Terra Incognita

Rod Coover - Voyage Into The Unknown

For as long as I’ve known Rod Coover, his web-based media projects have regularly gone against the grain of convention and often, almost by definition, pushed the limits of modern browsers. With his latest publication, Voyage Into The Unknown, it seems he is still pushing those limits, as he warns on the landing page:

Voyage Into The Unknown is designed for 1024X768 or greater. If you have a small screen please go into FULL SCREEN viewing mode in your browser. You are entering a very wide landscape; if you have a smaller screen size you will need to scroll more to travel into the landscape–use all the space you can get!

Rod’s project got me thinking about how landscapes stand in for a kind of knowledge of place and one’s brief time in it–as Rod points out, we might name anew a bend in a river, but how many names may have gone prior, or after? We think of unknown territories as somehow a thing of the past in the age of Google Maps and GPS positioning and we can easily forget that today’s maps are not the territories to which they point and can only, at best, approximate (even with street-level photographic evidence).

Friendly Neighborhood Psychotherapist

Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919

Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919

Dave Kehr reviews a new box set of German Expressionist films issued by Kino International and name drops so-called naïve realist Siegfried Kracauer and his 1947 study From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film.

It’s good to see Robert Wiene’s iconic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari given some historical and stylistic context and, moreover, to see this period in film history brought into the light of mainstream, non-academic attention. Now if only I could convince SG to “revisit” these classics.

What Makes a Great Portrait?

"Ansel Adams, Dorothy and Cole Weston at Home , Ca. 1940

Ansel Adams, Dorothy and Cole Weston at Home, Ca. 1940

With the recent arrival of my now 2 1/2 month old son, I’ve been struggling with this very question, especially a “portrait” of someone that is just figuring out who he is, at best, and who is changing so dramatically from week to week. It’s as if the metamorphosis itself is what I am trying to capture when I press the shutter. It’s really made me rethink my approach to taking pictures, and the results thus far have been more the product of sheer chance than any kind of skill. The experience has led me to appreciate portraiture all the more.

Timothy Archibald:

Trying to really pinpoint what makes a great portrait is almost like trying to figure out why it feels good when someone smiles at you or why it is disturbing when someone yells at you.

Jörg Colberg posed the question to various photographers, curators and bloggers. Their responses, including example portraits, are definitely worth a read.

(via kottke.org)

If You Ask It, Pass It

It’s not fair — all the United bashing going on around here — but the recent post titled “Don’t Make Me Scream” over at SvN struck a chord, especially since designing and writing speech applications for large enterprises like United is what we do at Versay.

I couldn’t agree more with Matt’s rant. Many speech IVR applications out there are terrible, not just United. Too often I find myself walking down a street on my mobile phone trying to get information, only to be greeted by a cheerful voice asking way too many questions and getting seriously confused by the sounds of trucks and cars and other random background noise. Knowing how these systems are designed makes me an even more demanding user. I know they can do better and it is frustrating that best practices are so infrequently used.

A particular pet peeve is the situation where I navigate through an application, patiently providing things like account information, reservation information, and the like. . . and then when I am transferred to an agent. . . yep. . . I am asked the same questions all over again. Unacceptable. As a client of ours once remarked (when describing our shared golden rule about the hand-off between automated and live customer service): “If you ask it, pass it”. Granted it’s not always the easiest feature to implement, but for my money it is essential.

So, Matt, I hear you loud and clear and I can assure you that we are working with our clients every day to improve their UIs and to re-think high-quality, yet cost-effective customer service.

Thin Air

Thin Air, 2007

Thin Air, 2007

SG and I recently returned from a trip to Hawaii. It turned out to be one of the best vacations we’ve ever had. We spent time relaxing on the beach and swimming in the ocean, exploring up country and Haleakala Crater (at 10,000+ feet), and driving the north coast along the famous road to Hana. The food was great too (I enjoyed plenty of Wahoo/Ono, a long-time favorite since spending summers on Cape Hattaras as a kid) and we met some interesting people too.

If only booking the flight had been as pleasant. Readers take note: after years of flying with United Airlines, I’ve pretty much given up on them. Customer service was off-the-chart bad, mostly because company policies were never communicated consistently and no one was empowered to make amends for the difficulties these miscommunications caused. It is a lesson for all businesses: keep your policies simple, easy to understand, and make sure that all of your employees are talking from the same page. It will save you money and keep your customers loyal.

There is a silver lining though. Early during the flight between SFO and Maui, the attendants announced “Halfway to Hawaii.” With this contest, passengers are asked to calculate (or guess, as in our case) when the plane will pass over the exact half-way distance to their Hawaiian destination based on important data like take-off time, estimated time of arrival, headwind speed, etc. SG shrugged, did a few guesstimations in her head and scribbled 5:07PM Pacific Time on her ballot. She was exactly 5 seconds off and received first prize!

Cara Barer’s Ephemeral Evolution

Cara Barer

Houston-based Cara Barer makes striking photographs of books altered by exposure to water (via kottke.org). For me, the photographs evoke both a sense of natural beauty and transformation and also prick my hard-to-shake belief in books as sacred, immovable objects, despite all my training and evidence to the contrary.

