The Zeitgeist of 2011

Have you seen the great Google Zeitgeist? It's a remarkable look at the trends in search over the previous year.

Why is it called the "Zeitgeist"? Because it's a great word that sums up the somewhat subtle notion that is more encompassing than "trends" and more lithe than "analytics."

I'm convinced, however, that Google would call that page, "Google aggregation of billions of queries people typed into Google search using data from multiple sources, including Insights for Search and internal data tools" and not Google Zeitgeist if not for one man: Kurt Andersen.

Andersen has been capturing the Zeitgeist better than anyone for the last 25 years or so, most famously in Spy Magazine as he did here.

He has done so again recently when Time tapped him to write about the Person of the Year, the Protester

It's a great story, I recommend purchasing the magazine if you can still find it, or reading it in the "reader" function on Safari to minimize all the junk that Time throws up to make it hard to read. 

The story is informative without being dull, global yet personal. It perfectly encapsulates the zeitgeist, and because it's written by Andersen, even encapsulates the word.

So 2011 was unlike any year since 1968 — but more consequential because more protesters have more skin in the game. Their protests weren't part of a countercultural pageant, as in '68, and rapidly morphed into full-fledged rebellions, bringing down regimes and immediately changing the course of history. It was, in other words, unlike anything in any of our lifetimes, probably unlike any year since 1848, when one street protest in Paris blossomed into a three-day revolution that turned a monarchy into a republican democracy and then — within weeks, thanks in part to new technologies (telegraphy, railroads, rotary printing presses) — inspired an unstoppable cascade of protest and insurrection in Munich, Berlin, Vienna, Milan, Venice and dozens of other places across Europe, as well as a huge peaceful demonstration of democratic solidarity in New York that marched down Broadway and occupied a public park a few blocks north of Wall Street. How perfect that the German word Zeitgeist was transplanted into English in that unprecedented, uncanny year of insurrection.

So really, stop whatever you are doing and go read the story.


Time-&-Labor-Saving Device

Digital-calculatorThe business I founded with Wade Green, Blogmutt, is going very well. We have customers who like what they are getting, the writers like writing... It's all just going well.

So well that there's lots for me to do, and I seem to not have time to blog as much as I'd like. This was a real problem for Blogmutt, which is founded on the idea that blogging is important for business. Luckily we had a solution: Blogmutt! The Blogmutt writers are now doing a great job of writing posts about Blogmutt. (If that doesn't make any sense, click here.)

But we say right in our FAQ that Blogmutt is not for everyone. Blogmutt can't be called on to write posts for blogs that are personal... Like this one.

So it's up to me.

I thought that perhaps there'd be a way that I could write more posts if I had something to help me save time, and that prompted me to remember the passage I'm going to insert below. I'd link to it, but it seems to exist nowhere on the internet because book publishers still haven't figured out what the internet really is.

The passage is from the Tom Wolfe book In Our Time, which Amazon shows -- improbably -- as being available as a new book. It was published in 1980, and is Wolfe's collection of words and drawings about the 1970s. It's dated now in references, of course, but the writing holds up remarkably well.

Someone somewhere will write about how the iPad is the 2010s version of the digital calculator. Until then, here's Wolfe:

The Digital Calculator
This marvelous machine was the 1970s' most notable contribution to the impressive list of time-and-labor-saving devices that have made it possible for Americans, since the Second World War, to waste time in job lots and get less and less done--with sleekness and precision of style. The time you can waste (I speak from experience) going chuk chuk, chuk on your calculator and watching the little numbers go dancing across the black window--all the while feeling that you are living life at top speed--is breathtaking. Earlier additions to the list: the direct-dial long-distance telephone, the Xerox machine, the in-office computer, the jet airliner (not to mention the Concorde). The jet airliner, for example, encourages you to drop everything, hop on a plane, and go to Los Angeles, or wherever, at a moment's notice. Later on you can't understand how the better part of a week got shot. In light of my own not exactly staggering literary output, I have become interested in the life of Blazac. I am convinced that the reason this genius was so productive--he published at least sixty books between the ages of thirty and fifty-one--was that he enjoyed no time- or labor-saving aids whatsoever, not even a typewriter. He dropped nothing and went nowhere on a moment's notice, not even to Maisons-Laffitte, which was twelve miles from Paris. He didn't ring up anybody in Brittany, much less London. He either wrote a note by hand or said the hell with it. There is a time-&-labor-saving device.

By the way, I recommend, for full effect, that you read it again out loud, your voice rising with each line, until by the end you are shouting and pounding your fist on the table.

There!


The TechCrunch Also Rises

I've loved reading TechCrunch for the last few years. Just loved it. It's had a vibrancy and a visceral sort of honesty that's made it something you just couldn't take your eyes off of.

And I also soaked it in because I knew the magic couldn't last.

I know, I've been there.

Paris-1920sNot everyone gets to have a chance to live in a Paris-in-the-20s kind of time. If it's real, the myth of it becomes larger than life. Hell, there are now college courses about the original one. The people who were in it revelled in it, but they were so young that they didn't know that it couldn't last. They went on to great fame, but there was always that looking back.

That thing that happened, though, really was positive for the world, not just for those who sat at that table drinking coffee. Without Paris in the 20s, readers of novels in English would have remained stuck with nothing to read but Edith Wharton novels about struggles with upper crust society conventions. Without that group of writers, literature would have been one long run of masterpiece theatre. Gag.

