Sunday, November 06, 2011

Keenan insight into Ford business card debacle

Rob Ford defined the standard by which use of expense accounts and sole-sourced contracts should be judged abusive or corrupt. He defined the principle by which $1,200 in spending should be considered an outrage. Then he spent $1,200 in taxpayer money he did not need to spend, and funnelled the money into his own company. Saying “whoops” and cutting a cheque now that the press has pointed it out cannot erase the misdeed. By the rules Ford defined, he ought to resign. And if he won’t judge himself by the standard he set, council ought to do it for him.
-- Edward Keenan calmly explains why Ford should be sent packing in The Grid

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Indie bookstore ponders the merits of social media

I subscribe to the newsletter for indie bookstore Of Swallows, their Deeds, and the Winter Below. (The descriptor "indie bookstore" is probably redundant for an establishment with a name like that). The November issue contains one of the better skeptical debates about social media I've seen in awhile:

1. Bust or facebook

Banker: "You suffer from a traffic problem."
Swallow: "Yes."
Banker: "Why not use social media?"
Sw.: "Would a priest visit an analyst?"
B: "The priest has no Landlord."

We now have a facebook. You can recommend our facebook. It might help others know: they could be traffic.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

tweet2hold is brilliantly simplistic according to Metro

But perhaps the most brilliantly simplistic exhibit is their social media app, which takes the data from tweets sent to the project’s dedicated Twitter account, @tweet2hold, and converts them into physical objects, in this case origami birds.
 Ian Gormely of Metro provides us with some much appreciated print media coverage

Photo by Dylan Reibling

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

@tweet2hold seeks 2,525 secrets about the future for Nuit Blanche 2011

TORONTO, ON (September 22, 2011) – On October 1, tweet2hold (, will fill the Bata Shoe Museum with 2,525 paper birds containing secrets about the future. In order to share a secret, participants simply send @tweet2hold an @reply.

Created specifically for Nuit Blanche 2011 by Toronto media collective the Brototypes, tweet2hold is a site-specific version of txt2hold, a recent CFC Media Lab interactive art project. Both txt2hold (which debuted at Toronto’s mini-Maker Faire in May 2011) and tweet2hold involve turning a digital experience into a permanent physical object.

“We drew partial inspiration for tweet2hold from Marshall McLuhan, who loved to describe the future using pithy aphorisms,” explains tweet2hold spokesperson Ryan Bigge. “As for gathering 2,525 secrets about the future our inspiration is a little less highbrow,” Bigge admits. “It’s a reference to the one-hit wonder ‘In the Year 2525’ by Zager and Evans.”

Part of this year’s CFC Media Lab’s Nuit Blanche exhibit (entitled Technological Displacement), tweet2hold will flirt with notions of public and private by placing 2,525 secrets in plain sight inside a large tweetcage. Tweet2hold also will leverage the sophisticated analysis engine of in order to determine the emotional tone of each secret and assign it an appropriate colour palette.

“McLuhan said ‘We march backwards into the future.’ Given his interest in communication technologies I think he would have been fascinated by Twitter,” notes Bigge. “Or at the very least he would have something witty to say about it.”

To learn more visit:
Twitter: @tweet2hold
Ryan Bigge, tweet2hold spokesperson, rbigge [@] cfcmedialab [dot] com

Sunday, September 18, 2011

An animated gif for tweet2hold, my Nuit Blanche interactive art installation

When not working full-time, I've working on @tweet2hold, a new media project that I helped create as part of the CFC Media Lab's IAEP.

We're now into the marketing phase of the project, trying to get 2,525 secrets about the future before Saturday, October 1. As a bribe to convince you to submit a secret, I've included my very first animated gif:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Smooth jazz cannot rescue bad website design

Tempted though you are, you stay focused and click for the San Francisco restaurant. One bit of advice: If you’ve got a subwoofer attached to your computer, now’s the time to crank it up, because you’re in for some auto-playing, royalty-free, ambient techno smooth jazz!
-- on the enigma of bad restaurant websites

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Michael Schur from Parks and Recreation explains why taxes are okay

People don’t seem to make the connection between their tax money and the benefits that they get from their tax money, like free education, and the fire department, and police protection, and everything else. It drives me bonkers, because it’s pretty straightforward to me. People think of taxes as money just being robbed from you. They don’t consider the benefits of paying taxes. The benefits that they get and also the benefit of just being a part of a large group of people: a town, or a city, or a country, or a society that allegedly should stand together and all try to help each other. So my cynical, angry side I gave to Ron. And we have him voice the idea that there’s no point, that governments can’t function, that society is unreasonable, that everyone should just leave everybody else alone.
-- From The Onion AV Club

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Freelancers Unite! Either Full Price or Free

Being underpaid is worse than not being paid at all. You know what you’re getting yourself into with the latter. You are a volunteer, so you can unvolunteer at will. You can prioritize other jobs above the non-paying “favor” job and expect that the person benefiting from your unpaid labor will, if they have any common sense, understand and you can decide just how much effort and time to expend because you’re the one holding the magnanimous cards. Not so with underpaying gigs. It’s all the work and the demands  of a well-paid opportunity, but with a lot fewer zeros.

