Category Archives: Culture

Why Popular Science is shutting off their website comments

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

Why We’re Shutting Off Our Comments

Academy Award Voter Leaks Zero Dark Thirty DVD

Another Kathryn Bigelow film has hit the illegal file sharing sites. Like The Hurt Locker, this time Zero Dark Thirty was leaked yesterday, but long before any DVD has been sold. The movie hasn’t even been released beyond New York and Los Angeles. It’s all over your favorite illegal streaming and bit torrent sites.

How did this happen? As the above screenshot shows, it came from an Academy Award voter who received a DVD of the movie. Movie studios often distribute DVDs to voters so they can watch and vote for their films, but the voters are supposed to guard the discs and not distribute them. That didn’t happen, as you can see by the watermark on the screen shot.

madonna super bowl

Judging By Madonna’s Super Bowl Performance And Twitter, Are You A Crabby Person?

Your reaction to Madonna’s Super Bowl performance, and the kinds of people you follow on Twitter, may hint at whether you’re a positive or negative person. Let me explain.

Watching the wreck that was the Madonna halftime show at the Super Bowl, the first thing I did was reach for my laptop to see what my followers were writing on Twitter. I follow around 330 people, of whom about 50-75 were tweeting about Madonna. Monitoring my stream closely, there wasn’t one positive comment about Madonna’s performance. Not one. Not even a borderline positive comment.

Now check this out: some CEO marketing hack (Mark Ghuneim) from an outfit called Wiredset says that Madonna’s performance had 59% positive, 31% negative, and 11% neutral response on Twitter. How’s that possible?

Am I following very negative people because I’m a negative person (not that there’s anything wrong with that!)? Maybe the people we follow on Twitter does say something about us.

Here are the two Tweets I wrote about Madonna:

Betty White should have done the half time show. #superbowl #nfl

Madonna has chronic fatigue syndrome #superbowl

Did you read any good Madonna take-down tweets?

Steve Jobs Introduces iCloud Storage System At Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference

Choose The Right Photo For Your Steve Jobs Tribute

Everyone is writing a Steve Jobs tribute article. I’m not, but I will give you the formula to selecting an evocative photo for your tribute. It’s pretty easy.

Grabbing Attention

Setting the appropriate tone for your tribute can be easily achieved by selecting the right photo.

  • Steve Jobs is dead, so you’ll need a black and white photo to signal the seriousness of the situation.
  • If you’ve got a nice photo but it’s not black and white, breakout PhotoShop and desaturate that thing.
  • Close-up photos are better, especially if it’s a photo from the past 5 years or so (you’ll want stay classy by not displaying his sickly body).
  • To distinguish the photo you’ve ripped off from another Website (like I did), try reversing the photo so Steve is looking at your readers from another angle.
  • If you’re writing about Steve’s early days, then you’ll need Woz in the photo.
  • If Steve has facial hair, that signifies Steve as the “rebel CEO”. Always a good one for business writers.
  • Make sure Steve’s expression is appropriate for your tribute: sad; shit happens; contemplative; genius.
  • If Steve’s looking directly at the camera, that’s better. Dead people staring at the camera lens captures reader’s attention.

Two 9/11 memorial designs that should have been built

I was this close to getting my radical, hair brained 9/11 memorial design built on ground zero.

In the spring of 2003 I was taking the graduate course “Memory and Tragedy” with James Young, a professor of English and Judaic Studies at UMass Amherst. Around the world, Professor Young is often consulted about memorials to tragedies. He was the only person from the United States on the committee that chose the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe design in Berlin. He’s a big deal, in addition to being a smart dude with a dark sense of humor.

One class in April Professor Young was 20 minutes late, which was unprecedented, but he had a good excuse: he’d just been asked to be one of 12 jurors of the September 11th Memorial Design Competition.

It was a timely opportunity for the class to explore what kind of memorial should be built. Professor Young led a few conversations about the nature of this future memorial. I think the first question was, is it too soon to design a memorial? What the hell are we memorializing 2 years out from the events? Because the memorials that punch you in the gut hardest both reflect back on the events and have an eye towards the future, we thought about how design could reflect that at the ground zero site in New York City.

I had my ideas. Every week I’d come in with another memorial concept for Professor Young to consider. Here are my two favorites, that funny enough resemble the design that was built, though not in every regard.

