May 31, 2009
The F-Double-Prime Equation Of Love
In all cases, the business of theoretical physics boils down to finding the right differential equations and solving them. When Newton discovered this key to the secrets of the universe, he felt it was so precious that he published it only as an anagram in Latin. Loosely translated, it reads: "it is useful to solve differential equations."
The silly idea that love affairs might progress in a similar way occurred to me when I was in love for the first time, trying to understand my girlfriend's baffling behavior. It was a summer romance at the end of my sophomore year in college. I was a lot like the first Romeo above, and she was even more like the first Juliet. The cycling of our relationship was driving me crazy until I realized that we were both acting mechanically, following simple rules of push and pull. But by the end of the summer my equations started to break down, and I was even more mystified than ever. As it turned out, the explanation was simple. There was an important variable that I'd left out of the equations — her old boyfriend wanted her back.
In mathematics we call this a three-body problem. It's notoriously intractable, especially in the astronomical context where it first arose. After Newton solved the differential equations for the two-body problem (thus explaining why the planets move in elliptical orbits around the sun), he turned his attention to the three-body problem for the sun, earth and moon. He couldn't solve it, and neither could anyone else. It later turned out that the three-body problem contains the seeds of chaos, rendering its behavior unpredictable in the long run.
Guess we shouldn't toss DiffEq just yet.
(Via the Radiolab blog.)
Ira, Jad, and Robert
Must listen: Ira Glass, Jad Abumrad, and Robert Krulwich on the differences between radio and television. Includes such gems as how radio amplifies intimacy and television turns gesture into parody, Jad's observation that This American Life made real people's true stories sound like fairytales, and how Stephen Colbert is more like a radio personality (his show more like a radio show, his audience more like a radio audience) than a television one.
(My own thesis about Colbert: it's his perfect miming of big-personality talk show hosts like Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Scarborough, Hannity, Olbermann, usw., most of whom started on radio, continue to host radio shows, and whose TV shows and audiences are still a whole lot like radio.)
Dating the Past
Historiscientific nerd alert: There's a hot new method of dating historical artifacts, specifically ceramic artifacts, based on their moisture uptake. But there's at least one big problem -- it assumes that mean temperatures are constant. HNN's Jonathan Jarrett has the goods, in a paragraph so well-linked that I've cut-and-pasted them all. (I also changed some of the punctuation and split Jarrett's long paragraph into a few short ones.)
Now, you may have heard mention of a thing called "the medieval warm period." This is a historical amelioration of temperature in Europe between, roughly, the tenth and twelfth centuries. This probably decreased rainfall and other sorts of weather bad for crops, therefore boosted agricultural yield, pumped more surplus into the economy, fuelled demographic growth and arguably deliquesced most European societies to the point where they changed in considerable degree.
However, because of the current debate on climate change, it has become a ball to kick around for climate "scientists," those who wish to argue that we're not changing the climate pointing to it and ice coverage in Norse-period Greenland (which was less than there is currently despite less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere then), while those who wish to argue that we are changing the climate (and, almost always, that this relates to CO2 output, which does seem like a weak link in the argument) dismiss it as legend or scorn the very few and unscientific datapoints, not really caring that the historical development of European society in the ninth to eleventh centuries just doesn't make sense without this system change from the ground. None of these people are medievalists and they're not trying to prove anything about the Middle Ages, so it gets messy, but there is a case about this temperature change that has to be dealt with.
This obviously has an impact on this research. If the sample were old enough, the errors and change probably ought to balance out. But if it were, from, say, the eighth century, then the moisture uptake in the four or five subsequent centuries would be higher than expected from the constant that this research used and the figure would be out, by, well, how much? The team didn't know: "The choice of mean lifetime temperature provides the main other source of uncertainty, but we are unable to quantify the uncertainty in this temperature at present."
We, however, need to know how far that could knock out the figures. Twenty years? More? It begins to push the potential error from a single sample to something closer to a century than a year. That is, the margin of historical error (as opposed to mathematical error) on this method could be worse than that of carbon-dating, and we don't actually know what it is.
Lots of good stuff in the whole, long post, including an annotated run-down of ALL of the ways we know how to date old things.
File under: Learnin', Object Culture, Science, Worldsnark
May 30, 2009
Finally, You Too Can Be Marcus Aurelius
I am a sucker for long histories, especially when they're summarized with simple schema. Phillip Greenspun wrote this for a talk on how the internet has changed writing, under the subhead "Publishing from Gutenberg (1455) through 1990":
The pre-1990 commercial publishing world supported two lengths of manuscript:
Suppose that an idea merited 20 pages, no more and no less? A handful of long-copy magazines, such as the old New Yorker would print 20-page essays, but an author who wished his or her work to be distributed would generally be forced to cut it down to a meaningless 5-page magazine piece or add 180 pages of filler until it reached the minimum size to fit into the book distribution system.
