Quotidian: Interestingness | Week of November 17 -23, 2019

More links from my week on the web. I do enjoy the notion of being a digital magpie, this being the place I bring my shiny scraps and sparkles found to feather the nest.

Recommended Reading

Joe Bidden struggles with, and has mostly overcome, a stutter. I had no idea. A sympathetic, insightful article that shouldn’t change your mind about the 2020 election, but maybe it can inject a little more kindness into my own social media takes about gaffe prone Joe.

Eyes and Ears (videos/podcasts)

“It’s Been 50 Years Since Apollo 12 Landed On The Moon” by Geoff Brumfiel. NPR Morning Edition. (Listen time: 3 minutes)

The heroics and success of the Apollo 12 moon mission were overshadowed by the Vietnam War and other geopolitical events. Apollo 12 sounds like the most “Guardians of the Galaxy” space mission ever.

Nicole Hemmer traces how Republican politics, since the 1990’s, increasingly operate in isolation from popular opinion, making the Nixon impeachment hearings an unlikely proxy for the current proceedings.

Songs That Found Me

Quotidian: Interestingness | Week of November 11 – 17, 2019

I’ve become something like a digital magpie, forever gathering links from across the far-flung reaches of the web. Sharing is caring, so I’m giving you a few of my favorites from the past week.

Recommended Reading

I’m still trying to digest this article, which offers a long, somewhat heavy, examination of liberalism in American politics. I read Duesterberg to say that the political philosophy of liberalism offers an insistence on the value of individuals and, if individuals are allowed to live in conditions that favor their ability to self-improve then, ultimately, society itself will improve. Inherent tension between the insistence on self and the importance of shared community is the creative tension that drives the American experiment. That experiment is currently at risk. It has been at risk before. The risk keeps it going but there’s no guarantee it will keep going indefinitely.

Eyes and Ears (videos/podcasts)

Our monsters reveal uncomfortable truths about the things we dread. Our monsters are proxies for the things we need desperately to talk about but can’t. So what’s up with all the zombie stuff happening in pop culture in recent years? This episode of Throughline does a deep dive into the historical, cultural and sociological roots of the Undead. Fascinating.
I usually hate the cute kid approach to digesting a complicated news story for a broad audience, but I really like this kid, Leo. He asks smart questions. You may not learn anything new from this conversation, but I love the way the reporters reward this kid’s curiosity with respect and sincerity. They talk with Leo and never talk down.

Songs That Found Me

What I Learned: Week of September 16 – 22, 2018

A rundown of things I read, saw or heard this week that stuck with me. This week happens to be all podcasts.

Worth a listen

Post No Evil. Radiolab. 2018aug17.

Early in the rise of Facebook, the company realized they needed a rulebook of acceptable behaviors to deal with the occasional appalling, depraved, and possibly illegal content created and shared by users. This was a difficult problem in 2008 when Facebook had a few hundred thousand American users. Now, the platform hosts 2.2 billion users across the entire globe.

This podcast explores the struggle to define and systematize rules of behavior that impact 2.2 billion people everyday with sometime hilarious, sometimes harrowing effect. The challenge of boiling human intent down into discreet, algorithmic if/then rules creates absurd situations where white men are protected against derogatory speech but black children are not. This happened as a result of linguistic nesting of modifiers. White men were protected because the concept of white men belongs to two categories of protected modifiers: race and gender. Black children were not protected because the concept of black children only belongs to one category of protected modifier: race. Children was not a protected category. Hilarity ensues.

Worse still, the discovery that most of the work of monitoring and removing objectionable content happens by low pay, human operators working 8 hours shifts reviewing and removing flagged content at a decision rate of something like one image every 8 to 10 seconds. The workers, mostly Irish and Asian, often turn up with PTSD. I think of them as the Call Centers of Despair.

Divided, Part 1: How Family Separations Started. The Daily. 2018aug21. and Divided, Part 2: The Chaos of Reunification. 2018aug24.

A clear, concise step-by-step roadmap of how the American government implemented a policy of separating immigrant families at the southern border well before admitting that such a policy existed. These stories reveal a situation far more complex than simply the President and his cabinet are evil. Its worse. They are incompetent, too. The metadata in place for tracking parents and children was lost when detainee’s status changed. A few keystrokes made it possible for the government to lose track of which kids belonged to which parents. The kids were secreted, sometimes in the middle of the night, to detention centers across America. The parents sometimes found themselves on opposite sides of the continent or deported.

Listen for a useful summary to make sense of the disparate reports over the past few months. Listen to remind ourselves that the crisis isn’t over even through our attention has moved away.

Shun the Non-Believers. Akimbo. 2018aug22.

Seth Godin reflects on the power of product reviews. Reviews help us find products and services that matter to us, but reviews can wreck the creative process of building those same products and services. This is required listening for anyone who aspires to creative work.

My quick take: when you make something, make it for someone specific. Make it unique. Let it be weird. Making a product to satisfy the reviews results in average content, which soon disappears.

Things made for everybody are actually made for nobody. These things are called commodities.

Things made specifically for someone are called art. These things endure.

The Rundown: Week of September 10 – 16, 2018

I take in a lot of articles, blogs and podcasts through the week. It feels wasteful to keep all this goodness to myself. Here are a few highlights of things I read or heard that are worth your time.

Worth a read

Stewart, Susan. “Use a Story Structure to Make Writing Your Novel a Lot Easier.” The Writing Cooperative. 2018sept06.

Stewart offers a quick blog post (4 minute read) about the value of studying particular narrative forms as an aid to organizing your own work. When writing fiction, I most often write from a very clear sense of an opening scene and improvise plot from there. This “Write From the Seat of My Pants” approach often sends me into dark alleys, where the plot is easily lost or confused.