 -- J. Maureen Henderson explains why working for less than you're worth is for chumps.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Because, Because, Because, Because, Because, Because, Because, Because, Because

The Future of eBook Advertising in Hilarious Charticle Format

Softcover Hardsell
Hello, (Stoli) Vodka, It’s Me Chelsea

As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, the popularity of e-books has resulted in various experiments that place advertising between the covers. And while a Keebler elf suddenly appearing beside Proust’s precious madeleine might sound like bad sci-fi, the same thing was once said about urinal ads. The trick to making e-book sponsorships palatable is finding a seamless partnership between prose and unique selling proposition (while hopefully avoiding a pathetic fallacy). --Ryan Bigge

Book: What The Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell
Synergistic Concordance: Since Gladwell’s best seller journalism involves more product integration than an episode of American Idol (to wit: Heinz Ketchup, Hush Puppies, Pepsi, Ragu spaghetti sauce, the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ, the Aeron chair, Blue’s Clues) it’s not much of a stretch to imagine e-book sponsors. Especially since all Dog articles first appeared in the ad-friendly New Yorker.

Book: The Girl Who Played With The Hornet Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Synergistic Concordance: Like Gladwell, the late Larsson was obsessed with verisimilitude, at least as it applied to Apple laptops. So while a Stieg sentence like “best of all, it had the first 17-inch screen in the laptop world with NVIDIA graphics and a resolution of 1440 x 900 pixels” ain’t exactly literature, it does scan better than most of the ads in Wired, and provides multiple opportunities for click-through promotions.

Book: The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook by Ben Mezrich
Synergistic Concordance: At this point, reading about Facebook without being interrupted by series of annoying bleats about Farmville or miracle weight loss tricks would feel positively wrong. And given that publishers are undoubtedly collecting information on your e-reading habits anyway, it won’t be long before e-book screens perfectly resemble your Facebook feed.

Once Again, Walter Benjamin Was There First

Back in 2009, I wrote about the sex appeal of bicycling for Spacing. This was not exactly groundbreaking journalism, but I thought I was adding something to the debate. Turns out, however, that Benjamin was there first:

The figure of the woman assumes its most seductive aspect as a cyclist. . . . In the clothing of cyclists the sporting expression still wrestles with the inherited pattern of elegance, and the fruit of this struggle is the grim sadistic touch which made this ideal image of elegance so incomparably provocative to the male world.

I discovered this thanks to a quite wonderful N+1 article called Hasids vs. Hipsters, which also includes this little gem:

That each group selected Williamsburg as the terrain for carving out a secessionist utopia can only be blamed on the cunning of history, plus the L train.
And this gem too: 
group dressed as clowns led a funeral procession along Bedford to protest the decision, but failed to capture the public imagination since they lacked any vernacular of protest other than the language of a grant application.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Text Message Keepsake Generator txt2hold Invited to Toronto Maker Faire

TORONTO, ON (May 5, 2011) – txt2hold (, a new free service that transforms any text message into an attractive and permanent paper keepsake, will be participating in Toronto’s first ever Maker Faire ( to be held this weekend, May 7 and 8, at the Toronto Brick Works. Developed by Toronto-based media collective the Brototypes (with the assistance of the CFC Media Lab), txt2hold allows anyone with a cell phone to capture and display a precious digital memory forever.

“txt2hold is built around the idea of creating a physical keepsake of a digital experience,” explains Brototypes spokesperson Dylan Reibling. “Our research process showed us that most cell phone users have many text messages with sentimental value, but these texts are hard to preserve and easy to lose. Our txt2hold service solves this problem by making your favourite texts easy to preserve and hard to lose.”

During Maker Faire, users can forward their precious text messages to 647.462.8292. The txt2hold system uses a powerful semantic engine to interpret the emotional content of the text. It then generates a unique and attractive origami shape that seamlessly incorporates the original text message. Utilizing a magical combination of technology, graphic design and paper folding, txt2hold is meant to generate a shoebox of text message mementos for the 21st century.

“The technology-infused, Do-It-Yourself ethos of Maker Faire dovetails perfectly with our project,” explains Reibling. “And we’re honoured to be a part of the event’s debut in Toronto.”

To learn how to let your memories unfold 160 characters at a time, please visit

Twitter: @txt2hold

Contact Info
Dylan Reibling, Brototypes spokesperson: dylan[dot]reibling [at]

Monday, April 11, 2011

How Starbucks Fought for Its Life by Asking Bloggers to Sell Their Soul

I received this email today. Really.

Hi Ryan,

My name is Tony and I help promote industry specific content. Your site is a great resource and I have an infographic that I think your readers would enjoy.

Starbucks is a global business powerhouse.  It has come a long way from a small Seattle coffee shop to 16,000 different locations worldwide, making it the world's largest coffeehouse and blowing competition out of the water. This infographic details their path to global business powerhouse and takes a detailed looked at the numbers:


I hope you enjoy the graphic as much as we do, and we'd love to hear any feedback you might have!

