Party's over


Pause! Read! Consider!


Political fans


What does it mean to be a fan? The fact that the word is short for fanatic is a tip. To be a fan is to lose some degree of objectivity. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that managers and players come and go, so sport fans are really just supporting a uniform or "cheering for the laundry." Reading the commentary on the US presidential campaign, you certainly feel a lot of hot air being blown around by fans of both teams. (Full disclosure: (And isn't it interesting how quickly "Full disclosure" has become an iro comic meme?) 1. I am a registered Democrat and 2. In searching for the Seinfeld quote, I found that I'm not the first person to connect it with the current election. End of disclosure. Back to concealment.)

I've always been comfortable describing myself as a liberal, even though I'm not entirely sure what that means. It feels more like a fuzzy personality description than a political philosophy to me. The correlation between personality and politics is a contentious area. Just saying that there is a correlation draws the criticism that you're trying to "explain away" political beliefs as irrational. But there is a lot of valid, very interesting research in the area, some of which is reported in my friend Sam Gosling's book, Snoop, which you should all buy right now and I'll talk more about later.

On the much less rigorous side, I've been keeping a list for a few years now of gut-level beliefs that I hold (or more accurately, that hold me) that I associate with liberalism and that contrast with stated beliefs held by people I know who describe themselves as conservative. (The fact that I want to insert hundreds of caveats here may be a liberal characteristic, but I'm going to skip it, assuming that you know what they are, would make up better ones than I would or are willing to simply imagine a cloud of reservations swarming before your eyes making the following list hazy, flexible and plausibly deniable.)


Book color distribution


Every so often, I like to sort our books by color. I find the process relaxing and it makes the bookcases less chaotic-looking. This time, I decided to make it even more enjoyable by estimating the distribution of colors. This is a sample of about 10% of our Amsterdam books. I was limited by the size of our dining table, so the long tail of orange (7%), purple (4%), pink (2%), other (2%) and unclassifiable (2%) isn't in the picture.

A good book store is a 3D, immersive search engine and book covers are like banner ads. Each jostles against its neighbors, using its strictly limited area to convince you that it links to something interesting.

How to get on reality tv


Two years ago, a memo written by the casting director of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition surfaced which identified the precise nature of woe they were looking for in candidate families. Most people claimed to be shocked by the creepily specific nature of the show's screening process. But really, how did they think the families were chosen?

The selection process for reality tv shows is one of the inflection points around which the celebrisphere has crumpled and there is no fakeness or realness, only character. Which is why the best piece of advice in How To Get On Reality TV sounds like the bumper sticker next to the Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac: "Be the most real version of yourself." Like hippies, bolsheviks and new age gurus, reality TV encourages the merger of public and private self through self-conscious, self-directed, self sculpting. In this context, authenticity is not a matter of what you truly are, but what you truly want and how truly you want it: to be visible, desirable, memorable. It's a populist, broadcast-based answer to the question of how to be interesting

Beyond its therapeutic value, the book is also full of interesting practical details:

  • The famous Bunim-Murray screening process, pioneered by the producers of The Real World. It's like the focus group from hell, where everyone knows that hijacking the group is the point.
  • If you're on a residential "social experiment" show like Real World, "change your hair color in the middle of the season because then the producers will have to present your experience chronologically." (Is that an issue?)
  • To have any chance at getting Pimped, your Ride has to look terrible but must be in running condition. "After all, the show isn't called Repair My Car."

The disappearing nerd


Saturday's lineup for Interesting NY looks great. As a person of Aspergian tendency, I'm particularly interested in Grant's talk on the seeming ubiquity of Asperger's these days. I have sometimes thought that planning and Asperger's are a natural combination, what with the focus on noticing detail and deconstructing the social habits that most people take for granted.

I also wonder whether the characteristics of Asperger's are becoming, if not more prevalent, more visible and valued because of economic and social trends towards tech and the otaku mindset in general. Is it possible that Asperger's has become kind of cool?

A similar thought crossed my mind last year when Russell and I went to the dConstruct web app conference last year. The entry hall was ringed with booths of companies feverishly trolling for employees. And the attendees clearly knew that they were now the stars of the show, trollees and not just trolls. There was no furtiveness to their nerdliness. They were out and proud and apparently, happy. And I had to wonder: are these nerds? Do nerds sip cappuccino, wear expensive glasses and discuss stock options? Are there any nerds anymore or has that ecological niche been taken over by the sleeker, more confident and non-neurotic variant, the geek?

Dream picture


In 1924, the Oakland Tribune and the American Theater invited people to send in their most unusual dreams. The winners got $25 and had their dream made into a short film. You can see one of the winners here. As one commenter writes, it plays like Mack Sennett working from a script by Luis Buñuel. What a great idea. Some media company should do this again.

