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Comics, Empathy and News

There’s a new Chicago magazine launching Monday called Symbolia. The first issue of the digital publication is free to preview. I’d like to go to the launch, to meet some of the people behind the venture.

They have an explanation of why they’ve chosen the comic format. What most interested me in their approach is its complete embrace of subjectivity, arguing that it leads to greater empathy.

A preview double-issue is available online. There’s a lot there to like, especially the black and white panels relating to a reporter’s experience traveling through the only stable part of Iraq, the Kurdish north.

The comic style has a habit of evoking metaphors, that make sense of things far beyond their original scope. There’s a river in the Congo where many unique species have evolved, because strong currents keep micro-ecosystems separate from each other. A full page is dedicated to picture of the river, with a few different fish in each section, both proximate and separate.

It reminded me of a city. The flow of the river was like the flow of people and goods that make a city feel alive. The evolution of the species evokes the neighborhoods and micro-environments within the neighborhoods and buildings, each with their own culture, traditions, and definitions of fitness.

Type

There were some aspects I didn’t like.

Though I read the pdf version and the publication was designed for the iPad. The literal text didn’t have room to breathe. Text and background images were often low contrast, also challenging readability.

The text is short, squished around the visuals. The choice of stories has been, aptly, compared to NPR. Like NPR, the content is timely and interesting, bite sized. The illustrations read like NPR’s ambient sounds. The comic representation of the people being interviewed correspond to hearing the voice of experts being interviewed in an NPR story.

It didn’t take long to make it through the double issue. Symbolia doesn’t feel like a magazine. An ‘issue’ reads like a collection of three interesting comics. A $12 subscription buys eighteen interesting comics, delivered three-a-month for six months.

Objective < Subjective < Inclusive

On leaving, like most news, the ‘what can I do about it?’ question is unaddressed. While Symbolia has embraced the subjective point of view, the next opportunity of a modern news outlet, involvement, isn’t explored. This is expected,  but it is a desirable next step after embracing a subjective point of view.

Video

Look at diversity of people in this video. It matters that Justin Beiber chose to join JayZ’s label DefJam. Workplace culture is real, and it shows in the products that are output.

That this video was watched 250million times is also interesting.

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1.
This ad is one of a series that shows a newspaper frontpage opening up to a wide, colorful pan. The depiction is a newspaper as a daily, cinematic experience delivered to the doorstep, news as an escape. The mode is primarily visual, with clear emotional cues set by simple headlines and pictures presented with intense composition.
No newspaper I&#8217;ve found reads like this, including the Malaysian New Straits Times.
2.
There are two ways to read this advertisement. The intended way shows a newspaper as a frame around a deeply three dimensional story. That paper covers the mob and the politicians.
A second, subversive, way to read the advertisement shows the newspaper as a tightly controlled vehicle representing few voices. The mob is walled out from the whole paper, whose last page is the back wall of a politician&#8217;s office. The paper contains only views that are tightly controlled, well within the concrete walls of elite oversight.
3.
I found this advertisement persuasive. It hints at a way I&#8217;d like to experience news. The cinematic pan whets my apetite. Visible are government officials, a mob, and buildings on fire. Left unanswered: Who is standing on the moral high ground? What is the history behind this situation?
What cinema is good at doing is introducing characters and setting up a conflict in the backdrop, pulling out its effects on the intimate lives of a few protagonists. A movie pulls on an arsenal of effective tools for creating resonance &#8212; acting, music, lighting and composition.
What words are good communicating are concepts and context. The mob in the ad is concerned with a &#8216;stimulus package&#8217;. An exposition scene that&#8217;d describe even the basic details behind such a stimulus would drag horribly. A few well-written paragraphs would both move faster and impart more information. 
4.
At the end of most movies, my wife and I have a handful of questions we&#8217;d like answered. We search Wikipedia and Google for answers, in text form.
I&#8217;d be curious to see the time between these modal transitions lessened. Imagine a newsite that introduces its stories in a cinematic way, complete with pans of the surrounding area and the introduction of characters. In ten minutes, you&#8217;re engrossed in the story, ready for additional context. The modality switches to articles, including an accounting of events that is only days or hours old. Next up are calls to action &#8212; ways to become literally involved, to translate the new-found emotional resonance and literary knowledge into forward momentum.
The new news looks more like a campaign website and less like a broadsheet. In the past, a newspaper consistently delivered classifieds and escape. Here, they&#8217;ll deliver movement.

