May 09, 2009

ETF FAIL: Understanding Time/Volatility Decay in Short and Leveraged ETFS

There is a crack epidemic on the stock market. It trades by a variety of street names, FAZ, FAS, SRS, TZA & QID being just a few. Like crack cocaine these vehicles promise fast and stunning highs, one small hit can take you to the top. Occasionally they even succeed, but like crack cocaine these vehicles are doomed to collapse, each successive hit providing ever diminishing returns, lower lows that an addict believes they can only escape from via another hit.

Unlike crack there is nothing illegal about these things, they are short and/or leveraged ETFs. Exchange Traded Funds designed to replicate the effects of shorting various industries and trading with high amounts of leverage like the big boys do. ETFs are a very new concept to finance, they are basically mutual fund like entities that trade on the stock market, making them more liquid and more accessible to investors than mutual funds. They've been around for about two decades, but it's only in the last few years that they have really taken off in big numbers, with "innovative" short (aka bear) and 2x or 3x leveraged ETFs popping up left and right. Take a look at a chart for FAZ, the 3x Short Financial Industry ETF and look at the volume indicator on the bottom to get a sense how interesting in these things has exploded.

In 2008 leveraged bear etfs like FAZ were tickets to riches, as the stock market crashed they erupted in value, possibly making a few clever operators insanely rich. But that initial success quickly turned nasty. These ETFs are all flawed to the core, they are designed in a way that they decay over time, their values fluctuate up in down, but the overall tend is mathematically almost guaranteed to be down. The easiest way to see this flaw is the look at chart of a leveraged Bull and Bear pair over time. FAZ is a 3x Bear, it is designed to go up when financial industry stocks go down, and to return 3 times more than the value that those stocks go down. FAS is the 3x Bull counterpart, it is designed to go up when the financials go up, and to go up 3 times faster on a daily basis.

One would logically expect these two ETFs to cancel each other out, one goes up 3x when the other goes down 3x, so over time the net result should be zero. Yet if one looks at chart of these two mapped out over the past 6 months a very different picture is drawn. FAZ is down 94%, and FAS somehow is down too, by an almost as nasty 75%. Both are decaying rapidly taking their holders down to the bottom all because of a nasty mathematical quirk (or less generously flaw) in their design.

What's happening is volatility decay, these ETFs all lose value when the stock indexes they track are fluctuating up and down. The key to understanding why is a very basic mathematical fact relating to the way these ETFs are designed to reflect the daily percent changes of the parts of the stock market. The problem is that percents going up and percents going down don't always sync up, but instead have a distinct downward trend. This is easiest to see by looking at a 3x leveraged ETF. Lets call this ETF BSBS, and assume it's positively tracking the Bull Shit Index. When it starts both the index and BSBS are valued at 100. The next day the index goes up by 25% to 125. Now BSBS is designed to return 3 times that percentage or 75% so it goes up to 175. For a day at least it's a great investment vehicle. Now suppose the next day the index falls back down to earth, a 20% decline back down to 100. Well BSBS is now designed to go down 3x that or 60%. Now 60% of 175 is 105, a monstrous decline. The BSBS ETF is now all the way down to 70, while the index is still hanging in at 100. That's it in an essence, these things rise fast, but they fall even faster. It's that simple and that toxic.

The exact same thing is even truer with Bear ETFs. A non leveraged Bull ETF will actually have no volatility decay (although there are other smaller decays in their design). But the corresponding non leveraged Bear ETF will have a decay. Say you have a Bear ETP called UUPP designed to track the Bull Shit Index. Like BSBS it starts with both UUPP and the index at 100. Now say that the index goes down 25% to 75. Well that's why you bought UUPP, cause you wanted to sell that Bull Shit Index short and for a day you were right, UUPP goes up 25% to 125. Now the next day, the index doesn't behave and goes back up to 100, a 33.3% rise from 75. Well the index is back where you started, but was does UUPP do? It does down 33.3% from 125 to... 83.75. Yep, once again the ETF structure is screwing you. There is only one way in the end with these drugs and it's down.

Now one has to assume the ETF makers are well aware of these properties, yet they still sell the ETFs. Of course to protect themselves they warn the buyers, these ETFs are marketed as daytrader vehicles, things that should be bought and sold over the very short term, a few hours at a time maybe, if not a few minutes and a day or two maximum. Its a fair enough warning and not bad advice, but it's also a misleading warning. The reason is that there are circumstances where these ETFs are actually perform well over longer periods of time, and in 2008 we experienced some of these circumstances. Buying say QID (2x Short the Nasdaq index) in early 2008 and holding on to it for the year would have netted you a very healthy return.

When the stock market is trending very strongly in one direction, with very little volatility, just day in and day out moving the same way, than a leveraged ETF in that direction is going to produce stunning results. But stock markets rarely move smoothly, they stop, start, reverse, correct, roll sideways and then jump. They usually have some direction, but it's rarely and clear path, and it's the volatility that cracks you.

There is at least one more misleading thing about how these ETFs are framed as well, the way the term leverage is used. There are situations where an 3x "leveraged" ETF produces returns a similar result to being 3x leveraged (ie borrowing money to buy three times the amount of a stock than you have the cash for.) There are also situations where the results are quite different. Again it's the result of a basic mathematical effect/flaw in the ETF construction. Basically these ETF return numbers like classic leveraged situations when moving away from your baseline investment. However as soon as there is any reversion back towards that baseline the numbers begin to skew.

Say you have $100 that you want to use to buy XXX. But you want to make more money so you go borrow $200 more so you can buy $300 worth. That's classic leverage. If the next day XXX jumps up 25% to $125, well you now have $375 worth of stock and $200 in debt. Net result is being up $75 on a $100 investment, so you've made 3 times the 25% increase in the stock.

You could also buy XETF though an 3x ETF that tracks XXX. $100 worth, on day one would also go up 3x the 25% increase, so far so good, you've made triple profits without even borrowing money. Sounds a little too good to be true, no? It is. Cause say the next day XXX goes back to 100, a 20% decline. In the classic leveraged situation you go from holding $375 to holding $300. Minus your debt you are even (ignoring interest for simplicity.) Not great, but not bad either. But with the "leveraged" ETF, as we've seen before, that same 20% decline in XXX is going to have a different result. It will produce a 3x the percentage decline, so 60%. Now 60% of 175 is 105, so this ETF is decaying down to 70. Instead of being flat on your initial $100, like you would in a classic leveraged situation you are down 30. Just like a crackhead you just can't back to those initial highs like that can you?

Posted by Abe at 11:37 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

November 13, 2008

Outlier Tailored Performance


Outlier is my new venture. Probably find me writing a bit more there then here for a while. Outlier makes tailored performance clothing for cycling in the city. SItes filled with info so take a look. Smart shoppers probably want to head here or here to catch a discount...


Posted by Abe at 06:52 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 25, 2008

No Comment


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January 23, 2008

Off the Waterfront


50 years ago NY was a city of docks. Just about it's entire history and rise stemmed from it's port. It's ability to connect mainland America to Europe, followed by the factories that piggybacked that transport network, the financial firms that swished the money around for everyone, the media companies that circulated the necessary information and the vibrant culture that grew out of that concentration of money, transport and people. Airplanes, container ships and interstate highways finally killed the docks though, and New York's water front slowly decayed and transformed itself into residential communities and parklands.

And for this moment it seems quite nice.

But we are staring straight into the face of an energy crisis. Two questions loom. When does the oil run out? And when do we have enough alternative fuels to not rely on oil? If those two dates overlap, well who cares, the path we are on will stay relatively smooth. But what if they don't.

Maybe, just maybe we'll need those docks back...

October 24, 2007

Photoshop by Committee


It's easy to just say design by committee. The story behind the new New York City Taxi graphics reads like a text book case. A firm makes a design. The client gives feedback. A new look comes in. Another firm comes late in the game with a new design element. A powerful department rejects a design for intruding on it's turf. The result is a sloppy hodgepodge of elements. Designers are rather predictably lining up to critique it.

Personally I rather like it. NYC Taxis have always had a sloppy mix of design elements on their side. Anything cleaner and neater, anything better designed, would threaten the only design element that matters. The bright yellow color screams "New York Taxi" louder than anything millions of design and innovation consulting fees could ever generate. As long as the cabs stay yellow, those taxis will look the same. What will never look the same again is NYC.

The new taxis provided a bit of political cover for an even bigger design project. New York City has a new logo. The suddenly infamous Wolff Olins designed it. and the new NYC taxis are the first place most New Yorkers have been exposed to it. Those taxis are design by committee, but that logo is something different. You can call it Photoshop by committee. Get used to it cause you'll be seeing a whole lot more of it.

What happens when you have a committee where every single member has a copy of Photoshop on their computer? Or worse yet every member has a designer on staff? Design by committee once broke down to a bunch of opinions and needs, all sorted out by one or two designers. The committee stacked up its requirements, its problems and its bullshit, and the designer cooked it all up into some bland result. A designer in that situation today would feel blessed.

What happens in Photoshop by committee is far worse. The needs and the problems and the bullshit are still there of course. But then comes the designs. Not just from the designer, but from the committee members. From their staff designers. From their assistants. From their teenagers and toddlers. From their neighbors, coffee shop baristas and dogs. Committees were once additive, the members just piled on the guidelines and suggestions and the designer boiled them down into a result. Now committees are recombinant. They warp, splinter and evolve into competing designs. The designer is barely the designer at all. They are the person who must make these mutations all work together.

Design by committee is about making rules. Photoshop by committee is about breaking rules. It's often the only way the designer can get the multiplying designs to recombine. Wolff Olins' professional salespeople call this "container logos" and it seems to be winning them some super premium clients. Most of us would just call it bullshit, but we aren't the ones with the super premium clients.

In the case of New York City what this amounts to is a big old smudge of the letters NYC. Not surprisingly it looks a lot like design from the early days of Photoshop. A design from an era where designers had no idea how to use the powertools in their hands. It's ugly and clunky and has nothing to do with NYC beyond using the letters. I love it. It follows none of the rules of design that stifle the profession. It's loud and bold and will show up in all sorts of places. Like the full NYC taxi design it graces, it will never step out of the shadows of a far bolder design, Milton Glaser's classic I (heart) NY logo. Is it great graphic design? Not at all. But it is great Photoshop by committee and it will work just fine.

Posted by Abe at 09:57 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 08, 2007

Anticongestion Antipricing

Every once in a while a political issue rises up to put your various political beliefs to the test. As a cyclist and bicycle commuter in New York City I'm a huge advocate of Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan. As a pragmatist I like it even more, the track record of congestion pricing in London is stellar, this isn't just an idea du jour, its one that's proven to be both implementable and effective. Bloomberg sometimes moves with a speed that's shocking unpolitical, and he whipped the idea of congestion pricing in NY from a political dead letter to the hot issue of the day in months, and it was easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm. But then it ran straight into some classic legislative congestion in the form of the New York State legislature and all of a sudden no on has any clue where this plan is going. It's in that pause that I remembered one thing and realized another. One congestion pricing is some scary surveillance society shit, and two that there probably is a much better way.

While I'm on my bike I'm pretty much in favor of any idea that gets cars out of the way and away from me. Everyone has there own little biases, and I've come to realize I don't believe anyone behind the wheel of a car has any rights at all. They might be my favorite person in the world, but when they are driving (and I'm not in the car!) well they are just another one of those subhuman driver things... But congestion pricing is something of trojan horse for left, a concept that legitimizes extensive implementation of computer guided video surveillance, a vehicle to make our world feel a whole lot more 1984. Big Bloomberg is watching you, and making sure the streets stay nice and clear for those nice cyclists...

I've got a better idea, instead of building a massive infrastructure to watch the roads and bill the drivers a measly $8 a day, why not make driving in New York City (or at least Manhattan or in the legislative terms the CBD) truly expensive and clear the streets right out. Why not ban public parking? Just cut it out completely. Any vehical left unattended on a Manhattan CBD street gets towed. Real simple.

That's an extra two lanes on just about every street. You could make the left one a bike lane on every street for bonus points, but really I wouldn't even care. Wider streets with less cars would make NYC a cycling paradise with or without bikelanes. And at the rates garages charge in NY that will cut the amount of drivers radically, they'll be paying a whole lot more than $8 a day to drive around downtown that's for sure. Libertarians of all people have been getting hyped to a variation on this idea, but as per there style it's much more money obsessed. There version is that on street parking should be more expensive, that it should be charged at the market rate, in the libertarian eyes on street parking is a subsidized government privilege and they want the subsidy gone. I'll go further though. It's not the cheapness that's a privilege, it's the very existence of parking on the street. Maybe it made sense once, back in the day when cars were rare and stables more common than garages, but in this day and age the question we really need to ask is can cities afford to give that much public space over to parking private vehicles?

Posted by Abe at 01:58 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 05, 2007

Notes on the iPhone


- I wasn't planning on buying this thing, really. But after a trio of raves from some of my favorite interface commentators, I quickly realized I pretty much had no choice. There is no question the game has changed with this device.

- There was a period of time where the iPhone sat in the cradle, iTunes with the AT&T sign up screen loaded and the Treo on speakerphone hold with Sprint. For a half hour or so I sat there essentially debating which corporate force I should commit my soul (or at least my personal data) too.

- Of those three corporate monstrosities Apple is by far the scariest to me as it functions as a dictatorship. Whatever control Sprint or AT&T have over me is at least modulated by their natural bureaucratic inefficiencies.

- The fact that Apple went with what is apparently the weakest/worst cellular company shouldn't be surprising as they are also naturally the company most likely to give in to Apple's demands.

- The fact that I am once again an AT&T customer has not really set in yet. Once it does I'm sure it will be depressing.

- Palm/Treo is just too sad of an entity to be counted as either a corporate monstrosity or a threat. If they had expanded upon the Treo 300 in any sort of semi reasonable rate of progress over the past 4 years they'd have a device at least as exciting and useful as the iPhone. Who knows what the story is over there, but it's got to be too pitiful for me to want to hear it.

- There are about 18 million things that my Treo 700p does better than the iPhone, yet I have no intentions of ever going back. The Treo is just too damn heavy compared to the iPhone. Not in weight really, but in thickness, in processor slowness, in interface sludge and a stubborn resistance to evolution.

- The iPhone is really a computer. It's explosive success in part comes from being the first mobile device designed as such and actually succeeding. Most phones are designed like overgrown pocket calculators. The Palm and Treo owe there success to working well with the limitations of late 90's chips and making a great intermediate device. The iPhone is the real thing.

- The iPhone fits in my pocket so well it convinced me to eliminate half the items in my pockets.

- The iPhone is too symmetrical, there are no great tactile clues on how to orient the phone when you take it out of your pocket. It is just as intuitive to hold it upside down as it is right side up.

- The multitouch interface is incredibly intuitive, you feel like an expert user from practically the first touch.

- An incredible effort has gone into making this thing feel smooth and seamless.

- All the organic sliding looks and feels great and also owes an incredible debt to the much maligned interface designs of Flash websites.

- The iPhone interface designers could learn a fuck load from the early Palm's insistence on eliminating as many unnecessary clicks as possible. There is a subtle tendency to hide poorly thought out interface ideas under animation effects. It's not to bad yet but I can easily see it becoming an issue in the future.

- There is some serious inconsistency in the interfaces. Notes gets a big WTF for one, did someone's grandkid code that one? Weather gets a whole icon on the home and then leads to an essentially flat app, no detail. The little one that annoys me is the edit button on the sms & email apps, it's in a different place on what are otherwise nearly identical interfaces. The lack of search in contacts is mystifying as there are contact search functions in other parts of the phone, it's a bit odd.

- What retard decided there was no need for any sort of multi-selection? Deleting email one at a time is a serious chore and copy and paste just doesn't exist. This better be a temporary glitch not some one button mouse obsessive disaster.

- As much as it pains me to say it, the flexibility of the multitouch interface seems to trump the tactile feedback of hard buttons. If anything there might actually be one hard button too many on the iPhone.

- Tactile buttons aren't going anywhere though, they just need to be built for specific uses and separated from the general device. The iPod aspect of the "phone" is in parts exceptional, but doing something as simple as skipping to the next song can be a laborious chore.

- Adding physical buttons back onto the iPhone is pretty much the kiss of death, the computer in your pocket effect only works as long this device stays as slim and seamless enough to be able to forget you are carrying it.

(update - I quickly realized I'm wrong on this, a standard phone like five way button where the home button is now would be great. A button or two on the left & right of that would really help too.)

- Externalizing the physical buttons into an external device (an iPod remote for instance) seems like the best solution, but it's still a compromise, the proliferation of devices does not end with the iPhone. It may be the most convergent of all mobile devices yet, but convergence is starting to look like a phenomena that occurs in tandem with, rather than in opposition to the seemingly exponential growth of devices.

- Is anyone working on a tactile touch screen? A screen capable of producing some sort on non audio-visual feedback? The future is begging for it.

- The iPhone needs 3G badly, the difference between using it on WiFi and on AT&Ts network is radical.

- The lack of 3G sucks for us early adaptors, but it might be great for WiFi. I'm almost certainly reopening my personal connection up to the public, after knee jerk adding a password to it. I wonder if Apple will start shipping Airport stations that default to open?

- Using the iPhone gives you a totally different understanding of WiFi, a real understanding of what a WiFi mesh might be, as opposed to an isolated set of access points that you laptop into the internet from.

- If this phone shipped with 3G wireless data, WiFi would be pretty much a mute point.

- The difference between using a WiFi mesh network and 3G network provided by a cellular company is intensely political. Yet the only difference the end user might will generally notice will probably be in their cell phone bill. And it's unclear whether that difference will be an increase or decrease.

- Playing with the iPhone really does feel like you are playing with the future. Yet function wise the only real difference is in the interface. Other than perhaps the very nice visual voicemail, there are no applications on the iPhone that aren't already bundled together in most of the smart phones that have been on the market for a while already. Is this device just a slick slight of media trick, or has Apple (and/or Steve Jobs) really singlehandedly pushed us into the next generation?

Posted by Abe at 10:38 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 11, 2007

All Free

Freebase is exactly the sort of thing that you only take seriously once you know Danny Hillis is behind it. Hillis is a bit of an underground hero in a world where many of his nerd peers skyrocket to fame in the business press, if not in popular culture as a whole. A nerd's nerd, his best known company went belly up in the 80's, his current one flies well under the radar and the NYT article linked above introduces him by mentioning his time as a Disney Imagineer, although it's never been clear he did anything notable there. But that first company was years ahead of it's time, his slim book Pattern on the Stone is easily the definitive text on how computers actually work and his Long Now Foundation one of the more audacious and mindboggling non-profits around (and one in which I'm technically a "charter member".) So yeah, when Danny Hillis launches a venture, you know the nerds at least are listening.

Freebase is the latest in a long series of essentially failed attempts to transform information into meaning. Or more specifically to transform computer readable information into computer readable meaning. Many have walked that path before, and in the end there is only one real success story, but that success story was Google with their Page Rank algorithm that made them a success. And like Google, Hillis is starting this venture with the best of intentions, and like Google Hillis is already starting say things that should make you very afraid.

The rhetoric of Freebase is all about freedom, openness and sharing. Everything about it says this is for you, this is for free this for the good of the world. Yet with a simple turn of a phrase or perhaps a slip of the tongue, Hillis lets on that he doesn't just want to share a lot of information, he wants it all. “We’re trying to create the world’s database, with all of the world’s information,” are his words and they probably sound familiar to anyone who has read a bit about Google over the past couple years. Despite loudly saying "don't be evil" Google is known to talk about the goal of "organizing all the world's information."* A phrase perhaps better suited for a cartoon supervillian than a large corporation.

The all might sound innocuous enough at first, until you place it into the context of Google's own actions. Perhaps you have a Gmail account, or at least send emails to someone who does. All the worlds info includes everything on those emails, do you want Google organizing all that information? The Gmail terms of service originally indicated that emails you delete might not actually be deleted off their servers, does that make "all the world's information" sound a little different then before? Some information is meant to disappear, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Google it seems is not willing to make that distinction, although ironically they more than any other entity have the power to make things disappear. Instead of a situation were information is either available or not, we are creeping towards a world where information is either available through the front of Google, or it's only available the back, to those who can move through the backdoors of their databases.

Now I'm a huge fan of Hillis' work, and on a certain level Freebase is designed precisely to mitigate some of Google's emerging database monopoly, yet it's pushing forward with the exact same hubris that has made Google's "don't be evil" mantra such a sick joke upon the world. The rhetoric of freedom and openness may sound as universal as "all the worlds information", but it speaks to humans, while the information gathering is done by Turing machines. Hillis and the Freebase team are probably genuine in their interest in doing something for the world, but in the end they can only represent the interests of those that share their tech forward beliefs. Nestled safely in Silicon Valley it's probably easy to think the whole world shares those sentiments, but nothing could be further from the truth. The result it seems is a strange incubator where the supernerds slowly morph into supervillians, bent upon conquering the world (of information.)

*Google seems to have backed off this as public stance of late, but it still pops up on their site in places like their corporate philosophy page.

Posted by Abe at 02:22 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 19, 2007

Symbolic Action (In Defense of the New Radiation "Symbol")


Well next time you see that sign a coming you better run. It's a new supplemental symbol for radiation danger, commissioned by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and designed to convey danger in a more intuitive way then the traditional radiation "trefoil". Now the interaction designers over at Adaptive Path are absolutely turding all over the results (and Michael Beriut just sighs), and in many ways they are right, it clearly is the result of design by committee and there is nothing elegant nor simple about symbol they generated.

Then again, there is nothing simple nor elegant about dying from radiation poisoning is there? And to ask the IAEA and ISO to do anything but design by committee is akin to something in between asking for a complete redesign of international relations and the impossible. To accuse them of design by committee is a completely valid statement of fact, but it's also a rather impotent critique. To ask them not to design by committee may be fantasy, but we can very reasonably ask and expect them to design by committee the right way (or at least in one of the right ways) and with the new radiation symbol that appears to be be exactly what we got.

Now I have a lot of respect for Adaptive Path and I'm sure with the appropriate time and resources they could produce a symbol at least as good and most likely better than what has been created. In that process one of the first things they'd probably learn is something that is clearly not evident their current critique, that it is radically more difficult to create symbols that invoke action then it is to create symbols that describe objects.* At least at this juncture in time signage symbols are inherently static, solid and rigid. To transform a static, solid or rigid object into a symbol, is a relatively straight forward act of abstracting the objects characteristics into lines shapes and colors. Some objects are easier to work with than others, but all at least possess tangible starting points to abstract from. Verbs however are by there very nature intangible, and more difficult to capture in abstraction. When the goal is not just to encapsulate the verb, but actually trigger it, to create sign that does not just represent but actually creates an action then the challenge is exponentially harder, and that is exactly the challenge the IAEA and ISO were faced with, creating a sign that does not just warn people, but actually causes them to turn and run for their fucking lives. Not exactly the easiest task.

There is one sign that is radically more effective at creating action than any other, and that is the stop sign. Part of it's effectiveness is it's ubiquity, it many cultures you can find the stop sign just about everywhere, so it's easy for the meaning to get ingrained. The red color helps as well, but ultimately the stop sign is successful because all symbols are stop signs. Often it's more of a mental stop then the physical stop, but one can not process a symbol unless one pauses for microsecond and then reads it. When one reads the stop sign one has already begone the process of stopping, all the sign does is say continue on through with the stopping process. No matter how fast one might be traveling as soon as one actually sees the stop sign there is at least a little bit of inertia going into the act of stopping.

What this means in terms of making signs like the radiation symbol designed to induce action, is that task is even more difficult. Conveying an action in static is hard enough, and getting people to follow through and actually do the action it is exponentially harder, but on top of that the very fact that the message is embedded a symbol is invoking the exact opposite effect, causing the reader to pause and stop for at least a second before hopefully doing a 180° turn and running away. And it's this challenge that the committees of the IAEA and ISO were faced with as they went about designing their new symbol.

The result is indeed neither very elegant nor simple, but it is in fact I think rather effective and quite interesting.** Rather then produce a symbol as they claimed to have done, they actually produced something rather different, a small comic, five symbols sequenced to invoke an action. It's actually a rather innovative solution, something which contrary to the Adaptive Path post, you actually would not really expect to emerge from a committee in action. For if the goal is to create an action, a static symbol is not the right way to do it. But by creating a microcomic, a sequence of symbols, what emerges is not just a static sign, but a sign filled with action, filled with invisible gaps between the actual symbols, gaps that the mind fills in with actions. Gaps that turn the static noun of a flat still piece of signage into an active verb, a true call to action. It might not be the best looking sign but it pretty clearly warns far better than then old abstraction of the "trefoil." So there you have it, read the signage on the wall and get the fuck out of here ; )


  • This lack of distinction is clearly apparent in the hypothetical symbol for taxi that is used as a rhetorical device in the Adaptive Path blog post. A taxi is of course an object, a noun, while running from radiation is an action, a verb, yet in the post they imagine that the taxi symbol would be created in a similar manner as the run from radiation symbol.

** It is however certainly not perfect, I'm a bit concerned with how people accustomed to reading right to left would interpret the bottom, it could well mean "if you run you die". However the symbol was apparently tested in China, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, so at least due diligence seems to have been done in that regard.

Posted by Abe at 12:40 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 20, 2007

DJ Dramas || Parallel Economies

Close followers of hip hop, the music industry or the sidebar to this blog are probably well aware that the suddenly rather aptly named DJ Drama and his associate Don Cannon were arrested earlier this week and charged with the rather dubious felony of selling hip hop mixtapes. Drama was at the absolute top of his game, producing some of the most spectacular mixtapes of the past few years, most notably of late catapulting Lil Wayne into the role of hip hop's crown prince. Quite coincidentally (or perhaps not?) Drama was also about to receive some serious big journalism coverage, exposing the mixtape underground to a large audience almost completely outside it's standard base of operations. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was the prime driving force behind Drama's arrest and quite clearly they saw a threat in both his own rise and in the rise of mixtape itself as both an artistic and economic endeavor.

Over the past couple years the mixtape industry has grown into a rather uneasy but working relationship with the traditional music industry that the RIAA represents. The mixtape world was a place to find new talent, test new songs, and build up street level buzz for artists. For artists like 50 Cent, T.I. and the Dipset crew the result was millions of dollars for both the artists and the record labels. Many of the songs on those mixtape cds may have been unauthorized and living in a legal gray area, but their existence was sparking the sales of those officiated CDs that make the dues paying members of the RIAA their money. That relationships clearly is no longer, although it's rather unclear whether RIAA ever quite realized what sort of relationship many of its member had with the mixtape industry, ironically enough DJ Drama was due to release his first major label back mixtape.

Culturally the RIAA's actions are about as hamfisted and assbackwards as it gets. They just went out and arrested a friend and associate of some of their best artists and members and alienated even more of their customer base. But economically it's a whole other story. The mixtape industry operates in what could be called a parallel economy. It's products circulate in shadowy networks, it's transactions off the record, it's details unreported. One can imagine situations where big rappers get paid by DJs to appear on mixtapes, and one can also imagine situations where rappers pay DJs to place them on mixtapes. What actually goes down is pretty much behind the scenes and off the books.

