The Onion on social media overload

The Onion is one of the wonders of our age. Here is their swipe at the perpetual self-absorbed posing of Generation Y (as one of the viewer comments I read put it, “Y as in Why are we such losers?”). If you watch this and laugh, I’m guessing you’re uncomfortably close to this phenomenon. I sure laughed.
Police Slog Through 40,000 Insipid Party Pics To Find Cause Of Dorm Fire

After examining the evidence from the 25 iPhones, 15 Blackberrys, 10 video cameras, and 40 digital cameras obtained from the students who attended the party, we were able to reconstruct every segment of the event.

(Thanks Todd for the pointer to this one)


In the book Genome, author Matt Ridley starts chapter four like so:

Open any catalogue of the human genome and you will be confronted not with a list of human potentialities, but a list of diseases, mostly ones named after pairs of obscure central-European doctors. This gene causes Niemann-Pick disease; that one causes Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome. The impression given is that genes are there to cause disease.

As you might suspect, Ridley is at pains to point out that genes do not cause disease. At least they don’t cause disease any more than, say, hearts cause heart attacks. But we tend to notice genes when they fail in spectacular ways.


When it comes to viruses, we have to admit that they often do cause disease. But of all the viruses out there, very few are interested in making us sick. And since they surround us in such a thick cloud, they can perform an under-appreciated role: gene libraries. They are busy little day traders, moving their stock of DNA and RNA in and out of cells all day long. As such, they’re in a good position to acquire, store, and transfer useful genetic knowledge that bigger folk might have written off. Like bacteria, they take a beating for causing various diseases without getting any compensating credit for their health-giving talents and, I think you’ll agree, good looks.

One of the fun things about viruses is that, being small, it’s relatively easy to take their (virtual) snapshots. Virusworld, based at the University of Wisconsin, keeps a regular family photo album of virus pictures. There are some real lookers in the bunch. Check out the handsome reovirus core. And the Norwalk virus that ruined your aunt’s last cruise is a charmer up close. We have such a comprehensive three-dimensional understanding of some viruses by now that we can print out solid copies of them, like this fist-sized version of the pariacoto virus. I find it amusing that this virus has caused us to print out giant versions of itself.

Tools (and talent)

I love a good tools talk. You listen to the great ones talk about the tools and techniques they use to get through the day, and by the end of it you’re inspired to go out and buy some software or some special Sakura pens and a Moleskine notebook or something like that. At its most delusional, this kind of thinking will convince you that you can play like Michael if you can just get a pair of those shoes. At the shallow end of the pool your thinking runs more like this: if I own that guitar, at least it won’t be the tool that stops me from being another Clapton.

I have a strong memory from years ago of cleaning up after a raucous party. A really talented pianist had played my piano, and the sounds it made for him astonished me. Long after the guests had left, I remember staring at that piano and thinking, that can’t be the same machine I play. It was surprised and hurt by my long accusing glare. It knew what I was thinking: why don’t you make those sounds for me?

I started down this line of thinking after reading a column David Pogue wrote on his productivity secrets. It was refreshing because he tells it like it is. Oh sure, you can buy iData and Dragon Naturally Speaking and maybe you too will soon have your own column in the New York Times. But near the end, Pogue drops the bomb.

I’m just the sort of person who kind of knows what he wants to say; I can’t remember ever staring at the blank screen, trying to think of what to write.

Oh, right… I can see how that would be useful.

Armed only with borrowed pen and paper, the impoverished James Joyce wrote Ulysses in a series of squalid noisy flats. Hmmm… what did he have that I don’t have? Maybe it was the shoes. To recap: to write your great novel, use a Mead Spiral Bound College Ruled Notebook, a Sanford Papermate #2 Pencil, and be ambitious, hard working, and fantastically talented.

‘Kay thanks bye.

Narrate your flight

Here’s a fun video from the BBC. It’s an un-narrated view of the F-22 Raptor flying at the Farnborough Air Show in England last summer. If you haven’t already, you should try to go to an air show at least once. Watching a plane pirouette like this in person is a visceral thrill that’s hard to capture online. Nevertheless, I’m glad the web loves me enough to bring movies like this, because it’s been a long time since I went to an air show.