From her site:

My photographs are primarily a documentation of a physical evolution. I have changed a common object into sculpture in a state of flux. The way we choose to research and find information is also in an evolution. I hope to raise questions about these changes, the ephemeral and fragile nature in witch[sic] we now obtain knowledge, and the future of books.

800-GOOG-411 (466-4411)

Update (4/11/07): Two Tellme executives head for Y!.

It’s been a Google kind of week here. Google Labs has just released their much-anticipated and long-speculated speech-enabled free 411 service. This comes on the heels of Tellme’s recent Business Search beta, offered behind their 800-555-TELL (8355) service.

Some early and incomplete observations:

  • Tellme’s Business Search is very. . . well. . . Tellme, including the usual navigational audio clicks and swooshes to mark list items and returning to the beginning, as well as transitional music and service announcements. These things when not used judiciously tend to slow down the call unnecessarily and also betray Tellme’s entertainment industry pedigree.
  • Google’s service has tell-tale old school Nuance VUI elements for things like error handling, contextual help, and offering options like “details” just before the call is transferred.
  • Unlike Tellme, the Google app appears to be music-free and lacks earcons, although they do play a humorous “thinking” sound no doubt mocking the typical cue for system processing. This is in keeping with Google’s overall stripped down approach to interface design.
  • Tellme entertains and then optionally texts you a listing but does not connect the call (yet). Google connects you (and optionally texts if that is preferred). Which do you think is the better experience?
  • Google has an interesting back-off strategy and allows callers to enter requests using their dial pad. This is a nice feature for noisy environments or simply when speech recognition is having a tough go of it.
  • Google’s text-to-speech sounds signficantly better to these ears, although this improvement creates another interesting challenge. The synthesized speech at times is almost too close but not close enough to recorded human speech, evoking an uncanny valley experience. It’s creepy at times.

Overall, I’d say the services do a fairly good job of locating what you want as long as you steer clear of uncommon requests. For example, Tellme sent me to a post office in response to my “postcards” request (not really what I wanted) while Google was sure I needed to talk to the coast guard. (To its credit, Google kinda got it right the second time around, recognizing the request properly but then offering to connect me to the Pleasure Chest in Chicago, citing it as a. . . um, “related listing.”)

I was much more successful asking for “stationary” on 800-GOOG-411. I was quickly connected with The Paper Source on Armitage Avenue. I’m sorry to report this request was equally perplexing for Tellme though. Granted, I am being a bit unfair, and by no means am I arguing that these systems don’t work well. In most cases, things went smoothly. But with these limit cases, it was interesting to see how each service reacted. It’s one of the most important aspects of the work we do at Versay — designing applications to get callers back on track when things go wrong. These factors are amplified dramatically when you are working with the large number of options required by automated directory assistance.

As Om Malik points out, Google’s entry into this space, while no great surprise (do I sense a bit of a yawn, Om?), certainly spells trouble for pure-play providers like 800-FREE-411 (373-3411) and 800-411-SAVE (411-7283). And no doubt Yahoo is just around the corner. On the other hand, it is a definitive vote of confidence in the viability of large-scale speech application deployments and one hopes a sign of further innovation to come.

The Next Google Revisited

Last year, I posted about the “next Google” phenomenon sweeping the nation, specifically comparisons between 37signals and the search giant. This year, the landscape hasn’t changed all that much. Companies are still hotly competing to get a piece of the search market, start-ups and established technology firms (e.g., Microsoft and Yahoo) alike.

37signals are still going strong and have released their CRM-lite application, newly named Highrise. I personally think it is their best release yet and could potentially absorb/cannibalize some of their other offerings. While I get why they prefer to keep project management separate from contact management, there is enough overlap between services so that some core data elements should be shared. Just as Apple engineers have resisted the all-in-one approach of Microsoft Outlook, instead offering siloed apps like Address Book, Mail and iCal, they nonetheless enable sharing of elements common between these applications. It’s proven to be a successful strategy in balancing usability and functionality.

Interestingly, if one were to ignore the numerous and obvious differences between the two companies, it could be argued that Google and 37signals have actually moved closer to one another in terms of service offering over the past year. With the Google Apps launch, they too want to provide the tools to help you manage your business in a hosted, web-based model. And why not? Google already provides services for email (Gmail), calendaring (Google Calendar), and instant messaging and VoIP (Google Talk) not to mention “Microsoft Office killers” Docs & Spreadsheets and Page Creator. The Google Apps offering rolls these services up into a complete package in three flavors: small business, enterprise and education. And from a technical perspective, most importantly both companies have embraced APIs, enabling third-parties to deliver “mash-ups” of theirs and other services. This is almost a given in today’s 2.0 world and arguably one of the key drivers behind the success of hosted services.

Google’s move signals a couple of things.

First, hosted application services for business and not just the consumer space have arrived in a very big way and definitely threaten Microsoft’s desktop dominance. If nothing else, both the live.com initiative and recent Tellme acquisition confirm this. This is not to say that hurdles don’t still exist. While bandwidth and availability concerns have largely been overcome by large capital investments in infrastructure, other factors such as data portability, privacy policies, and security still remain stubborn obstacles for hosted solutions. With Google in particular, given its transparent goal and not-so-transparent methods to index the world, there is still a strong distrust of the company’s motivations and a nagging fear around the vulnerability of hosted (implicitly shared) corporate data.

