Or not? Is there a connection I should know about between the electronics enthusiasts on Newegg.com and laundry hampers? Are you about to make a joke about geeks who don’t attend to personal cleanliness? Is that fair? Is that’s even what’s going on here, or was there just an overstock on laundry hampers? So many questions. 


Buddhist Barbie

In the 5th century B.C.
an Indian philosopher Gautama
teaches “All is emptiness”
and “There is no self.”
In the 20th century A.D.
Barbie agrees, but wonders how a man
with such a belly could pose,
smiling, and without a shirt.

–Denise Duhamel

Not too long ago, most people I knew continued to harbor a certain social prejudice well after the major social prejudices had fallen out of favor among the thinking set. This prejudice was not against a person, or a stereotype. It was against the computer.

No one ever spoke openly of this prejudice. It was transmitted subtly: a gentle roll of the eyes when someone cautiously suggested that a quick Google search might resolve the conversational impasse; a derisive snort when the token geek in the room offered to show the group what he or she was working on. When a friend said in mixed company that her local movie theater used to project video game play on the big screen for public viewing, there was an unmistakable ‘only in Maine’ undercurrent to the response.

Those of us who were less prejudiced almost unconsciously learned to suppress our impulses to introduce a computer into good old human interaction. With labels like “video game addict”, “internet addict”, and “geek” with a “dork” intonation floating around, it was best to keep demonstrations of the non-physical world to oneself.

(This unspoken rule had one exception: The showing of one’s digital photos on one’s computer with everyone gathered around. A descendant of slide carousels and photo albums. Here, eyerolls meant that the photographer took twice what they would have taken on film and edited nothing.)

I didn’t feel the oppression, as I had internalized the prejudice. There’s one keyboard, one screen, and one pointing device. Computer use is individual by design. Look inside a cafe or office and you get the idea.* It followed that introducing such a private physical relationship into mixed company would be considered unseemly.

About three years ago, however, my unconscious attitudes surfaced and changed. Martin Wattenberg came to MIT to talk about “The Social Life of Visualizations.” He focused on how people socialize around visualizations of data, the most fun example being his NameVoyager, which lets people enter a name and see a graph of its popularity over time:

When we launched the NameVoyager, we expected that it would be of interest to expectant parents… What we did not expect was that it became popular even among people with no interest in children. The site has received millions of visits since launch, and has been the subject of thousands of blog posts and online conversations. The activity around this visualization was one of the inspirations for my current research focus on the social aspects of data visualization and analysis.

Martin showed several other examples of how data visualizations inspire (mostly online) sociality, and how well-designed data visualizations inspired people to interact more deeply with the data in the process of interacting with each other.

I was totally with him on this. Soon after, I was with a pregnant friend, and she let me pull up the NameVoyager on her computer. We had a ball looking up names of everyone we knew and every name she had considered for the baby. With Martin’s emphasis on digital sociality fresh in my mind, I became acutely aware of my own different but related assumption that computers and people shouldn’t mix in physically social space. Yet here we were having so much fun. I began to feel a sort of defiant validation… why NOT bring computers into conversation?

Me in my element

My new liberation was not confined to displays of data; it was about Web surfing in general. In my self-proclaimed role as an avid media curator, I find all sorts of cool stuff online. And since my personal breakthrough, I unapologetically pull this stuff up on the nearest web-enabled computer when the conversation leads me there. I call this social surfing, not to be confused with the Web 2.0 version that assumes people are alone in their physical space and socializing only online.

As you can see from the photo, I am serious about this. I even like to think I’m particularly good at it. Usually I show the coolest new thing I’ve found. But there are some classics as well, which I especially enjoy showing to people who are easily amazed by the Web. These include:

My enduring takeaway from Martin’s talk became much broader than he intended. But I do have him to thank for it.

*Now, of course, people are often very social online. Yet even online socializing has experienced prejudice, that of being viewed as less authentic — or simply less social — than in-person interaction.

When people talk about microblogging they usually mention twitter. That has a distancing effect on me, because I don’t take twitter all that seriously. (Quick explanation: microblogging is blogging, but with more frequent updates of very little text – less than 200 characters.)

