A Journal of the Irrepressible

Archive for October, 2009

Narrative Is a Conflict Engine

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Dan o’ Xark! has an interesting piece on narrative journalism and its evolution. I’ve commented on Dan’s thinking before and admire his intellectual creativity and restlessness.

What he’s up to in this piece is arguing for an end (or at least an alternative) to long-form narrative journalism in favor of…. something else.

Journalism schools have taught view-from-nowhere, AP Style-compliant, mass-media-voice long-form feature writing for decades, and readers just aren’t interested. Educating another generation of students to file 75-inch profiles of local United Way executives, written for the annual press contest judges who determine next-year’s promotions, just isn’t much of an answer to the market-side questions that demand our attention.

True enough. But the really interesting point he makes comes a bit further down:

Classic narrative follows a subject through a conflict to a resolution. And if our primary means of understanding something as complex as global warming is just a series of narratives about conflict, then we’re not going to make much progress. This is one reason why American mainstream news organizations kept emphasizing critics of global warming, even though the most credible peer-reviewed studies favored the anthropogenic warming theory championed by Al Gore…. We didn’t need better narrative journalism about global warming, we needed less of it. We needed a way of communicating that encouraged the evaluation of facts instead of the balancing of rhetoric. It’s a shift that requires a radically different theory of the press.

It’s difficult to see how a “different theory of the press” is going to change something that has nothing, really, to do with the press and everything to do with cognition. You can present things in ways that encourage an evaluation of facts (e.g., charts and graphs or, as Dan suggests by way of example, box scores), but we’re still going to contextualize those facts by way of a conflict-driven narrative.

If the facts don’t move us, we don’t care. And in order to be moved, in order for facts to move, they must in some way, an engine-like way, face resistance. We need to at least imagine counterfactuals: I’m not here, I’m there, in that person’s shoes.

So Dan’s example of the critics of global warming getting face time in the media makes sense. If you want to do something about it, start by reporting from the critics’ point of view: the climate isn’t changing, you report, and then give many column inches to the critics of that view.

Dan argues that, without box scores,

how many at-bats would never have been recorded for future historians because they didn’t fit into the narrative the writer picked as he hammered out a story on deadline?

Fair enough. But those historians will do nothing with that information without first recontextualizing it as conflict-driven narrative. Indeed, lovers of baseball routinely recontextualize box scores, mentally pitting pitcher against batter and so on.

It’s not journalism that needs to evolve to address your concerns, Dan; it’s the human brain that must change.

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Written by Brian

October 30th, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Luminous Bliss

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I just noticed that all the links on an old post are broken. The post promos an album by Atman that features a remix I recorded of one of their tunes (actually several, if you want to get technical about it). So here’s the tune, Luminous Bliss, since it’s apparently no longer available commercially.

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Written by Brian

October 29th, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Posted in mp3, music

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White House Goes Open Source, What Were They Using Before?

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Rippling across the tech blogs this week is the news that whitehouse.gov switched from a proprietary content management system to Drupal, and open source system. The news came out via an Associated Press news release.

The online-savvy administration on Saturday switched to open-source code for http://www.whitehouse.gov — meaning the programming language is written in public view, available for public use and able for people to edit.

White House officials described the change as similar to rebuilding the foundation of a building without changing the street-level appearance of the facade. It was expected to make the White House site more secure — and the same could be true for other administration sites in the future.

“Security is fundamentally built into the development process because the community is made up of people from all across the world, and they look at the source code from the very start of the process until it’s deployed and after,” said Terri Molini of Open Source for America, an interest group that has pushed for more such programs.

Having the public write code may seem like a security risk, but it’s just the opposite, experts inside and outside the government argued. Because programmers collaborate to find errors or opportunities to exploit Web code, the final product is therefore more secure.

There’s been lots of comments, both pros and cons. One of the most common was that Drupal, being a popular CMS, when coupled with the highly visible domain of the White House, would be highly prone to hack attacks. Obviously, yes, and whitehouse.gov has been attached regularly for years.

I’m delighted at the switch. Personally, I don’t like Drupal. I’ve considered it for projects, looked at the documentation and implementation requirements and run away. I’m a WordPress man (perhaps obviously). But lots of folks seem to think it’s the cat’s PJs, so great. The main thing is that the WH switched to open source.

My question, and the one I posted to Boing Boing, is, what was the WH using before? So far, no one seems to know. The only hint we get is that it was “proprietary.” That could mean any number of things, from custom code written anew from the ground up to a (my hunch, considering the stupidity of the Bush regime) a SharePoint-based system. If any one knows, do tell!

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Written by Brian

October 29th, 2009 at 7:52 am

Posted in politics, technology

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Harper’s Foodies

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From this week’s Harper’s Weekly:

Chicago rats fed a diet of sausage, pound cake, bacon, cheesecake, and Ho Hos began to behave like rats addicted to heroin, consuming increasing amounts of food to feel satisfied and continuing to eat even when to do so meant that electric shocks were delivered to their tiny paws. When switched to healthful food (“the salad option”) the rats, which had become obese, their brains numbed by junk, simply refused to eat. A man in Iowa punched another man, who was ordering Mexican food, for being a zombie. Researchers from Oregon determined that ancient beavers did not eat trees, and a firm in New Jersey was distributing vaginal mints.

Subscribe to said Weekly by visiting this link.

The study on junk food addition in rats was reported recently in ScienceNews: “This is the most complete evidence to date that suggests obesity and drug addiction have common neurobiological underpinnings,” says study coauthor Paul Johnson of the Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Fla.

