that he had been able to find what so many over here had not.

In my (extremely limited) experience in China, I’d have to agree that weird things do happen all the time. Within three days of arriving in China for the first time, I was standing on the edge of a new shaft at an illegal coal mine as migrant workers hauled freshly excavated rocks from it. Are illegal coal mines hard to get to? My guess is yes, probably, but my experience was, no, not exactly. At least, not that time.* I can definitely understand Osnos’s semi-suspended skepticism when he heard Daisey’s story.

In these posts, I sense a sort of wistful “one that got away” element. But maybe I’m just projecting how I’d feel were I in their position. Any other examples of Daisey Monday-morning quarterbacking? If so, let me know and I’ll include here.

[Update] Jeff Yang writes for the Journal’s Speakeasy blog about the case, and how he received links to the TAL show from dozens of people, but he was reluctant to share it because he “felt like something was…off.”

[Update #2] Time Out Shanghai interviewed Adam Minter on his skepticism about Daisey’s story. Minter was on the radio show To The Point in February (worth a listen), along with Daisey, and essentially says that the concepts underlying Daisey’s criticisms are a misunderstanding of the situation (at best). He goes on to point out some of Daisey’s inconsistency on his blog. This is the most public rebuke of Daisey’s overaching theme (if not necessarily all the details) that I’ve seen in the wake of that initial TAL broadcast.

Interesting to note that, in a post a few days ago on Minter’s blog, he quotes an email from the NYT’s David Barboza. Barboza described the inconsistencies in his story, and questions This American Life’s factchecking. He also writes, “Rob Schmitz of Marketplace certainly produced a piece of first-rate journalism. I wish I had done that work myself, since I too had suspected that Daisey fabricated large parts of his story.”



*It’s important to note that credit for something like this must go to the incredibly skilled Chinese journalists, and sometimes non-journalists, who often work with foreigners in China.

history, money, technology

Tesla and Morgan

From the Echoes of History Dept:

Around the turn of the last century, Nikola Tesla went to JP Morgan, hat in hand. He needed money to fund this idea he had for wireless technology. Depending on the source you consult, he wanted to communicate wirelessly, or he wanted to actually transmit energy wirelessly. Morgan and some other investors gave him some cash. It was about $150,000 and wasn’t nearly enough. Tesla built a huge tower on Long Island that never really worked. Meanwhile, Marconi broadcast the first trans-Atlantic radio signal. After a few years, JP Morgan wouldn’t give Tesla any more money and the project fell apart. Tesla is supposed to have had a breakdown. Years later Tesla turned over the property to the owner of the Waldorf Astoria, where he had been living. The tower was destroyed and sold for scrap in 1917.

In 2011, an analyst at Morgan Stanley rated Tesla Motors stock as “overweight”, boosting its price about 20 percent. Later that year, Morgan Stanley changed its mind, and the analyst declared that these electric cars were “not ready for prime time.” Tesla stock plunged, erasing the year’s gains. (But, to be fair, only briefly; the stock has rebounded nicely.)

It’s almost purely coincidence, though I supposes there are only so many history-making robber baron bankers whose name can be on the letterhead, and so many crazy pioneers of electricity to inspire the name of your electric car company.

And the lesson, if one can be squeezed from this whisp of nominal historical parallelism, may be that just as Morgan giveth, Morgan taketh away.


Below: A 1917 issue of The Electrical Experimenter. On Page 7 is an article on the destruction of the tower, stating that the tower was removed due to worries that German spies were using the structure.


Three Kinds of Sugar

1. Yesterday, I learned that Wilson Pickett did a cover of the 1969 Archies hit “Sugar, Sugar.” One of the best known examples of the Bubblegum Pop genre, “Sugar, Sugar” actually sounds pretty good when given the Pickett treatment.

2. “Sugar, Sugar,” remains popular at weddings, a grand generalization I base solely on the fact that it played at mine during the cutting of the cake. Our version was by neither Pickett, nor The Archies, but Bob Marley:

Indeed. So two of our favorite singers of all time have covered this song. They do a pretty good job of it, considering what they’ve got to work with. Not that they haven’t gotten a little flack for it from the critics.