If you have any questions or want more graphics for your site, please free free to contact me!

Tony Shin
[email deleted]
(815) xxx-xxxx
Folllow me on Twitter @ohtinytony

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Gamification to Lamification in Less Than 150 Words

Although the gamification trend at this particular historical moment is unstoppable, it's so problematic in so many horribly obvious ways that we need more writers like Oliver Burkeman willing to dismantle the flimsy logic behind treating life like Pacman. Better yet, he does it in less than 150 words:
The current public face of gamification is Jane McGonigal, author of the new book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World, but many of her prescriptions are cringe-inducing: they seem to involve redefining aid projects in Africa as "superhero missions", or telling hospital patients to think of their recovery from illness as a "multiplayer game". Hearing how McGonigal speeded her recovery from a serious head injury by inventing a "superhero-themed game" called SuperBetter, based on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which her family and friends were players helping her back to health, I'm apparently supposed to feel inspired. Instead I feel embarrassed and a little sad: if I'm ever in that situation, I hope I won't need to invent a game to persuade my family to care.
 (Guardian link).

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Why Writing That Targets Humans Remains Cutting Edge

Thousands of digital marketers and gadget geeks will soon be descending on Austin, each determined to be personally responsible for overloading Twitter with their snapshot insights from SXSW Interactive. And while SXSWi has become a launching pad for exciting new technologies such as Foursquare and Twitter, the panel I’d most like to attend (if I were going) focuses on the apparently unhip technology known as the written word.

This Saturday (March 11), Kyle Monson, a content strategist at JWT, will talk about Brand Journalism: The Rise of Non-Fiction Advertising. What is brand journalism? No one is quite sure. As Monson notes in a recent interview with
Brand Journalism is, in short, a method of engaging our audience in discussions about the brand. This is done by creating compelling content and messages as well as by incorporating the audience’s own viewpoints. We’re teaching brands to mimic publishers and journalists in how they produce content, and to mimic humans in how they communicate with their audience.
While Monson admits that brand journalism might just be a new name for the well-established practice of corporate communications and PR, his panel description notes that “we're still trying to teach big companies and ad agencies how to communicate like humans, how to listen, and how to use transparency as a messaging tactic.”

It’s strange to think that in 2011 this is still the case, but as this article about Groupon’s success demonstrates, some of the most forward-thinking content-driven marketing involves nothing more than harnessing the very basic and ancient technology of empathy, understanding and trust.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Einar Sneve Martinussen Makes WiFi Visible

This project, which makes wifi visible, is worth checking out. I'm captivated with it for a number of reasons, the most prominent being that my CFC media lab classmate Dylan Reibling thought of this idea a few months ago. Don't worry, his idea wasn't stolen – this is one of those cases when a good idea spontaneously appears in the brains of a bunch of different people around the world at the same time. Here's more info on the project and its creator Einar Sneve Martinussen.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Spam Email Worth Sharing

There was something wonderful about the language used in this spam email, so I thought I'd share it:

Patch Up With Your Girlfriend With Luxury Designer Replica Watches
If you are worried about your breakup, then you should be bold enough to patch up it with grace and style

By having a beautiful luxury designer replica watch, your girlfriend will be surely inclined towards you at once. All of a sudden, natural feelings of love, peace, comfort, romance, and sex will be restored again between you and your girlfriend for long time.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Gopnik on the Internet Mind

One of the things that John Brockman’s collection on the Internet and the mind illustrates is that when people struggle to describe the state that the Internet puts them in they arrive at a remarkably familiar picture of disassociation and fragmentation. Life was once whole, continuous, stable; now it is fragmented, multi-part, shimmering around us, unstable and impossible to fix. The world becomes Keats’s “waking dream,” as the writer Kevin Kelly puts it.

The odd thing is that this complaint, though deeply felt by our contemporary Better-Nevers, is identical to Baudelaire’s perception about modern Paris in 1855, or Walter Benjamin’s about Berlin in 1930, or Marshall McLuhan’s in the face of three-channel television (and Canadian television, at that) in 1965. When department stores had Christmas windows with clockwork puppets, the world was going to pieces; when the city streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages running by bright-colored posters, you could no longer tell the real from the simulated; when people were listening to shellac 78s and looking at color newspaper supplements, the world had become a kaleidoscope of disassociated imagery; and when the broadcast air was filled with droning black-and-white images of men in suits reading news, all of life had become indistinguishable from your fantasies of it. It was Marx, not Steve Jobs, who said that the character of modern life is that everything falls apart.