  1. Like the memorial that was eventually built, both of my best ideas used the foundations left from the Twin Towers. They called them “tubs” because those walls held back the high water table. Idea number 1 is exactly as you see the current memorial except that instead of water flowing down the walls of the foundation, I thought oil should have been used. Because in 2005 our petroleum future was the reason we’d invaded Iraq — oh, do you remember WMD? Stopping Osama in Iraq before he washed up on our shores? — it seemed fitting that the memorial look towards our oil future.
  2. My second concept, like the first, used the foundation walls, except no oil was involved. This time the memorial was interactive of a sort: it would be a constantly evolving memorial that would be build over time along the foundation walls. With each new country we invaded to keep us safe from terrorism, a mural would be painted on the wall depicting battle scenes in that country — Afghanistan, Iraq, etc., into the future. My goal was to design a “living memorial” for the dead.

The memorial as built is good enough, I guess. Kind of boring, though.

Single Quickest Way To Improve Your Writing, If You Can Find It

I won’t cover-up the lede with prologue: the quickest way to improve your writing is by finding your own voice.

Ah. Notice how I didn’t tell you it was the easiest thing to do? And I didn’t mention exactly what that meant — even though most of us have heard the advice, we probably haven’t understood it. With the help of my favorite book on writing, below I’ll give you three ways to find your own writing voice.

In a clever piece about losing his once forceful voice to a battle with esophageal cancer, Christopher Hitchens describes the advice an editor gave him about a well argued, but boring piece: write “more like the way that you talk.” Hitchens can talk. He’s a throwback to a time when intellectuals had public debates about the issues of the times. Not only were there smart people having a public dialog, but they could talk, like, in coherent, logically structured sentences. Hitchens:

To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions.

Since most of us don’t speak very well, it’s a tough leap to grasp onto what finding our own writing voice means, but I’ll make an attempt, with the help of John R. Trimble. He’s the author of one of the most useful, slim, books about writing: Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. Trimble doesn’t make this argument, but based on his words, here are 3 ways to find your own writing voice:

  1. Write to server people, not impress them. We don’t often speak in a style to impress people, so don’t do it when you write.
  2. Be lucid. When we’re talking the object isn’t to obscure our true meaning (unless you’re Donald Rumsfeld), it’s to communicate our thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Work to be lucid.
  3. “Have something to say that’s worth their attention.” If part of finding our own writing voice is being more like we (ideally) speak, then we should write something that’s worth people’s attention.

What makes your writing sound more like you?

Photo by chuckthewriter and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

The way epic filmmaking was 28 years ago — what happened?

Last night I watched the 28 year-old bio-epic movie, Gandhi (1982), directed by Richard Attenborough. Of course, the story is an inspiring one, about the life long struggle Gandhi fought for human rights through the use of non-violent protest. As a film buff who watches and studies many movies, what shocked me was the grand scale of the film; it was a historical epic film we haven’t seen in decades.

There have been epic films made since Gandhi, but are there any of these films made today without computer generated imagery (CGI)? Since Jurassic Park in 1993, film makers and studios have found using CGI cheaper and more efficient. Too bad, because there’s something awe inspiring about watching the funeral scene in Gandhi that used 400,000 extras. And there are other scenes that probably used just a thousand or two (see the screen capture above, for example).

The same chaotic energy can’t be captured by computer animation; CGI is too controlled, too painterly, too fake no matter how good the technology, because in the back of your mind the thought “this is cool computer work” is always floating around.

The limits of CGI are probably expressed the greatest in epic films, which are a genre all their own. Wikipedia summarizes epic films as

An epic is a genre of film that emphasizes human drama on a grand scale. Epics are more ambitious in scope than other film genres, and their ambitious nature helps to differentiate them from similar genres such as the period piece or adventure film. They typically entail high production values, a sweeping musical score (often by an acclaimed film composer), and an ensemble cast of bankable stars, placing them among the most expensive of films to produce. The term “epic” comes from the poetic genre exemplified by such works as the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Ramayan.

To my mind, the epic film isn’t just about what was captured on the celluloid, but the process of filming too. It’s also about the struggle to corral and capture thousands of extras on film, which then affects the performances of the lead actors. That’s a dynamic that can’t be reproduced in a studio in front of a green screen.

Too bad. Bye, bye epic film.

Don’t drink craft beer in a catatonic state

What’s the point of drinking a beer that tastes like water steeped with recycled copy paper and lemon? Beer should have a flavor profile that makes you ponder its origins, and daydream about the cool people who crafted it. If you can’t picture in your mind real people crafting that beverage, then you’re probably drinking the wrong beer.

I just finished watching the documentary Beer Wars (a good blog that’s always updated with various beer news), a movie about the battle between small brewers in the United States and the (now) worldwide conglomerates. Right now 3 companies brew 80+ percent of all the beer in the world. If you’re a beer drinker, think about that: it’s almost hard to find beer not brewed from one of these 3 companies: AB InBev (Belgium), Heineken (Holland/Netherlands), SAB Miller (London & South Africa).

