September 2005

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This is a post I wrote only a couple of days after Katrina first hit the Gulf Coast (Sept 1, from what my timestamp now says, apparently), but I didn’t put it up because it seemed a little early to be opining about quasi-political technical philosophy in the midst of an emergency.

Now that I’m seeing others post about it (example here) I suddenly recalled my unpublished post … so here it is…

Stewart Brand and others have promoted the idea of open architectures, simple open systems, for meeting human needs more readily, efficiently and sustainably (and more humanely and intimately for that matter).

The Katrina situation shows how simple web structures that allow great emergence and complexity with social interaction can be useful in a pinch.

For example, the Katrina Help Wiki: Main Page – KatrinaHelp

As well as the use of Craigs List for Lost and Found as well as housing coordination.

Craigs List is a beautiful example: it’s so open and easy to use, and so simplified, that it becomes the path of least resistance. People can check it easily on slow connections or even their phones (I think). Precisely why more commercial and glitzy complex sites aren’t being used for the purpose.

Is CraigsList making money from it? Not directly. They make their money from paid job postings. But when New Orleans rebuilds and people need to hire workers, I wonder what site will occur to them first?

[Edited to add: Craig wrote in the comments that they “have no plans at all to charge in New Orleans… and have provided free job postings related to Katrina, and have actually lost money on that.” My point above was only that organizations that don’t take advantage of adversity, but show generosity, come out better in the end with more loyal and trusting constituents.]

When I write about the ‘net, I keep fearing I’m being too repetitive about how astoundingly different the fabric of human meaning is becoming due to this technology (and actually not the technology but its use).

Then I run across others saying similar stuff and I don’t feel so bad, such as David Weinberger on The New “Is.”

We are talking with one another, thinking out loud across presumptions and continents. If you want to know about an idea, you could go to an encyclopedia and read what an expert says about it. Or you could find a blog that talks about it and start following the web of links. You’ll not just see multiple points of view, you’ll hear those points of view in conversation. That’s new in the world.

Sharon Olds RSVP’s

Poet Sharon Olds wrote back to the White House (to Laura Bush) her reasons for not attending the National Book Festival as a featured writer & speaker. It’s reprinted at The Nation. The quotation below is something she leads up to, and doesn’t just come right out and say in the beginning. In fact, the letter is somewhat disarming for a bit, somewhat chatty and warm, but then it suddenly turns downward and ends with:

So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame, for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it.

Olds has a knack for plain, visceral imagery that takes ordinary words and weaves them for extraordinary effect.


In my ever-expanding obsession with coining terms*, I’ve come up with another one: Ustiquity.

It’s the property of being both “ubiquitous” and “sticky” that describes information on the Internet and the increasingly available manner in which we access that information.

See, we’re all creating information, having conversations, making thoughts explicit with language. We’ve always done that. But now, because we do so much of it online, it’s sticking around — discussions I had on usenet in 1993 are still out there someplace, searchable with Google.

Stickiness has existed in other media, of course, such as writing something and putting it into a shoebox or publishing it, in which case it’s in a library and others can find it there. But on the Internet, it’s available to everyone all the time.

In addition to this, the Internet is doing a pretty impressive job of not “staying put” — it won’t stay on our computers. It’s leaking out all over the place. Onto our phones, our iPods, our Blackberries, our car consoles, and even some high-end refrigerators. Basically, the deal is that this is only the beginning. Younger people are already expecting to be able to access the ‘net from wherever they happen to be (Good lord, who knew that Buckaroo Bonzai’s silly “Wherever you go, there you are” koan would end up being prescient??).

Ustiquity is this property of stickiness (things don’t decay or drift away as easily — they tend to stay around, even if it’s just on the Wayback Machine or in Google’s cache database) plus ubiquity (all that stuff that’s sticking around is becoming more and more available, anywhere, anytime).

This doesn’t mean that it makes it easier to access … it just means it’s possible. The more ustiquitous stuff there is in the world, the harder it is to find any particular item.

So, ustiquity is an opportunity, but it’s also a heck of a challenge.

