Time's Best Blogs of 2011

I hate two things (not only two, really, but only two that are relevant at the moment): slideshows that reload the entire page and thus take forever to get through, and "best blog" lists. Harry McCracken’s "Best Blogs of 2011" list, though it’s both, is actually really worth reading. It’s a super-diverse list of some of the best blogs, some hugely popular and some largely unknown, on the Web.

I found a bunch of new reading material through McCracken’s slideshow.  Kill Screen is Salon meets video games, and is utterly fascinating. The Basketball Jones is already high on the list of my favorite basketball blogs. Economix and FiveThirtyEight are two of the smartest, yet most digestible, blogs you’ll ever see about business and economics (and math). Smitten Kitchen is some seriously awesome food porn. I hear that Digitizd site is great, too – can’t believe it didn’t make the list.

Is Word Making Us Dumb?

This one’s a few months old, but as I spend more and more of my time typing into word processors, I’ve wondered how it affects the way I think and write. Clive Thompson, who’s been writing a lot longer than I have, remembers how the world felt when Word processors came out:

It’s hard to remember now, but many people back in the 80s totally freaked out about word processing. I recall professors worrying that it would make students write more sloppily, and even think more sloppily. The fluidity of cutting and pasting seemed intellectually suspicious. I even remember one of my TAs arguing — in a lovely foreshadowing of today’s fears that “the Internet is making us stupid” — that cutting and pasting would render our generation unable to craft a coherent argument, because the sheer slipperiness of digital prose, its slithy rearrangeability, would render our ideas and prose rootless, nonsequential, and flighty.

Conor Friedersdorf, closer to my point on the digital vs. analog timeline, differs a bit:

In high school, I always hated “in class” essays: accustom to writing on a word processor, the different process of longhand composition always made me feel incapable of producing my best work, even if I adjusted capably enough to get a good grade.

I’m more in line with Conor here. I’ve written on computers as long as I can remember, and I feel his pain in the difficulty of writing on paper. I write out of order, edit constantly, and move things around so much that having to write A, then B, then C, then D just doesn’t work for me. I don’t know that it’s a bad thing, either. Everyone has a different process, and that’s been the case for a long time. Aren’t Word and other tools just making it easier to work, no matter your process? If you still want to write linearly, from beginning to end, you of course can. But you don’t have to.

What do you think? I’m second-guessing myself even as I write this, because it took me four edits to get it right, and I moved everything around. But that might be just because my coffee is still mostly full.

The Future is Screens

Kevin Kelly imagines a day in his not-so-distant future:

In the kitchen I screen the full news. I like the display horizontal in the table. I wave my arms to direct the stream of writing. I turn to the screens on my cabinets searching for my favorite cereal. A screen floating above the refrigerator indicates fresh milk inside. I reach inside and take out the milk. The screen on the side of the milk carton tries to get me to play a game, but I quiet it. I screen the bowl to be sure it is approved clean from the dishwasher. As I eat my cereal, I nod and the news stories advance. When I pay close attention, the news gets more detailed. As I screen further and deeper, the text has more links, denser illustrations. I begin screening a very long investigative piece on the local mayor, but I need to take my son to school.

Video Games Taking Cues From Hollywood

Yesterday, I wondered whether sports video games were becoming better than actual sports. Turns out, the Guardian is asking a similar question, but pitting video games against Hollywood this time:

And then there’s LA Noire, the James Ellroy-inspired crime drama, which has caused a stir, and rightly so, with its firm focus on narrative and staggering new facial animation technology. I’m a massive dweeb who keeps up with the latest gaming developments, and even I was astounded at what they’ve pulled off here. You’re watching actors give genuine performances – within something that is still defiantly and unapologetically a video game. The lead character is played by Aaron Staton, AKA Ken Cosgrove from Mad Men – and is instantly recognisable, not just from his likeness, but also his facial mannerisms. Amusingly, plenty of his fellow Mad Men cast members also show up throughout the game (as well as faces familiar from shows such as Heroes and Fringe), reinforcing the overall feel of the game – which is like working your way through a hard-nosed HBO police procedural miniseries set in Los Angeles in the 1940s. If you’ve never played a game, or you think you hate them – but my description sounds vaguely appealing, give it a spin. Just watch someone else play it for a while if you like. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.