Over the past few years I’ve been drinking at one of the best beer bars in the United States, The Moan and Dove. There are many things that make the Moan great, but at the top of the list is that Jason (the owner) and his crew love good beer. That’s the philosophy of the Moan: find great beer and serve it fresh. That sounds simple, but it’s not. You have to convince a customer base that paying $9 for De Ranke XX on draught with straight CO2 gas is more satisfying than paying $3 for a Bud draught.

If you don’t know where to find great beer in your locale, check this directory out at Beer Advocate. I suggest first going to a good beer bar and asking questions. Taste a few different beers. Taste them. Enjoy the beer, because it’s not a race to fill your gut. You deserve to have beer that was made with care and that actually tastes like something.

Preview of Beer Wars

Do You Know The Most Dangerous Roads To Bicycle In Western Mass?

It’s Spring in New England which means people are digging bicycles out of storage and hitting the roads. Where I live, on Route 47 in Sunderland, MA, cyclists often jam pack the road — it’s a very scenic ride, if not always a safe one because of the narrow road at times. But Route 47 doesn’t make the list of most dangerous roads to ride in Western Mass because I’ve never had a problem (I did almost hit a horse while I was riding on Rt. 47).

Least safe states 2008 (click to enlarge)

First some bicycling safety statistics before we go through the list. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (PDF report), there were 716 bicyclist deaths in 2008, accounting for 2 percent of all traffic fatalities. Most people that are killed while riding are older — and getting older. In 1998 the average age of a bicyclist killed was 32; in 2008 the average age was 41. In 2008, Alcohol was involved (either by cyclists or motor vehicle driver) in more than 1/3 of all accidents that resulted in the death of the cyclist. Most of the cyclists killed in 2008 were male (87%). (You can find a lot of great information at

Safest states 2008 (click to enlarge)

How about a few Massachusetts bike safety stats? These come from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which is a great database of all kinds of traffic statistics going back to 1994 and sortable by state. In 2008 there were 10 bicyclist fatalities in Massachusetts, which put the state below the national average (MA 1.54 per million population; national 2.35). An interesting thing to note, despite the small numbers: in Mass. there were more bicycle fatalities at intersections (6) than non-intersections. That isn’t true for the U.S. as a whole, where 65 percent of fatalities take place at non-intersections.

Let’s move on!

Most Dangerous Places To Bicycle In Western Mass

The intersection of Routes 10, 9, and 66 in Northampton

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This is the general area where Meg Sanders was hit on Sept. 22, 2005, by an armored truck coming down Elm St. (Rt. 9) in front of Smith College. It’s a dangerous spot for a number of reasons: traffic picking up speed coming down the hills, tough left turns for cars, a lot of traffic, and on Elm St. where Meg was hit, there isn’t a lot of room for cyclist to squeeze through the parked cars and traffic. Keep your head on a swivel if you’re riding through there!

Route 5, between Northampton and Easthampton

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Doesn’t seem that dangerous? Well remember, two thirds of all bicycle accidents happen at non-intersections. This area is fairly straight and mostly flat; just the kind of place motorists can lose concentration. Add on the fact that the two lane road is pretty narrow, and you’ve got a recipe for getting run off Route 5. Many factors here for disaster.

University Drive, Amherst

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I wasn’t going to include this road in the list. It doesn’t make sense, there’s a bike path along the road! Well, tell that to Misty Bassi who was hit and killed on Memorial Day 2009. That’s right, the car jumped the curb, drove over a patch of grass, and hit Misty on the bike path. In general, when riding your bike around colleges and universities you should keep your head on a swivel. Most college aged drivers have had their license for anywhere between 2 and 4 years; that’s not a lot of experience behind the wheel. [correction: in the comments someone noted that Misty was not on the bike path. Funny, the media coverage of this story is very confusing.]

Mind the gap!
Haydenville Rd., Whately – Northampton

I got this area from a tip, noting the mass of pot holes and wind. I was on this road a couple of times last season and can testify to the potholes. If you’re bicycling in New England, you have to expect the potholes. Last year I blew-out 2 tires and had to straightened my rear rim 3 times due to running over potholes. I guess I need to practice pothole swerving.

Did I miss some dangerous places for cycling in Western Mass.? Leave a comment below and I’ll update the list.

I would like to thank some people for their contribution to this list: Marie Lisewski, Allan Douglas, and David Kutcher.