Feel free to use this term whenever you want. You can credit me or not, up to you. I can always point to my dated entry on my blog, or give ustiquity a much-ballyhooed Technorati tag, which will probably end up on a web archive someplace, somewhere, and therefore everywhere and always.

Unless, of course, it doesn’t.

(* Previous coinings include “metafatigue” and “gurule.” Yes, this is a sad little hobby. )

Almond on Nabokov

My erstwhile MFA classmate Steve Almond posts about the 50th anniversary of Lolita:

AlterNet: MediaCulture: ‘Lolita’ Hits Fifty

Nabokov is nothing less than a poet of desire… Big ideas, witty observations and tricky plotlines are all fine and well. But the engine of any great book is desire. And by that standard, Lolita is a Mack truck.

Earlier in the article, he talks about a bar he and other grad students would gather in — I know the bar he’s talking about … coldest PBR’s in Greensboro. Makes me wish I’d been in more of those conversations.

I went to college in South Carolina, not very far from the old PTL/Heritage USA complex. I never went, but had friends who did as a sort of anthropological excursion. I imagine a number of other students went with no sense of irony whatsoever.

One professor at my college had an idea he was studying: that the architecture of Heritage was in some ways similar to other Christian structures and properties from history — I don’t remember the details, only a comparison of aerial photos, etc. He was fascinated with the striking similarities in spite of the fact that it was very unlikely they were intentional.

Anyway, I ran across a link from a blog today (can’t remember which now) to a lot of pictures of Heritage USA somebody snapped by sneaking into the now-dilapidated park.

It’s haunting, to see all this naive architecture rotting in the sun. This place represented, for thousands of people, an insulated vision of an ideal America, mish-mashed with neo-Christian piety. Safety from the sordidness of secular life, but with so many of that life’s suburban-dream indulgences.

I was trying to find a picture of the “King’s Castle” from before it was falling apart, and discovered this site:

Heritage USA – Ghost town in Fort Mill Photo Gallery by Ace Pryhill at

When I looked over the comments, I had a long-held assumption of mine punctured. I had assumed that the PTL scandal, and the subsequent exposure of just how absurd the Bakkers and their ilk were, had been perceived with some consistency in the country, but I suppose I was wrong. The comments on this site bear witness to many people who are still big believers in the mission of PTL.

And people wonder why, in spite of the obvious incompetence, so many still believe in the current administration? Like the man said, you can fool some of the people all of the time.

Anyway, I’m sort of fascinated with this pictorial comparison… the “King’s Castle” from PTL, ruined by neglect brought on by hubris, and Ronald McDonald smiling in front of a ruined McDonald’s in Biloxi after Katrina. I’m not making a point with the juxtaposition … I just think it’s an interesting juxtaposition.

King's Castle at PTLRonald Waves

Clinton unleashed

It’s nice to see that, in spite of his gladhanding with W’s dad for Katrina donations, Clinton can still stir up some dust.

I have to wonder, though, why his spouse isn’t speaking so plainly? Why aren’t other leading Democrats just coming right out and saying what needs to be said? Am I missing it somehow?

ABC News: Clinton Rips Bush Fiscal, Tax Policies

We depend on Japan, China, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and Korea primarily to basically loan us money every day of the year to cover my tax cut and these conflicts and Katrina. I don’t think it makes any sense. I think it’s wrong.

David Cronenberg’s Body Language – New York Times

Cronenberg is now a year older than his father was when he died. And while there is nothing “old” about him other than his shock of white hair, you can see in both “A History of Violence” and its predecessor, “Spider,” that his gaze as an artist is starting to turn backward – from the presumed horrors of the future to the permeability of the border between present and past, the invisible distinction between who we were once and who we think we are now.

Excellent interview/article on Cronenberg.

via jjg

Ok, I posted about this because it sounded so convincing, but then read criticisms of it (such as this one) … I’m leaving my original post up below here because, well, it’s what I posted, but I’m really curious to see what else comes up about this — some of the criticism seems to focus on one or another bit of Roberts’ ‘theory’ but not the whole thing.