The music and mixtape industries may have had an uneasy but working relationship, but now that the RIAA has gone on the offensive one can see just who really threatened who. The music industry has been running scared since Napster first rolled on the stage like the chupacabra, and the mixtape world is just the latest, and quite possibly the greatest threat yet. Peer to peer file sharing threatened the music industry right were it hurt the most, the area of distribution, the point where the record labels were taking in all their money. But distribution is only one part of the music industries much larger business structure. They are also in the business of what they call A&R, the finding, filtering and amplification of new talent. They provide high risk financing to artists. They are in the manufacturing business, creating the physical products for sale. And they are in the marketing business big time, hyping up artists and getting them the attention they often want, and almost always need in order to sell large amounts of music.

What is some remarkable about the mixtape industry is just how thoroughly it threatens the established recording industry. The mixtape industry has a manufacturing base, the ability to make hundreds of thousands, and most likely millions of units. DJ Drama alone had 80,000 CDs taken from him during his arrest. More importantly though it has a distribution network, the ability to get it's products into the hands of retailers across the entire US, and those retailers are for the most part completely outside the RIAA's standard sphere of influence. Then there is the A&R, a role that mixtape DJs played so well that more than a few have been recruited to the major labels, and sometimes even given their own imprint to develop. All that the mixtape industry lacked was large artist development and marketing budgets of the major labels. But even with marketing the mixtape players were in all likelihood selling far more CDs per marketing dollar spent than the labels, and with that sort of result the artist development budgets might well be there sooner than later. In other words at least within the world of hip hop the mixtape industry has just about every component they need to replace the traditional music industry completely. If an artist can make as much or more money on the mixtape circuit why bother signing with a major label at all? Given how much more vital and exciting mixtape music is compared to the overproduced major label product it'd probably be a good thing. Of course a more likely result is probably closer to a semihostile merger/takeover than a slaughtering, but no wonder the RIAA is scared of the very mixtape DJs who are threatening to revitalize the world of music. The recording industry has lost everything on the cultural and artist side of things, all they have left is the money and lawyers to bully the real competition; at the expense of just about everyone else out there no less.

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January 16, 2007

Authentic Counterfeits

When I read about counterfeit sneakers nowadays my first thought is "how can a get me a pair of those". Over the past few years the street, skate and sneaker industries have swiped a page out of the art world and mastered the science of manufacturing artificial scarcity. As a marketing trick it's probably got a long life ahead of it, there are always people around who want what they can not have regardless of of how obvious the artificiality of the process is. But as a story it's pretty damn, blah... Thousand dollar ostrich leather sneakers, limited edition of five? That's not exactly much more of a story than those five hundred dollar limited edition camel leather ones in an edition of 20 is it?

When it comes to telling a story you see, the counterfeits are the real deal, whatever authenticity they lack on the branding and legal sides they more than make up on their backstreets round the world journeys. From shady factories in the Pearl River Delta, through backroom deals cut in cities that may not have existed ten years ago, across oceans and through government checkpoints in a one skillfully packed two TEU shipping container with an artfully doctored collection of shipping papers, finally landing in ever shifting locations on the fringes of your hometown. The fashion companies may be toying with "pop up stores" but the bootlegger's move with a rapidity that authentic goods are in no shape to keep up with, and with a necessity the bootleggers must hate and fear but that real brands can only dream of obtaining.

As "design" continues to seep into every crevice of our culture, counterfeit goods also offer a level of authentic undesign that legal corporations are practically incapable of producing. The off the books and in the shadows production style might be focused upon replicating name brands, but it also generates an environment ideally suited for the art of the machine and the art of the accident to thrive. The counterfeit good is all about "brand", but it also lives free of a brand manager. It's all about design too, yet it is made without any concern to the designers intent. And in this freedom mistakes thrive beautifully. The counterfeiters may want to be as accurate as possible, but they lack the lines of communication to make that happen nor do they have much incentive to correct mistakes. The accidents after all damage only someone else's brand, and when they are capable of being sold they almost certainly are. Without the designers the machines are also set free, the counterfeiter's push them for accuracy, but without the designer's pushing them to meet the intent and not just the surface of the design, the machines can shape the form upon their own paths.

Once it's made, once it's shipped, once it's slipped past customs, once it's settled lightly in some temporary location, then you still need to find it. There are no insider announcements, no camping sessions lining up to buy the goods the second they hit the shop, no fevered eBay auctions for the newest of the new, and there is almost no way of knowing how many were made and how many more will follow. Value and excitement both tend come from the thresholds, and nothing navigates the thresholds of taste and legality like a counterfeit good. These are the real artifacts of the industrial age, the goods with real stories. Goods you can wear both with pride and without fear of harming their secondary market value. More authentic than any brand can hope for, welcome to world of the authentic counterfeit.

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December 31, 2006

The Long Tale of 2006

2006 is racing to a close and you may well be aware that Time Magazine has named "you" person of the year. If you work for a financial firm on Wall Street, in the City of London or on whatever expensive piece of real estate you've landed you probably could have figured that out by looking at your record breaking bonus check. Of course if you worked in New York's financial industry you were already making over $8,000 a week before that bonus even kicked in.

Across the East River from Wall Street there are parts of Brooklyn where the average household income per year is less than that average wall streeter is making each week. If you lived in one of those household you might be a bit more surprised about being named person of the year, no? Of course this radical inequality in income distribution isn't exactly news to anyone, it's been around ages and statically mapped out by the Italian economist Vilfedo Pareto about a century ago. If you graph that distribution out what you get is something called a power law curve. In 2006 though the trendy terminology was "the long tail", a phrase for just one part of the power law curve, the part where those of us making less than $8,000 a week happen to reside.

The long tail is in large part a phrase created and popularized by Wired Magazine's Chris Anderson in a book and blog of the same name. While I doubt Anderson intended it as such, the long tail is one of the more misleading pieces of rhetoric around. What Anderson wants to focus on is the stuff that drives Time magazine's "you", the increasing world of user generated content, movies, sound files, Flash animations, blog posts and all the other amusing detritus of unknown quality filling out the internet. And there is no denying that this stuff is exploding, sometimes in quite interesting ways. But what makes the long tail so disingenuous is that what happens in the long tail has almost no ramifications on what happens in the head. The language of the long tail often takes on the rhetoric of democracy or even revolution, but the fact is that nothing about the influx of user generated content necessarily impacts the inequalities encoded into the power law curve. If anything the long tail presupposes inequality, and Anderson is in essence saying "pay no mind to the inequalities at the top of the internet, look at all the exciting stuff over here in the tail".

Of course it's become increasingly apparent that the internet is wrought by, if not outright characterized by inequality. Web traffic is even more concentrated to the largest web sites.* Of course a couple of those top 10 sites are actually places like YouTube and MySpace where large amounts of user generated content drives traffic and then deposits money in hands not of the creators, but instead in the coffers of the large corporate landlords. Nicholas Carr aptly compares this setup to sharecropping. One can see foreshadowing of this effect in Chris Anderson's writing, for all his hyping of the long tail he sees far more concerned with creating the structures and situations in which long tails can occur than he is concerned with what things might actually be like inside those long tails. The owners of the MySpaces and Flickrs and the producers of video editing softwares are getting rich by enabling an unprecedented amount of people to make and distribute their own 'content'. And way off at the edge of these systems are a few alpha users who also may be getting rich, or at least famous to their peers by making some of that content. They aren't in the long tail though, they are in privileged head. Those in the tail might have a little fun, but they get neither the audience nor financial rewards that demarcate success in this 21st century culture.

No matter how you spin the long tail, and without a doubt there are aspects of it that are interesting and perhaps even admirable, you can't detach the long tail from the power law curve that it is part of. And as long as we are talking about a power law curve, we are talking about radical inequality. Unfortunately that's something that's predated 2006 for quite some time and doesn't look to be leaving with the new year either...

  • If you follow that link though, you might notice the story has a rather misleading headline "The Shrinking Long Tail - Top 10 Web Domains Increasing in Reach". That the top ten domains are increasing in reach is a fact, at least if the statistics in that article are correct, but that fact has no correlation the long tail shrinking or rising in any manner. It's perhaps easier to think about it in terms of income. When the rich get richer, does that mean there are less poor people or more? That's just not a question that can be answered without more information. The top websites are getting richer for sure, both in terms of money and in terms of attention paid to them, but there may well be millions of new tiny sites stretching the tail out further and further.
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December 15, 2006

Ghost Geometries

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November 25, 2006

Sportscenter Interlude


That's a photo that completely captures Busta Rhymes ability to completely grab the limelight when given the microphone. What it doesn't capture is the complete over the top requiem for a Mets season costume he chose the wear. From the bleeding logo baseball cap to the massive bejeweled Mets hat pendent around his neck, it pretty much defies explanation about as much as their failure in game 7...

Cut to midtown, Madison Square Garden. Stephon Marbury's $15 basketball shoes might be the complete inverse of Busta's bling in the best way, but dude just should not be the center of attention. I can't be the only one who has noticed how much better the Knickerbockers ball when either Steve Francis or Nate Robinson are running things...

And in other sports news, is there any doubt left that when Lil Wayne is on point he's running that hip hop game like no other.

That's all for tonight, happy Thanksgiving weekend and happy 50th birthday to Kool DJ Red Alert.

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November 11, 2006

Irreversibly Google

The story of Google is in many ways the archetypal engineer's dream. They invented a better way search the web, set up in a garage-like space and rose to the top. But engineer's also value results that can be reproduced, and part of what makes Google so scary is that it can not be reproduced. As hard as Yahoo and Microsoft are trying, with obscene amounts of financial, engineering and computing resources at their disposal they can't generate search results as good as Google's. The search world is already oligarchical, but as google rapidly turns into a verb, it is well on it's way to become a monopolized space.

Page Rank you see is an irreversible and an irreproducible process. Page Rank is the name for the key aspect of Google's search algorithm, the engineering breakthrough that make Google so much better than all those now dead or battered search engines of the 1990's. And it's also the thing that makes it so damn hard, if not impossible to make a search engine as good as Google's. You can reverse engineer Page Rank of course and you can be damn sure both Yahoo and Microsoft have invested plenty of time to that effort. The problem though is that Page Rank just would not work if you ran it today, and that's why Yahoo and Microsoft just can't provide the same quality of results as Google.

At it's core it's a problem of the data set. Page Rank's big break through was that it realized that links between webpages could be used as a way to judge the quality of a piece of content. If a page was linked to by multiple sites odds are it was a better page than one with no incoming links. Furthermore if the links came from other high quality pages the odds would be even higher. I wrote that all in the past tense though, because Page Rank is a victim of it's own success. The internet is now filled with massive amounts of pages generated with the explicit goal of hacking Google, of pushing sites up higher in it's search results. The internet as a dataset is now dirty, if not filthy.

This is a problem for Google of course, but it's not nearly the same problem it is for them as it is for it's competitors. Google needs to deal with the many sites trying to hack it's results, but it has a major tool to fight them, the data generated by Page Rank before search engine optimization became a profitable and fulfilling career. It means Google weighs slightly towards older sites, ones established in the era of clean Page Rank, but it also means that anyone trying to reproduce Page Rank by spidering the internet today, just can not get results nearly as good as Google's. So until someone devises a brand new algorithm, it's going to be Google's internet and the rest of us are just searching for our own small little piece of it...

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November 09, 2006

Fuck You, Pay Phone

Payphone Warriors this Saturday, sign up by following the link. Weather is supposed to be beautiful and the Republican's just kicked to the curb, come out and play my friends.

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October 31, 2006

Two Events This Saturday

I'll be talking this Saturday in NYC about social software in action at MetroNYC's "Beyond Boot-Strapping: Take-Home Lessons on Growing a Sustainable Enterprise or Organization"

Then at a yet unset time that afternoon/evening there will be some Payphone Warriors in the streets of New York. Write me if you want go out and play...

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October 27, 2006

Waistline Banging Like a Bassline

You can call it a general lie, a lie so big yet so harmless that no one really cares that it's a lie. Like many American boys and to a lesser extent girls, I was introduced to the general lie via comic books. Comics for whatever reason tend to arrive in the stores about three months before the date on their covers. I've never heard the definitive story as to why, but the common explanation is that it makes them seem newer, but really, even avid comic book fans don't really think they are getting shipped in from 3 months in the future do they? Instead they just accept the general lie, a small quirk of a medium that thrives on quirks.

I've been slowly testing and exploring a venture into producing a line of clothing and it's there I stepped upon another general lie. One that lies around the waistline. Women's clothing comes in more or less abstract sizes, a size 2 or size 12 connotes nothing in itself, any information it communicates comes from it's relationship to the other sizes and to past experience trying on clothing of a similar number. Men's clothing on the other hand is often sized in inches, a shirt with a 16 and 1/4 inch collar, a pair of pants with a 34 inch waist and 32 inch inseam. These are numbers I always took for granted where pretty much true, and sometimes they even are. But when it comes to the waistline, well the truth is far fatter than the numbers, at least when it comes to American (and British) garments... About four inches fatter by my calculation. A size 32 waist in a garment is closer to 36 inches on the tape measure, a 34 closer to 38...

Has it always been this way? I doubt it. When I told my patternmaker that the first sample would be a 32, she took it literally, on her side of the garment industry the numbers don't lie. The lies don't start till the inside of some factory, maybe it's in Guatemala, maybe in Turkey, maybe in China, maybe in a few cases even in the US still. There the garments are put together under one number and with just a few swift stitches to a label walk out under another number altogether. All for the sake of protecting the male ego it seems, for at least in the eyes of the garment industry Americans just can't handle how fat we are getting...

As I inch closer to actually producing garments, this presents an interesting dilemma. I could tell the truth, sell pants with the actual waist size labeled. But to do so would mean I'd be out there making people feel fat as they try on my clothes, not exactly the best sales tactic, no? More than that I'd be paddling upstream, pitching garments that just don't fit the way people expect them too, despite being more honest about their size. One can imagine comic publishers faced with a similar dilemma as they slowly inflated the dates on their covers. On one hand they all knew the dates where a farce, yet at the same time no one could turn back without risking looking like they where behind the times. So as the American waistline slowly creeps up undercover of the garment industry, don't blame me, I'm just following the crowd towards bigger and better things...

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October 09, 2006

"Corporate Social Responsibility" and the "Bottom of the Pyramid"

Can a corporation have a conscience? Nobody really asked that at Columbia Business School's Social Enterprise Conference 2006, but the question underlaid it all uneasily. Well, at least for me. The fact that the conference exists at all clearly indicates that plenty of business school students have some conscience, but they fact that they are in business school in the first place also clearly indicates that conscience is modulated by a certain faith in enterprise.

The buzzword that resonated loudest to me in this buzzword filled environment was "corporate social responsibility" or CSR for short. The idea is that companies need to healthy citizens or something, but in practice it seemed more like a way for people embedded deep in giants like Citicorp or Alcoa to soothe their own consciences with a small diversion from the corporate cash flows. Strikingly absent from the discussion was any sense of how CSR spending, when it exists at all, might stack up against the rest of these giant's budgets.

Jim Sinegal, the CEO of Costco, at least talked real numbers as he accepted an award of some sort. He proudly threw up a quote about how it was better to be a Costco employee or customer than a shareholder. The Costco philosophy is to cut costs everywhere except when it comes to employees, who if I remember his sliders correctly represent 70% of the companies operating cost! But even as he deflected personal credit away from him and out towards his entire management team it was quite clear this approach is merely an iteration of the age old concept of the enlightened dictator. The employees/serfs may be happy, but only because the situation is enforced from the top. Like his counterparts at the head of Starbucks and American Apparel, Sinegal has no structure in place to ensure that his enlightened approach can be anything other than a management decision.

This situation has deep roots in the history of management theory, it's something of a Taylorism versus Fordism approach. Happy employees is clearly a successful business style, but so is the far more exploitative bean counting tight ship way of management. Costco might be better for employees than Wal-Mart, but both still are out there and both perpetuate hierarchies that pump money into a small upper class. Some kings were better to their serfs than others, but either approach meant the existence of a kingdom. And I don't think it's a coincidence that the corporate organizational form emerged just as democracy began to unstabilize the aristocracies of old.

It's not the aristocratic side of this corporate finishing school that's really disturbing though, it's the religious one. Most people in these environs have some sense, however watered down, of their privilege and the larger inequalities out there. It's the people who truly have a faith in "The Market" that really freak me out. The ones that really believe that "CSR" will spread because consumers demand it or scarier still those that believe in BOP. BOP stands for the "bottom (or sometimes "base") of the pyramid", the billion strong poorest of the poor. The idea is that by turning these people into entrepreneurs partnered with multi-national corporations and selling to their equally poor peers poverty can be eradicated.

One of the key mantras of BOP believers is that it can not be reduced to just selling goods to poor people, but instead requires a far more intense and interlocking relationship with the target market. This is absolutely true. What BOP is about is not selling products, that's just a corollary to all. What it is about is selling an ideology. Like the centuries of missionaries before them the BOP proponents think they are saving when actually they are converting.

Poverty is an issue with far more ramifications than can be explored here, but the simple point is that not having a lot of money can only be seen as an absolute bad thing if you follow a faith that revolves around the accumulation of wealth. Certainly there are probably problems that we as westerners see in the populations at the "base of the pyramid" that the people themselves might also agree are problems. But there are also problems that are far less physical and far more religious in nature. Like the heathens of old these are people with different value systems than us, and like missionaries trying to save souls, it's quite likely some of the problems the BOP practitioners are out trying to solve are only problems of faith. And as well meaning as they may be I for one have no faith their little enterprise...

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October 08, 2006

Random Question

Why is it that anytime you read about the advertising or video game industry, both of which are massive profitable and pretty much icons of our culture, they always claim to be struggling? Are industries based upon rapid fire information inherantly less stable than ones based on selling material goods?

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September 29, 2006

Identity and Identification in a Networked World / Ian Kerr

Identity and Identification in a Networked World started today. It's a free conference held only minutes from my home so my attendance stems mainly from convenience mixed with mild interest in the subject. That means I walked in without any expectations and that's great cause I walked out pleasantly surprised despite a rather uneven selection of talks.

Ian Kerr keynoted on the topic of DRM and was quite enjoyable. It was pretty much Adam Greenfield's Everyware rewritten by a law professor. The QA was frustratingly short, but from his quick answer to my question I have a sense he's way too far into the technodetermanistic side of life for my taste in the end, but he managed to provoke and stimulate quite well. I believe in a degree of technodetermanism too, but what frustrates me about those who take a harder version of it, is that they never seem to be able to grasp the concept of cultural responses evolving over time in order to deal with a problem.

Good thing Kerr is a professor, for he was far more entertaining and thought provoking than convincing. His whole argument about DRM somehow veered entertainingly into the world of shopping carts, via the example of carts that lock their wheels as they leave supermarket property. But is that digital rights management? Somehow it seems a bit more like physical rights management to me...

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September 27, 2006

More Press

'Big Game' Safari In Manhattan, Cubicle Warriors Compete In Super-Sized Games Between Skyscrapers - CBS News, I don't make this article, but my game makes the lede, not bad.

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September 25, 2006

News Worthy

'Payphone Warriors' call on New York streets | CNET Always nice to get some good press.

"I've never had a more fun--or exhausting--half-hour of making phone calls in my life."

"This is my favorite of all the games,' said Dennis Crowley, founder of the mobile social software service Dodgeball. "'It's the perfect mix of athleticism and strategy.'"

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September 15, 2006

It's Only Value Is That It Has No Value

All my bicycles are street bicycles, there are no dirt trails, half pipes or beautiful mountain passes in their future, only the torn urban asphalt of New York City. But there a whole variety of urban bicycles out there, and my latest frame finally emerged from six months of bike shop limbo with a working bottom bracket, which gives me three bikes, or one too many for an apartment dweller like me. The only question is which bike to get rid of, and it's proving to be a trickier problem than expected.

From a purely bike riding perspective its an easy question, the one I call my neighborhood cruiser has practically no value at all, it's worth more as parts than as a complete bicycle and those parts are not worth much.** It shouldn't be too hard to part with, should it? But that is exactly the problem. I live in New York City and this bike is actually tremendously valuable based on the sole fact that it has no value.

This is a bike I can lock up on the street and not stress about in the least. I can, and do even leave it out overnight. From an economic standpoint this creates quite an interesting situation, a value that can not be monetized, for the very act of this feature taking on a monetary value would eliminate any value that existed. A bike with a real monetary value is worth stealing and that translates directly into both financial risk and psychological stress for a bike owner.

From a purely urban perspective this is an easy problem as well, the nicest bike, with the nicest parts has the least use in the city. Sure it's nimble and quick, and the Phil Wood hubs are both buttery smooth and the most capable of handling the urban grit and grime over a lifetime that via sale or theft will probably be far longer than I will own them. It's both a little to valuable and little too sensitive to be an everyday, no matter the weather, vehicle. It's tight track geometry can zig and zag through every urban obstacle, but it also translates every bump and crack in the road back to the rider with far more precision than comfort. It is quite literally a physical manifestation of the phrase "too much information". As beautiful as thing is to ride it tells me a bit more about the state of the streets beneath me than my body wants to know. But as much as I love the city this is far to sweet a machine for me to just let go of and so it stays, it's visceral aesthetics trumping pure practicality.


Tactically the best maneuver would to take the middle machine, and somehow make it "street stable", somehow degrade it's value to a point it can be left locked up along overnight without much stress. It's perhaps an impossible task, how do you devalue a bicycle without eliminating just what makes it a good, fun thing to ride? This is a frame that's been evolving into what might be called an "inverse hybrid", a new style monster uniquely suited for urban riding.

The bicycle industry currently pumps out some hideous beasts it calls hybrids, essentially overgrown mountain bikes designed to be ridden fully upright. Basically they make it easier to ride over potholes while sucking the joy out of every other aspect of urban bike riding. The inverse hybrid is the reverse, fixed gear gives you control and real sense of the road, while chopped riser handlebars put you in the ultimate urban riding position. Higher than the drop bars of a road bike, but lower and narrower than the chunky riser bars of a mountain bike. It handles almost like an overgrown BMX, if a BMX was capable of any real speed and efficiency on the city streets. It's a stance that gives a unique combination of maneuverability, visibility, hopping ability and just the right feel of the road in your hands.

The challenge now is to make an inverse hybrid that no one wants to steal. So just how do you make something that's only value is that it has no real value?

** This is particularly true at this time of year, the beginning of the fall and the end of the bike season. Odds are for a few months in the spring this bike will be more valuable than the sum of it's parts, only to lose that property as days begin to get shorter.

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September 14, 2006

Payphone Warriors, Come Out and Play!

The Come Out and Play Festival is the first ever festival devoted to "big games". That is game designed to be played on a scale slightly (or not so slightly) larger than your standard board games and sports. Often it's a larger playing field, but sometimes it's a longer time span or larger number of players, or something else entirely. Regardless the festival should be a blast and it also will host a game I designed along with Greg Trefry and a whole lot of other talented people. It's called Payphone Warriors and it will be played on Sunday September 24th in New York as part of the festival. This version features a radically new scoring interface programmed in Asterisk by the remarkable Cory Forsyth, making it even more fun to play and even easier to run. Come out and play!

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September 10, 2006

Emergence 06: Closing Panel

Jeanette Blomberg is an anthropologist from IBM. So funny how easy it is to write a sentence like that now, as opposed to say 5 years ago...

Mark Jones
is the service design lead at IDEO Chicago. He looks like Andy Dick.
Rick E. Robinson is smart, but I missed his particular credentials, beyond the Ph.D that shows up on his slides.
Jennie Winhall of RED.

"people live differently because of what a service allows them to do."
calls for a return to "longitudinal research" - focusing on continuity and change. big, expensive, expertise intensive.
Communispace has a 100% client renewal rate.
Noah takes a photo of himself everyday for 6 years.

"Service designers have no way of measuring costs of changes to design."
"Strong argument against over designing of services."

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Emergence 06: Birgit Mager

Birgit Mager founded the first department of service design, at the Köln International School of Design and just now has founded the Sedes Research Center for Service Design Research. Her talk was quite good, a recapping of her work in Germany. At the same time it was a bit disappointing, Mager had been asking the sharpest questions repeatedly through the conference so I walked into the talk with expectations perhaps a bit too high. (But expectations always should be high!) Either way her work with the homeless in Köln is great.

random notes:
Gulliver: using service design to create a homeless center. "they found dignity there"

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Emergence 06: Daniel Letts

<a title="Service Usability" Daniel Letts is a founder of Service Usability. Hist talk was a welcome dive into the nitty gritty of what actually gets produced by a service research organization. So nice to actually get a look at some of the deliverables.

random notes:
Services are not getting tested properly.
Web companies are rigourous testers though.
Apply the methodologies of online usability to the offline world.
SU Index, a one number score generated by there service usability audit.

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September 09, 2006

Lunch Design/Conference Design


Actually breakfasts are always worse, but I forgot to photograph it. One thing conference designers never seem to think of is what food is best for creating a great environment. Lunch was a sandwich, which is mainly carbohydrates, with a bit of veggies and a modest amount of protein. There was also potato salad (more carbs), a banana (more carbs) and a cookie (more carbs). That's a formula for a food coma. The talk or two after lunch are never the most fun are they?

Breakfast as I said is worse. Pastries and muffins, all carbs, no protein, another recipe for putting people to sleep. In America this diet gets counterbalanced in part because people have plenty of energy after sleeping all night and in part because it's offset with large amounts of low quality caffeine. Downers cut with uppers, not exactly the path towards a healthy day, nor necessarily for the best conference experience. It works for the most part, minus that hour of post lunch coma, but can it be designed better?

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Emergence 06: Oliver King

Oliver King is the founder of Engine a UK service design consultancy. His talk was pretty much a service design textbook as a powerpoint. He's also by far the most dynamic and charged of the speakers, perhaps he is the natural public spokesperson/sales person for the service design movement?

Random notes:

Started as a product designer, wanted to take it in a new direction, define the product brief, not follow the brief.

"Translation space", in between corporate strategy and implementation

Recommended Pine and Gilmore "The Experience Economy"

Making services U2D2: went by too quick for me to write down what this is.

5 Types of Projects
Specifying (most important from service design perspective)

Principal Methods of Service Design:
Systems Thinking
Service Blueprints
Design Research
Design Probes
Customer Personas
Process Design

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Emergence 06: Stefan Holmlid

Stefan Holmlid has the most intriguingly titled talk: "Introducing White Space in Service Design: This Space Intentionally Left Blank". Conceptually it's also the most enticing idea presented so far. Unfortunately though there is perhaps too much white space in Holmlid's talk, a bit too much left unsaid to stimulate the mind to the full extent of the concept. Still the core question is key, what is the roll of white space, blank space, empty space, in the design of a service.

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Emergence 06: Chris Downs

Chris Downs of livework :: service innovation & design talked about the evolution of his company as the first ever service design consultancy. A good talk, they do good work, not sure what I can add.

random notes:
"service envy"
"try and speak the language of business and not design"
"difference between systems design and service design"
"system is really efficient but the service really sucks"
"we design more products now as service designers then we did as product designers, but we design them from a service perspective"

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Emergence 06: Mary Jo Bitner

I'm out in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon's Emergence 06 Conference, focused on Service Design.

The opening keynote is Mary Jo Bitner, Director for the Center for Services Leadership at Arizona State University.

The reason I'm here, and I suspect a healthy part of why this conference is being hosted by a design school, is due to a particular vision of services exemplified by the environmentally centered service vision exemplified by Interface Carpet and Paul Hawken. Bitner is a nice lead off as an explicit reminder that services are a far bigger, older and more staid world than the Hawken/Interface eco-revolution vision. She leads an institute firmly rooted in the business school and marketing world.

