MarkBernstein.org
Mar 07 30 2007

Vile Bodies

by Evelyn Waugh

If you take advantage of the slightly-dull new girl who is tagging along with your cool crowd and go over to her place for a very-late-night party and then crash because you've lost your keys and wake up to find yourself in the guest bedroom at 10 Downing Street, you've entered Waugh's very bad day.

Inviting, readable, even exciting, Vile Bodies is often silly and contemptuous of its characters, but the silliness is mildly amusing. And mildness was doubtless the goal: these character would hate to be side-splitting just as they wouldn't want to fall in love or to take each other seriously.

This is, in short, a sad, regrettable book that lacks sympathy for its characters and that ridicules and punishes them terribly for being themselves and for inhabiting the world the author chose to inflict on them. But it's also a delightful classic. It's lasted seventy years without aging, and its influence pervades literature from Dorothy Sayers to Jay McInerny to Chuck Palahniuk.

Swimming With Dolphins
photo: Linda Thorsen
At Novo Airão, there's a riverside fish place where you can tie up and feed the pink dolphins that swim in the Rio Negro. You can swim here, too, without too much worrying about pirhanas — because the dolphins find pirhana very tasty indeed.

The dolphins are free to come and go as they like; five or six seemed inclined to play this morning. They like the free fish a lot, and don't mind a few people wandering about. The people don't seem to be much competition for the fish. Occasionally, a dolphin might give you a bump or a little nibble, just to remind you to behave.

Swimming With Dolphins

Novo Airão has groceries and taxicycles and lots of political signage. And of course it has internet cafés. And there I was, too.

Swimming With Dolphins
photo: Linda Thorsen

We have photos, too, of Linda swimming with the dolphins, but they're in Awe's camera. Hope they come out!

Hilarious answers to exam questions: They Didn't Study. Thanks John Gruber .

Mar 07 29 2007

Black Water

The Amazon meets the great Rio Negro at Manaus.

Black Water

The Amazon flows quickly and is filled with silt from the Andes. Many of its tributaries are fast, silt-filled rivers, too.

The Rio Negro, like lots of other Amazon tributaries, drains a large basin (and so it's a large river) but it's not a mountain river and it doesn;t have much silt. Because the rainforest soil is poor and thin, plants have a hard time growing: leaf growth is about 50% slower here than in other regions. That’s one reason these energy-rich, nutrition-poor plants have evolved such a potent biochemical vocabulary; when you've got lots of sunlight and need to protect every leaf, it makes sense to synthesize all sorts of toxins and insectides and thorns and anything else that might help. Evenetually, all those leaves fall into the river, which becomes a dark biochemical tea.

When they Amazon and the Rio Negro meet, they run side by side in the same river bed without much mixing for many miles.

Ed Ward has a lovely paen today to the therapeutic effects of spending a little bit too much for dinner in Paris.

Monsieur had opened the front door and was standing outside on the sidewalk. What, I asked him, was that potato thing? "Gallette Lyonnaise," he answered. "Potatoes, onions, bacon. You put it on the plate to look like a cake, which is why the 'gallette.'" "And the potatoes make it Lyonnaise," I said. "Exactly." The air was cool and bracing. "You are at a hotel?" he said, pointing down the hill. "he hotel," I said, pointing up the hill. "Ah, rue Lafayette," he decided. I didn't disabuse him. He extended his hand. "Well, my friend, thank you very much. Come again." I told him I would and he went back inside. I started the climb to the firetrap I was going to call home for the night.

Closer to home, I made a nice dish the other night. I sauteed two shallots in olve oil, and added a couple of cups of wild rice. After a couple of minutes I added a half cup of white wine, and let it reduce, and then two cups of water. While the rice cooked, I small-diced some artisan kielbasa, sauteed, and drained it. Then I diced some really nice little organic carrots and browned them lightly in olive oil and butter. As the rice was nearly done, I added everything along with a few dried cherries and plenty of baby spinach, stirred, and served with a nice Chilean sauvignon blanc.

How can you best respond to a weblog crisis?

This week has seen at least two (1 2 is offline at the moment) dramatic weblog storms in which well-known people and firms have been plausibly accused of involvement in bad actions. Suppose it happened to you? Not as victim: suppose you woke up one morning and the whole blogosphere was abuzz over your misdeed?