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Written by Brian

October 27th, 2009 at 9:15 am

Posted in drugs, food

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The Steve Hillage Band Live at the Gong Unconvention

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When Steve Hillage made the surprise announcement that he was getting his old band back together to perform at the Gong Unconvention, he hadn’t performed in this particular configuration since December 1979. In the interviews that follow the DVD’s concert program, Hillage confesses that he and his mates had to relearn all their old parts. “Do you remember how to finger that bit?” They had to listen to their old recordings slowed down and over and over again to learn to play their own songs.

Dude! Cool. Proof, once again, of what the Hawai’ian red dirt shirts claim: Old Guys Rock.

The concert is marvelous, in part because, as Hillage says in the interview, he had decided to play the Unconvention a year or so before announcing the fact and spent that time practicing the 25-year-old songs. The hardest part, and alas, the weakest bit of the 2006 Gong Family Unconvention performance, was the vocals. Then again, Hillage’s voice was never more than a utilitarian herald’s tool. You could hear him loud and clear at his peak in the late 1970s, and you can hear him just fine in 2006. Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by Brian

October 23rd, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Posted in film, music, reviews

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DDT Gives Good Mutations

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A story in today’s Science News reports that

Women who lived in villages sprayed with DDT to reduce malaria gave birth to 33 per cent more baby boys with urogenital birth defects (UGBD) between 2004 and 2006 than women in unsprayed villages, according to research published online by the UK-based urology journal BJUI.

A lot of folks don’t realize that Big Ag Chem is still peddling the banned pesticide in the Third World. But, yeah, DDT is still in widespread use; Rachel Carson is still frequently blamed for millions of deaths (they don’t call it junk science for nothing); and chemistry is the path to better living, at least according to a 2006 report from WHO.

And women who stayed at home in sprayed villages, rather than being a student or working, had 41 per cent more baby boys with UGBDs, such as missing testicles or problems with their urethra or penis.

The authors suggest that this is because they spent more time in homes where domestic DDT-based sprays are still commonly used to kill the mosquitos that cause malaria, even in areas where organised mass spraying no longer takes place.

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Written by Brian

October 23rd, 2009 at 1:23 pm

Carl Sagan – A Glorious Dawn

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I suppose, like me, you’re one of the 7 billion minus 1.3 million who have so far managed to miss this.

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Written by Brian

October 19th, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Microsoft One of the Most Trusted Companies

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Incredibly, Microsoft and Disney ranked very high in trust, according to the Boston College-Reputation Institute 2009 CSR Index. Disney ranked #1 in the index. Others in the top 10 were Google, Honda of America, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo., General Mills, Kraft Foods, Campbell Soup Company and FedEx. (This comes to me via Environmental Leader.)

That blows me away, because Disney is a purveyor of crap and a copyright monger. If it weren’t for Disney keeping the wraps on Mickey Mouse, we’d have sane copyright laws in this country — and likely in the rest of the world, too, which, as with drug laws, has been pressured by the U.S. to be ever more restrictive.

But that Microsoft scores so high is just insane. I mean, this is the demon tribe that makes our lives miserable with Office! Not to mention the insanely bad SharePoint (bad for business, bad for Web content management; oh, well, it just sux!). People, wake up! Here’s what Microsoft is really like, via Slashdot (and an update here from ComputerWorld):

“Windows Presentation Foundation” plugin that Microsoft slipped into Firefox last February apparently left the popular browser open to attack. This was among the many things recently addressed in the massive Tuesday patch. “What was particularly galling to users was that once installed, the .NET add-on was virtually impossible to remove from Firefox. The usual ‘Disable’ and ‘Uninstall’ buttons in Firefox’s add-on list were grayed out on all versions of Windows except Windows 7, leaving most users no alternative other than to root through the Windows registry, a potentially dangerous chore, since a misstep could cripple the PC. Several sites posted complicated directions on how to scrub the .NET add-on from Firefox, including Annoyances.org.”

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Written by Brian

October 16th, 2009 at 9:04 pm

Diego Stocco’s Experibass

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Diego Stocco took grafted bits of a violin, a viola and a cello to a double bass and came up with an awesome mutant monster.

I came up with a quadruple-neck experimental “something” that I thought to call Experibass. To play it I used cello and double bass bows, a little device I built with fishing line and hose clamps, a paintbrush, a fork, spoons, a kick drum pedal and a drum stick. I hope you’ll like it!

Diego Stocco – Experibass from Diego Stocco on Vimeo.

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Written by Brian

October 8th, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Are You Ready for the Wave?

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You’ve no doubt heard about “social media” and perhaps about how frivolous it seemingly is, what with Facebook and Twitter and internet addiction and all.

But all along there have been serious uses for social media, as the top blogs and wikis prove. And with the “track changes”-like annotation tools in YouTube and SoundWave, videographers and musicians can get feedback on drafts of their projects in ways that were, up to now, impossible.

I’m predicting social media is about to get truly serious, truly useful, and enabling of collaboration in as yet undiscovered ways. That’s because Google is about to enter the fray.

They’ve got what I think will be a killer social media ap, called Wave. On the surface, it’s just another way of doing email. But it isn’t email at all, at least not in the one-to-one or one-to-many way we think of it now. A Wave allows contributors to add new and edit existing content in real time. A Wave can be private and one to one, it can be private within a group, or a Wave can be posted to a blog and opened to the public.

Wave is in beta right now and probably won’t see a public release for at least a few months. But for some initial thoughts on how it might be used in research, check out this article about using Wave to, first, collaborate on a paper and, two, its use as a laboratory recording tool.

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Written by Brian

October 8th, 2009 at 8:41 am

Posted in science, social media

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