The Multiverse


I put an epsiode of "In Our Time" into Live's sampler so I could play the whole thing by pressing any key. The higher the key, the higher the pitch. (You know, sampling. Like all the young people do.) Then had Live play a somewhat random series of patterns while I varied where in the 45-minute interview each note started to play:


If you think of the Y-dimension of the second row as the length of the interview with the beginning at the bottom and the end at the top, every note plays a snippet of the interview starting from where the black "timekeeping" line intersects the pink line. A perfectly flat pink line would signal a series of notes that all start within a very narrow band of the whole interview.

I'm moving the pink line around by moving the right end of the line. The left starting point is stable which is why the sound always seems to loop back toward that particular word which is the topic of the show and interesting input for a semi-random, sort of looping process.

You don't win silver. You lose aquamarine.

When I told people that one of the things we'd be doing in the US this summer was moving the car I'd kept in storage for ten years, they'd assume that it was some valuable vintage model (Nope. 1994 Saturn.) or that it had inestimable sentimental value (Meh. Not really.) What they never guess is that I keep it because it is bright aquamarine blue.


It makes me smile just to look at it.

One of the trends I've noted with alarm over ten years of US visits has been the gradual contraction of the automotive palette down to one color: silver.


DuPont's annual car color preference report has documented the lamentable rise of silver (AKA Metallic Gray, Truffle Mica(!), Ocean Mist, Light Platinum, Cognac Frost, Titanium Chromaflair, Alabaster Metallic, Polished Metal) from nowhere to #1, a position it has held in a steely deathgrip every year since 2000. Until last year, when it was replaced by (wait for it) white. Or in Europe, black.

Color preferences were relatively conservative long before 2000. (Why is it that most people say their favorite color is blue, but blue has never been anywhere near the favorite color for cars?) But the silver streak was unprecedented in the 54 years that DuPont has tracked colors. (Guess what color it beat out for the top spot in 2000. Green. Do you even see green cars anymore?)

I don't know why the silver boom. Maybe people became more concerned about safety. We don't want metaphorical animals anymore, but literal cages. Maybe it's more supply-driven. Some people complain that variations of silver are the only option available without placing a more expensive special order.

But whatever the cause, I wish it would stop. Maybe it's because I always loved Hot Wheels  (And is it just me or is that the best 50 Cent video ever?), but I think color is one of the best parts of the car. A few years ago, I saw an immaculate bright metallic pink convertible town car at a gas station in Oakland. I still regret not taking a picture.

An interestingly colored or decorated car (if you have a car in the first place) is almost a public service. Not surprising that Dutch people would appreciate that. This group encourages people to pimp their bikes so that "everyone that you come across can enjoy your cheerful radiance. People look at you and smile. That feels good!" It's snarky because it's true.

And it doesn't have to be that bright. Oh no. Look at these car color combinations from the Twenties and Thirties. Aren't they great? I would love to see some of those on the road. But today, only the Beetle and the Mini are showing the flag at all for color. Even Saturn has abandoned us.

But there are still some people resisting silver. (Some are more bitter than others.) I hope we all live to see the production innovation that makes it possible to pick custom car colors as easily as wall paint.

God's stapler


Why are puns used so often as titles for books and articles? Even if I don't fully understand the reference being made or it doesn't really make sense, I still get a fairly consistent though vague feeling from this kind of wordplay, as if I'm already being prepared to believe what I'm about to read. Why should a pun generate preemptive credibility?

When I'm trying to condense the whiff of meaning around language into something more solid, I often play a game that Emily and I used to play as junior planners. We would replace all the words in an ad with nonsense syllables and read them out loud to hear just the tone, and often it's the tone that holds all the meaning. The words are just blank carrier waves. Here's a common tone structure for a conventional print ad in which you can hear the headline, body copy and tagline:

Download print_tone.mp3

When I play the tone of a title pun like "Animal Pharm", the NYT magazine exposé of "pill-popping pets", I hear the "Law and Order" chapter title sound.  The show's producers call it the "doink-doink", a seriously underpowered name for that heavy metal duo of syncopated thumps. I think of it as the sound of god's stapler, whacking up pieces of paper on the cosmic bulletin board. Eventually, the pieces will form a recognizable shape, a story, but right now you can't see it. And in the end, you may not like what the story says about the world and your fellow man. But the stapler doesn't care about how you'd like things to be. All you know is that the things you're about to see are undeniably true pieces of a puzzle, recorded, logged, tagged and doinked. There is a connection, a true and dramatically satisfying conclusion to which you will be inexorably drawn by logic, as long as you accept the truth of the pieces.

Good puns make unexpected connections. But even when they're not good, as titles they promise apodictic drama: "The linguistic connection exploited by this pun reveals and confirms a deep truth about the world". In other words, if there's a good pun to be made, it must be true. Kind of like the way scientists believe elegance to be a required quality of valid theory.

We sometimes use a similar method in planning. One of my planning mentors once told me that etymology is planning trick #1. Look up the derivation of a key word central to a brand and use that to come up with a deeper meaning you can communicate.  Of course, earlier meanings of a word or word family don't necessarily reveal much about what people mean when they use a word today.  But like a good pun, it sounds true.