- the five-page magazine article, serving as filler among the ads
- the book, with a minimum of 200 pages
In the same essaylet, Greenspun has a subhead, "Marcus Aurelius: The first blogger?":
Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 160 AD to 180 AD, kept a journal during a military campaign in central Europe (171-175). It was not available until after his death and not widely available until printed in 1558 as the Meditations...
This was preserved because the author had been Emperor. How much ancient wisdom was lost because the common Roman citizen lacked TCP/IP? [By 1700 BC, the Minoans were trading with Spain, had big cities with flush toilets, a written language, and moderately sophisticated metalworking technology. Had it not been for the eruption of Thera (on Santorini), it is quite possible that Romans would have watched the assassination of Julius Caesar on television.]
It's not all since-the-dawn-of-civilization stuff -- there are lots of examples of writing that really only works on the internet and more pedestrian things like the virtues of blogs over Geocities. "Webloggers generally use a standard style and don't play with colors and formatting the way that GeoCities authors used to." This shows how in the weblog, content becomes more important than form. (Psst-- It also suggests that if Minoan civilization had survived and spread, Augustine's Confessions might have been excerpted on a lot of home pages with lots of crappy animated GIFs.)
Via Daring Fireball.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Object Culture, Technosnark
The Earth Is Hiring
Commencement season continues! Nice one from Paul Hawken:
There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING. The earth couldn’t afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here's the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don't be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.
I like this bit, too:
There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true.
If his speech has a failing, it's that is goes too big, too fast. You gotta ground yourself, earn the graduating class's trust, before you reach for the "CAN YOU FEEL THE VERY STARS THEMSELVES IN YOUR CELLS?" lines, but Hawken sorta jumps right in.
He keeps it pretty abstract, too, and I can imagine an aspiring financial analyst in the crowd going, "Uh... does this apply to me?" And of course it does, but Hawken doesn't connect the dots.
That said, it's got enough stirring lines to reward a reading.
May 29, 2009
In Praise of Post-
Music critic Simon Reynolds praises music's moments of in-between:
It rankles a bit that the late '80s are now treated as a mere prequel to grunge. The recently aired Seven Ages of Rock on VH1 Classic was a marked improvement on earlier TV histories of rock, which tended to jump straight from Sex Pistols to Nirvana. But its episode on U.S. alternative rock nonetheless presented groups like the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth as preparing the ground for Nirvana. That's not how it felt at the time: Sonic Youth and the rest seemed fully formed significances in their own right, creative forces of monstrous power, time-defining in their own way (albeit through their refusal of the mainstream). My Melody Maker comrade David Stubbs wrote an end-of-year oration proclaiming 1988—annum of Surfer Rosa, Daydream Nation, My Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything—to be the greatest year for rock music. Ever!
We actually believed this, and our fervor was infectious, striking an inspirational, Obama-like chord with young readers heartily sick of the idea that rock's capacity for renewal had been exhausted in the '60s or the punk mid-'70s. Yet that period will never truly be written into conventional history (despite efforts like Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life) because it doesn't have a name. It's too diverse, and it's not easily characterized. For instance, the groups were "underground," except that by 1988 most of them—Husker Du, Throwing Muses, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers—had already signed, or soon were to sign, to majors. Finally, it'll never get fairly written into history because, damn it, grunge did happen.
As I've gotten older, I like 80s alternative music better than the stuff I grew up with in the 90s, although now (with almost two decades' distance), the 90s looks better, and just plain different, from the radio I remember. (I didn't listen to Belle and Sebastian, Neutral Milk Hotel, or Smog in the 90s. I do now.)
The weird thing is that to be a precursor is a recipe for big sales but also diminished significance in your own right. The 80s are full of bands that influenced Nirvana who don't really sound like Nirvana, who don't sound ANYTHING like the rest of what passed for grunge, who actually don't make a lot of sense in that context.
But to be post- is a kind of liberation -- one has a sense of being reflective, developing, moving beyond something else, a continuation with that history but also a break. So the coolest thing to be is post-punk. It's so cool that the first half of this decade saw dozens of bands who were post-post-punk.
So Reynolds identifies two strains of in-between music to go along with 80s post-punk: post-disco and post-psychedelic. I'm convinced that these typologies totally work; I might be more invested in the post-psychedelia bands he lists than the post-disco ones, but it all sounds interesting. And in this case, naming is claiming: giving these bands and their sound a name actually gives you a context to talk about them, one that might be misleading (in which case, time to toss it out) but which might be a way to call more attention to things that would otherwise go unnoticed.
