November, 2011

Nov 11

Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, by Douglas Coupland

A biography of Marshall McLuhan, one of the smartest media thinkers ever, written by Douglas Coupland, one of my very favorite authors, was going to be pretty much a no brainer for me to pick up and read and enjoy. And I really did, although I think this book probably is only for a particular type of nerd. (Pretty sure you know who you are.)

As you’d expect from Coupland & the subject, the style of the book is sort of meta. Bits & pieces about McLuhan, mixed up with other bits and pieces. I didn’t love the style, but I did find a bunch of the book thoughtful & provocative. And it really is amazing how clearly McLuhan could see the future — I think he & Neil Postman figured out decades ago things we’re only just now figuring out together as we all converge online.

Here’s what Coupland had to say to start the book:

Life becomes that strange experience in which you’re zooming along a freeway and suddenly realize that you haven’t paid any attention to driving for the last fifteen minutes, yet you’re still alive and didn’t crash. The voice inside your head has become a different voice. It used to be “you.” Now your voice is that of a perpetual nomad drifting along a melting landscape, living day to day, expecting everything and nothing. And this is why Marshall McLuhan is important, more so now than ever, because he saw this coming a long way off, and he saw the reasons for it. Those reasons were so new and so offbeat and came from such a wide array of sources that the man was ridiculed as a fraud or a clown or a hoax. But now that we’ve damaged time and our inner voices, we have to look at McLuhan and see what else he was saying, and maybe we’ll find out what’s coming next, because the one thing we can all agree on is that the future has never happened so quickly to so many people in such an extreme way, and we really need a voice to guide us. Marshall identified the illness and worked toward finding ways of dealing with it.

Amazing. But here’s the really odd bit:

And one must remember that Marshall arrived at these conclusions not by hanging around, say, NASA or IBM, but rather by studying arcane sixteenth-century Reformation pamphleteers, the writings of James Joyce, and Renaissance perspective drawings. He was a master of pattern recognition, the man who bangs a drum so large that it’s only beaten once every hundred years.

And any book like this would be incomplete without a little Canuckiana, so here’s a quote from McLuhan: “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.” Interestingly, I think that while that would be considered pejorative to most in the US, I don’t think that’s how he meant it.

One very strange fact that floored me: McLuhan’s brain was supplied with blood through not one but two arteries at the base of his skull. In case you’re not up to date on your human physiology, that’s not normal. Sometimes happens in cats. Very rarely in humans. But you have to think that it had a real effect on how he thought and lived (and probably how he died ultimately, since he had many small strokes and blackouts throughout his lifetime).

Anyway, fascinating.

And one last thought to leave you with by McLuhan himself: “Our ‘Age of Anxiety’ is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools– with yesterday’s concepts.”

I think we live in a complex, rapidly evolving, unfamiliar time now — so much — technology, mainly — feels like it’s changing so quickly that it’s hard to integrate all the changes in our lives, let alone to really understand them and their impact. It’s comforting to know that at least a few people felt the same way nearly 50 years ago.

Nov 11

Why I’m Anti-Social on Instagram

I really love using Instagram — use it every week to take, process & share photos, use it a lot with my wife to share what we’re up to, etc.

But as I was using it tonight, I realized that I’m using it in a decidedly anti-social way — which is a really stark contrast to how I live practically every other part of my online life — in general I live pretty much in the open on my blog, Tumblr, Twitter, etc etc.

So I thought it would be worth a quick explanation.

One of my working theories about mobile apps is that to get any real adoption, the app has to be on your home screen (and mostly not in a folder). People use apps on 2nd & 3rd screens, but not that many, I think — I think usage of apps on the home screen probably completely dominates usage of all other apps. But there are only 20 slots on the home screen, and a bunch of those are already populated by things like your e-mail, SMS, phone, calendar, Safari, etc. So there’s a working set of maybe 4 or 5 slots for completely novel apps (for me the most important are Tweetbot, Facebook, Tumblr, Read It Later, Things & Kindle). For all other apps, they’ve got to replace an app (and its functionality) that already has a spot.

Instagram, for me, replaced the camera app a long time ago, initially because of filters, but over time because it let me share pictures with my family and friends really easily.

But over the summer, I realized a pretty serious problem: my follower count was rising, and I was taking more and more pictures with Instagram — the problem was that the photos were of my family vacation, so were both pretty personal in nature, and were also like a big advertisement that our house back in the Bay Area was unattended.

I still wanted the sharing & filters & streams, though, so ended up making my stream closed, instead of open. I uninvited everyone I didn’t know and started building up the access list from scratch. Now I’ve got a relatively small, private set of followers, and it works well enough.

