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“Make Me Beautiful”

Journalist Esther Honig wanted to examine how the standards of beauty vary across cultures. She sent a picture of herself—makeup free and hair pulled back– to 40 different graphic designers across the globe with only one request: “Make me beautiful.”

What she received back blew her mind.  (And mine.)

Some of the pictures came back with minimal changes, what I  think of as studio photo retouching. Like this image from Romania:


All images in post are courtesy of Ester Honig

Others were radically altered. This one is from the Philippines:



What struck me is that some designers changed Honig’s features in ways I wouldn’t even think of, going to extremes like changing her eye color, removing collar bones, and altering the shape of her eyes and forehead.  Read more »

Cognative Surplus, or How LOLcats will Save the World

Back in the late 90s, I worked in a software company that hired  full development teams to other technology companies. We provided expertise that our clients might not have in-house, which meant we usually worked with new technology on cutting-edge projects. When the internet opened up to e-commerce, the company signed up new clients at record speed. One of the marketing managers explained to my coworker Angela and me that the internet was finally useful now that people could use the web to make a profit. After that meeting, Angela created a secret slogan that we would sometimes whisper to each other while working on projects that had no purpose other than making crazy amounts of money: “Use the internet for good, not for evil.”

This weekend, I listened to author, professor, and social media guru Clay Shirky on the TED Radio Hour. The program focused on collaboration and Shirky talked about a concept he’s coined “cognative surplus.” According to his estimates, the world has over a trillion of hours of free time to commit to shared projects. Some of that time we—the people of the world—use to do things like watch TV or create memes that we share on the internet. But even if you use your time to create LOLcats instead of inventing cool apps to do crisis mapping (one of Shirky’s examples is the creation of Ushahidi, the software that election information after the disputed 2007 Kenyan presidential race), you should still feel like you’re contributing to the good of the world:

The stupidest creative act is still a creative act….The gap is between doing anything and doing nothing.

The talk is well worth the 13 minutes it takes to watch. I especially find Shirky comparing our relationship with media and technology during the 1900s to the 2000s inspiring. The last century taught us how to consume. We’re still excellent consumers, but with new media tools like the internet and mobile phones we also show that we like to create. And share. And collaborate.

According to Shirky—and I really want to believe him on this—human motivation, new tools of collaboration, and our cognative surplus allow us to do “truly incredible experiments in scientific, literary, artistic, political efforts.”

In this new century, we’re finally using the internet mostly “for good, not for evil.” Angela and I are very happy.

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Buyer’s Guide

outside_Page_1The Outside Magazine Buyer’s Guide arrived in my mailbox on Monday night. I tore off the thick layer of plastic and noticed that the opening pages were crowed with mini-bios about the magazine’s staff and gear testers, those lucky dogs who are paid to take cool trips and try out sleeping bags, trail shoes, hiking shoes, hard shells, soft shells, headlamps, sunglasses, cameras, mountain bikes, and stand-up paddleboards. In between the gear ratings were style guides—new pieces of gear unfolded and strewn about in colorful, asymmetrical patterns. I zoomed in on the style guide for women climbers, which was labeled “Everything you need to scale new heights.” At the center of the page, beside the helmet, the harness, the pack, and the token piece of hardware, was a quick dry hoodie with a “flattering fit” and “sexy skinny jeans” made of a nylon/spandex blend.

I tried to determine what was different about the Buyer’s Guide and the regular edition of Outside. For one, the editors had squeezed out the gratuitously adventurous human-interest stories and descriptions of some off-the-beaten path trails for a few more equipment reviews. Otherwise, The Buyer’s Guide edition seemed similar to any other. Why did it take me so long to realize how cramped the magazine was with product advertisements? Of course, magazines have to sell ads, and one fantastic way to do this is to display products as functional and stylish; however, now that I have been a subscriber to Outside for a few months, I’m realizing that pushing products is one of the primary goals of the magazine. Ideally, the advertisements would  leverage a platform for telling good stories. However, inspiring people to enjoy more of their lives outside and to “Live Bravely,” as the slogan says, is also a ploy to get people to buy the gear that will make them more active, badass, and happy.

