vision of the future

I just finished reading Nicholas Carr‘s The Big Switch in anticipation of getting a copy of his new book The Shallows.  This troubling excerpt towards the end of the book hints at where he takes The Shallows and gives a less-than-utopian view of our dependency on all things web-related:

The printed page, the dominant  information medium of the past 500 years, molded our thinking through…”its emphasis on logic, sequence, history, exposition, objectivity, detachment, and discipline.” The emphasis of the Internet, our new universal medium, is altogether different.  It stresses immediacy, simultaneity, contingency, subjectivity, disposability, and, above all, speed.  The Net provides no incentive to stop and think deeply about anything, to construct in our memory [a] “dense repository” of knowledge…It’s easier “to Google something a second or third time rather than remember it ourselves.”

The implications are unsettling.  As we advance toward an age where we will undoubtedly augment our reality and perception with computer-assisted technology (the old “jack me in” philosophy that is particularly prevalent to cyberpunk and no longer describes something terribly far off in our future), there’s a immense probability that, rather than using these technologies to enhance our natural ability to think and learn and remember, we will instead be using them instead of thinking, learning or remembering.  Why bother remembering a date or a concert, when you can store it to a flash memory card with a thought?  Why bother remembering appointments, birthdays.  We already supplement our experience of important events (your child’s birth, for example) with cameras and video recordings, so much so that — I believe — we lose a sense of the moment, we are no longer present and active participants.  Instead, we give up our participation in favor of participating later through recorded media.  There’s no doubt in my mind that if a storage device was invented that allowed you to offload your memories to an external hard drive, that people would end up using that rather than remembering things themselves.  And then, what?  We lose the ability to remember how to remember?

It’s easy to see these technologies — a chip implanted in your brain to “enhance” some function or other and plug you in constantly to the Net, which Carr says we’ll start seeing within the next 20-30 years — replacing our natural functions in much the same way as a drug.  A heroin addict is unable to quit because their body no longer naturally produces endorphins, relying, instead on the artificial endorphins provided by the drug.  The same thing could happen with our memories and knowledge and ability to process data organically — when a chip can do it faster, more accurately, and store the information more permanently in more detail, why bother with these messy meat shells at all?  Except, possibly, to avoid being a vegetable when the chip’s taken out…

scientific link to autism found; get your tinfoil hats because us loonies were right

in a completely, totally, ridiculously different direction that what the medical establishment has been lambasting at us for years, a think tank has uncovered a probable cause for autism.  you know all those people you think are insane for not getting their kids vaccinated?  well guess what…they’re right.

from the article:

If it hadn’t been for so many parents insisting that vaccines were responsible for the condition, we might never have found the fact that the stabilizer in MMR and a few other vaccines is hydrolyzed gelatin; a substance that is approximately 21% glycine. It appears that, based on readily verifiable science, the use of that form of glycine triggers an imbalance between the amino acid neurotransmitters responsible for the absorption rate of certain classes of cells throughout the body. It is that wide-spread disruption that apparently results in the systemic problems that encompass the mind and the body characterized in today’s ‘classic’ autism.

this is one of those things that should feel like a victory to everyone who took a stand for their child’s health by opting out of vaccinations, but really, it’s just depressing to think of the ever-increasing diagnosed cases of autism and how we did this to them, and at the cost of risking serious illness to avoid something everyone told us we were crazy to consider.  it’s distressing, and it’s just yet another failure — in a long line of failures — of our broken medical establishment.

read the full press release here: Scientific Link to Autism Found [source: PR Newswire]

learning to do less

i just got done reading Seth Godin’s manifesto, Do Less.  i’ve actually been reading quite a bit of Seth Godin recently, having decided that his blog is pretty cool.  Seth Godin is a smart guy.  he’s not saying anything revolutionary — in fact, a lot of what he blogs about should be common sense.  but it’s not.  Seth is really good at calling attention to the things that we need to hear and present them in a way that makes it easy to hear them.  in my opinion, that’s what makes him a big deal.

the basic premise of Do Less goes right inline with something erin and i have discovered on our own: when the product we want to make is supposed to be a creative and limited, one-of-a-kind thing — something we like to think of as a work of art — you can’t take on every project you get.  this is tough.  a lot of web designers out there, including the design firm that we did freelance stuff for over a year ago, just has a “take all comers” approach.  they will scale a plan to fit any need and do it quickly and — presumably — well.  but if you take everything you’re offered, you can’t produce anything that’s exceptional.  because a lot of people don’t want exceptional.  there are some people who want budget.  there are some people who want functional.  there are some people who want fast.  and you can do these things, but they do not produce an environment conducive to doing something extraordinary, and, for the most part, these people aren’t looking for extraordinary anyway — they want something that looks like the stuff they look at every day: clean, professional, businesslike.

and we started out this way — taking what we could get, and working for cheap, because we needed to start building up our business and portfolio.  but we knew that wasn’t the type of business we wanted to run.  as we grew, we were torn with the desire to stay true and fair to our past clients, and the need to raise our rates, focus on our niche and unique talents, and brush off projects that would not benefit us in the long run.

it feels counter-intuitive to decline projects, even when they are under your budget.  as a consumer, we’re always looking to make the most out of our buck, and as providers, we feel inclined to respect that wish for value.  but quality is worth something.  Seth opens Do Less with an anecdote about a real estate investor.  This investor does just one new investment a year.  The reason?