Coming from this space of academic business thinking, Bitner of course wants to talk about "innovation" in 2006. Unsurprisingly though nothing is particularly innovative about her talk and this is a good thing. Innovation is overrated and what Bitner has to offer is experience, a less exciting but far more valuable service. Service makes up as much as 80% of the economy in America, and according to Bitner yet service innovation lags significantly behind product innovation. It's probably true, but I have to wonder if that might have something to do with many services, hotels and restaurants for instance, have been evolving for thousands of years, while something like portable music players have at most a handful of decades behind them. The exact relationship between product innovation and service innovation was left unsaid. The airline industry can draw upon thousands of years of transportation services, yet at the same time many of it's core particulars are obviously dependent on airplane and airport technologies.

Bitner stresses that services are intangible (more on this later) and processes. She is also keen on pointing out that it's a very person driven industry, she quotes several CEOs talking about taking care of their employees, which somehow translates into taking care of the customers. The customers in Bitner's view are "in the factory", and studies apparently show that the more they get involved the more satisfied they are. Just how taking care of the employees translates into taking care of the customers is left unsaid and unproven.

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September 06, 2006

Social Hardware

Somewhere off on the periphery of my online home there is a whole conversation brewing about the merits of "social software". The spark for this round apparently is someone named Ryan Carson and his blog post on why he doesn't use social software. Now this is the sort of conversation I try and filter out and ignore. It was sort of pitiful from the start, a blog post is a piece of social software, so using it to proclaim you don't use social software is pretty much a nonstarter. Then there was Carson argument, which is essentially "I'm too busy, plus I'm married now", or in other words he's too lame and important to be interesting...

Now somehow Carson elicited a ton of response from some rather smart people, although Fred Stutzman's is probably the one most worth linking too. What was interesting to me though from these response was not what was said, although some was certainly insightful, but what was not. There was plenty said about social software but nothing at all about social hardware.

Now it's easy to say you don't have time for social software, although if you have time for email then clearly you are lying, as email is social software in it's purest form. More than that, do you have time go into conference rooms for meetings? Do you have time for drinks after work with colleagues and clients? Do you have time to attend conventions for work? Do you have time to meet friends for coffee, or go to a concert or ballgame or maybe head to a museum? Or if you are a married man like Carson, do you have time to go to a restaurant with your wife? A conference room, a convention center, a bar, a coffee shop, a stadium, an art gallery, these are all pieces of social hardware. Large objects constructed to allow you to interact with other people in a wide variety of styles. If you have time to be social you have time to use social software. Maybe you prefer other forms of socializing, but that is a choice you make. Everyone has time to be social, so to argue that social software is in trouble because it takes too much time is absurd.

A computer by itself, is a piece of antisocial hardware. It is all about a person alone in from of a glowing, captivating screen. But once that computer is connected to a network it has potential to become a social tool, but only if unlocked by software. This software can come in any flavor, look and feel capable of being generated by a Turing machine. And making new flavors and fads is pretty cheap, certainly a lot cheaper than creating a new bar, restaurant or convention center. Yet while what can go on the screen may be infinite, the social aspect of it all remains deeply tied to the hardware, making the machine social is simply the act of linking various nodes of a network together.

Social software is the art of managing links on a network over time. Instant messaging is a temporary and private link in real time. Email is temporary and private but time shifted. A blog post is also time shifted, but is public and if not permanent than at least has a much longer half life than a typical email. The classic social network apps like MySpace, Friendster and Facebook are different. Instead of turning links on and off when needed, they establish links once and then make them essentially permanent. What happens next is just a series of other social software styles overlaid onto this network. Most of the fuctionality of these sites is as blasé as it gets, replacements for email, blogs, photo albumns and bulletin boards, usually in a somewhat inferior form to the more deadicated versions of those apps. What makes them unique is merely that you can now use your social network itself as a modulating factor. It's a classic case of constraint unlocking potential. By constraining functionality to just a space determined by the semi-permanent links of a person's social network, these sites can channel other existing pieces of social software into a more vibrant, and from the looks of the use numbers, addictive form.

It's not quite a "nothing new under the sun" thing, there is a new twist to the new social softwares, but there is not that much new. To say that you don't have time for social software is essentially the same thing as saying you don't have time to be social at all. Maybe you prefer more of a hardware setting, to socialize at a country club or dive bar or at church or at ballfield. Maybe that leaves you too drained to keep up with your Facebook feeds. But it's not because you don't have time for social software, it's because you've made a simple choice to pursue a different social avenue. One that presents a different set of nuances and twists then what is available online. That's your choice and perhaps it's a great one. But social software is no more time consuming than any other social structure and it will continue to evolve in interesting directions. Now keeping up with those directions might indeed be tiring, but only if you are conscious of it. The people who actually are using these things without thinking about it are the ones truly pushing the form, to them their community lies in part in software, and from here on in, that is pretty much something to take for granted.

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September 05, 2006

Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World

Picking up a copy of J.R. McNeill's Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World was my own personal response to my earlier question on how to deal with issues of scale. While I'm not quite sure it answered that particular question, I certainly can recommend the book highly and widely. It's quite simply the best thing I've read on the relationship between humans and the environments around us.

Of course I should note that I'm no expert, nor particularly well read on that subject. More than that though, it's a book that pretty much confirmed what I was thinking before I had stumbled across it in San Francisco's classic City Lights bookstore. Any book that tells you what you want to hear of course needs to be treated as suspect, but to McNeill's credit I suspect a lot of people with quite different viewpoints than mine would put down the book feeling similarly justified. That sounds contradictory of course, but McNeill is grappling with an enormously complex problem, one that is perhaps a bit too large for any one human to fully understand, and he does so in an incredibly clear and factual manner. He avoids preaching as best possible, and lays out a vast array of details spanning both history and nearly the entire scope of the earth, air, fire and water of our planet.

If you open up the book thinking the world is catapulting towards environmental disaster, you'll probably close it thinking McNeill has given you all the evidence you need to seal the deal. If you fall in the opposite extreme, if you think environmental problems are a figment of our imagination, well then actually you'll be disappointed with this book. But if your take is a bit closer to mine, that humans are capable of enormous problems, but also capable of solving just slightly more than we create, then well you'll find as much evidence of that as there is of the sky falling fast...

If there is a real problem with this book, it's probably that it's too damn short. It clocks in at a healthy 360 pages, but scope of facts and concepts compacted into those pages make it seem a bit meager. From tales of murderous fogs of coal smoke suffocating London and Pittsburgh to the stories of irrigation projects destroying entire seas, from war reports from the battlefields of the Green Revolution to deep sea journeys of whalers and fishermen, the book spins you around the globe enough to make the jet set jealous. In a slower time and place perhaps this book would have gotten the 800 or 1000 pages it deserves, but of course 21st century readers like me and you are probably both happier with and more likely to buy the 360 pages it actually delivers. Either way though I suspect the conclusion would be the same, sobering yet with just enough room for optimism to slip in:

It is impossible to know whether humankind has entered a genuine ecological crisis. It is clear enough that our current ways are ecologically unsustainable, but we can not know for how long we may yet sustain them, or what might happen if we do. In any case, human history since the dawn of agriculture is replete with unsustainable societies, some of which vanished but many of which changed their ways and survived. Perhaps we can, as it where, pile one unsustainable regime upon another indefinitely, making adjustments large and small but avoiding collapse...

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The Abstract Dynamics Bookstore

Occasionally I've thought it might be a good idea to build up a little Abstract Dynamics bookstore of sorts using Amazon's rather powerful API and referral setup. But given how little money I've ever made off my experiments with their setup and given how much time it would take it has never happened. Until now, when Amazon decided to make it ridiculously easy to set up. So easy that it was live before I even really got to mull over the appropriateness of it all. Basically it's a store dynamically generated by Amazon using 9 of my selections as a base, it's an experiment do with it what you will, while I figure out if there is a way to get way past that nine selection limit...

Abstract Dynamics || a store (beta)

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September 04, 2006

US Passports


and they used to be so expensive, wonder if there is a decline in demand or if they are just cheaper to make in China...

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August 29, 2006

The $300 Dollar Greens

A $300 dollar man was a draftee on the Union side of the US Civil War who opted to (and could afford to) pay a $300 fee in order to avoid military service. That's almost $6000 in today's dollars. Now imagine it's 1863 and you encounter a $300 man at a bar and get to talking and they start bragging about how much they are doing to fight against slavery. What would you think of such a person? Yeah, that's pretty much how I feel about this whole idea of "carbon neutral".

Sure the "$300 dollar greens" hearts might be in the right place, and there certainly are worse places their money can go, but just because it's cheap to buy off your conscious does not mean you can buy a real solution on the cheap, does it?

There are a whole lot of people out there in the world who just can not afford to go "carbon neutral". Would you rather help a person or plant a tree? That's a simple question with an infinitely complex answer, because helping the environment ultimately should help everyone on this planet is some small way. The health of the environment and the people who live in it are intricately tied together in ways more complex than we can easily untangle. Yet there is no doubt in my mind that an unhealthy chunk of the environmental movement is comprised of rich people buying a little peace of mind (aka ignorance) while protecting environments that most people in the world could never afford the carbon needed to visit, let alone afford to offset it somehow.

The bigger, more abstract and distant the problems, the easier it is to forget the real issues of inequality and poverty that stubbornly persist in the forgotten human environments of our own countries and cities. Yet as Majora Carter so intensely reminds us, these too are environmental problems. Hard problems, ones that won't go away by planting $300 worth of trees. Money is important, it can't be dismissed, but it can't be use to dismiss a problem either. These are problems that don't get solved by buying ugly lightbulbs, cramped cars and carbon offsets, they are problems that can only be solved by hard work, insight and maybe a little luck. So what are you doing with yourself and that $300?

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August 28, 2006

Imaginary Feedback

What happens when you press a button? A button can trigger close to anything nowadays, but it's not what the button triggers that I'm interested in at the moment. Until our current age of screens a button pretty much by definition produced a bit of tactical feedback. You press a button and it presses back at you, giving you a confirmation that yes indeed that button was pressed.

Even in the screen age, most buttons still produce tactical feedback of some sort. Every letter of this text I type comes complete with a nice, Apple designed, bit of feedback, each button of the keyboard press gently back at me. The buttons on the screen are trickier, the tactical feedback tends to still exist, but slightly abstracted, you press the mouse, or trackpad or whatever button, and you feel a small kickback, albeit one a handful of inches away from the button you are actually looking at and in your mind clicking upon. On screen buttons tend to compensate for this distant tactical feedback by adding visual and or audio feedback to the mix.

When it comes to touch screens though all of sudden the tactical feedback it gone completely, all that is left is whatever audio or visual guides the designers have left in the system. It's for exactly that reason I dislike touch screens, despite their name they just don't feel right. When I use a Citibank ATM, which is often as they are my bank, I tend to tap the screen not with my finger, but with the side of my ATM card, there is something completely wrong about "pressing" a hard glass screen, that neither gives in nor gives back any feedback as you push upon it. Its a cold and unresponsive feeling, a dead interface into a live machine.

Of course for all my dislike of the touchscreen I've been a big Treo fan since the days it was a clamshell. Maybe it's the softer screen, or the fact that you don't usually need to use the touchscreen if you don't want to, or maybe it's just the superiority of the Palm interface design. I still prefer real buttons and the Treo has no shortage of those with a full QWERTY keyboard, but it also showed that a touchscreen could work maybe. Until it stops working of course, which my current Treo's has been doing intermittently the past couple days. The Treo is well designed enough that this is just a minor annoyance, so far it's always started working before I've gotten fed up enough to call up insurance for a replacement. But it also led to an interesting observation. When the touchscreen is not working it literally feels different, harder, as if a secret mild tactical feedback mechanism just disappeared.

Odds are this is a psychological phenomena. I touch the screen and because I get no visual or audio feedback somehow my brain feels the screen differently. Yet every time the touchscreen cuts out it feels distinctly like I can feel the hardness of screen before my eyes register the failure of the touch to work. Its as if the eyes-fingers-consciousness circuit is faster than the simple eyes-consciousness one. Either way, when the touchscreen is working it seems like somewhere in my mind, the act of touching a handheld screen and seeing visual feedback of a button press is creating some sort of phantom tactile feedback. A subtle but real impression that screen is softer, has more give, than it really does. Does that mean there is hope for full touch screen interfaces? If the long circulating rumors about Apple's new video iPods are true, it sounds like Steve Jobs is better there is. Me, I'm not so sure, I still like to press real buttons.

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August 26, 2006

Events and Notices

Not sure if this overlaps at all with my readership but, I'm currently looking for a good patternmaker/samplemaker for men's wear in New York City. Please feel free to email me any recommendations.

I'll be in San Francisco this coming week from August 30th-September 3rd, love to meet up with any readers and/or lost friends, just shoot me an email. Thursday is probably the best day.

I'll be in Pittsburgh for the Emergence 06: Service Design Conference, where at the moment I think I'll have one acquaintance who I've met all of once. If you read this blog and are planning to be there I want to meet you.

The Come Out and Play Festival is in New York September 22-24th, Payphone Warriors a game I played a leading role in designing will be played, come check it out!

The next weekend, September 29-30th I'll be at the Identity and Identification in a Networked World symposium at NYU. Again any readers that are planning to be there, give me a shout so we can be sure to connect.

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August 23, 2006

Another Time


Every once and a while you catch a moment that makes you precisely aware of the sort of things you take for granted. I cherish those moments, it's rare opportunity to actually be able to see yourself in a bit of perspective.

I had one today after placing an order for a small sample quantity of items from a large industrial company. Their New York rep sent an email saying they'd mail me an invoice, and being a sample I would need to prepay before shipment. Somehow that bewildered me, I knew I needed to prepay, but I was ready to swipe my debit card that instant, or at least send the numbers over. It just seemed so slow, so out of touch with the rhythms of my day to day. Especially since I pickup my mail maybe twice a month. I've been spending years trying to eliminate mail, now my whole project is on hold till the US Postal Service comes through? How slow, how primitive! And all that was before I realized the invoice wasn't even getting mailed from here in NY, on reread it seemed like it was getting mailed from Switzerland...

Of course the real primitive here is me. I've been living too much of my life on internet time, instant gratification time, always on, high speed download time... If I want to get into the business of physical goods I need to learn the rhythms and pacings that make them work. One step at a time was the mantra when I finally learned how to make physical computing projects work, and that is probably how I'll need to address the issues of manufacturing real goods, things with real weight, things that move on the backs of trucks and across oceans in twenty-foot equivalent units. Maybe it will be frustrating, maybe it will be a welcome pace, either way I'll need change my perception of time, my culture of time, just a little to make it work.

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August 15, 2006

The Innocence of Power Laws

I've been reading a short book - an essay, really - by John Kenneth Galbraith called The Economics of Innocent Fraud. It's his last work, written while he was in his nineties, not long before he died. In it, he explains how we, as a society, have come to use the term "market economy" in place of the term "capitalism." The new term is a kinder and gentler one, with its implication that economic power lies with consumers rather than with the owners of capital or with the managers who have taken over the work of the owners. It's a fine example, says Galbraith, of innocent fraud.

- Nicholas Carr Rough Type: The Great Unread

I've long argued that the "natural" shape of most markets is a powerlaw, and that any deviation from that shape is due to some bottleneck in distribution. Get rid of the bottleneck and you can tap the latent demand in the market, unlocking the potential of the Long Tail.

- Chris Anderson The Long Tail: A billion dollar question

Many have noted the irony that my book on niches appears to be a hit. It will enter the NYT Bestseller list this week at #13 (moving up to #10 next week) and is already #14 on the WSJ bestseller list (moving up to #11 next week). I can live with that irony!

- Chris Anderson The Long Tail: The Long Tail economy

Rosen's answer could not possibly have been more honest. The best way, by far, to get a link from an A List blogger is to provide a link to the A List blogger. As the blogophere has become more rigidly hierarchical, not by design but as a natural consequence of hyperlinking patterns, filtering algorithms, aggregation engines, and subscription and syndication technologies, not to mention human nature, it has turned into a grand system of patronage operated - with the best of intentions, mind you - by a tiny, self-perpetuating elite. A blog-peasant, one of the Great Unread, comes to the wall of the castle to offer a tribute to a royal, and the royal drops a couple of coins of attention into the peasant's little purse. The peasant is happy, and the royal's hold over his position in the castle is a little bit stronger.

- Nicholas Carr Rough Type: The Great Unread

Part of the reason the book is successful, I believe, is because as I was writing it the smart readers of this blog helped improve the ideas, catch my errors and suggest dozens of applications and dimensions of the Long Tail I never would have thought of myself. So today's recognition is also a recognition of the power of tapping collective intelligence. I couldn't have done it without you!

- Chris Anderson The Long Tail: A top ten bestseller!

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August 10, 2006

Atlantic Yards (What Would Jane Jacobs Do?)

Carlton.gif (based on an image created by onNYTurf)

I've avoided taking a stance on Atlantic Yards for just a bit too long now. If anything I was vaguely in favor of it. A basketball team for Brooklyn is a fabulous idea, and developing that dead zone of the actual Atlantic Railyards (as opposed to the larger area encompassed by the actual development plan) is pretty much a fail safe venture. There is not that much room to get worse than a dead railyard. Things of course get more complicated when the plan reaches out past the borders of those yards an into the destruction of people's homes, and that was the point where I had decided it just wasn't worth thinking about the issue anymore... For a while my main thought, was "why couldn't they have picked a better celebrity architect than the highly overrated Frank Gehry, and if it has to be Gehry couldn't it at least be the good Gehry?"

Two articles have changed all that, and are well worth reading. For one Chris Smith's New York Mag cover story gets down into the real details of the development "plan" and the further it get the clearer it is that this thing is poorly planned, at least from an urbanist standpoint, the economic and political side seem to have gotten far more attention. There is no thought for traffic, no thought for the impact on the school system, no thought for what happens to people after they hand over the cash to developer Bruce Ratner. Most horrifying to me is the fact that there seems to be no thought on the impact of the development on the subway system, even though it is being built precisely at the point where 13 out Brooklyn's 18 subway lines converge! And on top of a railyard connected to the LIRR terminal too! If Ratner really wanted to improve Brooklyn, the absolute first priority of his plan should be building a better Atlantic Avenue subway station, without it the only possible thing he can be proposing is a gigantic mess.

The second, more nuanced and perplexing article is Karrie Jacobs' "Jane Jacobs Revisited" in Metropolis Magazine. K Jacobs' (no relation to J Jacobs) is to smart to outright claim what J Jacobs would think about Atlantic Yards, but in the beginning she confesses to have never actually read J Jacobs, and in the end she pretty much confesses to cherry picking her way through the book.

Indeed there is a whole lot in J Jacobs' masterpiece that can directly be used to critique Atlantic Yards. The observations of what makes a successful street, the critiques of housing projects, the passionate call for short blocks, and it goes on. What is so frustrating about the article though is what is not said, Karrie's reading of Jane is not particularly wrong, J Jacobs is indeed a fan of "density, diversity and complexity"*. But what is so insidious about K Jacobs article is that it implies that the Atlantic Yards project actually meets these criteria. What Chris Smith's article makes clear is that Ratner's development does not even come close. Density sure, it has that, but with it's token low income housing, and the removal of almost all the offices due to political maneuvering, very little diversity is left. As for complexity, well if Karrie Jacobs had actually read some of Jane's other books, well then she would realize J Jacobs would be the last person to see complexity emerging from anything like Ratner and Gehry's plans.

Jane Jacobs was certainly not completely opposed to development plans, but her vision of the vibrant city has always been an organic one. It is readily apparent in Death and Life of Great American Cities but it only gets stronger and stronger in each of her successive books, minus perhaps the very last ones. Of course while her 1961 classic continues to be well read, no one at all seems to have read Economy of Cities or Cities and the Wealth of Nations. In those works it becomes far clearer that J Jacobs sees the healthy city as being one that is developed via an evolutionary and iterative process and the unhealthy one being developed via a political and overly planned process. If the Atlantic Yards development was something that had stemmed from the demands and needs of the community, say the need for an extended port, or the need for an aqueduct, or a more extensive business center to meet growing needs, than yes J Jacobs might have been all for it. But when the demand comes from a developer's greed, spliced with a politician's desire to build an arena, well that's exactly what J Jacobs sees as killing cities.

The final argument for Atlantic Yards that once influenced me a bit was Steven Johnson's, that Brooklyn lacks a vibrant downtown and Atlantic Yards could provide it. Now it is true that downtown Brooklyn is pretty dismal, but it does have one incredibly vibrant zone, the shopping area on and around Fulton Street (somewhat misleadingly called Fulton Mall). What makes Fulton Mall so relevant to Atlantic Yards though is where it dead ends, where the vibrancy stops, right at Bruce Ratner's first development in Brooklyn MetroTech center. It's almost casebook Jane Jacobs, the street grid ends, the massive development begins and the soul of the city just dies. Like Johnson I'd love to see a vibrant commercial core develop in Brooklyn and the Atlantic Railyards are a natural site. But from both history and Ratner's own published plans it is clear that the Atlantic Yards development is not the project that will make that goal happen.

So what would make that happen? I certainly can't claim to have the answer, but if I were Ratner the first thing I'd do is fire Mr Gehry and hire someone like Joshua Prince-Ramus who at least clearly makes strong attempt to understand just what he is actually building.

* although it should be noted that she saw very clear limits to density, and I find it highly likely she would see Atlantic Yards going way past that limit.

Posted by Abe at 10:03 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

100% For the Planet

How do you react when you see a label that says something like "1% For the Planet"? I mean it's great that they are making an effort, and 1% is infinitely more than 0% — but 1%, is that supposed to impress us? We are talking profit here, and that means the other 99% is going into the owners pockets (or to be fair it might get reinvested in the company.) 1% percent is a nice token gesture for sure, but how about seeing some labels that say "100% for the Planet"? Or really I'd prefer "100% for the World", something about being "for the planet" makes me think these companies care more about the environment than the people who are integrally connected to it...

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August 03, 2006

Anthropology / Dash Snow


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July 31, 2006

Wireless Warfare in the Streets


The Wi-Fi in Your Handset - New York Times

It's a pretty innocuous headline and photo, but make no mistake this is an early salvo in what looks to be a heated battle over the control of the wireless infrastructure. The cell phone service providers are on one side, the equipment makers and software companies on the other. Governments? They are both omnipresent yet conspicuously absent from the core of the debate, they seem to only have a clue as to what is happening at certain key junctures (ie when municipal WiFi discussions get serious like in SF or Philadelphia).

At the core this is an issue of information, an issue of which corporations are controlling the gateways between you and the network(s) you need to access to connect to the world. To a large extent it seems the wires are already laid down, at least for the moment it seems there is plenty of fiber in the ground and the providers are reduced to the status of commodity sellers. Net neutrality might change that, but that is an issue for another day. It is the wireless protocols that are up for grabs. So far the cellular companies have a massive lead, they have the infrastructure both to provide and to profit built up, running and accepted by the public at large.

But with that advantage comes a huge arrogance, and perhaps a short-sightedness as well. The cell companies think they can call the shots and in the process they've pushed aside the handset makers and locked the software and information technology companies out almost completely. They also have with typical phone company airs completely failed to win the confidence of their users, do you know anyone who actually likes their cell phone company?

The cell phone companies are gambling on controlling the airwaves, on staying oligarchical. This threatens a whole other group, perhaps we can call them the network idealists, the coders and hackers, activists and enthusiasts that drive the networked underground of global information projects. I call them Benkler labor, after Yochai Benkler and his theory of networked productivity.

The anti-cellular company strategy combines a hodgepodge of consumer dissatisfaction, plain old desire for better prices, Benkler labor and in places old school government public works projects into the creation of a so far mythical, but theoretically very possible, wifi meshwork. If there are enough accessible wifi hotspots overlapping each other in a giant mesh of wireless connectivity, it becomes possible to route around the cellular providers. Instead of a handful of capital intensive cellphone towers, the plan is to provide connectivity via a swarm of wifi routers connected to people's broadband lines in their homes and offices. It sounds a little precarious to me, but if you were a mid to large sized company coming face to face with the fact that your livelihood is dangerously close to being controlled entirely by a handful of cellular companies any way out probably looks like a good gamble.

At the moment at least the wifi forces are all about open technology, they are at such a disadvantage compared to the already built up and profitable cellular networks that they need every advantage they can get, and open network infrastructure is a key one. Some of the players are idealistic about it, others I suspect not, but for the moment at least this is in a large part a battle of openness versus closed and controlled access to the networks, which is what the cellular companies have now and want to keep. If the cellular companies win this battle it is tantamount to handing over your personal information to your provider. It isn't pretty, but you probably have done it already. They know where you are, or at least where your phone is. They know how to reach you. They know who you talk to, and if they wanted to I'm sure they could figure out exactly what you said, although it would not exactly be legal in the US for them to do so. All they want to do is add the contents of all your emails, web browsing and file sharing. Yeah not too much.

The stakes are high, whoever controls the pipes in which your information flows essentially occupies a position where they have the potential to exert incredible control over you. Whether that potential is realizable though is a huge issue. The wifi activists offer a solution with unclear long term ramifications. They want to ramp up the wifi network to a point somewhat akin to where the wired internet lies today. One that is relatively open, somewhat balanced but with huge weakness just beginning to emerge, as American's are learning with the current net neutrality legislation churning in congress. In other words we are on the verge of a round of corporate warfare with potential to be as messy as that "real" warfare engulfing the middle east. So pick your carrier carefully, who knows where this leads...

Posted by Abe at 06:59 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 24, 2006


The current madness in the middle east came so fast and stays so furious it's difficult to make heads or tails over what is happening. It is one particular question though keeps echoing through my head: just who gains from all this violence?

Clearly the peace loving people in Lebanon, which I believe is a hefty majority of the country, loose big time. They made a tacit gamble, that it was acceptable to leave Hezbollah in control of the southern portion of the country in exchange for being able to rebuild their country in peace. Israel now has made it quite clear that this is unacceptable in their eyes.

Just how Hezbollah comes out of this one remains to be seen. They may well come out stronger and more popular than ever, or they might come out depleted and with less support. Only time can answer this one really. But if reports of their fighting strength and extensive financial network are true they very may well come out looking pretty good and in position to rebound and keep growing.

How the Palestinians figure in this is utterly up in the air, they've practically disappeared from the news.

If the numbers thrown about claiming that 90% of Israelis support the recent actions in Lebanon, than clearly most Israelis think they will come out the better from this mess. But just how does destabilizing a neighboring country help the people of Israel? How does showing to the world a willingness to attack civilian targets on a large scale help the people of Israel? Even if they manage to practically eliminate Hezbollah and their rockets, which looking increasingly unlikely, I can't see this helping the people of Israel out in the long run.

So who gains? There is one very clear winner in all of this and that is the Israeli military. Or as much as I hate the term, what might be best called the Israeli military industrial complex, which I should note must include the military's supporters in the government. For while the people of Israel have plenty to gain from somehow reaching a state of peace, the military has almost nothing to gain. By bombing Lebanon into a state of chaos, the military is almost certain to win. The country will stay turbulent enough to be scary, yet unstable enough to be a serious military threat. Even if Hezbollah hands the Israeli's their asses on a platter, which just might be happening as I write this, the military walks away with ammunition for even more funding. Unless Hezbollah somehow has reached the capability of actually invading Israel, the military is in the sort of win no matter how the cards situation that intelligence agencies have abused for decades. If they fail it is because they are underfunded, if they win they have done a good job and deserve more funding.