But it sort of turns the model inside out a little bit, since Instagram is really built for sharing. Instead, I’m using it more like a private repository, then sharing out pictures to other networks like Facebook, Tumblr & Twitter when I want to share them broadly. But back to my apps-on-home-screen theory, the only way that Instagram can replace my Camera app is if I do it this way, making most of my photos private and only sharing a few.

The main problems are sort of obvious: (1) I share a bunch of things with fewer people than would actually like to share with, (2) it’s hard for me to completely replace the built-in Camera app right now, and (3) it actually just feels pretty unfriendly when I do share something on Twitter, people click through to see the shared photo and aren’t allowed to follow my stream automatically. (There’s a follow on problem in that I never look at the news feed on my account in the mobile app at all — and so I had hundreds of follower requests right now that have gone ignored for months.)

What I’d really like is the ability to, at minimum, have a private stream and a public stream — I think that would let Instagram completely replace the Camera app for me.

Anyway, that’s why it’s closed for me, and why I may not have turned on access for you — it’s a combo of how the system works and my own neglect of the access list for a while.

Nov 11

On being Very Good

I’ve been thinking a bunch about the Stanford-Oregon game yesterday — it was disappointing, because I think a bunch of us felt like this Cardinal team could really be a championship caliber team — one for the ages. But Oregon beat us badly — and showed that Stanford isn’t a championship team — at least not right now — but merely a Very Good team.

It’s funny, though, because college football isn’t an easy place to be “just” a very good team. And Stanford (and Silicon Valley, for that matter) isn’t an easy place to be “just” very good at what you do. Everyone wants to be the best, not just top 5 or top 10 or great. And it’s a good instinct, and obviously productive, because looking around us at the people who inhabit Stanford and Palo Alto and the whole region, we have an awfully damn lot of people and organizations who are, in fact, the best in the world at what they do.  So it’s good — really good — to strive to be the best, because if you don’t try, you sure won’t end up there.

But I have to say that while I’m disappointed — disappointed that we won’t have a shot to win the Pac-12 or go to the Rose Bowl or the BCS Championship — I’m really fired up about how good this team is, about how much fun it is to follow them, about how guys like Luck (but not only him) can be good at football and all the rest of the things they value in a Stanford education.

We’ve had so many good — best — teams at Stanford over the last 20+ years, we get a little too used to it. But it’s been a hell of a fun weekend, and a hell of a fun season to be a Stanford fan. It was really, really fun to hike over with Kathy & SPL to see Gameday filming yesterday morning. It was really, really fun to catch up with my friend Dave Garnett from across the hall freshman year. And it was really, really fun to be at the game.

I think it’s very important not to lose sight of just how good this team is, and how important it is to be Very Good at what we all do, even when we’re not the Best at it. And that’s an easy and important lesson I’ll share again and again with SPL as he grows up.

Now looking forward to Big Game & Notre Dame & a bowl game — should be an amazing few weeks to end the season and Luck’s time on the Farm.

Nov 11

REAMDE, by Neal Stephenson

Liked the latest from Neal Stephenson, but didn’t love it. As per usual, he really needed a stronger editor for the last half of the book. The book was pretty fun, and a departure for Stephenson, in that it’s not really science fiction, but something that can happen today (if a little, you know, cyber-y).

The first half reads a little bit like a World of Warcraft tutorial (believe it or not, that’s actually a compliment, although I know it won’t sound that way), and the last half is a bit of global chase.

Pretty good, very fast to read and I enjoyed it.

Nov 11

The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel, by Dan Sinker

This book may not be for everyone. But if you’re in the right frame of mind, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. It’s more or less the whole Twitter transcript of @MayorEmanuel, the fake chronicle of Rahm Emanuel on his quest to become the mayor of Chicago.

If you like sustained, over the top profanity and imaginary vignettes about Axelrod in a bear costume tailgating with Rahm Emanuel dressed as a bottle of Jack Daniels at Bears’ games, but only in 140 character chunks (with some mild annotation), this one is for you. 🙂

But I thought it was pretty damned funny — Kathy thought I was losing my mind:

“@MayorEmanuel: My giant bottle of Jack costume is too tall to fit on the L. Fuck. If you see a huge bottle of whiskey walking down Milwaukee, that’s me.”

“@MayorEmanuel: I’m in my giant Jack bottle knocking people down Urlacher-style and yelling “YOU JUST GOT JACK’D.” Then we do a fucking shot.”

And if you’re not into that kind of thing, then yeah, maybe not for you.