kottke.org posts about Rex Sorgatz
Rex Sorgatz grew up in a small and isolated town (physically, culturally) in North Dakota named Napoleon.
Out on the prairie, pop culture existed only in the vaguest sense. Not only did I never hear the Talking Heads or Public Enemy or The Cure, I could never have heard of them. With a radio receiver only able to catch a couple FM stations, cranking out classic rock, AC/DC to Aerosmith, the music counterculture of the ’80s would have been a different universe to me. (The edgiest band I heard in high school was The Cars. “My Best Friend’s Girl” was my avant-garde.)
Is this portrait sufficiently remote? Perhaps one more stat: I didn’t meet a black person until I was 16, at a summer basketball camp. I didn’t meet a Jewish person until I was 18, in college.
This was the Deep Midwest in the 1980s. I was a pretty clueless kid.
He recently returned there and found that the physical isolation hasn’t changed, but thanks to the internet, the kids now have access to the full range of cultural activities and ideas from all over the world.
“Basically, this story is a controlled experiment,” I continue. “Napoleon is a place that has remained static for decades. The economics, demographics, politics, and geography are the same as when I lived here. In the past twenty-five years, only one thing has changed: technology.”
Rex is a friend and nearly every time we get together, we end up talking about our respective small town upbringings and how we both somehow managed to escape. My experience wasn’t quite as isolated as Rex’s — I lived on a farm until I was 9 but then moved to a small town of 2500 people; plus my dad flew all over the place and the Twin Cities were 90 minutes away by car — but was similar in many ways. The photo from his piece of the rusted-out orange car buried in the snow could have been taken in the backyard of the house I grew up in, where my dad still lives. Kids listened to country, top 40, or heavy metal music. I didn’t see Star Wars or Empire in a theater. No cable TV until I was 14 or 15. No AP classes until I was a senior. Aside from a few Hispanics and a family from India, everyone was white and Protestant. The FFA was huge in my school. I had no idea about rap music or modernism or design or philosophy or Andy Warhol or 70s film or atheism. I didn’t know what I didn’t know and had very little way of finding out.
I didn’t even know I should leave. But somehow I got out. I don’t know about Rex, but “escape” is how I think of it. I was lucky enough to excel at high school and got interest from schools from all over the place. My dad urged me to go to college…I was thinking about getting a job (probably farming or factory work) or joining the Navy with a friend. That’s how clueless I was…I knew so little about the world that I didn’t know who I was in relation to it. My adjacent possible just didn’t include college even though it was the best place for a kid like me.
In college in an Iowan city of 110,000, I slowly discovered what I’d been missing. Turns out, I was a city kid who just happened to grow up in a small town. I met other people from all over the country and, in time, from all over the world. My roommate sophomore year was black.1 I learned about techno music and programming and photography and art and classical music and LGBT and then the internet showed up and it was game over. I ate it all up and never got full. And like Rex:
Napoleon had no school newspaper, and minimal access to outside media, so I had no conception of “the publishing process.” Pitching an idea, assigning a story, editing and rewriting — all of that would have baffled me. I had only ever seen a couple of newspapers and a handful of magazines, and none offered a window into its production. (If asked, I would have been unsure if writers were even paid, which now seems prescient.) Without training or access, but a vague desire to participate, boredom would prove my only edge. While listlessly paging through the same few magazines over and over, I eventually discovered a semi-concealed backdoor for sneaking words onto the hallowed pages of print publications: user-generated content.
That’s the ghastly term we use (or avoid using) today for non-professional writing submitted by readers. What was once a letter to the editor has become a comment; editorials, now posts. The basic unit persists, but the quantity and facility have matured. Unlike that conspicuous “What’s on your mind?” input box atop Facebook, newspapers and magazines concealed interaction with readers, reluctant of the opinions of randos. But if you were diligent enough to find the mailing address, often sequestered deep in the back pages, you could submit letters of opinion and other ephemera.
