Layer Tennis

While I was still reeling from the idea of *content farms*, I was heartened to come across another neologism that I didn’t know about but, in fact, was heartened to learn: *layer tennis*. Layer tennis occurs when two graphic artists square off in Photoshop battle to see who can trump the other in a series of transformations of a design initiated by one of them but finished by the other designer. Luckily, for me, my introduction to layer tennis came in the form of a delightful narration of a recent match between Nicholas Felton and Khoi Vinh. Vinh recaptures the [heat of the moment][heat] well.


The Rise of the Garage

As I noted previously in observing Chris Anderson’s recent cover article for Wired magazine, the garage as shop is on the rise:

> We wanted to keep that garage-atmosphere of creativity that we cherished as students. School is one of only places where one can freely experiment, discover and even fail with little consequence. When you’re out in the real world, you have to make a living and it becomes that much harder to work on projects that are truly meaningful to you. In an academic environment full of creative freedom, students are often able to experiment to their hearts’ content. Because of that, you see games that are being crafted from the heart and for a desire to push boundaries as opposed to what a marketing venn-diagram dictates. It offers a chance to play with other things besides Robots and Ninjas. Publishers are jumping at this opportunity for new IP. I think this is a trend that will only continue. (Paul Bellezza, cofounder of developer The Odd Gentleman, talking to Andrew Webster of _Ars Technica_. [Link](

The Rise of the Mechanics

I am delighted, and fascinated, by the emergence in the last few years of interest in the *mechanical arts*, for lack of a better description. Mechanics, machinists, and metal workers of various kinds (welders and fabricators among many others) suddenly find themselves in the spotlight. While only a few people are familiar with Douglas Harper’s classic study of a one-man agricultural equipment repair and fabrication shop, [_Local Knowledge_][lk], most will have seen Richard Sennett’s somewhat overly-romanticized [_The Craftsman_][tc] as well as Matthew Crawford’s [_Shop Class as Soul Craft_][scsc].

These books are, of course, joined by shows like the Discovery Channel’s [Dirty Jobs][dj] and the Travel Channels [Made in America][mia] (which is no longer in production). If you throw into the bargain the *assembly-line porn* that is Science Channel’s [How It’s Made][him], which regularly re-runs on the History Channel I believe, and the Food Network’s [Unwrapped][un], then what seems to have been revealed is huge thirst in America for, as our president put it in his inaugural address, “the makers of things.”

And, it seems, those makers seems to be folks with dirt underneath their fingernails.

It should come as no surprise, then, that in their discussion of “the new industrial revolution” that [Wired]( chose for their cover the image of a wrench turning a nut … powered by a greasy hand, which is exposed to the world by the presence of a rolled-up shirt sleeve.


One of the dominant figures for “let’s get to work” is rolling up one’s sleeve. The arm and the hand go away, but the wrench remains in this Shell ad for “ideas into action”:


The abstracted wrench here transforms into a pencil, both emphasizing the “work of creativity,” of idea generation, and also the necessity of finding “ideas that work.”[^1]

There is also, I would argue, a subtle reinforcing of the leveling of the playing field between hand-work and idea-work. In fact, a recent article in the _Harvard Business Review_ makes precisely that argument. In “Restoring American Competitiveness”, Gary Pisano and Willy Shih argue that the rush to commoditize manufacturing — resulting in outsourcing — of contemporary corporations has resulted in a breaking of the link between the folks in research and development on the one hand and the folks on the shop floor actually making the products.[^2] What is lost is the productive conversation, the feedback loop, between those two groups, and that means ideas are lost. There suggestion is that the U.S. must encourage the rebuilding of an “industrial commons.” (Here’s a [link][hbr] to the article but be forewarned that it’s only to a summary page and that the download requires payment.)

[^1]: My thanks to my colleague Mary Ann Wilson for loaning me her copy of [_The Atlantic_]( She noted: “The wrench poster reminds me of the WWII poster, *WE Can Do It*, of the working woman with her sleeves rolled up, and nothing but muscle — and brain — power suggested.” The Shell advertisement appears on page 45 of the February 2010 issue.
[^2]: Interestingly, it’s been Harvard itself, and HBR, which have led the attack on the MBA as the source of business problems and not the solution. Pisano and Shih argue that it’s MBAs who have led the charge to see manufacturing as a “low value” endeavor deserving outsourcing. Crawford’s argument is much the same, but he goes further to note that, in the end, many blue-collar jobs will be safe precisely because they must be local — your car mechanic, plumber, electrician — while many white collar jobs will eventually be outsourced, e.g. radiological analyses now being done in the Philippines.