Anyway… Here’s my original post.

I just read a paper written by a psychologist at Berkeley. He builds on the accepted concepts that the brain has a certain ‘setting’ where it wants to keep each individual person’s body fat, and that it can be affected. He proposes that it’s the relationship between the stimulus of taste (which has to be very similar from one meal to the next) closely followed by caloric intake registering in the brain, which causes the brain to pump out the chemistry that keeps fat on our bodies.

A food is fattening (raises the set point) to the extent its flavor is associated with calories.
The strongest flavor-calorie associations will occur, learning research implies, when four things are true: (a) the flavor is strong and complex flavor; (b) the food is digested quickly; (c) the food is eaten repeatedly; and (d) the flavor is exactly the same from one instance to the next. These four traits combine in a multiplicative way in the sense that if one is entirely absent, the food will not raise the set point at all.

It’s confusing reading in places, but it’s amazing — it starts making more sense about 5-6 pages into it, when the examples are more concrete and there’s less quoting of previous academic stuff.

Here’s the article:

The article that pointed me to it was on the Freakonomics website:

It explains why the South Beach thing works (and explains why the South Beach explanation for why it works isn’t the whole story, though I don’t think they ever really say South Beach? — they just talk about low-GI diets in general)

Basically, your brain will choose one kind of food over another if it gives a quicker/higher caloric boost and it also tastes better. In the US, there’s such an abundance of this kind of food, especially fast food and most grocery store branded products, that our brains naturally gravitate toward this stuff. The sameness of the food from one eating to the next is very important too: even some slight differences in taste can throw this mechanism off. But because so many foods (even in groceries and non-fast-food restaurants now, like Chilis and whatnot) are available nation-wide or in every neighborhood and always taste the same, our brains can avail themselves of this experience in ways unprecedented in human history until recently.

In low-glycemic-index (low GI) foods, they may taste great even, but because they take longer to digest and the calories take longer to hit the bloodstream and register in the brain, the effect isn’t the same (it’s the overlap between taste and calorie-registering that over time bumps up the brain’s need to eat certain foods to keep fat stores high, because we’re evolved to keep them high in times of plenty). I’m way over-simplifying this, but anyway, it makes so much sense!

The paper goes on to explain why it used to be that the poor in the US were thin while the rich were fat, and why it’s reversed. (Although in most countries the poor are still pretty thin.)

Quick disclaimer: I realize there is still a lot of rescuing, grieving, and hard work to do in the Gulf coast. I respect the city of New Orleans, and its people. This post is just me thinking out loud about a bigger issue, possibly prompted mainly by my “corruption” in English Lit grad school.

I just read this article in the Washington Post — A Sad Truth: Cities Aren’t Forever — and wondered about a few things.

Only in July, I heard a wonderful story on NPR about the 100 year old restaurant Galatoire’s, where various folks were interviewed about its history and its long-time clientele. The verbal posture and language, the way these people spoke of the area and its sultry, complex eccentricities, reminded me of something, but I wasn’t sure what.

Finally I realized what it reminded me of: the way expatriates talk about the near-third-world places where they’ve set up shop with their little typewriters over the last hundred years or so. Hemingway in Mexico or Spain, or William Burroughs in Tangier (and Mexico too, for that matter). Other examples that I can’t think of at the moment … but it made me wonder other stuff …

Was the “New Orleans” so many of us romanticize actually a sort of last-bastion of this kind of existence? That is, relatively well-off intellectual white folks sipping coffee (or bourbon or whatever) in old-world surroundings, steeped in “dark” mystery? It makes me think of Post-Colonial Lit Theory: essentially the worldview and literature sprouting from a people who occupy another, weaker or poorer (or at least colonized) country or people.

I’m oversimplifying, and maybe even misappropriating, but New Orleans has always seemed the sort of place where people could be writers and artists and languidly soak up the atmosphere of the place, and then use it as grist for their typewritten mills, without actually having to be one of the poor and downtrodden folk who make up the majority of the mysterious “dark” (yeah that word is, in an academic sense, “problematized,” because of the racial connection, but here I’ll only acknowledge it; to get into it much would be a huge tangent) vibe surrounding them.