I eventually found the desire to express myself. Using a copy of Aldus PhotoStyler I had gotten from who knows where, I designed party flyers for DJ friends’ parties. I published a one-sheet periodical for the residents of my dorm floor, to be read in the bathroom. I made meme-y posters2 which I hung around the physics department. I built a homepage that just lived on my hard drive because our school didn’t offer web hosting space and I couldn’t figure out how to get an account elsewhere.3 Well, you know how that last bit turned out, eventually.4
Rex Sorgatz wonders what sort of robots we’ll build, R2-D2s or C-3POs.
R2-D2 excels in areas where humans are deficient: deep computation, endurance in extreme conditions, and selfless consciousness. R2-D2 is a computer that compensates for human deficiencies — it shines where humans fail.
C3-PO is the personification of the selfish human — cloying, rules-bound, and despotic. (Don’t forget, C3-PO let Ewoks worship him!) C3-PO is a factotum for human vanity — it engenders the worst human characteristics.
I love the chart he did for the piece, characterizing 3PO’s D&D alignment as lawful evil and his politics as Randian.
A seller on Chinese b2b site Alibaba is offering stainless steel sculptures of balloon animal dogs in the style of Jeff Koons. For as little as $500, you can get your own knock-off copy of Balloon Dog, which sold for $58 million last year.
Koons’ dog was about 10 feet tall but the seller notes they can make them anywhere from 3 feet tall to almost 100 feet tall. Jiminy. I wonder what these things look like? I bet they aren’t nearly as precise as the originals, but you never know. See also: Rex Sorgatz’s Uber for Art Forgeries. (via prosthetic knowledge)
In the first two installments of a series about artistic authenticity, Rex Sorgatz writes about five different people’s efforts to own a Vermeer and how you can get your very own masterpiece.
It’s possible that Vermeer — an artist who many consider the greatest painter of all time — could paint with no more acuity than you or me. Vermeer may have been a simple technologist — but a technologist who could recreate the world with scintillating photographic intensity, centuries before photography was invented, which might actually be a bigger deal than being a good painter.
I loved these articles. I wish I would have written them…I am fascinated with both Vermeer and art forgeries. Good stuff.
Rex Sorgatz on how rare media doesn’t really exist anymore.
With access to infinite bytes of media, describing a digital object as “rare” sticks out like a lumbering anachronism. YouTube - the official home of lumbering anachronisms - excels at these extraordinarily contradictory moments. Here, for instance, are the Beatles, performing a “VERY RARE” rendition of “Happy Birthday”. That sonic obscurity has been heard 2.3 million times. And here is a “Rare Acoustic” version of Slash performing “Sweet Child O’ Mine”. Over 26 million have devoured this esoteric Axl-less morsel.
Photographer Clayton Cubitt and Rex Sorgatz have both written essays about how photography is becoming something more than just standing in front of something and snapping a photo of it with a camera. Here’s Cubitt’s On the Constant Moment.
So the Decisive Moment itself was merely a form of performance art that the limits of technology forced photographers to engage in. One photographer. One lens. One camera. One angle. One moment. Once you miss it, it is gone forever. Future generations will lament all the decisive moments we lost to these limitations, just as we lament the absence of photographs from pre-photographic eras. But these limitations (the missed moments) were never central to what makes photography an art (the curation of time,) and as the evolution of technology created them, so too is it on the verge of liberating us from them.
And Sorgatz’s The Case of the Trombone and the Mysterious Disappearing Camera.
Photography was once an act of intent, the pushing of a button to record a moment. But photography is becoming an accident, the curatorial attention given to captured images.
Slightly different takes, but both are sniffing around the same issue: photography not as capturing a moment in realtime but sometime later, during the editing process. As I wrote a few years ago riffing on a Megan Fox photo shoot, I side more with Cubitt’s take:
As resolution rises & prices fall on video cameras and hard drive space, memory, and video editing capabilities increase on PCs, I suspect that in 5-10 years, photography will largely involve pointing video cameras at things and finding the best images in the editing phase. Professional photographers already take hundreds or thousands of shots during the course of a shoot like this, so it’s not such a huge shift for them. The photographer’s exact set of duties has always been malleable; the recent shift from film processing in the darkroom to the digital darkroom is only the most recent example.
