End-of-August reading (eating?)

Thursday, August 31st, 2006

Sammy’s reserved copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma has finally dropped in to the library, so I’m picking up where I left off this summer up north, with how the ‘wet mill’ processing of corn is basically like a huge industrial digestive system. Kinda makes we wonder why we don’t get the soylent green plants up and running and be done with it. Pollan’s book is beautifully done, and I’m walking around the house with it, plowing through it (heh) at a great pace.

When I pick up incredibly pricy red leaf lettuce at the Whole Foods down the way I now think more about the transportation costs and immigration policy and whether we might better get all our week’s lettuce from the Georgia farmers at the Saturday neighborhood market; this Salon article highlights what’s messed up about the supply-and-demand cycle for organic produce at the moment.

Yes, it is possible for someone who loves a good greasy cheeseburger with lots of ketchup to think about these questions…in between cheeseburgers.

* * * * *

But beyond food, let me toss some non-nutritious linkage your way:
any reporter who asks “Were you scared when…” is not doing his or her job. Good reporting? It’s all in what questions you ask.

Clearly experts at The New Marketing, these guys have unleashed a lumpy monster by giving these things away at FooCamp, the annual O’Reilly-sponsored celebration of exclusion. Their hope: attendees will ooh and ahh over them in their blogs…and, why, look, they are!

And the Dread Pirate bin Laden reminds us that stateless persons “at war with all the world” are really nothing new.

I take all your blaming!

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2006

‘Chronicles’ author Ray Bradbury dies
—ajc.com, August 22, around 10 pm.

When I saw this headline in the AJC’s ‘news buzz’, I started to gather my thoughts and reflect on the passing of one of my favorite writers. Then I clicked on the link, and decided instead to reflect on the low level of quality control at news websites.

‘This just in: Ray Bradbury alive‘—I fired off to the AJC folk. I (helpfully?) included the AP story the headline linked to on the AJC site, which of course discussed Bradbury’s 86th birthday celebration. And I tried not to be too annoying in my notation of this small um…blunder.

Ah, well, I am quite the cosmic picker of nits. Quite the corrector of others’ errors. But as Nancy said when I tossed all of this into an iChat window her way last night, if you can’t get the little things right, the big errors are likely to get through too.

We learned that back in our little journalism school in the Appalachian foothills, and so I shuddered more than a bit as I read via Romanesko about the attempt of the University of Georgia newspaper’s editor, David Pittman, to articulate just why and how the Red and Black screwed up not once, but twice in one issue.

Pittman starts off, with no apparent irony (or maybe my sensors don’t pick up 21st century student irony) by saying the R & B “has been hammered” in recent days for its decision to print two stories that celebrate the concept of going uptown and doing quite a lot of drinking, including of the underage and of the till-you-black-out varieties.

Yep, mistake. Even in our arguably harder-drinking days in our Athens, we knew better than to provide a handy guide to drinking games…and we kept our rambling ‘lost weekend’ new journalism pieces (mostly) out of the paper. But I’m willing to give the youthful editor a pass on his bad judgment. After all, as he admits, he didn’t read either of the pieces before they ran.

But here’s where I want a freshman english professor to slam him up against one of Athens’ brick walls and jam a well-thumbed copy of Strunk and White up his nose. His ‘Editor responds to recent debates’ (a really lousy headline, by the way), is some of the sloppiest, weakest writing I’ve read in a long while. And hey, I’ve been reading blogs.

Here are just a few examples…please read his entire piece to get the full sense of..uh..what’s annoying me.

  • He writes: “I’m not saying the initial story idea was taboo…” …he’s trying to convey the idea was a bad one, not a forbidden one. Wrong word choice.
  • “some of the behavior exhibited downtown and the reasons behind why one should play those games are flawed.” Reasons behind why one..uh..huh? Are you trying to use ‘rationale’? Reasoning? Rationalization? Awk.
  • “We want to pose a call to action for all University students…” I don’t believe you pose those.
  • “I don’t see anything wrong with acknowledging the bar scene, drinking games or even what bars have the best drink specials on what night in the pages of The Red & Black.” The specials take place in the pages of the Red and Black?
  • “Hopefully, it will reignite an open and honest debate about the University students’ drinking habits and what the administration should be doing about it.” Lose the ‘hopefully’; does it ‘reignite’ a debate if that debate hasn’t happened yet? And…what the Administration should be doing about them…habits, plural.
  • “That is not a good excuse for those stories still being there, however.” I think they’re “still” there because, y’know, you printed them, using that ink stuff and those large press-like objects.
  • “As for The Red & Black running those stories, I take complete blame.” We’re of course looking for you to take the responsibility…I think the blame will be delivered to your doorstep whether you ‘take’ it or not. Again, use the right damn word!