I'm not sure if there was another such moment until the 1960s at the New York Herald Tribune, which is where Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Charles Portis, Nat Hentoff, Gloria Steinem, Langston Hughes, Nora Ephron and others who would go on to remake journalism all got their start. Of course, the Herald Tribune couldn't last. I wonder if part of the reason readers liked it so much then was that they knew they were watching a bright-burning flame that can not be sustained.

It pales, of course, but my chance at mythological Paris in the 20s was SPY Magazine in the 1980s. I was young, so I didn't really fully appreciate how great of a thing I was in the middle of. I only realized it later, constantly wondering why I didn't have editors as erudite as Kurt Andersen, or larger than life like Graydon Carter. Why didn't I have publishers as forward thinking as Tom Phillips, or coworkers as talented as... OK, if I start naming all the names this post will grow too long.

SPY in those days, just as with the others, really did make the world better. Nearly everyone who worked there has gone on to do great things in journalism, television, media and more. TV shows like the Simpsons and the Daily Show have had SPY staffers making it better. Before blogs, it wasn't easy to make fun of Donald Trump or tell the story behind the story with Big Journalism. Now it happens all the time. Part of that is the technology, but part of it, I think, is the ice that was broken by SPY. Just like with Paris in the 20s, and the Herald Tribune, SPY made the world better, but just couldn't last.

And so now it is with TechCrunch, which is now without a doubt the zeitgeist leader of blogs and tech journalism. Was, anyway. The moment is now gone.

Just because of momentum, TechCrunch will certainly keep publishing, but the fire has now died out. I had hope that the magic might stick around after AOL gobbled up TechCrunch, but the events of the last couple days make it clear that's just not going to happen. 

Paul Carr certainly saw this coming. His post about the events is pure Paul. It's clear. It shows what went on behind the scenes. It's brilliantly written. And I can't help but read it and think that Paul knows better than anyone that the gig is up.

I expect we'll see great things from the TechCrunch gang for many years to come, and I expect journalism will never be the same because of what TechCrunch did. Journalism and the internet will be better, but the next thing won't be some TechCrunch competitor nipping around right now, it will be something really amazing that nobody really saw coming until suddenly it will be gone, too.

I'll be looking for it, though. Change comes faster these days, so maybe it won't be too far off.

Thanks for the great times, TechCrunch. You've earned your spot in history.


Now is the August of our Discontent

I invite you to sit back and relax as you read this post, probably the only one you'll read all summer that ties together the U.S. economy, Richard III, New York tabloids, neuroscience, venture capital and crowdsourcing.

OK, not just this summer. Ever.

I just won't have time to do that in a few sentences, however. Pascal-like I only have time to write about this at length.

So grab a cold drink, prop up your feet, and join me if you like.

The kernel of this post started with a simple Facebook post after a lovely evening of corn on the cob, ice cream on the deck, and relaxing with the family:

Scott Yates fb post


 Just a lovely summer evening out there. Seems to happen every August: life seems so wonderful within the family and the world goes nusto -- the stock market goes screwy, some youths somewhere go all nuts (London's turn this year) and politicians become especially unsavory. I wish summer could last longer for us, but the world could use a good rain shower and some adult supervision.

I got a big response to that, which got me thinking -- using the parlance of the day -- that I might "unpack" that notion a bit here.

Let's start with the one everyone knows about, the stock market.

First, the NY Post put it best, the stock market was going up and down like a hooker's drawers.

New-York-Post-Cover-1312990193

What's going on with the market? I have no idea, but I have a hunch, however, that part of the problem is that all the grownups on Wall Street are on vacation, and a bunch of kids got a little carried away with themselves.

If that's the case, wouldn't we have seen this kind of thing happen in August before? Probably, and it turns out that's exactly what has happened. (Read this hilarious post about that.)

Of course, the market was also wacky because of the uncertainty created by the debt-ceiling shenanigans. My old boss, Kurt Andersen, is exactly right when he says that our politics these days is suffering from some kind of autoimmune disorder where the body mistakenly attacks itself.

All of those August events led some notable folks to start talking about something very much on my mind these days, investments in startup companies. I won't link to those posts, because I'm going to slam them now by pointing out simply that it's always easy to forecast doom.

What I didn't read anywhere was this: If the stock market sucks as a place to keep money, wouldn't that help startups and other alternative investments? I mean, only those with tinfoil hats are suggesting that you should take all your money out of the markets and put it in gold. You'd have to be exceptionally bad at math to keep it in a bank. Wouldn't all that money do better investing in something that actually has a chance to grow? Not to get preachy, but they'd be also be able to invest in the one thing that everyone says is the best way to create new jobs. I understand there's more risk, but with risk comes...

Ahh nevermind. Let's move on.

The good news for startups is that smart investors understand that market fluctuations are materially irrelevant to what they do. George Zachary made the case very clearly in a single tweet

No matter what happens with public markets, my CRV partners & I will still be actively funding early stage founders pursuing the bold.

Adeo Ressi made the case, properly I think, that this is actually a time when we should have some cautious optimism. Brad Feld and Seth Levine of the Foundry group both made essentially the same case as Zachary and Ressi, but they did it in their own inimitable style, Brad saying "ignore the dow" and Seth with a long, reasoned post full of words like "numerator" and "capital efficiency."

The bottom line for all of them was the same bottom line I got reading about why love is the opposite of underwear: Do what you love so much that it doesn't get boring, and have grit about sticking with it. VCs and neuroscientists agree!

And so does the writer of this excellent story: "A Few Thousand Reasons to Be Optimistic."

Now, I know you are on the edge of your seat, wondering what all this has to do with Richard III. 