Photos by dbking and KTesh and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Jason Kottke and Hugh Hefner: men with a common project

I‘m sure you’ve heard of Hugh Hefner. And you might have even heard of Jason Kottke, who’s been blogging since pretty much the beginning of blogging in 1998. Did you know that Hefner and Kottke have something in common? (This is totally safe for work, trust me.)

Kottke’s Scrapbook

I’ve been reading Jason Kottke’s blog since 2000. It’s evolved quite a bit since then, but in a certain respect I’ve always thought of his blog as a scrapbook of a mans’ walk through culture, which reflects his tastes, values, and passions. Most of the blog is not about Jason’s life — especially the posts from the last few years — though what he publishes is a personal editorial decision, so I think we can assume that those decisions say something about him.


That’s why I think is certainly a scrapbook (of a sort) that chronicles Jason’s experience with “the liberal arts,” as much as it is about the liberal arts themselves. After all, the blog is not comprehensive of the liberal arts; it’s representative of the liberal arts Jason finds compelling. If you read through Jason’s interviews (links below), Jason says that he tries not personally editorialize or advocate for certain points of view on his blog — he wants to be “neutral” — but by curating the content, he is expressing his interests in his scrapbook.

Hefner’s Scrapbook

I would love to know what’s going to happen to Hugh Hefner’s scrapbook after he passes. Have you heard of this thing? Hefner has amassed about 2,000 volumes, dating back to high school, into a scrapbook of his life. Of course, his life really hasn’t been his life for some time; in part, because of his chosen profession, his life is a history of post-1950s censorship battles, socio-sexual developments, and race relations. Through the 1960s and 70s, Hefner and Playboy were part of (Hefner might say center to) a conversation about morality and sexuality in the United States.

Here’s one example of how the Hefner scrapbook is more than a personal journal. In an interview with Brigitte Berman, director of the documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, she relates one thing she found surprising in the scrapbook:

So Hef’s into scrapbooking?

He still does them. One of things I loved was the one about the Big Bunny–the big personal plane he has with the bunny logo on the tail. Hollywood friends asked him if they could use the Big Bunny to rescue Vietnamese orphans during the war.There are these incredible photographs of the bunny girls caring for these orphans on the plane.

The scrapbook has been a passion for Hefner since before World War II (even using Twitter updates here and here to let us know when he’s working on it), and I think because of that the scrapbook will be made public after he’s finished working on it (the day he dies, I would imagine). It’ll probably be given to a library or other public archive, and probably digitized for researchers.

That’s the key difference between the Kottke and Hefner project: one is readily public, the other is not (though Hefner has given access to researchers and filmmakers in the past). Despite this, I think they’re both scrapbookers at heart, collecting their interests and passions into compendium of entries. Both reflect their life experiences. Kottke is pointing us towards things that might interest us now; Hefner is collecting points in history that will interest us later.

Related Links

Kottke/Hefner photos by megnut and cliff1066 and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

How to be generous and drive more traffic to your blog

Don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner, but yesterday I did a little experiment that’s going to change the way I write and publish blog posts. I learned that the more generous I am with crediting photographers who offer their photos with a Creative Commons license on Flickr, the more traffic my blog will get.

When I publish a post, often I’ll find an accompanying Creative Commons photo on Flickr; they’re easy to find using the advanced search. As long as I give credit to the photographer with a link back to the original photo, I’m not really obligated to do anything else. But yesterday I went back and contacted each photographer whose photo I used in a post, giving thanks and a link back to my post with their photo.

What most of the photographers did next was the great thing: not only did they visit my blog, but they also posted a link to the post on their Facebook pages, which drove more traffic to my blog. Moreover, it looks like some of those people subscribed to my RSS feed.

To recap: I spent about 30 seconds per photographer contacting them, and they were kind enough give a link back to my blog. I hope they feel as good about this “transaction” as I do. Thank you Creative Commons, and thank you photographers.

Photo (CC) micah.e (thanks!)

7 Things being a locavore can do for you

Before explaining what being a locavore can do for you, let’s answer what might be the first obvious question: what the hell is a “locavore”?!

A locavore is someone that tries to eat food grown, made, fished, or ranched locally. Okay, what does “locally” mean? That depends on you and what makes sense to you given where you live. For some people a 50 mile radius would work, while for others a 100 mile radius makes more sense.

The bottom line for this locavore project: know where your food comes from and strive to decrease the radius from which you source your food.

my garden
my garden

Why bother jumping through these hoops just to fill your refrigerator?