In one paragraph, he’s speaking in the first person, and then switches to the collective “we” at the paper, and then morphs into “as a community, we want this page…”—who are you? Pick one!

And whichever one you pick, sit down and rewrite this apologia (if that’s what it is) about a hundred more times…as practice, not penance, for what may well be your career.

I’m imagining another time, another Athens, where my dear friend and editing icon Deb, sleep-deprived, would be slumped slightly at the copy desk (note to students: a place where these things are checked and honed!), holding this guy’s piece with disdain, a roll of faded yellow wire copy groaning under a spew of blue pencil marks and typewriter smudges. “Just do it again,” she’d say, tossing it back.

And of course, she’d make sure you were sure whether something slugged ‘Bradbury’ was, in fact, an obit or a celebration of longevity.

Dangerous points of view.

Monday, August 21st, 2006

OK, we’re flying, we’ve made it through security…hey, take a look out the window, that’s kinda cool…get a picture!

Or maybe, as Josh Simons blogs, not so fast:

On my recent trip back from India on British Airways, I was inspired […] to snap some landscape photos at 35000 feet. I think we were over Iran at the time. After taking several shots, imagine my surprise when one of the BA attendants closed the window shade and informed me that it was against British Airways policy for passengers to take such photos for security reasons. I thought she was kidding, but the head attendant confirmed what I had been told. And that it had nothing to do with where we were flying.

This seems to violate so many civil liberties my head is spinning, but it also makes me want to check and review how those civil liberties are safeguarded by the power of international law. Could well be..um..not so much.

In New York, the MTA finally withdrew (last I checked) their proposed ban on subway photography. There have been attempts to curtail our rights to acquire pixels in other cities, and more than one building security guard since 9/11 has attempted to prevent photography of city images that feature his or her employer’s building.

We hear that Americans of Arabic descent, picked up for mass buys of Wal-Mart cell phones, had lots of digital snapshots of the Mackinac Bridge…and the conclusion too many people jump to is this is a risk to our security. In the name of all that is American, I sure hope would-be bridge plotters don’t Google this site.

This paranoia is a risk to our continued sanity. We must take a breath and recalibrate. The relatively free flow of images, data, and information—about everything from the specifications of our bridges to what the world looks like from above to the number of atomic weapons the US deployed during the cold war—is not a risk to our freedom…it is our freedom.


Thursday, August 17th, 2006

Finished something I’d been stuck on for several days and sent it fwooshing (me, awash with satisfaction) off in the email, and then padded into the kitchen for a coffee refill. Came back in, looked at what I sent one more time to make sure I didn’t misspell anything too embarrassing, and then fired up my RSS Reader and caught up on the traffic from the various worlds that interest me. Maclandia, the design world, the world (or what’s left of it) of TV news.

There, amidst the accumulated feedage, one writer fairly new to the specific world of blogging was trying to delineate what her special-purpose blog would be focused on (limited to?) as opposed the typical ongoing accumulative narration of what one had for dinner last night (me? italian meatloaf at Murphy’s; Sam and I went out with our good friend Tom Burton) or how-one-feels-about-the-state-of-the-world (reply excruciating, ask again later.)

And that made me think a bit about how these systems for maintaining a weblog and sharing the thoughts, data, metadata, feelings, imagery, and dryer-lint are packed with lots of extra power and flexibility to view a weblog’s content in myriad ways and thus, represents another toolset that we, well, really don’t use much.

Do you add tags or categories to your posts? The touted benefit of tagging seems obvious—should one want to, one can just click once to look at a nicely-ordered set of posts about political outrage…and then with a second click, the blog takes on a more floral tone.

Sammy has been fairly diligent in tagging (categorizing, actually) her daily posts, enough so I can say that at last glance there are 71 floral entries as opposed to a mere nine on maps. Nancy has a staggering 96 entries in something called same ol’same ol’ which really is way too self-deprecating…her day to day interests are (I find) anything but routine.

Question is, how often do people actually use these alternative views? How many people diligently tag their posts, or put them into categories? And as or more important, do you use these tools to examine the mental subsets of your favorite blogger? From my experience, no matter how much content or aggregation or plain old interesting stuff is shoved into the database-behind-the-scenes, many visitors to a website like this are focused on two simple words: what’s new?

That’s of course the satisfaction of RSS feeds—they’re almost always about what’s the latest buzz, although I like the content systems that allow you to make a feed out of just about anything. And the sensible-URL capabilities built into WordPress (http://positivelyatlantaga.com/2004/05/ gives you everything I wrote in May 2004, hey presto!…and http://positivelyatlantaga.com/?s=boing lists everywhere I’ve used the word ‘boing’) really do give you the keys to answering sophisticated questions about what a person has contributed to this fine global web’o’knowledge.