We must, at some level, need this to be true, since we think it’s true about so many different kinds of things. We experience this sense of fracture so deeply that we ascribe it to machines that, viewed with retrospective detachment, don’t seem remotely capable of producing it. If all you have is a hammer, the saying goes, everything looks like a nail; and, if you think the world is broken, every machine looks like the hammer that broke it.
-- Adam Gopnik on the Internet brain

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Books as Bombs Quote

It may be that in the nineteen-sixties, when television was still muzzling itself, from fear of provoking advertiser displeasure or F.C.C. reaction, books were a more accessible form for social criticism and dissent. It may also be that books were still a little radioactive then, a little dangerous. Friedan’s book came out in the wake of some celebrated censorship trials—“Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Tropic of Cancer,” “Fanny Hill.” One of Coontz’s respondents recalled “The Feminine Mystique” being treated “like a banned book.” The sense that an object is somehow forbidden gives it greater power.
-- New Yorker article on The Feminine Mystique

Friday, January 28, 2011

Review of Steve Martin's An Object of Beauty (Reprint)

Comedian Steve Martin explores the New York art scene in his first full-length novel
Toronto Star | December 5, 2010 | Ryan Bigge
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
Grand Central Publishing, 292 pages, $32.99

By virtue of his many decades of A-list celebrity, Steve Martin is a famous author. But unlike James Franco (who last month released Palo Alto, a debut collection of short fiction) or Pamela Anderson (who has written not one, but two quote-unquote novels), Martin has spent the past decade proving that he’s not a dilettante capitalizing on name-brand recognition. Starting with his 2000 novella Shopgirl, Martin has been keyboarding at a steady pace, publishing a second novella in 2003 (The Pleasure of My Company), along with his 2007 memoir Born Standing Up.

An Object of Beauty is Martin’s first full-length novel, an examination of how art and commerce intersect in New York (“Auctions were, and still are, spectator sports, where the contestants are money”), as chronicled by an art writer with the unfortunate name of Daniel Chester French Franks. Providing a peek inside Sotheby’s auction house along with the back rooms of various Chelsea galleries (“from which new art was mined and then trucked into residences of Manhattan”) the novel exposes the strange rituals and logic-defying prices of the contemporary art world, in a way similar to Sarah Thornton’s non-fiction book Seven Days in the Art World. But since An Object of Beauty begins in the early 1990s and concludes with the recent recession, Martin instead provides Eighteen Years in The Art World.

Our heroine is Lacey Yeager, a good-bad girl determined to open her own gallery no matter who gets crushed along the way. As Lacey explains to her confidant Daniel Franks:
“I’m seeing a guy who’s got me figured out. He never says I love you.”
“That’s good?”
“I love him for it.”
During her 20s, Lacey quickly learns to convert objects of beauty into objects of value — be it artworks or, indeed, herself. Her off-again, on-again lover, Patrice Claire, notes that “both you and paintings are layered. You, in the complex onion-peel way, dark secrets and all that.”

The problem with Lacey, however is that “Patrice was used to the steadfast responses of paintings, not the unpredictable responses of people.” Thus, the Picture of Lacey Yeager eventually becomes as grotesque as Dorian Gray.

While Martin effectively mixes research with an obvious passion and insight into art (he’s a noted collector himself), the novel contains a few unnecessary brushstrokes, mostly involving 9/11. It’s not that funnyman Martin isn’t equipped to handle the challenge — it’s more that there isn’t anything to add to that particular tragedy. As the Toronto literary journal Taddle Creek notes on its submission guidelines, “The magazine wishes it didn’t still have to be said, but it does: no stories about September 11th, the Y2K bug, or tsunamis.”

As you might expect from a lifelong comedian, there are plenty of witty asides throughout — a hotel “where the lighting had been preset to sex” and “Basquiat was achieving sensational prices but at least had the courtesy to be dead.”

More often the novel provides a serious attempt at documenting the financial and creative ripples made possible by Warhol’s self-aware pop art. It would seem that the true wild and crazy guys are contemporary artists able to create surreal punchlines (“Maurizio Cattelan made a life-size sculpture of the pope flattened by a meteor that had just fallen through a skylight”) that earn them millions.

Monday, January 24, 2011

My Review of Combat Camera

I will spare you the details, but up until recently I've been too busy to blog. So harried, in fact, that I lacked the time to post published work, which is really quite sad when you think about it.

Anyway, here is my review of Combat Camera by A. J. Somerset.

Combat Camera: Imprisoned behind the lens
A damaged ex-war photographer struggles to define some notion of redemption while paying the bills with second-rate porn
Toronto Star | Oct 24 2010 | Ryan Bigge

Lucas Zane is a photographer in his mid-40s whose career has lost focus. While that might sound like a bad joke (a photographer losing focus — get it?), Zane has a healthy appetite for strange humour: “At the bedroom door he paused. What is the proper form for dealing with a wounded, hung-over, messed-up porno chick in one’s bedroom?”

Zane, once a successful photojournalist who survived tours of Nicaragua, Lebanon and Afghanistan, now spends most of his time trying to avoid innumerable psychological landmines: “The mind, allowed to wander, can easily stray into a bad neighbourhood.” After post-traumatic stress amplifies his alcoholic tendencies and effectively ends his career, Zane finds himself snapping niche porn in Mississauga to pay his grocery bills.

