… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

November 24, 2014

Pixação, or why São Paulo looks like a death metal album cover

Filed under: Just for fun — Ethan @ 7:48 pm

One of the first things I noticed about Sao Paulo was the graffiti. It’s everywhere, and it’s stylistically very striking – angular, highly stylized letters on walls, buildings, overpasses. It’s clear that it’s writing, not just glyphs, yet it’s difficult to parse the characters. When I try to decipher it, I feel as lost as I do trying to understand spoken Portuguese: it’s clear someone is communicating with me, and while I’m on the verge of understanding, I clearly don’t understand.

It took less than 15 seconds with Google to learn that this style of writing is called “pixação“, that it takes its name from the Portuguese verb “to paint with tar” and that it’s distinctive to southern Brazil, especially São Paulo. A few more links and I discovered that my curiosity about pixação is about five years too late if I wanted a new job as a “coolhunter”, as the phenomenon has been thoroughly explored – and leveraged – by designers and marketers around the world.

The video above, by Joao Wainer for coolhunting.com, did the best job of answering my questions about the writing style: what are people saying, and why are they choosing to say it this way. Pixação has its roots in the 1980s, a moment when Brazil overthrew a military dictatorship and emerged into an inspiringly participatory democracy and a depressingly unequal society. The original artists wrote political slogans, while current practitioners are tagging – they’re writing the names of the crews they write with as well as personal tags, which are often a non-alphabetic symbol.

What most sources make clear is that pixação doesn’t really take place at street level – it’s all about heights. The most ambitious crews scale the outside of multistory buildings so they can tag the highest floors, and there’s evidently fierce competition between crews to place tags in as visible and inaccessible places as possible.

Pixadores from James Post on Vimeo.

A documentary from Amir Escandari for Helsinki-Filmi focuses on the dangers of being a pixador, the coordination of the crews, and the politics of the art form. Simon Romero, writing for the New York Times, follows the political thread, interviewing writers who see their work as a form of class warfare, a way that marginalized classes can inscribe themselves on an economically divided city.

Other documentaries celebrate the politics as part of a romanticization of the practice and the lifestyle. “Os Pixadores” by Ben Newman looks like a sneaker ad, which is appropriate as it’s sponsored by Puma’s streetstyle brand. A band of attractive, multiracial kids do shockingly dangerous things while talking about the need to be heard. It’s not hard to imagine this message selling shoes in any economy.

Others have clearly fallen in love with pixação as typography. Gustavo Lassala has created a font – Adrenalina – that is based on his masters thesis studying pixação. He extrapolates from 800 photos taken in São Paulo to create a typeface that’s visibly related to pixação, but immediately readable, an impressive achievement. (His name for the font suggests that he, too, understands that graffiti can sell sneakers. Or perhaps a really badass guarana-based energy drink.) François Chastanet, a professor of graphic design, has written a lengthy tome on pixação, whose endpages feature dozens of different versions of each letter.

Pixação on the wall of a squat in Sé, São Paulo

What I love about pixação is that it reminds me of death metal album covers, which inevitably feature the band’s name written in a jagged, angular script that’s incomprehensible on first glance. This, it turns out, is no accident. Metal, particularly the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal”, was the music of choice for early pixação writers. (Of course, anyone who’s ever banged their head rhythmically knows that Iron Maiden continues to exist primarily so they can tour Brazil annually.) Commentators trace the letterforms of pixação to album covers by Maiden, Slayer and others. I can’t really see it, myself – Maiden used a blocky letterstyle I associate with early 1980s videogames, and while Slayer and Motörhead both are somewhat angular, Napalm Death and especially Morbid Angel look like the most obvious precursor to the lettering style, though both bands postdate the emergence of pixação… which means there’s a band that had traction in Brazil and helped popularize the death metal style of writing, which I could probably find if I were only willing to crawl down another internet rabbit hole.

For the meantime, I am consoled that this dark and beautiful form of writing has a name and that I know it, even if I can’t really pronounce it. And that I’ve learned another tiny detail about this fascinating and overwhelming country.

August 4, 2014

The biography I’m waiting for: Bambaataa and the parallel universe of hip hop

Filed under: ideas,Just for fun — Ethan @ 8:38 pm

I wrote a book review, of sorts, last week about Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs and my concern that biographies, as a genre, celebrate a “great man” theory of history. While I remain convinced that we need more biographies of teams, of successful collaborations (an idea that Nathan Matias furthers in his post today on acknowledgement and gratitude), I do have a dark secret to admit: I periodically dream about becoming a biographer.

This isn’t because I believe in the biography as a form. It’s because there are people I find so fascinating, I’d enjoy spending a couple of years thinking about how they became who they are or were, and how their personal stories give us a picture of what was possible at different moments in time. I asked a room full of students and colleagues who they’d most like to read a biography of, and the responses were a fascinating picture of my friends as individuals and as part of a group trying to invent the field of civic media.

When the question came around to me, I told the room that I wanted to read the biography of Afrika Bambaataa, one of a few men who can reasonably claim the title “Godfather of Hip Hop”. What I didn’t admit is that I’ve periodically considered dropping my academic pursuits and researching this fascinating figure.

We’re getting to the moment in history where thoughtful popular books are being written about hiphop’s early years and innovators – Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is extensively researched and thoughtfully written, and Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree has a visual style that recalls the early 1980s better than any text could.

Ed Piskor talks about his Hip Hop Family Tree project

Throughout volume one of Piskor’s beautiful history, Bambaataa recurs as an iconic figure, looming over an interchangeable crowd of short-lived MCs and DJs, as a future-looking visionary. Bambaataa was a leader of the Black Spades gang in the Bronx before deciding to dedicate his formidable charisma and organizing skills towards building the Universal Zulu Nation, a group that was part hip hop music and dance crew and part consciousness-raising Afrocentric cosmopolitan social club. Raised in the Bronx River Projects by his activist mother, he traveled to Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and the Ivory Coast after winning an essay contest run by the New York City housing authority, leading Bambaataa to adopt the identity of an African chieftan, leading his crew of former gangsters into a new artistic life of “peace, love and having fun”.

