Monday 30 August 2010

Books For B.

I talked to someone over the weekend who is reading Ursula Le Guin's classic Earthsea series for the first time, with intent.

In the interest of sharing, a few books I recommend if you're starting your YA fantasy reading a little late (or just looking for some good storytelling)

Kelly Link Pretty Monsters

The stories in Link's first collection for YA readers are generally more traditionally told than her stories for adults: they all have a proper ending. The stories are dark, inventive, and involving; a race of people living in an old lady's handbag, a dead girl who follows a boy home, a girl who becomes a servant to a magician.

Reviewing the collection for the Guardian Tom Lee concludes

Ultimately, [the stories] play to the experience and fertile imagination of the bookish, cultish teenager rather than those looking for the next Kafka or Borges.

... I didn't see the problem with that, myself.

Margo Lanagan Tender Morsels

If YA writing was chocolate, Lanagan would be the 90% cacao bar - dark to the point of bitter, smooth but not at all sweet. I had to read this book - a retelling of the fairytale of Rose Red and Snow White, and exploration of just how much a parent will do to protect her children - in small, slow doses, completely unlike my normal rip-through-it style.

Meg Rosoff, writing for the Guardian (the best source of YA reviews I've found, their reviewers are tremendous), notes

From the first paragraph we are transported to an authentically dark place that hums with cruelty and perversion; it seems only right to warn those tempted to buy the book for precocious young readers that the early chapters of Tender Morsels are filled with acts of sexual violence - the sort that feel more, not less, terrifying for being presented in folkloric style.

Meg Rosoff How I Live Now

I've blogged about this book before - a masterpiece as much in what Rosoff leaves blank as what she describes for the reader.

Rebecca Stead When You Reach Me

For younger readers than the three books above, but a lesson in taut writing and clever plotting nonetheless.

In this love-letter to Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (which should be read first, but should really have been read when you were 10), among many things Stead evokes that feeling of passionate attachment to your favourite books:

'I was getting annoyed. The truth is that I hate to think about other people reading my book. It's like watching someone go through the box of private stuff that I keep under my bed.'
PS: If any of you are on goodreads, let me know ...

Friday 27 August 2010


Earlier this year I had a special encounter with some Sol Lewitts at SFMOMA. Now I'm obsessed with the tumblr blog the Albright-Knox is running as they install the largest-ever Sol Lewitt wall drawing:

A crew of fifteen people, expected to work for a total of 5,000 hours, is installing a commissioned graphite drawing made up of millions of scribble marks of varying density. The drawing will cover 2,200 square feet of wall surface surrounding the staircase that connects the 1962 Knox building and the 1905 Albright building.

The drawing is underway now, and expected to be completed in mid October. As well as inviting people in to watch the drawing happen, the Albright-Knox is documenting the progress online, with photos, videos and observations from staff mixed in to links to media coverage and quotes from LeWitt. It's addictive.

Tuesday 24 August 2010

F*ck, I know I saw that somewhere ...

I spend more time than I like to think of fact-checking stuff online, mostly for blog posts and my radio spots.* My bad, I know - I should be using offline resources as well as online. But sometimes I'm prompted to think - who's fact-checking the fact-checkers?

Are our publishing houses and art galleries employing fact-checkers? How about the art mags? Goodness knows in the editorial work I've done it's never been made explicit to me that I need to relentlessly review every name, date, title, quote, anecdote and beyond. Certainly I've never had a piece of fact-checked writing handed back to me.

Last year in the New Yorker (sadly only the abstract is available online) John McPhee wrote an interesting account of what it's like to be a fact-checker at the magazine - a venerable role at a venerable institution. The piece started

Sara Lippincott retired as an editor at this magazine in the early nineteen-nineties, having worked in The New Yorker’s fact-checking department from 1966 until 1982. She had a passion for science. In 1973, a long piece of the writer’s called “The Curve of Binding Energy” received her full-time attention for three or four weeks and needed every minute of it. Explaining her work to an audience at a journalism school, Sara once said, “Each word in the piece that has even a shred of fact clinging to it is scrutinized, and, if passed, given the checker’s imprimatur, which consists of a tiny pencil tick.”

The pencils are obviously writ large in the fact-checker's mind: Virginia Heffernan's recent piece in the New York Times also begins with the pencils

The day I became a fact-checker at The New Yorker, I received one set of red pencils and one set of No. 2 pencils.

