aug 07

8/31/2007

GOOGLE TRENDS AND CROSSWORD KEYS

One of the first sites I look at in the morning is Google trends. Sometimes I can figure out the source to some search spikes. For example, after an episode of Top Chef aired, when one participant said, “We think just about everything tastes better with sriracha” (she even used it in ice cream,) the following day, the hot sauce was on Google Trends’ top 10. But if you didn’t watch the episode, you would have no idea why.

Most of the time the list is a standard fare of today’s newsmakers, like the top search trend today, Dana Perino (Tony Snow’s replacement.) But don’t ask me about number 2 on that list – “ezekiel 20 29.” If there is a reason for the 5% search increase in Atlanta, GA peeking two hours ago, well, I don’t know it. (The passage, by the way is, “Then I said unto them, What [is] the high place whereunto ye go? And the name thereof is called Bamah unto this day.”)

And some things on the list are completely out of left field, like the peek this morning for people searching for “the dram shop author.” The related searches are no help, “hyena, dram shop author, aardwolf, scarab, royal jelly.” Huh? So I plugged in “dram shop author, aardwolf,” expecting to find, gosh I don’t know, Sisters of Mercy lyrics? It turns out these are clues from the July 20th New York Times crossword puzzle. But, umm, that was over a month ago, why would it be a popular search today? I can only imagine it has been syndicated elsewhere, but who knows? The blogs say nothing. (Frustratingly, the sidebar at Google trends for blog posts is a spam magnet with cut-and-pastes of the day’s list.)

And “dram shop author” is not as literal a clue as one would think. The book is better known, even in English translation, as “L’assommoir” (by Zola.) I imagine Will Shortz has an extra burden now, avoiding answers that can easily be found on search engines.

Posted by site admin at 2:25 pm |

8/16/2007

WELCOME TO SPOOK COUNTRY

My review of William Gibson’s Spook Country is in the Philly Inquirer today.

Posted by site admin at 9:25 am |

8/14/2007

$TUDY ABROAD

I’ve been trying to talk my sister out of a very, very pricey three week long “study abroad” in Sydney, explaining that for the price she could just as well live in Australia for several months and still have some money to see parts of Asia too. But my sister has never traveled out of the country before, and for that reason, I understand her hesitation doing so without an organized group taking care of the itineraries, accommodation, and other planning.

Yesterday, the New York Times showed just why studying abroad is so expensive. Unsurprisingly, the nonprofit groups that organize these programs have rent-seeking schemes similar to the student loan industry, doling out free trips for school officials and cash bonuses per student signed on:

American Institute for Foreign Study offers college officials a free trip to one of its overseas sites for every 15 students that sign on and a 5 percent share of the fees that students pay, according to a copy of its agreement with the University of Mary Washington; if fewer than 15 sign on, the payback is 2 percent. According to its Web site, the institute has deals with universities nationwide, including the University of California, Berkeley; Fordham and Pace in New York, and Rice in Houston.

Amy Bartnick-Blume, a vice president of the nonprofit Institute for Study Abroad, which is affiliated with Butler University in Indiana, said the institute gave colleges with which it has “exclusive agreements” up to $500 per student for restricting them to the institute’s programs in a given region. The practice in effect shuts out the competition. Ms. Bartnick-Blume said that the colleges decide whether to pass the savings on to students and that the institute had no way of knowing how many do…
Many public universities, especially, encourage students to deal directly with the foreign institution to lower costs, even if they also have arrangements with outside providers. Experts in the field say private colleges are increasingly taking the opposite tack, charging full at-home tuition and doling out a fraction to an outside provider or university abroad, pocketing the difference.

And if a student doesn’t pick a school-sponsored program, he runs the risk of having his study abroad credits rejected by his university.

The article doesn’t mention it, but programs might still be cheaper than a school’s tuition. I studied abroad in the Czech Republic, which, would have cost under $3,000 a semester if I signed up on my own, but cost about $15,000 through the program. That’s not so bad compared to your average private college tuition, but one has to wonder where did the $12,000 go?

Posted by site admin at 7:29 am |

8/13/2007

A 700 WORD JG BALLARD NOVEL

… is in The Guardian today. Check it out: airplanes, eco-activists, camps, people with dramatic names (“Merrick”) – it’s all there.

Posted by site admin at 3:42 pm |

8/11/2007

THE BURDEN OF THE TRAILER PARK

Witold Rybczynski’s slideshow on prefab houses questions whether they are more than just a fad in coffee-table books. For a little more than the cost of a Prius, you can load all your Mac and IKEA gear into this 1,150-square-foot model:

Well, $35,923 buys you the exterior. Plumbing, heating, interior walls, and other things will triple or quadruple that price. Throw in land and it is not a bargain at all. Last year, Target ran into this problem when it designed prefab garden pavilions (“home extensions.”) While the scheme of picking out colors and designs on a website is a fun one, the final price was estimated to be $40,000. Unsurprisingly, they are no longer available.

Rybczynski points to trailer homes, at an average price of $35,000, as the “most radical form of prefab housing.” They are produced entirely in a factory and towed to a site. But mobile homes too, have hidden costs. One of the comments corrects this assumption:

While [mobile homes] can be towed away, the vast, overwhelming majority are towed away solely to the dump. I’ve yet to meet a mobile home owner who has moved his house from one lot to another. 

Because the lots are leased, rather than purchased, the home owner is at the mercy of his lot owner, generally a mobile home park. Rents can and are raised and the fact the house will unlikely survive a move, holds the home owner hostage to the increases. Many parks do not allow used homes to be brought in, so even if the house were to survive the move, they are few places to go. Worse, the cost of disassembly and re-connection often exceeds that of a newly purchased home.

For every 100 trailers sold in 2001, 20 were repossessed. And the value of a typical manufactured home declines to half its original price in as little as three years, meaning no equity to build up for a downpayment on a conventional home. This 2004 report shows the cost of moving a trailer is $3,000 or more. Faced with eviction, most people simply abandon their dwelling. And eviction is a perpetual threat. “Being landless leaves trailer owners at the park landlord’s mercy,” explains one of the authors “Because the park is private property, the owners have little recourse if they’re evicted.” She even compares it to “serfdom.” 

Then there is the problem that nearby property owners think neighboring trailer parks lower real estate worth – so they use zoning laws and bogus crime statistics to do what they can to kick them out. Wikipedia shows the problem began when they started getting taxed as homes rather than vehicles, even though mobile homes depreciate in value over time like motor vehicles.

 

Posted by site admin at 9:17 am |

8/10/2007

THE DANGEROUS BOOK FOR GIRLS

Conn and Hal Iggulden’s The Dangerous Book for Boys – “the perfect book for every boy from eight to eighty” – is a bestseller stateside, after selling over 750,000 copies (quite a lot) in the UK since its release last year. Just a look at the adorably retro hardback cover should give you an idea of its contents:

 

See? Now don’t you want to buy this for the former-Webelo in your life? It’s packed with plenty of miscellany – How to manuals on knots, magic tricks, and making marbling paper. Latin phrases, maps of things like the Battle of Waterloo, and diagraming what to do if you break a window. Just by owning it, you can pretend you’ll put down your Blackberry this Sunday and go fishing or something.

Jenny Turner explains in The Guardian, “It’s not just a compendium of stuff to know or do – it’s a fantasy of reparation. Men buy this book to revisit their own boyhoods, and to visit their own boyhoods on their sons. Obviously, this is an artefact of middle-class nostalgia – a complicated phenomenon, but one which, in a preliminary definition, involves looking both ways, backwards and forwards, with fear and aspiration in equal measure.” (via Things magazine.)

It was only a matter of time before the “for girls” version hit shelves. The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls by Rosemary Davidson and Sarah Vine just made its UK debut, and John Crace’s digested read suggests it is worse than you can imagine, (“you can still learn a lot from the 1950s. Back then, every naice young country gell knew how to make daisy chains and polish their brother’s shoes, and some of us – not you, Rosemary – even went on to marry her very own Tory boy!”)

Turner says friends were “horrified by the gender stereotyping,” but she explains, “Such books are not really meant to be read at all. They are what the publishing trade calls ‘gift books’, for people who don’t much enjoy reading to present to people they don’t really know or like.”

Still, it makes me sad to think there’s any market for a book boiling girlhood fantasies down to darning socks, being a better friend, and baking “fairy” cakes. It seems the younger generation is so much more gender-identified than in my youth. Club Libby-Lu (a hair salon/makeup studio for children) is a more popular young lady birthday destination than Chunk E. Cheese. And while one might argue contemporary girl’s fashion simply apes the looks they see on older sisters – you can’t double-dutch in slim fit jeans.

Turner explains, “In the early 21st century, children’s toys and clothes are far more gender-differentiated than they were 20 or 30 years ago – it’s the obvious way to get people buying, not just one of something, but two or three or four”

Posted by site admin at 11:02 am |

8/9/2007

LIE SOCIETY

Lie detectors are kind of like Ouija boards. Over twenty years ago, 60 Minutes hired several polygraphers to catch an alleged thief of photographic equipment. Each was told a different “suspect” was the likely guilty party. Unsurprisingly, the polygraphs each favored the suspect that was brought to his attention. And yet, that technology is still in use today. Only fMRI technology – measuring brain activity rather than physiological changes – might make the polygraph obsolete. But its level of accuracy is widely in dispute.

Margaret Talbot’s New Yorker article on proprietary fMRI technology begins by shattering a misconception even people well-versed in pop-neurology believe: that lies physically manifest.

People who are afraid of being disbelieved, even when they are telling the truth, may well look more nervous than people who are lying. This is bad news for the falsely accused, especially given that influential manuals of interrogation reinforce the myth of the twitchy liar. “Criminal Interrogation and Confessions” (1986), by Fred Inbau, John Reid, and Joseph Buckley, claims that shifts in posture and nervous “grooming gestures,” such as “straightening hair” and “picking lint from clothing,” often signal lying. David Zulawski and Douglas Wicklander’s “Practical Aspects of Interview and Interrogation” (1992) asserts that a liar’s movements tend to be “jerky and abrupt” and his hands “cold and clammy.” Bunching Kleenex in a sweaty hand is another damning sign—one more reason for a sweaty-palmed, Kleenex-bunching person like me to hope that she’s never interrogated. 

She goes on to explain a less-than-obvious reason that we take honesty for granted:

People are also blinkered by the “truthfulness bias”: the vast majority of questions we ask of other people—the time, the price of the breakfast special—are answered honestly, and truth is therefore our default expectation. Then, there’s the “learning-curve problem.” We don’t have a refined idea of what a successful lie looks and sounds like, since we almost never receive feedback on the fibs that we’ve been told; the co-worker who, at the corporate retreat, assured you that she loved your presentation doesn’t usually reveal later that she hated it. As [Maureen O’Sullivan, a deception researcher at the University of San Francisco] puts it, “By definition, the most convincing lies go undetected.

So, if we tend to believe everyone is honest except Generalized Anxiety Disorder sufferers, the perpetuation of “lie detecting” technology makes sense, even if the results are far from fail-proof. But a major problem with lie detectors is that the machine can work as its own placebo:

People who believe that they are in the presence of an infallible machine sometimes confess, and this is counted as an achievement of the polygraph. (According to law-enforcement lore, the police have used copy machines in much the same way: They tell a suspect to place his hand on a “truth machine”—a copier in which the paper has “LIE ” printed on it. When the photocopy emerges, it shows the suspect’s hand with “LIE ” stamped on it.)

Talbot interviews No Lie MRI founder Joel Huizenga, who for $10,000 will tell you whether your girlfriend is cheating on you or not (provided she agrees to sit down for a scan, rather than slaps you in the face if you even ask.) “What do people lie about?” he says. “Sex, power, and money—probably in that order.” 

No Lie uses fMRI technology to detect changes in blood flow and blood oxygenation in the brain. Apparently, liars use certain parts of the brain that honest people do not, and thus the patterns of oxygen flow can be traced. The problem is even these machines only offer 90% accuracy, (the polygraph is estimated between 61%-85% accuracy, which makes me believe that after several more tests the fMRI will be found even less accurate.) Ten percent might seem like nothing on a calculus exam, but for someone on death row, that’s a huge risk of inaccuracy.

Unfortunately, fMRI, as a new-new thing, is thought to be future-forward. Countless “journalistic accounts of the new technology—accompanied by colorful bitmapped images of the brain in action—resemble science fiction themselves.” She notes a Yale grad student’s study on how the three words “Brain scans indicate” sometimes make test subjects believe things they would otherwise find preposterous.

But the bigger issue seems to be the concept of a lie:

The word “lie” is so broad that it’s hard to imagine that any test, even one that probes the brain, could detect all forms of deceit: small, polite lies; big, brazen, self-aggrandizing lies; lies to protect or enchant our children; lies that we don’t really acknowledge to ourselves as lies; complicated alibis that we spend days rehearsing. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine that all these lies will bear the identical neural signature. In their degrees of sophistication and detail, their moral weight, their emotional valence, lies are as varied as the people who tell them. As Montaigne wrote, “The reverse side of the truth has a hundred thousand shapes and no defined limits.”

If the definition of a lie doesn’t neatly fit in a box, how can we imagine it boxed in the brain? 

Posted by site admin at 5:18 pm |

THE SECRET FOR BOYS

Funny, I always thought the way to get any woman to fall for you is to look and act like (if not be) Peter Krause. But apparently it has something to do with carrying binoculars, hair bleach, and RPG-inspired pseudonyms. Yep, I’m talking about how to get your game on, playa. The“Seduction community,” in Wikipediaspeak, has been around pretty much as long as the social web ( I remember “LOL”-ing over alt.seduction.fast in high school.) Post-blog explosion, you can read about the exploits of PUAs of all ethnicities, class distinctions, and subcultures (even vegans!) Now, it’s the subject of a VH-1 reality show. Here’s show’s host Mystery in action:

Watching it, I realized just how perfectly cast Tom Cruise was as the Neil Strauss-inspired character in Magnolia. Mystery (every time I type his name I feel like I have to add some kind of sarcastic comment) is completely humorless … in other words, he is dead serious about the “venusian arts.” And what is that thing we are told always ranks higher than looks and money and everything else on importance to women in a mate? I really can’t imagine him every cracking a non-smug grin. There wasn’t much to plot either, even for a reality show. Basically, seven slightly dorky guys were sent into an Austin club with a secret camera. All of them tried to pick up. All of them failed. Later, Mystery and his equally absurd-looking “wingmen” (both of them “graduates” of his program) go in and clean up the girls (now much more intoxicated.)

In an awkward/hilarious interview with Conan O’Brien, he stresses the importance of “getting out of the house” and “peacocking” – dressing with usual pieces for attention. If you get out of the house, you are more likely to meet girls. If you wear something weird, girls will comment on it. The more girls you talk to, the more likely you score. It’s salesman logic through and through. Come to think of it, I have struck up conversations – and subsequently given my number out to – guys wearing Nixon Rotologs. Then again, all of them were gay.

So isn’t it just The Secret for boys? The basis seems much less on evolutionary psychology than positive-thinking. They owe about as much to Matt Ridley and Geoffrey Miller as Rhonda Byrne does to Siddhartha.

And good luck negging your way to kino with a two-set, if everyone in the world now knows what the game is about. I think this guy – in the YouTube comments – has got the right idea, “I met a girl in a bar one night that seen the same episode,and we spent about an hour ripping Mystery apart and laughing. There was probably nothing else in common me and this bitch had. Bottom line is Mystery got me laid that night,so i guess i am a fan. I encourage others to use this approach, you can call it the Jax method. Find a girl who has heard of Mystery, and then rip him apart till she is in tears. I find this technique to be the easiest, most efficient and the most fun. Good luck men!”

Posted by site admin at 3:06 pm |

8/3/2007

OFFICE SLAVES?

Do you think white-collar executives are subconsciously nostalgic for the Southern Plantation experience? Intel’s advertising team seems to think so, otherwise they would never let this go to press:

Intel has since issued a weak apology.

More telling is how Gizmodo comments are littered with “hey lighten up. it’s just an ad!!!” glib. Only one of the comments seems to know what’s up:

I used to work in advertising.
It is all about subtext and implication. Watch a few minutes of TV commercials and it is impossible to not to see the sexual subtext to most ads. in a very perverted way. Advertising doesnt work by appealing to your intellect, it works on emotions and impulses.
This ad is obviously constructed to appeal to the power hungry sadist in most management types.
“Bow to me cubicle slaves! I work in an OFFICE! With 2 windows!”
It’s an ad about “maximizing the power of your employees”.
you do see that this sentence refers to people as objects that are “yours”? Again this wouldnt be weird if it was a bunch of whites, or a mix of dudes.

BTW even on a full page ad in a couple of regional free weeklies you can be guaranteed there were at least 2 teleconferences and 3 or 4 sit downs to sit around and point fingers at proofs. Basically so some management type can display their knowledge of the word “font”. The idea that this was unintentional is laughable. Ad types are some of the most cynical people you will meet outside of the Military Industrial Complex. I think it was more likely someone thought they would slip it under the radar.

It’s unquestionably racist. But is it more racist than Anthropologie’s Upper West Side “hired help” fantasy? – another company whose PR department is working overtime this month

Back to re-reading Pattern Recognition

Posted by site admin at 11:22 am |

8/2/2007

SUBLIMINAL LINKS

I’m right now working on a book review and all I really want to do is steal what Nancy Franklinwrote in her latest column, “Have any states yet legalized marriage between human beings and TV shows? If so, I’m going to throw a few things in a bag and run off with Mad Men,” (replace “TV shows” with books and “Mad Men” with William Gibson’s oeuvre. )

Here are the articles distracting me in the meantime:

  • LA Weekly on Theresa Duncan (“I knew her, and I knew that much of what she wrote about her world was an elaborate tale, taken as fact by the uninitiated…”) and the LA Times (“In a 27-page “chronology” written by Blake in October in preparation for a lawsuit against the church that was never filed, he alleges the couple was “methodically defamed, harassed, followed and threatened” by Scientologists. The document lists Tom Cruise, filmmaker-artist-author Miranda July, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, former Viacom Chief Executive Tom Freston, alternative rocker Beck and Art Forum Editor Tim Griffin, among others, as players in the dispute. In addition, a number of Hollywood talent agents and major league art collectors were accused of being in on the conspiracy…”) Both articles are very researched, very stirring pieces that bring to mind Sally Quinn’s 1974 Christine Chubbuck obit
  • Clay Shirky rejects the “myth of liberation” on his blog (“Creators work within whatever constraints exist at the time they are creating, and when the old constraints give way, new forms arise while old ones dwindle. Some work from the older forms will survive — Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet remains a masterwork — while other work will wane — Exile as an album-length experience is a fading memory. ..”)
  • Unfortunately, I missed the Hiroshi Sugimoto exhibit at the De Young in San Francisco last month, but I will try to catch Kohei Yoshiyuki, another Japanese black-and-white photographer, at Yossi Milo in NYC (via Your Daily Awesome.)
  • And if your house is a mess, just a dab of cleaning solution should get the job done.
Posted by site admin at 1:21 pm |

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