Even one of my favorite James Bond movies, “To Live and Let Die,” takes place partly in New Orleans and in the Caribbean, and makes great use of the “voodoo” spookiness and, let’s face it, sultry sexuality through a Hollywood lens. Same for the infamous “Angel Heart” film, with chicken blood and everything.

What I’m getting at is this: when I read the article I linked above, I wondered if the romantic New Orleans that so many of us want to fight to preserve is really just a sort of weird Disney World version of the city that’s built on the backs of the hundreds of thousands of poor people surrounding it? Evidently what most outsiders (and the relatively well-off in NO) like to think of as New Orleans is really just a small part of the city, a crescent slice of Orleans Parish.

From the article:

That tourist crescent is relatively intact. (Only two of the 1,500 animals at the Audubon Zoo died.) But it is only perhaps 10 percent of the city. … The rest to the north of the river … is under as much as 25 feet of water. For the last 90 years, this vast bulk of the city has required mammoth pumps to clear the streets every time it rains. This is where you’d find … areas of soul-destroying poverty, part of the shredding fabric of a city that had a poverty rate of 23 percent. …

Plus there’s the rest of the city, which doesn’t fare much better (many of the other parishes). Does this explain in part the huge failure of preparation and evacuation? (although to be fair, hundreds of thousands of even the very poor *were* rescued and evacuated) I mean, though, is part of the reason that many of the levees never were quite up to par was that those parts of the city were systemically written off in the collective imagination of the culture?

If I were still in academia, I’d jump on this concept: of New Orleans as a last holdout of post-colonial romanticism.

This isn’t to say that all the people in the city don’t deserve to have their homes back. It’s not to condone the situation in any way. It just makes me wonder if we need to question some assumptions.

Roz on ADD

Minutes from the ADD Support Group

Either Ms. Chast has ADD herself, or she knows somebody very well who does.

I saw this in this week’s New Yorker. The text goes like this:

1. Call to order.
2. Speaker introducted. Didn’t catch name.
3. Talk talk talk. Blah blah blah. Sooooo BORING!
4. Speaker looks like Cousin Jeremy.
5. Note to self: YOU OWE JEREMY AN EMAIL.
6. God, I never answered Miriam’s email either.
7. No *way* I’m cooking dinner tonight. We’ll order something.
8. Everybody left. Why am I still sitting here?

Peter Morville has a new book coming out, “Ambient Findability,” and a blog to match: The book is from O’Reilly, and has a blurb from Bruce Sterling, which gives it enormous geek-cool cred.

So far, the book looks like a lucid, imaginative paradigm-shifter that’s sorely needed. From what I can tell from the intro chapter (available on the site), it focuses less on the “biztech” piece of the new internetworked global village, and more on the elusive human impact of the new world we’ve made for ourselves.

From the introductory chapter:

It’s not enough to focus on the I in IT. We must also lose the C in HCI. Because ambient findability is less about the computer than the complex interactions between humans and information.

I haven’t read the rest of the book yet, so I don’t know if what I’m thinking is in line with what the rest of “Ambient Findability” says (so, that is, don’t take my ravings as a reflection on Peter’s undoubtedly more considered and level-headed message).

But, that said, I’ve felt for a long time that the technology device is just the throwaway, surface conduit for an epochal human phenomenon. Focusing on interfaces and technologies, while necessary gruntwork for making the things we use to do what we do, it’s the “what we do” that is so amazing and life-changing. It’s shifting the way we think of basic human concepts like “nation” or “city” or “language” or “time.” Like most things of this sort, it happens almost invisibly (although it’s incredibly rapid, compared to, say, the printing press, or the telephone even), so that we wake up taking much of it for granted and not realizing how far we’ve gone.

But what about those of us who *like* knowing where we’re heading, and who want to have some part in shaping the trajectory? This sounds like it’s definitely a book for us.

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