London, Ont.-based A. J. Somerset, himself a photographer, uses his debut novel to juxtapose the “elegant lies” of the camera with the brutal rationalizations required to perform and distribute pornography. This might sound like Russell Smith territory, whose most recent book Girl Crazy also features Internet nudity and scenes set in strip clubs, but there’s nothing particularly erotic about Combat Camera. The niche porn is raw and violent while strippers appear bored if not worse.

To be fair, Zane finds these financially motivated exposures of the flesh to be especially unarousing due to a bullet wound that has inflicted a variety of physical dysfunctions. Unable to act upon Melissa’s flirtations (the aforementioned hung-over, messed-up porno chick) he instead expresses his affection by becoming a protective father figure.

Throughout the novel, Somerset alternates between the immediate and blunt trauma inflicted upon civilians in various warzones and the slower-acting but no less injurious actions of a culture lacking in modesty: “This is the story of our time. Hardcore goes mainstream. A generation gets its sex ed from the Internet. Teenaged girls photograph themselves in the mirror and post the pictures online, call it empowerment, go wild with empowerment at Fort Lauderdale, demonstrate empowerment at Mardi Gras for cheap strings of beads, email their empowerment to boys they like.”

As the above demonstrates, Somerset is a confident, gifted writer, which explains why Combat Camera has already won the Metcalf-Rooke Award. Somerset is able to seamlessly switch between dialogue and Zane’s internal monologue as he darts between grim horror and grim comedy. He also avoids the arid claustrophobia endemic to novels where much of the action takes place within the main character’s mind.

But the most satisfying aspects of this novel involve Somerset’s refusal to make obvious the numerous parallels between photography and fiction:

 • “You define what’s in the story and what remains untold.”
 • “Pictures don’t preserve anything, much less the truth. What you put on film is 1/250th of a second.”
 • “Photographs never lie, but liars can take photographs.”

Such observations offer an ongoing argument between the camera lens and the keyboard, with the novel eventually revealing the strengths and limitations of both.

Although the subject matter and tone could not be more different, Combat Camera retains echoes of Maggie Helwig’s superlative Girls Fall Down from 2008, which also features a photographer as protagonist. In Girls Fall Down, the photographer in question is slowly losing his sight, provoking a desperate chase to capture his surroundings before the inevitable darkness arrives.

Combat Camera’s Zane, meanwhile, hides behind his camera in order to shut out the world around him, haunted by everyone he has imprisoned in silver prints, unable or unwilling to see what’s right in front of him.

Hawkblocker Explained

I looked down. I was wearing £90 Nikes, £270 Sevens, a £45 Topshop jumper and a £200 Philippe Starck watch. There was a smartphone in my left pocket, a fancy wallet in my right, and I’d paid £32 for my haircut. I’d essentially taken close to £1,000 of my own hard-earned (well, you know what I mean) cash, blended it into a fine puree, poured it all over myself and smeared it around like a lover with a tub of icing.
 And thus was born the new ad-review site Hawkblocker.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Books Stink: Super Sad True Love Story Review

Super Sad True Love Story: Immigrant love in dystopia
Gary Shteyngart goes over the top with his corporate satire, but his third novel still has bite

Toronto Star | August 21, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

On the Bookavore tumblr, an anonymous Brooklyn bookseller recently posted an “E-books Article Drinking Game.” Trigger phrases and their alcohol equivalents include “any discussion of book world after 2020 — one drink” and the debilitating “smell of a real book — clean out the liquor cabinet, drink until you pass out, wake up next morning, puke, then continue drinking.”

Meanwhile, in Super Sad True Love Story, anti-hero Lenny Abramov is forced to mask the odour of his formidable book collection with Pine-Sol Wild Flower Blast. In Gary Shteyngart’s satiric dystopia of the near future, books stink. Literally. (“Duder, that thing smells like wet socks,” notes an airplane passenger, referring to Lenny’s collection of Chekhov short stories.) But a crashing American dollar and the possible repossession of Manhattan by the Chinese means Lenny has bigger problems than the uncoolness of his antiquarian reading habits.

Shteyngart’s comic timing has always been exceptional, but with Super Sad he demonstrates his socio-cultural radar is equally well calibrated. Anticipating the triumph of our smartphone-addicted, attention-span deprived, Google-stupid culture, Shteyngart is less concerned about the future of the book (i.e. Kindle versus hardcover) and more focused on whether books have a future, period. (“Lenny Abramov, last reader on earth!” declares his friend Noah, over drinks at a popular new bar on Staten Island called Cervix.)

Although there is plenty of overlap between Super Sad and his previous two novels (especially Absurdistan), pushing the setting 15 minutes into the future helps make Shteyngart’s obsession with slang, sex, the Russian immigrant experience and the shortcomings of the American military-industrial-political-media complex appear fresh. Is his strategy is a success? This depends on whether you find such corporate monstrosities as LandO’LakesGMFord and ColgatePalmoliveYum!BrandViacomCredit hilarious or hokey.

Like many futuristic dystopias (Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or We by Yevgeny Zamyatin), the bleakness of Super Sad’s over-surveillanced and politically restrictive America is relieved by a sweeping romance. But Shteyngart is only willing to allow Lenny partial happiness. As his semi-girlfriend Eunice Park explains in a quasi-diary entry on Facebook-of-the-future site GlobalTeens, “he’s gross physically, but there’s something sweet about him.”

