Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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Turkey Country

Most Americans have heard the story of Benjamin Franklin fighting for the turkey as the country’s national bird. However, I assume few know the reasoning (I certainly didn’t). In this week’s New Yorker Adam Gopnik explains:

Franklin is arguing hard about whether there ought to be hereditary legacies in American life, and he makes the keen point that there are two kinds of honor in the world: the Old World’s “descending honor,” in which people pass on their goods and their status to their children, and the New World’s “ascending honor,” in which children strive to impress their parents by moving up in society on their own. For Franklin, ascending honor—what we would now call meritocratic advancement—is the American goal, and descending honor the American danger. The eagle is to him an avian example of descending honor in action: looking classy but swooping down to feed on the helpless. The turkey is the bird of ascending honor: silly and vain, pluming itself too much on the small stuff but sharing the feed with the other birds in the yard and ready to give hell to anyone who tries to make trouble.

Happy Thanksgiving. (With a special Thanksgiving shout out to my mom, who makes a killer turkey and is the biggest Benjamin Franklin fan I know.)

November 24, 2011 // This post is about: , , , ,

Saving Corkboards

This whole article about the issues with saving data over long periods of time is good, but I especially liked the nugget at the end of this paragraph from Bruce Sterling:

LAST spring, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas acquired the papers of Bruce Sterling, a renowned science fiction writer and futurist. But not a single floppy disk or CD-ROM was included among his notes and manuscripts. When pressed to explain why, the prophet of high-tech said digital preservation was doomed to fail. “There are forms of media which are just inherently unstable,” he said, “and the attempt to stabilize them is like the attempt to go out and stabilize the corkboard at the laundromat.”

November 11, 2011 // This post is about: , , ,

World War II and Imagination

[Editor’s note: After writing my post about imagining the future the other day my friend Martin emailed me the following response. I thought it was super interested and asked if he minded me posting it here. He agreed and here it is.]

Per your “floating future” post – been thinking a lot about this idea lately, where has all the big thinking gone. Been thinking about it for a couple of reasons. One has to do with World War II.

On the one hand, I’ve been helping my son study post World War II America in his sophomore social studies class. And on the other, I’ve been reading a fair amount of late-40s-through-50s fiction (Cheever, Roth, Salinger, Updike, etc.). And I’ve been amazed (probably due to my ignorance) how long a shadow that war cast over the subsequent decade, on a very personal level.

I’ve been wondering if exposure to such massive, global thinking during the war made “big” thinking possible in the 1950s in a way it hadn’t been before. Think about it; guys from little towns across America – guys who had probably never been out of their state, let alone out of the country – were suddenly involved in supply chains that literally ran around the world. Guys who had never seen more than a hundred or two hundred people together at a time, suddenly involved in battles involving thousands and thousands of people, from dozens of countries, with machines that had been invented expressly for these purposes.

I have to believe that got them thinking that anything – or a whole lot more – was possible. And I don’t think the mass of folks today are exposed to that.

The other thing that this makes me think about is the negative effects of the rush to monetization. If you have to make something pay right now (or in the next 3, 4, 5 years, etc.), you have to think differently about it than if you just open your head and think “what if?”. For all the complaints about companies like facebook and twitter and groupon that didn’t turn a profit, you have to admit that they are bigger ideas than ones that could cash in (that is, generate revenue) quicker. I wonder if that’s because monetization, to be believable, has to be based on the here and now – economic realities that exist currently – and that really big thinking, real game-changing stuff, relies on economics and realities that haven’t happened yet.

Or, to use a sports metaphor, in soccer, the great goals are often scored when someone passes to the space that someone is running to, not to where he is.

November 10, 2011 // This post is about: , ,

The Past is Harder than the Future

All around awesome interview with William Gibson, who seems like one of the smartest folks around. I love his answer to why he seems to romanticize articles of the past:

It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. What we were prior to our latest batch of technology is, in a way, unknowable. It would be harder to accurately imagine what New York City was like the day before the advent of broadcast television than to imagine what it will be like after life-size broadcast holography comes online. But actually the New York without the television is more mysterious, because we’ve already been there and nobody paid any attention. That world is gone.


My great-grandfather was born into a world where there was no recorded music. It’s very, very difficult to conceive of a world in which there is no possibility of audio recording at all. Some people were extremely upset by the first Edison recordings. It nauseated them, terrified them. It sounded like the devil, they said, this evil unnatural technology that offered the potential of hearing the dead speak. We don’t think about that when we’re driving somewhere and turn on the radio. We take it for granted.

It’s sort of mind-bending, but incredibly true.

October 31, 2011 // This post is about: , ,