A stable Lebanon on the other hand poses a double sided threat to the military. On one edge it might rebound enough to actually build a serious military. On the other edge it might rebound enough to begin creating strong enough economic exchanges with Israel that actual peace might develop. And very little could threaten the perpetuation of a strong and intensely funded Israeli military more than actual peace.

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July 23, 2006

power struggle


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July 19, 2006

Yo, What Happened to Peace?

In the realm of universal history, balance of power was concerned with states whose independence it served to maintain. But it attained this end only by the continuous wars between changing partners... The fact that in the nineteenth century the same mechanism resulted in peace rather than war is a problem to challenge the historian.

The entirely new factor, we submit, was the emergence of an acute peace interest. Traditionally, such an interest was regarded as being outside the scope of the system. Peace with its corollaries of crafts and arts ranked among the mere adornments of life. The Church might pray for peace as for a bountiful harvest, but in the realm of state action it would nevertheless advocate armed intervention; governments subordinated peace to security and sovereignty, that is, to intents that could not be achieved otherwise than by recourse to the ultimate means. Few things were regarded as more detrimental to the community than the existence of an organized peace interest in its midst. As late as the second half of the eighteenth century, J.J. Rousseau arraigned tradespeople for their lack of patriotism because they were suspect of preferring peace to liberty.

Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation (emphasis is mine)

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July 11, 2006

Innovation & Design


1. The action of innovating; the introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms.

2. A change made in the nature or fashion of anything; something newly introduced; a novel practice, method, etc.


5. Comm. The action of introducing a new product into the market; a product newly brought on to the market.

Just when did design start turning into innovation?

I had been waiting for Business Week's new design "magazine within a magazine", Inside Innovation, with considerable interest. My own tastes in business weeklies runs more towards Barron's and The Economist than to BW itself, so it's not that I excited about the prospective content and writing. But the very fact that BW was launching a design focused magazine is news itself and I was quite interested in just what their take would be. Peter Merholz reactions to the content itself are pretty spot on, but what really struck was the branding. I was expecting a design magazine, and indeed there are occasional indications that was what it is or was supposed to be at some point. But for the most part what came out from the title on down was not a magazine about design at all but one about "innovation". And design is quite explicitly not equal to innovation.

No one is explicitly claiming design and innovation are the same thing, but in Business Week you can see the story of innovation implicitly being used to substitute for design. Their recent extensive design coverage is mainly driven by one man, Bruce Nussbaum, who is both the editor of Inside Information and the person who has been getting all sorts of design focused articles into the plain old Business Week. His blog, dating back to September 2005, is NussbaumOnDesign. Clearly design is the focus, although it is subtitled "inside the business of innovation and design". Innovation is there, yes, but it is clearly distinguished as being distinct from design. The distinction is echoed by some of the more interesting and larger design firms. live|work for instance is in the business of "service innovation & design", while Frog splits it's site navigation into "Design Services" and "Business Innovation" at the very top level*. Meanwhile "IDEO helps companies innovate. We design products, services, environments and experiences."

The distinction remains on the Business Week cover as it introduces Inside Innovation, but the weight has shifted. Innovation occurs three times, once as the first word in the headline, once as part of the sub-magazine title and once in the blurb, where design makes it's one small appearance. Flip inside to the actual "magazine" Inside Innovation, and you'll find no mention of design at all on the cover, perhaps because the cover is nearly completely devoid of content. Meanwhile what started out as Business Week's design magazine is teetering on the edge of not being about design at all.

Innovation has always been an important aspect of the design process, but innovation alone can never be a substitute for design as a whole. Design, at least when it is good, is about solving problems. Innovation always possesses the potential to produce a solution, but the only thing it can guarantee generating is novelty. A designer must always be open to the possibility that the best solution is one that already exists. There is probably room for innovation in the realm of the book for instance, but most writers are going to be far better served by the book designs already in existence. One of the higher profile attempts to produce innovative book designs is MIT Press' Mediawork Pamphlets [sic] series, and the results are often atrocious.

This past winter I walked into St. Marks Books three times with the explicit intention of buying Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things. It's a well written and thought provoking book, and one that is relevant enough to my work that it really needs to be in my personal library. Yet the design itself is so innovatively bad that I could not bring myself to buy it the first two trips. Worse yet though is the fact that it actively distracts from the legibility of the text, although some of the other Mediawork Pamphlets, Katherine Hayle's for example, manage to be even worse. It might be an innovative series, but it sure is not a well designed one.

So design and innovation are not the same thing, but what exactly are the implications of the two increasingly entering into a slippery confusion? Innovation it seems is becoming the catch phrase under which the design world and big business are conducting their increasingly hot flirtation. Design of course has always been about business, but the relationship has tended to be small and discreet, something to be conducted on the edge of the business world.

It was of all people Tom Peters who really took the relationship public, shouting in his trademarked manner that "design matters!" But at the same time some of the larger design firms, particularly of the product design type began to see themselves as consultants. Their situation was similar to that of many of the accounting firms that birthed management consulting offshoots years ago. As outsiders working extensively inside of companies, both the designers and accountants found themselves in positions uniquely suited for seeing ways to improve a company that the insiders might never see. Suddenly design firms started to see themselves as consulting firms, with "design thinking" and then "innovation" being the pitch. In this regard the innovation movement is good for design, a trojan horse or perhaps mutual cover story under which design thinking can be applied to business.

If good design is about solving problems, well then good business is often about selling solutions. Add the two and two together and it seems like a good, perhaps even ideal mix. Design might just might be the skill set needed to seriously improve business' ability to discover the solutions that are so necessary to good business. But things are not always good in both the world of design and business. Bad design would rather cover over problems than solve them while bad business is about just plain selling, not selling solutions. Innovation might just be the buzzword under which the two worlds meet, or it just might be the way in which design thinking is dumbed down into just another consulting buzzword.

Business Week is obviously not a design magazine, so it's no surprise its design quarterly is written in a language somewhat different than what designers choose for themselves. But it's not exactly written in the no nonsense, cut to the chase, language of hardcore business either, but rather in more nonsensical cheer of management speak. Language constructed for the explicit purpose of asslicking all the way to the top, or if that fails, at least fluttering all the way out of trouble. In the case of outside consultants it also means keeping the clients both confused and scared enough to keep paying, while flattered and massaged enough to keep paying. It's a language that has no direct ways to address problems, only ways to avoid the messy truth they contain. Problems after all are bad your career if you are on the inside. Outside consultants are of course supposed to identify and help solve problems, but there is a big problem with that task itself: very few clients actually want their real problems pointed out. It makes them look bad, after all and why pay someone to do that?

If innovation in the hands of a designer is an important part of a problem solving process, in the hands of Business Week it seems it is a part of removing the very idea of a problem from design. It smoothly separates what is useful and what is just fun in the design process, and leaves a rather worthless buzzword on the other end. Innovation is a means of producing novelty and novelty is exactly the sort of stuff that is good for bad business. Novelty can be sold for the sake of selling, it can be hyped, pumped, churned, and then forgotten once the profit margins fade and the new consulting trend is catching on.

Of course Business Week is new to the innovation/design game so there is plenty of time for designer to make a legitimate impact. The only question is how? What is so worrisome about the latest trend over at Business Week is how clearly professional they are at the language of co-option. Both the magazine and the consulting companies have been in this game forever. Designers are new at it, and for all the solutions and skillsets they bring in, they lack an infrastructure to fall back on and ride. In other words they are just a bit outmatched here. But perhaps with a little innovation they will end up on top in this ride.

*Frog actually launched a new site while I was in the midst of writing this, so that is no longer true, and to their credit they have buried the innovation language deeper in the site than it once was.

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July 08, 2006

Low Level Corporate Warfare, Wireless Style

Things are starting to get interesting in the world of wireless infrastructure, in a low level corporate warfare sort of way. Perhaps nothing sums up the stakes than this little bit from Wired, on why Nokia has slipped off their index of 40 most "wired" companies:

"What’s an innovator to do? Carriers, not handset makers, now dictate the cell phone feature set."

Well, what will they do? Last week they dropped a clue by announcing they will provide free wifi in New York parks. That's small time compared to what FON wants to do, which is build a world wide free wifi mesh network. Funnily enough it looks as if there is a Nokia-FON connection already existing. Nokia apparently even has a charming name for it all "Anarchic Wireless Networks". More to come I suspect...

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July 02, 2006

Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality is not exactly the easiest issue to understand (just ask Senator Ted Stevens.) I have what must be an above average grasp of the issues involved, and for the longest time I couldn't quite explain it simply. But the easiest way to break it down is that the cable and phone companies want to turn the internet into cable TV. Premium internet, pay per channel basis. Want to send pictures to your friends and family, head over to the equivalent of public access, the fast connections are reserved for the big players. That's not really the bad part though, the bad part is that congress is RCH away from legislating this corporate vision into reality. Way more info over at Save the Internet

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June 24, 2006

Bumptop Interface

It took be stumbling into this link a few times before I actually was willing to watch the video, but if you are into computer interfaces it's well worth it, very well prototyped and thought out. My only suggestion would be that now that they've gotten the insights they wanted off the desktop/paper metaphor, they then ditch the metaphor and see what happens when they extract the techniques. Metaphors after all tend to hang around far past their expiration dates, crossing a point were they stop being useful and sometimes get in the way...

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June 23, 2006

Reading SF

Does anyone in San Francisco read magazines?

Somehow it took me two days to track down a copy of the latest super obscure design magazine, Business Week's quarterly mag within a mag Inside Innovation. SF is shockingly devoid of newstands and magazine shops, things that pretty much occupy every major corner of New York. Perhaps it's just a population density thing, but SF has plenty of great bookstores in that same magazine free area, more perhaps than New York even. Maybe SF readers are just more sophisticated, they want the full book not the magazine lite. One specialist shop managed to stock the Journal of Palestinian Affairs and not Business Week. Yet the various drugstores I ducked into all seemed to feel Business Week was a bit to obscure to fit their microscopic racks. Perhaps people just don't read magazines here because the public transportation sucks so hard, although it's worth noting that at least it's fit to be called public transportation and that's a big improvement over most American cities...

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June 19, 2006

Open Apples and Rotten iPods

Is the iPod rotting Apple at the core? If the recent stories about the atrocious working conditions in the Chinese factories making iPods are true, than there is a simple and obvious answer. Yes. Apple to my knowledge has until recently maintained very close ties to it's factories, and if working conditions were an issue, I certainly have never been aware of it. But with the success of the iPod, as well as the Chinese tech explosion, Apple is now just another company shopping for cheap Chinese labor, and it's subcontracted out to companies that make whatever electronics device you pay them for. Apple is well funded and I'm sure their design team is more involved in production issues than many companies, but they are no long in charge of the end production the way they once were, and the result is sweatshop labor. Labor I might add, that if my shipped straight from Suzhou BlackBook is any indication, appears to be hard at work on the new Intel Macs as well.

That's the simple answer, yes the iPod and its mass appeal is rotting Apple's ethics away. Fortunately that has a relatively simple answer too, one that Apple's massive brand investment gives leverage too, Apple can demand better labor conditions. The brand comes in because Apple needs to defend it, and that means it can't afford to have people start thinking of iPods as sweatPods. Then again if the recent iPod/Nike collab is an indicator, perhaps that's not a great assumption. For now though this is the first news on the Apple exploitation front, it's a strike against them for sure, but they aren't out of the game yet. Plenty of time for them to make amends.

It's the complicated answer that really worries me. It's an answer that stems from a long, twisted and ubergeeky series of blog posts, starting with Mark Pilgrim announcing he's switching from Mac to Linux and including an epic response from John Gruber and
Mark's incredibly insightful reply. It's that last one that is the killer, detailing an old school Mac hacker's constant frustration with digital data decay. What is scary is it's culmination, detailing how Apple's program moved from an open data format to a closed proprietary one, without bothering to warn anyone. As an isolated case it's an annoyance, but it's not an isolated case and Tom Yager's detailing of Apple's attempt to shut him up, makes that very clear.

Now Apple's never been known as an open company, so in many regards none of this should be surprising. In fact it's only newsworthy in that it marks the end of what history might see as Apple's golden open era. In it's very early $666 computer days Apple was of course part of an open source culture that didn't even have a name yet. But from the Macintosh era onward they were very much an instrumental force in the closed source computing that dedicated up the eyes of the idealistic programmers and birthed the free software and open source movements. Despite it's brief experiment licensing it's operating system the Apple of the 80's and 90's was all about close proprietary hardware running a closed proprietary operating system and for the most part closed proprietary software. And in this exact time period Apple developed into an awkward and bloated company that stayed alive mainly on the inertia of innovations dating back to 1984.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple and began to turn the company around, he essentially stripped the company down to it's core competency. In order to survive and thrive Apple had to be about making great computers. It's widespread commercial success depended selling lots of computers in the mass market of course, but in order to do that it relied upon a core of dedicated power users, designers, programers, and other digital geeks. Apple could only thrive by making great (or at least greater than the competition) computers, and with that as a foundation is was able to sell tons of good computers in form of iMacs and iBooks. But with the entry of the iPod suddenly that story has changed.

In that one little window, the post Steve Jobs return, pre iPod era* of Apple history, the company became increasingly tied to the idea of open computing. Plenty was still closed for sure, but with OS X built on the open source Unix core of Darwin, Safari built on the open source KHTML project, and iTunes and earliest iPods driven by the open MP3 format. It was in this golden era when people like Mark Pilgrim were very much part of Apple's core user base, and the fact that was designed to use the open mbox format completely reflected this reality. This was also the time of Apple's infamous "Rip, Mix, Burn" advertisements and for a while the MP3 driven iPod was actually part of the company's open wave.

The iPod though was not just successful, it was dominant. Suddenly Apple did not just have another small product in it's line up, it had a cultural icon. An icon that sold by the boatload from China at correspondingly large profit margins. In the iMac era Apple had been a computer company first and a cultural icon second. With the iPod Apple has become first and foremost a brand, with computers relegated to second place, or perhaps even third behind consumer electronics. This doesn't mean Apple is going stop making good computers, but it does mean that making excellent computers is no longer crucial to their success. The core of the Apple is no longer the expert user but instead made cheaply in China.

What exactly this means for the future is of course uncertain, but what is clear is that Apple is already backing away from its short romance with open computing. It probably won't effect the stock price, it might even increase the profit margins, but it just might threaten what was once Apple's key strength, the overall usability of it's technology. The Apple isn't rotten yet, but man there sure are some suspicious marks on that skin...

*I by this I don't really mean the era ended with the introduction of the iPod in 2001, but instead the era slowly faded away as the iPod became a mass pop culture success over the next five years.

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June 12, 2006

Espresso Counter-Cultures


Ritual Coffee pulls one of the two or three best espresso shots in San Francisco, but it's not the coffee that hit me when walking in, but the laptops instead. I spent nearly four years living and working out of a carry on bag, so I'm certainly no stranger to cafe's filled with laptops, but I can't recall ever walking into a storefront so large are so completely overflowing with white people lined up and devoted to the screen. I couldn't quite tell if it was a sweatshop for freelancers or a sweatshop for laptops, but there certainly was way too much work going on to classify this place as a cafe. In fact the main thing that seems to distinguish it from an open plan office with an expensive espresso machine is that you need to fight for a deskspace... That and there are people there trained to pull that coffee deliciously.

I've been spending far too much time and money on delicious coffee lately. Ritual is part of the new school of American coffee, the post Starbucks wave of shops that aim to distinguish themselves via an obsessive devotion to the perfectly pulled espresso shot. Visually this tends to manifest itself in the rosetta, or latte art, that the barista will cap off your milky drinks with. But the root identifier is probably behind the counter or in the office, where you'll likely find a devout fan (or perhaps knowledgeable critic) of David Schomer of Seattle's Espresso Vivace. Through books, videos, and extensive semi-scientific experimentation Schomer is the lead evangelist or perhaps religious leader of the next generation coffee house.

The last few weeks have taken me from New York to Montréal to San Francisco and inevitably to these new coffee shops. Coffee shops that all seem to share the same awkward discord between the two sides of the counter. Coffee shops once came in two flavors, local and Starbucks (a category that of course includes Starbucks many corporate imitators.) Follow the online trails to your local espresso obsessive shop though and more likely find a space that feels like a teenager struggling to grow out of local and into something that maybe doesn't quite exist yet. Perhaps it's the counter Starbucks, perhaps it's the future replacement, or maybe something else entirely.

Whatever it is though, it's clear it will be well branded. The new school of espresso shops is almost always well branded, often too well branded for local comfort. Perhaps the fact that the shops are always filled with designers (you know like me) is to blame for this, but then again the whole western world seems to be filling up with designers... Ritual's knock off of the Soviet flag, with a coffee cup replacing the sickle and the hammer of labor absent entirely is slickest and most symbolically relevant of the brands I've seen. The revolution might not be televised but it will cost $3 a cup.

The rise of $3 cup (aka coffee culture) in America over the past decade or so has dovetailed nicely with the napsterization of music, ably sucking up the daytime jobs for musicians slot that the decline of the record store opened up. In an indie record store though there is a relative homogeneity you won't find in a new school espresso shop. It's a high end product and the crowds tend to vary from the sort you'd expect to find in a high end car dealership and a high end drug dealership. The only common bonds are a shared addiction to caffeine, electricity and wifi. Sitting in the packed and well branded cavern that is Ritual Coffee makes it pretty clear that this uneasy mix has a clear economic viability, but just what it will look like as it grows beyond adolesence is beyond my powers to forcast. In the meantime I guess I'll just enjoy the espresso.

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June 04, 2006

Economies of Design and Other Adventures in Nomad Economics

Ok, time to go a bit more public. That image that should be showing above is the front cover of the public draft of my first book Economies of Design and Other Adventures in Nomad Economics which you can buy by following this link. You can also download the pdf for free. It's a public draft which means its far from done, filled with typos, and due to the magic of print on demand it should be updated frequently. It's also the first(ish) draft of my first book, which means I've learned a tremendous amount just in pulling it together. If things work out the second draft will be a complete rewrite and a far better organized one at that. But the raw ideas are out on paper and I'd love to get as much feedback as possible, so please read, enjoy and comment!

The book also has a site, and like the book it's so far been semi-public. No longer. Feel free to point your browsers to just what will happen there is slightly indeterminate, but hopefully informative and entertaining.

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April 25, 2006

Jane Jacobs

Rest in peace


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April 21, 2006

Shrinking Manhattan

Every time I read something like Finding Space for a Million More New Yorkers, and it seems to happen more and more often, one sharp little fact always pops up. Cause while New York City is about as populous as it's ever been, the population of Manhattan, while on a slight upswing since 1980, has basically be on the decline since 1910. And not some little thing, more like 1.2 million people. 1910 there were 2.7 million people living in Manhattan, 2000 only 1.5 million, that's nearly half as much. The question then really is not where to put all these hypothetical New Yorkers, but where exactly did they fit all the real ones?

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April 13, 2006

The YouTube Presidency

In 2004 the American political system began to come to grips with the internet era. They got the ecommerce bit down real quick. Howard Dean lead the way and everyone copied him before he could even finish shrieking. 2004 also marked the point where online media, blogs in particular began to make themselves noticed, although their overall impact on the results of that election is probably rather minimal. Here in 2006 blogs are pretty much taken for granted, although just what the impact of that will be is uncertain. And what's about to get noticed I think is YouTube.

Unless YouTube has taken it down, embedded below should be a clip poetically titled "President Bush pants like a dog". Not exactly what the White House media team wants you to watch is it? But like it or not this looks like the new style, the new format for video, and what sells on YouTube isn't exactly what sells on the 6 O'Clock news. I doubt it will have much impact on these upcoming elections, other than perhaps an outlier or two of sorts, but what happens in 2008? Instead of a president who looks good on TV are we going to have a president with the best MySpace profile and the ability to make the funniest YouTube clips?

Jokes aside, politicians are going to have to come to grips with the new way people watch TV/video. And that's not an easy task as TV appears to be in a bifurcation of sorts. On one hand people want to come home to longer and far more complex shows to play in their Tivos, and on the other hand they want the funniest and dumbest clips to watch on their desks at work. Is the YouTube president the one who avoids making the biggest mistakes, or the one who can constantly generate positive viral clips to feed the streams?

Perhaps the answer is to skip participating and just become the host. I thought up most of this post sitting is Steven Johnson's class where someone quite aptly compared YouTube to America's Funniest Home Videos, which I might add is much better than my own "like TV only worse". And if being the host is the way out and YouTube is really America's Funniest well then there is the answer to 2008, Bob Saget for president!

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March 30, 2006

State of the Planet 2006

The State of the Planet 2006 conference probably would be better named the "state of the toothless left-center UN bureaucrat and their friends 2006 conference" but hey it's the internet age so economists and scientist don't really need to tell the truth anymore do they? And well, truth be told I actually rather enjoyed the two days. For one knowing how these people think is actually rather useful, and hey as a bonus every couple hours or so one or two of them would actually say something interesting. That's an exaggeration of course, but they did actually pull two people out at the end that well made up for the wait.

Parker Mitchell of Engineers Without Borders took the tried and true engineering route towards relevance, actually doing something in the real world. But unlike all to many engineers he has also realized that when actually doing something means trying to solve hunger in African droughts you actually need to take culture into account. You can't just march in and say "here is a new toy, destroy your customs and it'll save you". Maybe it sounds nasty, but in many ways it takes cultural engineering. You need to win trust and you need to convince people to take a huge risk on trying something new. And when you are talking subsistence farmers, remember that if they try something new and get back less than they need to eat.. well they either beg or die or both. Maybe he had the nastiest message of the conference, if we want to do things we need to go every individual problem and listen. It's way more work than say the number juggling so many presenters powerpointed to the screens, but in the end I found it profoundly uplifting. It's long and slow and absurd amounts of work, but at least someone is doing it.

As much as I may talk about pragmatism and actually doing things though in the end I'm still under the spell of big ideas and Johan Rockström was really the only one to deliver on that front. Like many big ideas it's ridiculously simple once you learn it, this one is so simple it was in my forth grade science textbooks, but apparently in never made it up the land of international aid and planning. Rockström is all about green water. Green water is that stuff you see in a basic diagram of water circulation, the stuff that evaporates back into the air and the stuff that gets sucked up into plant roots and rhizomes. In other words the water that lets our planet breathe. But people concerned with water crises apparently don't care about green water, they care about blue water, essentially the water that turns into streams, lakes and rivers. This is what we drink, irrigate fields with and dump all our shit back into. It's important but it's also only a small part of our waterflows. Rockström's point was exceedingly simple, we can't solve water problems without factoring in green water as well as blue. Simple, to the core and straight out of elementary school, it's sort of sad this is revolutionary, but hey in these times I'll take it where I can get it!

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March 21, 2006


Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad? is danah boyd's latest essay on the big social network sites, and her continued defense of MySpace against rising media driven fears. I'm pretty much in agreement with her on the level she has framed her argument, as the freedom of users to create their space versus the attempts of managers and concern parents to control it. Yet something big is missing from that story, something about MySpace being created by an internet marketing company know for spam, adware and spywear. Something about it being bought for a rather large sum by news corporation known for pursuing power first and profits second.

Through out her writing danah constantly invokes a bottom up defense of youth culture. Essentially that the kids are alright they just need space and privacy to develop their own identities. It's an argument I'm totally sympathetic to, but it becomes completely problematic when one realizes that something like MySpace just isn't a traditional bottom-up youth culture situation at all. Rather it's something more like an engine, a structure to contain the bottom up energy and transform it into something else entirely.

Now that probably comes off as rather critical, yet it actually purposefully devoid of value judgments. If all MySpace is doing is giving kids a place to be themselves on line and transforming that into ad revenue its a rather benign operation in my book. But is selling ads the only reason for MySpace as a company? Is it the only reason News Corp was willing to pay many hundreds of millions for the service? Without inside knowledge it's difficult to answer, but it is an undeniable fact that the MySpace database is filled with a massive, perhaps unprecedented, amount of demographic data.

MySpace knows their users basic info, name, email, age, etc. Then it also knows their friends, their friends data, their favorite bands, the way they speak, who they like, who they don't. Heck it can probably run a simple algorithm and figure out your favorite words (assuming you use MySpace). A more complex algorithm and it can probably imitate they way you talk.

Not only does MySpace have an absurd amount of personal data on people, the sort of stuff traditional demographics companies have been collecting for decades. But it also has something perhaps far more valuable, a wealth of data on the relationships between all those people. And just what emerges from those relationships remains to be seen. We can speculate a little though.

Imagine a new friend request, good looking person, same style, likes the same books and movies you do, never met them but sure you say yes. Something maybe a touch off, a touch cold, robotic maybe. But they are in your network, in the conversation churn. But slowly they push in odd ways, push certain products, certain activities, push for more info. The future of marketing just might read the same zines as you, buy the same punk 7" as you, watch the same YouTube as you. Perhaps they might even know just what you'll buy better than you.

That's just a scenario, imagine another one. One where it's not about the personal touch, but instead the bigger picture. Youth culture has always relied on reality moving faster on the ground than it does in the board rooms. The ability for kids to find and build their own worlds outside of the ones filled with parents teachers and cops. But what happens if MySpace can see trends faster in their data than kids can actually see them on the ground?

Just a scenario, but remember it might be my space and your space, but it's their data in the end...

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March 04, 2006

Big World

For a couple years now I've had an unfinished post, pretty much the only unfinished post I actually remember and think about, tentatively titled "six degrees of bullshit". I never finished it cause I could never figure out anything positive to work into it. The whole idea of "six degrees of separation", at the present at least, is one big urban myth. I've never found any compelling evidence for it's existence at all, but all that was left to write then was an attack. It never quite seemed fit to post.

Today something positive happened, I stumbled across Could It Be A Big World After All?(via Clay Shirky's, and now I can just use a link to someone else's work to do the criticism! It even includes a helpful section on why people are psychologically attached to the small world idea.

That article in addition is far more interesting then whatever I could have written, revolving around original work in digging through Stanley Milgram's archives of documentation. My own concern was mainly with the small worlds project and the strange discord between the media hype it generated about "proving" the six degrees thesis while it's actual main result was a massive collection of unfinished chains, proving, like Milgram, only that it's still really hard to map these social networks out...

The real positive though is in the branding, and as is often the case the answer was too obvious for me to see on my own. I'm not out attacking the six degrees/small worlds concept you see, I'm just pro big world theory. Nothing wrong with that is there?

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February 24, 2006

Luxury Design

"It seems like we went from bemoaning junky construction to whinging about excessively good design in one fell hiccup."

That's Julie Iovine in an otherwise decent piece on 40 Bond Street. 40 Bond is the latest and, from a PR perspective at least, greatest luxury condo development in New York. Apparently what constitutes "excessively good design" apparently is a completely generic luxury condo floorplan surrounded by a large cast iron graffiti inspired gate. It's all in keeping with Schrager's trademarked slight of hand, his luxury hotels were built on a simple formula, the rooms were smaller (and thus more plentiful) than the competition, and well placed luxury items made it all seem ok. A classic maneuver, more sizzle less steak.

What irks me about Iovine's statement though is how blatantly it ignores what we can call the first guideline of relative design, if you can't afford it it's not good design. Any object out of your budget is not designed to solve your problems, and from that perspective can only be seen as piece of failed design. There is probably an angle or two from which Schrager's as yet unbuilt project can be seen as a good design. For example if you are filthy rich and are looking for an obnoxiously expensive apartment to let your peers know just how much you can waste than one of these units is probably damn well designed. But from just about any other angle? This is not good design, its good salesmanship. Sure there is probably a level of quality craftsmanship that will end up inside, and perhaps even some decent foresight. But there is a difference between paying for quality and paying for luxury. And once you are paying for luxury, then practically by definition what you are buying is not good design at all.