3. The song, while certainly catchy (burrows-into- your-brain catchy), was the product of a manufactured band assembled by a producer. Music mogul Don Kirshner formed the group after a split with his earlier creation, The Monkees. Where The Monkees were real people who wanted more artistic control and bridled at the sheen of inauthenticity, The Archies were considerably more malleable given their status as a bunch of cartoon characters (the Archie comics characters, in fact) whose performances were provided by studio musicians. New York Magazine has an interesting little article about the creation of The Archies in ’68, in which Kirshner says that their music will be the type that’s played in clubs, but will appeal to all ages—and by all ages, he means starting with the “2-to-11” year old market. (If you’re familiar with the Kirshner vs Monkees mess, the article has an interesting paragraph in which songwriter Jeff Berry recounts a story that ridicules Monkee Mike Nesmith for having musical pretensions. Nesmith, one of The Monkee’s true musicians, is the bandmember who made their private, internal tensions with Kirshner public.* It also mentions Kirshner’s next project, a collaboration with the film producer Harry Saltzman, that would feature a band composed of “an English guy, a girl, a Negro and a white Southern guy.”**)

As for the origins of these covers? Pickett seems to have covered “Sugar, Sugar” for the same reason he covered a lot of songs during a period in his career (“Hey Jude, “Born to Be Wild”, “Hey Joe”): the pursuit of continued pop success and broad appeal.

Meanhile, Marley’s version is supposed to have come at the suggestion of a producer, the Chinese-Jamaican music mogul Vincent Chin.

*On a purely digressive note, Nesmith was the heir to the Liquid Paper fortune.
**My guess is this became the film Toomorrow, a space musical that starred Olivia Newton-John and by all accounts is a mess.


The Distinguished Gentleman Who Speaks for the Trees

In 2007, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works questioned EPA administrator Stephen Johnson about issues like emissions regulation and toxic release tracking. The EPA was also shutting some of its public libraries. Committee Chair Barbara Boxer was critical of this, while ranking Republican James Inhofe said it was a good and necessary step. Here, an excerpt from the hearing:

Senator INHOFE. Administrator Johnson, I want to make sure I understand, the purpose of the library modernization effort is to make all the EPA materials more readily available and all of this. I want to ask you if the following books are still available at the EPA libraries. The first one I would like to ask you about is Lorax. Is this available?


Senator INHOFE. About how many copies are available?

Mr. JOHNSON. I understand that there are nine.

Senator INHOFE. Are any checked out right now?

Mr. JOHNSON. Not that I am aware of.

Senator INHOFE. The author?

Mr. JOHNSON. Dr. Suess. [sic]

Senator INHOFE. Dr. Suess, very good. Next we have WordStar made easy. Is this available?

Mr. JOHNSON. Yes, sir.

Senator INHOFE. I understand that this is a computer software book for pre-1983 computers, is that correct?

Mr. JOHNSON. That is correct, published in 1982.

Senator INHOFE. Published in 1982. A lot of demand for this book? Never mind. The next one is Memoirs of a Geisha. Do you have this available?

Mr. JOHNSON. Yes, sir.

Senator INHOFE. OK. How about Bonesetters Daughter?


Senator INHOFE. What collection is this in?

Mr. JOHNSON. It is in our technical library in Region 8.

Senator INHOFE. OK, great demand? Here’s one, how about this one. This is called Fat Chicks Rule: How to Survive in a Thincentric World. Do you have this?

Mr. JOHNSON. Yes, sir.

Senator INHOFE. How about Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror? Do you have this?

Mr. JOHNSON. Yes, sir.

Senator INHOFE. That is interesting. How about more of the items, the video, Fern Gulley, is that in? The Last Rainforest, do you have that?

Mr. JOHNSON. I believe we have it on video tape.

Senator INHOFE. I believe that is a children’s movie, is that correct?


Senator INHOFE. How about a health issue, do you have a video, Windsor Pilates Ab Sculpting?

Mr. JOHNSON. Yes, we do have Windsor Pilates Ab Sculpting.