So, I hear “microblogging”, and I think, “that thing I can’t relate to.” Or, when I’m feeling darker, I think, “that thing that serves as yet another indicator of the degeneration of our society’s communications and eventually, society itself.” (Kind of like this comment and the one below it on flickr’s Atrocious Apostrophe’s [sic] group.)

Delicious Firefox add-onBut I can be slow sometimes, it’s true. No, really. Yesterday, while perusing my many RSS feeds, I saw the word “microblogging”, had one of my above thoughts, and then resumed surfing. Saw a link I liked, and clicked the delicious add-on button in my Firefox browser. (Quick explanation: delicious lets you save Web sites and share them with other people who use delicious.)

And as I began to enter text in the notes field of the “add bookmark” popup, I finally realized:

I’m a microblogger, too.


**Update: Russell Buckley of MobHappy writes an interesting roundup of the Web 2.0 Expo that I attended last week. He muses on twitter’s version of microblogging, and, incidentally, includes a spot-on critique of conferencing techniques that I, too, find to be not useful at all.

After an intense and fun week at Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, I played dumb yesterday. Slept in a meadow at World’s End, and capped off the day with “Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay“.

I LOVED “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle” – watched it five times. Not only were the jokes hilarious, the entire movie flowed like a well-choreographed dance. Guantanamo Bay was, unsurprisingly for a sequel, lame. The experience revealed two disconnects that I feel like noting.

1) A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times leaves you wondering if he liked it or not, but clear that he saw something of substance in it. The movie was not good (though not unenjoyable), and it lacked substance. That indicates to me that Mr. Scott hedged, reluctant to dismiss the film outright for fear of being uncool, or perhaps to compensate for his publication’s having neglected the brilliance of White Castle (lackluster “review” — or, rather, plot summary — here). Or both. Disconnect #1.

2) When Neil Patrick Harris first appeared on the screen at the Harvard Square theater, I hooted, confident that I’d trigger a hearty response in the pleasantly energetic audience. But no. Silence. I’ll admit that I first thought this told me something about the uptightness of Harvard students, who appeared to predominate. But then it dawned on me that if my memories of Doogie Howser are hazy, theirs don’t exist. That NPH currently appears in the sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” is unremarkable, according to my 17-year-old cousin (and aforementioned silence). Disconnect #2.

So “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay” has college-age humor, cameos for thirtysomethings, and an ancestral mystique that gets it top-level press. All the right ingredients to get us in the theater door and help the movie do what sequels do best: Make more money without having to make more ideas.

A few weeks ago I stayed with friends in Santa Monica. I covered a lot of ground in a short period of time.

This travel-log cata-logs the shops, restaurants, parks, and other things I encountered, some of which you might want to encounter too, if you live there or visit.

John read this passage about the Dalai Lama in The Times of London in an article entitled, “Defiant people yearn for the ‘political monk in Gucci shoes'”:

When he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 he described himself as “a simple monk from faraway Tibet”. His existence as a symbol of the struggle for freedom have won him a huge following in the West. But his position is complicated; he has been described as “a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes”.

John then wrote the following letter to The Times:

Interesting that the journalist does not mention that the person credited with the “monk in Gucci shoes” remark is none other than the proprietor of The Times, Rupert Murdoch. Mr Murdoch is hardly the most objective commentator given his considerable efforts to curry favour with the Chinese leadership while trying to expand his media empire into China.

I feel the journalist is being a little disingenuous with this omission, especially as the quote is used in the title of the piece…

— John Grant, Cambridge, MA

The BBC attributed the quote in question to Mr. Murdoch back in 1999. What’s striking about the Times reporter’s omission is that this remark did not pass quietly into obscurity. It’s still a favorite for watchers of the media mogul and his Buddhist nemesis.

What’s also striking — and amusing — is that both Murdoch and the reporter in his employ attribute the quote to nameless, faceless others (albeit in the way that a child closes her eyes and thinks no one can see her):

Murdoch, 1999: “I have heard cynics who say he’s a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes.” (I can’t source the original Vanity Fair interview where Murdoch reportedly said this because, as with much of our cultural heritage, it’s buried in some paid archive management service.)

Reporter, 2008: “…he has been described as ‘a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes'”.

Murdoch is known to strongly influence the coverage of the media properties he owns. But it’s always a little shocking to see that influence in action. Nice catch, John.