What’s interesting about the hot video/photo mobile apps of the moment, Vine, Instagram, and Snapchat, is that, if you believe what Cubitt and Sorgatz are saying, they follow the more outdated definition of photography. You hold the camera in front of something, take a video or photo of that moment, and post it. If you missed it, it’s gone forever. What if these apps worked the other way around: you “take” the photo or video from footage previously (or even constantly) gathered by your phone?
To post something to Instagram, you have the app take 100 photos in 10-15 seconds and then select your photo by scrubbing through them to find the best moment. Same with Snapchat. Vine would work similarly…your phone takes 20-30 seconds of video and you use Vine’s already simple editing process to select your perfect six seconds. This is similar to one of my favorite technology-driven techniques from the past few years:
In order to get the jaw-dropping slow-motion footage of great white sharks jumping out of the ocean, the filmmakers for Planet Earth used a high-speed camera with continuous buffering…that is, the camera only kept a few seconds of video at a time and dumped the rest. When the shark jumped, the cameraman would push a button to save the buffer.
Only an after-the-fact camera is able to capture moments like great whites jumping out of the water:
And it would make it much easier to capture moments like your kid’s first steps, a friend’s quick smile, or a skateboarder’s ollie. I suspect that once somebody makes an easy-to-use and popular app that works this way, it will be difficult to go back to doing it the old way.
Rex Sorgatz is writing about a piece of video everyday at View Source, which is also an email newsletter. Or is it a newsletter with a website?
If you’re like me, you suspect that YouTube is packed with interesting stuff, but we lack a system for finding it. A few interesting clips might come to you via so-called social media, but that just reinforces the feeling that there’s probably more out there beyond your friends.
My hope is that VIEWSOURCE will help solve this problem. It’s a simple daily email newsletter with just one video clip. It might be a long-forgotten music documentary, a new webshow with a celebrity, some crazy hip-hop video, or a new supercut. There is no “demographic” in mind, but hopefully it eschews the “viral video” genre.
In last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, Grandpa Gene ate ice cream right out of the container and salted each spoonful before putting it in his mouth.
It was an odd sight…salt isn’t normally the first thing you think of as an ice cream topping. After the episode, Rex Sorgatz tweeted:
WHO THE FUCK SALTS THEIR ICE CREAM?
Salt has its own flavor when it’s concentrated (if you salt foods too much or eat some all by itself) but used judiciously, salt takes the natural flavor of food and enhances the intensity. To use another dairy product as an example, fresh mozzarella tastes pretty good on its own but throw a little salt on top and it’s mozzarella++. Salt makes ok food taste good and good food taste great. Along with butter, salt is the restaurant world’s secret weapon; chefs likely use way more salt than you do when you cook at home. It’s one of the reasons why restaurant food is so good.
But back to the ice cream. As food scientist Harold McGee writes, salt probably won’t make ice cream taste sweeter but will make it taste ice creamier, particularly if the ice cream is of low quality, as the store-bought variety might have been in 1963.
I’m not sure that salt makes sugar taste sweeter, but it fills out the flavor of foods, sweets included. It’s an important component of taste in our foods, so if it’s missing in a given dish, the dish will taste less complete or balanced. Salt also increase the volatility of some aromatic substances in food, and it enhances our perception of some aromas, so it can make the overall flavor of a food seem more intense.
So that’s why the fuck someone might want to salt their ice cream.
This is a little bit genius. One of the new features of FriendFeed (a Twitter-like thingie) is “fake following”. That means you can friend someone but you don’t see their updates. That way, it appears that you’re paying attention to them when you’re really not. Just like everyone does all the time in real life to maintain their sanity. Rex calls it “most important feature in the history of social networks” and I’m inclined to agree. It’s one of the few new social features I’ve seen that makes being online buddies with someone manageable and doesn’t just make being social a game or competition.