The Lorax has become a kind of shorthand for environmentalism, sometimes to prove a famously anti-environmentalist senator’s point. Still, the Lorax has only been invoked nine times* in hearings or the Congressional Record. And of those nine, only about half are actually in an explicitly environmental context. Among the other reasons for citing the Lorax are to illustrate the importance of community service (John Kerry, 2002), as a cartoon character voiced by a deceased voice actor (Fred Upton, 2005), and as intellectual property (Jim Moran, 2010). From the record:

During the Trademark Expo, costumed trademarked characters will introduce themselves during the opening ceremony and make appearances throughout the Expo, joining the USPTO’s own Trademark character, T. Markey. A new cast of characters, including Clifford the Big Red Dog®, Lorax®, GEICO’s Gecko®, Chick-Fil-A’s® cow, The Berenstain Bears®, Dippin’ Dots®, and a 5-Hour Energy® bottle character will join veteran Expo characters Pillsbury’s Doughboy®, Hershey’s Kisses®, Hershey’s® milk chocolate bar, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups®, Crayola® crayons’ mascot Tip, Betty Boop®, Dennis the Menace®, Popeye®, Olive Oyl®, Curious George®, and Sprout®.

Only once has The Lorax been cited in Congress in an explicit effort to increase support for environmental protection. That was in 1999, and it wasn’t even by a Congressman, but Chris Jeffers, who was the city manager of Monterey Park, CA:

I wish to conclude with some well-known words that convey the need for municipal Superfund legislation and our hope that the ability of Congress to move this ahead—these issues ahead now. And if I may, too, I sort of brought one of my child’s books, called the Lorax. And what Dr. Suess sort of said in here is, ‘‘Now that you’re here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear; unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.‘‘

So good on Mr Jeffers, for remembering the Lorax’s lesson. Though his former constituents in Monterey Park may better remember him for the dust-up following his retirement, when he reportedly cashed out more than $400,000 of accrued vacation time.

*Since 1994, which is as far back as the Government Printing Office’s online database will search.


My Leap Day Sound

The sound designer Tim Prebble has a nice post from his recent recording trip to Papua New Guinea. If you’re having as busy a day as I have had, his field recordings, of buzzing insects, rainfall, birds, provide a nice, dreamlike, and all too brief break from the madness. So this is what I’m listening to today.

Here, the birdsound:


The Quick Flip

We’ve discussed the affordance of paper in this space before—the unique abilities that the medium gives you: you can shuffle pages, mark up and highlight, fold down corners, etc. One of my favorite affordances is the ability to flip quickly between two pages at once, which is not so easy with digital texts. In light of that, this video from researchers at the Korean Advanced Institute for Science and Technology is pretty interesting.

[KAIST ITC] Smart E-Book Interface Prototype Demo – YouTube.

The gradual adoption of the affordances of paper for digital readers makes us wonder which will be next, and which are so unique they can’t be replicated in some way.

[Video via Jeremy Rue]

disaster, politics

Quick Note on PIPA, SOPA, and the Cyber Senator

I am disappointed in Pat Leahy.

The good senator from Vermont and I probably agree on more issues than disagree. But we do disagree on his Protect Intellectual Property Act, also known as PIPA. You may have heard of PIPA, or its more notorious House counterpart, SOPA.

Many notable web sites have gone dark or posted messages of opposition to the proposed legislation due to its potential pernicious consequences. (There are plenty of analyses of the effects of this legislation; this one, for example). Suffice it to say that SOPA and PIPA represent credible threats to free speech and innovation.

Senator Leahy introduced this bill. I’m disappointed that Leahy, in particular, introduced it. Yes, he’s a longtime supporter of intellectual property protections. Fair enough. Nothing wrong with that; after all, I benefit from copyright. Of late, he’s taken a defensive position on it: It’s interesting to see his webpage on the topic of IP is full of PIPA justifications and clarifications, and some of his recent press releases have stated outright that Wikipedia, reddit, et al, wouldn’t be affected by PIPA. To which point, again, I point you to this analysis.