Perhaps its all lies. Perhaps someone hacked into your computer and stole your identity. Perhaps you lost your head and did something you shouldn't have done, and now it's being shouted from the rooftops and plown way out of proportion. Perhaps one of your employees did something reprehensible. Perhaps it's your evil twin. Doesn't matter: it's just hypothetical.

What do you do now?

I think this is a huge question for pro bloggers and a key concern for the modern PR industry. I’m not convinced we have any compelling positive case studies (though we have plenty of blunders to learn from).

It seems to me that you need to be seen to be very open — as open as your lawyer can possibly let you be. You need to be energetic: you need to spend (and to be seen to spend) time and money quickly to make things right.

Or, you need to attack with brio, you need to set the record straight.

What you can't do, successfully, is hunker down and say as little as possible. This could work in old media: you'd take a pounding in one or two stories, and then it would pass. You'd alienate a couple of reporters, but they'll pass, too. In the weblog world, though, you'll have dozens or hundreds of people writing negative stories about you; the stories will still pass, they'll be fish wrap in a few days just as they always have, but you'll have dozens or hundreds of people with a stake in being right about how wrong you are.

Now, you can persuade a reporter to give you a second chance. You can persuade a blogger, too -- but it might be harder, because a reporter is a professional, and giving you a second chance might be unpleasant but part of the job. A blogger isn't professional, and they don't have a Wise Old Editor to tell them how to do their job. So, persuading those bloggers that you might be an acceptable or a reformed person is going to be a long, slow, arduous process.

Mar 07 28 2007

Perched

The new generation of image-stabilized cameras is extraordinary at some things. Here's a Green-and-rufous Kingfisher, taken offhand from a moving boat.

Perched

This is hand-held 1/160sec from a rocking rowboat with an outboard motor, at 12x zoom. I grabbed three "what-the-hell" shots, and two were certainly good enough for bird ID help.

Perched

It's not just distant wildlife; here's a tiny drop of latex from a rubber tree. I didn't want to be obnoxious about the camera or crowd the others, so I stood well behind the others and zoomed in: height does have advantages. The problem is that the rainforest is (by definition) not very bright, so this is 12x and 1/40sec.

Perched

Not art, but surprisingly good for a run-of-the-mill consumer camera (a Canon S3).

You never know who you'll meet on the trail:

Perched
Mar 07 27 2007

Comments

Blogger and marketing pundit Kathy Sierra was supposed to be speaking at E-Tech this week. Instead, some trolls on a (now-pulled) web site called MeanKids started trash-talking, wishing her dead or mutilated. It was absurd, petulant, childish locker-room "humor" that would disgrace a pre-teen gang, though the lead troll claims to be a retired tech industry pro. In any case, Sierra, frightened, cancelled all her engagements and called the police. (Others were slammed as well; Maryam Scoble, for one.)

Worse, this wasn't a prank site or a bunch of outsiders; some of the people involved in the site are A-List or B-List bloggers. Some of them saw the worst comments and pulled down the site, and then pulled successor sites offline when equally scary things were posted. But the damage was done — and rapidly broadcast through Digg, through archives, through google caches.

Comments kill blogs. In this case, comments have effectively blown up the blogosphere.

If you host a party, you share some responsibility for what your guests do. One of the more responsible MeanKids has apologized, noting that he pulled the whole site down once he saw the worst comments. But that's not good enough; the point of the site was clearly to gather vitriol for fun and profit. If you let your guests get drunk and rowdy, you can expect trouble. Especially when you invite the meanest guests you can find.

I told you so. When I said this to open BlogTalk 2 in Vienna, people told me, "Well, that's only for political blogs: my weblog isn't controversial." Neither is Sierra's; she's a marketing guru! When I said this to open BlogTalk Downunder in Sydney, people told me, "But comments are so much fun." Ask Sierra: who's having fun now?

The right way to respond to a weblog is to write on your own weblog.

Aaron Swartz collared me when I last got on this soapbox and argued cogently, 'What about people who don't have an audience and can't seem to get one? Where can they post? Am I creating an underclass?'