But sometimes the classic context—all the darn entries ordered through time—is the best context for me. I just enjoy reading twentysomething cocoa programmers’ blogs with the code snippets interleaved in and around the relationship crises and the agonies of air travel and the perils of exploding batteries and what the blogger had for dinner last night…because sometimes the mundane illuminates (or at least shades in cool ways) the germane.

Mmm…jello-based mass communications.

Tuesday, August 15th, 2006

I kinda snuck up on my passions about ‘the right type’ after becoming aware (at an extremely early age) that my father’s typewriter was different than anyone else’s (father’s?) typewriter.

An old Royal, it typed in italic big and small caps–only. And my mom and dad were all right with that—when I said “hey, why do we have a mutant typewriter?” they just sort of shrugged their shoulders and said “it works.”

And yet, for me, it didn’t. I had a lot of trouble churning out page after page of what looked to be urgent messages…even before the days of email ITALIC CAPS JUST SEEMED LIKE YELLING.

My mom, seeking to encourage my interest in writing (and/or typing), went up to Van Sickle Office Supply on Grandview Avenue and picked up a Hektograph—technology that consisted of an 11 x 14 inch shallow tray of plain gelatin—yeah, the food kind—that would accept the dyes of special pencils or typewriter-created grade-school ‘ditto’ masters…and then, by placing a sheet of paper on the solidified goo and pulling smoothly, you got, well, something very much like a ditto at home…up to about 50 copies before it began to fade.

(Gracias oh internet, I found a picture—and only one—of the very device here, thanks North Dakotans.)

It was, of course, the closest thing we could achieve to desktop publishing, and my mom knew it would let me create a newspaper for our neighborhood, which of course would be named THE DAILY PLANET (a name since used by some..uh, well.) And at a very early age and with only a limited amount of help from my mom, I did just that, setting the type on the damnable Royal, layering hand-drawn images and logos and finding my first frustration over achieving a look that, darn it, just wasn’t close enough to the way the letterpress-solid front page of the Columbus Citizen-Journal looked for my satisfaction.

The echoes of typographic limitation followed me subsequently through my design careen (as opposed to career): sorry, we only have these Letraset sheets in stock; we can only afford two Photo-Typositor headlines a week; the IBM Composer only has the Univers and Times New Roman type balls; the Vidifont has two sizes, large and small, and the Chyron IV will let you create any font you want as long as you can get it straight under the crappy black and white camera and spend the weekend cleaning it up, bit by bit.

One of my early mentors (can you call him a mentor if you really didn’t work with him?) pretty much set the gold standard for turning typographic limitation into design opportunity. WGBH’s Chris Pullman and his mid-1970s design team turned out a monthly newsletter for the staff that was a paean to typewriter type in its many incarnations (meaning, hey, we can set it all on the Selectric). Printed on cheap newsprint, nooz (edited by the late Dali Cahill) hung from a hook in the hallways of Channel 2 and had a warm and inviting style—for me, the progenitor of a type of smart-yet-corporate positivism that I associate with Apple—the little articles and gathered softball pictures sure made WGBH seem like a fun place to work.

Now of course, I have almost all of the fonts of my dreams in pristine vector form on my Mac, and my one remaining font-slash-design roadblock centers around what fonts are available to most browsers, and for that I am the unwilling taste-slave to Bill Gates and the Redmonians. Sure, I like Georgia (good name, too), but it’d be nice to have about a dozen other robust serif fonts you can count on. Make it two dozen. Make it…oh.

Some web designers, fed up with exactly this, have developed an only slightly byzantine system where headlines are imaged into flash vectors (on demand!) and embedded in a DOM structure that does some amazing lifting to remain accessible and gently degrades to plain old readable headlines if no flash is allowed. It’s really quite impressive. (And their sample page has newspaper-y typography any junior jello Gutenberg would have killed for back in the mid 1960s.

Break(s) in the heat.

Sunday, August 13th, 2006

It’s the quiet part of Sunday night, and I’ve just returned from the curb, past the smells of shorn front-yard-grass and cats trying to mark part of our driveway as their own. The green trash doohickie and its smaller black recycling cousin are on the curb, awaiting Monday morning action.

If the TV were turned on, there’d be a small clock in the corner of CNN, counting down the hour or so until the Israeli-Hezbollah cease-fire (which I guess is why it isn’t turned on.)

Our neighborhood, which is at what I hope is the tail end of a long hot summer of excavation, is quiet and peaceful in the urban semi-darkness…although I’m sure the crews trying to force-feed an entirely new sewer and storm drain system down apparently random tiny holes throughout Atlanta will resume their noisy labors in a few hours. Their drilling and…well…drilling will be joined by the hammery sounds of house after house around here being awkwardly coerced from bungalowdom to intown sprawldom, in search of the perfect $1.2 million dollar house…all marketed to nice fresh owners new to the neighborhood, who won’t think it all odd that a outsized home with five bedrooms and five baths is mashed onto a teeny tiny Virginia Highland lot.