Throughout the early years of hip hop, Bam was a step ahead of his rivals. Other DJs would look over his shoulder to determine which eclectic selections Bam was using as beats – adopting a trick from DJ Kool Herc, Bam would soak the labels off his records and replace them with labels from unrelated albums, leading rivals to purchase legendarily bad albums in the hopes of replicating his sound. (It’s hard to know whether tales of Bambaataa rocking a party with two copies of the Pink Panther theme are authentic musicology or an unintentional consequence of this tactic.) While other DJs sets had MCs asking the audience their zodiac signs (early hip hop was a direct descendant of disco), Bam was playing Malcolm X speeches over his beats. (I like to think of Keith LeBlanc’s No Sell Out, sometimes cited as the first recording featuring digital samples, as a Bambaataa tribute.) When everyone else followed Bambaataa into the crates, crafting their tracks around James Brown and P-Funk, Bam had moved on sampling Kraftwerk, building “Planet Rock” and inventing the entire genre of Electro.

Planet Rock, 1982

At some point, hip hop stopped following Bambaataa. After about 1986 sampling ruled hip hop, blossoming until it was killed by the Bridgeport Music decision. Electro has influenced every generation of dance music since the early 80s, but you can instantly place any track with rapping and chilly synths as coming from the lost sonic territory of 1982-1985. More tragically, after Bam led gang members out of the streets and into the dance club, Ice-T, BDP and NWA led hip hop out of the clubs and back into the gang life.

“Surgery”, (1984) World Class Wreckin Cru, featuring Dr. Dre. Yes, THAT Dr. Dre. Look it up.

Somewhere there’s a parallel reality in which Afrika Bambaataa is the best known name in hip hop and Dr. Dre is a little-known electro DJ. It’s an alternate dimension where Bambaataa added laser fusion propulsion to P-Funk’s Starship and flew music into orbit around Jupiter rather than having it crash in South Central. In that parallel universe, the Universal Zulu Nation got Angela Davis elected president in 1988 and Bambaataa DJ’d the year-long party to celebrate the intergalactic peace accord of 1999, in which all interpersonal conflicts were put aside towards the shared goals of
peace, unity, love and having fun“.

Instead, Bambaataa has remained an honored and (insufficiently) celebrated hiphop pioneer, best remembered for one unforgettable track than for his epic social hack in the Bronx or his subsequent activism (including Hip Hop Against Apartheid and Artists United Against Apartheid.) Fortunately, the man is starting to get the respect he deserves, from an unusual corner: academe.

In 2012, Cornell University gave Bambaataa a three-year visiting scholar post. Bambaataa responded by donating his legendary record collection to Cornell’s Hip Hop Collection. This has presented an interesting curatorial challenge – the collection contains 40,000 albums, many of them with notes, flyers, press releases or other materials attached, all of which need to be scanned or digitized for posterity. For the past year, archivists have been cataloging the collection, sometimes in public, in Gavin Brown’s gallery in Greenwich Village.

From a slideshow of the Bambaataa collection on Okayplayer

The public archiving project has attracted a raft of contemporary DJs desperate to spin the Godfather’s discs. Joakim Bouaziz was one of the lucky DJ’s to be invited to the gallery, and he recorded part of his set spinning his favorites from the collection and recording the experience. No need to kick yourself for missing the gallery show – Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow are touring the US and Canada this fall, spinning the records live as part of their work building a Bambaataa tribute mix.

As for the biography? Bambaataa has been promising an autobiography since the mid-1990s. Let’s hope the revival of interest in his records leads to some helpful pressure on the man to put aside pressing Zulu Nation business for a few weeks and explain to us all What Would Bambaataa Do.

While I’m waiting for a Bambaataa autobiography, my guess is that a book that answers the questions I have would need to be biography of social movements at least as much as the story of a single individual. It’s not a coincidence that hip hop grew up in the Bronx at a moment when New York City’s physical infrastructure was crumbling and the Bronx had become synonymous with danger and decay. (Fort Apache, The Bronx came out in 1981, two years after Rappers’ Delight.) The physical and conceptual isolation of the Bronx from the rest of the city and the world allowed a culture to evolve in comparative isolation, which means that a history of Bambaataa needs to be a history of urban planning, of urban poverty and systemic racism, of the US’s housing projects. It would be a history of street gangs in New York as well as a history of Afrocentric philosophy and resistance. It would reach back to The Last Poets and ahead to Native Tongues, explore the rise of P-Funk’s Mothership and Sun Ra to understand “the Afro-Alien diaspora”. It’s more book than I am capable of writing, but damn, I hope someone takes it on.

For a taste of what those Bronx parties sounded like in 1982, here’s a collection of live recordings of early Bambaataa sets.

September 25, 2013

Long tail audiobooks – a thought experiment

Filed under: ideas,Just for fun,Media — Ethan @ 7:06 pm

Because I have a long commute, I listen to a lot of audio: public radio, podcasts and audiobooks. Because I work in academe, I have a massive pile of books and papers I need to read: books by friends, books for research projects, classics in the field that I should have read at this point in my life. Unfortunately, there is near zero overlap between the listening I do and the reading I need to do.

For example, right now I’m reading Hirschman’s “Exit, Voice and Loyalty“. I’m listening to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin, and while it’s very enjoyable, it’s not really what I need to be reading right now. What I need is a business, a collective or a method that makes and distributes high quality recordings of books that are too obscure to become audiobooks through normal channels, but popular enough that they have a non-zero audience.

I’ve been thinking about this because I spent part of this month recording the audiobook for Rewire. I am very fortunate that Audible purchased audio rights to the book from my publisher, and even more fortunate that Audible was willing to let me record the book, which has given me some insight into the process and the costs involved.

Rewire will end up being about 11 hours of audio, and it took me roughly 19 hours of studio time to record it. Readers get paid (very modestly, in my case, as I’m a novice reader.) The audio engineer who patiently followed along, prompting me to re-record sentences I screwed up needs to get paid, as do the engineers at Audible who edit out my breaths and other auditory detritus. I’m going to guess that a setup involving a reader, an engineer and a post-processing engineer costs at minimum $300 per hour of finished audio – with a professional reader and more editing, this figure could be much, much higher. (If you work in this space and have a better cost estimate, please share it in the comments.)