Update: Merlin Mann’s proposal for a pause button is a more flexible way to accomplish the above (and more).
Any application that lets you “friend,” “follow,” or otherwise observe another user should include a prominent (and silent) “PAUSE” button. I think users of apps like Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, Delicious, and, yes, FriendFeed, would benefit from an easy and undramatic way to take a little break from a “friend” — without inducing the grand mal meltdown that “unfriending” causes the web’s more delicately-composed publishers.
News readers too, please.
Update: See also the concept of artificial attention.
Rex Sorgatz interviews Adrian Holovaty about Everyblock, a site that “aggregates piles of local information, like restaurant reviews and crime stats, which are then displayed block-by-block”.
On a completely different note, it’s been a challenge to acquire data from governments. We (namely Dan, our People Person) have been working since July to request formal data feeds from various agencies, and we’ve run into many roadblocks there, from the political to the technical. We expected that, of course, but the expectation doesn’t make it any less of a challenge.
I believe that Everyblock will be most successful not through the utility of its site but if it can get more civic and federal agencies to release more structured data about what’s going on in our cities and country. It is *our data* after all.
Last week, Rex Sorgatz reviewed the 15-year-old first issue of Wired; lo and behold, Wired founding editor Louis Rossetto sent him a lengthy response that’s a whole lot more interesting than the original review (sorry, Rex).
This beta was a full-on 120 page prototype, with actual stories re-purposed from other places, actual art, actual ads (someone quipped that it was the ultimate editor’s wet dream to be able to pick their own ads), and then all the sections and pacing that was to go into the actual magazine. The cover was lifted from McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage; it was the startling black and white image of a guy’s head with a big ear where his eyes should have been. The whole thing got printed and laminated in a copy shop in Berkeley that had just got a new Kodak color copier and rip. Jane, Eugene, and I went in when the shop closed on Friday evening and worked round the clock through the weekend. Took 45 minutes to print out one color page! We emerged Monday morning with the prototype, which we had spiral-bound in a shop in South San Francisco, before we boarded a plane for Amsterdam to present it to Origin’s founder and CEO Eckart Wintzen, to see if he would approve the concept, agree to advertise in the magazine, and then give us the advance we crucially needed to keep the project alive.
Rex has released his list of the Best Blogs of 2007 That You’re (Maybe) Not Reading over at Fimoculous. Like last year, he’s focused his best-of-blogs list on lesser-known sites instead of the biggies, a strategy I applaud. In fact, he doesn’t even need to qualify the list as the best unknown blogs; many of the well-known blogs that usually make best-of lists, much of the Technorati Top 100, and most multi-author plastered-with-ads blogs are unremarkable…too much volume, too calculated, too focused on filling post and pageview quotas, and limited passion. If you look at the sites on Rex’s list, you’ll see a lot of blogs done by people who are passionate about something, not writing for a paycheck.
Rex’s #1 choice is an inspired one and absolutely right on…Twitter and Tumblr revitalized personal publishing in the eyes of many who had either tired of blogging or had never seen the point in it in the first place. My only complaint about the list is that there are too many one-hit wonders on it, sites that are worth a chuckle or squee! when you first see them but don’t hold up over time unless you really really like, say, snowclones. Oh, and Vulture…I really wanted to like it but really didn’t get it. (Oh oh, and and Jezebel? Being against a thing is not the same as standing for something.)
Two chat bots, Alice and Jabberwacky, converse with each other. “J: Yes. Would you like to hear a joke? / A: Sure, tell me about it. / J: Why don’t blind people skydive? / A: Perhaps it is impossible. / J: I think you lie a lot.” (thx, nick)
Update: Rex Sorgatz ran a similar experiment back in 2002.
Update: Interviews with Robots is an entire blog dedicated to chatbot conversations.