The prognosticators who came out and said that the market volatility signaled the end of all investments in startups were, I think, essentially emulating Shakespeare in saying: "Now is the winter of our discontent." (One of them, whom I still respect a great deal, actually said "winter is coming.")

What they didn't do, however, was read the next line.

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this son of York

You see that? What Richard is saying there is that the winter is now made into a glorious summer by the son (sun).

The doom-and-gloomers are missing that. They want you to believe that things will be bad bad bad.

This is something that was not lost, by the way, on Steinbeck when he wrote The Winter of our Discontent. That book centers on a man who worked hard, had strong ethics, but then let his ethics slip so that he could make a buck and get ahead. It was a cautionary tale that we've seen played out in everything from Glengarry Glen Ross and Bonfire of the Vanities through Gordon Gekko and right up to The Social Network.

Some people learn from these kinds of stories what not to do, and some learn the upside down lesson that if they cheat, if they worry about superficial gains, if they wear a hoody and tell people that a billion dollars is cool, that somehow they will get ahead. Those people might for a while, too, but for the world winter is a good thing because that hoody just isn't enough to get you through a winter.

Here's how this became concrete for me just yesterday.

Just by way of background, I'm the CEO of a startup that uses a crowd of writers to help businesses do the blogging that they don't have the time or ability to do themselves. We sometimes get criticized because we don't pay writers very much. As a former journalist, author and writing instructor, this pains me. I want writers to do well. I understand that for many aspiring writers, there are just no good opportunities to write professionally.

Blogmutt now has paying customers and a crowd of writers working for them. I sent a note congratulating one of the writers yesterday because in a single day she wrote awesome posts for four different customers ranging from a super high tech website to a local boutique retail store. She's never been a paid writer before, but she is now. She wrote back and told me that she would like to donate the money she's earned to Water for People.

I really just about cried. Why? First because it's such a great idea and it will be so wonderful to be able to help out some deserving non-profits. But I was also moved to tears because it confirmed what we've been saying all along: that there is a group of very talented writers out there who would love an opportunity to write something real, something that will be helpful to real people, and get a foot in the door of writing professionally.

I have to admit that I've perhaps spent a bit too much of the last few months getting too close to the world of the kid in the hoody talking about how a billion dollars is cool. I participated in a kind of beauty pageant for startups, I "took meetings" and I talked about valuations for Blogmutt with some pretty exuberant numbers given that at that point we didn't have any customers.

We are still technically fundraising. We are still taking those meetings and we certainly would love to have some more money in the bank. We'd also love to have the connection to real leaders in our world that comes in an unparalleled way with a real investment. But now that we have customers we are realizing firsthand the truism that the best kind of investment is a customer paying for something that provides value. We have those customers now, and we have freelance writers who enjoy writing for those customers.

Our plan is that the warmth radiating from delighted customers and writers will make a glorious summer out of whatever winter comes our way.

A glorious summer. Not the August zaniness, just the ice cream gloriouisness.

Mmmmmmm. Ice cream.


What's the right length for a blog post?

I've been fascinated for years by the concept of form when it comes to works that appear creative.

Like all callow reporters fresh from J-school, I had a mind to upset the applecart and write in totally new ways.

That didn't last long.

I started using some of the standard forms of journalism early on for two reasons.

One is that I read The New Journalism and then basically everything else that Tom Wolfe ever wrote. I've written in this space about how Facebook is like the newest form of New Journalism, but this was something different. My writing took on the forms of journalism that had gone on before me because it worked. Wolfe was the first to point out that the "new" journalism was really the exact same writing of Dickens and many others.

The second reason I started using the forms of journalism was that I discovered they were forms for a reason, and the way in which words get written can follow a form, and still sing. What matters most is that the content is compelling, and then after that the words must just do the job of getting the compelling bits into the craniums of the readers.

For example?

No less than Bob Woodward recently wrote a tic-tock, a story that is not breaking news, but goes back to recount an event in chronological order. Publishers turn to this kind of story quite often when the news isn't new, but is so compelling that they want to run the story again a few days later. It may contain some new tidbits, but it's really not news. In the chronological style, however, it clicks right along like a clock. But how to end such a story? Well, you need a "kicker," a quote that's so delicious, so authentic, and so encapsulating that you want to make sure every reader sees it.

When I'm consulting on communication topics, I always tell people that documents, paragraphs and sentences all have two strong spots: the beginning and the end. The start of a story is crucial for sure, but the kicker can help you walk away with real understanding.

Bob Woodward knows better than to screw around with that form, so at the end of his tic-tock on the Osama bin Laden story he ends with a quote from President Obama. "We donated a $60 million helicopter to this operation. Could we not afford to buy a tape measure?"

Yes. Just so.

There are plenty of other forms. The form of a story reporting on scientific discoveries gets used all the time, primarily because the people doing the writing have no freaking clue what it is they are writing about, so they fall back on the standard ways. That's what makes this satire so spot-on.

Sports stories have their own form, so much so that a couple of clever coders came up with a way to generate an AP-style baseball story just by entering the box score of a game

There's a form to good screenplays, too. I wrote here about movies that seem like they are all over the map and yet when looked at up close they indeed follow classic forms of three-act screenplays. Following a form does not mean giving up on creativity.

The other reason, by the way, that writers use forms is time. I remember struggling, on deadline, with a late-night crime story when working on the late, great New York Newsday. Someone came over to ask how it was going (maybe Peg Tyre?) and said, "Look, this is a cop story. First graf: What happened. Second graf: Where's the body. Third graf: Your best quote. Then just fill in details and quotes until you get to nine inches. 