So I'm curious - who's got their pencils out in New Zealand?

* I was reminded this when I read two items on the same story this morning - the Guardian and the NYT on the recent discovery that the moon has shrunk (barely, and slowly - no need to freak out). The Brits said 200 metres and the Yanks 200 yards and while we're quibbling over less than 20 metres, this is science we're talking about - the discipline of exactitude, ferchrissakes.

Friday 20 August 2010

Every day

Every day that you learn something is a good day. Today I stumbled over nature printing, via this slideshow on the Guardian website.

Nature printing means using objects from nature to make produce an image. It ranges from leaves

to cyanotypes

to meteorites.

Which, given the past week's theme, feels like a good full stop.

Sage leaf imprint on a page of Leonardo's Codice Atlantico
Cyanotype from Anna Atkin's 'Photographs of British Algae'
Print made from a slice of a meteorite

Thursday 19 August 2010


Another update on stuff I've written for my work blog:

Facebook is now the first step - reflections on running social media workshops for very small museums & heritage organisations

7 steps to launching with great web content - lessons learned the hard way for getting your content in order for a new or refreshed website

Writing for the web
- what's changed in the past 5 years, and what's stayed the same?

This weekend I'll be at the EYC unconference, and I'll post some thoughts on that next week.

Wednesday 18 August 2010


Last week's post about sciencey stuff got me thinking more about astrophotography, and it's what I talked about on the radio today.

The first subject of astrophotography, unsurprisingly, was the Moon. Louis Daguerre had a bash at photographing it in 1839, but tracking errors meant his moon came out as a fuzzy spot. John Draper, an American doctor, chemist and scientific experimenter, made the first successful photograph of the moon a year later, a daguerreotype made over 20 minutes.

As new photographic processes were invented photography revolutionised astronomy, as celestial bodies that couldn't previously be discerned were captured. Check out Greg Allen's post on James Keeler's lantern slides of spiral nebulae, made in 1888, and Mark Graybill on how we slowly stopped thinking in terms of Milky Way = The Galaxy, and started thinking about about our local system being one of many.

Long exposure colour photographs of the night sky bring out elements we can't perceive, produced by light waves the colour sensors in our eyes aren't able to pick up. Something like the Hubble telescope is a different beast again. The telescope doesn’t use film at all; it records light from the universe with electronic sensors, in black and white. In another example, the Spitzer telescope captures infrared light, which is part of the spectrum we can’t even see. So the colourised images we do get to see have colour added during the processing stage. Basically, scientists map these images onto the blues, reds and greens that our eyes can perceive.

Many full-color Hubble images are combinations of three separate exposures — one each taken in red, green, and blue light. When mixed together, these three colors of light can simulate almost any color of light that is visible to human eyes. (This is how tvs and computer monitors recreate colour).

So, is it all trickery? I think not. The colour is added by scientists to help us understand the structure and subtle features of celestial bodies. There are open explanations of how this is done: in addition to Ray Villard's article on how colour is used in astrophotography, which I linked to last week, and Robert Hunt (the Spitzer's Visualisation Scientist) on the same topic, the Hubble website has a great section explaining how colour is used in Hubble telescope photographs.

A side effect, of course, is that images are produced that we seem to beautiful, even magnificent (see the Guardian's art critic Jonathan Jones on this topic). The closest I've ever come to a religious feeling was when I read about cosmic rays - muons that come from outer space, pass through the earth's atmosphere, and down into the Earth. I suddenly felt like something much bigger than myself. Particles that had come from the sun could be passing through me right now. (I know, woo-woohhh). But astrophotography seems to bring forth that same sense of wonder that, in these jaded times, it's pretty hard to find.

EYC unconference this weekend

Briefly summarising a post I've written over on my work blog: the Engage Your Community unconference is happening this Saturday. It's a *free* day-long event for people working or volunteering in not for profit, community or voluntary groups, who want to learn about web stuff, and meet other people working in the sector.

Quoting myself:

An unconference is like a conference, in that it’s a gathering of people interested in a particular topic, who come together to share and learn. An unconference is unlike a conference, in that it doesn’t have a preset schedule of talks that you sit through: instead, the agenda is built on the day by the people who attend. Anyone can run a session, whether it’s to share something they’ve done, ask for help with something they’re trying to do, or just to kick some ideas around. The EYC unconference site has a list of topics people are interested in talking about on the day.