I want to be active, badass, and happy. I work hard during the week, and I recreate hard on the weekends. It’s Tuesday, I’m still sore from my most recent blitz to the mountains near Leavenworth. I drove over and camped on Friday, hiked in and climbed all day Saturday, and drove home early on Sunday so that I could clean the house, prepare lunch for the week, and grade papers.

This work/life balance is my El Dorado. I want to have fun and keep exploring, but I also want a steady job, health insurance, and other kinds of recommended securities. Read more »

The Sponsored and Sold Dictionary

All week I have been contending with Walter Mitty in my mailbox. Even words like o·nei·ric (/ōˈnīrik/ adj. formal 1. of or relating to dreams) have sponsored content, advertisements, and quotes from the movie.

It makes me want to see the box office bomb even less. I realize that the movie is based off of a James Thurber short story from the 1930s and features a copyeditor as the main character, two considerations that mean I may have eventually watched it. However, I’m not a fan of being a targeted market audience for quotes about living life to the fullest because in a moment of panic while studying for the GRE, I signed up for the word-a-day service.

I’d always been a fan of Merriam-Webster’s corporate history. When I was in grade school, I had a Webster’s dictionary that I began to realize was antisemitic.
Read more »

What would you agree to for a writer’s residency?

Image of Denver Platform and Amtrak  Train

Denver Platform View, copyright Kathleen Crislip

There is a lot of chatter around the Amtrak Residency Program for writers. Free long-distance train ride with a sleeper car equipped with a bed, a desk and outlets. Countryside views unattainable from any other type of trip. Inspiration.

Writers flooded Amtrak with applications—8,500 in just the first week. Twitter is ablaze with the hashtag, #AmtrakResidency. This tells me that for many this opportunity is worth the cost. By cost, I don’t mean an application fee because there is none. The cost is giving up all rights to application materials, which includes a writing sample of up to 10 pages.

In legal-speak, the Official Terms of the program include provision 6, “Grant of Rights,” as quoted below.

In submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties. . . . Applicant grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy the name, image, and/or likeness of Applicant and the names of any such persons identified in the Application for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing. For the avoidance of doubt, one’s Application will NOT be kept confidential (and, for this reason, it is recommended that the writing sample and answers to questions not contain any personally identifiable information – e.g., name or e-mail address – of Applicant.)

Critics have come out against the program for this reason. Dan Zak calls it a sham in his Washington Post article. Mr. Zak points out the media coup this is for Amtrak, now getting crazy publicity for their long-distance trips, which are reportedly operating in the red by millions. Ben Cosman, writing for The Wire, shares parts of an email from Julia Quinn, Amtrak’s Social Media Director, written to The Wire, clarifying Amtrak’s intentions: Read more »

Anything Other Than Writing

My brain is a kind of synapse soup leaking out of my ears after two terrific conferences, one odyssey in Denver, a delivery of files to the printing press, and the mere suggestion of grading scientist profiles. So, in lieu of a thoughtful post, I will offer you several games.

1. Pick up the book nearest you.
Turn to page 45. The first complete sentence describes your love life.

Here’s mine:
“Rather than simplifying and unifying, he is revealing the complexity of the Japanese ‘natural’ world and opening a space in the cosmology for native yokai.”

from Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai by Michæl Dylan Foster

(Har har har, sounds supernatural, huh?)

2. Make a book spine poem by arranging books on your self.
Here’s mine:


The hummingbird’s daughter
falling up
in the wilderness
skinny legs and all.
Read more »

Publishing Bots on the Loose: David Publishing

This week I have been at the Southwest Popular American Culture Association Conference, which one of my students has called a “nerd extravaganza.” On Wednesday, I presented some of the X-Files poetry that I have been working on; the manuscript of the collection is called “Glitches in the FBI.” Last night, I received the following e-mail:

from emailThis note (which included some more specific information beneath the scroll), is my first encounter with David Publishing. Because I am human, I like to have my ego stroked, so my first thought was, “Cool.”

When I was younger, I kept a blog, in part to keep in touch with my family across the country, and in part (ok, a really big part), with the hope that I would be “discovered” by some publishing company and land a book deal.  The publishing process was very mysterious to me then (it still is, some days), so I had no idea how writers could be proactive about becoming authors.