In any given year, we look at a thousand deals. One hundred of them are pretty good. One is great.

I don’t think we’ll be at the point where we can do just one gig a year and spend the rest of the year making art, and writing, and working on projects that are self-gratifying, and working on being great parents to our kids.  it sounds great, i just don’t think it will happen. but we probably did more than 100 projects our first year — for ourselves, and freelancing for another company — and we still brought in less money (with a part-time second job I carried at Whole Foods) than the $40k/year job I left to do design full-time from home.  a lot less.  and sure, we could have continued working as freelancers, getting paid $20 a page for a slew of subpar projects that really didn’t interest  us all that much for someone else who didn’t care about individual designers’ talents as long as they got the job done quickly — we could have learned to do more, faster, using as many shortcuts as possible and not spending too much time on the process, but that went against the whole reason for doing this.  it wouldn’t be something we loved, it would be just another job.  and i think that doing something you love shows in your product.

hareandtortoiseit’s interesting that i decided to read Do Less at precisely the same time that we started having conversations about the types of projects we take on and how we want to do business now and moving forward versus how we used to do business.  we were already on the do less path, because what Seth says is true — you can’t be everything.  you can’t have quality and speed, you can’t have cheap and have time left over to spend on side projects or with the fam.  we’re learning this, learning to go against what feels natural.  if you’re in the business to sell the most thneeds as quickly as possible, then bigger, faster, better, more is a good mantra.  but that’s never been something that’s meshed very well in my brain.  when you’re learning to Do Less, you need to think more like Turtle: slow and steady wins the race.

why automattic’s acquisition of After the Deadline is a big deal

i’ll be frank: i’m a big fan of Automattic.  you might even call me an Automattic fan boy.  i keep up on matt mullenweg’s blog, and when he links to something, i jump.  when Automattic acquired intense debate, guess who was downloading it and installing it on his blog?

on one hand, i’m always suspicious of companies that go around buying smaller companies.  but Automattic doesn’t just do it to merge them into a part of the greater WordPress horde, they do it to make sure that development on these great projects isn’t abandoned due to lack of capital or lack of interest, as well as giving their wordpress.com service an edge over the other guys.  all the projects they’ve acquired (and it’s an increasing number) maintain their own autonomy, which is the way it should be.

so matt posted to his blog of the recent assimilation of After the Deadline.  ever the die hard, i hurried over there to see what the fuss was about.  a grammar and spellchecker replacement doesn’t sound all that cool, but something about how he described it made it sound completely irresistable.  maybe it was the “amazingly smart” part, or maybe it was the catching errors the New York Times misses part.  whatever it was, like a new thneed, i needed AtD.

here’s why you need AtD, too: it’s contextual.  seriously, it’s like a little gnome that lives in your monitor and conveniently has an english lit degree.  you just click the updated, AtD spellcheck button (that replaces the TinyMCE version you have on your normal WP toolbar) and your post copy comes alive with crazy bold underlines in different hues.  it tells you when you make a splelling spelling error.  it tells you when you are using passive voice.  it tells you when you are using complex phrases or jargon.  in fact, if you go to your new and improved profile page, there’s a whole kitchen sink of style techniques it will watch your back for, above and beyond normal spelling and grammar.  if Word ’97 did this, i would have had some kickass papers in college.

thanks to AtD, i’ve learned that i tend to lean on the use of passive voice, and — fairly unsurprisingly — i often get dings for “complex expressions” (that makes sense, having done quite a bit of essay writing in college and being a geek).  when you do make one of these cardinal sins, there’s a little Explain option in your right-click menu that gives you helpful examples of what you’re doing wrong and how you can make your writing better.  seriously, what blogger doesn’t want to make their writing better?  and it’s a hell of a lot easier (and less embarrassing) than having your buddy the grad student proofread everything you write.  gnome, lit major, in your monitor.

after taking one look at AtD ripping apart my last post, i knew that this was something that i could use.  even if i am just talking to dead air, at least i can be doing will do it with style, thanks to the awesome After the Deadline gnomes.  thanks, little guys!

netflixed movie review: who watches the watchmen? no, really, who watches the watchmen?

we rarely (if ever) go to movies in the theatre anymore. this is sometimes depressing when long awaited films are released in the theatre that we really, really want to see. as the kids get older (particularly our youngest), scheduling a block of 4 or so hours where they can be sat by the grandparents will be easier, but up to now it wasn’t really reasonable to expect that they’d do alright for that stretch of time. currently, we’re struck by the frustration about not being able to see the current harry potter movie.