There are still places available - it'd be great to see you there, whether you're learning or sharing (or both).

Monday 16 August 2010

Masses and mazes

An article on Read Write Web last week, titled I Don't Know Much About Art But I Know What's Online, has ruffled a few feathers in the English digital collection community (and also provoked some thoughtful responses).

In the RWW article, Curt Hopkins opens by stating that a digital experience of an art institution's can never replicate a physical visit. He then surveys six online collections, focusing on their comprehensiveness, the image resolution offered, and their usability.

Hopkins ends by observing

The collections of museums are making their way online, if for no other reason than they serve as a kind of advertisement. I have yet, however, to come across an outfit, small or large, whose goal was to make their entire collection, or even a substantial majority of it, available online. The few that tried did not hit the trifecta of navigational ease, resolution and information that would make it the most useful.

It was these points that got people agitated, rather than his commentary on the websites he critiqued. Clairey Ross wrote a self-titled 'rant', stating:

My work revolves around understanding what users think of online museum collections, why museums use them, their purpose their usability and god damn it, not one person I have interviewed, observed, surveyed and stalked ever suggested that an museum online collection was an ‘advertisment’ and there are several museums whose goal is to make their entire collection available online.

Frankie Roberto used the RWW article as a launch pad for thinking about what Hopkins' 'trifecta' could feel like:

When I visit an art museum, my primary experience is of wandering. I never know that much the art works, or what to expect, so I rarely have a specific destination in mind – merely just a desire to see some interesting/provoking stuff.

I think it’s this experience which is so hard to replicate online. We’re good at building web experiences which are optimised at getting users to the thing they’re after (usually information) as quickly as possible, via carefully considered navigation and relevance-optimised search. What we’re less good at is building web experiences where the user sits back and is simply entertained/amazed/enthralled by things they wouldn’t have otherwise come across.

One of the things I admire about Frankie is his ability to look at other models and use them to generate new ideas. He points to Phil Gyford's Today's Paper (an alternative - beautiful - layout of the Guardian's content) and the Guardian's own EyeWitness app for the iPad and asks how you could build on these ways of manipulating content in order to enhance the experience of looking at digital collections.

Mike Ellis is another person I admire, mostly for his willingness to cut to the heart of the matter and ask hard questions. In his post, he asks three questions:

  1. Is getting your entire collection online really a good goal?
  2. If you achieve that goal, how do you make it a good user experience?
  3. Why do it at all?
With some digital collections, width is everything. Take Papers Past for example, the National Library's website providing access to digitised historical New Zealand newspapers. Users of this site care far less about speed or navigation than they do about content - the more papers digitised and the more years covered the better.

With other collections though, I wonder if focusing on a great experience with your most useful, most interesting, and most unique collection items might be a better goal?


An interesting comment from Mike Ellis (thanks Mike!) that I thought I'd bring up into the post:

"One thing I didn't manage to get in that post - something I'll maybe do in the future - is how I suspect this could work best. Seems to me that there should be a way of (for instance, making this up as I go along..):

1. Only digitising the 100 (or 1,000) or so "iconic" objects, and providing a huge amount of detail, photography, context, story for these;

2. Spend the rest of the time focussing resource on amending or creating Wikipedia entries

This kind of approach, (or something more thought about..) would probably maximise number of eyeballs as well as hitting the more in-depth stuff asked for by some users"

Friday 13 August 2010

I heart science

Sometimes my lunchtime tab line-up is so good, I just have to share it. Today's theme: science literacy, and pictorial trickery.

Over the past 18 months or so, I've put a lot of reading hours into trying to improve my science understanding. I'm not necessarily trying to understand scientific concepts or formula, although there's been a bit of that happening along the way. What I'm trying to understand is how science happens - the process, the history, the culture, the philosophy.

The way I learn is through narrative. Often I'll start with a piece of historical fiction (say Neal Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy) move on to a history of science from that period, and then delve into individual scientists (for example, James Gleick's Newton bio, and Lisa Jardine on Robert Hooke).

One of my favourite parts of this progression is reading reviews of science books; Freeman Dyson's collected reviews have been a revelation in this respect. And now I can add - from today's line-up - Margaret Atwood's review of Edward Wilson's Anthill, the first novel by this 'grand old man of ants'. I think a good review gives you ideas for how you might read a book: this review certainly achieves that objective.