If my estimate is right, I could – in theory – hire a team to record Hirschman’s slim volume for $2000 or so, for my exclusive personal use. But that’s not very cost effective: at that price, it’s a better deal for me to hire a driver for one of my commutes between Pittsfield and Cambridge and spend the time reading the book. But there’s surely dozens of others out there interested in reading Hirschman since Malcolm Gladwell lavished praise on him in a recent New Yorker piece. If I can find 99 others, we could – in theory – hear Hirschman for $20 each.

There’s a rub, of course – I don’t have the rights to Hirschman’s work. That might or might not matter if I hired someone to read it to me, but it would certainly matter if I started selling a reading of Hirschman’s book to others. I wonder if this might be a surmountable problem for “long tail” books, which are unlikely to be made into audio books otherwise. If we added a royalty payment for copies sold of the Hirschman audiobook, paid to a publisher, is it possible we could build a model that’s both feasible and legal for organizing adhoc recordings of books?

Here’s how I think it could work. I’d post my request for Hirschman’s book to our site, and ask others to join with me. We’d each commit at least $20 to ensure we got a copy of the recording, and we could commit more if we really, really wanted the book read. If we reached critical mass, say 110 readers, we’d use the money to pay a reader and engineer and provide a royalty to the publisher. If we fell short of the goal within a certain timeline, we’d invoke the punk rock/DIY option – those who had committed to the project would be asked if they wanted to record a chapter of the book and we’d submit and compile our chapters into a lower quality, but serviceable audiobook.

I’m not actually in a position to launch this project – remember, I’m the guy who doesn’t have time to read a 130 page book and needs it read to him. But I’d be very interested to hear if someone’s already doing a business like this, or whether anyone would be interested in starting a business like this. I’m less interested in hearing that I can just use text to speech on my computer and that should be completely satisfactory – it’s not, I’ve tried – or that I should find a way to access books recorded for the blind (IP issues in that industry are very complicated and having sighted people access those works could screw things up for blind readers.) I’m particularly interested in hearing from people in the publishing industry about whether there are presses that would find this a satisfactory solution, or whether any rightminded publisher would stop a project like this in its tracks. Oh, and if you’ve a better name than Long Tail Audiobooks, post that as well…

February 18, 2013

Corporate America and the Harlem Shake: Perfect Together

Filed under: CFCM,Just for fun — Ethan @ 10:10 pm

When we’re not doing more serious work like documenting geographic and gender biases in media, or helping provide information to domestic workers about their rights, we at the Center for Civic Media like to talk memes. The other morning, over breakfast, we were considering what makes a dance video parodies a highly participatory and cross-cultural type of meme, i.e., one where many people from different backgrounds and nations choose to remix it.

I was particularly interested in memes that people customize with a sense of place. Gangnam Style is the obvious near-current example. PSY’s original video, now watched over a billion times on YouTube, is both a man doing a silly dance and the portrait of a neighborhood. Many of the best remixes mimic the moves of PSY’s dance and transpose the geography, from the University of Oregon to the city of Chicago to the streets of Accra, where PSY’s dance merges with Ghana’s current dance addiction, Azonto.

Of course, not all localizations adapt Gangnam Style to real geographies. Oppan Klingon Style is a work of art, best appreciated by turning captions on. And Kim Jong Style by The Key of Awesome! creates an amusing if mostly imagined North Korean version of the hit song.

Nathan Matias observed that this trend towards localization of videos includes parodies of “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, pointing to a brilliant Welsh version, Newport State of Mind. (See also Newark, Minnesota, New Hampshire and countless others.) I’m looking for more of these local remix memes, especially those that involved remixes on different continents, so please feel free to pitch in on the comment thread if you’ve got any inspirations.

Anyway, our conversation turned to The Harlem Shake, which had just emerged as a new meme. (Now, a week later, there’s a compelling case to be made that it is already played out.) Beginning as a simple dorm-room video, the Harlem Shake couldn’t be much simpler: one person, usually wearing a helmet, grooves to Baauer’s song “Harlem Shake”. His companions do nothing, until the bass line comes in, at which point a whole room full of people join in the dance in the most colorful ways possible.

There’s lots to say about the Harlem Shake, including questioning its humble origins – the meme originators, The Sunny Coast Skate, are prolific video creators documenting their skateboarding exploits, not just the college slackers they portray in their videos. There’s an excellent essay about the ways in which The Harlem Shake co-opts “trap music“, a drug-savvy Dirty South style that mixes hiphop and dance culture. It’s worth noting that The Harlem Shake is a real dance, popular in NYC for decades, with roots in an Ethiopian dance called Eskista. It’s worth noting that Baauer’s song was released on Diplo’s Mad Decent label, and that Diplo is legendary and notorious for sampling/pillaging other musical cultures and remixing them into audience-friendly new contexts.

But what I wanted to talk about is the way that the Harlem Shake meme seems perfectly designed for the workplace. Some of the very best remixes, like the Norwegian Army’s, and San Antonio’s Sea World’s, involve people at their place of work, going about their activities until the bass drops. (While I love the Norwegian version for its sheer creativity, I gotta give pride of place to San Antonio purely on the basis of the sea lion on the right – that mammal can dance!)

Why the workplace? The essential joke of the Harlem Shake is a song so catchy that it compels a whole room of people to freak out. There’s no place like the workplace to show the contrast between ordinary and extraordinary behavior, right? If firefighters can turn into costumed superheroes, surely turning your internet marketing firm into a dance party will be a laugh riot! A surprising number of the top Harlem Shake videos tracked by YouTube appear to have been filmed by the group of people who work together in an office, perhaps because it’s not hard to take two hours and film a reasonably compelling clip, or perhaps because this is a way for different companies to signal that they’re the sort of cool place where employees can take some time off to make a viral video.