He also includes this nice postscript (har har) on post-rock and post-metal:
There are some other "post-" genres out there, but to my mind, they describe something quite different from the above. Take post-rock, a term that mysteriously emerged in the early '90s to describe experimental guitar bands that increasingly abandoned guitars altogether. (Oh, OK, it was me who came up with that one.)
File under: Language, Music, Radio, Television
May 28, 2009
What Kinds of Math Do We Need?
The role of mathematics in the language sciences is made more complex by the variety of different sorts of mathematics that are relevant. In particular, some areas of language-related mathematics are traditionally approached in ways that may make counting (and other sorts of quantification) seem at least superficially irrelevant — these include especially proof theory, model theory, and formal language theory.
On the other hand, there are topics where models of measurements of physical quantities, or of sample proportions of qualitative alternatives, are essential. This is certainly true in my own area of phonetics, in sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics, and so on. It's more controversial what sorts of mathematics, if any, ought to be involved in areas like historical linguistics, phonology, and syntax...
Unfortunately, the current mathematical curriculum (at least in American colleges and universities) is not very helpful in accomplishing this — and in this respect everyone else is just as badly served as linguists are — because it mostly teaches thing that people don't really need to know, like calculus, while leaving out almost all of the things that they will really be able to use. (In this respect, the role of college calculus seems to me rather like the role of Latin and Greek in 19th-century education: it's almost entirely useless to most of the students who are forced to learn it, and its main function is as a social and intellectual gatekeeper, passing through just those students who are willing and able to learn to perform a prescribed set of complex and meaningless rituals.)
My thoughts are still inchoate on this, so I'll throw it open -- is calculus 1) a waste of time for 80-90% of the folks who learn it, 2) unfairly dominating of the rest of useful mathematics, 3) one of the great achievements of the modern mind that everyone should know about, or 4) all of the above?
More to the point -- what kinds of maths (as they say in the UK) have you found to be most valuable to your later life, work, thinking, discipline, whatever?
And looking to the future - I don't think we have a mathematics entry as such in the New Liberal Arts book-to-come; but if we did, what should it look like?
May 27, 2009
The New Psychohistory
Paul Krugman reminds us of the awesome fact that he got into economics because he read the Foundation series as a kid. In the series, there's a character named Hari Seldon who studies psychohistory -- the imaginary super-socio-economics that allows you to predict mass-scale human behavior using quantitative models. He shows up as a hologram at various point in the series' long chronology, long after he's dead, saying: "I pretty much predicted what you will be doing right now." And he's always right!
Anyway, it made me remember seeing, in the new issue of Wired, that Google's chief economist Hal Varian admitted the same thing!
"In Isaac Asimov's first Foundation Trilogy, there was a character who basically constructed mathematical models of society, and I thought this was a really exciting idea. When I went to college, I looked around for that subject. It turned out to be economics."
This makes me want to come up with some new, imaginary discipline and write a series of books around it, expressly in order to inspire a generation of smart young people to find ways to do it in real life. They will fail, but they will do such cool things along the way!
Google I/O Ignite Talk Links
Just a place to put a few links relevant to the Google I/O Ignite talk (20 slides! 5 minutes! GO!) I'm about to give, mostly for the benefit of people at the talk:
The Negative Dialectics of Whiteness
The idea is that Latinos have a dual experience that whites don't have and that, all things being equal, they'll be able to pull from that experience and see things that whites don't. The problem with this reasoning is it implicitly accepts the logic (made for years by white racists) that there is something essential and unifying running through all white people, everywhere. But White--as we know it--is a word so big that, as a descriptor of experience, it almost doesn't exist.
Indeed, it's claims are preposterous. It seeks to lump the miner in Eastern Kentucky, the Upper West Side Jew, the yuppie in Seattle, the Irish Catholic in South Boston, the hipster in Brooklyn, the Cuban-American in Florida, or even the Mexican-American in California all together, and erase the richness of their experience, by marking the bag "White." This is a lie--and another example of how a frame invented (and for decades endorsed) by whites is, at the end of the day, bad for whites. White racism, in this country, was invented to erase the humanity and individuality of blacks. But for it to work it must, necessarily, erase the humanity of whites, too.
TNC of course makes the further (and necessary point) point that these are all fictions that become socially real.