Given my interest in catching myself in the science I missed (or ignored) at school, this article by Alice Bell on science literacy made me feel a little shabby. I'm doing my best, but what if I'm turning myself into one of those dreaded a-little-knowledge-is-a-dangerous-thing people ("I don't know much about science, but I know what I believe")?

This interview with Craig Venter (whose company sequenced the gene faster and more cheaply than the government-sponsored Human Genome Project) gives me a little faith though. According to Venter, we've both learned enormous amounts, and hardly anything at all, from sequencing the genome. And I think I understand enough about the ethos of science to feel this is okay - even good.

So, on to pictorial trickery. There's been a rash of astronomy-porn on the web recently, and like many, I'm curious about whether the universe really looks as pretty as it does in photos. In his explanation of how astrophotography works, Ray Villard makes an analogy I really enjoyed:

Many celestial pictures look garish because the universe is, well, garish. Hot gaseous clouds of hydrogen, helium, and oxygen glow with the same intense color saturation you would see on nighttime stroll down the Las Vegas strip.

The best astrophotography is comparable to Ansel Adams’ nature pictures. Adams worked to extract the maximum information and quality from his photographs. This required many hours in the darkroom for Adams to reconstruct an image that reproduced the broad tonal range and contrast that our eye perceives on a sunny day.

And just 'cos I'm on the theme of astronomy and pretty pictures - Ethan Spiegel on where metor showers come from. It's stellar.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

NDF subsidy grant - apply now

Applications are now open for subsidy grants to attend the 2010 National Digital Forum conference, being held in Wellington on 18-19 October 2010.

The NDF conference is a yearly gathering of around 300 people from the cultural sector, including libraries, galleries, museums and archives, working in the digital space. It's a great opportunity to immerse yourself in what's happening in this space, and meet lots of people.

This year's conference is bracketed by a Digital New Zealand open day on Sunday 17 October, and a free barcamp on Wednesday 20 October.

The conference is offering subsidised registrations of $200 to:
  • people employed by or associated with small community organisations/institutions that are NDF members (membership of the NDF is free)
  • full time students.
More information about this year's conference is available on the NDF website. Applications for the subsidised registrations close on 20 August; early-bird registration closes on 3 September.

[Disclosure: I'm on the NDF Board, and have been involved in organising the past two NDF conferences. But I only tout things I believe in.]

Monday 9 August 2010

The pram in the hallway

In a recent Guardian article, Frank Cottrell Boyce took on Cyril Connelly's famous quote "There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway."

Boyce writes engagingly about being, simultaneously, a father of seven and a full-time writer:

For centuries, writers have sung the virtues of staying connected to the routine and the mundane. Real creativity should feel like a game, not a career. Having to hang out the washing or get up and make breakfast helps you remember that your "work" is actually fun. And for it to stay fun, you have to be unafraid of failure. It's very powerful to be surrounded by people who love you for something other than your work, who are unaware of the daily, painful fluctuations of your reputation. I discovered recently that my youngest child thought I spent my days typing out more and more copies of my book Millions, so that everyone could have one.

In another take on parenthood and reading, Lauren McIntyre interviewed Kat Falls for the New Yorker book blog at the end of June. Falls took her 14 year-old son as her target reader:

He has a short attention span with books. Back then, he would have the computer screen open while he read, and I’d hear the IMs pinging. I always knew it was a good book if he ignored the pings. Now he has a cell phone. I watch him reading all the time with his cell phone next to him, and it buzzes when he gets text messages. It’s the same thing. I know he’s into the book when he ignores his phone. So that was my bar. You have to have a bar to set and that was mine: no boy is going to put this book down to answer his phone.

Falls also comments that the layout of the book contributes to the feeling of reading it:

I kept it very white on the page, intentionally, because I think your eye moves faster when it’s got lots of white space and it adds to the feel of the speed. You can rip down a page fast. I just know that when a boy sees a giant block of description that’s the first thing he skips.

If I think of some of the books aimed at teenage readers I've enjoyed the most, this is true of them too, especially the innovative type-setting of Patrick Ness's 'Chaos Walking' trilogy.

