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May 15, 2015

John Lennon: dreamer awake

I asked my mobile this morning to shuffle up Instant Karma – Save Dafur, a two-volume set of John Lennon covers. Great album. Big mistake.

It played these tracks in this heart-breaking order:

  1. Imagine [lyrics]
  2. God (I don’t believe) [lyrics]
  3. Beautiful Boy [lyrics]
  4. Grow old with me [lyrics]

I think I write about John Lennon every spring as I start to run and listen to music again. I’m pretty sure I say the same things every time.

So I’m not going to say anything about this mix except that it shows why inconsistency is the truth.

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May 3, 2015

NPR frees up 800,000 stories

NPR has announced that it’s making 800,000 pieces of audio embeddable anywhere you want, including on this blog:

When you browse their site you’ll find an “embed” button to the right of a story’s “Play” button. Click ‘n’ paste. (And at the bottom of the widget that you embed you’ll see a tiny, gray copyright notice.)

Thank you, NPR.

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April 30, 2015

A UN museum?

I got to spend yesterday with an awesome group of about twenty people at the United Nations, brainstorming what a UN museum might look like. This was under the auspices of the UN Live project which (I believe) last week was endorsed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Some of the people at the meeting
Some of us

Although it was a free-ranging discussion from many points of view, there seemed to be general implicit agreement about a few points. (What the UN Live group does with this discussion is up to them, of course.)

Security Council
Where we did not meet

First, there was no apparent interest in constructing a museum that takes telling the UN’s story as its focus. Rather, the discussion was entirely about ways in which the values of the UN could be furthered by enabling people to connect with one another around the world.

Second, No one even considered the possibility that it might be only a physical museum. Physical elements were part of many of the ideas, but primarily to enable online services.

Here are some of the ideas that I particularly liked, starting (how rude!) with mine.

I stole it directly from a Knight Foundation proposal by my friend Nate Hill at Chattanooga Public Library. He proposed setting up 4K displays in a few libraries that have gigabit connections, to enable local residents to interact with one another. At the meeting yesterday I suggested (crediting Nate, but probably too fast for anyone to hear me, so I’m clear, right?) that the Museum be distributed via “magic mirrors” – Net-connected video monitors – that connect citizens globally. These would go into libraries and other safe spaces where there can be facilitators. (We’re all local people, so we need help talking globally.) Where possible, there might be two screens so that people can see themselves and the group they’re talking with. (For some reason, I like the idea of the monitors being circular. More like portals.)

These magic mirrors would be a platform for activities to be invented. For example:

  • Kids could play together. Virtual Jenga? Keep a virtual ball afloat? (Assume Kinect-like sensors.) Collaborative virtual jigsaw puzzle of a photo of one of their home towns? Or maybe each group is working collaboratively on one puzzle, but each team’s pieces are part of the image of the other’s team’s home. A simple mirror imitation game where each kid mimics the other’s movements? It’s a platform, so it’d be open to far better ideas than these.

  • Kids could create together. Collaborative drawing? Collaborative crazy machines a la Rube Goldberg?

  • Real-time, video AMAs: “We’re Iranian parents. AUA [ask us anything] at 10am EDT.”

  • Listings for other activities, including those proposed below.

Someone suggested that the UN create pop-up museums by bringing in a shipping container stocked with media tools. (Technically, a plop-down museum, it seems to me.) The local community would be invited to tell its story, perhaps in 100 images (borrowing the British Museum’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects”), or perhaps by providing a StoryCorps-style recording booth. Or send the kids out with video cameras. (There might have to be someone who could help with the media.) The community would be able to tell its story to the world. The world could react and interact. (These containers could contain magic mirrors.)

Another idea: Facilitate local people coming together virtually to share solutions to common problems, building on the multiple and admirable efforts to do this already.

Another idea: One group pointed out that museums typically face backwards in time. So suppose the UN museum instead constructed itself in real time as significant events occurred. E.g., as an earthquake disaster unrolls, the UN Museum would track it live, presenting its consequences intimately to the world, recording it for posterity, and facilitating relief efforts.

There was general agreement, I believe, that all of the UN Museum’s content should be openly available through APIs.