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January 28, 2006

Espresso Portafilter

There are a multitude of variables to the art and science of an espresso shot. The bean, the roast, the freshness, the packing of the grinds, the temperature, the length of pull... The difference between a good and a great shot is potentially infinite, and perhaps meaningful only to those willing to create the meaning themselves. The difference between a good shot and a bad shot on the other hand can often be reduced to one, and only one factor, how clean what is apparently called the portafilter is.

The portafilter is that handle thing with a metal cup on the end where the espresso is packed in. As the name implies its where the espresso is filtered, and its also often where it goes wrong. Next time you order your favorite espresso drink watch how the baristas make it. In New York at least odds are they'll follow a pattern, pull, knock knock the grinds out over some metal bar on top a trash receptacle, pack in the grinds and start again. Knock knock, brew, repeat. Each time this is done a layer of residue from the previous round is left in the portafilter. Grinds from which the cream of the bean has been extracted. Grinds from which something will be extracted into your drink. Something bitter.

Maybe it sounds petty, but the fact is you can clearly taste the difference, a clean portafilter pretty much ensures a decent pour. There is all sorts of variation, space for the pour to approach perfection in the hands of a master, but none of these variables have anything near the effect of the difference between a clean a dirty portafilter. Watch the barista, if they clean the portafilter with hot water, or wipe it out thoroughly with a rag, you'll get a decent espresso shot, if they knock knock and reload you'll be be drinking a bitter brew. So yeah, that makes this a plea, to all the coffee shop owners and baristas out there, please, please clean the damn portafilter!

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December 20, 2005

After the Smoke Is Done and Clear

Nothing is seems kills a blog quicker than going to grad school. Its not the workload that does it, its the erratic schedule, when I sat a desk 10 hours a day, most every day, finding time to blog was easy. In school I'm all over the place, different timing everyday. Sometimes with laptop, sometimes without , sometimes designing, sometimes making art, sometimes writing. And no defined blogging pattern. In other words a service disruption.

Semester is over now, lets see what happens. For now a wrap up:

Node Politics written for Alex Galloway's Politics of Code class.

Incorporating Profit written for Clay Shirky's Social Facts

On the Looking Glass for Masamichi Udagawa's Designing Experience

Couple independent studies with no live web presence at the moment are the ITP Podcasts (that server should be back up soon I hope), and a painting system based on the old wind is the enemy work.

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November 24, 2005

Metataggers: Digital Graffiti / Empire / Archives

There are certain digital thresholds of history, points in which the type and amount of data available via computers and their networks changes radically. The point in which magazine and news articles are available via Lexus/Nexus for example, or the points in which started archiving the internet and DejaNews (now part of Google) started archiving the usenet.

It's not quite as clear a line, but I have a feeling one day the point in which everything started to get blogged will mark another such transition. Case to point I started digging around for the web evidence of a show I did back all of 3 years ago, september 2002. Neither nor google revealed the precise material I wanted, the gallery's original web page for the show. Instead I found a short post on, the blog of Evan Williams founder of Blogger. I guess that's worth some geek cred... In anycase if something soon won't exist unless its been blogged, I best document this thing...

Metaggers: Digital Graffiti was the name, featuring the art of Shep Fairey, Paul Miller and 47 which at the time was me, [sic] and Ethan Eismann. Among the pieces I had in it was "Empire" which you can view "after the fold" for this entry.


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November 21, 2005


There are at least 3 key functions to powerpoint presentations and they are often in conflict.

The main one is to create a good presentation. Something like what Steve Jobs or Lawrence Lessig do so effortlessly. The problem is they give good presentation anyway, the powerpoint is just there to drive home the argument and provide a visual countepoint for the speaker. Making a Jobsian powerpoint file won't make you a good presenter and if fact if you suck having some of his minimalist slides behind you might hurt you.

The second main function of powerpoint is to create a document that stands on its own. Something people can look at as reference and remember what the presentation was about. These types of presentations sometimes can help poor presenters, and sometimes can provide an awful crutch. If you can't speak in public, having an info rich slide can take the attention and pressure off you a bit, for better or for worse.

The third function of powerpoint, perhaps the key to its success, is that its much better at helping the speaker organize their talk then it is at generating good slideshows. Often what you see on screen are just glorified notecards, a crib sheet projected ten feet high for the world to see. This is a big reason why people like to use powerpoint so much, it forces them to structure and plan the talk. Its also a big reason why the presentations it generates are often such crap.

The tensions between these three functions could be reduced significantly or perhaps eliminated by developing a two faced presentation program. A program that defaults to two slides at one time, one meant for the presenter and another meant for the audience. A note screen and an emphasis screen. In a live context perhaps it be best if the note screen where not a screen at all, but instead get printed out onto note cards. The process of organizing the presentation and the actual presentation itself are no longer one and the same but instead two separate tasks. It means more work, if your goal is just to crap out a mediocre powerpoint, but if you want to make a good one it means less. The real challenge of the software would be effectively managing the relationship between the notes and the slides themselves. Can a software successfully extract the key points of the notes and automate the slide making process? A difficult to unlikely task, making good slides is still a human task. Combining the notes and the slides into on take away document is perhaps slightly easier to automate, but a step, not an answer.

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November 06, 2005

Public Domain

The best thing about releasing work to the public domain (as all the wind is the enemy stuff was) is things like this happen. Thanks Kevin!

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October 31, 2005


finally got around to updating this site to MT3.2 and more importantly to MySQL. That probably doesn't mean much to most of you, nor should it, except that there might be a few buggy things floating around. Main one I'm working on is fixing the line breaks, MT appears to have ignored the formatting setting on all 1022 entries to the site...

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October 15, 2005

Inflationary Reality

The market watchers have been buzzing about inflation a lot of late, and the noise seems to be picking up like a train rumbling towards the station. What it means is beyond me. I've never quite gotten the obsession with the big "catch all" concept of inflation.

Inflation has been here for years in some of the parts where it really counts, education, housing, and nights on the town. Its long been offset by Moore's "law" bring down the cost of computation and cheap Chinese labor bringing down the cost of anything that can be shipped over an ocean. This might add up to a mathematical wash in terms of "inflation", but that just hides the massive changes beneath the surface. The cost of living a life is going up fast, its been inflationary to the core for years. In strictly numerical terms its been offset by cheap gadgets and faster computers. But are they remotely equal in reality?

Are those extra megapixels on the digital camera really worth the $2,000 a year more in tuition? Is the ability to share and archive every photo on Flickr worth losing the ability to find a quality entree for under $10? The first strikes of inflation have long since hit us. Now the economists are warning us even the gadgets might start going up in price. What happens when we run out of distractions? And to take it back a step to the political-economic, it might be fun kicking Bush while he's stumbling down, but have we forgot that the worst thing about the man is that he is a position to take us all down with him?

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October 14, 2005

ITP Podcasts, Clay Shirky, Social Facts week 6

There was no week 5. I was a second late to start recording on the first one, and a couple minutes late on the second. The second is good stuff though, a summary of what the class has done since the begining.

part 1
part 2

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September 30, 2005

ITP Podcasts

ITP Podcasts, maybe not a gold master, more like a new school style beta*, in that it works but I'm not making any guarantees..

*with a nod to Blackbeltjones, who was in town today..

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Get Healthy Fast

A few days ago I watched someone present the idea of healthy vending machine. It hits familiar themes, healthy fast food seems like a can't miss idea, its crossed my mind more than a few times and New York is littered with the failed attempts at making healthy lunch for frenzied workers. Its not that the business have failed, just that they never quite manage to provide that mysterious healthy lunch. Many more are bound to fail too. Why? Because its not the food that's unhealthy in fast food, its the fast that is unhealthy.

First and foremost the problem is a lifestyle problem. If you are living a life where you need your food fast, from vending machines or wolfed on the street, you are not living a healthy life. And its a problem of concentration. Its not that the 700 calories or whatever in a Big Mac are bad for you, and the 30 grams are fat are insignificant compared to the millions of grams that most Americans consume over their lifespan. Its only when those calories and that fat become fast, become something to be consumed in 10 minutes, that they become a problem...

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September 27, 2005

Better Environmentalism

Whenever I see things like this list of ways to shop "green", I always wonder why they leave the obvious out. What's the single thing that so many humans do that has the largest impact on the environment? They have kids.

Talk about wasteful, have a kid and suddenly a couple has increased their contribution to pollution by 50%. No matter how many diapers you hand wash and miserable low flow showers you take, and how many cramped up little cars you drive you'll never be able to undo that one little act of massive environmental damage..

Seriously though, the environmentalists have made steps, but if they really want to succeed they need to prevent be good to the environment as coming across as a sacrificial act. Low flow showers are my pet peeve, I don't care how well meaning you are, anyone advocating those things is my personal enemy, sorry.

I ride a bike everywhere and don't even have a driver's license, but every time I hear someone ranting about SUVs I cringe up inside. People drive those things cause they are comfortable, spacious and make them feel good. If environmentalists are against comfort, space and feeling good, well then they are bound to lose whatever struggle they feel they are engaged in. Its the wrong path towards changing people's behavior. What environmentalists need to create is not just alternative products, but alternative products that are better then the ones they want to replace. A couple on the list above might just do that, its certainly possible, lets see it happen..

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September 18, 2005


Bringing a laptop to a classroom presents a particular problem. Its tempting to locate the problem in technology, in say students sitting at laptops IMing friends or reading dirty emails. But the relevant technology is actually far more primitive and its called a hinge.

First off let me note this is really about small classrooms, seminars, settings around a table small enough for everyone to know everyone's name. It need not be a classroom, its may as well be a boardroom, a conference room, a situation more relevant to a corporate setting than say a large lecture in a university.

I attend a technology oriented school, large for a graduate program, and a big majority of the 200+ students own a laptop. That's about 160 laptops that are officially discouraged in the classroom. This is a casual place, there never was a real ban, just a guideline, and there never was a real stated reason, beyond some mumbling of people surfing during class, and IMing their friends, etc, etc. The real reason though is clear as you sit around a table. The digital bits are somewhat irrelevant, students have found ways to zone out since before they invented puberty. The real problem with a laptop is one of walls, shields and hinges.

A laptop on a table is pretty nondescript, until you open it up that is. Suddenly the flat space connecting everyone in the room has been divided. A wall swings up and breaks the laptop user out of the circle of conversation. They can do it by daydreaming, but only in one direction. The laptop functions as a shield, it blocks both ways. The little portal into the internet doesn't hurt, but in the end it is the other direction that is most damaging. The physical vertical presence of open laptops on a conference style table shields the user from the speaker, interrupting the dynamic balance that guides a good "tabletop" experience.

Its exactly this reason that so many failed digital "notepad" type devices are on the market. Microsoft's initiative is the most prominent, but pen manufactures and assorted gadget makers have attempted to push into this space as well, with no major success that I know of. Why? Because of where decisions are made in modern corporations. Sitting inside a conference room, making those fateful product development decisions, what could seem more useful then a flat PC to replace those yellow legal pads and archaic pens. Of course that's just about the only place a generic notepad PC is really useful. They are necessary for computing while standing too, but stand up computing activities tend to be too specialized to map straight to a generic notepad device. So in a rather extreme version of a rather common mistake, the people in a conference room mistake their own needs with genuine demands for a product.

Now if a tablet PC where priced a bit closer to the legal pad side then the laptop side, then that might be a genuine product... Leaving the hinge aside the laptop filled classroom is a genuine improvement. Ignoring the largely unproven and uncharted idea of a backchannel behind, there are three main uses for the computer in a meeting or classroom, note taking, distraction and instant research. I'm not much of a note taker, perhaps the only valuable lesson in high school I actually learned from a teacher was that if you stop taking notes and use that energy to listen you might just learn a lot more. But some people are natural born stenographers, and the keyboard is their main tool. I knew one person who would take notes straight into Movable Type and publish them as a blog post at the end of class, quite effective.

Using the computer for distraction is the classic anti laptop in the room case, but I'm not sold. Sure their is a certain dynamic to IM that might pull people farther away from the topic at hand, but just how much does it differ from someone handwriting a love letter, doodling or reading all the small print on whatever they pulled from their briefcase? Any additional distraction the internet might bring is easily offset by what it can add to the conversation, no?

I like laptops being in a classroom for about two reasons, google and wikipedia. Fast, cheap information. An in room error correction machine. When used correctly the internet can transform a room from a closed information space, into an open one. For the most part this is a subtle addition, an anecdote here, a better definition there. But what can't be overlooked with error correction is that occasionally an error can unstablize an entire process, sending the room off on a tangent based not on reality but a mistaken fact. A group of people in a small room can sometimes produce the strangest results, a small lifeline to reality is perhaps a good thing.

Now if only they good get rid of that damn hinge...

Posted by Abe at 05:51 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 06, 2005

Really Simply Now

As horrifying as last week was, a vicious wake up call reminding us just how real a disaster can be, this week has smashed in with an even harsher realization.

Really simply now:

They turned New Orleans into a prison.

Step back, breathe, think about it for a second. Breathe. FEMA shuts everyone out. The National Guard prevents those left inside from leaving. The army comes in guns alight. The Red Cross isn't even allowed inside.

They turned New Orleans into a prison.

Maybe that's what Barbara Bush was talking about today when she claimed that "this is working very well for them.", with the "this" meaning being stuck in a refugee camp and the "them" being refugees of America's worst natural disaster in a 100 years. Yeah things are working out very well, they may be refugees, their homes may have been washed away, but at least they aren't being held in that half submerged prison that once was New Orleans.

They turned New Orleans into a prison.

I'm an American, I love my country. I may not agree with every action it takes, but I do love my country and a good part of what it stands for. I still do, but a little part of me froze ice cold last week, and little more so this week. Why? Because the country I saw, the actions we all witnessed, they had nothing to do with the country I love, the country I believe in, or the country I want to live in. Something is deeply wrong in America today, it needs to change at the top and it needs to change at the bottom. Really simply now: New Orleans is not the exception, it is the reality that could strike any part of America, the storm that blew back the facade on the foulest aspects of our society.

And they turned it into a prison.

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September 04, 2005

Anarchy, New Orleans Edition (bottom up)

The first warning sign I caught was in midst of the Hurricane build up. Can't remember where, but buried in some article was a line about long lines to get into the Superdome, the shelter of 'last resort'. Long lines because security at the door was searching everyone for drugs and guns.

The storm of the century is blasting towards New Orleans and police are busy searching people for drugs and guns, something was ajar, the record skipped a groove. The impact wasn't in yet the storm had not landed, this was supposed to be a story about a natural disaster and the human response, where the hell did the drugs and guns, the search and seizure, where did it come into the picture.

Welcome to New Orleans.

Beneath the jazz history, oil flows and 24 hour drinking establishments, is a city of deeply entrenched poverty, distrust and inequality. Its a city where a quarter of the population lives in poverty. A city where a largely white police force plays enforcer to a population that is 70% black. As liberated as the city may seem to a drinker, its never escaped the shadows of slavery and the equally insidious but far more subtle structures of racism that followed. As in much of the south the Civil War never quite ended in New Orleans. Beneath the Marti Gras facade of the city is a perpetual tension, a poverty that goes beyond economics, a poverty of communication, a poverty of politics, a poverty of trust.

The destruction of New Orleans began long before the hurricane hit. The looting, chaos and armed gangs began long before the levees broke. You could read it in the paper as Katrina approached, a storm is coming and what are the police doing? What they always are doing, searching the population, imposing their will. The city is being evacuated, but the police and general population can never work together in this city, the divides are so deep that they stand up strong and violent even as the levees fall.

In the intensely disturbing days that followed, that as I write this still appear to continue, two news items hit even harder, even nastier, then the rest. One was the stories of New Orleans police turning in their badges, their ties to the community had been severed by the waters, they no longer cared for the city they had sworn to serve and protect. Nothing could be a stronger indictment of just what a wounded community existed in New Orleans, of just how much the police force was their to protect property not serve the people of the city. Perhaps even more shocking and nearly entirely blocked from the news is the fact that troops (Louisiana National Guard?) where blocking the bridge out of the city, preventing thousands from walking out the disaster zone and the Red Cross from coming in. New Orleans had been turned into a prison, a war zone, an area not to be helped, but to be contained. If these reports turn out to be true, so far the only source I've found is of all places Fox New's Shepard Smith, then the story evolves from disaster and into one of crimes against humanity. And I suspect its damn true, I was wondering just why no one was walking out long before that report, and was filled with reports of people being denied entry to rescue people at confirmed locations.

What this all builds up to goes beyond just the racism, repression and persistent
low level class warfare at work and into anarchy. Anarchy is a funny word, the mainstream news was full of it for the past few days. Anarchy as chaos, lose of control, the inmates running the prison while the lights stayed out. Anarchists however have quite a different definition of anarchy however, and completely out of step with their philosophy, are rather insistent that others use their definition despite the fact that a vast majority of people use a quite different definition.

My friend tobias c. van Veen provides a good example, in his other wise spot on essay "A Black Rainbow Over Downtown New Orleans", he makes the claim that no, New Orleans is not in a state of anarchy, but rather "the rupture of the facade of global capital". Which is all probably true if one follows one of the rigid definitions of anarchy favored by practitioners, but utterly incomprehensible to those of us who still are aware of word in its common usage. New Orleans was in a state of anarchy after the disaster, a state where the law was absent, a non force, a state of chaos.

What's really interesting to me though is that neither definition of anarchy, the anarchist's own definition or the common more frenzied one need to be contradictory. In fact both anarchies are easily contained within one definition, and both are in reality potential states of one concept, potential states of anarchism.

Anarchy is the social state free of political authority, and in the days after Katrina hit New Orleans is a clear example of what can happen in such circumstances. That "can" is essential though, it does not mean that is what will always happen and in fact there are plenty of examples quite to the contrary. New York after 9-11 is the one that immediately springs to mind, but perhaps Chalmette, Louisiana is even better, a small town seven miles east of New Orleans where the Katrina tied together rather then divide the community.

Anarchy is by its very nature an emergent system. What emerges does not necessarily need to be intelligent or organized, but since there is no direct centralizing force, whatever group behavior exists must be emergent in some manner.* But just how anarchy emerges is not predetermined in any manner, and in fact there are a variety of potential states that it might take. What determines what state anarchy enters into is largely determined by environment, culture and forms of energy circulating within the anarchistic space.

In New Orleans a culture of distrust and borderline warfare was long present in the environment. Poverty, racism and drugs where part of day to day life. As nearly all the white people, along with the black middle class and elite fled New Orleans what remained was largely two groups the helpless and the deeply repressed. Free of the persistent police presence, hungry, lacking water, plumbing and electricity anarchy emerged. Some of the anarchy was people breaking into stores for food and water. Some was people breaking in to obtain those material goods they never obtain in the political and economic climate that was New Orleans. And some of it was just plain people breaking. Pains and pressures snapping into the form of rapes, beatings and bullets directed at the police.

It was all there and apparent as the Hurricane approached. The police officers slowly and intensely searching every person as they entered the Superdome seeking shelter clearly illustrated the failure of this community and the vicious environment constructed to keep it that way. This was a community already at war, a long drawn out police action of a war. A community without trust. These are the force that directed the emergence of anarchy. The forces that pushed the anarchy towards its violent emergence, its most tragic form.

Anarchists, expect perhaps a few lunatics, want no part of this sort of anarchy, and in fact will go to great measures to redefine anarchy to exclude these realities. But in fact the anarchies of the anarchists are merely other potential states of the exact same anarchy that New Orleans produced. Far more positive potential states, and ones that can be glimpsed at in places like Chalmette during this disaster. There residents ignored by authorities for six days distributed food via boat, did their own rescuing and created their own shelter. Just as in New Orleans it was anarchy, the absence of political control, the parish officials had fled. But a very different state of anarchy, guided by an environment not nearly as oppressive as New Orleans.

Just who is responsible for the various police actions around New Orleans is still pretty clear, but its becoming evident that the various government agencies at work went out of their way to ensure the anarchy of New Orleans would be pushed towards a negative not positive state. The searches at the Superdome where just the prelude. The combat operations, "little Somalia" approach of the US Army was the most over the top. Most odious and damaging though was the sealing of the city, the turning of the city into a prison where people could not walk out. Volunteers with boats where turned away, people with confirmed locations could not enter to pick up relatives and friends. Even the Red Cross was kept out. The government it seems was far more concerned with containing the poor of New Orleans then in solving any problems. Its not a new story, its merely a wretched retelling of the same foul story of slavery in America and lord its not pretty. Its a story that will get told again and again too, perhaps never with the same catastrophic energy of Katrina pulsing through it, perhaps never with the same media attention, but the same old story, same old tragedy once again.

* This it should be noted gets directly at one of the biggest confusions surrounding emergence, there is a massive difference between an emergent intelligence, an emergent system and an emergent property.

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September 02, 2005

Trial By Tabloid, New Orleans Edition


used to do this over on my long since discontinued politics blog American Dynamics, and perhaps its time for a revival. Actually, been thinking it'd be good to make this an automated feature/site/piece of netart, but the skills required are a bit beyond mine, if anyone wants to help out that'd be spectacular, just let me know, abe at this sites url.

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August 31, 2005

Libertarian Disasters (bottom up)

Jared Diamond has been asking a question for years. What where the Easter Islanders thinking when they cut down their last tree? If New Orleans is any guide then answer was that they were too busy looting to notice much.

Managers at a nursing home were prepared to cope with the power outages and had enough food for days, but then the looting began. The Covenant Home's bus driver surrendered the vehicle to carjackers after being threatened.

Bands of people drove by the nursing home, shouting to residents, ''Get out!'' On Wednesday, 80 residents, most of them in wheelchairs, were being evacuated to other nursing homes in the state.

''We had enough food for 10 days,'' said Peggy Hoffman, the home's executive director. ''Now we'll have to equip our department heads with guns and teach them how to shoot.''

That's the saddest reminder of how low humanity can sink when things go bad, although Diamond pointing out how the Easter Islander's diet increasing consisted of humans as their society fell just might beat it. It leaves me wondering what the libertarian response to this disaster might be. That the government is actually impeding the repairs, the market would have fixed the levee faster? That looting is better called the "competitive redistribution of goods", and is actually a good thing? Or that if every nursing home aid carried a gun things would have turned out different?

I've been addressing these issues in some very different contexts in the various "bottom up" posts. Well New Orleans is at the bottom, in more ways then one right now, and it will be interesting to see what happens. And these early reports sound more like warfare in the Congo then the sort of beautiful emergence that free marketers and high tech libertarians love to fantasize about. None of this comes much of a surprise to me as I've long been arguing that emergent systems don't just emerge out of the ether. When they do occur they occur in very particular environments.

Markets (and no market is ever really "free") work in civil societies. They tend to fall apart in the face of guns, to the point of non existence in again the Congo, or to the point of deep corruption as in the mafia markets of Russia. Out of all the animals in the world only a few display the sort of emergent intelligence of ants or termites. Occasionally such as in elephant stampedes, humans rioting or perhaps the mythical lemming mass suicides some animals display behavior that's a bit more like emergent stupidity. The point being that emergence is not nearly the simple thing that some would make it out to be. Books on the subject naturally focus on the occasions where it works, but in the process they give a distorted idea of how often they don't work. Which in term leads to fans of the concept having completely unreasonable ideas of how to go about getting that magical self organization to happen.

Self organizing and self regulating systems are fantastic creature, but they take real effort to make happen. The environment needs to be right. For a market that means a stable trusting society with a surplus of goods and a standard of equable exchange. For a community to self organize to prevent looting I suspect you need a sort of cohesiveness, social equality and absence of poverty that just doesn't exist in New Orleans, a city rife with centuries of unresolved social tension. Rather then chaos theory down in Louisiana, instead we get a bit more traditional style of chaos, and no its not nearly as pretty as say a Julia set.

update: I wish I never wondered what the libertarian response to the hurricane was, cause it just made me a bit iller. Over at Reason, probably the premier libertarian blog, the only hurricane post out of nearly 50 in the past 3 days is entitled "Hurricane Bullshit". And its a rant against global warming and the Kyoto accord. Main source? That most reliable of them all, the guy who wrote the book predicting the Dow Jones average would hit 36,000 in 3-5 years. He wrote it oh about 6 years ago...

Posted by Abe at 09:01 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Oil Down

Katrina Threatens $25 Billion of Damage; Oil Near $70 - Bloomberg

U.S. Decision to Release Oil Sends Prices Below $70 - New York Times

You know its sort of funny, I can't even remember oil passing $70, yet Google News is rammed with stories on how its dipping below...

Winston was smoking a Victory Cigarette which he held carefully horizontal. The new ration did not start till tomorrow and he had only four cigarettes left. For the moment he had shut his ears to the remoter noises and was listening to the stuff that streamed out of the telescreen. It appeared that there had even been demonstrations to thank Big Brother for raising the chocolate ration to twenty grammes a week. And only yesterday, he reflected, it had been announced that the ration was to be reduced to twenty grammes a week. Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours?
- 1984

Ok, its clearly not that bad yet, but there does seem to be some cognitive dissonance at work here, no? This oil stuff keeps shooting up and up, one small disaster after another. I've never had held the catastrophic faith in the end of oil that some of the "peak oil" proponents have, but what was oil at a year or so ago? Under $30 I think, and while I'm having a hard time finding a good graph (ie one that I can understand) of crude prices, I'm pretty sure NYMEX's site confirms that. Has the levee broken? Or is this just a blip..

All the signs of a clusterfuck are in order. Lots of crying wolf, decades of it. People stop believing the warnings, maybe they understand the warnings, but they don't feel the fear. The prices creep up slowly, punctuated by a series of "one of a kind" events. It's not constant, there are little dips in price, dips of false hopes. Economists try and argue it away with their favorite refrain: "somebody else will take care of it"*. Maybe its just the onset of fall but I'm starting to feel like we are watching an explosion in slow motion.

Now betting that the world is going to end has been a losing proposition, for a few millennium at least. Alternative energy will improve for sure, but will it improve enough? Me personally, I really want to believe Thomas Gold's deep oil thesis, what could be more darkly comedic then a world of nearly unlimited oil? I'm not counting on it though, the world might not end, but that doesn't mean the economy is going to be good does it? Expensive transportation and expensive electricity stab right to the heart of our expensive culture and I'm not too excited to see that go down.

* just to be clear, that is not a direct quote from the site linked in the same sentence, but it is a pretty accurate summation of the faith.

Posted by Abe at 11:01 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 30, 2005

Hurricane / Watch a Flick, Illin and Root for the Villian

It's not much of a secret, but no one talks about it anyway. But when disaster looms, who can help but to root for it to be a big one. After the fact it iss a tragedy of course. And the Mississippi delta is looking worse and worse with each refresh of the news. But during the build up...

With all the media hype of course it was a bit of a let down when Hurricane Katrina veered a touch to the east. "What you mean New Orleans isn't sinking into the sea after all? Damn, was looking forward to a good news cycle..." Not that I would actually want New Orleans to go, its a great town but I wouldn't want it to go even if sucked, and my heart goes out to all those who have suffered and lost in the hurricane. But when it comes to news based entertainment, once again they can't quite deliver on the hype. Horror just rarely looks the same in reality as it does in the movies.