Although the novel is told through the alternating journal entries of Lenny and Eunice, their romantic chemistry is never entirely explained. Opposites attract, but 39-year-old Lenny and 24-year-old Eunice are less a couple than an engineered way of highlighting the novel’s major tensions. That said, their ongoing relationship is messy, complicated, argument-ridden and complicated by past obsessions and emotional scars — which is to say, entirely believable.

Since the novel’s title functions as an obvious spoiler, suspense is instead generated by Lenny’s tenuous job prospects at the Post-Human Services division of Staatling-Wapachung (a company that promises immortality to those who can afford it) and ongoing corporate intrigue. As befits a novel with Super Sad in its title, Shteyngart eventually stops cracking jokes as the country he loves starts to crumble for the last time.

Can a novel filled with references to TotalSurrender panties and a website called AssLuxury also serve as a serious work of cultural and political commentary? Duder, I’m not entirely convinced. Can an author successfully mock our rapidly depleting attention spans through the creaky medium of the novel? Duder, yes. And for such audacity Shteyngart deserves to be read —preferably in a quiet room, in a few sittings and without the compelling but empty distractions of Facebook, Twitter and iPhone.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Are You a Modern Gentleman or a Man of the House?

Reading this New York Times article about the website ManoftheHouse reminded me that I should post this Globe article I wrote about The Modern Gentleman.

Advice from dad? No thanks, I'll just Google it
Globe and Mail | October 23, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

It’s a recent Thursday evening at School Bakery and CafĂ© in Toronto’s Liberty Village. Gavin Roy Seal and Phil Adrien have just settled back for an after-work drink. Sipping beer served by a waitress dressed as a schoolgirl in a neighbourhood thick with tech startups seems entirely appropriate, given that Seal and Adrien are the brains behind The Modern Gentleman, a new online magazine designed to help 18-to-29-year-old men make the most of their leisure time.

“We want men to take the hard-earned money they’ve made in their first jobs and spend it wisely on stuff we think is fulfilling,” explains Adrien, a web developer and designer who graduated from Ryerson University’s radio and television arts program last year. “We all read GQ when we were younger,” adds Seal, who works at CBC Sports and graduated from the same Ryerson program this summer, “but couldn’t afford anything in it.”

Taking sensible style as its guiding principle, The Modern Gentleman is one of at least three recent guy-oriented Web publications that eschew fart jokes and wet T-shirt contests and instead speak to young men like, well, a dad might, honestly and intelligently.

Others include Boston-based The Good Men Project Magazine and New York-based Made Possible. While their tones range from the heartfelt earnestness of Good Men (recent article: “Confessions of a Recovering Homophobe”) to the empowered sensitivity of Made Possible (recent piece: “What You Can Learn From Chick Flicks”) to the more straightforward beer and career advice of TMG (recent article: “To Pour, or Not to Pour”), they all share something that Maxim and Details never aspired to: filling an informational role that, in previous generations, fathers once held.

“I think that today guys make their style or fashion mistakes on their own,” says Adrien, who’s 25. In the past, advice about the gentlemanly arts, such as pairing ties with suits or shaving properly, “would be passed on by my father, but now we have the Internet and Google.” And, increasingly, resources like TMG.

When Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, used to ask his students in the mid-1990s to name their heroes, “I had many saying their dads were their heroes,” says the author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. Now, however, “I don’t get that at all. The most common answer I get from students is: ‘I don’t have any heroes.’ “ In the absence of strong paternal bonds, which can be ascribed over the last two decades to everything from increased divorce rates to longer work hours, the cultural knowhow that is passed down through generations also falls through the cracks. From a style point of view, even dads who spent a great deal of time with their sons over the past 15 years were Baby Boomer fathers likely unschooled themselves in the intricacies of tying a Windsor knot or evaluating wine, valuable social info today. As for the media aimed at young men until now, publications such as Men’s Health, Maxim and Details, says Kimmel, who sits on the board of advisors for Made Possible, spent the past 15 years trying to replace fatherly advice, but failed to take into account the increasingly complex nature of masculinity.

Men under 40, Kimmel notes, have cross-gender friendships, acknowledge that their wives will have significant careers outside the home and assume a more involved role in raising their children than their fathers did. But you’d be hard-pressed to see such issues addressed in a mag like Details. Instead, he says, most mainstream men’s magazines have preyed on the anxieties and insecurities of men in order to make them avid consumers.

By comparison, the new crop of online men’s magazines take these developments into account and “assume that there is no battle between the sexes … they actually minister to men at their best, not pander to them at their worst,” says Kimmel. In doing so, he believes, they address the disconnect between the male fantasyland of Maxim and 21st-century realities.

Not that those realities are necessarily straightforward. “There’s still that male misconception that you shouldn’t publicly share your feelings, that you should be very reserved and not talk about fashion or style,” says Adrien. In the past, questions about such issues were answered, by fathers, other family members or at least the family tailor, in the privacy of the home or a draped-off fitting room. Not coincidentally, the anonymity afforded by the Internet may explain why these new men’s sites – which can be regarded as de facto digital dads, the fitting rooms or barber shops of today – are blossoming right now and becoming so popular.

