Category: Writing

Alien vs. Star Wars

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

alien-anthology-star-wars

Over at the Message, I have a meandering analysis of the new Star Wars film which tries to connect it to the narrative schism that was created in between Aliens and Alien³ when handing off that franchise between directors.

Successful serials and franchises are small miracles given the complicated competing interests introduced by the business scale of modern blockbusters like the Star Wars saga. Empires are built around their marketing and production, but even writing a sensible core narrative is already hard enough. Weaving stories out of smaller pieces can be incredibly difficult, because in isolation, each piece tends to pull in its own direction, and it’s only through careful and deliberate oversight that they might eventually coalesce into something rational. With that in mind, please sit tight for a moment and pardon this immediate tangent. We’ll get to Star Wars in due course, but in order to contextualize where it’s going, it may actually help to start with Alien.

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Drupal Philosophy

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

drupal-guys

Here’s a strange interview I did with the lead developer of Drupal, a software project which is dramatically re-architected for every release, about general philosophies of change.

You’re sort of explaining striking a balance between hierarchical values and non-hierarchical values. How do you manage the relationship between those two types of concerns, and when there’s a new concern that appears, how do you determine whether it’s a hierarchical concern or a non-hierarchical concern?

Let’s say you go to a restaurant and you order fish. You don’t care which truck brought the fish to the restaurant, do you? Sometimes it’s as obvious as that. You have to do what’s right for the operator, the fish is fresh and what have you, but we don’t care what truck gets the fish to the restaurant. Everybody understands that, even the truck driver. Maybe it’s not a great analogy.

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Breaking Bad was a UI Problem

Friday, November 20th, 2015

breaking-bad-television

For the Message, a theory about the influence of Netflix on television scripts:

Nearly forty percent of American homes pay for access to a streaming video service like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime Video. A theory: even excluding forays into original programming, their prevalence has now started to shape the material they present. As we’ve seen from a decade of arms races in SEO and social media, content evolves to jockey for position with its audience.

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Software Naming Conventions

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

scrabble

A strange piece for the Message which attempts to illuminate the absurdity of our current approach to naming software.

If you can’t Google your way to something, it’s almost as though it doesn’t even exist, but luckily the filename suffixes used for coding scripts, such as .js and .py, are linguistic (linguistic.js) anomalies which all but create their own SEO (seo.js). Businesses strategize based on their Google rankings relative to competitors for the same reason that tweets are usually weighed in favorites and retweets — on an impersonal internet, visibility (visibility.js) is almost synonymous with value. Publishing any code at (at.js) all creates an instant presence which would be hard to build in other ways. The tech industry is our modern gold rush, drawing swarms of opportunists westward (westward.js), and memorable terminology is one of its new land grabs.

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Clusterfucks (A Working List)

Friday, October 30th, 2015

scorpion

Just in time for Halloween, a list of things that should scare you about modern technology:

Tech has always generally moved faster than government in most senses, but increasingly it now outpaces the agencies we’ve been conditioned to trust, not just the municipal parks struggling to put pool schedules online. Very real threats form in dark corners of the internet precisely because the people who hang out there can buy drugs and weapons, and trying to limit the transactions quickly led to untraceable online currency. These are functions we theoretically employ vast literal armies of government agents to manage.

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Blood, Guts

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

retina

I’m so excited to have started as a contributor to The Message, the chaotic in-house tech and culture vertical at Medium – thrilled to be working alongside all these geniuses. First up, here’s a look back at the circumstances that have occasionally driven me to write scripts to solve personal issues:

I’d often react to a case of information overload by trying to find a way to pare it down, little data processors which attempted to solve the problems I’ve had in my life over the past decade. I realize these are very strange artifacts to feel nostalgic about, but we don’t get to choose these things.
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It’s Time To Choose!

Saturday, September 26th, 2015

shin-jimin

I hope you had a great summer! I wrote about one last round of potential Song of the Summer candidates for the Awl, again excluding anything in English.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a teen pop group this large in the U.S.—there are eight members, including one drummer who doesn’t participate in the choreography. Here they swap out leads so quickly and stitch together the vocals so tightly that the singers are still all but indistinguishable by the end; it’s a five-minute song, so that’s 37.5 seconds allotted to each member, if we allow no time for breathing. To keep things under control, they’re sometimes split into two color-coded sub-groups, just like the blue and gold teams from the early-nineties X-Men.

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Color Palettes

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

pixels

Wrote about a disaster from my youth that revolved around pixelated graphics.

Passive Voice

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

fox

The newest installment of Facepalm Pilot, my technology-driven column for McSweeney’s, focuses on grammatical structures and the way they influence our understanding of the world.

As a thought experiment, let’s examine in extremely close detail a set of iterative changes that can be made to a single simple grammatical structure.

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Where Is The Song of the Summer?

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

makassy

Wrote about some great pop songs from Botswana, Macau, and French Polynesia for the Awl:

Some of the samples harken back to the nineties heyday of white R&B/pop. They’re spliced in here with a heavy-handed aggression, though, a refreshing change from the usual misty-eyed nostalgia, so it sounds like nothing else so much as bludgeoning the New Radicals to death with Paula Abdul.

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More Summer Songs

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

juju

My worldwide pop chart watch for the Awl continues.

In a world teeming with earnest YouTube bedroom confessionals, maybe finding the good ones becomes more rewarding? Everybody please take care when stampeding down to the pawn shop to buy ukuleles.