Well, here are 7 things that striving to be a locavore can for for you (and your community … and the planet):

  1. First, you’re going to get much fresher food when you buy lettuce from the farmer down the road rather than from a grocery store, where the lettuce may have been shipped across the country, depending on the season and where you live. Fresh food is more nutritious than food trucked across the country because food nutrients breakdown with time.
  2. Eating locally means you’ll be eating healthier because you won’t be eating processed foods. Processed foods — any processed foods — are not as good for you as whole foods. On average it takes 5 calories of energy to process 1 calorie of consumable food, not including the calories to ship the food.
  3. When you purchase foods grown or raised locally it supports local businesses. And when you support these local businesses they can expand to provide even more of your food needs.
  4. Being a locavore, you’re probably going to start heading to the local farmer’s market (in season, I have about 4 different markets going within a 7 mile radius of my house). Going to the farmer’s market means you’ll have the opportunity to meet some of the people that grow or make the food; take the time to ask any questions you want about the food they’re selling. When was the last time you could do that at the supermarket?
  5. On average, the food sold in grocery stores travel more than 1,500 miles (it’s a complicated calculation, read here). What that means is that you’re spending money on shipping and less on quality fresh food. Doesn’t make sense to me.
  6. Treat yourself by finding some great restaurants that are sourcing their food locally. More and more restaurants are making a point of highlighting local food they cook with. Support this effort by seeking out these restaurants.
  7. Depending on how you shop and what you’re looking for, it could save you money. It depends. If you join a local CSA (community shared (or supported) agriculture) you very likely could save money with an initial investment. This is subscription farming; you buy a subscription to a farm and their products.

Did I missing any of the benefits of trying to go locavore? Improve the list by leaving a comment.

Also, if you live in Western Massachusetts, check out the Google map of local farm stands. I’m looking to build this into a resource for finding local food from small stands.

Top photo (CC) Asiatic League

They just didn’t get it — book editor of David Foster Wallace

Love him or hate him, most people think the writer David Foster Wallace was a great writer. Personally, his non-fiction writing was my favorite. He wasn’t just a novelist, short story writer, or journalist; he did it all. (You know DFW committed suicide in 2008, at the age of 46, right?)

This week the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas announced their acquisition of the David Foster Wallace materials, including books, letters, manuscripts, and notes. If you go to the New Yorker web site you can see a few interesting selections from the archive, that includes this paragraph from a letter Michael Pietsch, the book editor of Infinite Jest [ link] (published at 1088 pages and 2.6 pounds), sent to DFW.

I’m still hoping there are ways to make the novel much shorter, not because any one piece of it isn’t wonderful but because the longer it is the more people will find excuses not to read it. On the attached pages I’ve suggested chapters and scenes that maybe can come out without killing the patient.

Pietsch also suggests cutting “many, many” of the notes that make the novel so interesting and original. Looking at the letter Pietsch sent you can see the notes DFW wrote on the letter, including the circle around the above paragraph with a big question mark. My interpretation of that is, as if to say, “what? Don’t you get it, this book is supposed to be big. It’s supposed to consume some readers.”

Pietsch wrote about his experience editing Infinite Jest, but honestly, I’m not sure if it squares with DFW’s impulse to question that paragraph.

It’s easy to look back now and judge the suggestions Pietsch made then, but I wonder how he feels about his work as editor of Infinite Jest after reading the letter he sent and Wallace’s notes on it.

Jenny 8. Lee on Chinese take-out food [VIDEO]

Last week I interviewed Jennifer 8. Lee about Chinese take-out food after she was finished with her speaking engagement at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She’s a former metro reporter for the New York Times who took a buy out package in late 2009, and now she’s doing freelance writing.

Lee has a passion for Chinese food. Her talk at UMass to the 5 College Pan Asian Network was a take on her book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. But her interest isn’t just about Chinese food in the United States; I guess you might call it the political economy, or cultural history of Chinese food in the U.S..

One thing I didn’t know before talking to Lee is that to find an authentic Chinese food restaurant, not an Americanized version, look on the menu for lamb dishes. If a Chinese menu includes lamb dishes, it’s most likely serious about cooking for Chinese people.

Conservative gives props to lesbians at Smith College [VIDEO]

At the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) speakers were getting all confrontational with their audiences. Glenn Beck was criticizing conservatives for being spend crazy and too progressive, and his dude, Ryan Sobra from California Young Republicans for Freedom, was shouted down during his anti-gay marriage rant. Yes, there are now pro-gay marriage conservatives, which Sobra said weren’t as good protesting as the lesbians at Smith College.

Why is Sobra so familiar with the lesbians at Smith? Who knows, but it’s funny.

Photo (CC) from eszter