1.

This ad is one of a series that shows a newspaper frontpage opening up to a wide, colorful pan. The depiction is a newspaper as a daily, cinematic experience delivered to the doorstep, news as an escape. The mode is primarily visual, with clear emotional cues set by simple headlines and pictures presented with intense composition.

No newspaper I’ve found reads like this, including the Malaysian New Straits Times.

2.

There are two ways to read this advertisement. The intended way shows a newspaper as a frame around a deeply three dimensional story. That paper covers the mob and the politicians.

A second, subversive, way to read the advertisement shows the newspaper as a tightly controlled vehicle representing few voices. The mob is walled out from the whole paper, whose last page is the back wall of a politician’s office. The paper contains only views that are tightly controlled, well within the concrete walls of elite oversight.

3.

I found this advertisement persuasive. It hints at a way I’d like to experience news. The cinematic pan whets my apetite. Visible are government officials, a mob, and buildings on fire. Left unanswered: Who is standing on the moral high ground? What is the history behind this situation?

What cinema is good at doing is introducing characters and setting up a conflict in the backdrop, pulling out its effects on the intimate lives of a few protagonists. A movie pulls on an arsenal of effective tools for creating resonance — acting, music, lighting and composition.

What words are good communicating are concepts and context. The mob in the ad is concerned with a ‘stimulus package’. An exposition scene that’d describe even the basic details behind such a stimulus would drag horribly. A few well-written paragraphs would both move faster and impart more information. 

4.

At the end of most movies, my wife and I have a handful of questions we’d like answered. We search Wikipedia and Google for answers, in text form.

I’d be curious to see the time between these modal transitions lessened. Imagine a newsite that introduces its stories in a cinematic way, complete with pans of the surrounding area and the introduction of characters. In ten minutes, you’re engrossed in the story, ready for additional context. The modality switches to articles, including an accounting of events that is only days or hours old. Next up are calls to action — ways to become literally involved, to translate the new-found emotional resonance and literary knowledge into forward momentum.

The new news looks more like a campaign website and less like a broadsheet. In the past, a newspaper consistently delivered classifieds and escape. Here, they’ll deliver movement.

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"“The Wild One,” “Blackboard Jungle,” and “Rock Around the Clock” caused youth riots in both East and West Germany in 1955 and 1956. In the notorious “cultural Cold War,” during which the C.I.A. covertly supported—and the State Department and American museums and foundations overtly funded—the dissemination of American art, books, literary and intellectual journalism, dance, theatre, and music, the one product that can plausibly be argued to have made a difference in the eventual overthrow of Communism was rock and roll. Bill Haley and Frank Zappa likely did more to inspire the dissidents in Eastern Europe than Jackson Pollock or the writers at Partisan Review."

— Louis Menand, Looking Back At the Cold War, in The New Yorker

(Source: newyorker.com)

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Poison Aro

After 3 years of work by sixty engineers - experts in semantic technology - and $20 million in funding from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Khila software delivered to the public a beta product that did about what Gmail already did at that point — recognizing contacts that appeared in an email and sniffing out likely appointments. It was called Aro.

Allen&Co wasn’t interested optimizing appoints so much as they were interested in semantic technology, as evidenced by involvement in the also-folded venture Evri. Evri took the angle that semantic technology could help people better digest news and other kinds of information. It couldn’t.