There were many, many more ideas, many of which I find exciting. I don’t know if any of the ideas discussed are going to make it past the cool-way-to-spend-an-afternoon phase, but I am thrilled by the general prospect of a UN Museum that takes as its mission not just the curation of artifacts that tell a story but advancing the UN’s mission by connecting people globally around common concerns, shared interests, and a desire to help and delight one another.

Now go ahead and be cynical and snarky.

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April 25, 2015

Our new plummy acting

I have to say that I’m enjoying our new hammy acting style. But hammy isn’t the right word for it, since it implies a lack of craft. So I’ll call it plummy. (The fact that I’m a kosher vegetarian has nothing to do with this.) Our new plummy actors are fully in control of what they’re doing. They’re on purpose pushing it a little further than realness, knowing that we know that they’re doing so.

Leo Dicaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is not hammy or plummy.

Leo in Wolf of Wall Street is plummy.

Had he gone for a Brando-like realism, Wolf would have been as depressing as businesspeople-are-shallow movies like 1959’s What Makes Sammy Run?

Every character in American Horror Story is plummy. Most of the actors on Justified are plummy. Well, the male actors. They get to have way more fun than almost all the women. (The exception: Margo Martindale who played Megs, the Big Bad in 2011. And guess what? She won an Emmy for it.)

Everyone on Fargo, both the TV show and the movie.

Everyone on Veep. which has has gotten ferociously funny this season.

Tony and the Henchmen on The Sopranos. Not so much Carmela or Dr. Melfi, although Nancy Marchand‘s Mom the Destroyer certainly counts.

I’m not sure that Breaking Bad is a great example of this, but Better Call Saul is…again, for the men more than the women, with the exception of Julie Ann Emery‘s Betsy Kettleman.

I’m not saying this is an unprecedented style of acting. In some ways it’s similar to the old days when stars were visible through the roles they played: You could see Cary Grant behind the lines he suavely delivered, and you could see Marilyn Monroe through her bombshell comedienne roles. Or at least you thought you could.

But the current style of acting is different. These actors are as invisible in their roles as Brando’s generation was. But what they’re making of themselves on screen isn’t intended to be mistaken for real life captured by well-placed hidden cameras. They are clearly playing roles. They’re just playing the hell out of them.

So why the men more than the women? As everyone who has watched TV in the past five years has pointed out, the new great series have been dominated by stories of men struggling with their flaws. The women too often are there to “ground” the characters around them. They are often phenomenal actors — Edie Falcon? Get out of town! — but are just not allowed to push beyond the natural. I’m sure it’s all just a coincidence though.

 


Mad Men isn’t on this list because I think the acting aims for naturalism, perhaps because we already see the distance between the roles people play within their world and who they might be if they were less constrained by the 1950s and 1960s social norms.

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April 19, 2015

When Mom beat Ma

I have a friend who wonders when “mom” turned into a plain old noun instead of a name, as in “My mom drinks coffee” vs. “Hey, Mom, would you like some coffee?” I can’t remember a time in my life when “mom” wasn’t a noun, so I checked at the Google Ngram Viewer which lets you chart the use of words throughout Google Book’s entire corpus of tens of millions of books. Here’s the result:

So, it looks like the two track each other pretty well, at least in books.

The Ngram does show a serious uptick for both in the early 1940s. But before you go hypothesizing that during WWII we started writing about our mothers more, here’s the Ngram for Mother and mother:

The Mom/mom upturn was really just a blip when compared to the mammoth of Mother/mother. So, I dunno. (But we can conclude that Mother is the mother of all moms.)

I tried the same search, but for “Ma” and “ma”:

Ma and ma again seem to be in sync. But for some reason in 1986, for the first time Mom beat Ma.

Fascinating? You tell me.

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April 7, 2015

How to hear Bach’s St. John Passion

I find the weird sounds that opera singers make — singing — to be creepy, but even I find Bach’s St. John Passion moving. Of course, it helps not to be able to understand the words since it places the blame for the whole Messiah-killing nastiness on the shoulders of a Jewish mob and Jewish law.

There’s a wonderful episode of Christopher Lydon’s Radio Open Source that explores this question from scholarly and musical points of view, always sympathetically, and with transcendently beautiful passages from the work itself.