(Of course, writing a blogpost about a flash in the pan internet meme is a way of signaling that you run the sort of research center where people who study the Harlem Shake would be welcomed…)

I’d resisted writing about the Harlem Shake until Chris Peterson posted a remarkable link to Awesome, the MIT mailing list where people share things that are, well, awesome. The specific link Chris posted pokes fun at a favorite Center for Civic Media alumnus – I’ll post a version featuring my boss, Joi Ito. HSMaker will turn any almost any website into a dance party, including ours at Center for Civic Media. I find it charming and ironic that it was introduced to me as a way to remix that most corporate of identities, the LinkedIn page.

Writing in Forbes, Anthony Kosner sees the Harlem Shake as proof positive that we’re moving into Present Shock, a new reality projected by Douglas Rushkoff where time moves so fast that we can’t see beyond the current moment. I think it might just be evidence that viral video creators are figuring out how to make their content accessible and spreadable to the point where anyone can take part, even without leaving their desks.

Do the Harlem Shake! Now back to work!

January 22, 2013

The Globalization of Sumo – My talk at MSR SCS 2013

Filed under: ideas,Just for fun — Ethan @ 12:15 pm

Microsoft’s Social Computing Symposium is one of my favorite conferences of the year. It’s small, invitation only, curated by some of the smartest people in my field, and attracts a wonderful combination of smart folks I hadn’t previously known about and friends I’ve known long enough that they are becoming family.

Because it’s a small conference of people who know each other well, it can get pretty silly. People are encouraged to give talks not just on their current research, but on anything they’re interested in. When we introduced ourselves at the beginning of Thursday, I proposed a talk on sumo and globalization, which was one of the dozen chosen as the pre-dinner entertainment.

The talk went over well, and a few folks asked for the slides or more information, so I’ve posted it on SlideShare along with my notes. It was supposed to be a five minute talk, but it’s probably more like a 10 minute talk that could stretch to 15.

Here’s the talk:

The Globalization of Sumo from Ethan Zuckerman

The third slide features a great bout between Harumafuji and Okinoumi, but I couldn’t upload the video to SlideShare. The YouTube video features below.

Nothing here will be news for sumo fans, but this was an attempt to share the sport, and some of the controversies and debates that surrounds it with an audience used to thinking about the globalization of culture, but perhaps not about this specific instance.

My friends at MSR have now posted the talk, so if you’d like to watch me give it, here it is.

October 25, 2012

What to make of Ai Wei Wei’s “Gangnam Style”?

Filed under: Human Rights,ideas,Just for fun,Media — Ethan @ 11:50 pm

It’s a good time to be PSY. The Korean rapper has become an international celebrity with the unexpected success of Gangnam Style, the absurdly catchy song that’s introduced much of the world to K-Pop, while simultaneously critiquing and subverting the genre. The star recently met with UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, who politely relinquished his status as the world’s most famous South Korean, and suggested that PSY was so cool, he might singlehandedly be able to help mitigate global warming. In perhaps the most astounding development, Gangnam Style has surfaced in North Korea, remixed into a parody making fun of a South Korean political candidate, a development that calls into question some commonly-held assumptions about North Korea’s insulation from global media dialogs.

As Max Fisher points out, the success of Gangnam Style has everything to do with PSY’s colorful and energetic video, and less to do with the tune itself. The lyrics are incomprehensible to most of the song’s fans (and require significant contextualization for those who understand Korean), but it’s got a memorable hook, an amusing dance and an easily parodied video. Earlier songs that meet these criteria – “Dragonstea Din Tea” by Moldovan band O-Zone comes to mind – have spread by becoming internet memes. Like a cute cat photo that begs for a satirical caption, the Gangnam Style video is made for remix. It’s clear that PSY is poking fun at his own unhipness, which gives permission to anyone parodying the video to make fools of themselves. And it’s not hard to parallel the (lightweight) narrative of PSY’s video by mimicking a few dance moves and paralleling the locations PSY chose for his antics: a beach, a stable, a parking garage, an elevator.

And so we’ve seen goofy remakes of the video from the US Naval Academy and from Filipino prisoners, to full remixes, celebrating subcultures as diverse as Star Trek fans (you MUST turn on subtitles to fully appreciate Gangnam Klingon Style), to Minecraft players.

And now, a version from Ai Wei Wei.

The dissident Chinese artist’s version of Gangnam style combines clips from the PSY video – though only clips where PSY is not present – with scenes of a raucous dance party in the courtyard of Ai Wei Wei’s Beijing studio. Like PSY, Ai Wei Wei is dressed in bright colors, a pink shirt complementing a black suit, and like the rapper, he’s an energetic and goofy dancer. As Gangnam Style parodies go, it’s not an especially compelling version – it gets repetitive very quickly, with the same group performing the same few dance moves in scene after scene.

Is this the embattled artist blowing off a little steam? Having some fun on a sunny afternoon? Ai Wei Wei’s sense of humor is one of the great halmarks of his work, but it’s unwise to dismiss anything he does as purely humorous. As James Panero observed in an article in The New Criterion, Ai Wei Wei is intensely aware of popular culture and, in the past, has taken inspiration from the New York City punk rock scene. Perhaps PSY’s subversive rethinking of K-Pop has inspired a subversive response?

There are two clear signs that Ai Wei Wei’s Gangnam Style is meant to challenge Chinese authorities. About a minute into the video, Ai Wei Wei pulls out a pair of handcuffs and spins them, which is hard not to read this as a comment on the Chinese government’s tendency to arrest and detain the artist for any number of arbitrary reasons. And his version is titled “Grass Mud Horse Style”, a reference to Chinese censorship that’s immediately understandable to viewers in the know. “Grass mud horse” – “cao ni ma” – is a homonym for a rude and graphic Chinese insult, one of the many terms censored on the Chinese internet. Chinese netizens subvert automated censorship, using homonyms, and “cao ni ma” was introduced into the lexicon by an activist who created a viral video where children sang a rousing song about the victory of the grass mud horse over the evil “river crab”, another homonym animal that symbolizes the Chinese censors. But if the video is a commentary on Chinese censorship, why is it so… lame?