Second, as Miquel Helft points out in his January 1st New York Times article, in its effort to go after communication and collaboration, be it for small to medium-sized businesses or large enterprises, Google risks losing ground in the search arena. No doubt just as AltaVista and Webcrawler were once default, now abandoned search options, so too Google’s reign is constantly threatened by innovation just a click and a bookmark away. That is, of course, unless the search business has changed so dramatically in the past seven years so that new barriers to entry will thwart a dramatic shift in market share.

Given the current climate, one wonders how steep of a climb a start-up like Powerset (one of the latest entrants in the “next Google” sweepstakes) will have, or if search is in fact the fastest way to claim the title for keeps, as last year’s front-runner, Wikipedia, seems to believe.

Another Three Down, Three to Go

States Visited Map

Earlier this year, as a surprise birthday gift, SG organized an all expenses paid weekend excursion to none other than Omaha, Nebraska . . . Omaha?? you might say . . . well, in fact, the gift was more selfless than you might imagine, since SG and I are competing to see who can visit all fifty U.S. states first, and Nebraska was on my list. So there you go. It was a great birthday weekend. We had fun exploring the downtown, historic area, catching a poetry reading, and visiting the famous zoo. Omaha proved to be an interesting town with its own special character and style. It’s one of those emerging smaller cities that deliver on culture and the arts and a good quality of life while avoiding some of the drawbacks of larger cities.

This summer, we were able to tick off another two states too, Kansas and Oklahoma, while driving from Chicago to Austin. Now I am officially down to three remaining states: North Dakota, Hawaii, and Arkansas, so let me know if you see any good fares to Fargo.

Walk the Walk, Talk the Talk

Don Byron Sax

Don Byron is a musician’s musician. In the four times I’ve seen him play, including most recently a performance at UT-Austin, it’s been impossible not to notice the respect that he commands among fellow players both on stage and off. It doesn’t hurt that his recordings over the years have themselves been testaments to his own appreciation for, and innovative interpretations of, previous artists’s work such as 1993’s Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz and 2004’s Ivey-Divey, featuring music by Lester Young.

His latest release, Do The Boomerang: The Music of Junior Walker is no exception. Joined by an inspired crew including Chris Thomas King on vocals (you might remember him from his role in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and guitarist David Gilmore (not that David Gilmour), this time around Byron puts his trusted clarinet aside and delivers a world class turn on sax (where he lacks in dexterity compared to his clarinet work, he delivers on the instrument’s penchant for rich coloration and sustained intensity).

There are numerous stand-out tracks including “Cleo’s Mood,” “Shotgun,” and the ballad “What Does It Take (to Win Your Love),” but my current personal favorite is actually a cover of James Brown’s “There It Is.” Byron wisely chooses not to stray too far from Brown’s signature instrumentation and song structure, complete with that unique feel of studied improvisation, hit-mes and all. The result is an utterly infectious 7+ minute stream of cascading solos, change-ups and rasped vocals, driven by an indefatigable rhythm section.

Catch a Don Byron show this winter.

Cross-posted to Shake Your Fist on October 29, 2006

The Precocious One

Kate Bush and Sea

Image: courtesy of gaffa.org

For some it’s the voice: ethereal, sensuous and operatic are a few of the more common attempts at description. For others, it’s the progressive rock-influenced lyrical dexterity and experimental instrumentation, often an amalgam of electronic loops, sound effects, and “primitive” percussion. And then, of course, there are the leotards.

All aspects of Kate Bush, and there are many, conspire to drive you to love or hate her work. Today, her late 70s theatrical aesthetic, tempered by the lens of 80s music video art (not to mention hair styles), can appear a bit precious if not touched, leading one to wonder what drives such a devoted following. Is it just one of those inexplicable, positively British things?

Her mainstream hits such as the early and defining “Wuthering Heights,” “Running Up That Hill,” and “This Woman’s Work,” combined with her collaborations with Peter Gabriel (“Games Without Frontiers,” “Don’t Give Up”), retain the timbre and spirit of excess that Kate Bush embodies. A kind of modern day Maya Deren, eyes wild and lips puckered, she is as comfortable humming number sequences (“Pi”) as chirping with birds (“Aerial Tal”), both from last year’s much anticipated if uneven Aerial.

Musically and lyrically, her most accomplished effort is also my first introduction, 1985’s Hounds of Love. Highlights include the insistent If of the aforementioned “Hill,” the swooning vocals and lazy banjo of “Cloudbusting,” and the second part of the album, a 20 + minute concept piece entitled “The Ninth Wave,” that stretches from the invocation (“Little light!”) of “And Dream of Sheep” to the creepy imagery of “Under Ice” to the slow-motion chants submerged in the closing bars of “Hello Earth” (back in the day my 90 minute cassette tape cut short the redemptive waking of the final track “The Morning Fog,” leaving me forever plummeting).