Even more fun than straightforward “Hey that’s cool!” videos are the videos that are narrated by the practitioners and protagonists themselves. They can tell you where to pay attention. I’ve been to an air show before, but I’ve never in my life watched an air show while sitting next to a test pilot who carefully describes what he’s doing and why. Here’s the same F-22 show, only narrated by Lockheed Martin test pilot Al Norman. Now that’s what I’m talking about. Here’s a quote from five minutes in:

Coming up is a slow speed pass… at a very slow very stable airspeed, 80 knots, maybe a little less, and we could fly this all day long.

Not that he wants to fly slow all day long, given that he can go Mach 2 if he wants, but I just love the idea of a supersonic jet poking along not much faster than a go-cart (or maybe an unladen swallow).

Anyway, listening to expert practitioners talk about their craft fits in with the idea of narrating your work that Jon Udell likes to talk about. Diego Rodriguez likes to call this the Director’s Commentary. Whatever you call it, I agree that it’s a wonderful gift to sit next to the best and scoop booty.

If You Had Wings

In all likelihood this video will be completely uninteresting to you if you’re not me, so I’ll give you a little time to sort that out and decide if it’s worth continuing.


This is a low-quality video of a mediocre ride at Disney World taken in 1985. The ride, “If You Had Wings,” was sponsored by Eastern Airlines, and despite its modest ambition, it had a few things going for it. It was free, it was air-conditioned, and the line was always short. This was in the Age of the E Ticket, so it was good to have a place to get out of the Florida heat without burning through your book of ride tickets. Beyond this, the ride had a few nice touches. The most exciting to me was the so-called Speed Room, in which your Omnimover Chair moved toward a giant wrap-around screen while you watched movies that made it appear as if you were zooming along at high speed. Tame stuff compared to a modern IMAX film, but in the 1970s it was the cat’s pajamas, let me tell you. The best part was a little hack where they tilted the seat back to make it feel as though you were accelerating. It was a beautiful, simple, and very effective UI hack that took me a long time to figure out. This being the web, I was able to find this terrific page on the history of the ride. How gratifying to see the blueprint of the whole ride and hear the story of someone who worked there.

The ride also feature a catchy little song that looped hypnotically. I rode it over and over as a kid, and as I recently watched the video above I found myself enchanted just like my 12 year old self from years ago. The scary part is that I was last on the ride some 30 years ago, but I can remember every single one of those little scenes and video clips. Why am I storing all that? It seems very likely that this will be the song I sing in the nursing home: “If yooou had wiinngs… If yooou had wiinngs… If yooou had wings, had wings, had wiinngs.”

Doot Doot Garden Blog

More than a decade ago, I came across a little hand-drawn journal in a second-hand bookstore in Cambridge. Written by Dan Price, it was called the Moonlight Chronicles, and I was completely charmed by the beautiful drawings and the quirky descriptions of his life and travels. Ten years later, at another Cambridge store, I happened on another inspirational drawn travelogue. This one was called Carnet de Voyage, and the art, by Craig Thompson, is far more virtuosic than Price’s oddball line drawings. But the charm is the same: an eccentric aesthete takes you for a walkabout looking through their talented eyes. In this case, Thompson is traveling around France and Morocco. The artwork is really gorgeous.

I went on to buy Thompson’s larger opus Blankets, which is another amazing piece of work, and after that I tracked down his blog, Doot Doot Garden. The blog is fun because you get to see him unfold some of his creative process, from the tools he uses to unpublished sketches and work in progress. And, as with all cartoonists, you will eventually find a long thoughtful interview in The Comics Journal.

For some reason, I find comics artists as a rule to be far more articulate and engaging in describing their artistic process than a typical musician, writer, or purely visual artist. I’m not sure if that’s because of the nature of the work (being both graphical and narrative) or that I simply enjoy the medium. In any event, I highly recommend Blankets, Carnet de Voyage, and old copies of the Moonlight Chronicles, if you’re lucky enough to find some.