Stewart suggests that command of narrative structure can help in advance with brainstorming major plot points, twists and character development. She offers six different forms: Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey; The Three Act Novel; The 7-point Story Structure; The W Story Structure; The Snowflake Method; and The Story Equation as structures to explore. The Hero’s Journey is famous as the plot structure employed for Star Wars. I have worked a bit recently with Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method, an interactive layering approach to story building. The article includes graphs, which helps visualize the major elements of each. It doesn’t matter so much which method you employ so much as it matters that you pick a method and practice it deeply. The Hero’s Journey and Snowflake Method are the two plot methods that appeal most to my work.

Hardy, Benjamin. “Here’s How Successful People Avoid Information Overwhelm.” Ladders. 2018Sept04.

This article celebrates the wisdom of intentionally limiting the information inputs you welcome into your life. Successful people are ruthless about protecting their attention so that they stay focused on the things that matter most to them. Lots of things matter but you cannot possibly take it all in. You certainly can’t act on most of it. Too much information means too many choices about where to place your attention. Paralysis and fatigue sets in.

Here’s the crux: “Removing options is not limiting, it’s liberating. It allows you actually to have a path, a plan, and to get some traction. Most people are tossed to and fro with every new idea. They have no stable footing upon which to stand, and consequently, they are wholly aimless and confused by the complexity of everything going on around them.”

Decide what you are trying to accomplish and only study those things. You will miss out on things that matter, to be sure, but the most important of those other things will inevitably show up in your attention eventually.

Rosen, Jeffrey. “America is Living in James Madison’s Nightmare.” The Atlantic. October 2018 issue.

The Founding Fathers designed American government to be as democratic as they dared with protections built in to protect against the worst impulses of mob rule. Our social media age is the latest in an ongoing evolution of technologies that help like-minded people find each other across ever greater distances while shortening the time between thought and action. In preparing the Federalist Papers, Madison studied the demise of historical democracies and placed his faith in the size of country as a natural brake on intemperate acts. It turned out that newspapers and, eventually, political parties worked against the cooling potential of size. Insightful read on our present moment and where we might go from here. Inspired me to read the Federalist Papers ASAP.

Worth a listen

Trash! Planet Money. (Episode 613)

Turns out, recycling is a business and is prone to market fluctuations. The plastic you put out at the curb doesn’t always make it into the post-consumer after life. They know. They placed tracking devices on their trash to see where it goes.

Is the 1st Amendment Obsolete? On the Media. 2018Sept07.

Summary: “Between the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, an anonymous op-ed in The New York Times and the Senate hearings on Twitter and Facebook policies, questions about political decorum and dissent percolated all week on Capitol Hill. During this time of heated debate and protest, however, many of us continue to use dated terms to describe freedom of speech. According to constitutional law scholar Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants, the language of the First Amendment fails to incorporate how speech is censored in 2018: by online mobs, anonymous death threats and the flooding of news-feeds with pro-government narratives. He and Bob discuss why the 1st Amendment may be obsolete, and a new law that could protect our fragile free speech environment.”

The Story Behind the Numbers. TED Radio Hour. 2018Aug17.

We often assume we live in terrible times, but an exploration of data shows a very different possibility. Things may actually getting better for most people. Much better. Features author Steven Pinker and his argument that progress, while not inevitable, is happening. There is analysis of the Gross Domestic Product as an incomplete metric for national well-being. Most powerfully, a rather gloomy but hopeful discussion with Paul Gilding on the imperative of economic growth run up against Earth’s limited resources.

Superpowers. This American Life. 2001Feb23.

The best, funniest episode of This American Life ever. I’ll just leave it there for you.

Information (sharing) is power: Notes from Vint Cerf

I am a few years late to the podcast party, but I am here now and completely hooked. I drive an hour and 15 minutes every day and have found a well-chosen podcast to be a funner, more informative, more entertaining companion than music or the news. I follow quite a few in rotation but my heavy favorites are The Nerdist, Radiolab and, as of today, DecodeDC.

DecodeDC is a new project by NPR’s Andrea Seabrook. It is smart, focused and fun.

Sometime this week you will have a free 24 minutes and 34 seconds. In that free time, you need to listen to Seabrook’s interview with Vint Cerf  (Cerfing the Net) about intellectual property law, the copy-machine nature of the web and the coming Internet of Things. Cerf is the main founder of the World Wide Web, which is, as he says, the crucial human tool of the 21st century. The Web underlies everything. We are accustomed to hearing people say that “information is power.”  Cerf says this is wrong. Instead, information sharing is power.

The Internet has become so essential so quickly because it is a catalyst that allows people to share ideas efficiently. The problems and challenges we face are immense. The solutions require everyone’s best ideas and honest conversations. The internet makes this conversation possible.

Cerf tackles the adage “Information wants to be free”. This is true, he says, in the sense that information wants to be freely accessible. It doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be able to charge for access to valuable information and cultural products. Just that the information should not be hidden, undiscoverable behind pay walls. Current intellectual property law favors corporations and the descendants on culture creators at the expense of the people who would use that culture to create new art, solve problems and move everyone forward. We are losing access to our own tools of cultural creation.

Cerf also talks about the need to talk more about new business models to support cultural creation rather than focus on new restrictions designed to perpetuate old, non-functional models. He offers the notion of subscribing to a film producer or a television screenwriter as a way to support and reward work. The idea is that through subscription-based models, patrons would continually support an artist’s next work of art rather than their last work.

Lots of challenging, interesting ideas here. And a brief riff on Angry Birds.

The interview is short, fun and accessible. If you are at all interested in how the internet works and why the internet matters, this 24 minutes will make you smile.