Cross-posted to Shake Your Fist on September 27, 2006

Holding Out

Pabst Theater

Now that I’ve had a bit of time to let the impressions sink in, I thought I would put a few words down. A couple weeks back, we traveled to Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater to see Neko Case in concert. In retrospect, I’m happy the Chicago show at The Vic was sold out and gave us an excuse, at Jon’s suggestion, to make the trip. Despite the distance, the night was a good time: we had our pick of seats, the vintage theater architecture and decor were beautiful, and the band delivered a solid performance. Just a couple of dates into the tour and it showed a bit — I’m pretty sure the opener Martha Wainwright was in her cups (forgetting lines and what not) and the set list felt like it was still taking shape, including a cover of Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain”. Neko’s onstage persona was relaxed and goofy, sometimes to the point that it was antithetical to the gravity of her songs, which was OK but begged the question . . . why?

Interestingly, the supporting cast was as much the highlight as Neko herself: Kelly Hogan exhibited that Renaissance ideal, sprezzatura — effortlessly delivering her brilliant backing vocals and warmly reining in Neko when she got away from herself. Jon Rauhouse possessed a scary level of musicianship and artistry too. Watching him saw away at the pedal steel guitar with an organic, fluid mastery, you got a very real sense of the countless hours surely logged sweating out the notes. I walked away impressed and anxious to see where this all goes.

Chiming in on MacTel

After the initial wow factor of Apple’s announcement of Boot Camp and support for Windows on their new Intel-based hardware, I’m now a little less enamored with the idea. The two things that I haven’t missed about life with Windows XP is the less than stellar plug-and-play experience with peripherals and the inevitable sluggishness and disk churn caused by Windows caching and file system fragmentation. I went through two hard drives on my previous WinTel laptop and I’m convinced (evidence be damned) it’s in part due to the stress the OS puts on the hard drive. Now, I know with Boot Camp everything is neatly sandboxed and partitioned, but I can’t help thinking how will Windows behave with the physical hardware? Will drives die faster? And, back to plug-and-play, will I have to cross my fingers every time I plug in a USB thingamajig?

Some folks I’ve talked to think that when Windows users get their hands on a Mac, their introduction to Mac OS X will result in a ready-made Switch campaign. Maybe. Maybe not. But I wonder if rather than a rising tide lifting all boats to meet the excellence of OS X, we may instead see Mac hardware flake out just as badly as the Dells and HPs out there. I mean, let’s face it, we aren’t talking about the most rugged platform (my original Mac 128K will forever be known as the MacMelt, thanks to a burned out power supply).

The question boils down to: what kind of company does Apple want to be? Hardware? Software? Entertainment? Platform? Applications? Lifestyle? And how strategic or reactionary is the Boot Camp move? Is it a clever way to accelerate migration from G4/G5? A way to quiet the gamers? And what is the fate of Microsoft software for OS X like Office and Remote Desktop? Time will tell.

The Unfolding

Neko Case Red and Blue

The Surrealists of the 1920s created what they called “unfilmable” scenarios, marked by vivid and shocking juxtapositions (think the famous razor scene in Un Chien Andalou (1929)), murky longings taking on real-world manifestations, and a wash of subconscious imaginings — a phantasmagoria tugging at the edges of visual representation.

There is a movie unfolding in my head that reminds me of these unfilmable, if not unknowable, worlds. Ever since my first introduction to Neko Case (and Her Boyfriends), courtesy of Jon, I’ve had the not-so-secret wish to happen upon Chicago’s The Hideout one night and catch an impromptu performance. These things happen, I’ve been told, though now with the release of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and the much-deserved swelling in popularity it has unleashed, my guess is those days are long-gone. In my version, David Lynch-inspired crimson red curtains frame the crooked stage, creased and bunched like crushed velvet. Plastic lawn lanterns dangle along the walls, throwing rippled, multi-colored light over the shadowed crowd. Oh, and an air conditioner reliably hums and drips in the far corner, a few strands of tinsel from last year’s Christmas tree fluttering from its bent vents. You get the picture.

And now, with Confessor, Ms. Case has pointed out the glaring absence of, and at the same time delivered, the crucial centerpiece: “Star Witness”. It’s the perfect song for this movie in my head, gently but willfully rolling on and on, spacious and lonely, as if breathing in the humid air of a (doomed) mid-August night. From the first hesitant bars, through the lazy, assured swish of the snare and Case’s at first sharp and twanged then lullaby-ready vocals, right down to the last, pseudo-haphazard strains of a distant piano, each song element feels loosely joined, like memories themselves. And that’s to say nothing of Case’s quintessential lyrics: ripe with roadside pathos, everyday details (“there’s glass in the thermos and blood on my jeans . . . ”) and, yes, ineffable mystery.

Cross-posted to Shake Your Fist on March 17, 2006

Best Films of 2005

Michael Haneke, Caché (Hidden), 2005

Michael Haneke, Caché (Hidden), 2005

At the Crossroads.