Domain of Interest: “Cultural and Activity Research”

I have never heard of “cultural and activity research” until a CFP (call for papers) came across the Digital Humanities mailing list. But here’s a CFP for the [Nordic Conference on Activity Theory and the Forth Finnish Conference on Cultural and Activity Researc]( which describes itself as:

> The conference is dedicated to examining human creative activities. The conference theme is “Perspectives on social creativity, designing and activity”. We conceive of design as a field of knowledge and activity concerned with the creation of artifacts. Creative activities operate with diverse modes of knowing and representations. Creativity is a social quality that involves communication and community formation. Creative activities and design are needed when humans transform their circumstances by developing new technologies and institutions. Creation of the new relies on cultural mediation and historically accumulated resources. Activity theory and socio-cultural approaches offer fresh perspectives on these themes. The conference aims at bringing together diverse points of view and disciplinary orientations to discuss social creativity, design and activity.

It looks great, but the conference comes at the end of this academic year, which is also close to the end of the university’s fiscal year. And, as many know, there just isn’t that much money to begin with. Let along enough to help subsidize a flight to Helsinki and a $350 (200€) registration fee.

*Sigh.* It looks amazing.

Fake Steve Tells the Truth

[Fake Steve Jobs]( is a bit off my usual path, but thanks to one of those odd trails of links, I ended up at Dan Lyons’ ventriloquist act. FSJ is good for poking fun at Steve, but he is also good at poking fun at the larger tech industry. In his most recent post, he does an amazing job of not only pillorying AT&T for complaining about, of all things, pesky users who actually want to use their phones for crazy things like making phone calls and the 3G network for wacky things like moving data around, but also of pillorying corporate America in general which really does seem to have fallen into something of a malaise in the MBA era. (The re-thinking of the MBA by no less than its home, the Harvard Business School, is something for another time.)

Here’s the best two paragraphs from his [pretend dialogue with AT&T](

> While I’m ranting, let me ask you something, Randall. At the risk of sounding like Glenn Beck Jr. — what the fuck has gone wrong with our country? Used to be, we were innovators. We were leaders. We were builders. We were engineers. We were the best and brightest. We were the kind of guys who, if they were running the biggest mobile network in the U.S., would say it’s not enough to be the biggest, we also want to be the best, and once they got to be the best, they’d say, How can we get even better? What can we do to be the best in the whole fucking world? What can we do that would blow people’s fucking minds? They wouldn’t have sat around wondering about ways to fuck over people who loved their product. But then something happened. Guys like you took over the phone company and all you cared about was milking profit and paying off assholes in Congress to fuck over anyone who came along with a better idea, because even though it might be great for consumers it would mean you and your lazy pals would have to get off your asses and start working again in order to keep up.

> And not just you. Look at Big Three automakers. Same deal. Lazy, fat, slow, stupid, from the top to the bottom — everyone focused on just getting what they can in the short run and who cares what kind of piece of shit product we’re putting out. Then somehow along the way the evil motherfuckers on Wall Street got involved and became everyone’s enabler, devoting all their energy and brainpower to breaking things up and parceling them out and selling them off in pieces and then putting them back together again, and it was all about taking all this great shit that our predecessors had built and “unlocking value” which really meant finding ways to leech out whatever bit of money they could get in the short run and let the future be damned. It was all just one big swindle, and the only kind of engineering that matters anymore is financial engineering.

Tell it, Fake Steve Jobs. Tell it.

Make Stuff Not Search

Derek Powazak has a nice post about SEO optimization: don’t do it. Or, as he details, do it the way you would have done good content in the first place and don’t spend time, nor money, trying to “optimize” for various search engines (e.g., the mighty Google, which shifts and tweaks its algorithms weekly anyway). Powazek goes on to argue that SEO is, in fact, [poisoning the web](

It goes without saying that this applies a broad range of industries, disciplines, vocations and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there YAP (yet another post) that really is some version of *do what you love because you love it* — okay, the echoes of Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss” make my head hurt — which is really becoming something of a Web 2.0 mantra. Don’t get me wrong, I like it … I even believe it. *Yikes!*

One Next Book: Coding Creativity

As I begin seriously to write _The Makers of Things_, I am already thinking about where I am next headed. Part of me is interested in trying to think about the nature of creativity in the Cajun-Creole music scene; another part of me is interested in attempting something like an ethnography of a coding project. Towards that end, I am starting to keep a list of books I’d like to read:

* Frederick Brooks, _The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering_ (Addison-Wesly 1995).
* Paul Graham, _Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age_ (O’Reilly, 2004).
* Andy Hunt, _The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master_ (Pragmatic Programmers).
* Scott Rosenberg, _Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software_ (Three Rivers Press, 2008).
* Peter Seibel’s _Coders at Work_ (Apress, 2009).
* And of course Joel Spolsky’s books.