I don't think so, but it could become a disturbing problem.

I see two good options. First: allow comments as Aaron does, as letters to the editor, with moderation and without any presumption that a letter will be published. If this had been done on MeanKids, we'd know whom to blame, open and shut.

Or: allow comments only in the form of a URL, and only to a site which to which the commenter can demonstrate root domain access: that means the scurrilous comment appears on their site, not yours, and you know that the responsible person is the owner, the owner's agent, or that the owner has been negligent. Again, either way, you know who is responsible.

I was trying to pay Hilton hotel for someone else. The hotel sent me a credit form to fill out and fax back, asking for my contact information, signature, and a photocopy of my credit card.

Then the Assistant Front Office Manager, Juan Monroig, called my office and insisted that it was necessary to also fax them a copy of a government-issued picture ID. He said it was Hilton Policy, though he could not satisfactorily explain why it was policy or how the policy benefited Hilton.

The US Constitution guarantees lots of things — including, as I recall, that you have to accept US currency in settlement of any debts. But, in practice, lots of places don’t accept cash, or make it very difficult to use cash. Long distance transactions, in particular, depend (as they have depended since the 14th century) on bank credit.

Now, if one of the largest banks in the world says, "This fellow's credit is good", that's not enough: if the government won't issue me an ID, I can't pay without flying to Chicago. And, of course, without an ID the government won't let me fly, or drive. So I have to walk to Chicago, carrying a few thousand dollars, to settle someone's hotel bill?

Right.

Where are the conservatives? (I guess they're too busy blocking stem cell research)

At night, we rowed out with some guides and swept the river banks with flashlights, looking for eyes staring back at us. Caimans have shiny eyes, and (apparently) you can reach down and grab them while they're blinking.

Caiman
a Spectacled Caiman

They're lovely little reptiles. And sloths are absolutely adorable.

Caiman

Caiman

We met the sloth the next morning, thanks to a group of young people who rowed out to meet us with some Cute Animals To Show The Tourists. Again, this is doubtful ecotourism, but it's probably better to employ some kids to show us semi-tame animals than to employ the kids to hunt them. Even the little girl with the Caiman was extraordinarily agile at handling her canoe.

You really don't understand sloths at all until you see them up close: they're built a lot like primates but they aren't related. They're related to armadilloes and anteaters, they just wind up with a similar body plan because it makes sense for living in trees. I suppose they look at us as a strange kind of tree that they can try hugging -- because, when you're a sloth, tree hugging is what you do.

Anders Fagerjord observes that virtual desktop software can be invaluable for working with Tinderbox, especially when you need to keep several big Tinderbox sets open, along with iCal and Mail.

Mar 07 26 2007

River Banks

For hour after hour, we sail upstream and pass settlements — some a scattering of houses, others with paved streets and courthouses and power stations — that literally face the river. People coming and people going, but everyone comes and goes by river. Parintins, too, with 50 or 100,000 people, sits on an island; when the town fills up with visitors for the Boi-Bumbá festival, everyone comes and goes by boat.

Still, as we passed upstream lots of people stopped to watch us.

River Banks

The great conflict in the Amazon is simply that it's home to a lot of people, and it's also a vast bank of resources that the whole planet needs. The forest is fragile — ironically, the soil of the Amazon is often shallow and easily eroded; take away a few trees and what's left is sand. But it's home, and people need groceries.

It's going to be a terrible mess in the coming years, but in the mean time you can have fun with a few friends and a smooth plank. The kids are growing up inside the planetary bank. Someday, we're going to need to settle up.

River Banks

It's not just a bank, it's a market, too. From time to time, we'd heave to and pick up some just-caught fish, or some blocks of cheese from a riverfront farm. Again, split loyalties: should ecotourists be eating cheese from ranches in the Amazon, when it's probably not a good idea to encourage chopping down good rainforest to make bad pasture? But then again, it's better to support local people, surely, than to cart in food from far away and visit in a hermetic bubble.

The fish, especially, were terrific.

Mar 07 25 2007

Boca de Valeria

We stopped at the small village of Sao Fernando at the Boca de Valeria at mid-morning. A group of houses, some ramadas, and a school face the river. More houses are found up along the tributary stream that meets the Amazon here.