Many critics, filmmakers, stars, and other industry types claim that 2005 was a watershed year in Hollywood film, a year that witnessed daring approaches to subject matter, breaks with long-held taboos, and renewed creativity in film form. Even the most casual observer can divine this running argument/mantra from recent award ceremony acceptance speeches (more than usual), on the pages of interviews and star profiles in the New York Times and other major publications, and over the idle chatter of talk show hosts and morning lifestyle TV programs. It is as if the mainstream American movie industry is turning a blind eye to reality and believes if they just keep repeating “There’s no place like home” they will find themselves comfortably back in Kansas — a place free of iPods and piracy, gaming consoles and first-person shoot-em-ups, and HBO and HD. Or better put, a place where these things are drowned out and overshadowed by the high-quality Hollywood-branded sounds and images one finds on screen at your local movie theater.

For years, the argument has always been technical — bigger, louder, three-dimensional, full color — a richer, more immersive sensory experience. Now, that richness is delivered in terms of content: the Art of Cinema in the Age of Experience. Tonight, we will likely see Brokeback Mountain, Good Night and Good Luck, March of the Penguins, Crash, The Constant Gardener, Capote, and Walk The Line variously rewarded; Hollywood will dutifully stay on message. And, while these films do contain promising bits, most especially strong acting, as complete works they were just so-so, my interest and delight ebbing not long after the first reel. Yes, even the penguins felt a bit re-hashed from earlier triumphs like Winged Migration (Perrin, 2001). Please don’t send hate mail!

I’m not saying these movies were bad, just that they weren’t that good, you know? In your heart of hearts, was it really that great of a year for American cinema? Even lions of independent film didn’t live up to previous heights: Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, and Linklater’s Bad News Bears remake were largely missed opportunities, great filmmakers on cruise control if not asleep at the wheel.

To clarify, I’m not making the mistake of claiming that all movies fell short, that the history of cinema has seen its last days (this time for real). No no, quite the contrary. I am sure that many hours of amazing work is out there, perhaps much of it from Asia and Europe. No doubt more rigorous moviegoers can attest to this but I can only comment on the few dozen that I did get a chance to see, and if I were to speak honestly, many of them were stinkers.

But not all. While Hollywood and the Culture Industry place value and reward accomplishment in all the wrong places, I found plenty to celebrate too.

Film continues to thrive, continues to adapt and absorb, and to provide seemingly limitless opportunities to inspire and move, delight and entertain, and, on those rarest of occasions, challenge and shock one’s sensibilities. In compiling these best of lists every year, I am at once applauding and acknowledging this elasticity as well as the specific accomplishments of individual artists, and from a reverse angle, marking my own fleeting yet lasting moments of insight at the intersection of the two.

Top 5 Movies of 2005 (theatrical screenings or otherwise):

Caché (Hidden) (Haneke)

The puzzler of the year — full of questions and few answers, an exercise in self-reflexivity, genre splicing and indeterminacy, a staging (I hesitate to say critique) of bourgeois values — in other words, the latest chapter in the continuing adventures of Michael Haneke, author of the equally profound and provocative Code Unknown and The Piano Teacher. With Caché, he juxtaposes two lives lived, that of a middle class talk show host, and an Algerian immigrant, two trajectories, one haunting and harassing the other, threatening to reveal its secrets, false assumptions, and self-induced and self-serving delusions. It’s also very much a “movie’s movie” in the sense that it articulates the act of constructing and decoding narrative cinema and it calls attention to the assumptions and strategies that we as an audience rely on and trust. That is not to say watching Caché is an overly analytical experience. Rather, its long takes, formal manipulations and cool detachment has quite the opposite effect, creating a palpable sense of dread, of tense discomfort and, with its celebrated closing shot, ultimately refusing to satiate.

The Squid and The Whale (Baumbach)

A well-made and well-acted tale of a dysfunctional Brooklyn family enduring the ugliness of divorce and the challenges of adolescence and pre-adolescence. Noah Baumbach’s thinly veiled memoir is mannered, wordy, and stiff but starkly honest and unapologetic at the same time. Thanks to SG for dragging me to see this one.

Batman Begins (Nolan)

I was pleasantly surprised by this latest installment in what had become a tired and bankrupt franchise. Christopher Nolan’s and Christian Bale’s caped crusader beats out all the hype, stylistic bravado, and titillation of Sin City (Miller, Rodriquez) hands down. The most entertaining Hollywood movie of the year.

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan Disc 1 (Scorcese)

Never a major Dylan fan like most of my friends, I think this was the key I needed to open the door, and it may have arrived at just the right time. No Direction Home provides an illuminating view of his early years and beginnings with classic Scorcese confidence. You can skip Disc 2.

Grizzly Man (Herzog)

I’m still undecided on this one. I found it both impossible to take seriously and all too serious. I couldn’t help but doubt the veracity of the images. It feels like a put on, too fantastic to be anything but a grand hoax, and yet it isn’t. The raw footage survives, the Herzog voice-over and selective editing provides critical distance, and we are served a unique portrait of one man’s choices, obsessions, and ultimate demise.