A Hundred Hits

So … I think I have only looked at the *statistics* section of cPanel only once or twice before in the entire time I have been blogging, which dates back to somewhere like 2002 or 2003. (That’s right, before personal blogs jumped the shark.) When I first started maintaining a website, the front page hosted a welter of connections to different pieces of my portfolio: essays I had written, projects I had worked on, documents people could download — like a fieldwork log sheet or a guide on how to ask questions — and the blog was off to the side. All that stuff is there, or soon will be back, but it’s now pushed over to the left, and the blog is front and center … er, right. Or, a little off-center and to the right. (The off-center is probably revealing, and I do like to think that I am mostly right about things I write about, but that’s not my decision to make.)

I should be honest and admit that I haven’t really cared about readers. There were several reasons for this. The first reason was somewhat rhetorical: if I worried about audience, I wouldn’t necessarily write about the things that truly mattered to me, and I wanted to give myself time to discover that, to cast a broad net again and again until I knew for myself what it was I wanted to keep. The second reason was that I wasn’t even sure that I wanted any public to care about my blog. That is, and this is still somewhat the case, I rather liked the idea of the blog simply being my own on-line notebook. There are just so many ideas and things that pass through my hands, pass through my mind, that I really liked having a notebook in which I could catch it all and then search for it later.

I am not entirely convinced that I really want to break from either of those desires, but along the way, I found myself with something I had not planned on … *readers*.

That’s right. The *Webalyzer* application built into my [hosting provider’s][aso] version of cPanel revealed to me that I have readers. Now I knew I had the occasional reader, mostly family and friends, and the occasional stray reader, but neither of those account for the fact that this website is now accruing over a hundred unique visitors a day — visitors that are not robots. (I was, to be honest, searching the logs in hopes of discovering that a [certain set of readers][iub] had dropped in.)

Now some of you reading this, or “reading” this, are either robots unknown to Webalyzer or comment spambots — and it really must be frustrating to those of you who are spambots that I have comments turned off — but that still can not account for the over 100 hits a day this site is getting. (As of late summer, early fall of 2009, the number is about 140.)

With readers come responsibility. I’m not in search of a readership. I don’t, at least as yet, have any desire to become an independent blogger. And I certainly don’t want to do it by posting about stuff I *think* readers will want to read about. Rather, I have always wanted to write about stuff that, well, I wanted to write about, and it’s nice to know that there are readers who are interested in reading what I want to write about. That’s not a selfish statement. Rather, it’s a way of foregrounding the idea that I when I write about something I am honestly interested in it and trying to think about it and that you are getting that when you read. If I have posted something, it’s because it matters to me — or is at least interesting to me.

There are more than enough people in this world who are willing to say anything or do anything to curry the favor of an audience. Some began with great integrity and then lost their way, either because they got to be popular and got caught up in the rush or because they are so desperately seeking to be popular, and some never had integrity to begin with. This, by the way, applies to all walks of life and not just bloggers. It applies to the business world and to the academy.

In fact, one of the realizations I have had is that people can be pretty much uncreative everywhere. Which saddens me greatly, but it explains a whole host of phenomena. (I’ll write about this at some point in the future, I promise.)

I hated writing that, but it’s balanced out by what I am about to say: that I am re-focusing this blog a bit. Having blogged now off and on for over six years and maintained this particular version of the site for about a year, I think it’s safe to say that this blog has really been about three things:

* the digital humanities,
* thoughts on things that happen in my daily life, and
* creativity.

I listed creativity last because it has been far less a feature of this blog than I would like — you’ll find it mostly tagged as “making” so far. (Give me a minute to clean up the tagging system and I’ll make that a link to take you to those posts.) I plan to write about these “discovered” foci in upcoming posts.

And thanks for reading.


Paul Graham’s 6 Principles for Making New Things

I like reading Paul Graham’s essays. I like reading them so much, that I bought his book and I still read them on-line. I think he’s re-inventing the essay, reviving it in a small way.* I’ve just spent some time catching up on some of his newer pieces. His essay on [“Six Principles for Making New Things”]( has the following terrific nugget within it — it’s the essay in a nutshell:

>Here it is: I like to find (a) simple solutions (b) to overlooked problems (c) that actually need to be solved, and (d) deliver them as informally as possible, (e) starting with a very crude version 1, then (f) iterating rapidly.

*He’s doing it by drawing abstractions out of live lived actively, in the realms of business and technology no less, not in the passively reflexive domain of so many “essayists.” He abstracts from his direct observations and then, having played with ideas at the level of ideas, he tries to bring them back down to see how well they fit the world they left for a short time.