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The best writing of the week, February 3

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We all know the feeling. You're sleepless in the sad hours of the night or stumbling around early on a hazy weekend morning in need of something to read, and that pile of unread books just isn't cutting it. Why not take a break from the fire hose of Twitter and RSS and check out our weekly roundup of essential writing from around the web about technology, culture, media, and the future? Sure, it's one more thing you can feel guilty about sitting in your Instapaper queue, but it's better than pulling in vain on your Twitter list again.

Grab all of these as a Readlist.

On boomtowns

Rebecca Solnit explores Silicon Valley and San Francisco tech boom through the lens of boomtowns. Culturally, economically, and even at the level of urban development, she finds similarities between the new tech golden era to the booming eras of the past and Gold Rushes of the 19th century.

London Review of Books: Rebecca Solnit - Diary

But there are ways in which technology is just another boom and the Bay Area is once again a boomtown, with transient populations, escalating housing costs, mass displacements and the casual erasure of what was here before. I think of it as frontierism, with all the frontier’s attitude and operational style, where people without a lot of attachments come and do things without a lot of concern for their impact, where money moves around pretty casually, and people are ground underfoot equally casually.

On MOOCs

Maria Bustillos talks to two of the loudest voices in the debate over online education, Aaron Bady and Clay Shirky, and highlights the trouble with simply trying to "disrupt" higher ed.

The Awl: Maria Bustillos - Venture Capital's Massive, Terrible Idea For The Future Of College

"If you start by not letting education be anything more than what it’s possible to deliver via YouTube—and MOOCs are a little more complicated than that, but essentially all the arguments for the cheapness of MOOCs are based on that model, that it’s something you can digitize and then distribute very cheaply—then if that’s all you want, if you’re satisfied with that, then yeah, MOOCs are great, because they’re cheap. But you’ve already given up on almost everything that the entire academic enterprise has been creating for centuries."

On the voice

John Herrman interviews Dave Fennoy, the man with the golden voice behind Hulu, who you've probably also hear in everything from Archer and the Walking Dead video games to Leisure Suit Larry and Rugrats.

FWD: John Herrman - How It Feels To Be The Voice Of Hulu

Fennoy, who happily refers to himself as The Hulu Guy, had been voice acting for over 20 years when the Hulu job presented itself. “The gig came by chance,” says Fennoy. He was at a party a few years ago when a man overhead his voice and asked him about his line of work. Fennoy told him he was a voice actor, and the man hit him with a pitch. “Well you know there’s this new thing called Hulu, and they’re looking for a voice,” the man told him. “Why don’t you give me your email address and I’ll send you a script.”

On spreadsheets

On the anniversary of Lotus 1-2-3, VisiCalc co-creator Dan Bricklin remembers the the groundbreaking PC spreadsheet app.much excitement! Similarly,

danbrickln.com: Dan Bricklin - 30 years since Lotus 1-2-3

The code itself stood the test of time and for years beat out most other products running on the hardware for which it was designed. It wasn't until a platform switch occurred (GUI) that the torch was passed to the next dominant spreadsheet, Excel.

Similarly Paul Ford has a short piece in Print magazine on the spreadsheet's persistence in so many major apps and services, and the end-users' almost total lack of interaction with the underlying data.

Print: Paul Ford - Charted Territory

I’d be sad if Spotify took away my spreadsheet of music. I’d be happy, however, if they made the colors a little less goth. And I also wish they’d let me play with the data. I’d love a pie chart of the music genres I prefer. I’d like a bar chart of the dates that the songs I listen to were recorded. I’d like to know when I listen to music the most. I’d like to know how much money I give to individual artists, as well. A personal music-consumption “dashboard” would be excellent.

On Netflix

While you're taking a break from binging on House of Cards this weekend, GQ looks at Netflix's efforts to shake up the way we watch TV and "become HBO faster than HBO can become us."

GQ: Nancy Hass - And the Award for the Next HBO Goes to...

The heady rhetoric, of course, masks a few nagging questions: Once waiting is history, will "quality" television still pack the same cultural punch? Would Tony Soprano be Tony Soprano if we had been able to gorge on his life in a single weekend? How important are episode recaps and live-tweeting and the shared experience of everyone watching together?
"I don't know," says Spacey. "But I guess we'll find out really soon."

On flight

Finally, xckd's Randall Munroe delightfully considers whether flight in a Cessna 172 is possible on other planets, moons, and bodies in the Solar System.

xkcd: what if?: Randall Munroe - Interplanetary Cessna

X-Plane tells us that flight on Mars is difficult, but not impossible. NASA knows this, and has considered surveying Mars by airplane. The tricky thing is that with so little atmosphere, to get any lift, you have to go fast. You need to approach Mach 1 just to get off the ground, and once you get moving, you have so much inertia that it’s hard to change course—if you turn, your plane rotates, but keeps moving in the original direction. The X-Plane author compared piloting Martian aircraft to flying a supersonic ocean liner.

Have any favorites that you'd like to see included in next week's edition? Send them along to @thomashouston or share in the comments below.

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