Honorable Mention: Nine Lives (Garcia)

Top 5 Repertory (seen for the first time in 2005):

The Saddest Music in the World (Maddin, 2004)
Les Bonnes Femmes (Chabrol, 1960)
Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997) (former “Best First Reel” winner)
Down By Law (Jarmusch, 1986)
The Cooler (Kramer, 2003)

Finally, in the spirit of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s F.W. Murnau award, the one movie I saw in 2005 that most impacted my appreciation and understanding of film history and confirmed my faith in cinema was Dziga Vertov’s Man with A Movie Camera (1929). A long-time gap for me, I’ve read enough about this film over the years that it felt as though I had seen it already. While dated at times in its politics and… how should I say this… enthusiasm for the potential of the medium to influence and inform society, the avant-garde inventiveness, tightly-constructed grammar, and sheer velocity of this one-of-a-kind film essay is unsurpassed.

The Next Google

If there is any doubt that 37signals, purveyors of fine application services such as Basecamp and Backpack, has jumped the shark, Information Week has sealed the deal with a recent fluff piece headline: “Is 37signals the new Google?”

Don’t get me wrong — I am a long-standing supporter of the 37signals crew since we first approached them to design a site back in 1999, and a true believer when it comes to their unwavering dedication to clarity in design, and “less is more” approach to business management. I also can’t help but be impressed with their evolution over the years, growing from a usability and user experience-oriented design shop to a blog-powered, seminar-driven marketing machine (in the best sense of the word). And, while I don’t “live” in their software as some of their biggest fans do, I would agree that they are among a handful of companies designing very good software today. I eagerly await their entry into the hosted CRM market. SalesForce could use a serious wake-up call.

But the next Google? Back to the headline.

Jason Fried, master of ceremonies at 37signals, shared news of the article with his Signal v Noise blog readers, generating a typically active discussion (41 comments as of this post).

Over at Del.icio.us, 76 people (and counting) also find it link-worthy. Tags include: 37signals, google, web2.0, and ideas.

Which got me thinking: what other companies have been suggested as the next big thing in the age of Google?

A Google search for the phrase “the next Google” produces 90,300 results (though Google cuts you off at 440 claiming the rest are similar). Among the top hits, you will find:

and . . .

It will be interesting to see where these companies, Google included, rank a year from now, 5 years from now and beyond. I wish Jason and the 37signals team the best.

Structured Blogging

Fall 2005 was a blur. So much so that I decided to take the blog portion of the site down. Too much going on. But now, with a new year ahead, and in response to several requests, I’ve brought the blog back online and couldn’t resist the opportunity to restructure content a bit.

As I’ve noted before, I use Movable Type to manage content. I’m a big fan and have convinced others to use it for more than just blogging. Even with WordPress growing in popularity, I find MT’s balance of structure and flexibility to be a good fit. For example, I use a single MT weblog to manage different types of content, from blog entries like this to the various static photo series to my photoblog. It’s probably not the most elegant way to go about things, but by customizing MT’s standard templates combined with a handful of plug-ins, the site dynamically responds to different media types and the structures they require, in both human and machine-readable formats (e.g, the feed for this blog).

So it was with considerable curiosity and excitement that I found the Structured Blogging site by way of Paul Kedrosky via Dick Hardt. I have to agree with Mr. Hardt — it just makes sense for this type of innovation, especially the ability to produce microcontent-specific feeds. By baking in much of the customization I’ve hand-rolled, MT will be that much more powerful out of the box.

Best wishes to everyone for 2006!


John Doe

The Knitters / “Burning House of Love

In Amy’s absence (happy birthday, Toots!) I’ve been given the reins for this week’s No Hits entry. Power Pop be damned! You’ll be hearin’ none of that, friends.

I think I might have hit the jackpot with this week’s heavy-rotation track, given all the chit-chat ‘round here lately. It’s got 80s “roots rock” pedigree, it’s a cover (of sorts), and it’s too good to ignore (though given recent airplay and TV appearances it may be at risk of immediate “No Hits” disqualification). I’ll take the heat.

First, let me take a step back, though — 20 years back. While Geldof, Bono, and the gang were saving Africa, bands like X and Jason and the Scorchers were reworking country music conventions and paving the way for the alt-country watershed of the 90s. In Music City, U.S.A., Jason and others — including Webb Wilder (still working, last I checked), local hopefuls like Raging Fire and In Pursuit, and L.A. import and cross-over breakthrough Dwight Yoakam — were concocting strong medicine to remedy new wave excess and the then-bankrupt and cliched country sound epitomized by the likes of Kenny Rogers.

Which brings us back to Burning. The original 1985 X composition might betray the era a bit with keyboards sparking at the edges, but the rich vocals and no nonsense guitars left an indelible and influential mark. The Knitters, comprised of X bandmates John Doe, Exene Cervenka, and D.J. Bonebrak joined by Dave Alvin and Jonny Ray Bartel, deliver a sparse, jangly update with the clickity-clack shudder of a dark train puffing across the high plains. It’s a much more haunting (and haunted) telling this time around, tinged by dread and bitter memory.

Get The Modern Sounds of The Knitters, their second release in 20 years. Their first, Poor Little Critter On The Road, is also a must-have.

Cross-posted to Shake Your Fist on August 15, 2005

Fun Designs by Liesl

Hydrant Dog and Crabalicious
A quick plug for friend and artist, Liesl Lavery, who has just announced that her CafePress storefront is now open for business!