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April 6, 2015

Culture is unfair

At Jonathan Zittrain‘s awesome lecture upon the occasion of his ascending to the Bemis Chair at Harvard Law (although shouldn’t you really descend into a chair?), he made the point that through devices like Microsoft Kinect, our TVs are on the verge of knowing how many people are in the room watching. After all, your camera (= phone) already can identify the faces in a photo.

This will inevitably lead to the claim that if five people are watching a for-pay movie on a TV, we ought to be paying 5x what a single person does. After all, it’s delivering five times the value. What are you, a bunch of pirates?

There is some fairness to that claim. We’d pay for five tickets if we saw it in a theater.

But it also feels wrong. Very wrong. And not just because it costs us more.

For example, I’m told that if you buy a subscription to the NY Times it comes with one license for online access. So, if you’re having the old roll o’ stories thrown onto your porch every morning, your spouse is free to read it too, but you’re going to have to buy a separate online subscription if s/he wants to read it online. That doesn’t feel right.

The pay-per-use argument may be fair but it flies in the face of how we all know culture works. Culture only exists if we share what matters to us. There is no culture without this. That’s why it’s so important I can share a physical book with you, or can send you a copy of a magazine article that I think you’ll like. Culture is the sharing of creative works and the conversations we have about them.

That’s why the creators of the US Constitution put a time limit on copyright. Yes, it feels unfair if after fourteen years (the original length of copyright protection) someone publishes my book without my permission and doesn’t give me any of the profits. Sure. But fairness is not the only criterion.

Culture cannot flourish or perhaps even exist when everything has a fair price.

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March 24, 2015

In praise of Starbucks’ #racetogether

There are a lot of things wrong with how Starbucks implemented its “Race Together” program for which it deserves the mockery it’s been getting. Whether it was intended to stimulate discussions with busy baristas (“So, you want that with nonfat milk and we shouldn’t fill it to the brim. Right? What’s it like being white? Did you say ‘Nicky’ or ‘Mickey’?”) or among customers who in my experience have never struck up a conversation with another customer that was not met by a cold stare or a faked incoming text, it was unlikely to achieve its intended result. (Schultz seems to indicate it was to be a barista-to-customer conversation; see 0:20 in the John Oliver clip linked to “mockery” above.) Likewise, the overwhelming male whiteness of the Starbuck’s leadership team was an embarrassment waiting to happen. The apparent use of only white hands holding cups in the marketing campaign was inconceivably stupid (and yet still better than this).

Yet there’s much that Starbucks deserves praise for more than just its recognition that racial issues permeate our American culture and yet are more often papered over than discussed frankly.

  • They trusted their on-the-line employees to speak for themselves, and inevitably for the corporation as well, rather than relying on a handful of tightly constrained and highly compensated mouthpieces.

  • They have held a series of open forums for their employees at corporate events, encouraging honest conversation.

  • They did not supply talking points for their employees to mouth. That’s pretty awesome. On the other hand, they seem also to have provided no preparation for their baristas, as if anyone can figure out how to open up a productive conversation about race in America. The made-up phrase “racetogether” really isn’t enough to get a conversation going and off to a good start. (Michelle Norris’ Race Card Project might have provided a better way of opening conversations.)

Starbucks got lots wrong. Too bad. But not only was it trying to do something right, it did so in some admirable ways. Starbucks deserves the sarcasm but not just sarcasm.

[Disclosure: No, Starbucks isn’t paying me to say any of this. Plus I hate their coffee. (The fact that I feel the need to put in this disclaimer is evidence of the systemic damage wrought by “native ads” and unscrupulous marketers.)]

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March 14, 2015

Pres. Obama’s speech songified

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February 26, 2015

Literature and Medicine: The syllabus

The superb novelist and teacher Meredith Sue Willis, who is also my sister-in-law, is teaching a course at a local Veterans Administration hospital on literature and medicine. It’s taught to hospital staff after work in the hospital.

Here’s the syllabus, which Sue has put under a Creative Commons license (which is where all syllabi belong, amirite?). It looks like a great set of readings organized around important topics. Isn’t it awesome that we can get curated collections like these from which we can learn and explore?

In fact, it prompted me to start reading The Young Lions, which so far I’m glad I’m doing. Thanks, Sue!

(Ack. I forgot that Sue told me about this because she’s using in the course something I wrote. So I am inadvertently logrolling. But sincerely!)

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