If you think I'm bad (and what about you?), sci-fi author turned ecological disaster guru Bruce Sterling was almost ecstatic over the prospects. "In the meantime, however, humanity's incapacity to recognize and deal with its own peril is becoming eerie. And hilarious." I'm starting to get the feeling he'd rather watch the world burn then save it, but then again isn't that what most of us are doing daily anyway?

"Here comes America's worst storm ever, yet nobody on this plethora of satellites whispers the obvious: 'climate change.'?" Stirling has been beating this drum for a while now, and it almost feels like his frustration is sliding into some super-villain state, he's been turning himself into a cartoon caricature for a while now too. And well I hope he's actually wrong in his ecoparanoia, which unfortunately for him would put him close to the looney bin. But if he's right, and yes he may well be right, well I hope the world wakes up before he completely gives up hope...

Personally those rising oil prices just hit me for the first time. I've known the math and theory for a while of course. But I ride a bike. Live in New York City. Heck I don't even have a drivers license. When those prices go up I'm in the background cheering them on. But thinking and feeling are two different animals and a cold shiver just went through me, for the first time my mind felt that oil impact. Suddenly all those things I knew about just started to feel real. I wondered about heating costs in the winter, inflation, the costs of shipping my food and foreign bike parts. my plastic consumption. I might not need to mainline the oil, fill it straight into my commuting tank every couple day, but I'm just as hooked on the liquid gold as the rest of us. And so are you, no matter who you might be rooting for.

Donate to the Red Cross here..

Posted by Abe at 06:18 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 25, 2005

Utilitarian Dry Goods

Scattered throughout New York are some very particular sites immune to the luxury organic process outlined in the previous post. The food is cheap, the quality high. And in what should horrify most leftists these sites are markets. More specifically farmer's markets. The fact that no one seems to notice the contradictions is a potent reminder both of the pitiful state of contemporary leftist thought and of the blessed ability of humans to ignore those contradictions that interfere with their lifestyle.

One of the strongest intellectual ties among today's thinkers on both the left and right is a fetishization of the market. Both gift it with the mythical ability to generate that famous nonentity "capitalism". The right of course thinks this is fabulous and the left a horrible thing. Both are terribly wrong though, markets do not lead to capitalism at all. Rather the opposite in fact, capital intensive firms have, from their earliest period (well documented by Ferdinand Braudel) attempted to subvert, manipulate and control markets. Sometimes they find the best way to do this is by creating markets. No, capital driven organizations don't emerge from markets, they can even emerge before any markets exist at all. Markets are just a particular tool they have found rather useful to their needs and desires.

Outdoor markets like the farmer's market are particularly immune from the excesses of corporate drives for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the nomadic nature of the markets themselves. They set up and break down in hours and can shift locations with ease. Their ties to the state, in the form of permits, fees and taxes, obviously exist but are quite loose compared to a fixed store or chartered corporation. And in the case of the farmers market the goods are by necessity designed to move rapidly, from earth to market to dinner. They are fast and nimble enough to avoid the drive of large corporations to make food either as cheap as possible (the crap in the supermarket) to make or as expensive as possible to buy (the somewhat tastier crap in the luxury grocery store).

By just showing up at the farmer's market, and possessing just a bit of food literacy, a New Yorker can eat high quality fresh food at reasonable prices. When it comes to dry goods, food items with long shelf lives, though its a far trickier proposition. There exists a whole class of utilitarian dry goods, triumphs of the industrial process, mass produced food of exceptionally high quality at a low price. Hellman's mayonnaise in America, Barry's Tea in Ireland, Carta Blanca beer in Mexico, Ritter Sport chocolate in Germany... But separating these gems from the mass of cruft in the supermarket is a true artform, and to do a proper taste test would take a luxury amount of money.

What New York needs is not more Whole Foods, more luxury health food stores. No, what it needs is a place for utilitarian dry goods, a modest shop with a small selection of high quality industrial food stuffs. The closest I've found is Brooklyn's Marlow & Sons, but not only do they often slip into the luxury category, but they also are almost certainly kept afloat by both their backroom restaurant and the owner's cash cow next store, Diner. A better model might be Is Wines, a small shop on East 5th Street that only stocks about 15 wines. All are inexpensive and all (that I've tried) are excellent. Quality and quantity are not by any means mutually exclusive, but they do often conflict. But by eliminating quantity in one dimension, the large variety that so many stores insist upon, perhaps its possible to maintain a high quantity in another dimension, sales volume. If provided they quality is right. Or at least one would hope.

Until reality provides a test though, I'd love to make a list of those elusive utilitarian dry goods. High quality, modest prices, mass production. Some of you must have favorites, so please let me know...

Posted by Abe at 07:55 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 22, 2005

Organic Luxury

New York is probably the only city in America with 24 hour health food stores. Don't worry, if the groceries of NY are any barometer, you'll get one in your town soon enough. From the rapidly expanding Whole Foods to the ever nimble Korean delis, grocery shopping in New York is transforming into a luxury/health food experience.

Whole Foods, or as some prefer to call it, "whole paycheck", is the pacesetter. There is a moment of vertigo I experience nearly every time I am inside one. The best trigger is bulk goods section, the bins of nuts and dried fruit. Suddenly I realize "this is a freaking health food store!" A few years ago a health food store was a strange smelling place stocked with food fit only to be eaten for its imaginary medicinal properties. But with a good eye you could cherry pick out a few quality products, fresh made peanut butter, organic juice, an unknown cereal. Now health food is luxury food, money food, another successful marketing operation.

It was quite fitting in a Whole Foods in San Francisco that I first saw the cooption, a large display of organic bananas, Dole branded organic bananas. Organic was once a reaction not just to farm chemicals, but to the massive commercial farming of companies like Dole. But they caught on quick, organic is a way to double prices, what big company isn't down with that?

The earliest warning signs must have been the soy. Soy is a posthippie vegetarians best friend, a great source of vegetable protein. The fake meat section of Whole Foods is another great vertigo trigger. Soy is also a commodity crop industry, a favorite product of the industrial farm giants. Its the soy milk that gets me, its pushed as a healthy alternative to cows milk, a favorite of campus activists nationwide. But milk is one of the last truly regional industries left. Ultra-pasteurization is threatening that, but for the moment most of the milk you find in your grocery store comes from 50 or 100 miles away. Local dairies, local industry. Not only are the health benefits of soy milk dubious, but its a multinational product pushing against some of the last regional products left.

Recently I started buying organic half and half for my coffee, tastes a bit better, or at least I imagine it does. But then I started looking at the small print. The organic half and halfs are run by national brands (although its worth noting one of the biggest is a co-op), the regular ones are from local dairies. Once again leftist food politics it seems are turning into a trojan horse for big industry. Its not all bad, you could say the same about organic profits being a trojan horse by which leftist food politics enter big industry. Is this an even sort of tradeoff at work? It's far to early to know...

In the meantime one thing is becoming clearer in New York, healthy food is becoming luxury food. The statistical link between poverty and weight is a known phenomena in America, could it be that its about to become an entrenched one?

Posted by Abe at 12:24 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 15, 2005

The Power of Nightmares (bottom up)

Finally got around to watching The Power of Nightmares, or more accurately the final installment of the three part series. This BBC documentary is something of a fetish object among American Leftists, spoken about in hushed reverent tones as an object that will unveil the hidden truths. "Have you seen the Power of Nightmares? You must see the the Power of Nightmares". The object itself circulates via transcript and torrent, a little googling and you too can be an initiate...

Criticism often says as much about the critic themselves as it does about their target. Director Adam Curtis also directed a four hour documentary on Freud and his followers, so he surely must be aware of that fact. So is the autocratic tone of this film a deliberate maneuver or an unintentional slip on Curtis' part? This is a movie about politicians manipulating facts, but Curtis seems intent on mimicking them. Rather then raising questions it dictates an alternative history. Its clearly a successful tactic, but for me at least it deftly undercuts the purpose of the film. Is Curtis deliberately copping the style? Unconsciously aping it? Or is projecting his own paranoia and monomania onto his targets? Regardless of the truth, it makes the film a bit hard to take seriously, both Curtis and his targets want to tell stories without questions, when in reality the facts at hand are rather uncertain.

The most powerful and effective parts of the documentary where simply the clips of Bush and Rumsfeld selling the war. That they grossly distorted the facts shouldn't come as any surprise to just about anyone who has followed the story in any detail, but watching them in action with a few years of hindsight is quite revealing. These are characters who understand the power of authority and how to put it on television, and the left it seems has no counterpart, with perhaps the exception of director Curtis himself. During this build up the left was busy, working the web, trying to be bottom up, protesting in the streets. Some old ineffective tactics, some new ineffective tactics. Even with online fundraising a new effective tactic. But all the while the right kept pushing the tried and true, get on TV and say it with authority.

The more I look at it the more the rhetoric of emergence, "long tails", and "bottom up" begins to resemble a far older idea, divide and conquer. Only this time the dividing is self inflicted, praised even. That not to say I'm here to blanketly dismiss "bottom up", there is far to much unknown, and too much potential, to do anything of the sort. But until these theories come face to face with concept and application of power, they seem doomed to a particular ineffectiveness. In other words, a nightmare.

Posted by Abe at 10:45 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 15, 2005

Sound Law, Sample Down

In the last post I argued that the Kim's raid marked the first time the police used IP law culturally rather then in a more traditional customs/border control sort of manner. And on the upside it looks like the Kim's employees where sent through the process and out quickly with slaps on the wrist (update: according to today's Times it seems the charges are still pending so we'll have to wait on that one), one hopes its a sign that police realize that busting mixtapes is none of their business. But its important to note that while the police haven't been busting cultural productions on IP grounds lately, there is a strong recent civil precedent in the form of sampling.

Hip hop fans have long realized that the early 90's lawsuits around sampling (notably the Turtle's v. De La Soul and Gilbert O'Sullivan v. Biz Markie) had a significant impact on how the music was made. But it wasn't until I took a look at Jess Kriss' "History of Sampling" applet that I got a firm grasp on the full extent of that impact. The traditional storyline on the sampling lawsuits, which established a legal need to clear any and all snippets of songs, no matter how small or distorted from the original, is one of economic privilege. Getting a sample is a matter of money, a cheap sample can get used, an expensive one can only get used by artists with large budgets and ones that the original artist will not license at all, don't get used. The best example of this effect in action is probably Kanye West, a talented producer, but one whose often obvious and high profile samples get made into records only because he is backed by Jay-Z and Rocafeller Records.

The deeper effect of the sampling lawsuits however is not as much economic but sonic. Looking at the History of Sampling Applet shows another effect at work, one apparent in the high water albums of the sample heavy production, Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising. Look at the samples in these albums and you'll find songs built not with just one or two samples, but with four, six, eight, ten samples. "Night of the Living Baseheads" is built off 16 samples. The traditional hip hop sample takes one or two grooves and loops them to infinity with some small additional chops for the choruses and breakdowns. And this form lives on, albeit constrained by the shear economics of certain samples. It generates great songs, and awful ones, pop hits and bombs, it is valid but expensive, a bit of a luxury. In the late 80's though, producers like the aptly named Bomb Squad, Eric B, Prince Paul and M/A/R/R/S where creating a radically new sound, the sample as raw sound, something not to be looped, but something to be mutated and exploded, layered and recombined.

Sonically this is obvious, and has been obvious from nearly the get go. It sounded like a revolution, and the music literature of the time knew it well. But just how did it die? Perhaps the Bomb Squad's sonic frenzy was never sustainable, perhaps their explosions where an echo of Jackson Pollack's, a spectacular dead end, one incapable of being followed and reproduced. But looking at that sample applet we can see their own bad albums following a general trend, less samples, one or two a song, maybe none. Legally they just couldn't make it work anymore, nor can anyone else. To make a record in that style requires being underground, below the legal radar. Economically off the map.

Money at its core, is the abstraction of energy, raw forces transformed into an easily transferable form. The circulation of money, the economy, is a circulation of energy. The sample overload style of music is legally cut off from the major economies of the world. It continues to exist only when energy is applied from other sources, mainly in the form of personal commitment from the artists themselves. There is a minor economy at work, mixtapes, 12" singles, DJ gigs, websites, but the amount of energy circulating stays small, their is little left over for social glue, for recruitment of fans, broadcasting and replicating. Economies like this live or die purely off the energy of the core individuals, they never reach the point of sustainability, never transform from one directional vectors of energy into complex machines. In order for a subculture to survive it must make this transition, it must either develop its own functional economy or integrate into an existing one.

Often subcultures fail to reach a critical mass necessary to become self sustaining, sometimes they just die, other times they cycle on the edge of existence, driven by a few devoted individuals personal energy. Perhaps this is the fate of the overloaded sample, but it seems unlikely that the legal forces of sample licensing did not produce at least some, if not all of the killing pressure. This is a form of music that is nearly impossible to produce legally now, and when possible it requires extraordinary amounts of cash... Of course its death is not necessarily all bad, the minimalist sampling of DJ Premier and the RZA and the synth driven sonics of Dr. Dre, Timbaland and Manny Fresh are clear legal and sonic counterpoints to Bomb Squad overdrive. In a world of free and legal samples would they have emerged the same? Somehow I doubt it, but whether the transformation would be for better or worse is utterly unknowable.

Posted by Abe at 12:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 11, 2005

Popular Revolutions/Mixtape Economics

It was probably Lawrence Lessig who first compared file sharing with the prohibition and the 55 mile an hour speed limit. Acts of government widely ignored the population at large. And like the prohibition and the speed limit, there are points of conflict between the law and human behavior. The era of intellectual property police action is unfortunately it seems beginning to reveal itself. Yesterday it took the form of a raid on New York's indie music superstore Mondo Kim's.

What separates the Kim's raid from the many that came before it is cultural. Kim's was targeted for selling mixtapes, CDs made by DJ recombining songs into a new cultural product. Most police actions in the intellectual property realm fall into a particular historical continuum that stretches back for centuries, smuggling and other acts of customs agents. While there is a certainly an intellectual property element to raids on sellers of fake Gucci goods, or unlicensed Star Wars DVDs, ultimately this is a new variation on the classic, avoid customs/import illicit goods operation. But in targeting mixtapes the New York Police Department changed the rules of the game, back into the cultural realm, back towards another tradition, censorship. Mondo Kim's is not in the position of the smuggler, but in the position of the bookstore selling Tropic of Cancer.

The mixtape is another item in a long line of artforms whose existence is threatened by "hard copyright". Were copyright to be enforced as written in the books today the mixtape would be far to expensive for anyone but a major label or wealthy fool to produce. Throw it in the box with remixes, fan fiction, sampling, web animations, collages, independent film, and home video. Luckily of course the letter of the law and the practice of the law are two separate, but intertwined, dynamics. Most police forces it seems have better things to do then to chase after DJs selling CDRs of their latest mix and blend. Until now that is, the Mondo Kim's case is perhaps a bellwether of a shift, or perhaps merely an anomaly, a police action with no more meaning then a ticket for doing 56mph.

What's really interesting to me though is the economic aspect of it all. I've written a bit about it in the past, but ultimately its still deeply gray. Gray market, unanswered questions. Who makes money of mixtapes? How many get sold? How many of those that get sold are made by the original maker and do they care? Do big hip hop mixtape kings pay for exclusives? Do young bucks pay to freestyle?

Some things are clear, this is an economy of velocity. The stars pump them out fast, the new shit, the hot shit, that's what's sells. Its a singles music market, but on 72 minute discs. Someone is making money, mixtape pioneer Kid Capri claims he made a small fortune selling tapes on the Harlem streets and the big mixtape producers run small empires now. Many a hip hop artist got their start selling mixes or freestyling on them. 50 Cent most notably kept his career alive via mixtapes after losing his first major label deal. A mixtape doesn't even need mixes on it, often its just a faster, cheaper way to put out a CD. Maybe its all one artist, maybe its a crew, maybe they rhyme over other peoples beats, maybe they freestyled it all in one night. The difference between a small regional record label and mixtape producer is sometimes non existent. Cash Money in New Orleans, Swisha House in Houston, Dip Set in New York, all murky economics. The price point for mixtapes ($5-10) just happens to be the same as street drugs, its a similar hustle although the turnover and size of the customer base are quite different. Street level economics, but with potential to turn into international brand names.

For a while it seemed the major labels had come to peace with mixtapes, at least in a hip hop context. They function all most like a minor leagues. A mixtape star like 50 Cent could graduate to the big leagues prefiltered and with with a hit under their belt. Songs can be leaked to the mixtape DJs for test marketing. A few years ago "Oochie Wally" by the Bravehearts, a collection of hangerons around the star Nas caught mixtape fire and was booming out of every other car in the tristate area. Nas's label quickly added a verse by the star, edited the impossibly pornographic lyrics for the radio and had itself a hit single. Use a mixtape properly and its like offloading your marketing and testing. Free publicity, what label is not down with that?

Rumor has it though that the Mondo Kim's case emerged when a Sony exec saw mixtapes in Kim's with unlicensed Sony tracks on them. An anomaly or a sign of a shift in tactics? The law and the culture are not in sync. Like the 55mph speed limit or the prohibition an uneasy peace can go on if the police forces are complicit. But if some thing, some exec, some organization, forces the letter of the law into conflict with culture, what happens then? In other words, what happens now?

Posted by Abe at 11:52 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 20, 2005


Been meening to return to the issue of Google and write something proper up. But before we drop the written, consider this something of the freestyle, emerged off the dome in an email exchange with T van Veen and Wayne Marshall on the subject of this particular propaganda.


1- There is nothing democratic about google, yes they provide information freely, but they take in radically more info then they give out. For instance each time you search they get more info, about what people are searching for, about what you (as a cookie) like to search for, which link results you click, which ads, etc. In exchange for all this data they give you back stuff they already know. All the relational stuff they keep for themselves and maybe their big advertisers. Its a completely asynchronous relationship. Google is a black box, you can only get out of it what they let out, they don't even provide a public way to get in touch with any human at the company..

2- There are only 3 search engines of note, Google, Yahoo, and MSN, all the other big ones use services from one of the three. The necessary capital to create new one is extraordinary over a year ago the NYT claimed Google had 100,000 servers running...

3- If you don't show up in a web search you barely exist online. People have an extremely limited capacity to remember addresses, bookmarks, links on their friends pages, memory. Everything else they go to google, which essentially defines the global web. Everyone has a small local web, cool. But if you are trying to communicate to a broader audience you need to leave your local web, and without the search engines you are pretty much fucked, they can sensor your info. Not completely, but enough marginalize you. Similarly the way they rank sites can radically alter traffic patterns, they claim the ranking is purely an algorithm, but its always shifting and could easily be politicized.

4- Google is a private company. Technically they are publicly traded, but the stock is structured so that only the holders of preferred shares have any say over the companies actions. Shareholder activism is a bit of a joke ala Nader, but its sure beats nothing, and occasionally is even effective. Google is structured to make this impossible, so is the NYT for that matter, but very few companies are. There is zero public accountability in Google's world. They say 'don't be evil' and we have to trust them. So far they seem pretty cool, they run porn ads but not gun ads for instance. But they've also rolled over every time a large entity sues them, ie the Scientologists and the French government. What happens when the NSA knocks on their door? Come to think of it, have they ever denied sharing info with the NSA, FBI, Homeland Security, etc...

5- Until Orkut and Gmail Google never knew your name. Not anymore.. The original Gmail terms of service even gave them the right to archive emails that you delete from you Gmail account. The only thing preventing them from reading these emails is that TOS agreement that splashed across your screen as a digital file a while back..

6- The issue isn't really what Google has done, but what they have the potential of doing.

Posted by Abe at 08:11 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 30, 2005

this is a server

and no mr van Veen, its not made by Microsoft

this is a server

Posted by Abe at 10:07 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 28, 2005

Cracking the LES

Yesterday the NY Post tells us the LES is reaching that inevitable upscaling moment. Then today they tell us a story that makes us think of the LES returning to its prebar strip despair. And somehow this seems like an equally inevitable option to me.

Maybe its just another tabloid murder but what sticks in my head about the murder of the actress from Minnesota on the streets of the Lower East Side is the shear stupidity of someone asking a man who just pistol whipped a friend "what are you going to do, shoot us?" Clearly at 3:15am there was alcohol involved. But with American nightlife well deep in a cocaine epidemic.. Speculation aside what's been nagging in the back of my head for a while is "what next?"

Back when the LES was dangerous and stupidity was going there at night at all, not challenging people with guns, NY was in the midst of the crack epidemic. And drug epidemics tend to run on cycles, or at least the ones that have been around long enough do. Crack's only had one run through, no one knows how or even if it cycles. But it doesn't take reading on page six about failing rock star's $1,500 a day habits to wonder if its about to return and return hard..

And yeah, who knows what crack could do to the real estate bubble. Lets just hope the city never gets to find out..

Posted by Abe at 09:59 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

January 13, 2005

The Slice Game: On DeMarco's Pizza

Pizza by the slice is the crack cocaine of the food world, cheap, overrated but mad addictive. In its home element, New York City, the cheap is less about the money then about the time, get it fast eat it fast, forget about it, back to work. I was born in raised in money making Manhattan, but I never quite could rep my borough's slices with the gusto. Sure you can grab a decent one at Joe's(Bleeker & 6th), Nino's(St, Marks & A) or Sal and Carmine's (102 & Bway), but out in outer Bs they have a bit more time and time makes a better pizza.

Deep out in Midwood is where the true slice addicts journey, to Di Faro's home of the legendary pizza dealer/maker they call Dom. The junkies swear he cuts the best slice around. Me I've only made the trip once, good shit, but I didn't get hooked. I'd rather get the real quality, by the pie, brick oven style. If I'm going way into Brooklyn for pizza I'll do Tontonno's, but usually its Lombardi's or Grimaldi's or the childhood local, the V&T.

But just as the crack game changed, so to does the slice game. Dom's staying tight in Midwood, but his family is expanding. DeMarco's is their maneuver and it puts them in the heart of it all, Houston and MacDougal, the West Village.

The kinks are still getting worked out, ovens take time to break in and master, but things are looking good. Too good really given how dangerously close they are to my school..

Visit one was a hit or miss. I got the slice, good, but somehow off to. You could feel the quality, but no magic. I wasn't impressed yet somehow as they pulled a square pie out I found myself ordering a slice of that too.

Visit two stepped it up. The pepperoni on the take out pie getting boxed looked supreme but I stayed with the plain slice. Good again, still no magic. And once again as I finished, I craved another. Remember some comment I noticed somewhere about Dom's three (or four really) cheese combo needing to cool to really taste right I ordered an as is slice, no reheating. There was the magic, a slice coming together, damn.

Visit three, time to see if they are a one hit wonder, or the real deal. Once again I grabbed an as is slice and this time walked out the door with it. The best environment for a slice is walking down a busy street anyways. The destination was Joe's reigning king of NY slices. Their famous corner location just got slain, victim of the NY real estate game, but the shop a few doors over cooks the same pizza. No matter, they can't hold fire to DeMarco's, first round knockout, no contest. A good slice sure, but I ate it quick and forgot it. My bike was still locked up outside DeMarco's. Bad positioning, I walked past the door and got sucked right in for the good shit, fast, cheap, addictive..

Posted by Abe at 12:48 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

December 15, 2004

Show Time

2 Shows, featuring your's truly

On Sunday and Monday in NY the ITP Winter Show 2004 featuring my own Predatory Mirror.

And currently ongoing in Columbus Ohio till the 21st a show of prints at Roy G Biv 997 N. High St in the Short North. 614.297.7694 for more info.

Posted by Abe at 05:17 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 19, 2004

Calm Technology

Calm technology. What an odd concept they pitch. Calm technology essentially comes into being via the act of frantic listening to its environment. Can a technology really be calm while its insides are stuck in an infinite loop, churning code, waiting for the moment to "calmly" react to the outside world?

Posted by Abe at 12:31 AM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

September 02, 2004


Some notes from the Republican National Convention and the streets of New York. If all goes as planned a more essayish thing to follow...

- New York is just to big for these things to impact for real. Neither the RNC nor the protesters have the numbers to make more than a half skip in the patterns of the city that never sleeps. It now seems laughable that people actually bothered to leave town over this. None of this however is relevant to the unlucky few who happened to be at the precisely wrong spot as the NYP broke out the orange security fences trapping and arresting like deep sea fishermen.

- the police have fine tuned the art of using the physical form of the city against protesters. 1 city block + 100 cops on scooters and motorcycles = a mobile holding pen. The protests are divided and dispersed before they can even truly form. It takes active hard work to find an active protest. At the moment it seems the action is at 100 Center Street.

- the sms channels are marvelous sources of tactical news. Let us hope they refine further. The fact that police can listen in and in some cases post makes for a fascinating experiment in open systems. As a historical note, I first noticed these tactics in action during the post 9-11 Davos Economic Summit, held here in NY.

- many of the police seem to be without gasmasks of any kind. A clear indication they have dropped tear gas as a tactic. One wonders if the cops will soon be the ones getting tear gassed? Or perhaps the no tear gas rule is temporary, a gift to the poor Republican eyes, they clearly have enough trouble viewing reality already.

- on Tuesday the undercovers wore green bands around their arms or on their heads. Wednesday yellow. Today orange and red.

- has anyone ever seen a protester with a gun? if there was such a thing as a "violent protester" don't you think they would arm themselves?

- the standard tactic in anarchist channels now seems to be to blame any and all calls (and acts) to violence on undercover police provocateurs. One wonders if they get a different color armband. Maybe black?

Posted by Abe at 07:39 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack


Wow, some beautiful, and presently anonymous, person actually took the time and money to send me something off my wish list. Thank you! Email me for a more personal thanks if you wish..

And on a less personal, but similarly flattering note, these people (possibly affiliated with the Onion?), sent notice of their event on Saturday (at Piano's in NY 8-10pm btw) and caked off the invite with a "ps bloggers drink free". Is society read to start respecting people who spend far to much time in front of their computer again? Must be part of the 90's revival...

Posted by Abe at 06:24 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 17, 2004

The Corporation, Take 3 (of 3), Constructions:

The jewel of The Corporation is its conception of the corporation as being a psychopathic organization. I've previously mentioned its value (or invalue) as a propaganda tool. But this also stands as a key point from which to begin constructing solutions.

I'm not sure to what extent the filmmakers view the psychopath diagnosis as metaphor versus being the actual truth, but I'm fully in the metaphor camp. As a metaphor the psychopath construct's utility is basically constrained to its propaganda value. I don't think you can give a corporation the same therapy you would human psychopath. But right beneath the surface of the psychopath metaphor is an extremely useful analysis of the corporation.

Essentially the filmmakers look at the Corporation as an organizational form, one with a deep genetic flaw. Within the legal and cultural code of the contemporary joint stock corporation are serious flaws that influence the behavior of many, if not all corporations today. By locating and analyzing these flaws we unlock the potential to both alter the corporate legal code for the better, and to construct better organizations capable of replacing the corporate form.

The film underscores one particular flaw in the legal status of a corporation, corporate personhood, the fact that corporations have many of the rights of people under the law. Pretty much an absurdity, so much so that the law doesn't always actually follow the concept. Still a strong legal acknowledgement that corporations are not humans and thus subject to a completely different set of laws and rights could go a long way towards a better conceptualization of what roles these entities should play in society.