(Translation: graf=paragraph. inches=column inches in the paper. It never really works out to measure it that way because the columns always changed, so basically an "inch" was about 30 words. Also, there's always a body in the crime story. It's either in "fair condition" or "recovering at home" or "awaiting toxicology reports" etc.)

Why all this about forms for me right now?

Two reasons.

One is that I'm currently raising investment for my newest business, Blogmutt. When I put together a deck for my first business, MyTrafficNews, I wanted to break the mold and do something really different. With the second business I pushed some boundaries, but mostly stuck to the script. With this one, I'm following the form. I've seen a few different forms, including this one that's a MadLib for the one-sentence description, and this one for the overall slide deck. Garage.com says I should have 10 slides, I have 10 slides.

I'm coaching some companies right now that are headed to the Colorado Capitol Conference, and mostly I just tell them the same thing: Be creative, but be creative within the form of a slide deck that follows the form of a pitch deck. And I also tell them to just cut words.

The second reason I'm thinking about forms is also blogmutt. We will be asking a crowd of writers to come up with blog posts for small and niche business blogs. The pay won't be fantastic, but it should rival or exceed what spec writing jobs on the internet pay. It will certainly exceed what most bloggers make on most blogs -- that is: zero. I'm expecting that we'll have quite a few writers who perhaps studied English in college but have never been able to write professionally, and they just want to make some extra money for scrapbooking, fantasy baseball, or maybe to pay bills if they do really well. We'll be helping those writers to understand the form of a classic blog post. Some writers who want to work with blogmutt may want to try some fancy stuff and alter the very form of a typical blog post.

They can do that, but just not for Blogmutt. That's why even though I'm writing lots of posts for the Blogmutt blog these days, those posts in general follow the form of a helpful blog post.

It's only over here, on sco.tt, that I babble on about everything from Bob Woodward to a slide deck. This is my personal blog, and that's just what this is all about.

So, the answer to the question, "What's the right length for a blog post?" is that it's exactly long enough to do what you want the post to do. What do you want your posts to do?

What did this post do? Several things, even though there's not much form here…

Sorry about that, but thanks for reading anyway!


Closing the book on The Future of Water

Last night was the book signing event for The Future of Water. Below is a version of the remarks I prepared. What I actually said was somewhat close to this, just without the links.

Scott-at-dpcWhen I tell people that I wrote a book called The Future of Water, they usually say, “Meh. [pause] Sounds dry.” 

[Insert groan]

What people actually say is some expression of concern, wondering just how bad things will be.

I have to say that I actually came away from the process of researching that book a bit more optimistic than when I started doing the research. Why?

Part of the reason is the nature of water itself. The water the dinosaurs drank is the same water we drink today. The water where life started is still here. The water we use today is the same water that fish crawled out of long, long ago.

And the amount of water in the world is the same, too. Fossil fuels get burned and are gone forever. Water remains.

There might be a little less on earth, as the space station has some floating around, though it’s now getting reused in the now-famous urine-recycling machine, a technology that may be coming to your home.

Another part of my reason for optimism is certainly technology. I had a vague idea before I started, for instance, that desalination is basically no option at all, given the huge amount of fossil fuels needed. But I learned about some solar-powered and some wave-powered technologies and one other technology that uses a kind of ionization that may fundamentally change that equation.

I wrote about those, and other changes that aren’t technical, but are new, including changes in governmental agreements like the kind we are just now learning about with Denver Water and the West Slope.

New technologies and new, local, cooperative efforts are the future of water.

So I'm optimistic because of the nature of water, because of new technologies, but also because of people.

People like those of you here tonight who work in the world of water. You know, for instance, that if we don't replace 100-year-old pipes that they will burst and people will be without water. Little by little I think that you are doing a better job of communicating that and people are starting to listen. You all know that uninterrupted green grass surrounding every home west of the Missouri River is an absolutely unsustainable dream. Slowly that word is getting out. You all know that rooftop rain collection and home grey-water recycling are not harebrained schemes but are part of the inevitable arc of water history.

What is scary? China is scary.

China's built a dam so massive that the water inside is so voluminous, that it's actually lengthened the time it takes for the earth to rotate on its axis, so if it seems like days are getting longer you can blame the Chinese for that. (It's actually only a handful of milliseconds, but still.)

It's also created some local earthquakes as the weight of the water has flooded hundreds of cities and towns, 6000-year-old archeological sites and some of China's most beautiful countryside. Seventy five million people live in the floodplain of this dam; they all live downstream of a dam that has created its own earthquakes.

Turns out that Chinese Premier Hu Jintao was a hydrology student, and his first job was in a dam-building conglomerate.

The World Bank doesn't lend money for dams any more -- there's just no way to justify them environmentally, or economically. China, however, is building dams on its own in Africa and South America.

China is also building dams in China that have already begun to choke off the Mekong Delta. The Vietnamese war was bad for the environment, with the Agent Orange and everything, but nothing comes close to the devastation we'll see in Vietnam and other countries in the region if China builds all the dams it's now planning.

And the dam China hasn't announced, but some reporters have confirmed, is the one that would block the flow of a river that flows from Tibet into India. It’s one of the only decent sources of water that India has. One report is that China might use a nuclear bomb to blow up the area in the Himalayas to hold the water from that dam.

The people from Boulder want a free Tibet, but it’s important to understand why China wants Tibet. It’s not because of the little prayer flags or the monks. It wants the water.

India isn’t going to give up all that water without a fight in an area that's still disputed as to which country it's in. China and India fought one war, and India won't give up all that water without a fight. That’s scary.

In spite of all that, I do remain optimistic. America has its problems, but we have freedom and with freedom -- in general -- we take on the responsibility to leave the earth a bit better than how we found it.