Boca de Valeria

Boca de Valeria
photo: Linda Thorsen
Linda met a friend who took for her to visit her school. Nick and I encountered a very nice woman who showed us the family compound upstream and her pet toucan; her son Kennedy took us further along and introduced us to fresh cocoa fruit (here they have many more tasty fruits you've never heard of than you would imagine) and a variety of birds. Then he rowed us out to see the lilypads that grow along the river banks — and the wonderful Wattled Jacanas that scoot among them.

Boca de Valeria

We passed many of these villages in the coming days, riverfront stops where a few families cluster around a school or a church. Everything faces the river; the river is really the only road, and the kids seem to learn boat-handling as soon as they can walk.

Boca de Valeria
Photo: Linda Thorsen
Mar 07 24 2007

Being Offline

This was the longest time I've been off-net for many years. I'm back now, but won't have the email squared until Monday. Maybe Tuesday.

Still I'm sure to meet him someday,
Maybe Tuesday will be my good news day.

We left Boston on Friday, spent the evening walking along Miami's South Beach with an astonishing number of Spring Breakers and snacking on Moqueca at SushiSamba, and by evening the next day we were tootling up the Amazon and Santarém was far, far behind.

Evening on the Amazon
Photo: Linda Thorsen

The four of us were the late-arriving and mysterious Outsiders -- the ten fellow travelers who made up the roster of our jaunt all knew each other and had already negotiated supplies and endured the great bed-linen flap. Nobody was paying much attention to the Fork-tailed Flycatcher sitting on a telephone wire on the pier. I was nonchalant about it. I've seen one before: in 2001, one of these birds flew North for the winter, got mixed up, and landed in Newburyport instead of Brazil. In Boston it's a celebrity; in Santarém, it's just a bird.

The Amazon is like that.

But all that was squared away, and after a brief delay as our Guide's passport formalities were formalized by Authorities eager to see that every T was crossed, we found ourselves in the middle of the immense river, silent when we weren't colliding with stray, unseen logs. (I slept amazingly on the Amazon, not even noticing when great floating logs slammed into the bows a few inches from the bed and roused everyone else on board.)

The night was black, the stars dramatic, the Southern Cross shining above other equatorial horizon. A few cooking fires occasionally flickered on the river bank, and our own search light stabbed out into the river from time to time. At dawn, the river was chocolate brown, rich with the silt of the Andes.

Evening on the Amazon
Mar 07 10 2007

Into the Jungle

I'm going to be away from the office, and offline, for the next two weeks.

I don't think I've spent two weeks entirely off the net since 1992. But there's not much wifi, I expect, in the Amazon rain forest. So, I've brought pen and paper and watercolor, and hope to do some writing the old fashioned way.

If you need Eastgate stuff, email Eastgate's order desk, or phone +1 617 924 9044.

Mar 07 7 2007

Tinderbox 3.6.2

Tinderbox 3.6.2

Tinderbox 3.6.2 is now out.

It's a minor upgrade, and recommended for everyone. Some nice improvements with dates are the highlight, but there's a lot of infrastructure reinforcement under way en route (yes — it's been a long route) to TinderWin.

by George Packer

A brilliant historical study of America's adventure in Iraq.

If Chandrasekaran is the definitive picture of the Occupation’s antic spirit and Ricks' Fiasco the comprehensive tale of its unravelling, Packer is its chronicle of ideas, its intellectual history. Even those who follow the news — perhaps especially those who follow the news — may be astonished by the notion that the Bush administration could possibly possess an intellectual history. Yet ideas there were, bright and beautiful ideas, and for a time they seemed sensible and just and — possibly — achievable. Packer himself found aspects of the neoconservative argument attractive. Could Iraq have been rescued from tyranny and turned into a liberal, secular democracy? Could peace and justice have prevailed?

Packer examines the best pre-war writing and thinking about Iraq, draws out the key ideas, and shows how they influenced they key actors among the administration, the CPA, and the Exiles. He reaches easily for pioneering voices, T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, as well as Kanan Makiya and Paul Wolfowitz, and shows that the central urge behind the invasion was the desire to get it right this time — not merely responding to the first, incomplete Gulf War but also in to the Vietnam War’s apparent failure to "finish the job" and also to World War II’s haunting reminder that a delayed liberation will come too late for the victims.