The Web as a whole has made it clear that people want to interact, be a part of things, and not just passively sit and watch things happen around us. Could video games be the new movies, with equal acting performances and storytelling, but giving the audience a hand in shaping the story?

Film in the Age of Smartphones

About every month or so, I read or watch an interview with a filmmaker where they lament how much their art is being destroyed by people watching things on their smartphones. But, like it or not, that’s a trend that seems only to be accelerating. Jason Brush, EVP of User Experience Design at Possible Worldwide, decided to take that trend and run with it. FastCo.Design has a wonderful story on Brush’s concept of "elastic cinema":

"Filmmaking hasn’t responded to the fact that the mode of distribution has fundamentally changed, forever," Brush says. "Most filmmakers would love to have everyone see their movie in a theater, but that’s just not how it goes anymore." People watch movies on TV, TV on the web, the web on their phones, and every permutation thereof. "But watching media on your phone is much different than on your TV, which is much different than in the theater," Brush says. "Elastic cinema" asks: Why not design the film in a way that it can transform to fit each of those distribution platforms (and make more money), rather than — like Lawrence of Arabia — be an amazing experience on one of them, and a disappointment on all the rest?

It sounds fanciful, but some mainstream filmmakers are already exploring the possibilities. Brush cites Olivier Assayas’s critically acclaimed film Carlos as an innovative example: Assayas and his collaborators shot and edited the film as a multipart TV miniseries, and then repackaged a two-hour version for a theatrical run. "It wasn’t just about lopping out whole scenes or storylines," Brush says. Indeed, Assayas redesigned the theatrical version from the ground up out of the same raw materials: re-editing scenes, restructuring the plot, even changing compositions and pacing from shot to shot.

Stephen Colbert, the WHO, Cell Phones, and You

So the World Health Organization released a report saying that cell phones might be carcinogenic. It’s probably a little early for total and complete panic, but maybe the right time for like three seconds of panic. Or no panic, if you take Stephen Colbert’s advice on how to take the brain-cooking your cell phone might maybe possibly be capable of, and make lemonade:

(Via NYMag)

The Online, Anonymous Drug Trade

Gawker goes long on the story of Silk Road, a website from which you can buy just about any drug you can think of, much more simply than you’d ever imagine. It’s a website, which makes things easier, but the currency is what really enables this to work:

Sellers feel comfortable openly trading hardcore drugs because the real identities of those involved in Silk Road transactions are utterly obscured. If the authorities wanted to ID Silk Road’s users with computer forensics, they’d have nowhere to look. TOR masks a user’s tracks on the site. The site urges sellers to “creatively disguise” their shipments and vacuum seal any drugs that could be detected through smell. As for transactions, Silk Road doesn’t accept credit cards, PayPal , or any other form of payment that can be traced or blocked. The only money good here is Bitcoins.

Bitcoins have been called a “crypto-currency,” the online equivalent of a brown paper bag of cash. Bitcoins are a peer-to-peer currency, not issued by banks or governments, but created and regulated by a network of other bitcoin holders’ computers. (The name “Bitcoin” is derived from the pioneering file-sharing technology Bittorrent.) They are purportedly untraceable and have been championed by cyberpunks, libertarians and anarchists who dream of a distributed digital economy outside the law, one where money flows across borders as free as bits.

Anonymous money is a scary thought, if you ask me.

Breaking Up in a Facebook World

Getting dumped sucks, but it sucks worse when you have to change your Facebook status, delete a bunch of pictures, see them on your IM list every day, and maybe possibly spend a lot of time convincing yourself not to send that email you drafted. Gizmodo, always the first place to turn for relationship advice, offers some tips for surviving the modern breakup. A big one:

What about tagged pictures online?

Your hard drive isn’t the only repository of painful visual memories. People love tagging couples on Facebook. (Related: Ugh) People love leaving comments like “You two are the cutest!” or “My fave couple!” These may not be the exact scenes you want to expose yourself to right now. Understandable. But unlike deleting all the pictures on your computer untagging pictures on Facebook is a public affair—just like everything else on Facebook. You could just change your privacy settings on individual albums to hide them from everyone but you. But the fact of the matter is that you’d be deleting your own public persona as much as you’re deleting your ex, so you should proceed with a sense of prudence.