Consider Denver. This amazing city was a dusty desert not that long ago, just a junction of two streams that were bone dry for half the year. Now it’s an amazing and great city built in part because of how we’ve harnessed water.

Denver has great wealth, but also serious pockets of poverty. Even so, the poorest person in Denver can get drinking water from a tap and feed it to a child without fears of water-born illness. That’s not true in most of the rest of the world. Indeed the tap water in the poorest part of Denver is better than in a fancy hotel in the biggest 10 cities in the world

But the water is safe and reliably delivered here in Denver, and all over America. That’s remarkable when you think about it. Because of those of you who are in the water industry, that amazing fact is true every single day of the year.

I think eventually the rest of the world will get closer to that reality by following the example you all are setting.

So, thank you for what you do. Thanks to AWWA for hiring me to write this book, and thank you for taking care of water.

51fDLwo+SoL._AA90_
I’d like to say a few more words of thanks here.

First is to my wife, Kathy Yates. After I turned in the manuscript for the book, Kathy and I went to a book signing by Steven Johnson, and during the Q and A he said that he really enjoyed writing. He said that he had many writer friends who complain about writing, and he told his wife that he should get some credit for the fact that he wasn't a big complainer when writing.

She said, "No. You don't."

We went up after, and my wife told him, "Tell your wife you deserve more credit. My husband just finished writing a book, and he was a total grouch the whole time and sent me and our son to California for the last two weeks of the writing."

Truth is, I was more than a grouch, I was also unable to have many conversations without muttering something about water or word counts. My wife encouraged me when needed and tolerated me when I was intolerable, and for that I thank her.

Many family members and good friends came for the reading, and I will be buying each of them a beer or other beverage of their choice, as long as it's not bottled water!

The room was packed, so I'm certainly missing many, but I do want to mention a few people in particular who attended, including Dominic Dezzutti of Channel 12, Patti Thorn, my former books section editor, and Rebecca Cantwell, my former night-desk editor, both from the Rocky Mountain News (sigh). Also in line to grab books I saw sustainability-issues lobbyist Whit Allen, Colorado's car guy Tim Jackson, and Jeff Laws, though it's not that hard to get Jeff to come by the bar at the Denver Press Club.

Two of my fellow graduates from the Founder Institute also came, including Matt Ryan and Oza Klanjsek, who not only came, but took the photo you see above and brought her kids. I told her that if we don't bring our kids to bars, who will? 

Also, I'd like to thanks Google Docs (never had to worry which was the current version) and a new search engine called DuckDuckGo that had great results even though the whole thing is built by one guy.

So, thanks much to everyone, and with this post I'm closing the cover on this book.


Big Day for The Future of Water and for BlogMutt

Today is the official publication day for the book I wrote for the American Water Works Association and Steve Maxwell: The Future of Water.

Today is also the day we are starting a poll to help us find a new logo for the company I founded with Wade Green: BlogMutt.

Amazon almost ruined the whole thing!

It turns out that a disturbingly large part of my life is tied up with Amazon right now. I don't make a percentage of sales for the book, so I'm not super obsessed with checking sales stats on Amazon, but I've made a living as a writer or writing consultant for a long time, so being on Amazon is a big deal for me.

Amazon.com was actually fine. I was only worried about it because Amazon Web Services went down yesterday. I knew that because of the other big part of my life today: BlogMutt. We are super early in the process of launching BlogMutt, so early that we only really have a couple of things right now, including a logo that Wade and I designed, and a beta sign-up form.

Because the internet is cool, we didn't have to make our own sign-up form, we let the inventive team at betali.st do it. Because that team didn't want to have to provision their own server and go through all those headaches, they signed up for Amazon Web Services. We are also developing in part on a site called "heroku" and that site, too, went down. (It's up today, with a promise of being "rock solid.")

A zillion newish web companies use Amazon's cloud, lured in by Amazon's message. In short, Amazon says that it got so good at cloud computing running Amazon.com that it wants to sell that ability. Small companies can tell themselves that they are getting the same kind of reliability that Amazon has for itself.

It turns out that while all animals are equal, some animals are a bit more equal. The cloud that Amazon sells to others is not quite as equal as the cloud it uses to sell stuff.

For me, if I had to choose, I would have rather seen my own book site unavailable on the date the book goes on sale and be able to keep going with BlogMutt. That way maybe people would wait on buying the book until they can do so in person at the Denver Press Club on May 5. That way I'd get to see those people and say thanks. Today is the publication day, what's sometimes known as "The calm before the calm."

(As a small side-note: I'm surprised that nobody in the dead tree press or even a blog that I can find have pointed out that the cloud problem hurt the cloud customers, but not Amazon.com itself. It was my first question, and I wasn't alone. Brad Feld asked, and so far I'm the only one who answered. One other even smaller side note... Whenever there's a widespread internet outage, Skynet jokes are sure to follow, especially when it happens on Judgement Day. I was relieved when Quora did not come back from its Amazon-induced nap to ask only one question: "Where is Sarah Connor?")

The good news is that the internet seems to have worked through it's funk. Also, it's Good Friday, the middle of Passover, the day after Skynet did not attack us and Earth Day. It's also the day that Alfalfa's reopens in Boulder, so now you can get this song stuck in your head the way it's been stuck in my head all day:

"Alfalfa's" by Leftover Salmon by fullpedal

So it seems like a good of a day as any to launch our logo survey for BlogMutt.