Since launching in March, TMG’s audience has grown from about 1,000 visitors a month in the spring to between 5,000 and 6,000 now. Seal and Adrien have been hard-pressed to keep up: Both are quick to admit that the site requires more content updated more frequently, but their focus of their handsomely produced Web mag has been quality over quantity.

So what is the biggest sartorial dilemma facing wannabe gentlemen today? “Right now, it seems that, for young professionals, formal attire is dress pants and a dress shirt chosen without any thought whatsoever,” Adrien says. “If a shirt has a collar and your pants have pleats, then it counts as formal wear.” Asked to name someone who embodies the ideal aspects of a modern gentleman, Adrien and Seal point not to George Clooney or Barack Obama, but, anachronistically, to Mad Men’s Don Draper.

Well, kind of. While they admire Draper’s style and workplace elan, they are not, in keeping with the gentlemanly code, impressed by his adultery. “That’s not something we’d ever aspire to or want from a friend,” says Adrien.

Come to think of it, Draper’s fathering skills leave a lot to be desired as well.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Radical Compression of Language (aka will rule us all)

In honor of, I’m reprinting my Toronto Star article about the radical compression of language:

The long and the short of naming things
Toronto Star | September 3, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

Four years ago, Toronto journalist Andre Mayer wrote about very long song titles as the latest trend in music for CBC Arts Online. Offenders included and Sufjan Stevens (“To the Workers of the Rockford River Valley Region, I have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament, and It Involves Shoe String, a Lavender Garland, and Twelve Strong Women”).

But the wordy excess detailed by Mayer now appears to be a relic of the pre-Twitter era. The first single from M.I.A.'s new album is called XXXO, and none of her other song titles are longer than 17 characters. (Compare that with the aforementioned Sufjan Stevens song, which exceeds Twitter's 140-character limit by a whopping 20 per cent).

This brevity tendency is not limited to music, either. As Stephanie Strom reported in The New York Times on July 11, “The organization previously known as the Y.M.C.A. is henceforth to be called ‘the Y.' ” When a four-letter acronym is too time-consuming, we've clearly entered the era of radical compression, when the abbreviated convenience of URL shorteners like is now being applied to offline phenomena.

Perhaps the best, (if not funniest) example of this trend appeared in The New York Times Media Decoder Blog on March 23: “Stefano Tonchi, the editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, has been appointed editor of W, the fashion magazine published by CondĂ© Nast.” Given that magazines are generally in the business of delivering a bushel of words, it seems strange to mute themselves with such nondescript titles. And while T and W might be isolated letters, they aren't isolated examples of publications with barely there names. There's a Toronto-based technology magazine called UR (full disclosure: I'm an occasional contributor) along with a couples magazine called 2.

Which is not to suggest that a single letter (or number) cannot contain multitudes. In his 2008 book X-rated!: The Power of Mythic Symbolism in Popular Culture, University of Toronto semiotician Marcel Danesi argues that symbols like the letters X and V “tell us more about the state of the world than do theories and sophisticated academic debates.” Along with V (a feminine symbol) and X (which blends the sacred and the profane), Danesi uses X-rated! to discuss the ubiquitous lower case “i” prefix attached to anything remotely technological (iPad, iTravel, iSandwich).

But rather than panic about our one-letter future, Danesi points out that humans have an inbuilt tendency toward language efficiency (or laziness, depending on your perspective). Referring to the work of the late Harvard linguist George Kingsley Zipf and the law that bears his name, Danesi notes that “the more frequent, necessary, or popular a form becomes for communicative purposes, the more likely it is to be rendered compressed or economical in structure.”

Tom McCarthy, a British writer and artistic provocateur, appears to have taken Zipf's Law to heart with his upcoming novel, entitled C. Although it won't be in stores until September, C has already made the Man Booker Prize Long List. Unfortunately, Danesi has nothing to say about the letter C, nor does he provide insight into L, which is what Montreal writer Ian Orti titled his recent novel. Although, to be fair, the full title of L includes a parenthetical: (and things come apart).

Since bookstore browsers might find it difficult to judge Orti's book by its sole letter, I will offer a quick review: sly. If my review leaves you wanting, it's only because I'm emulating filmmaker and illustrator Sarah Lazarovic, who in June started posting three-character book reviews via Twitter. Examples include: Ugh. Ha! Meh. Yup. Those, respectively, are for The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis, The Bedwetter by Sarah Silverman, The Ask by Sam Lipsyte and The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.

Of course, given the ever-shrinking book coverage in newspapers, it's probably dangerous to draw attention or otherwise legitimize three-character literary reviews.

Instead, I'll conclude by praising a children's book from 1968 whose four-character title appears to have anticipated text message shorthand. I refer to CDB! by New York illustrator William Steig. Re-released in 2000, a few years before Steig's death, CDB! (see the bee) is a book where “letters and numbers are used to create the sounds of words and simple sentences 4 u 2 figure out.”