In the end, Packer blames both the incompetence of the administration, the Occupation’s absurd mixture of wastefulness and cheeseparing, and the intractability (and feebleness) of the idea of Iraq itself for the grotesque and tragic failure of the American adventure.

The intellectual history of the Bush war will soon seem an oxymoron. Read this book now, and absorb its lessons while the players remain on the stage; soon, the buffoonery of the Bush crew will be so dominant in imagination that the lessons of Iraq will be hard to recover.

I had to throw a fresh hard drive into the Tinderbook a while back, and I'm still reinstalling some of the software I don’t need every day.

Acrobat 7 Professional wants to see an older version of Acrobat. But I don't really want to install the old version. And then I'd need to install an even older version. We've been using Acrobat a long time.

Acrobat says, "call Adobe: here's a URL for our phone number." The URL is 404.

I call Adobe. After lots and lots of hold music, Adobe tells me that if you can't locate your original media, you're out of luck. Not just about buying the $149 upgrade: looks like we could easily fall off the upgrade path entirely. The fact that we've owned Acrobat since Acrobat 2 doesn't matter. (Apparently, we can still upgrade. Will it actually work? Nobody seems entirely confident.)

I do have the original Amazon receipt. But Amazon isn't an authorized dealer, so no support for our 7.0 upgrade. Adobe 6 came direct, so that's OK.

We're the phone company. We don’t care: we don’t have to.

Lesson: hang on to your media, or prepare for life after Acrobat.

Zach Whalen creates an intriguing Flash piece, Space Refugees. It turns Space Invaders on its head. The choice of music is great.

But, let's face it: this is a stunt, and it's a sketch — and these shortcomings are not uncommon in thoughtful and political games.

The Baghdad Book Industry, with its market in Mutanabbi Street, was once the center of Western civilization and an essential link to the memory of the Greek and Roman technical achievement.

The street runs between the Tigris river and al-Rashid Street, now shabby and decayed but once the commercial heart of Baghdad. The bookshops are small and open all the time, on Fridays there is a market, when vendors lay out their books in Arabic and English on mats on the dusty and broken surface of the road, which is closed to traffic. Most books are second-hand. — Patrick Cockburn, The Occupation

Today, in a story that didn't make the Boston Globe, Mutanabi street is in flames.

As firemen doused the flames which reached up to the third storey of some buildings, papers and book pages fluttered on the ground, some blackened, others bloody.

by Peter Fleming

Next week, Linda and I fly off to a Brazilian adventure. We are woefully unprepared for this journey. If you happen to know anything at all about the Amazon between Santarém and Manaos, please do Email me. I know there's a copy of Victory Garden somewhere in Santarém, but of Amazonia I'm shockingly ignorant. What’s the best field guide? What should I eat?

Much of the preparation has involved inoculations and insect repellent and paperwork. For the rest, I have this fine 1933 memoir by Ian Fleming’s big brother.

"Sao Paulo," he writes, "is like Reading, only much farther away.” Fleming’s eye and fancy had been caught by a small advertisement in The Times that sought two extra guns for a sporting expedition that would also inquire into the fate of one Colonel Fawcett who had disappeared in the Brazilian interior in 1925. He happens across a school friend walking near Fleming’s Bloomsbury apartment.

Roger was walking along Gower Street. He had passed the School of Tropical Hygiene. He had passed the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. In one minute, in less than one minute, he would have reached the Slade.... so I called across the street: "Roger, come to Brazil."

"What?" said Roger: playing, I dare say, for time.

"You’d better come to Brazil” I said, getting into a car.

“Why?” said Roger cautiously (or perhaps incautiously), also getting into the car. We set down Gower Street: past the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art: past the School of Tropical Hygiene. I talked rapidly. At the end of Gower Street Roger got out.

“I'll let you know for certain on Monday,” he said.

Neil Bartlett's production of Oliver Twist , now at the ART, argues a fascinating case. We know that Oliver is Good. It’s almost all we know of him. Almost every line from Bartlett’s script is drawn directly from Dickens, it’s all about what you leave out, and what we leave out here is Oliver. He’s at the center of almost every scene and he has almost no lines.