We will launch the site itself soon enough, but for the logo I need your help. Our logo has served us well in our nascent stages. We made this one ourselves using a picture of the Yates family dog, Professor Beuregard Thibodeaux Tagalong "Buddy" Yates the 122nd. (Quinn, now 7, thought the "122nd" made his name sound better.) Anyway, the logo now is cute, but we need something more professional that will look good on coffee mugs and other tchotchkes, as well as on a smart phone, etc. So take a quick look here and let me know what you think:

(If there is no graphic with a bunch of logos above these words, there's some glitch. Click here to take the poll, it's one page with eight choices.)

Thank you very much for taking that poll, and thanks for reading. Spring is here!


Stalking the Billion-Footed Facebook Beast

How big is Facebook?

A movie about Facebook is a huge hit, may win an Oscar™, and even so there are more people who spend time on the actual Facebook every day than the total number of people who have ever seen the movie.

What's going on?

I've got one theory that is enough different from the many others I've looked at that I thought I might try it out here. It's a theory that doesn't have much to do with the film, but one scene in the film gets to what I'm on to. It's the scene where the Napster guy has just "hooked up" with a Stanford student. He goes to use her computer and finds TheFacebook.com. He asks her what it is and she tells him, and says that she is "totally addicted." Why?

To understand this theory of why Facebook is so gripping and so absorbing for half a billion people, I need to take you backwards, though an analysis of something that I've been thinking about since I moved to New York City in the late 1980s and started reading Tom Wolfe. By reading, I mean devouring. I read everything I could find. In those days that meant trudging down to the library and photocopying old magazine articles.

So, there I was in New York when Harper's published Wolfe's essay "Stalking the Billion-footed Beast." It caused quite the stir in certain circles, but for me it was like an instruction manual. There he was laying out exactly how young journalists -- That was me! -- could go out and write the "Right Stuff."

That article is brilliant, and still reads as fresh for me today as it did then, sitting in the J-school lobby a half-block from Washington Square. It's all online now, so go read it if you have a moment.

After that, I went back to my microscopic apartment and read again his introduction to The New Journalism. In that essay he made crystal clear the instructions of how to write journalism that could read like a novel. He laid our four specific steps at some length. He then revisited those four steps in much shorter form in an essay 30 years later, referring to his style of New Journalism as a "naturalistic novel." This appeared in his book Hooking Up.:

Four specific devices give the naturalistic novel its "gripping," "absorbing" quality: 

(1) scene-by-scene construction, i.e., telling the story by moving from scene to scene rather than by resorting to sheer historical narrative; 

(2) the liberal use of realistic dialogue, which reveals character in the most immediate way and resonates more profoundly with the reader than any form of description; 

(3) interior point of view, i.e., putting the reader inside the head of a character and having him view the scene through his eyes; and 

(4) the notation of status details, the cues that tell people how they rank in the human pecking order, how they are doing in the struggle to maintain or improve their position in life or in an immediate situation, everything from clothing and furniture to accents, modes of treating superiors or inferiors, subtle gestures that show respect or disrespect -- "dissing," to use a marvelous new piece of late-twentieth-century slang -- the entire complex of signals that tell the human beast whether it is succeeding or failing and has or hasn't warded off that enemy of happiness that is more powerful than death: humiliation.

In The New Journalism he wrote that of the four, the last was the least understood, but the most important.

OK, I've gone on for a while now, and you may recall that way back yonder at the beginning of this post you thought that I was going to be writing about Facebook. So..........................

Why do people enjoy reading Facebook? What is it that is so "gripping" and "absorbing"? ::::::: Hey! Where have we seen those words? Just up at the top of Wolfe's set of four devices used by those who understand the importance of realism.

This, right here, is my "aha!" moment. Reading Facebook is like reading Tom Wolfe! Or Dickens!!! Maybe even Steinbeck or Balzac or any of the others who grasped this power.(!) 

Really?

I'm not actually sure, but let's take a look:

1. Scene-by-scene construction.

Unlike so many of the people who play with words and produce books or even films that bounce all around in some attempt to be clever, there's no way that Facebook posts can be anything other than linear. (Yes, I understand that Facebook has instituted some algorithm to organize posts by order of "importance" if you've been away for a while, but even part of that algorithm is time, and from any particular friend -- or, character, if you will -- the updates are always chronological.) Facebook's home page is, essentially, one scene after another.

2. Realistic dialogue.

 Why has the "OH" become so common as to deserve it's own acronymous treatment? Because it sets the scene in two letters and lets the reader get right to the absolute best stuff... the quote. Anyone who's worked as a reporter understands that best way to get someone to read a part of a story is to put that bit in quotes. Everyone innately understand this, which is why, I think, so many non-writers are so prone to put things in quotation marks as a way of saying, "This is important! Read this!" That is why the "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks will never run out of material.

3. Interior point of view.

Posts on the social media sites have become the essence of an interior monologue. Why do people post that they can't believe they ate all those pancakes for breakfast? Is it because they really think that others will be entertained? Probably not. I think it's that they just think they are interesting people, and that the essence of their interior monologue is worthy of posting, even if it's to an audience of less than a dozen. It's what any close reader of Wolfe understands right away as the logical evolution of the people of the "Me" Decade (Wolfe's description of the 1970s), which was never so much about selfishness as it was about an identification of the self as something unique and worthy of having thoughts that should get documentation and dissemination. That's at the heart of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, up to and including, if it must be said, sco.tt.

4. Status details.

This may be the hardest to capture, and yet in one way is the easiest because of one simple fact: What is the window called that we post our little datums to in Facebook? That's right! "Status." 