So, for example, the book contains an L-F-N (elephant), an L-F-8-R (elevator) and a boy saying I N-V-U (I envy you).

CDB!'s word puzzles are a perfect mix of charming and goofy. Or, in keeping with the three-character review format, fab. And given the current climate of compression, Steig's publisher should consider reissuing the book yet again. The way things are going, it's sure to be a bestseller.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Never Too Proud to Recycle Content Nearly a Decade Old

Late last month techcrunch revealed that mailing all those AOL CDs during the 1990s cost quite a bit of money. Which reminded me of an article I wrote for Shift back in December 2001 about Lydia Cline, a woman who collects AOL disks. I can still clearly recall that I tried my best to imitate the witty sophistication of Adam Sternbergh with this article. I'll let readers judge how successful I was. 

Shift | December 2001 | Ryan Bigge

Until this very moment, you were unaware that Lydia Cline of Overland Park, Kansas, packrats Lucite purses, vintage TWA posters, Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls and cartoon character glassware. But this list evaporates when you learn Cline has willingly acquired over 500 playfully-decorated AOL disks, the ur-junk mail of the nineties. While most deride and scorn the software delivery devices that lurk inside cereal boxes, flyers and magazines, Cline has lovingly gathered all manner of AOL product: CDs, mini-CDs, even 3 1/2 disks. She also has Q-Link diskettes (an AOL forerunner) for the Commodore 64 and discs printed in funny languages from strange, faraway countries like Brazil, Germany and Hong Kong.

She has a lot of them.

It wasn't always like this. "I used to throw 'em away at first just like everyone else," admits Cline.

It was a slow, tranquil evolution from skeptic to completist. A few years ago, Cline, an AOL user and small fry shareholder since 1994, started putting disks aside in a basket in case she needed to reinstall the software. Then, one fateful day, she realized each of her fifteen discs featured a different, snazzy image. Her curiousity piqued, she began to seek out other designs in the same way as a pog or Coke bottle enthusist might. Two years later, her collection includes such oddities as a Spiderman disk, a Bugs Bunny disk, even an X-Files disk. And 497 others, examples of which are neatly displayed at

Cline is an otherwise sane, forty-one-year-old mother of two, an architect and professor at Johnson County Community College who just happens to be able to wax poetic about old AOL discs the way other people discuss wine vintages. "The pre-1992 version 1.0 are really neat because they're on 5 1/4 floppies, they have packaging which includes a letter from Steve Case, a fold-out poster, and a booklet on getting started."

Cline is the sort of person who refers to 5 1/4 floppies as "antiques."

Nevertheless, Cline is a pragmatic collector. Her living room doesn't boast an AOL shrine. Instead, "they're just in a bunch of Rubbermaid tubs in my basement." She adds to her stash by trading disks with a small circle of eight similarly afflicted collectors who all met through eBay. (She even has a rival, KrazyErik). Thrift stores, garage sales, newspaper ads, friends, students, and email lists are also an excellent source of digital booty.

She'll even go as far as to politely pester webmasters in foreign countries for disks in hopes they have a stash of AOL product they have no use for. When all else fails, she capitulates to eBay.

Thus far, Cline has spent between $500 and $700 on her hobby. "It sounds really sad to hear myself say that," Cline says, laughing, before rationalizing her addiction. "I know other collectors on eBay have spent far more than me because they always outbid me on the really desirable disks."

Like many visionaries, Cline is content to wait for the rest of the world to catch up. She views AOL discs as another Pez or metal lunchbox -- a pop-culture collectable that will eventually appreciate in value. Despite the millions of free discs distributed, most end up in the trash can or as drink coasters, meaning there are fewer mint-condition discs than you might think. As Cline sagely observes, "Ten or 15 years from now, people who have websites on mangling the disks, are gonna slap their foreheads and say, 'I wish I'd saved a few.'"

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Content Strategy For Twitter (Magazine Edition)

Toronto Life has a popular twitter feed. It has many inbuilt advantages, including a lot of quality content that it can reference and leverage.

What it doesn't quite have yet, however, is a coherent content strategy. Sending out 14 tweets in under an hour, all about their Good Stuff Cheap issue makes no sense. I understand that Toronto Life (wisely) puts their previous issue online for free once the new issue hits the stands. But either send me to your table of contents or schedule your tweets throughout the day. The firehose is a blunt instrument that is only designed to work on fires and wet t-shirt contests.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Jason McBride Explains Toronto Real Estate Syndrome

In the new February issue of Toronto Life, Jason McBride manages to perfectly articulate my real estate frustrations:
House hunting, for us, was like having a hobby you hate and can't afford but which you're compelled to spend every free moment pursuing. We kept looking and looking, every weekend, most weeknights, for six months. This crusade ate away at a sense of entitlement I didn't even know I possessed. Isn't one of the privileges conferred upon the privileged the ability to buy a small house in a neighbourhood in which you'd want to live?
 Thank you for saying what I was thinking.