My friend Molly Sauter solved the mystery for me this morning, observing that this is the first Gangnam style remix that reads as sad, not joyful. Ai Wei Wei and friends dance frenetically, but they never leave his walled garden, while in PSY’s original, and most of the parodies, a wide range of backdrops frame the dancing. PSY’s tour of the Gangnam neighborhood is an idiosynratic one, focused more on parking garages than lavish megamalls, but it’s a tour of the physical world. Ai Wei Wei is confined in his garden, dancing defiantly, but he’s dancing grass mud horse style, constrained by censorship.

An Xiao Mina, who coordinates translation of Ai Wei Wei’s twitter feed into English, is an astute scholar of Chinese internet memes. Reacting to my observation that platforms used mostly for playful speech (cute cats) are powerful tools for activists, she’s postulated that memes are the dominant form of political expression on the Chinese internet. In a talk at ROFLCon at MIT, she offered a tour of politically subversive memes: Ai Wei Wei and friends posing nude as a commentary on his arrest on trumped up pornography charges, pictures of sunflower seeds standing in for Ai Wei Wei in reference to his famous Tate Modern exhibition, people posing in sunglasses to evoke blind activist Chen Guancheng. Because the memes are images, not text, they’re difficult for authorities to censor, as well as being great fun to make. Given the emergence of Gangnam Style as this year’s remixable meme, how could Ai Wei Wei sit on the sidelines?

Not everyone is a fan. Anthony Tao observes that Ai Wei Wei’s video is posted on YouTube, which is blocked in China, rather than on a domestic service like Youku. As such, it’s less of a middle finger to the Chinese government, Tao argues, than the artist “refilling his cache of cool with the Western World.”

Subversive defiance, or an attempt to stay relevant? Or just some harmless fun? As Freud once said, sometimes a grown man doing a horsie dance is just a grown man doing a horsie dance.

August 30, 2012

“Long Flights” – a somewhat serious business idea

Filed under: ideas,Just for fun — Ethan @ 11:06 am

I’m considering starting a new business venture. It’s called “Long Flight” and it’s based on my experiences writing on airplanes.

I’ve hit a point in my career where I organize my schedule to maximize the number of long flights I get to take. Sometimes this means accepting an invitation I might have otherwise ducked – i.e., coming to Australia for only five days on the ground, as I just did. Other times, it means scheduling flights that look insane on paper – Boston to Hong Kong the long way around, via Amsterdam – so I can get more writing time in. (Did that late last year, and finished my favorite chapter of this book in the process.)

Obviously, scheduling a long flight as a form of writing retreat is stupid in all sorts of ways. Unless someone else is paying you to travel, it’s crazy expensive. And even if someone’s paying you to fly to Adelaide for a few days, it’s got massive environmental impacts. So I’m thinking about a business that lets you stay on the ground, but rent a writing space that mimics the key features of a long plane flight.

No connectivity – I’ve been productive on long flights where I’ve had internet access, but it’s a very different form of productivity. Craig Newmark and I were invited to the same conference in South Korea some years back and sat side by side for 15 hours, answering email on the way from NYC to Seoul. I reached inbox zero, but I didn’t write anything I was proud of, as I kept getting distracted by incoming mail. And that was before Twitter.

“Long Flight” facilities will be located inside Faraday cages. Once you enter the facility, your phone will be cut off from GSM and CDMA networks, and Wifi won’t work. You’ll be encouraged to download and cache anything you’ll need to read ahead of time.

Fixed duration – I work well in libraries, but I tend to leave them after I’ve accomplished the main task I’d had on my to do list. One of the reason long flights are so productive is that you’re committed to staying in a space well beyond the time you need to accomplish a task. For me, that means I get a blogpost or chapter written, but I also catch up on papers I’ve needed to read.

“Long Flight” facilities will be bookable for durations of 6, 8, 10, 12 and 14 hours. We’ll refer to the duration by the names of cities – book an 8 hour session at our Boston facility and we’ll reference your stint as an “Istanbul”. You’ll be free to walk around the facility, pass other people’s compartments, access the rest rooms and snack counter, but your access key won’t let you leave the building until your session is up. (You’ll sign a waiver that prevents us from being charged with holding you against your will. And we’ll have an emergency protocol, so you can press a button and call emergency services. But if you abuse it to end your session early, we’ll ban you from the facility.)

Each pod will feature a screen that shows the progress of your flight to your “destination”. Since you’ll be ending up back in Boston, perhaps we’ll start in Istanbul and follow a great circle route back. The screen will helpfully inform you that it’s -52C outside, which should serve as an incentive to remain in the facility.

Visibility – I often work in coffee shops because I find that I focus better when other people can look over my shoulder. I’m less likely to watch a movie I’ve ripped to my laptop or flip through my photo collection if everyone around me can see that I’m procrastinating.

“Long Flight” will assign you a pod within a shared space. You’ll be able to see what your neighbors are doing, and they can see you. Conversation will be discouraged by a loud white noise machine that permeates the space, encouraging you to put on headphones and listen to whatever music you’ve brought with you.

Food and beverage – When I’m working in libraries, what ultimately breaks my concentration is the need to go out for lunch or dinner. While the snacks and meals provided on board planes aren’t always the tastiest, the ability to eat where you’re working is helpful, and being able to walk to the galley for another beverage can be a useful break in routine.

Your admission to “Long Flight” will include unlimited food and beverage from the galleys. The food and beverage won’t be very exciting – cheese sandwiches, salty snacks, and a soda fountain. I’m undecided on whether there might be a booze option – for an extra fee – for those who want to work sober, then have a drink or two and work more loosely.

Let me know if you have any other feature requests, or ideas for where we might locate these facilities. I’m thinking about locations that are accessible via public transport, but in lower rent neighborhoods, as no one will be leaving the facility anyway, and the windows will simply show a blue sky with clouds below you.