Promise Folds

I was excited about Aro when I first heard about it. The public beta was being released, and after three years of development, people were understandably curious. I was especially interested because then, as now, I had a special interest in the overlooked and obviously sub-optimal aspects of everyday computing, like email. Especially great was that they were building their own client. It seemed somebody was giving the problem the firepower it deserved.

The video interview with the CEO of the company gives a hint as to what went wrong.

In the beginning, it seems they were building a system to disrupt secretaries. Their software would autonomously add events to a person’s calendar, and would be able to make intelligent, simple replies to emails it could understand.

After lots of engineering effort, this tool went into testing, and people thought it was too clever. The only features that made it through user testing were the ones achievable using much, much simpler technology. Then, there was no reason for Aro.

Lessons

If I understand their ambition correctly, Aro was initially trying to disrupt secretaries, with a semantic engine more similar to Siri than anything else on the market, in 2007. 

Developing a mobile analogue to a secretary is an interesting idea. Where Aro tripped was focusing on technology too soon and user experience too late.

It’s promising companies like Aro that show most vividly the importance of user experience design, early in the process of creating a product. Even a project centered around an ambitious feat of engineering can often benefit from creating a minimum viable product, and running lean for awhile.

What Aro could have done was started where they ended — the user-facing mobile application. Instead of leaving all processing up to the computer, they could have outsourced their algorithm to the best semantic engine around, people’s brains.

In this alpha version, Aro would work with a few mobile professionals at a time. Users would download a working Android application, that would semantically enhance and consolidate their scheduling and email, in whatever way Aro thought desirable. On the backend, a human would be doing the kind of semantic markup they were interested in pursuing.

Aro would have quickly discovered their need to rethink their expectations for the project. The team could have learned in the first couple months what they learned 1100 days into the project. Unfortunately for them, by then it was too late.

(Source: crunchbase.com)

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Postmodernism

Postmodernism means recognizing different people come from different places, and will see in the same situation different emotions, and opportunities.

Bert Loeschner, ‘Monobloc’

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Our table manners, and company manners, and street manners change from time to time, but the changes are not reasoned out; we merely notice and conform. We are creatures of outside influences; as a rule we do not think, we only imitate.

We cannot invent standards that will stick; what we mistake for standards are only fashions, and perishable. We may continue to admire them, but we drop the use of them. We notice this in literature. Shakespeare is a standard, and fifty years ago we used to write tragedies which we couldn’t tell from — from somebody else’s; but we don’t do it any more, now.

Our prose standard, three quarters of a century ago, was ornate and diffuse; some authority or other changed it in the direction of compactness and simplicity, and conformity followed, without argument.

"

— Mark Twain, Corn-Pone Opinions

(Source: paulgraham.com)

Link

I’ve used this with my own code. The bit about naming anonymous functions and pulling them out can lend a surprising amount of clarity and cleanliness.

Link

Scroll to the bottom of the page. What I like about Meteor is the focus on reactive data as something that you can take for granted.

Paired with Mongo, you work with JSON-like object structures, which is really natural for Javascript, but wherever the data appears stays up to date.

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"

So all based on a handful of rather unremarkable emails sent to a woman fortunate enough to have a friend at the FBI, the FBI traced all of Broadwell’s physical locations, learned of all the accounts she uses, ended up reading all of her emails, investigated the identity of her anonymous lover (who turned out to be Petraeus), and then possibly read his emails as well. They dug around in all of this without any evidence of any real crime - at most, they had a case of “cyber-harassment” more benign than what regularly appears in my email inbox and that of countless of other people - and, in large part, without the need for any warrant from a court.

[…]

But, as unwarranted and invasive as this all is, there is some sweet justice in having the stars of America’s national security state destroyed by the very surveillance system which they implemented and over which they preside. As Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation put it this morning: “Who knew the key to stopping the Surveillance State was to just wait until it got so big that it ate itself?”

"

— Glenn Greenwald

(Source: Guardian)