Anyway, I saw this e-mail and, I have to admit, it satisfied some part of that “being found” desire I used to have. Even though I presented to a crowd of about seven poetry enthusiasts, in a ballroom staged for 200+ people, I believed my presentation went well. One of my students came, on assignment from the school paper. A poet in a gray suit shook my hand afterward. “Glitches in the FBI” had a lot of good energy around it; of course some one would want to publish some of the poems or a discussion of the process. Read more »

guilty as the nfl: an open letter response

melissa huggins

february 3, 2013


dear huggiebear,

thanks for your letter & let me begin with this: congrats.  your beloved seahawks made peyton manning’s record-setting broncos look completely ineffectual (even in denver’s best moments).  how do i know they did that?  cuz i watched the super bowl.  kinda.  steve almond was right in that this game has practically become a secular holiday.  friends of mine host a big party for it every year—and there are actually some friends of mine that i only see at that super bowl party (yes, their kids are fine & life is pretty good, in case you were wondering).  so, i did see that safety to start the game.  and then basically nothing else until the 2nd half.  but i was there, and i definitely stole glances at the tv screen (was that james franco with a fucking tiger?).  i even watched a good part of the 2nd half as more&more guests headed home (yes, those parents are responsible & their kids do have bedtimes, in case you were wondering).  but that does kinda prompt the question, wtf, jason?

so let me also acknowledge this: i didn’t exactly maintain a strict ban on watching my beloved bears this past season.  i tried to stay away.  but then some guys would invite me to the bar to watch monday night football with them, and i’d want to hang out with them because i haven’t seen them in a while, and then i’d see alshon jeffery make an absolutely sick catch against dallas, and then i’ve fallen off the wagon, as it were.

Read more »

To Watch Or Not To Watch?

Jason Sommer

January 31, 2014

Dear Jason,

On Sunday, February 2, Super Bowl 48 will take place, between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks. Some people look forward to the day with nervous excitement, while others think it sounds about as fun as a root canal with no anesthesia. I’m writing because you and others may be interested in some developments to our previous discussions about the NFL.

With the Super Bowl approaching, the public discourse has covered nearly every imaginable topic, from the most relevant to the most ridiculous. We’ve talked about race and class and privilege. We’ve talked about role models. We’ve talked about Skittles. We’ve talked about sexism. We’ve talked about marijuana (dude, like, the Super. Bowl. get it?) We’ve talked about the weather and security for the game and ticket prices and parties. But what we’ve been studiously avoiding is arguably the most important: player safety.

Back in October, you and I wrote open letters to each other regarding the problem of head injuries in the NFL. You wondered if the mountain of evidence demonstrating the NFL’s blatant disregard for player safety would finally be enough to convince us to turn off our televisions, and asserted that you yourself were willing to do so. This week, Steve Almond agreed with you, penning an essay for the New York Times Magazine, titled “Is it Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl?” Read more »

money & beats & art

this past tuesday, beats music debuted.  if you haven’t heard of it, it’s a new streaming service being offered by a collective of pretty d*mn impressive people, including dr. dre, trent reznor, and jimmy iovine.  i did some searching around the internets and, near as i can tell, most of the media coverage around this launch was focused on that music dream team & how their product is different from pandora, rdio, spotify, rhapsody, itunes radio, youtube, etc. (the main talking point being that beats is an actual service, one curated by real humans instead of robots or algorithms or whatever).

but rather than a summary of beats’ product model, what i hoped to find was some music journalist who had broken down beats’ business model.  on none of the articles i found (even with click-bait titles such as “7 things you should know about beats music“) was the topic of artists’ revenue ever seriously covered.  i was most disappointed to not find any mention of that from pitchfork or sound opinions—until i learned that pitchfork & sound opinions were both “curators” on beats.  it was especially disappointing to not hear from the sound opinions co-hosts, not least because i’m a huge fan of greg kot, but also because jim derogatis tried to take pitchfork founder ryan schreiber to the woodshed over journalistic ethics for curating an online music tv channel.

the closest i found to any reporting on the issue was a throwaway graf at the end of a rollingstone piece:

Beats Music is also focused on creating a service that is fair to the artists whose music it streams, and will pay the same royalty rate to all content owners. “Beats Music is based on the belief that all music has value and this concept was instilled in every step of its development. We want it to be just as meaningful for artists as it is for fans,” Reznor said in a statement. “We’re committed to providing revenue to artists, while helping to strengthen the connection with their fans.”

Read more »

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