Ultimately though I suspect that corporate personhood is an effect of the corporate drive for power, not a cause. Is shifting the balance of power back towards another organization with repressive tendencies, the State, an answer to the problems posed by big business? In order for the answer to be "yes" the State must be ready to recode the corporate laws in a constructive manner. A dubious but not impossible prospect, and one that can be furthered greatly if the ideas on how to recode these entities are in existence. And this my friends is our job.

see also:
Abstract Dynamics: The Corporation, Take 1 (of 3), Propaganda

Abstract Dynamics: The Corporation, Take 2 (of 3), The Permanent Critique

plus a note: this piece was actually intended to be much longer, and might be updated, or might birth another piece. I'm putting it up now mainly because I dislike having an essentially negative piece as the first one on my site, my personal take on the Corporation is more positive then critical and hopefully the site will reflect that now.

Posted by Abe at 01:48 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

June 16, 2004

The Corporation, Take 2 (of 3), The Permanent Critique:

The contemporary left has seemingly unlimited capacity for the negative. Their ability to find faults with world is match only with their in ability to offer viable alternatives to the awful picture of the world they generate.

An hour into The Corporation I'm fully convinced of the evil of this organization form, and I want to change things. Another hour passes, and I'd would like to thinking about the viable alternatives, the course of action. Instead I'm approaching the point of nihilism, of surrender, situation normal - all fucked up.

Its is at this point where point where one thread in my mind leaves the movies flow. If the world is really as awful as this movie paints it, then perhaps I am better off not caring? Would you rather be a medieval serf, toiling in servitude, or instead the king, living in luxury off the exploitation of the same serfs? Robber baron or the labor leader shot dead by Pinkerton guards? If the world is so bleak in helpless, perhaps you best of accepting that and living in ignorant pleasure.

Happily that is not my world view. I do not see world as half empty and out of resources for a refill. I don't see critique as a bludgeon or sword, but instead think it should be wielded more like a scalpel. With extreme precision and only when deemed necessary.

The king of the American left's materialist ubercritics is linguist Noam Chomsky. Now Chomsky occasionally is spot on. But I've never yet seen Chomsky acknowledge that life has room for pleasure. Chomsky seems to believe the overriding goal of most people's lives should be worrying about the world's atrocities. And from a propaganda standpoint that's a dud. Doesn't matter if he's right or wrong, few but the pessimists and sadists are going to subscribe to that world view. Critique as a bludgeon. Can someone please surgically remove this man from my mindscape?

It's not that The Corporation is 100% negative, there are a couple mild positives in the mix. Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface an industrial carpet company, pops in repeatedly through the film as a something of a hero. His Paul Hawkin inspired transformation of his company into a vision of sustainable development comes off quite well. Of course there is a certain violence between the possibilities he preaches and the filmmaker's "corporation as a psychopath" thesis, that unfortunately never gets addressed. Hmmmm.

The other hero is Oscar Olivera the Bolivian anti water privatization activist. And while I don't know his story other then through the film, he serves as a guide to what seems to be an old school marxist revolt against government privitization. Inspiring, yet hazily told, with no indication on how to reproduce or maintain such an action. More please!

Ultimately looking back on film (and bare in mind I have only had the opportunity to view it once, I will be rewatching once it is fully in the theaters), there is a clear junction of potentiality where the film could have run in any number of directions. The point is maybe an hours in, when the corporation is diagnosed as a psychopath. This could have easily been the climax of the film, a critical point, made sharply and strongly. Or it could have been the point of inflection, the diagnosis is in, time to develop a cure. Instead the filmmakers opt for more brutalist approach, they have diagnosed the corporation's illness and then proceed to kick the shit out it. And I'll admit I took some pleasure watching the god of neoclassical economics, Milton Friedman, hang himself with his own rope, for the most part the film criticizes endlessly into a cycle of despair. A cycle that seems perhaps perversely enjoyable to a certain breed of leftist. Count me out, I exit at the point of inflection. Critique ultimately breeds more critique and so its time to jump back and move on.

see also:
The Corporation, Take 1 (of 3), Propaganda

Abstract Dynamics: The Corporation, Take 3 (of 3), Constructions

Posted by Abe at 02:37 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

June 15, 2004

The Corporation, Take 1 (of 3), Propaganda:

The Corporation - A film by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan is some damn good leftist propaganda. Be even better where it 40 minutes shorter (cut Noam no pleasure Chomsky please...) but well worth watching. The corporation as a psychopath is brilliant meme to propagate, let it spread. Propaganda is a good thing, Emma Goldman proudly produced it, todays left could gain a lot taking that perspective. Hopefully a couple kids with some free time and a copy of Final Cut Pro will do just that and make a good piece of propaganda even better.

see also:
Abstract Dynamics: The Corporation, Take 2 (of 3), The Permanent Critique

Abstract Dynamics: The Corporation, Take 3 (of 3), Constructions

Posted by Abe at 02:38 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

May 13, 2004

Welcome to the Slow Space

highly astute readers might have noticed that the taglione of this site just shifted from "nomadic, intense, daily" to "nomadic, intense, not quite daily". Undoubtablely that will change once I figure out something better. In any case that tagline change is symbolic of a shift in attitude towards this space, less posting, more development and research. Hell I might even proof read once or twice... The usual eclectic subject matter will remain though, so fear not and stay tuned.

Those seeking raw velocity of information can find it at American Dynamics. Where I have learned that it pays to be focused, that site already has more readers then this one...

Posted by Abe at 03:48 PM | Comments (13) | TrackBack

May 06, 2004


Like many people in this world, I suffer from an unfortunate addiction to money. If I don't have enough of it I go into a tragic state of withdrawal. I find it difficult to eat. I'm unable to travel as far and as efficiently as I'd like. Doorways are suddenly blocked to my passing. Bills become stressed. Bad stuff, not fun. I find it impossible to quit, and I've long since decided I should live with this addiction.

Now most money addicts tend to support their habits by entering into long term contracts with one particular money provider. Generally this involves hanging around the provider's premises for about 8 hours a day or more, 5 days a week doing odd tasks. While some take great pleasure in this routine, I prefer a taste more diversity. So I avoid the long term contracts and hang out with a variety of providers around the globe, and bestowing them with gifts from my laptop.

Generally it works great. Except all of a sudden my favorite dealers all seem to be out of stock. In other words, I don't seem to have any paying clients. Which isn't very good. Especially since, while I love working with new clients, I don't particularly enjoy looking for them. So consider this an experiment in seeing if I can get clients to come to me rather then seeking them out.

So what exactly do I do anyway? Well preferably I'd love to be one of those amorphous things known as overpaid consultants. But that doesn't tend to happen so instead I'd very happily do any of the following for money: graphic design, web design, Flash development/Actionscript programming, non-overpaid consulting on design, media, politics, branding and beyond, and even graphic production in the right circumstances. I might even try writing words for actual money, which I've never actually done before... And since I'm always open to new experiences I might even be willing to experiment with an actual permanent, non-freelance position, something which I have even less experience with than exchanging words for money ;) Don't get your hopes up on that last one though...

Over at you can find a partial list of past clients. And if I continue to have this freeish time, there might even be more content over there. Feel free to shoot me an email at: abe |at| abeburmeisterdesign |dot| com with any questions, or better yet projects.

all my love,

ps: if you happen to be of the opinion that my time would be better spent making art, blogging and writing a book about nomad economics, please feel free to just give me cash directly by clicking the button below:

Posted by Abe at 05:01 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 19, 2004

American Dynamics, public beta

Politics, yeah I talk about that shit too much. Or maybe I don't talk about it enough... In any case I'm taking all the blatantly political stuff off of this here site and moving it to American Dynamics. Expect that site to have a bunch more politics then this one did, as the filters are coming off... There will be a lot of stuff on the intersection of design, marketing and politics, which doesn't get much coverage anywhere. That plus the stories the usual absurdities of power that blanket the world today.

And yeah its not quite done yet, but its done enough to post. Done enough for critique. Let me know what you think, it'll be a constantly evolving space...

Posted by Abe at 04:45 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 29, 2004

Pattern Connection

If anyone is wondering if there is any connection between the two 'pattern' post surrounding this one, the answer is yes and no.

Yes in that as I drove around Austin contemplating 'pattern navigation' I held back on writing because I wondered if 'Pattern Recognition' addressed the issue. And no, it doesn't really, although it perhaps dusts upon the outside of it once or twice. So no, no connection other then the lack of one...

Posted by Abe at 01:18 PM | Comments (28) | TrackBack

March 25, 2004

The Best of Austin, TX

So I'm a couple days out of Austin, perhaps blessed with perspective, but probably not... The conclusion so far? Its a fabulous place to spend a winter month or two. Culturally its far liver then SF is for real. The live music capital marketing is no joke. This is a place where you can stubble upon punk rockers rocking Irish jigs then flipping into Greek syrtos with a near virtuoso drop of the dime. On a Monday night at 1am no less.

Austin may be the freak show of Texas, but its also in Texas and that means meat. And in Austin two places reign supreme. Sam's Barbeque kills it with brisket, not to be missed. Back in the heart of town though is Casino el Camino, close to the only good bar on Austin's notorious 6th Street. A street that's basically a Disneyland of binge drinking... Austinite's will deny ever gracing this street, but someone is filling the bars. Casino though is the one to hit. Start with a burger order, they take ages to complete, but are worth it all. Top ten nationwide, perhaps, really. Vegetarian's order a 'blackjack' and relax. Then go upstairs and play pool while waiting, or just soak up flawless atmosphere, it's hard to finger, but this place is just plain comfortable with itself. Broken in like a cowboy's leather, lovely.

Then the coffee culture. 24 hours coffee shops, finally. I guess it takes cheap rent plus a massive university to make the economics work, cause really every city should have one. Free wifi at each one too. And space. Only in Texas is it economical to have people sitting all day nursing caffeine while sipping free internet. Spiderhouse is the personal pick, but there are plenty others.

The trump card of Austin though is rollerderby, Texas Rollergirls, the ultimate in punk rock feminism. Tatoos on women on rollerskates, moving really fast. Its a sport too, I shit you not. A good one even. With Texas sized women. Root for the Honky Tonk Heartbreakers ya hear?!?

Posted by Abe at 06:35 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

March 21, 2004

SxSW Music 3 of 3?

SxSW is nearly done and out of the caf speakers booms the Hollertronix CD. And god damn its sounds timely then it has. Guess I need to finish that massive post on them I started ages ago...

I'm not sure I found any greatness at work in this festival. Not sure because I finally caught TV on the Radio live and to my years they hit that greatness. But they are friends, so like Scalia I am not fit to judge. I will recuse myself from the case, and let ya'll make the choice. But my hollywood sum up = 70's Stones meets My Bloody Valentine.

The hype, aka the Unicorns finally made it into the country and errrr, does anyone ever live up the hype? Well I can see why the indie rockers are infatuated, they mix in a couple degrees of fresh new irony with some really spiffy graphic design. But they still sing like a 13 year old devastated that they are only going to Breckenridge to ski, instead of Davos... I'll pass.

Best surprise was Japan's the Emeralds, but as I mentioned before, lots of good, not great. Trans Am surprised too, but only because they were last show I saw before taking half a decade off rock n roll, not sure I wanted to see them at all the first time.

Biggest disappointment by far was the Swisha House. No Slim Thug, no Mike Jones, and Chamillionaire did a solo set before I hit the stage. It was a bit like going to a Wu-Tang show and getting Master Killa, U-God and Inspecta Deck. B team all the way. Never quite realized how much Mike Jones carries the Swisha records before, look for him to turn star soon.

Back the hype thing. Dizzee Rascal. So the beats sound good in the club. The tricky bit is that amorphous thing called flow. Unlike the rest of the brits his is actually good, but only when you can't understand the words. Its great when it sounds like an audio waterfall on top of a booming soundsystem. But as soon as the words become distinct? Good god he sucks. Bedtime.

Meanwhile one member of Ozomatli are still in jail, while the media now reports "madness" (lost the link) and "near-riot". Sorry try again, this time I suggest "police brutality" if you're conservative "overreaction"... There is video here.

Also up on Ozo's site is the first hand story of the side of things that struck me hardest. A story completely missing in all news coverage no less. This kid got maced started running and wound up with 6 or 8 cops throwing him on the ground. Looked like it was about to go Rodney King for a second, and if it weren't for the thousands plus potential witness on the street it may well have... And yeah kid claims to weight 150, but he looked more like a buck ten from where I stood. Big time threat you know...

Posted by Abe at 06:20 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 19, 2004

SxSW Music 2 of ?

After cracking down on Ozomatli, Austin PD apparently continued on with the rest of their devious plans, turning SxSW into a festival for Strokes cover bands. Like the Strokes but from Mexico! Like the Strokes but with a girl keyboardist! Like the Strokes but from LA! Like the Strokes but not born rich! Like the Strokes but from NY!

The MO for last night seemed to be everyone is good, nobody is great. Haven't seen a bad band yet. But great? Only Ozo, and I've seen them dozens of times. VietNam is the only other one worth remembering the name. Like Bob Dylan, backed by the Stokes.... No that's not fair, the band is better then that. But not great.

Also encountered the first Texas sized line, 2 hours long. Then the Unicorns cancelled (customs) and that took care of that.

Today we seek that greatness, got to be here someplace...

Posted by Abe at 04:49 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 18, 2004

SxSW Music 1 of ?

So the real value of the SxSW wristband or badge is not that it gets you into shows. Its that you have zero compulsion to stay at any show. Ex to the next, ce la vie, see ya round.

And yeah Josh tells the macing story so that I don't need to.

Posted by Abe at 08:07 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

March 17, 2004

SxSW Interactive Summary

The shift in people between SxSW Interactive and Film to the much larger Music festival is fascinating. The film makers rock a casual bland stylishness and the tech geeks keep a post hippie dishevel with occasional burning man color highlights. Then in glides the music industry en masse. Simultaneously slicker and dirtier, more suits and more shreds. The ego level probably is the same at all the conferences, but suddenly far more visible, worn perhaps around the neck like a dangling medallion.

The Interactive Conference was perhaps an echo chamber personified. I've got a more complex post waiting on that subject, but lets just say I take the threat more seriously now then I did last Friday.

Also taken more seriously now is distaste in the conversation as an intellectual form. As a rough rule the solo presentations shined where the panels stumbled. There were exceptions of course, but for the most part the panels where either too technical (in areas I'm not hugely interested in) or too amateur. You'd think a panelist would at least be aware of the pertinent literature in the subjects they cover, but no that is not the case in this town.

The exception on the solo talks was Friendster's Jonathan Abrams. For a brief moment he had me second guessing my idiot savant take on his success, as he appropriated nearly every idea he was rejecting six months ago into his business plan. But in a truly repulsive panel afterwards, and several brief personal interchanges with him it became far clearer: Whatever his success may be attributed it sure isn't an excess of any intelligence.

The other monologist fared far better. While I agree with Adam that Brenda Laurel is coming from a perspective tinted very 1994, I didn't much find that a problem. Rather it felt more like an emergence. , Seybold and fused into a cohesiveness of sorts. While I may not myself proscribe to this gelling California techno-humanist school of thinking, I can envision producing interesting results along the (on)line.

Perhaps the there is more hope for California thought in the tradition though. might be the last believable voice of Bay Area techno-utopianism, far more balanced and pragmatic then popped bubbles past, yet still positively flirting with the future. His call for a new cross disciplinary intellectual construction is much welcomed in these parts.

Like Rheingold, gave a far better talk then I'd seen him produce previously. The shorter? The future is a fucking disaster beyond belief. It'll be great, lets party!

And yeah, is damn funny.

He's also scared shitless of me, but that's a story for another year.

Posted by Abe at 05:35 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 15, 2004

The Edge of Real


That's a photo from the far edge of Real de Catorce. Its about a 15 minute walk to the far side of town where you enter through a 3km long mining tunnel, one lane wide. The road continues out on the other side of town, but I never saw a single car on it.

Posted by Abe at 01:43 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 08, 2004

Pop That Crunk

Should be in the mountains of Mexico by days end, better clear that American pop out the system first.

Petey Pablo "Freek a Leek" (aka How You Like it Daddy) - There's something oddly gentlemanly to his crunk. And Lil Jon refines his dirty nasty formula on the beats just right. Towards the end of the song Petey interrupts, resumes the DJ voice of the intro and says "I've got to give a shout out to Seagram's Gin, cause I drink it and they paying me for it." Shit, at least he's honest!

Usher featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris "Yeah" - I should like this really, Usher can sing like a mofo and you can't step on the crunk. Or at least you couldn't in the old year. And there was only so long Lil Jon could refine that same damn beat ad nauseam before hitting the pop diamond mine. The crunk never sounded so clean. Nothing fresh bout it though. He might get knighted pop royalty off this, but it's the Petey Pablo record that rocks the aristocratic crunk flair. Lil Jon's just warming up that "Yeah!" for some Pepsi commercials, no?

And god damn, I know Usher loves Michael Jackson as much as Sir Justin Timberlake. But I could swear he's actually imitating Timberlake imitating Michael on this here track. In theory perhaps its pop perfection, pop the new sound, simulate last years hit lyrics mix in the payola and roll. But something's missing, and I think they knew it, why else did they dilute their royalties by running the random Ludacris lyrics algorithm over the ass end of the track? Its close enough for Clear Channel, but is it real enough for memory?

Twista featuring Kanye West and Jamie Foxx "Slow Jams" - Any song with the lyrics "I'ma play this Vandross, you gonna take ya pants off" is obviously a classic. Where "Yeah" takes the incongruous style mix and plows straight up the middle with it, "Slow Jams" dips and dabs like a Mike Tyson jab. You're never quite sure where its going, but damn, that's a hit.

still to come, time permitting, Juvenile's "Numb Numb" and Swisha House's Mike Jones and Slim Thug...

Posted by Abe at 03:29 PM | Comments (72) | TrackBack

Kawasaki Chernobyl


this women rides her kawasaki through Chernobyl, takes photos and writes about it in broken English. Yes the future indeed, unevenly distributed...

[via collision detection]

update: the link has been changed.

Posted by Abe at 12:43 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

March 07, 2004

Rumors & Artifacts

In 1830 one Reverend George Bush apparently wrote The Life of Mohammed, relationship to more prominent namesakes is apparently nil, but there is not much info out there...

One John F Kerry aka JFK was definitely in a garage rock band circa 1961, the Electras. Kerry was tall and played bass. They recorded an album of which only 500 copies where released... Ebay of course had one for sale, no takers. No MP3s available yet. If you got em let me know. I am willing to host them, bandwidth permitting. [via catchdubs]

Finally on the recorded music tip, one prominent label with plenty of recent hits is apparently on the verge of disintegration, more soon I suspect.

Posted by Abe at 03:48 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 27, 2004

The Passion of Christ

So I'm sitting in this caf, thinking about going to check out that new Mel Gibson slasher flick. But then, then this fucker next to me starts talking. And get this, he freaking TELLS ME THE ENDING.

Damn. Guess I don't have to see it now.

Posted by Abe at 05:07 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

February 24, 2004

Grey Tuesday

Today is Grey Tuesday, an act of civil disobedience protesting EMI's refusal to allow the distribution of Danger Mouse's The Grey Album, which remixes Jay-Z's the Black Album with the Beatles White Album. And its actually good.

The site is grey for the day. Tracks unfortunately are no longer available on this site. Illegal Art is still hosting it though.

Enjoy the album and free the music!

Posted by Abe at 02:51 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

February 19, 2004

Grey Tuesday

Grey Tuesday is Tuesday February 24th. Its a coordinated act of civil disobedience to protests EMI actions to shut down the distribution of Danger Mouse's The Grey Album. Abstract Dynamics will of course participate since we actively called for just this sort of action. We urge you to participate as well.

[via Civil Disobedience for the Grey Album]

Posted by Abe at 02:55 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 03, 2004

Ripping Mix CDS

Do any of my wonderful readers know of a good free program that allows you to rip an entire mix CD as one continuous file? I used to have one on the PC but its long lost and name forgotten. OSX is preferable but a PC program will do the trick if necessary...

thanks in advance, A

Posted by Abe at 12:03 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

January 31, 2004

We Are All Cosmonauts Now


volume. new club. williamsburg. huge. all white. concrete floors. projections everywhere. bright. everyone in white suits. an equalizer. maybe. everyone modifies. must retain individuality. 2001. clockwork orange. gattaca. this must be someone's decade old fantasy. like a rave. but different. not fun. almost performance art. vanessa beecroft. without organization. dub in the main room. loud. loud. sound system. black music. white people. old black music. semi young white people. no one dances. bye now.

Posted by Abe at 11:09 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

January 28, 2004

NYC Events


And then next week good music comes to NYC!

The one to check Andrew Weatherall playing a disco punk set at APT a week from Thursday, watch out. Here is the word from promoter Roy Dank:

Andrew Weatherall is playing a special punk-funk set at Pop Your Funk, much like his coveted Nine O'Clock Drop mix CD for the Nuphonic label. This is the first time he's done this in America and quite possibly the most intimate gig he's ever done in NYC so this is indeed a special night! Brennan Green from Balihu, Modal and Peacefrog and Roy Dank of Mathematics (who will be touring Europe just a couple days later) will be playing on the night as well.

Thursday February 5th, Open Smirnoff Bar 9-10pm. Come early to ensure entry. $8 adv / $10 at the door.

APT is somewhere in the meat packing district, look it up cause I'm too lazy too...


On the more hyped tip Dizzee Rascal drops in to new Williamsburg venue Volume. Still not feel the anglophile hype dropped upon Mr. Rascal, but Matthew Dear is playing so there is a back up if Dizzee falls flat... And it's a Soundlab party which means it should be more creative then your average club night.

Saturday February 7, 9:30 - sunrise @ Volume, 99 N 13th St at Whythe.

Official opening of the club is apparently this weekend btw...

Last but not least, right down the street sits NY's best caf St Helen. 150 Whythe, at N 8th, peep it while you still can get a seat...

Posted by Abe at 03:42 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack



I never quite understood why all my fellow New Yorkers stay in while its snowing out. The act of snowing is by far the best thing about this snow thing, at least in an urban space. Turns the city into this beautiful pure space. Seas of white, and washed out shapes shifting through the periphery. And best of all you can enjoy New York City with out all these beautiful people blocking your view...

The real time to honker down and stay in front of your fire/TV or whatever is when it slushy out. Slush is the worst weather condition ever, makes crossing every street a logistical challenge. Its like the city needs to beat the snow into submission and the result is a cold dark puddle of nasty on every corner. Stay away, its movies and food delivery time.

But when the snow actual falls, when its actually white. Time to head outside and enjoy it for once, this is as close to natural beauty as NY will ever get...

Posted by Abe at 03:47 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 16, 2004

As the RIAA Goes to War, the EFF Runs Away

LA Weekly: Music Industry Puts Troops in the Streets

Though no guns were brandished, the bust from a distance looked like classic LAPD, DEA or FBI work, right down to the black "raid" vests the unit members wore. The fact that their yellow stenciled lettering read "RIAA" instead of something from an official law-enforcement agency was lost on 55-year-old parking-lot attendant Ceasar Borrayo.

The Recording Industry Association of America is taking it to the streets.

Even as it suffers setbacks in the courtroom, the RIAA has over the last 18 months built up a national staff of ex-cops to crack down on people making and selling illegal CDs in the hood.

and if starting their own little, quite likely illegal, terror squad wasn't bad enough, the RIAA goes out and makes it clear just how racist they are:

"A large percentage [of the vendors] are of a Hispanic nature," Langley said. "Today hes Jose Rodriguez, tomorrow hes Raul something or other, and tomorrow after that hes something else. These people change their identity all the time."

Say what? Not even going to comment on that one.

Then of course to top it all off with a cherry, the RIAA's biggest opponent the EFF condones these foul tactics:

"The process of confiscating bootleg CDs from street vendors is exactly what the RIAA should be doing," said Jason Schultz, a staff attorney for the San Franciscobased Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

Now that's apparently a misquote and Schultz corrects it on his blog. But honestly his answer doesn't make me particularly happy. Schultz and the EFF draw a broad line between digital file sharing and the alternative networks of CD distribution. And they have valid legal reasons for it.

But really what is the difference between the two? One is structural, P2P file sharing involves a computer and broadband connection while alternative CD networks involve physical goods, that are copied not stolen. The other difference between the two is socioeconomic. P2P is a middle class act, requiring expensive equipment and connections. The extralegal CD distribution networks operate in far less privileged spaces. And they represent a valid attempt by these communities to route around the restrictions the RIAA is attempting to impose. But since it doesn't involve extensive computer use the EFF can't be bothered to defend.

Just another reminder that techno-utopianism doesn't scale beyond the short confines of tech culture...

[article link via bIPlog]

Posted by Abe at 09:39 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

January 08, 2004

Newsflash: the World Does Not Revolve Around Gigabytes!

To all the fools out there who think the iPod mini is a bad deal, would you care to explain why people buy 40GB iPods for $500 when they can get a Nomad Zen with 60GB for $400? Shit with IDE drives at $1GB why doesn't Apple just make a 3 pound $300, 200GB mp3 player? You'd just eat that up, right?

Personally I expect Apple to sell a whole load of the minis. Typical scenario, person walks into the store looking for an ipod. They can get a tiny colorful one that holds 50cds worth of music for $250 more. Or they can pay extra for something nearly twice as big, twice as heavy and it doesn't come in colors. Battery doesn't even last longer. All they get in return is... some exta gigasomethings. And for most people in the world, believe it or not, the world does not revolve around how big their hard drive is. For real. Hang tight and watch these players fly off the shelves.

Posted by Abe at 10:35 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

January 03, 2004

J8, 2 Events

Next Thursday January 8th, is looking good for downtown NYC with two events round the corner from each other:

Aspects of Jupiter (pdf) is a benefit for the upcoming book Sound Generation: Recording - Tradition - Politics
which features several writings by our digital friend tobias c. van Veen.

Experimental Intermedia
224 Centre Street (btwn Grand/Hester)
Manhattan. 8pm. $5.

music and performances by:
tobias c. van Veen
Pamela Z
Marc McNulty
Annea Lockwood & Paul Ryan
Gregory Whitehead
Greyg Filastine
Larry 7
Ken Montgomery
Claudio Chea

but before heading over there be sure to check out the closing of Dream So Much 2, which we briefly reviewed here.

Artist talks, a catalogue launch, bear sponsor, car sponsor, should be good times. And only a couple blocks away to boot.

location: the AAAC
26 Bowery, 3rd Floor NYC (between Pell and Bayard Streets next to the McDonald's--red door)
6-9 pm

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December 29, 2003

Green Walls, Green Nets and The Beauty of the Desert

WorldChanging: Another World Is Here: The Fall of the Green Wall of China is really interesting, I had no idea about this whole process at all. The people at World Changing are pretty smart, but they do suffer a bit from over focus on the bottom up emergence.

Its not that I have anything against bottom up solutions, we just emerged from a top down century and a healthy dose of bottom up style solutions is in order. But does that mean all top down solutions are bad? Somehow it seems a lot more interesting when top down and bottoms up come together and start working in rhythm together.

And on a different note, they end the piece basically calling for a "green and collaborative war on deserts". Which seems to be an odd choice of words. War is very top down for one. But deserts are also beautiful places, you might even call them natures bottom up solution for overpopulation. Do we really want to wage war upon them, or maybe just put them on a diet to slim them down...

Posted by Abe at 09:17 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 23, 2003

Wink, Wink, Abstract Goes Mobile

Thanks to a tip from one Adam Greenfield, Abstract Dynamics now is easily accessible on a mobile phone over here:

Probably just going to mirror this content, but you never know. Adam's got a touch of a moblog going, on the down low but there.