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I cannot stop listening to “Playback.”

It’s Still Number One Somewhere

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

olamide

In a manner of speaking, The Awl has picked up the remnants of my erstwhile Spin column about foreign language pop songs. For the next few months, I’ll be covering the phenomenon of the “song of the summer,” but specifically excluding anything with English lyrics.

The Japanese songwriter’s new single is so relentlessly upbeat and optimistic that it almost reads as 2015’s response to Pharrell’s “Happy,” but it’s also somehow simultaneously weirder than anything currently happening in mainstream American pop. There are the unexpected production flourishes derived from disco, of course – shades of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” or perhaps at least the lightweight adaptation of it he might have performed during a guest appearance on Sesame Street thirty years or so ago.

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Exporting Twitter Problems

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

troll-doll

Twitter’s new anti-harassment tool is lame! I wrote about why it actually kinda sucks for Wired.

The mere creation of a list doesn’t give due respect to the phenomenal complexity of online hate and abuse. The list is black and white – an account name is either present or absent, the CSV list item is either imported or it isn’t. But there is no single standard for harassment online; it’s not a simple toggle switch, so the tools built around it can’t be as simple as binary filters.

Writers of Color

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

writersofcolor

Durga Chew-Bose, Jazmine Hughes, Buster Bylander and I were all tired of hearing that it’s too difficult to find non-white writers, so we decided to do soemthing about it. At the heart of our Writers of Color project is a directory of professional listings for writers which is queryable by location and topical specialties (and, for those who want to poach from competitors, searchable by publication name). We’ll also be retweeting opportunities posted to our audience at @writersofcolor, as well as compiling a public Twitter list for the editors to follow and explore. I’ve uploaded the WordPress plugin that makes all the magic happen to GitHub, in case you’d like to try something similar for a different group or industry. We unveiled all this by taking over the Today in Tabs newsletter, where I served as Bijan Stephen’s guest intern.

Seriously, I’ve had enough of this shit!

CSI Cyber

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

csi-cyber

For Wired, a breakdown of the narrative techniques used on the new CBS internet crime drama CSI: Cyber to turn technical concepts into plot points.

Salient visual distinctions between different pieces of code are immensely valuable to programmers trying to read it—numbers appearing in blue, variables in green, that sort of thing—but this example oversimplifies the practice to the point of uselessness: “Oh! There’s malware!” hiccups one of the good guys as the evil red code starts to scroll into view. Dramatic visuals surrounding an incidental clue presented on a computer is by now a common tactic on police procedurals—Access Denied! Match Not Found!—but it seems reasonable to expect a little more nuance and accuracy from a show which is entirely about those computers and the challenges we face in relating to them.

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Cartoon Cereal Ads

Sunday, March 8th, 2015

cereal-boxes

Here is a new installment of Facepalm Pilot, my McSweeney’s column about technology and stupidity, with an interactive data visualization which attempts to analyze the nutritional characteristics of the various cartoon characters used to advertise sugary breakfast cereals to kids.

When frazzled parents finally concede defeat on the daily battlefield that is breakfast, their kids are often delighted, since they are unable to steel themselves against expert marketing campaigns for which they are the coveted target demographic. Television aimed at children is funded primarily with ads in which brightly colored cardboard boxes are hawked by brightly colored cartoon characters during commercial breaks between shows featuring slightly different brightly colored cartoon characters. But there may still be a partial compromise on the horizon: by assessing the nutritional profiles of the mascots being used to sell the cereals, perhaps we can begin to understand underlying patterns by which we can help keep children healthy while also indulging their mascot preferences.

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The Way We Scabbadeedlybop Now

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

alphabet-soup

For Mental Floss magazine, a catalog of the various ways in which lyrics web sites like Genius attempt to represent the purely phonetic syllables used in scat singing, as with the bizarre 1994 one-hit wonder I’m The Scatman.

How does the modern internet treat this most bizarre of cultural artifacts when its only goal is to capitalize on it as an ad surface? On some level these snapshots seem to point toward subjective perceptions of art and the love it can inspire in us, but they are then promptly torn into nonsensical shreds by the brutal Darwinism of online marketing.
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[ Stop It Stop It Stop It ]

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

text-entry

I wrote a pretty intense essay for Matter about that awful thing that recently happened (whatever it was).

Our New 64-Bit World

Friday, December 5th, 2014

tweet-map

A new article for Wired about how a technical problem at YouTube related to the music video for “Gangnam Style” points to a whole new scope for the technology industry.

When “Gangnam Style” hit 2 billion views back in May, a record at the time, Google’s engineers noted that it might also soon overflow the limits of a 32-bit integer. That fix was as simple as changing the memory space allotted to that data point from 32 bit to 64 bit, which is actually a relatively small change. It didn’t actually “break YouTube’s code” in any meaningful sense, let alone “break the Internet.” What’s mind-boggling about all this, though, is that the number that was pushing those limits loosely correlates with a quantity of people.

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Facepalm Pilot

Friday, October 31st, 2014

facepalm

I’ve somehow ended up with a new column for McSweeney’s called Facepalm Pilot, in which I’ll fiddle around with “the intersections of technology and stupidity.” There are many of these! So, data-driven satire, I guess?

First up, an interactive graphic exploring scientific and ethical conclusions based on zombie sociology.