You can choose from a number of her unique, colorful designs and print them on just about anything, from t-shirts to tote bags to… infant creepers? So click on over and tell ‘em that Joe sent ya.

Digital Self-Storage

In his recent Slate article, “Self-Storage Nation”, one-time Baffler regular, Tom Vanderbilt, describes America’s healthy appetite for space to store stuff.

As Vanderbilt hints, the recent growth in self-storage is evidence of a larger trend that stretches well beyond those ubiquitous sheds one finds scattered along the outskirts of town. Companies like Container Store, publications like Real Simple and books like David Allen’s Getting Things Done all seek to answer the growing demand to organize, simplify, and store the things that make up this modern life.

And it doesn’t just end with thing things. The same could be said online: Google’s Gmail offers 2GBs of free storage (easily hacked to store and serve files rather than email) and various services like Xdrive and sephoneSAFE offer the safe and convenient storage of one’s growing digital media files (e.g., .mp3, .flac, .jpg, .raw). Even the software I use for this website, Movable Type, can be thought of as a content management tool, a means to produce, organize and store stuff.

In most cases, this content is saved on hard drives in web hosting facilities that we will never see, never visit, never really give more than a passing thought. In fact, these places tend to resemble those impersonal sheds on the edge of town. Is it just a matter of time before Public Storage goes digital?

Metropolis Coffee Company

© 2011 Google

© 2011 Google

Metropolis Coffee Company is my new favorite coffehouse in Chicago. Anyone who has brought up the subject of coffee during the past year has had to listen to me go on (and on) about why Metropolis is the bee’s knees in my book.

A welcomed relief from the by now generic coffee culture cultivated and branded by Starbucks and others, Metropolis focuses on great coffee (they roast several great blends) and a relaxed eclectic scene that attracts everyone from local artists and musicians to far-flung yuppies and students alike. On any given day, you’ll overhear conversations about organic farming co-ops in the making, recent gallery openings, winning Scrabble strategies, or a hundred other everyday stories.

And now there is one more reason to make the trek up to 1029 Granville: Daniel Teafoe’s U2/3D. On exhibit through June 19, this collection of 3D photographic images gives you the rare pleasure to relive U2’s 2001 Elevation tour. What more could you ask for?

Best Films of 2004

Richard Linklater, Before Sunset, 2004

Richard Linklater, Before Sunset, 2004

This could be the end of everything
So why don’t we go
Somewhere only we know?

- Keane, 2004 (via SG)

Choices Made.

As has become my habit/tradition, with a scant few hours to go before the Oscar ceremony celebrating the best of Hollywood films of the past year, I too want to offer a few thoughts on my favorite moments watching movies in 2004.

It was a varied and hurried year for me. I can’t remember having many opportunities to reflect on the films I saw to the degree that I am accustomed or prefer. I suppose the most celebrated and controversial of the year’s offerings was Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, an effort that left me strangely sympathetic for the targeted George W. The project backfired on both a rhetorical and emotional level, with its “shame on you” moral indignation. Trusted friends don’t share my intolerance for Moore’s tactics, excusing them instead on higher grounds, and I’ve decided maybe I just don’t like to be preached to, regardless of the message.

Other movies I should have liked more included Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, American Splendor (2003) and Garden State, solid outings all, by skilled filmmakers with interesting things to say. Loosely defined, they could be said to describe a kind of longing or searching, to map the emotional tumult of loss and displacement and that peculiar condition of loserdom. Each offers a schematic of how to cope with the heartbreak and kicks in the teeth, and even how to get back on track.

Sideways also has been widely praised for its adult take on life, its frank view of when things haven’t worked out the way one expected them to, and the different ways one might play the cards you’re dealt. Similarly, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset might be summarized as a thesis on growing older, making choices and choices making you, missed opportunities, and the what if musings of thirty-somethings. It’s the more nuanced effort, in my opinion, matured like the wine appreciated in Sideways yet still ripe with possibility and surprise.

Top 5:

Before Sunset
Hotel Rwanda
Maria Full of Grace
Shrek 2 / The Incredibles (tie)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Honorable Mentions: Yo, Robot, caught with SG in Lima before heading back to the States and Troy, viewed on a bus to Puno. Both were pure entertainment in unexpected contexts and both were testaments to the fulfillment of cinema’s early “universal language” aspirations.

Other recommendations in no particular order (viewed for the first time in 2004): Touching the Void (2003), Key Largo (1948), All the Real Girls (2003), Kieslowski’s Blind Chance (1987), Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1950), Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2002), Linklater’s Tape (2001), To Be and To Have (2002), Spellbound (2002), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and The Station Agent (2003).


I’m a micropatron. I am someone who has contributed hard cash to Jason Kottke’s recent foray into full-time blogging. I’ve never met Jason, never even exchanged a single email save my recent well wishes for success, but I’ve been a long-time reader (and not so infrequent poacher) of his site. Like many successful blogs, Jason’s voice is strong throughout — he’s subjective, daringly honest and tireless. He’s also perceptive and provides a well-manicured digest of ideas, memes, and the random what-have-yous circulating the web at any given moment.