The World of Tomorrow

It’s fun to chuckle while watching old and errant predictions of the future, like this one of Disney’s House of the Future. After watching a few of these videos, I have decided that the thing I miss most about the future-that-didn’t happen isn’t so much the jetpack or the silvery jumpsuits, but the chirpy background music. The voice-over is so close to self-parody that I can’t help being charmed: “While Father has a quick electronic shave… Junior brightens up ‘here and there’ with the electric toothbrush!” Here’s a longer and more informative promotional video. The repetitive bragging about plastics isn’t surprising given that the house’s sponsor is the Monsanto Chemical Company’s Plastics Division. But just imagine how the same premise would be received today. Start packing, sweetie! A giant chemical corporation is building us a plastic house! [cue music]

But suppose we uncovered an old prediction that got the future exactly right. What would that look like? Maybe something like this: The Astounding World of the Future.

I love the stress that the announcer puts on the words: “You’re welcome Mr. Robot Banker! Have a nice day!” It’s easy to do a bad world-of-the-future parody, but this is very well done and worth watching all the way through. And they got the music right too. (spotted on Steve Crandall’s blog)

Path Dependency in Economic Development

How is it that two people with similar talents and backgrounds can end up in such different places? This is the old nature versus nurture problem, and one way to unwind it is in terms of path dependence. Early choices, choices that may appear trivial at the time, lead to vastly different outcomes because of the branching structure of outcomes and future options. As Robert Frost says, “knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.” According to this line of reasoning, you don’t need genetic determinism to explain big differences. The same rain drop, depending on where it falls, can just as easily end up in the Atlantic as the Pacific.

This same reasoning can be applied on larger scales. How can two similarly situated countries diverge so dramatically? A look around the globe provides some fascinating case studies. Haiti and the Dominican Republic. North and South Korea. Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Here’s something I’ve always wondered about: why isn’t Argentina better off than it is? In Paul Kedrosky’s blog I came across this Financial Times treatment of the U.S. vs. Argentina and path dependency in economic development: Argentina: The superpower that never was.

That’s the weird thing about history. It coulda turned out different, ya know?

Infectious information

Words and virus particles are both infectious units of information that depend on human vehicles for transport. Their flows are often correlated too, since a quarantine on words can cause an outbreak of virus. The Spanish flu flared so spectacularly in part because no one was willing to talk about it; wartime censorship locked down information about the disease. The very name Spanish flu came about because the neutral Spaniards were the only ones willing to talk about it in their relatively unfettered newspapers. In the honored tradition of shooting messengers, whoever comes forward to announce a disease is forever linked to it by name. Or, as we used to say in high school, the smeller is the feller.

The phrase Spanish influenza still sounds chilling to my ear. Our latest flu may or may not be on so destructive a course, but in terms of pure poetry, which sounds most menacing: Mexican flu, swine flu, or H1N1? This last one, H1N1, has the sinister sound of a science fiction villain, but I prefer it. Its name is based not on origin but on content. Since it describes the actual nature of the virus, it gives me a certain semantic power that the dark image of a rooting pig does not. Semantic power may not prevent you from getting sick, but it can inoculate you against the formidable informational aspects of the flu: dread and panic. As these spread more quickly and widely than the flu itself, this data vaccine should not be lightly dismissed.

H1N1 is a shorthand that, like a Mafia nickname, both describes and identifies. Fat Tony. Frankie the Beard. “Big Cough” Fluey. If you were a lung cell, you would see H1N1 coming and recognize him by his fancy coat, a protein coat studded with hemagglutinin subtype 1 (H1) and neuraminidase subtype 1 (N1).

To underscore the informational nature of viruses, here’s the genome: GenBank sequences from 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak. It’s all there. Need some virus? Ask a DNA synthesis vendor (like Mr. Gene) to print some up for you. Should we suppress the NIH web site that tells you how to make H1N1? Or would that merely encourage the wild publication of the virus inside human rib cages around the world? It’s a complex game of information trade-offs, but one thing’s for sure. We’re better off now than we were in 1918.