Although…do I detect the slightest scent of a market that’s turned, of an economy that won’t support that sort of wretched excess? Maybe there’s the first whiff of common sense in the air, where folks just starting out won’t go for the gold-premium cable package and the insane lease deal on the guzzler and the overblown home that will shatter their overheated credit rating.

Or maybe that’s just the crepe myrtles trying to drown out the smell of half-excavated sewer pipes.

Just like gasoline-powered internal combustion engines, big ol’ houses remain the default for modern families across our overpopulated land. They signify something to someone (me, I’m tone-deaf to the message.) And even in the face of smart, sensible, even stylish alternatives, defaults can have a terrible momentum.

We fired up our Honda Default (hey, a 1996 Civic…) and rolled through suburban and rural Georgia yesterday and saw sure signs of can’t-meet-the-payments: Hummers and large pickup trucks with ‘for sale’ signs parked in front yards, a sight that I’ve associated more with places in the rural economically-challenged midwest.

And we saw layer upon layer of tract-developmenty-homes starting-from-the-low-whatevers reach out and fill the once-rural space between Atlanta and Athens. But…are these places selling? There was an air of desperation in the billboards pointing the way, but isn’t there always?

Here at our once modestly-priced home, we’re provisioned, paid for, fixed up, and just generally in a good place…for fall, for a newer economic normal, for hunkering down and doing some work.

The new fridge seems to be living up to its energy star claims. We’ve got a healthy supply of library books, Amazon-ordered books on the way, and even a book I bought the old fashioned way this afternoon (by going down to Borders…it was amazing, really, books in three dimensions for sale!) I have a pile of PDFs virtually piled up also demanding my attention. Our household repairs, give or take a ceiling fan, are under control…our new kitchen faucet and on demand water heater are doing what we demand of them. My coffee collection is down to the remainder of what Steve Kowalewski brought me back as a gift from Oaxaca (mmm…), but the construction of a new Trader Joe’s within walking distance gives me options in that category before long.

But most important among portents and provisions, it’s a cool-ish evening.

It’s not nearly ninety degrees post-sundown. As I said, we were able to go out to east Georgia yesterday and visit friends and enjoyably congregate around the grill—yes, outside!—while not sweating buckets of extra saline onto the food-in-progress. We were able to breathe air that seemed less ozone-laden. We were able to drive without nonstop air conditioning.

It’s a most welcome change. And as usual, I’ll take changes in the weather and use them as my own personal chapter markers where I can find them.

So maybe we’re turning the corner, as we always seem to do somewhere between my Aunt Rosemary’s birthday and my sister’s. And the messy, hot and sticky parts of my life will tidy themselves up at summer’s end.

Sure feels that way, in the near-cool of this evening.

Cleanup on aisle 3.

Wednesday, August 9th, 2006

Ah, now it’s gone full cycle: the blogs are writing about how the mainstream media is writing about how the bloggers have had a second large investigatory victory in exposing the Reuters freelancer Adnan Hajj’s retouched photography from the Lebanese-Israeli conflict. “That smoke curl just didn’t look right! Clearly the clone tool has been employed!” (What’s odd to me is that in looking at before and after side-by-side, I come away thinking “there’s really plenty of smoke in the unretouched version—why the heck did he go to the trouble?”)

Meanwhile, up in Raleigh, there’s some debate (drifting outward to the journalistic community as a whole) about whether reporters should clean up quotes like “They was good friends. They killed my young’un for slam nothing” to make them sound less like, well, where they’re from. For a print reporter, that’s a judgement call they’re completely in charge of. With a quick clatter of keys, a print scribe can make them sound as if they hail from Elizabethan England, not Robeson County, NC. Or, not.

For radio and broadcast, it become more of a question of art—can we chop the heck out of the footage or the audio…do we have enough raw material (and time) to rearrange syllables and slice away all the ‘um’s and ‘er’s and ‘like’s? Often, that’s happening, nearly seamlessly, on a finely-honed NPR piece…in video, you end up with dissolves or flashes or cutaways or perhaps loud swooshy graphics to distract you from the chop work.

And without the editing? Well, just one more reason that local TV news is excruciating these days is that when they do point a camera at someone and ask them how it felt to have that tornado rip off the roof of your house or to have your next door neighbor killed gang-style or to have your conjoined twins separated, the response more often than not is staggeringly incomprehensible. Chalk that up to the limited life experience and exposure to adjectives of the answerers as well as the inanity of the questions themselves. And factor on top of that the training every joe on the street has now: if you’re asked an inane question, let loose with a cliché you yourself have heard on television a thousand times before. That’s what sports figures and politicians do, and we learn from them.