My “patronage” is not just about supporting this kind of writing. It’s also about supporting web writing as a professional endeavor outside of an advertising-based model, and rescuing blogging from mainstream media’s ill-informed dismissals of amateurism. In other words, it’s a vote of confidence.

I wonder what it’s like to be in Jason’s shoes right now — to witness an outpouring of support from readers who have been relatively anonymous or unknown until now. What an incredible leap of faith it must have been to trust us, and an equally incredible validation.

Is Google Connect That Far Away?

Google has done it again: Google Maps Beta combines improved map graphics with their trademark user interface simplicity. It is a great first stab at a mapping service, including driving directions. And at the same time, it goes so far that it also leaves one asking: “if they can do this, then what about this, or this?” Not feature-creep add-ons, but rather extending the functionality that is already there.

For example, I suspect one day soon users will be able to click on business phone number listings produced by “nearby” searches and connect the call over a VoIP/PSTN gateway. That last mile has been sorely lacking in information and directory assistance services (both via wireline 411 and on the web). Google is just the company to fix it.

Long Tails, Exploding TVs, and Experience Goods

There has been a recent surge in web commentary on the growing transformation of video distribution and consumption, in particular network TV. The technology pundits will tell you that video is following in the footsteps of text, photos, and music into the maw of the Internet, driven by today’s on demand economics and digital lifestyles. The common theme in most of these discussions is the toppling of incumbent media houses: the old school networks and studios who have invested heavily and reaped great rewards from their monopolies. The long tail faithful suggest that audiences are fragmentary (specialized) by nature and how they consume and re-contextualize cultural artifacts is likewise a fragmentary and niche-driven process. The idea of a cohesive, unified work of art, long challenged among cultural theorists, is now seeing a quite literal disintegration.

As technologies continue to converge, and as the bit torrents challenge the perceived sanctity of the living room, we no doubt will see a shift from broadcast to narrowcast cultural production and consumption. As a lover of “foreign” and “independent” cinema, this should be a welcomed change for me since the collapse of traditional distribution channels means almost limitless access to everything and anything, anywhere at any time. However, in the face of this one-click immediacy, how will the experience of culture change? I am particularly interested in terms of audiences.

In 1948, Americans went to the local theater to see the latest Warner Bros. comedy and perhaps the latest Italian neorealist import. In 1966, they watched these films on their televisions, ‘81 on HBO. In all cases someone else decided the when, and less so the where. This is still true today, with the latest Hollywood release following a carefully rehearsed trajectory from must-see opening weekend to the 2 for 1 DVD bargain bin at your local box retailer of choice. Hollywood isn’t just selling the images on screen, but also the experience of those images, within a crucial window of time. This is what gets top dollar. And this is what has the studios so upset about leaked/ripped pre-release copies. The cat is out of the bag, they fear. Why go to the cinema if you can have it in your pocket? I suggest one answer is the pleasure in the sharing of experience — be it water cooler recaps of your favorite TV drama or reality TV show viewed the previous night on Fox, or sitting in a darkened theater with 200 strangers.

How might the long tailers reconcile this pleasure of mass culture? Perhaps this isn’t their purview, preferring instead to praise the liberation of the catalog, pleased more in describing the inter-personal and social realignments shaped by recommendation and reputation engines outside the mainstream. Or maybe the point is simply that experience will still be shared, only in new, often impromptu and ephemeral settings. Perhaps. Until then, I think in the proposed slice-and-dice on demand world of video searching, downloading, and the like, shared cultural context is fundamentally negated. It is a void that will be filled one way or another.

Stories Make Sense

During our holiday travels to Nevada and Utah, we went to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. To say it was some of the most incredible landscape I’ve ever seen would be a major understatement. Bryce in particular was amazing to see, especially under a pristine snowfall. I’ve been fortunate to experience some great country in the past couple of years, Arizona’s Grand Canyon included. Like the Grand Canyon, Bryce is breathtakingly vast but it also invokes a sense of intimacy — as AG remarked, it is as if you can reach out and touch the rock while looking down from the rim. Each hoodoo, with its unique curves, cracks and colorations, seems to have a story to tell.

I guess this is what it comes down to — narrative breathes life into the abstract, stories make sense of things.

I’ve seen evidence of this over the past few days as people respond to the South Asia earthquake and tsunami disaster. Like the events of 9/11 here in the U.S., the scale of loss, the facelessness of the numbers is incomprehensible and can only begin to make sense once it is tapered to a human level. Our networks showed their utter lack of understanding of this fact during the first few days of the aftermath, when instead of useful information we were fed platitudes and headline-grabbing generalizations. It was insulting. The packaging and broadcasting of disaster, right down to the just-catchy-enough byline pulsing at your television’s edge, is so inappropriately calculated and manipulative that I had a hard time watching. Since the new year, with more people “on the ground,” the attention thankfully has turned more to how people are helping survivors, and of course the urgency to do even more. The stories of bravery, luck, misfortune and grief make the local global and back again, all the more so without a tyrannical dictator to blame or fanatical extremist to out-hate.