Franchise opportunities are available, cheap. :-)

May 2, 2012

An idea worth at least 40 nanoKardashians of your attention

Filed under: Africa,Just for fun,Media — Ethan @ 11:28 pm

In my class today, celebrated science journalist Alister Doyle shared an insight that crystalized for me a line of thinking I’ve been exploring about media attention, celebrity and charity. Doyle shared an idea he’s developing with Paul Salopek (and let me just pause and mention how intimidating it is to have characters like Doyle and Salopek as “students” in a class I’m teaching), in which journalists develop new units of measure to explain complex and elusive concepts. The unit he shared, which he credits to Salopek, is the Jolie. A Jolie is unit that denotes the amount of international aid a country receives when it becomes the cause celebre of a prominent celebrity. He offers a working definition as the difference between aid per person to Darfur, which benefits from Jolie’s focus and advocacy, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has not. In 2005, International Rescue Committee calculated that Darfur received $300 per capita in aid, while DRC received $11 per capita. Hence, a Jolie can be thought of as a 27x increase in aid receipt. When international aid organizations campaign for increased aid, they’re seeking ceniJolies in increased aid, and would often settle for increases of mere miliJolies.

Jolie is able to attract aid to Darfur through her passion, her hard work, but ultimately through the fact that she’s the subject of a great deal of attention. While her recent films may not have attracted as much attention as her work as Lara Croft, she commands approximately 35 centiKardashians of attention.

The Kardashian is a unit I proposed a few classes back as a measure of attention. Conceptually, the Kardashian is the amount of global attention Kim Kardashian commands across all media over the space of a day. In an ideal, frictionless universe, we’d determine a Kardashian by measuring the percentage of all broadcast media, conversations and thoughts dedicated to Kim Kardashian. In practical terms, we can approximate a Kardashian by using a tool like Google Insights for Search – compare a given search term to Kim Kardashian and you can discover how small a fraction of a Kardashian any given issue or cause merits.

(I choose the Kardashian as a unit both because I like the mitteleuropean feel of the term – like the Ohm or the Roentgen – and because Kardashian is an exemplar of attention disconnected from merit, talent or reason. The Kardashian mentions how much attention is paid, not how much attention is deserved, so naming the unit after someone who is famous for being famous seems appropriate. Should the unit be adopted, I would hope that future scholars will calculate Kardashians using whatever public figure is appropriate at the time for being inappropriately famous.)

Calculating someone’s attention in Kardashians using GIS is an imperfect art – Google normalizes data so that the highest point on a graph becomes 100, and other points are scaled in relation to that high point. It’s unclear whether that scaling is linear or logarithmic – if linear, Angelina Jolie is running at approximately .35 Kardashians this past quarter; if logarithmic, she could be at a much lower level. I’m running some experiments with Google Ads to see if I can gain insights on a ratio between Jolie and Kardashian in absolute numbers of searches.

I think of the Kardashian as a unit of perspective. When I want to consider how much attention a worthy cause – preventing famine in the Horn of Africa – is attracting, I search on GIS with “Kim Kardashian” as a comparative term. The graph below is depressing, if not surprising.

It’s possible to receive far less attention than Somali famine receives in this analysis – enter your name into Google Trends alongside Kardashian, and you will likely generate a zero… or, at least, I do. I command microKardashians, perhaps nanoKardashians of attention, as do most of us.

To get a sense for the magnitude of attention Invisible Children was able to seize with their Kony campaign, it’s worth noting that they generated multiple Kardashians of attention, though for a short period of time. For a couple of days, Joseph Kony – promoted via a video that received 100 million YouTube views faster than any other in history – received more attention than Kim Kardashian, peaking at the extraordinary level of 7.7 Kardashians!

Fortunately, all returned to normal shortly, and Joseph Kony – more popular than before Invisible Children’s campaign – now registers about five centiKardashians. It’s worth remembering that the value of a Kardashian fluctuates over time. Consider Kim Kardashian, Angelia Jolie and Joseph Kony over the span of an entire year. At the peak of his infamy, Kony registers only 0.4 peak Kardashians, a level she achieved by filing for divorce after a 72 day marriage.

It’s possible to consider the Kardashian as a unit of exposure, not just a unit of attention, as in “most normal humans have their lives irrevocably altered if they experience even 1 centiKardashian of exposure”, or “LD50 for rats and most mammals is calculated at 1 deciKardashian”. While it’s unclear that multi-Kardashian exposure has harmed Joseph Kony, a deciKardashian level exposure for Invisible Children founder Jason Russell has proved dangerous and damaging.

If we discount the difficulties in accurately estimating the current value of the Jolie or the Kardashian, we find ourselves with a helpful new calculus to understand attention and aid. If Somalia is receiving $72 per capita in aid, but needs much more to prevent famine, how much aid could we expect if Kim Kardashian testified about hunger in the Horn of Africa?

Assume that the relationship between attention and aid is linear. If Angelina Jolie registers at 0.35 Kardashians of attention, and can command a 27x increase in aid, we can expect Kim Kardashian to generate 2.85 times as much, or $5554 per capita. Obviously, spending Kim Kardashian’s attention on such a cause would be overkill – we might be able to solve Somali hunger with a mere Jimmy Kimmel (roughly 4 centiKardashians.) Once we refine this methodology, I hope we can calculate exactly which celebrity needs to be deployed to address which global crisis – I will keep you posted as our research in this space progresses.

Thanks for paying an estimated 27 nanoKardashians of attention to this post.

I’m grateful for the reactions from the scholarly community this post has generated. Via twitter, Professor Barry Wellman was kind enough to point out that the Kardashian is already in use as a unit of time, representing the 72 days of Kardashian’s 2011 marriage. While I defer to Professor Wellman’s deep resevoirs of Kardashian knowledge, I question whether we really need a new unit of time to represent “seven weeks”. My use of the Kardashian gives definition to a concept that’s increasingly germane, though not linguistically compact.

Gilad Lotan, leading attention theorist for Social Flow, notes with some dismay that the Kardashian is not a constant. (I believe Kris Humphries had concerns about Kardashian’s constancy as well, though I defer to Professor Wellman on these matters.) While it is true that the value of the Kardashian fluctuates, I see this as a feature, not as a bug. At a moment of great newsworthiness – an election, a natural disaster – we would expect attention paid to Kim Kardashian to be more scarce as more attention is focused on breaking events. We might then think of the Kardashian as a unit of surplus attention, attention not demanded by the leading news story of the day which could theoretically be directed towards Somali famine or conflict in Sudan. A low Kn represents a moment where surplus attention is scarce, a high Kn a moment when it is plentiful. One war or another, it is likely that your cause or issue is measurable in miliKn, microKn or smaller units.