The product of parenthood, of course, is children, who grow from little creatures who you read to, sharing the experience with them, into people who have their own, secret, interior relationship with the written word and fictional places, people and situations. Perhaps this progress - from knowing what's going through their heads to not knowing - explains why the topic of what kids are reading is often discussed with some concern. I thought of this this morning when, digging through my Instapaper folders for the above links, I found this old one for Jill Lepore's feature on Anne Carroll Moore, the doyenne of New York's children's libraries at the start of the 20th century. Moore wielded huge influence over not just what was stocked, but what was published:

She never lacked for an opinion. “Dull in a new way,” she labelled books that she despised. When, in 1938, William R. Scott brought her copies of his press’s new books, tricked out with pop-ups and bells and buttons, Moore snapped, “Truck! Mr. Scott. They are truck!” Her verdict, not any editor’s, not any bookseller’s, sealed a book’s fate. She kept a rubber stamp at her desk that she used, liberally, while paging through publishers’ catalogues: “Not recommended for purchase by expert.” The end.

The story of Moore is also the story of E.B. White, that - to me, anyway - curious figure who both children and grammar fanatics hold dear. As Lepore writes:

The end of Moore’s influence came when, years later, she tried to block the publication of a book by E. B. White. Watching Moore stand in the way of “Stuart Little,” White’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom, remembered, was like watching a horse fall down, its spindly legs crumpling beneath its great weight.

I'm currently reading a history of 20th century British publishing and - with the Second World War - women are finally beginning to figure (beginning with Eunice Frost at Penguin, and Diana Athill at Andre Deutsch). So to finish off this tangentially linked series of articles: a recent profile of Frost from the Telegraph.

Friday 6 August 2010

Web muster

When I came out of university, I could talk about semiotics, but I couldn't walk into a dealer show and tell you which was the strongest work, and I sure as hell wouldn't be able to pick a fake Goldie from the real deal. Yale's trying to bring connoisseurship back to the university.

Two terrific artist profiles from the Guardian: Thomas Lawrence and the Chapman brothers

A follow-up piece in the New York Times on the Brooklyn Museum, featuring opinions from museum directors, artists, and philanthropists.

And a lovely piece by Jerry Saltz on his favourite paintings in New York museums.

Thursday 5 August 2010

And they're off

Yesterday on Radio New Zealand I talked to Kathryn Ryan about art competitions and awards

I think art competitions usually have two objectives. One is to recognise artists, and to assist them in a concrete way, usually with cash. The other is to try to draw the public's attention to art and art-making. The aim of the Walters Prize for example (itself modeled on Britain's Turner Prize) is to "make contemporary art a more widely recognised and debated and prominent feature of New Zealand cultural life".

Kathryn and I started off by talking about 'Work of Art', a reality show currently screening in America that applies the 'Project Runaway' format to 14 contemporary artists, who are competing in knock-out rounds ("Your work doesn't work for us"). The winner receives a chunky cash prize and a show at the Brooklyn Museum.

Naturally, not having seen the programme doesn't stop me from feeling like I can make a call on it. Firstly, non-art-world people often have a feeling that artists are weird: extremist, arrogant, hedonistic. Given that reality shows are often set up with stock characters, I doubt this stereotype is going to broken down by Work of Art.

Secondly, I do wonder whether the format has any chance of producing good art. The competitors are given the usual Project Runaway-style deadlines, 24-48 hours, to produce work on a set topic ('make a portrait of another competitor'). It seems like bursary art set on fast forward. And finally, art-making is usually a private process. Designers often work in shared studios with assistants, chefs in crowded kitchens, but artists normally work alone. I'm curious about how this can translate.

I have no idea whether 'Work of Art' will make it over here, and I've yet to seek it out online. In the meantime though you can get a feel for how the series is being received in the New York art world with Carolina Miranda's piece in Time Magazine and this snark-filled three-way in the Village Voice, convened by Christian Viveros-Fauné.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

I love feedback

Last night's Ignite Wellington talk seemed to go well. My picks of the evening: Rowan Simpson on lying and cheating, and Emma McCleary on wallpaper. The event was recorded, and the video should be up on YouTube shortly.

Last night I recommended Brain Cathcart's 'The Fly in the Cathedral' as a really enjoyable account of the race to split the atom. If you don't have time in your life for it though, you should squeeze in ten minutes for Freeman Dyson's beautiful review.

Monday 2 August 2010

We interrupt our usual programming

Blogging is going to be a bit light this week for several reasons, including that tomorrow night I'm amongst the line-up of speakers for Ignite Wellington.

If you're interested in coming along, there are still spaces - tickets are free, but you need to register.