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Trikipedia

“There is ‘collective intelligence’. Or, if you don’t want to dignify it with that term, you can just call it ‘internet meme ooze’. It’s all over the place, just termite mounds of poorly organized and extremely potent knowledge. … We cannot get rid of this stuff. It is our new burden, it is there as a fact on the ground, it is a fait accompli.”
–Bruce Sterling, in a recent talk on “Atemporality for the Creative Artist

Trikipedia is like Wikipedia, only tricky.*download full film Kong: Skull Island 2017

While Wikipedia can be inaccurate or incomplete, misleading or misused, Trikipedia is always intentionally so. Its “facts” change from day to day. Articles disappear and are repurposed elsewhere. Arcane feuds wash over the place, recasting everything in terms of somebody’s manichean squabble. There is enough truth in there to lure the unwary, but falsehoods sprout like weeds, worming from article to article, corroborating themselves, the better to deceive.

Students are assigned to write research papers using only Trikipedia as a source, not in spite of its dangers but because of them. It’s an exercise in critical literacy, in making sense of a world of shoddy metadata and nearly infinite information whose truth value lies somewhere between 0 and 1.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine Trikipedia as some kind of elegant, malevolent A.I. But you could build one today with human players. Just set up your own wiki** and fill it with real history to start. Everyone then has to write a paper using only the Trikiwiki for research, while simultaneously seeding the wiki with misdirection and lies. The final papers are scored a la Balderdash, or that seminal work in history through material culture, the 70s game show Liar’s Club. You get points for discovering the truth, but also for each one of your lies that has fooled anyone else.

*Not really. Actually, I think Trickipedia (with a ‘c’) is a site about skateboarding tricks.

**One could imagine playing this on Wikipedia itself. Arguably, that is what many people with an intellectual axe to grind are already doing. But don’t! I irritated enough archivists with my last hypothetical; I don’t want the Wikipedians after me too.

Article

The Bochco Code

When I was a child, I had a fever
My hands felt just like two balloons

I felt a little queasy when I saw the following article in the NYT Magazine: “Watching TV Makes You Smarter.” Not that it isn’t a good article; it is. It’s about the cognitive demands placed on viewers by today’s complex multi-threaded television shows: The Sopranos, Deadwood, yadda yadda yadda. Hill Street Blues gets a nod as the big innovator of multi-threaded arc-within-arc storytelling, though the structure obviously comes from soap operas and from serialized fiction before that (as Jonathan Dresner notes).
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Blame Canada

I just got back from Upper Canada, where it was -30° C in the daytime, and the following bit of video from the time of George Bush’s Ottawa visit was making the rounds. It’s Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson taking a few cheap shots at Canadians while some gormless backbencher clucks feebly in the Dominion’s defense. I must warn you, the clip does neither country any credit. And it’s not nearly as satisfying as the justly famous video of Jon Stewart schooling Tucker on Crossfire. But you can go watch it now, in Quicktime or Windows Media. I’ll wait.

Are you back? OK. Yes. I know. Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
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Philo Philes

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

I’m reading and enjoying Glen Gold’s Carter Beats The Devil. It’s a novel about the adventures of a Houdini-style illusionist in the 1910s and 1920s, who gets mixed up with the mysterious death of Warren Harding, Yale’s Skull and Bones society, and the fight for control of television. It’s in much the same vein as Kavalier & Clay, and if it’s only, say, 75% as good, that’s hardly a stinging criticism.

The book gets extra points from me because one of the key supporting characters is the real life Philo T. Farnsworth. Philo Farnsworth was an earnest, gawky farm boy born in an honest-to-gosh log cabin near Beaver City, Utah in 1906. He grew up on a potato farm in Idaho, rode to high school on horseback, and never went to college. When he was nineteen, he pretty much invented electronic television.

The invention of television is a messy, complicated story, and it’s almost impossible to pick one single “Inventor of Television” out of the melee of mad Scots and visionary Russians and guys in basements in Cleveland who all had a hand in TV’s birth, but Philo is a definite contender. He was the first to use a scanning electron beam to create a picture. All previous efforts were mechanical, and usually involved spinning giant wooden disks. (Lovers of outre steampunk technology take note.)

Philo’s story is great—he was just this “aw shucks” milk-drinking Mormon kid who got the idea for the parallel scanning lines of the electronic picture tube while tilling the furrows of his family’s potato farm. He married his high school sweetheart at age 19 and said to her on their wedding night, “Pemmie, I have to tell you. There’s another woman in my life. Her name is Television.”

The whole thing sounds like a made up Boy Inventor story—Tom Swift and His Electronic Picto-Vision! In fact, I often think it should have been one. It could have been serialized in Chum Magazine in the 1940s, or made into a Disney double feature with Davy Crockett, called “The Boy Who Invented Television.” Young Philo would have made a great 1950s TV character. He could have worked with the Pinkertons maybe, having wild adventures across the West with his best girl Pemmie at his side, doing battle with his ingenious electrical inventions against the top-hatted fat cats of the evil Radio Trust.

About five years ago, I wrote the script for a comic book called “Channel Ocho,” about two crypto-TV-archaeologists that searched for mythical “lost” TV shows. Sort of a Planetary meets Nick-at-Nite kinda thing. The hero and his nemesis were named Farnsworth and Zworykin, after Philo and his main rival. Maybe I should dig that puppy out of mothballs.

Alas, in real life, the top-hatted fat cats of the evil Radio Trust (aka David Sarnoff and RCA) screwed Philo over pretty darn good. He never got the recognition he deserved, and though RCA eventually paid him off for the patents they squeezed out of him, he spent much of his life bitter and unhappy about how he and his great invention had been misused.

There’s a couple of books about Philo out now: The Last Lone Inventor, by Evan Schwartz, and The Boy Genius and the Mogul, by Daniel Stashower. There’s also this tribute site with the excellent URL farnovision.com. All of them basically follow the romantic “noble-lone-inventor-versus-greedy-fat-cats” model. But Malcolm Gladwell wrote an interesting New Yorker column (saying “interesting Malcolm Gladwell column” is usually redundant, IMHO) about Philo’s story, turning the model on his head. Gladwell says the story exposes the value of big corporations, and points out how much happier Philo’s life would have been if he’d only worked with RCA rather than tried to go it alone. I don’t know. It’s one thing to say Philo was naïve and stubborn and that he paid dearly for trying to fight the big boys. It’s another thing to say that this is therefore how things ought to be.

But anyway. Mad props to Philo T. That’s all I really wanted to say.