Andrés Monroy Hernández of MIT and Microsoft Research suggests the “nanoBieber” as a comparable unit. While I think that’s a reasonable alternative to the Kardashian, to me, it suggests attention from a youth audience, whereas I was seeking a general unit for surplus attention. It might be worth further
study of the magnitude and power of the Bieber versus the Kardashian, perhaps as a comparison between cultural power and youth cultural power.

I look forward to additional academic and non-academic feedback.

December 16, 2011

My new quest – replacing QR codes with tartan

Filed under: CFCM,Just for fun — Ethan @ 7:53 pm

Center for Civic Media meetings start with an icebreaker question: you introduce yourself, and tell us whether you prefer pirates or ninjas, homemade or canned cranberry sauce. You offer your favorite protest chant or tell us what percent (“I am the 99%”) you identify with. Yesterday, on seeing two of Civic’s finest dressed in argyle, I asked people to propose a Civic Media dress code.

The suggestions were wide-ranging and included Jeff Warren’s suggestion of facial tattoos that serve as achievement badges, Nathan Matias’s proposed adoption of Madeline Albright’s “pin code” and Molly Sauter offered a suggestion for remixable, snarky t-shirts.

My favorite suggestion was Lorrie LeJeune’s proposal of a Civic media tartan. (Since Lorrie weaves and spins, as well as writes, edits, makes jewelry, builds guitars and plays mandolin, it’s possible she is weaving a Civic tartan right now.) It was widely observed that we needn’t select a single tartan – instead, we could create a set of tartans that functioned like QR codes, encoding information for anyone capable of comprehending the code.

I’m home sick today, feeling like the cold I’m fighting is perfectly justified given my travel and sleep schedule this fall. (Spontaneous human combustion would also likely have been an appropriate bodily response to the strains of this fall.) So I’ve had some time to think about how we might actually implement a Civic tartan code.

First, some quick comments on QR codes:

– They’re very cool. It’s wonderful that Densu Wave in 1994 figured out such a compact way to encode a surprisingly large amount of data into machine readable form. And there are certainly lots of clever ways to use them, not just for labeling auto parts, but for bridging between the real and digital worlds, tagging physical objects and spaces with unique identifiers and URLs. (See Civic’s Timenesia project for one cool way to use QR codes to tag reality.)

– They’re ugly as sin, and also something of a fashion statement. Commenting on posters from a recent Occupy rally, Sasha Constanza-Chock noted that QR codes on many of the posters and wondered – since most of the codes translate as URLs – whether it wouldn’t be easier simply to put the human-readable URLs on the posters instead. “It seems like the QR code primarily signifies you as the sort of person technologically sophisticated enough to be using QR codes”

There’s a certain charm to having codes that are machine-readable but not human readable, I guess – you can wear http://goatse.cx on your shirt and disturb anyone foolish enough to read the code with their phone. But I suspect fashion statements like haute couture bodices decorated with QR codes are the sort of idea with very little staying power.

– They’re killing kittens. As Scott Stratten explains in this helpful video, most QR codes are misused, and each time designers misuse them, a kitten dies. It’s time we think of the kittens.

Embedding data into physical spaces is a cool idea. But it would be great if we could do so in a way that’s pretty, and at least partially human readable.

Like tartans. Prior to the 19th century, tartans were associated with different regions of Scotland, colored using local dyes to local weaver’s preferences. After the publication of the (wholly fictional) Vestiarium Scoticum in 1842, tartans became associated with specific clans, and it became possible to identify members of some families by the particular tartan they wore. Military units and businesses have created specific tartans, as do most US states, and there are now between 7000 and 14,000 “registered” tartans available.

The Bay State tartan, my state’s official plaid. You may now understand why I prefer my clan tartan.

It’s pretty obvious from looking at a tartan that you’ve got the potential to store a great deal of information within the design of the pattern. The Bay State tartan features 24 stripes before repeating. Each can be a different width and color. With a couple dozen colors to choose from, and stripes ranging from one to 64 stitches, you’ve got 36,864 patterns, or slightly more than 15 bits of information. All well and good, but not enough information to encode a URL.

QR codes can include URLs stored as alphanumeric characters – the QR codes we see most often can support 35-77 alphanumeric characters. That’s a lot of data – ~8.9×10^108 possible combinations, which would require either really wide tartans, or very subtle color variations. The problem is more tractable if we try to represent a shortened URL, using a service like is.gd or bit.ly. Yes, this means our tartan scanner will need to detect color and stripe width, then consult bit.ly before using the domain name service to resolve our website… but remember, QR readers are using the DNS system to turn their codes into websites, in part because encoding IP addresses doesn’t work well anymore now that a site can support thousands of independent domains.

bit.ly produces URLs that look like this: http://bit.ly/t658ko – that URL leads to Center for Civic Media at http://civic.mit.edu. To slightly oversimplify, the service turns each URL it encounters into the next of a sequence of numbers. Rather than use decimal numbers, they use a base-62 system (0-9, A-Z, a-z), which allows them to represent almost 57 billion numbers with only six characters. 57 billion is vastly smaller than the total number of possible URLs, but in practical terms, it works because people haven’t used the service 57 billion times.

Now we just need something capable of producing 57 billion different tartans.

Enter Tartanmaker.com. This lovely online service allows you to design simple tartans to be used as backgrounds for your webpages. You can create three stripes of width from 1-10, using hexadecimal notation to specify colors. That gives you 167 million or so options per stripe (256^3 colors times 10 widths), or roughly 4.722 x 10^24 possible tartans. While that more than satisfies our information needs, most of those colors are going to be too subtle for the human eye to distinguish.

Turns out we can solve our problem using only websafe colors. With three stripes chosen from 216 websafe colors, we get almost 10 billion combinations. Tartanmaker offers us two other options – three thread widths (which basically scale the pattern) and two orientations (horizonal versus diagonal), which bring us up to over 59 billion combinations, just what we need to represent bit.ly URLs.