This is at the heart of why I think these social networks have been so successful. What they've allowed each of us to do is participate in an ongoing novel of epic proportions (Five hundred million times two is, mathematically, the first actual billion-footed beast, in the case of Facebook.) In this novel are characters with dialogue, one scene following another, interior monologue, and people who occupy certain ranks within the human pecking order. 

You don't even have to be part of that novel at all. You can just enjoy watching as some of the more enjoyable characters report to you things that they said, or that they heard in scenes that are involving because you know the characters so well. A great Facebook post might be about the kind of food served at some event. You can't taste that food. Why would the writer write about it and why is it fun to read it? Because it's a great status detail. If the hosts serve food that is exceptionally good, the writer is letting you know that they essentially exceeded the expectations of the status of that moment. That's the kind of detail you would find in, say, Dickens, with descriptions of either the gruel for Oliver Twist, or, for instance, a "jolly round of beef, ham of the first magnitude and sundry towers of buttered Yorkshire cake" for some of the dandies.

Similarly, do you have other "friends" who are just entertaining? They work or go to school or hang out in circles you have no interest in whatsoever, but they report about that circle with such aplomb, humor or with such a deft touch that you just enjoy hearing the reports and you think about them and look forward to the next time they let you know what's going on.

That's why we have so many friends on Facebook that are not the kind of friends you could call on to help you move a couch.

The great part is that you get to create this novel, in part. You hear about "friends" that are funny or interesting and, almost always, you can add them to your ongoing novel. And if a character becomes a bore, with one click you can "hide" that person and suddenly your novel is so much richer by comparison.

Now, are you a part of this novel? I think it's likely. This post is certainly long enough already, so I'll save for another post the way that we write our own novels, but here's one part of how I think we do take part in the novel just by reading. It goes like this:

Do you have "Friends" or people that you "Follow" because you have some aspiration to a social strata that they inhabit? (You don't have to answer out loud, so it's OK to be truthful.)

Fix one person in your mind for whom you think this might be the case. You know that you can't just go to that person and say, "I admire you and think I would enjoy life a bit more if I worked/partied/vacationed/hung out in a similar place, read the things that you read, wore the clothes that you wore, etc., and so I'd like to watch all those things about you, and -- when appropriate -- emulate them to that end." You just wouldn't do that in real life but I'm going to guess that you do that every time you catch up on Facebook. It's not that you rush to the store and buy a blue T-shirt if someone you admire posts a picture in one, but it might influence what you wear just a little the next time you go out to some similar event, even if that person will not be there. 

Think of it just in the micro-environment of Facebook. If a person you knew in high school talks with idolatry about, say, American Idol, and a person that occupies a social circle you aspire to mocks the proliferation of American Idol posts, you will be unlikely to post about watching the show, even if you did and even if you have something really clever to say. You may be the first to say on the 'net that, strictly as an example that J.Lo's hair looks like it came straight out of 1976. You won't, however, because you don't want to be one of the people mocked by the person you admire, even if you suspect that person hid you long, long ago.

Those tiny, but telling, status updates............................ Those are the exact thing Wolfe was writing about.

OK, enough. More on the cognitive psychology of Facebook next time.

 


Obama, health care, parents, and Field of Dreams

I'm a big fan of politics, and of movies, and I often think about politics in terms of what makes for a good plot.

The health care bill makes for a great plot. (Lots and lots of others will argue about if it's good policy, I won't do that here.)

First you have the whole political back story, the failure of Hillarycare. Now HRC is nowhere to be seen near HCR. Even a trip that she planned for the President had to be scrubbed so that he could push health care reform to home base.

But that's a minor backstory compared to the personal one: I really get the feeling that this fight was deeply personal for the president.

President Obama speaks about his health care victory. Image from Reuters

Consider these words from his book:

My thoughts turned to my mother and her final days, after cancer had spread through her body and it was clear that there was no coming back. She had admitted to me during the course of her illness that she was not ready to die; the suddenness of it all had taken her by surprise, as if the physical world she loved so much had turned on her, betrayed her. And although she fought valiantly, endured the pain and chemotherapy with grace and good humor to the very end, more than once I saw fear flash across her eyes. More than fear of pain or fear of the unknown, it was the sheer loneliness of death that frightened her, I think.

Clearly this was emotionally charged stuff, and while it's possible to get angry at cancer, cancer itself doesn't make a very good bad guy. Insurance companies make excellent bad guys. Here's what he said during the campaign in Dayton, Ohio, October 9, 2008:

This issue is personal for me. My mother died of ovarian cancer at the age of 53, and I'll never forget how she spent the final months of her life lying in a hospital bed, fighting with her insurance company because they claimed that her cancer was a pre-existing condition and didn't want to pay for treatment. If I am president, I will make sure those insurance companies can never do that again.

Think about that as you look at that picture above. To whom is his gaze rising?

He hasn't mentioned his mother in the speeches from recent days that I've seen, but I can see her looking at him in everything that he is doing, using the tools that movies have to pull off such things. And him looking back.

Consider this passage taken from his remarks the day before the final vote: "Every once in a while a moment comes where you have a chance to vindicate all those best hopes that you had about yourself." Sure, we all have good hopes for ourselves, but nobody has higher hopes for us than our mothers. I think President Obama swore to fight back against those who dashed the hopes of his mother and made her suffer with such indignity. And he did.

Look, I'm not saying this was a giant Oedipal play, or that President Obama has an unhealthy grudge. Remember, the best movies become great when the hero does something that saves the world AND rescues the girl or saves his family at the same time.