Bartlett cuts away everything else to show how this bundle of goodness impoverishes, ruins, and kills everyone he meets.

Oliver

Novell’s Ray Sims has an interesting discussion of content and context, extending an argument I made in False Intentions and the Fallacy of Finding (slides, audio) in useful new directions.

I hadn't known that the audio was available.

He's looking for "an additional strategy (beyond adding back in) of reducing the context loss to begin with by adding more metadata to the left side that survives the brutality of search to context and further facilitates reconstructing context and meaning post-search."

Context and Content

Colin Powell’s famous PowerPoint presentation to the UN Security Council included this slide (from Gregory Pece's MA thesis, The PowerPoint Society)

Who is this scientist?

Who is the scientist in the picture?

We now know that this slide’s argument was based almost completely on source Curveball, a purported defector who was actually a disinformation agent of Ahmed Chalabi’s exile group. Powell thought this was a sound source at the time, backed by other sources, but all the information turned out to be planted and almost all traced back to Curveball.

But surely this isn’t a picture of Curveball himself: you aren't going to take a highly secret source on whom so much depends and literally broadcast his photo on television. But I assume it’s not just a picture of a nice man with books, lifted from Corbis or Getty or istockphoto.com .

But what could it be? Either it’s a confidential source — an ex-Iraqi nuclear scientist — or it’s not. If it’s a source, why are we telling everybody? If it’s a stock photo, what is it doing on the slide?

I bet this can be found out — and the method for finding out will itself be an interesting new media question. Got an idea? Email me.

"Update: The scientist in the picture is physicist Faleh Hassan, whose house was searched by UN weapons inspectors in 2003. BBC. 'Mr Hassan insists [the papers] are part of his private research and from doctoral theses of his students at Baghdad University.' I wonder how things go with him now. Winning strategy: Ken Tompkins found a similar PowerPoint deck online at the US Embassy to Thailand, which credits the photo to Reuters. That suggests the subject must have been covered in the news, and a Google Image Seach for iraq scientist nuclear papers home yields the name and Image search for Faleh Hassan gets plenty of pictures."

Mar 07 1 2007

Konzeptionerd

Anja Rau has a new weblog, KonzeptioNerd. Yay!

The flight had been delayed by weather, but Linda and I had snagged a last-minute upgrade and were comfortably ensconced in first class. (The only time I actually can use my free upgrades seems to be the Boston-Chicago route, perhaps because it's only barely worth upgrading.) We were waiting to be deiced.

In the front galley, the gate agent (who'd started boarding by apologizing for the confusion — "the most confusing day I've had in twenty years at American") was having a disagreement with the chief flight attendant.

It was not a mild or a casual disagreement. Voices were raised, and then raised some more. And it was all our fault: after we'd been given the last two upgrades, a late-arriving couple in first class had finally arrived at the gate. Should this couple get the first class seats, for which they had paid? But that would mean asking us to move again, and we'd already switched seats once. (We pieced this together later; what we knew at the time was that the gate agent was furious with the flight attendant, and the flight attendant was far from happy, and both considered their rival to be completely ignorant of service, tradition, or common sense, or dignity. This is American Airlines! They are flying American Airlines!

Now, obviously this is not what you want to have happening on your plane. You never want the audience to see you sweat — especially not on an airplane, and especially not in paranoia-inducing contemporary American airports. You never want to have a divided service front. The company should speak with one voice. And it was awkward for us and for the nice other couple: none of the passengers cared much at all, no one was making a fuss. We cared much less than they did.

It felt like when you were a kid visiting a friend, and their parents, experiencing a disagreement and having got past "not in front of the children," had also skipped "and never in front of the neighbor's children" and were going at it hammer and tongs.

In the end, they asked us to go back to coach, and the flight attendant literally showered us with snacks and drinks.

But, you know: if you're going to mess up this way, it's a lot better to have employees fighting bitterly about great service than to have them sitting around and not caring. The planes American flies between Boston and Chicago were originally TWA's — some of the pilots conspicuously hang their hats so you can see their old TWA business cards in the crown — and I started to avoid TWA because, when things went wrong, people just didn't seem to care much.