If we actually wanted to do this, we’d need a good algorithm to map bit.ly’s base-62 numbers to a combination of 3 thread sizes, 2 orientations, and three stripes, each of 216 colors and 10 widths. We might get very clever and figure out how to have tartans darken over time, using darker colors as we move through our list of unique identifiers. And we’d need Tartanmaker to offer an API so we could take an URL, call bit.ly, then call Tartanmaker and produce appropriate outputs. Finally, for this to actually be useful, we’d need to program a webcam to distinguish between color shades and stripe widths.

But it makes me deeply happy to know that Civic Media tartan could exist, and could lead an appropriately equipped smartphone to our site. And it makes me want to build a tartan translator, if only to figure out what URLs I’m advertising when I wear my flannel shirts.

November 9, 2011

An open letter to TED organizers on #TEDHighConcept

Filed under: Just for fun — Ethan @ 11:47 am

Dear Chris, June, Bruno –

One of my students at the Center for Civic Media and I were discussing the need for more conference venues for young speakers to share their ideas and polish their presentation skills. While TEDx has greatly expanded speaking opportunities, we felt that there was still more room to experiment with novel formats and extend the TED brand.

In the spirit of collaborative innovation, I posted a proposed new TED format to Twitter this morning:

Idea: TED Ex. Your former lovers have 18 minutes each to discuss your flaws, streamed live on the web.
Ethan Zuckerman

While this would make for a short programme in my case, I suspect there are organizers who could convene an excellent roster of speakers around this theme. Indeed, one especially experienced respondent wondered whether the four-day conference format would be sufficient to accomodate all speakers he planned to invite.

Fortunately, the Twitter hivemind saw the wisdom of extending the TEDx format and have been posting suggestions to me directly, and using the #TEDHighConcept hashtag. I’ve collected some of the more promising ideas for your edification here.

@ @ TED SubteXt: Everyone will wonder what the speakers *really* meant.
Nancy Baym

TED Ex Parte: Speakers have 18min to make their case, while being judged by a remote audience that can’t hear them. (@ @)
Kate Crawford

@ TED eXcuse: None of the speakers show up (@)
Nancy Baym

@ @: @ TED eXpel. Speakers vote each other off the conference one by one, Survivor style, till one is left.
Zeynep Tufekci

@ @ TED: DEAD – Great historical figures return to give the present (and the future) a little perspective. :)
Tama Leaver

@ @ @ @ Ted X. Complete with hugging and glowsticks.
Deb Chachra

@ @ @ @ @ TED eXterminate: Only Daleks speak. Audience destroyed at the end. Unless…
Nancy Baym

@ TED eXcommunicate. Speakers confess their sins for 18 minutes, audience decides which ones to eXcommunicate from TED.
Zeynep Tufekci

TED Hex – the world’s top wizards and witches duel to prevent each other from taking the stage.
Ethan Zuckerman

@ TED neXt: speakers talk about what they want to speak about in the upcoming TED event.
Ahmed Al Omran

Some of these ideas are more controversial than others:

@ TED Next – speakers have 1.2 seconds to impress before the audience hits next. also, high risk that the next speaker is a penis
Sara Marie Watson

While others seem likely to involve litigation over intellectual property:

@ Ted Excellent! All the speakers are historical personages, whisked to the present day by a couple of teenagers in a time machine.
Paul Frankenstein

Yet some I can easily imagine working on the TED stage:

TED eX libris: speakers read directly from their books. @ #TEDHighConcept
Sara Marie Watson

TEDLex – Lawyers forced to plead a case in under 18 minutes @ @
Kate Darling

@ TedFX: Everything is in 3D, with CG anthromorphic animals and robots and aliens mucking about, then suddenly EXPLOSIONS
Michelle C Forelle

TED(ve)X – 18 minutes onstage, costumed as a bull. Your task is to destroy as many pieces of chinaware as possible cc. @
tolu ogunlesi

@ TEDtreks: Deliver your talk while running the gauntlet. Bonus seconds for costumes, penalties for exertion noises.
Kristen Taylor

@ TED neXt Newly ousted CEOs defend their next project from skeptical shareholders. Fruit-throwing encouraged, especially apples.

@, EX-TED-NZ: speeches that last all night
Lova Rakotomalala

Xeni’s suggestion offers ample possibilities for collaboration with BoingBoing:

@ TEDMex: Drug war solutions? New tech manufacturing? Aw fuck it, just: an epic talent battle between 500 mariachis.
Xeni Jardin

And a number of suggestions attempt to leverage TED’s technological prowess:

@ TED LaTeX: speakers find bugs in Donald Knuth’s typesetting program. Slides are done in TeX, of course. #TedHighConcept
A Springmann

@ @ MooTed: Ted talks given in a text-based online virtual reality system.

@ TED X-Men. Speakers with freakish mutant powers of visualisation. Only Hans Rosling is invited.
Steve Song

Finally, we understand TED’s focus on social impact and change. These ideas might prove helpful:

@ TEDeXtinction: talk about human civilization.
Jamais Cascio

@ TED Expat: only migrants allowed as speakers. Theresa May advised to stay away.

@ @ WanTED: Fugitives on the run from the law are given amnesty to explain why they didn’t do it, in 20 minutes.

@ #TEDrex, or why we need more monarchies. #TEDHighConcept
Oxblood Ruffin

If you’re concerned about the compatibility of these ideas with the existing format for TED conferences, here’s an especially helpful suggestion:

TED Xzibit: Yo dawg, we heard you like conferences, so we put a conference in your conference. #TEDHighConcept
Sara Marie Watson

And while existing conferences rarely suffer from these problems, this is a helpful intervention when events aren’t going well:

@ Ted Ex Machina: terrible speeches are saved at the last minute by increasingly unlikely plot contrivances.
Thomas Wilburn

Should any of these ideas prove viable as a future TED format, no need to share royalties – just send mainstage passes. We hope to offer more assistance in the future at the #TEDHighConcept hashtag.


@ethanz and friends

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