The irony in all of this, for me, comes from Senator Leahy’s professed enthusiasm for technology. His use of the web has been a point of pride, and his office still reminds people that he is “the second senator to launch a website.” He’s called—or calls himself—the “cyber senator” for goodness sake (I’ve associated that label with him for years). Why? For “his ongoing leadership on issues related to the Internet and technology.”

Indeed. It must be confounding for the Cyber Senator to be responsible for legislation that, under its current proposed status, is merely anathema to the tech industry, but, if passed and enacted, could be poison to it.


Quick Note on the Kims

김정일 사망
—South Korean headline, 19 December 2011. “Kim Jong Il Dead”

Two days ago, we learned that Kim Jong Il had died two days earlier.

This morning, I was struck by the photo below of the Kims in a stark, imposing hall, looking at a scale model of a Pyongyang neighborhood. Students of the Kim dynasty, or of totalitarian architecture, or power dynamics, or James Bond films, can find plenty to puzzle over in it. I think it’s remarkable.

North Korean rulers Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung examine a relief map of Changgwang street in Pyongyang.

Where so many images of Kim Il Sung make him seem jolly and benevolent, here he is unsmiling and thoughtful. Where the flood of recent images of Kim Jong Il seem to show him simply going through the motions (viewing a parade, viewing a grocery store) here he looks decisive and driven. I haven’t found a date for this picture, but I’d guess it’s from the early 1980s. The cues—a discussion of matters of governance, the resonance of wearing the same outfit, the omnipresent aides and military attendants—seems to me intended to symbolize Kim Jong Il’s gradual, inevitable inheritance of authority.

Like any government, the Kim regime carefully managed its image. I can recall seeing exactly zero images of some recumbent Kim luxuriating in a comfy, private chamber; but very many images of power and populism, whether they were military parades, official portraits, Mass Games, or factory tours. All that with a good dose of hyodo (효도), the Confucian concept of filial piety that is extremely important in Korea and is arguably exploited in the continued veneration of Kim Il Sung.

A few decades ago, the Kim Dynasty of North Korea had a lot more competition in the dictator department. (Not that the world has ever lacked, including now.) But did Kim Il Sung, in his time, ever really penetrate the American cultural consciousness in quite the same way that other post-World War II leaders did? I’m not sure. I tend to remember Kim the elder in a pale blue or gray suit with a broad smile and pants pulled up high; his image may have been too paternal and jolly, too normal, when it came to the superficial visual language of power and corruption as interpreted by Western eyes. No leopard-skin toque, no laureled uniform, no glowering, beturbaned mien.

The Kims visit Sonsang Soccer Stadium in Pyongyang in 1989.

Kim Il Sung died when I was 14, so I may simply have been oblivious to his place in Western culture. But there’s no denying the celebrity of his son Kim Jong Il. When the father passed away, he left the foundation of a nuclear program in place that his son has grown into a worrying operation. The axis of evil designation added to the currency of Kim as a major player, punching well above his weight. With the spotlight, and the country, and the attention of a whole bunch of other countries, in Kim Jong Il’s grasp, he also gained an odd cultural power. Sunglassed, high-haired, and wearing single-color ensembles, his image and epic weirdness became an internet commodity, transmitted around the world to a global audience hungry for the stories of its rulers’ benighted opulence and indulgence that so contrasted with the deprivation of those they ruled. From that perspective—the one of images and absurdity and iconic camp—the whole thing seemed like a sad caricature of the anti-Communist propaganda (itself a sort of caricature) inculcated in those of us who grew up during the Cold War.

It was easy to point and laugh. Unless you were North Korean.

Addendum: It’s not clear, yet, what we’ll think of Kim Jong Il’s successor, Kim Jong Un. We don’t know if he’ll be a reformer or a conservative, if he’ll be weird or as normal as the head of a nepotistic autocracy can be. This young, Western-educated man supposedly loves basketball and studied computer science. I assume that he has grown up using the internet in some way—the thing that helped make his father a pop-culture figure in the last decade—and thus will be the first in this generation to have his own nuclear arsenal.

[Images via The Atlantic’s In Focus roundup of Kim Jong Il pictures. Well worth a look.]