There are dozens of examples, but Field of Dreams comes to mind for me. Remember watching that for the first time? You had no idea that Ray Kinsella was saving his relationship with his dad until it suddenly became clear that of course he was saving his relationship with his dad, and saving the reputation of Shoeless Joe and, by the way, Following Your Dreams, Farming and America's Love Affair With Baseball to boot. 

Remember? Remember near the end when Shoeless Joe tells Ray, "If you build it, he..." nodding toward the catcher "...will come." Ray stands up, and says, "Oh, my God" and tells his wife that it is his father. You can see the lump rising in his throat. (I felt it rising in my own throat, I still do just writing about it.)

Ray then says a line that baseball fans can all appreciate for its profundity, even though he is so choked up he can barely whisper it: "Say it ain't so, Joe."

Joe responds, "I'm afraid it is, kid." Ray then quotes one of the lines from the corn that moved him to build the field, "Ease his pain" and begins to understand that it wasn't Joe's pain, but his father's pain. Joe then says, sounding a lot like The Voice in the final command from the field, "Go the distance."

Then the clip below picks up, but the part that's most related to President Obama is above. 

He went the distance, and eased her pain.

What a movie!


Gay Marriage, Marijuana, and the march of time...

Several quick odds and ends before my next post, which will be a big and very positive review of The Unlikely Disciple...

  • Two excellent posts in a row from the FiveThirtyEight guys, showing how gay marriage and marijuana are on an almost inevitable march toward legalization. Those guys nailed it during the election, and they are still finding their footing now with no election to talk about, but with those two posts I expect to learn a lot from them in the coming years.
  • In the marijuana post, it points out -- without comment -- that my generation (X) smoked less pot than either the boomers or the millennials. Doesn't really surprise me... even at NYU in the 80s, I saw very little pot smoking. Maybe I just ran with a nerdier crowd. I'm not advocating for or against legalization here, but I will say that I think smoking pot in general is somewhat narcissistic, which is why it makes so much sense that both the boomers and the millennials toke up. 
  • My post from April Fool's Day was, mostly, a joke. I am not crowdsourceing my life. I have to say, however, the idea was posted as a joke but the more I thought about it the more it grew on me. I guess I want it both ways: I don't want to do it right now, but I do want to be thought of as the first person to ever crowdsource his own life. Hmmmmm.
  • Baseball is back. Ahhhhhhhhh.

This game may last forever!

We are in day three of what might just be the last baseball game of the year.

I just did a blog search, and I can't believe I'm the first person to make this connection: This game might go on for months, just like that great game in the Iowa Baseball Confederacy

In that book, the game went on for 2,000 innings.

This game between the amazing Rays and the Phillies may not go on for that long, but it's so delicious that there's a game that seems to be saying to the world that we don't quite want summer to be over.

It certainly feels that way here in Denver right now, it's been one of the most amazing falls ever, with blue skies and warm temps every day. Just like baseball, it's the summer that nobody wants to end.

I'm glad it will end, though, and that we'll have winter. It sharpens the senses, makes us feel our fragility.

Of course, the other great thing about this crazy World Series game is the great writing about it. There have been plenty of great columns, but for me this one stands out.
Pulling on their last World Series breath, watching their brilliant season circle the dugout drain with expectorated sunflower shells and Skoal drool, and falling obediently to postseason force Cole Hamels, the Tampa Bay Rays had a single hope:

Havoc.

Skies had to open. Gods had to roar. Pitching staffs had to be blown into confusion. Third base had to become lake-front property.

The Philadelphia Phillies had to be knocked off what had been a downhill run since the series moved north. And not just the Phillies. The whole series.

Something, you know, apocalyptic.

Then Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena got hits in the same inning.

And that wasn’t even it.

It rolled in on winds cold and sure. It rose up over Citizens Bank Park, over the neon Liberty Bell, over giddy, expectant fans covered in red hoodies and trash bags.

Dressed in swirling curtains of rain, cloaked in a howling northwest breeze, it stopped the World Series at 80 minutes before midnight, the middle of the sixth inning, Game 5.

Havoc.
Ahhhhh. Love it.

200 years hence

By way of Rod Dreher I just read, well... skimmed, a post about what from our post-1950 culture will survive 200 years from now.

It's an interesting intellectual idea, but the guy that Rod linked to droned on forever and nominated a bunch of stuff that sounds like some sort of weird Currents State of the Arts Review 100-level class at a private college somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

There really is only one answer to that question: Tom Wolfe. He is much derided now, just as Charles Dickens was much derided in his day, but no one person illustrates what our society is going through more clearly than Wolfe. I'm already looking forward to his book about Miami, and schoolchildren who bio-download that work just after Tale of Two Cities in the year 2208 will enjoy it, too.


Little Goebbels?

So, someone from Team Clinton said Obama's use of a picture of a middle class family was just as outrageous as the image of Nazis in Skokie, Ill.

Ummm. Middle class families - Nazis. Nice work. A key advisor on the all-important health care issue becomes as irrelevant as some lurker in the message boards of a site. He becomes the essence of Godwin's Law.

It brought to mind for me Colorado's own Ward Churchill, who managed to get himself fired from a tenured job because he called the 9/11 victims "Little Eichmanns."

Here comes a theory you won't read about anywhere else...

I think the reason that Ward Churchill created such a fuss, and got fired, is that he called those victims "Little Eichmanns" and not just Nazis. If he had done that, he would have fallen into Godwin's Law and been ignored.

What's the difference? Specificity.

In the excellent book Made to Stick, the authors point out that specificity is important to making ideas that "stick."

Calling someone a Nazi, as Godwin's Law illustrates, has become so generic as to become nearly meaningless. "Little Eichmanns" was sticky.