most of the “new” movies we watch are via netflix. i hope to make this a sort of ongoing series in which i review movies that have been released fairly recently on dvd (or, you know, not) that we got via netflix. i have a problem (moral, ethical) with downloading torrents of cammed or otherwise pirated movies that are still in the theatre. besides the fact that they are usually sub-par quality in some regard, besides the fact that, you know, it’s illegal,  i actually want to give filmmakers i appreciate money, even if that’s just royalties from a netflix rental.

so, we watched the watchmen yesterday (saying that feels a little postmodern; “who watches the watchmen” is a tagline and theme in the film and comic books).

the watchmen movie was something i was anticipating for a couple of years, ever since the actuality of it was mentioned via a doomsday clock counter to the movie release in an issue of Wired. creator alan moore has gone on the record a number of times saying that making a film of the watchmen should never happen. half of the message of the watchmen is in the medium of the comic book, and that gets lost in the translation when you move it to moving pictures. that hasn’t stopped studios from trying, and failing, to find ways of adapting it to the big screen. finally, director zach snyder was approached, and realized that if he didn’t do the film, someone else (with less regard for the original material) would, and it would suck.

my three word review? it still sucks.

but at least it’s better than it could have been.

seriously, i really wanted to like this movie. a lot. the graphic novel changed the way i read comics. it did that for a lot of people. it changed the face of comic books as a whole, and opened the path for a new generation of comics authors to come through and communicate real messages and stories through pictures and speech bubbles. the comic just has so many layers, i could seriously talk about it all day. my first exposure to it, in fact, was in a class on non-traditional narrative storytelling in college (in which comics were a big part, as were music videos, and, to a lesser extent, roleplaying games (something i added via a presentation and simplified game system me and a friend built)). it took what i had up to that point accepted as standard comic fare and turned it on its head, ripped out its guts, and prodded the remains with a stick while making analytical comments about the state of not only comic books and comic book storytelling in general, but also of the state of society and world politics. it told a story that was both about comic books and comic book characters and contained within a comic book with comic book characters while simultaneously telling a dr. strangelovian story about the cold war, and an alternate history of what the world would be like if our involvement in world war ii and viet nam were unquestionable victories. The Comedian, whose murder begins the cycle of events that are contained between the covers of the graphic novel and shot on the big screen, makes a self-referential comment about this in a flashback memory of superhuman Dr. Manhattan at his funeral in which he suggests the idea that “it might have driven us a little crazy” if we had lost the war in viet nam, “as a country.” (which, thanks to dr. manhattan, we didn’t.)

this kind of hypothetical alternate reality is the backdrop of the story, and it’s what drives the story. as you turn the pages of the comic book, you are forced to think about alternate outcomes of historical events, and about the personification of the united states, i.e. what kind of person would the united states be if the country were a person. what would that person look like? act like? (alan moore is british.) the images in the panels in the book get burned in your memory with these ideas that the story stirs up, and it’s something that, even after the 10 years since i first read it, still lingers, fresh and raw, like a scab.

The individual comic books make up 336 pages, not including some of the supplimental extras that can be found in the graphic novel that add further backstory and articles. certainly, then, you can make a 120 minute film out of that, right?

the film fails in every way that the comic succeeds. blood, gore, violence, the slaughter of our enemies in war, the obliteration of millions of people in nuclear holocaust, these are things that, when seen in vivid painted colors on a page can be disturbing and memorable and haunting, but still just imagined pictures and thoughts. being brought to life demystifies these images. by representing them visually through high definition special effects with real actors, the very same images become farsical, unrealistic, gaudy and bad. it’s like the difference between fountains of blood in anime and the same  fountains of blood in hong kong kung-fu flicks — in anime, it visually represents the intensity of the situation and implies things that are communicated through subtext in a non-literal sense. when you add actors and fake blood and severed limbs, the whole thing looks like the black knight from monty python and the holy grail — a joke, stupid, and unrealistic. the gore and violence in the watchmen movie had the same feeling for me; lame, stupid, overdone. even as i’m watching and i know that most, if not all of these actions are mirrored almost exactly from panels in the book. the subtext, the implied message is lost in the translation when it moves from images you imagine in your mind when you read the comic to when you see it played out in vivid realism on the screen. even the sometimes two-dimensional-ness of some of the characters in the book — they’re two-dimensional because they are, in fact _two-dimensional_; images on paper with narrative and speech bubbles, you fill in the blanks with your own assumptions and feelings. in film, they’re just two-dimensional and unrealistic.

i knew, before watching, that the movie would not be as good as the comics. you sort of always know this when you go see a movie version of a book you’ve read, but you go anyway because you love the story. i knew that, even though the watchmen diehards thrashed the film, i would watch it. and i was still disappointed by the huge gaps that were missing (that can’t realistically be included in the film without causing it to span 5 or so hours), and the hollywood-ness of the action, costumes, and special effects. and i know, this is pretty much the best that a watchmen movie can get.

the books are better.  i’ll stick to the books.