As for the force behind it all, Winksite is remarkably easy to use. Better yet, the core people seem to live and breathe the company, sent them a suggestion at 11:15 last night, a touch after midnight I had a nice reply back from a founder. That's dedication and I'd like to think it leads to a good business.

Posted by Abe at 04:29 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

December 19, 2003

The Greatest


GOAT - A Tribute to Muhammad Ali, damn, the book's a bit on the cheap side at $3,000, but hey the website is free. And its got the rarest of the rare, an intro that doesn't need skipping.

Course Ali is the greatest, if not as a boxer, then as a poet / political force / media figure. If anyone deserves a $3,000 book... Leave it to Benedikt Taschen to figure out how to sell books at art world prices. And at 75lbs that books sure has the heft of a heavyweight champion.

[via low culture: I'm waiting for the paperback]

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December 18, 2003

December 16, 2003

Sample Free(ly)

Creative Commons now has a Sampling license. Finally. Musicians take note.

Posted by Abe at 07:19 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Who Baits the Baitmen?

Vaguely knew there were people who bait Nigerian e-mail scammers as a hobby. What I didn't know was that there are now people baiting the baiters as a hobby.

[via As Above]

Posted by Abe at 11:15 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

You Are Under Surveillance

New York Surveillance Camera Players

[via Soul In Code]

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December 15, 2003

December 13, 2003

December 08, 2003

LES Pickle Show Down

Hit up the Lower East Side's two last pickle joints (up from just one a couple years ago). Both The Pickle Guys on Essex and Guss' Pickles on Orchard have their roots in the old Essex Street Guss'. Probably use almost the same recipe. Both blow away any other pickle I've ever encountered in the US. These are the real deal old school NY Jew pickles, you won't go wrong with either.

But this is a show down and in the end it wasn't that close, The Pickle Guys win hands down. The pickle is simple flawless. Toss in the lower prices, better attitude, indoor buying area (it was damn cold this weekend), and a solid website that is dramatically cheaper for shipping then Guss' it's over, no contest.

Guss' of course are still great, but they've got a bit of dirty grit that hits on the first bite. Maybe it's from the moth floating in the brine... There is a moment of pure pickle bliss though, the peak of a Guss' pickle might be touch better then the Pickle Guys' but it just can't sustain itself throughout. Factor in the fact that they make their employees sell outdoors in winter, and the tourist trap positioning outside the Tenement Museum and its cleat that the new Guss' doesn't quite life up the old reputation. So get your ass over to the old the location and get with the Pickle Guys.

Posted by Abe at 11:37 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

December 07, 2003

Meanwhile In Less Known Corners of the World

Wasn't Transdniester a country in a book? Sure should be.

Posted by Abe at 12:35 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 06, 2003

Silence Still Equals Death


When Political Art Mattered is article no. 2 linked today from the NYT mag. The first couple pages are especially potent, touching on the power to the Silence = Death pink triangle and then skirting towards issues of privilege:

AIDS made its debut among a very cultured group of people. Many were artists who, devastated and enraged, turned their professional skills to protest. The design collective Gran Fury was founded in 1988 after the New Museum offered Act Up a window to do with as it pleased; soon other museums nationwide were draping their paintings and scheduling protests on Dec. 1, which became the annual Day Without Art. But even those gay men who were not culture mavens by trade were knowledgeable amateurs; hiding, encoding and image management were a fundamental part of every homosexual's sentimental education. In short, the dying, and their friends, knew how to convey a message in the language of their times.

For Larry Kramer, it was that ''art'' -- the street theater, the protest graphics -- that mattered. ''It was the only thing we had, the only way we could get any attention,'' he says. The image-starved television news shows could not be bothered to cover claims that a drug company was overcharging for medications, but let a bunch of black-clad young protesters chain themselves to that drug company's headquarters, and the cameras were there en masse. How to get across the idea of governmental guilt in promoting a blood-borne disease? Bloody hands, of course, stenciled everywhere. Some of the street actions I saw in the late 80's were better produced than Off Broadway shows, complete with smartly edited scripts, disciplined chorus numbers and gorgeous accouterments. Act Up's greatest artwork -- furtively covering Jesse Helms's Virginia home in a giant custom-made condom -- made the crucial point that prejudice is as insidious a danger to society as H.I.V. But, formally speaking, it was pure Christo.

''We were a bunch of gay people; this is what we knew how to do,'' Kramer says. ''We knew how to pretend. We knew how to make things pretty.''

One of the most informative hours of life was spent in a meeting room of what is now the Drug Policy Alliance (support em) listening to a formerly prominent ACT UP member* describing the evolution of their protest.

Like the Black Bloc and Critical Mass, Act Up has no formal leaders and no acknowledged hierarchy. Whoever showed up was a member, and decisions where made as a group. The people who showed up were predominantly gay, urban and upper middle class. They were also in the midst of a crisis, with AIDS cutting a broad swathe of death through the community. Ronald Reagan and much of the political establishment was content to ignore the deaths that where sweeping through what was then a marginalized community.

The result was what history might see as the first full fledged guerilla media warfare campaign. The NYT mag highlights a lot of the more art /visual elements of it. From a tactile standpoint however the one that stands out clearest is ACT UP's first Washington DC action. In preparing for this action, the emerging local factions from around the country met in San Francisco to create a plan. The group from ACT UP's founding city, New York, stayed quiet as everyone debated the various cliche locations, Supreme Court, White House, etc. Finally the NY group stood up and announced that they planned to protest outside the Department of Health and Human Services offices in suburban Maryland.

Protests in the center of DC are merely part of backdrop. ACT UP only brought a thousand or two protesters to suburban Maryland, but the result was clearly, pure drama, not background scenery. ACT UP was news, and with the news came increased attention the AIDS crisis. Following quickly behind was a rapid opening up towards gay culture in American life.

Of course AIDS is still a huge unsolved issue, and homophobia still a problem, but there is also a hell a lot to be learned from the media techniques that have gotten things this far. Gay activists were probably the first repressed group to have access to major amounts of media technology and knowledge of their inner workings. Since then desktop publishing, the internet and digital video have changed the game dramatically. The weapons of media warfare are reaching the communities that need them most. Keep watch.


Posted by Abe at 07:26 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Attention Single Ladies

It is a little known fact that the best place in urban America to find young bachelors is at graffiti art openings. Here you will find that approximately 90% of the attendees are male and eligible. Now you might be a touch concerned that you might actually have some understanding of the art in order to converse with people. Fortunately it couldn't be further from the truth, the room will inevitably be so crowded that no one can actually look at the art anyway. This provides additional benefits to wallflowers who do not like to dance, as any movement to the beat beyond minor head nodding is physically impossible. In fact that only obstacle you will encounter during the event will be enormous lines for the free beverages provided by a large corporation vigorously attempting to improve its underappreciated brand. Enjoy.

Posted by Abe at 12:56 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

December 04, 2003


Not 100% sure what dodgeball is about, but it seems to be a way to broadcast and recieve the location of friends via mobile phone. Could be interesting, could fall on its face...

Unlike say Friendster, I think granularity is really key here. Looks like you can have multiple "circles" of friends. But are you really going to make the effort to broadcast your location to them? Taking the wait and see on this one, something like this is going to blow up, but its going to need a touch of magic to be that one.

[via Many-to-Many: Dodgeball Circles: Social software through the phone]

Posted by Abe at 06:39 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 03, 2003

Pop Your Funk

Tomorrow night (thursday) my old friend Roy Dank of Mathematics fame gets busy on the disco punk side of the rhythms.

APT // free // 10pm on

party's called Pop Your Funk, and "the music's gonna be the kinda shit you wish you heard more of out these
days, namely weird disco, punk funk, italo, dub reggae, deep house, and some detroit bits as well"

rumors of a secret meat packing district tunnel that leads to the Matthew Dear party are as of yet unconfirmed, but you can always brave the early winter chill and walk around the corner.

Next installment is in Febuary with the one and only dropping a rare punk funk set, holla.

Posted by Abe at 05:28 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Iraqi Bombings

Social Design Notes has a great post on graffiti in post Saddam Iraq
. Not much art yet it seems, pure content but also pure ugliness.

I discovered the draw-back of democracy, it dirties the walls!

Posted by Abe at 01:01 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 29, 2003

Up and Somewhat In

Back on what I hope to be the usable side of technology. Calls for the PC have been made, backups somewhat successful. Mac is in working shape, we'll see how it shapes the writing/posting style.

Posted by Abe at 01:19 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 28, 2003

Down and Somewhat Out

My main computer is in a state of heavy crash. Just got my shattered Mac into somewhat workable condition. Hating the view of CRT, but I'm sure I'll adjust. Expect slow output until issues are resoloved.

Posted by Abe at 02:44 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 26, 2003

Longer Kompakt Hell + Seven

Yow, Kompakt Records' and Reinhard Voigt brought a far more visceral sound then anticipated. Actually I wasn't anticipating much at all, being a touch out of touch with latest in electronic music, 99% of which is deep into the bland territory nowadays. And of course its the ignored genres that tend to surprise.

The Kompakt boys added to the surprise by starting off with 20 minutes or so of some same ole same ole, pretty, housish stuff. Almost gave up and then wham, in come the sawtooths. Big buzzing bass topped with fuzzing hooks, pure and simple, but raw as fuck. The techno/jazz comparison holds no weight here, in a way this has more to do with the stripped down rock of the and . Heading home it was actually the Stripes one bass driven track, 'Seven Nation Army' resonating through my head. And yeah, is the most natural reference.

Its still techno of course, and at times the acid line / kick drum German style resurface. And a small core of the crowd eat it up like it was the 90's again. The old tricks still have a touch of juice. But it was the fuzz and modulated noisiness that made the night, screaming like machines stuck in the speakers aching to return to an organic form.

Rewind a couple days for a taste of the older (as in a year ago) German forefront. DJ Hell of label du jour Gigolo, dropped into NY darkest venue, Void. Half the crowd was fashionistas in for a party hosted by Seven, the LES avant garde clothing outpost. A mixed blessing of course, the fashion crowd is notoriously cold, but at least it always looks like a good party... Interesting faces, diversity, freak show styles. Pity it stops at the epidermis.

Hell rocked it in as blas manner as it gets. The party percolated always interesting, never quite fun. The techno hit the rock and roll in far more straight forward manner. The nights highlight was probably Nirvana getting flawlessly dropped in the mix. Plus 3 Rapture tracks (well actually 2 with the Sister Savior remix seeing double duty). Is 2003 over already?

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Shorter Kompakt

Kompakt Records party = Thomas Brinkmann + Black Sabbath, hott.

soon a longer version, we hope. plus DJ Hell write up. Techno is the new black?

Posted by Abe at 05:18 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 25, 2003

Linkage; N25 2003

Spin Alley

A Shipping Container Embassy

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Finally caved in and picked up a pair of Geoff McFetridge Nike Vandals. The seersucker looks better on then I thought, but its not going to last long anyways. I'm not a collector I'm going to wear these things and wear them out.

For those that missed out, these are the conceptual shoe of the season. The outer layer is canvas, but its designed to rip away slowly revealing an intricate print underneath. Constantly evolving shoes, that's the marketing tactic to win my heart...

Picked them up at Nom de Guerre and immediately rolled around the corner to have the kids on Bway write all over the left shoe. In retrospect I should have done both, and it should have read "Sweat" on one and "Shop" on the other. Instead it just says "Uprise" which is still political, and if I remember correctly the former slogan of a rival sneaker company too boot. Not much into the silver swoosh, think I'll try and get every good writer I know to tag up the branding... Stay tuned to see these evolve, I still haven't taken a knife to the canvas yet, thinking up a strategy.

Posted by Abe at 06:27 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Who Are You and What Do You Look Like?

Phil Gyford: Writing: Statement of a Photographic Man is a fabulous post in which he digs up this passage from . Its the story of an early photographers shop. Tells quite a lot about how our understanding of ourselves has changed...

When we are not busy, we always fill up the time taking specimens for the window. Anybody wholl sit we take him; or we do one another, and the young woman in the shop who colours [photographs with paint]. Specimens are very useful things to us, for this reason if anybody comes in a hurry, and wont give us time to do the picture, then, as we cant affford to let her go, we sit her and goes through all the business, and I says to Jim, Get one from the window, and he takes the first specimen that comes to hand. Then we fold it up in paper, and dont allow her to see it until she pays for it, and tell her not to expose it to the air for three days, and that if then she doesnt approve of it and will call again we will take her another. Of course they in general comes back. We have made some queer mistakes doing this. One day a young lady came in, and wouldnt wait, so Jim takes a specimen from the window, and, as luck would have it, it was the portrait of a widow in her cap. She insisted on opening, and then she said, This isnt me; its got a widows cap, and I was never married in all my life! Jim answers, Oh, miss! why its a beautiful picture, and a correct likeness and so it was, and no lies, but it wasnt of her Jim talked to her, and says he, Why this aint a cap, its the shadow of the hair for she had ringlets and she positively took it away believing that such was the case; and evern promised to send us customers, which she did.

There was another lady that came in a hurry, and would stop if we were not more than a minute; so Jim ups with a specimen, without looking at it, and it was the picture of a woman and her child. We went through the business of focussing the camera, and then gave her the portrait and took the 6d. When she saw it she cries out, Bless me! theres a child: I havent neer a child! Jim looked at her, and then at the picture, as if comparing, and says he, It is certainly a wonderful likeness, miss, and one of the best we ever took. Its the way you sat; and what has occasioned it was a child passing through the yard. She said she supposed it must be so, and took the portrait away highly delighted.

Once a sailor came in, and as he was in haste, I shoved on to him the picture of a carpenter, who was to call in the afternoon for his portrait. The jacket was dark, but there was a white waistcoat; still I persuaded him that it was his blue Guernsey which had come up very light, and he was so pleased that he gave us 9d. instead of 6d. The fact is, people dont know their own faces. Half of em have never looked in a glass half a dozen times in their life, and directly they see a pair of eyes and a nose, they fancy they are their own.

(emphasis added)

[via Test: Image repertoires]

Posted by Abe at 12:16 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack


Dear everyone who thinks that iPod batteries are not replaceable,

Please send your "dead" iPods to me. I will happily place a $49 battery in your old, beloved toy and use it daily with the utmost care and respect.

Many thanks,

ps, if you are feeling real flush you can always just buy me a spanking new one off my wish list...

Posted by Abe at 04:12 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 21, 2003

Out of Pocket Linkage

Emptied out my pockets from the past few days and these links emerged:

Downtown for Democracy - AUCTION - "Buy Art, Beat Bush", sounds good to me. Artists involved are no joke either, they're shooting to raise $10 million.

notKeren - quality art and illustration.

Dream So Much 2 - art, asian-american.

Anticipate Recordings - music.

Posted by Abe at 05:16 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

November 20, 2003

Yes Master

WOEBOT: Mastering a Record

Posted by Abe at 10:06 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

November 19, 2003

November 15, 2003

November 14, 2003

November 13, 2003

In Asia We Trust

Looking at the Fed's latest numbers, I see its "custodial" holdings of bonds actually owned by foreign central banks have now passed the $1 trillion mark -- an increase of almost 25% since this time last year:

The Fed's own bond portfolio, by contrast, is worth less than $660 billion -- and the entire left-hand side of the balance sheet (net reserve credit) totals just $722 billion. If this keeps up, Uncle Sam is going to have to put a new motto on the dollar bill: "In Asia We Trust."

- Whiskey Bar: It's Good to be the King

Posted by Abe at 04:49 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Massive Change?

Massive Change - The Future of Design Culture

Designers barking again? or is there real bite in this one?

[via notes from somewhere bizarre & f r e e g o r i f e r o | weblog]

Posted by Abe at 11:22 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 08, 2003

Get. That. Dirt. Off. Your. Sholder.

With a nod to S/FJ we present our almost completely metric review of :


note we cheated by highlighting Dirt Off Your Shoulder, which is certainly leading in playback outside of iTunes. The objective list would be more like First Song, Dirt Off, 99, Lucifer, Threat, Moment of Clarity (underrated in the reviews I've seen). Also note how important sequencing is, I just haven't listened to any of the tracks that appear before Dirt enough.

Posted by Abe at 06:26 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

November 06, 2003

99 Problems

I got 99 problems, but the first Rick Rubin hip hop beat in years ain't one.

The rest of ? Not up too the hype so far. Some heat, lots of slush. Other highlights?

Lucifer: Kayne West beat, what's that vocal sample?

The Threat: 9th Wonder samples R. Kelly from only 3 years ago. Good thing its one of his best tracks. Lil Kim just covered it too, percolating underground.

Dirt Off Your Shoulders: Timbaland can do no wrong. Except on his own albums of course.

My First Song: Aqua! Who? Dangerous on the beats. What a way to go out.

I got 5 on Jay dropping another album in the next 3 or 4 years.

Posted by Abe at 04:35 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Logo Trends

15 trends in logo design.

btw, I've probably mentioned it before, but the newish BP (British Petroleum!) logo is the most evil thing around. I'm mean it looks great, brings up thoughts of the sun, flowers and greenery. For an oil company. Great for them, awful for humanity...

[via Hideous Pursuit: Logos, Robots, and PowerSlaves]

Posted by Abe at 10:10 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Dracula's Real Estate

The opening of the M25 in October 1986 (Margaret Thatch-er's dome moment) signalled the end of London and its liberties. We were now a traffic island. The pollution was visible from space; we would be living under a skin of bad gas, an anti-Eden project. Walking the road, anti-clockwise, let me in on all the secrets: the vanishing hospitals, the asylums that became gated estates, military and pharmaceutical bunkers, the ever-expanding airport runways, CCTV cameras, John Wyndham villages and "severed" communities.

The best guides to the territory, in the days before JG Ballard perched in Shepperton, were to be found among the more imaginative late-Victorian authors: HG Wells at the southwest corner with The War of the Worlds, and Bram Stoker, who placed Dracula's abbey at Purfleet, where the QEII Bridge comes to rest among oil storage tanks. Count Dracula was the forerunner of contemporary real estate speculators: the first one to buy into Thames Gateway. The count anticipated Thatcher's boys-in-braces, Blair's quangos. Buy toxic, buy cheap: madhouses, old chapels, decaying abbeys. Then make your play: storage and distribution. "All that die from the preying of the Un-dead become themselves Un-dead and prey on their own kind," wrote Stoker. "And so the circle goes on ever widening, like ripples from a stone thrown in water."

-Iain Sinclair

whose is a chronical of walking around the massive highway that circles the far reaches of London.

[via rodcorp: Glued to cell phones, staring, without seeing, at an unmoving landscape]

Posted by Abe at 09:51 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 04, 2003



[via collision detection]

Posted by Abe at 04:11 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Run NY

Forget Mr. Diddy, everyone knows MOP run NY. Sick beat, Beatminerz, strings, bass, only available on some Rawkus sampler and a Kay Slay mix cd, email me. Where the hell is the Roc debut?

Posted by Abe at 04:02 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 03, 2003

Half a Review, Chickenbone Cafe

Its only half a review cause I've only ate one item... Place is called Chickenbone Cafe. Its a pretty good representation of a whole new layer of gentrification in Williamsburg but I'm avoiding that issue for a while, messy and cliched at the same. Some other time, maybe.

Went for the first time on Thursday, got the Cuban sandwich. Dreamed about it all weekend. Was back last night for another, plus the ricotta, pine nut, maple desert, which is fabulous and pretty unique as well. Remember something vaguely similar at a high end Indian years ago and that's it...

One annoyance. Sat at the bar both times. First time I ordered a pint of dark beer and sipped slowly, went to the bathroom, went out for a phone call. 40 minutes pass, no Cuban. Finish the beer and order a second. Bingo, a sandwich.

Second visit, order a light beer, came in a 12 ounce mug. Bartender forgot the water. First beer was gone in a flash. Quickly get halfway through the second and the Cuban arrives. "Sorry for the 'delay' we made it extra big because it took so long". Hmmmmm

Regardless, the Cuban gets caps cause its spectacular. Salty, juicy, with hits of garlic and superb long thin slices of pickles laced throughout. Its not an even mix and that's a good thing. There are maybe 4 or 5 flavors to the sandwich each emerging in its own bite. Sometimes its the salty meat, others the blast of garlic sauce, then the pickles might take a turn. Delirious. I'm not in the habit of dreaming of sandwiches, but damn this thing is good.

One economic oddity of the space. The Cuban is a "special" although indications are that its permanent. Its also significantly more expensive then anything on the menu. Perhaps it really costs more to make. But all indications are that it costs more because its more popular, not because the cost of the ingredients and labor. Now more popular restaurants often charge more as a whole, supply and demand and all. But its pretty rare for a restaurant to implement a popularity rather then commodity based pricing within its own menu.

Everyone's got to make their money no doubt, but its an odd statement isn't it? Imagine a restaurant that charged more for the burger then the lobster just because it got a write up as best burger spot.

In the end though whatever, if I'm going to dream about this Cuban I'm going to buy it. Hope the cheaper items taste that good...

and yeah the info:
177 South 4th Street, Williamsburg Brooklyn, 718.302.2663
opens at 4pm till late, possibly cash only

Posted by Abe at 06:31 PM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

November 02, 2003

Barlow 1: Burning Out

I felt as if I were watching the best minds of the next several generations blowing themselves into starry oblivions as deep as the desert night, pushing the envelope of strangeness into near-psychosis at a time when the world beyond The Playa seems to have gone quite mad enough already.

If someone like Karl Rove had wanted to neutralize the most creative, intelligent, and passionate members of his opposition, he'd have a hard time coming up with a better tool than Burning Man. Exile them to the wilderness, give them a culture in which alpha status requires months of focus and resource-consumptive preparation, provide them with metric tons of psychotropic confusicants, and then . . . ignore them. It's a pretty safe bet that they won't be out registering voters, or doing anything that might actually threaten electoral change, when they have an art car to build.

Indeed, Burning Man strikes me as only one of many reality distortion fields within which the counter-culture, myself totally included, has sought self-ghettoizing refuge. On reflection, I realized that I felt much the same about the massive protest marches that failed to impede in any way the Administration's unprovoked assault on Iraq. We all had a grand time gathering ourselves by the millions, but we were up against opponents far more practical and smart than Dick Nixon or Spiro Agnew. The current Dick knows that the best way to deal with dissent is give it a spectacle to exhaust its energies on. He knows that we're suckers for a good show, especially one where we get a starring role, so he gives us unmolested stages upon which to mount our extravaganzas and goes on about his corporate affairs.

- John Perry Barlow

not much more to say other then I agree completely. Didn't go to Burning Man the last 2 years, and those sorts of thoughts are a significant part of the reason. Its time to build not burn, the taz can wait a moment or two. For real.

[via zephoria: barlow on burning man]

Posted by Abe at 11:44 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 01, 2003

How Gay is That?

Six men are suing Sky TV claiming producers tricked them into snogging a bloke for a reality show.

Which just begs the question of who really is sexually confused, the trannie or the men who are suing? I mean really, if you haven't kissed a trannie once in your life can you even call yourself a man? And if that experience leaves you "psychologically and emotionally damaged"? Honey, you've got problems. What a freaking bunch of fa...

[via The Minor Fall, The Major Lift]

Posted by Abe at 07:59 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sneaker Imeldas

Damn, is it me or is this sneaker fetish thing straight exploding?

Freshness mag has pictures of people camping out for limited edition Nikes. The NYT even felt the need to write about it. Shit's about as cool as stamp collecting now. Where is the art to it now? Finding out what line to bring a sleeping bag too? I could respect sneaker fetish cats when it was about hunting down forgotten merchandise. But now they just line up overnight to let Nike hoover up their wallets. Tragic.

New formula: the rarer someone's kicks, the further I stay away from them.

Posted by Abe at 11:37 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

October 28, 2003

Ego + McGinness + live site

EGO is Ryan McGinness' design firm, and they've recently either launched their site, or recently made the bulk of it accessible to my popup blocking browser.

Not quite sure how many people are in the firm, but if its small then I'm not quire sure if they sleep at all...

Great Stuff. One pet peeve they are guilty of though, using an impersonal email as contact info on the site. Personally I believe that all companies should have a human face. And part of that requires listing a human name and a named email as contact info. Seeing things like "" "" just leaves me cold. Tells us your name, really. Or just make one up. But make an effort to appear human, ok?

Posted by Abe at 01:01 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

October 27, 2003

Yet Another Small Step Towards 1984

It doesn't stop does it? What doesn't you ask? The Bush administration's war on reality of course. Perhaps one could even call it a desperate war.

The latest?

The White House web site changed one small file recently. A file called robots.txt. Robots.txt is used mainly by search engines like Google. The White House changed it in a what that Google will no longer index any story on the White House about Iraq.

The purpose? No one really knows, but the best guess is they want to prevent Google from caching the pages. Why? To rewrite history of course. They got caught once before, changing all references to the end of combat in Iraq, to read the end of major combat. Now it seems they are prepping to change whatever they want. Guess pretending to own a country makes you think you can do these things...

[via Calpundit: The White House Memory Hole]

Posted by Abe at 02:31 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

October 21, 2003

To All My Wonderful Readers

You are all very beautiful and flawless readers, and I love you very much. Extremely intelligent too. However I'm not sure I'll actually be writing anything, is it too much to ask you to forgive me?

In the meantime one Mr. Clay Shirky has some interesting things to say about
restaurants, reviews and reviewers, please enjoy and come again soon.

All my love,

oooh, oooh, oooh, a ps bonus, new Banksy! new Banksy:BBC NEWS | Entertainment | Arts | Graffiti star sneaks work into Tate

Posted by Abe at 01:14 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 18, 2003

The William A. Blaze Cold Weather Tactics

The days are getting colder and shorter in the northern hemisphere. (in other words its fall -ed.) That means its time for a lesson in the William Blaze psychological tactics for cold weather. I'm always pretty shocked at how many smart experienced people have not learned this simple technique, so listen close my friends.

Its really simple actually. All you need to do is make sure that you don't leave the house completely bundled up.

You need options to get warmer. If you blow them all before you leave the house, you are going to suffer. Don't put your hat on until you get outside and feel cold. Don't zip up for a while. Don't wear your scarf until a bitter blast of wind hits you. Etc, etc.

Its a simple tactic and it works because of one simple reason. Cold is a psychological state. Actually that's not 100% true, there is a certain point where the cold becomes a physical threat to a human, but that point is very rarely reached in urban areas south of Canada or Scandinavia. Also note that this is for moving humans, its an entirely different story if you are sleeping or sitting in the cold.

99% of the time though, the cold you experience is not going to hurt you. Its just a psychological state. And once you are feeling cold, its not going to go away until you do something to get warmer. So the tactic is obvious, always have options to get warmer.

So I'm walking out the door. I've got on several layers, all unzipped (well except that one you perv), I've got a hat, in my pocket (actually several, but one is wool), and I've got a scarf in my bag, or loosely over my shoulders. I step outside and try and embrace the cold. Occasionally it works, a crisp sunny winter day can greet you beautifully. Generally though I get slapped in the face by that fucking cold.

Time to get warm. Zip up a layer. Oh that feels nice and warm. Keep moving towards that destination. Damn that wind sucks, time for hat. Oh, its nice and warm now. Ride that warm as long as you can. Its all in your head. At least until the wind comes back around, screaming "it's cold" in your face. Zip up another layer, warm it up again. Repeat, repeat until you run out of options. You should be at your destitination before that happens anyways, you hot little thing.

Posted by Abe at 02:37 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack