Mad Men Redux

The excellent Mad Men Unbuttoned blog points out two bits you may have missed:

  • Joan wears the fur Roger gave her on her “date”; and
  • It turns out Lane’s commentary on Pete — a “grimy little pimp” — was a bit of foreshadowing.

What You Need To Do

Go see American Falls by Miki Johnson, over at DiverseWorks.

Mrs Heathen and I have just come from opening night, and I’m still processing it, but I can say this: It’s one of the most affecting, beautiful, amazing things I’ve seen on stage. It’s truly remarkable. I see lots and lots of plays. I see lots of plays with these people in them. I don’t see many plays that leave a lump in my throat or my eyes wet. This one did.

I’m going back tomorrow, because that’s the only time I can. Show runs through June 9. Don’t miss this. When people talk about what’s amazing about Houston’s arts community, it’s work like this that they mean.

Trust me. I know things.

Egan on Twitter: It’s like your grandpa trying to rap

Last year, I read the otherwise brilliant A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. It’s a fine (and interestingly structured) novel of modern life, but it’s marred pretty seriously by a hamfisted stab at “modernity” or “experimentalism”: Egan renders one chapter as a PowerPoint-style presentation (presumably because in her life as a writer she’s never really exposed to the horror that is PowerPoint in American business life).

No, I’m not kidding. It’s the sort of overly precious goofball conceit you sometimes see in experimental writers (and Egan has certainly got some metafiction DNA), but not really in good ones. Frankly, I completely support attempting something like this — I mean, why not? — but part of being “experimental” is knowing when to wash your attempts down the lab drain instead of foisting them on a reading public.

Obviously, opinions vary on this — Goon Squad won big awards — but as a veteran of an English department I know all too well that some writers’ shit doesn’t stink, and that authors with the reputation Egan has can get away with things that others couldn’t. Sometimes, they’re even praised for it. Inshallah.

Anyway, fresh off the goofball presentation chapter, we find now the news that Egan will tweet a short story for the New Yorker. What’s hilarious, sad, and graspy about this is that Egan has no real Twitter presence today. There’s nothing linked on her site, and a Google search turns up only an account (@EganGoonSquad) presumably started to promote her last book, and probably not run by her at all. It hardly matters; there are only 7 tweets spread between August 2010 and the day before yesterday.

What this suggests is that, like the PowerPoint gimmick, this will be a nonnative usage of an established form by a writer mining for novelty, not narrative or story or character. Egan is not a digital native. She has no real online presence, nor any real engagement with social media or blogging or anything of the sort. Consequently, what’s likely to happen is that she’ll chop a story into 140-character bits, have an assistant type it in, and bask in the glow of an “experimental short story” that’s essentially free of any experimental character; after all, serialization is a 19th century technique.

If she or her editors had any grasp of the culture of Twitter, this might’ve been interesting. Twitter is not a broadcast medium; Twitter is a conversation. Chopping an otherwise unremarkable short story into 140-character pieces isn’t particularly inventive, and is unlikely to include anything unique to the form.

Further, Egan’s little stunt overshadows the countless inventive uses of Twitter already happening — there’s fiction there, and character-based commentary, and a whole host of other genuinely novel expressions that Egan apparently knows nothing about.

What we’re left with, then, is an old-school magazine (which I love) and a Boomer writer establishing in a very public way how little they understand about the online world. Again.


Dept. of Missed Opportunities

The iPad is now in its third year, and it’s difficult to overstate the impact its had on computing, especially portable computing. I know it’s certainly changed the way I interact with the richness of the web, for example, and has made it vastly easier to have a ridiculous amount of information just a few taps away — and on a big screen. I love that.

Because I am a giant literature nerd, though, one of the most exciting developments on the iPad was, at least for me, this edition of The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot’s masterwork. Dense with allusion and reference, it’s a poem that’s launched a thousand dissertations and annotations. And the folks at TouchPress realized they could bundle the text with reams of backing information, readings, annotations, and reference material in a single beautiful package on the iPad.

(Older Heathen will remember that there were attempts at this sort of rich publishing model in the initial CD-ROM boom, but the iPad gives us a much richer experience.)

I hoped that the warm reception (and immediate financial success) of The Waste Land app would mean we’d see similar treatments of important works — and especially important works that were logistically hard to carry around. The two that I’d most love to see are Ulysses and Infinite Jest, which also happen to be two of my favorite novels. In either case I’d gleefully pay for a work again just to have a bundled experience of the quality delivered with The Waste Land.

And yet: Nothing. And I’m not the only one who’s noticed, either. Won’t someone make this happen?

Dept. of Crazybats in Houston

Local shutterbug and tech guru Jay Lee cuts a relatively wide path in Houston between his column at the Chronicle and his radio show over at KPFT. He’s also been investigating just how often his (quite good) photography is being used illegally by other sites.

This story of what happened when GoDaddy (correctly) shut down one offending site is pretty amazing. tl;dr? The site owner — some local lawyer named Candice Schwager — went full crazybats on him, accusing him of being in cahoots with her political enemies, threatening to sue, and the whole nine yards. Seriously wackdoodle stuff.

For maximum lulz, read her account and compare it to Jay’s. We’re not friends, but we have lots of friends in common; he’s a nice, friendly guy who would just prefer folks not view his Flickr stream as a stock photo catalog, and he’s within his rights to feel that way.

Well, Candy, welcome to Google.

Update: Jay had to take down the post, but there’s a mirror here, which happened after the post made it to Slashdot. Meanwhile, the attorney bullying him still has her one-sided rant about it over on her blog. What a tool.

Dept. of Obsessive Attention to Detail in Mad Men

It should surprise precisely nobody that Matthew Weiner is very, very careful about the correct current events in Mad Men, even including what play Don and Megan went to see.

(Also cute: the modern Hare Krishna movement — more formally known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ISKCON — was founded in New York in 1966, just months before the last night’s Christmastime episode.)

Update: It gets deeper. I’m informed via the Well that:

  • The diner Crane and Kinsey meet in at the end of the episode is identifiably Ratner’s, which happens to be just down the street from an actual ISKCON storefront on 2nd Avenue.

  • Mohawk was hit by a strike in December of 1966, which lasted until the end of January.

Yet more reasons to love Miles Davis

From this Guardian piece, pointed out to us by BoingBoing:

In 1987, he was invited to a White House dinner by Ronald Reagan. Few of the guests appeared to know who he was. During dinner, Nancy Reagan turned to him and asked what he’d done with his life to merit an invitation. Straight-faced, Davis replied: “Well, I’ve changed the course of music five or six times. What have you done except fuck the president?”

Gizmodo on Flickr

This is widely linked, but still worth reviewing: How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet.

It’s a common story: successful small company is swallowed and destroyed by a larger, more established firm in a futile effort to extract the value. Stories like this are almost certainly a big reason why Mark Zuckerberg has maintained complete control over Facebook, and will continue to control a simple majority of the voting shares even after the IPO.

Flickr is dying. This kills me, because I’ve got years of photos and annotations there that, I suspect, will eventually need to be migrated elsewhere. That sucks. It sucks even more because it didn’t have to be this way; this is only the endgame because Yahoo has been traditionally run by chuckleheads.

Dear Continental

I think we need to see other airlines. You had to see this coming. Since you hooked up with United, things just haven’t been the same. You gave all this lip service to preserving your customer service culture, but no one was surprised to see how quickly United’s “fuck you, that’s why” attitude took over.

Fortunately, I live in Houston, and most of the places I need to go are serviced by Southwest. The airport is closer, the planes are always normal sized (and not tiny regional jets piloted by 22 year olds), and (more importantly) I avoid your new worldview.

I thought I was going to take one last great flight with you, you know. I have business in the UAE this summer, and flying round trip to the mid-east would very nearly lock in my elite status for 2013. However, since we’re a third party on the deal, we can’t get the client to pop for business class — and we all know what a cattle pen your economy is, especially after United took over.

On the other hand, Emirates flies direct from Houston to Dubai. United connects in DC or Frankfurt. And — not to put too fine a point on it — no one would suggest your coach service is anywhere near what Emirates offers for essentially the same price. Game, set, match to Emirates — even without this really great song from their most recent commercial. That you can get a friendly, helpful, knowledgeable Emirates rep on the phone in mere moments is simply gravy at this point.

It’s been fun, Continental. I’m sorry you’ve chosen this path, but I’m glad I have options. And I’m glad this ticket — the most expensive of my air travel career, I’ll note — isn’t fueling your new, customer-hostile direction.

Dear Atwood: Shut Up.

I’m not sure any post here has ever needed an epigram, but this one does:

Normal people don’t see exceptions to rules as a big deal, so they forget to mention them. This is why programmers drink so much. — Rob Norris

Rob is one of my oldest friends. I’ve known him for 30 years at least. He’s also a programmer by trade. This quote — which I pulled from a conversation we had about customers and requirements and the difficulty in building the thing the client needs, but doesn’t know how to ask for — could have come from any of a hundred or more conversations he and I have had about the issue over the years, or a thousand or more conversations I’ve had with other colleagues about precisely the same issue.

More than anything else, this is the crux of the thing that programmers and other software development professionals complain about when they go to lunch or happy hours. Not coincidentally, it’s probably also the basis for what noncoders complain about when they talk about programmers. It’s the key issue that separates a coder of any level from the rest of the planet: the ability to understand what the actual rules are, and why exceptions matter. You can’t get to the next level of technical literacy — which things are hard and which things are easy — without this. Taken together, a customer who understands enough about these two basic computing truths is (first) a way better customer to work with. There will be much less drinking! And second, he’s going to be a much happier customer, because communication with him will be easier. But without either, you almost can’t communicate at all.

In my entire 20+ year career of managing projects and writing code, I’ve had maybe one or two customers who actually understood these points. This is because, to a first approximation, nearly everyone outside the programming trade is technologically illiterate when it comes to software development. They don’t get it, and they have never tried to understand it at all. Their computers are mysteries to them. I’ve seen very, very smart people flail utterly when Excel did something they didn’t understand, and you have, too. This failure is because, in part, the machine is a mystery, and they have no idea how the underlying parts work.

So now, this year, there’s a movement called CodeYear whose goal is to teach anyone who’s curious the basics of programming. This is a GREAT idea. It’s not about making everyone a programmer, and it’s certainly not about trying to recruit more professionals. A year isn’t going to make anyone a wunderkind, or really even hirable most likely. What a year of spare time development tutorials will do, though, is make you more conversant in the concepts that, every day, drive an increasingly large proportion of the world around you.

Damn, you must be thinking, that’s a good idea! And it is. It’s a very, very good idea. Spreading understanding — about anything — is never a bad plan.

Unless, apparently, you’re Jeff Atwood over at Coding Horror, who has missed the point of this exercise so much that I really think he might be trolling. Atwood has been, up to now, a fairly well regarded development blogger. I read him from time to time. But he could NOT be more off base here. He comes off as a weird tech-priesthood elitist, and totally ignores the very basic points I note above.

In his misbegotten essay, he even suggests that swapping “coding” with “plumbing” shows everyone how ridiculous the idea is — except, well, normal people already understand way more about plumbing than they do about programming, and a good chunk of them can fix a leaky faucet or clear out a sink trap on their own. Not only is it a good idea for folks to learn a bit about plumbing, in other words, it’s already happened — and there’s entire libraries worth of DIY books to help you expand that knowledge as a layperson. Atwood is too in love with his metaphor to notice, I guess.

He runs on to whine that the effort will result in more bad code in the world, while “real” programmers strive to write at little as possible. While true, this is like saying children shouldn’t learn the basics of grammar because it’ll interfere with the work of poets.

Like I said, it’s almost like he’s trolling, and maybe he is. I’m sure Coding Horror is getting a massive influx of traffic because of the (nearly universal) condemnation of his reactionary rant. It’s more likely, though, that his tantrum is more due to the sort of knee-jerk contrarianism that runs through a great chunk of the technical world (why else do you think so many developers worship Ron Paul?), but that’s not really an excuse.

My hope is that most people will ignore Atwood’s rant, and instead avail themselves of the excellent resources that CodeAcademy has made available for this project. They are, I should note, free.

Finally, I’ll just offer this:

Exactly. FWIW, Jeffrey also shared a couple more links on Twitter that are worth your time if this dialog interests you:

Read ’em both.

More highway robbery — by cops, obviously

Something really, really, really has to be done about forfeiture laws that allow cops to “impound” cash without charging or convicting the money’s owner with a crime. George Renby was pulled over for simple speeding in Tennessee. The cop asked if he had a large amount of cash on him, and Renby — confident that it was his right as an American to do so — said yes.

He didn’t see his $20,000 again for four months.

Again, I feel strongly that a key piece of the solution is a drastic rollback of the immunity cops now enjoy. This cop needs to fat lawsuit, as does the jurisdiction.