Saturday, March 31, 2012

I don't believe in Facts

NPR's This American Life Retraction of the Mike Daisey story about Apple's labor practices in China was a missed opportunity.If you missed it, the show had played an amazingly compelling excerpt from Mike  Daisey's trip to China to interview workers at the iPad factory in Shenzhen.  Daisey related how he drove up to the factory in a taxi, and interviewed child workers, illegal union members, workers who suffered from chemical poisoning. The problem wasn't that these people didn't exist--Apple and other sources confirm their existence, the problem was that it was revealed by someone who tracked down  Daisey's interpreter that he invented his meetings with them.

Invented dialog has long been part of essays since Plato, part of biographies, documentaries, memoirs. It's a staple of the stories of David Sedaris, one of This American Life's most frequent contributors, whose stories are presented as non-fiction. There has been much discussion already on this subject recently in the media due to the publication of "The Lifespan of a Fact" about a true debate between a magazine writer and a factchecker on what constitutes a fact (although the dialog in this book presented as non-fiction is also invented). I have always been annoyed at the tone of sites like or the regular fact checking these days on network news that pretend that they have the absolute authority on truth, when in fact, the definition of a fact is always open for interpretation. (this critique also applies but in a more complicated way to climate scientists).

I'm not defending Daisey. Someone pointed out it is his deliberate deception of TAL's staff that matters, not the stories themselves that matter. I also think it was deceptive to make people believe that such awful labor practices are so common one can find them just by driving up to the factory gates. I also think that most attacks on Chinese labor practices are wholly wrong-headed. But I do think the notion that a fact is a fact has been too much taken for granted.

Of course, as someone who studies apologies, I know that if This American Life had gone this route in its apology and retraction, it could easily be seen as defensive and thus insincere if done poorly. However, I still feel like it was an opportunity missed.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

extinct retail stores

Visiting a music store the other day, it occurred to me this is the first music store I've seen in a while. Video rental stores are not far off though a blockbuster across from our apartment seems to insist on hanging on. Bookstores are not far behind, Memphis came close. I wonder how long before media becomes completely divorced from physical objects.

It's surprising that the dream of the ubiquitous information tablet in sci fi like star trek seemed as improbable as a Jupiter space program in 2001, or teleporters, it's already far more common seeing someone reading an ipad or a kindle in manhattan that it is seeing someone read a book.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Movie Reviewlet: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Changing things up, R- and I tried the indie movie theater at Lincoln Center, and decided to make a sushi night of it, with the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and then Sushi at nearby Blue Ribbon. About sushi chef Jiro Ono who has a sushi counter in a forlorn corner of a Tokyo subway station, that recently received 3 michelin stars, who at 85 years old, makes him the oldest chef to win that distinction. Prices start at $300 per person for a meal that might last only 15 minutes (sushi is intended as fast food).

It really has this Japanese (and Chinese) attitude of Kaizen, continuous improvement, that if you just work hard enough at something your whole life, you can achieve godlike mastery. Like the ninjas who are so stealthy they turn invisible, or so light they walk on water, or bruce lee who supposedly could punch a man across a room with only one inch of momentum. Thinking about NBA free throw shooting recently, I've concluded that no amount work will let you achieve such superhuman abilities, there are in fact hard limits to human ability, given that the top humans with million dollar incentives to never miss, miss quite often.

Also, recent research in the economics and psychology of food and taste (by my friends and students amongst others), has shown that so much of what we call taste, is arbitrary and is easily influenced by mood and story and price. Price has a significant effect on the neural experience of pleasure, and even the expert wine judges at the most prestigious wine competition n the US can't tell when they are drinking the exact same wine, giving the same wine radically different scores in a blind experiment.

Still it is sometimes nice to honor this idea of human mastery and achievement (like Man on Wire ). In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, we honor Jiro Ono for achieving the pinnacle of the sushi form. At the same time exploring what it takes to make masterful food: from the obsessive fish mongers at the market to the apprentices who massage the octopi for 50 minutes each day, to his 50 year son hand drying every piece of seaweed on charcoals in a subway station hallway, to parenting (Jiro does not believe in safety nets, telling his children that once they leave home, they can never interesting counterpoint to today's Boomerang Kid culture). All the way exploring the motivations of the craftsperson (like the engineers in Kidder's The Soul of A New Machine ) who are motivated by art and relationships rather than money.

But mostly it is about the food. Like the food manga Oishinbo, this is samurai eating and food preparation--food as Zen Mastery. And plenty of food porn, effectively using music from Mozart to mostly Philip Glass to bring the sushi alive.

Final Grade: B+

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

the hipstamatic and beats headphones: why style beats fidelity

As my recent photos will attest, I am a fan of the hipstamatic. Recently some critics have argued it cheapens photojournalism now that hipstamatic photos are regularly published in major publications (Time, NY Times, etc) and winning major photojournalism awards, but I think the lesson is that people don't care about fidelity. Digital photography surpassed a decade ago the level of fidelity that any human could possibly detect. And yet the the number of megapixels keep growing. The hipstamatic showed, that it is megapixels that matter but style.

Similarly, when Dr Dre's beats headphones were introduced they were roundly bashed, as having the lowest fidelity of any high end head phone. But just a quick survey on people on the subway show that people don't care. It is style, both in the look, but also in the frequency response (the booming base that makes the headphones sing), that people are drawn to.