P.S.: I realize the "negative dialectics" reference is probably too insidery for 98% of readers. It's a term that Theodor Adorno used for a title of his book. Hegel defined identity as "the identity of identity and nonidentity" - the idea being that any concept or act of identification glosses over differences and unifies things that are like in some ways but unlike in others. For Adorno, negative dialectics explores "the nonidentity of identity and nonidentity," i.e., disintegrating all of that.
Cf. the kind of weird quasi-discourse on whether Judge Sotomayor will or will not be the first "Hispanic" judge on the Supreme Court - the idea being that Justice Cardoza (whose ancestors, Portuguese Jews, emigrated to New York state in the eighteenth century) would qualify. If you try to pursue a purist/universalist idea of racial identity to the end, you start to focus on definitional descriptors (biological and/or cultural ancestry on the Iberian peninsula) that just wipe out all differences. "Hispanic" in this context may be as much of a lie-word -- that is to say, as powerful a concept -- as "white."
May 26, 2009
The Right Combination
You are awesome.
Faking It In Translation
Suzanne Menghraj loved Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read so much that she read it twice. She wanted to read Bayard's 2000 book Comment améliorer les oeuvres ratées (How to Improve Failed Works). But it hadn't been translated, and she couldn't speak or read French. So she decided to bang it out herself anyways:
I came very close to failing French several times over the eight years I studied the language. This does not make me proud. But it does make me want to explore my persistent lack of facility with a language whose structure and habits I understand only well enough to catch a word here, a sense or mood there (let’s say I “skim” French). And so, a good French-English dictionary in hand, I read “Hélas!” (literally, “Alas!”), the introduction to Comment améliorer les oeuvres ratées and was as taken with the iconoclastic ambitions expressed in it as I am with those expressed in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read—so taken that I decided to give translation of “Hélas!” a shot.
My own speaking French is terrible, and my reading French is so slow that I've read more than a few books with the original in one hand and a translation in the other, jotting notes with a pen between my teeth when I can't be bothered to put either book down. (I'm telling you - this is the only way to read Proust.)
And my German's probably about the same as Menghrai's French. I was astonished when I switched from philosophy to comparative literature, because suddenly everyone around me was fluent as hell - they were born in Austria, they spent every summer in Paris, they didn't just like to dick around with Kant or Baudelaire.
But I still think that my ambient awareness of, my ability to skim four or five different languages, has really helped me do a lot of things I otherwise wouldn't be able to do. I say, let's have more people half-assing it in languages not their own.
Language is like cooking, or sex: if you get all hung up on being really, really good, not only won't it be fun, you're probably never going to get around to doing it at all.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Worldsnark
Sonority in Translation
Marvelous profile of Svetlana Gaier, translator of Dostoyevsky into German:
Svetlana Ivanov was 18 years old when the Germans marched into Kiev (she acquired the name Geier later from her husband, a violinist). Although these events were the prelude to great suffering for countless subjects of the Soviet Union, it was a time of great promise for the young woman. Like others willing to work for the Germans for a one-year period, she was eligible to receive a scholarship to go to Germany. Having received private lessons in French and German from childhood, she was able to work as an interpreter for a Dortmund construction firm that was erecting a bridge across the Dnieper River.
Svetlana and her mother – who came from a family of tsarist officers - were victims of Stalinism. Svetlana Geier still recalls watching as a small child while her grandmother cut up family photos into tiny pieces with manicuring scissors: under the Communist regime, their possession could have been dangerous. Her father, a plant breeding expert, was interned during the purges of 1938. He remained in prison for 18 months, was interrogated and abused, but nonetheless eventually released. The following year, he died from the after-effects of imprisonment. Still ostracized even after his release, he spent his final months in a dacha outside of town, cared for by his daughter.
In the eyes of the young interpreter’s countrymen, her work for the Germans had discredited her: "As far as they were concerned, I was a collaborator." After Stalingrad, she could easily imagine what awaited her under Soviet rule. She took advantage of an offer to enter the German Reich with her mother, somewhat starry-eyed, and still hoping to receive a scholarship. That she, a "worker from the east" (her automatic classification in Nazi Germany) actually received it - one of two Humboldt scholarships reserved for "talented foreigners" - borders on the miraculous. Playing benevolent roles in her lengthy and stirring account of these events are a generous entrepreneur, an alert secretary, and a pair of good-natured assistants at the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories...
Now, a year before the end of World War II, Svetlana Ivanov began her literary studies. She recalls the very first lecture she heard, Walter Rehm's "The Essence of the Tragic," which she attended in the company of her fellow students, all of them men with war injuries. She still has her notes.
I'm reminded, more than a little ironically, of the line the rabbi speaks at the beginning of Tony Kushner's Angels in America: "You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is."
I really like this description of her translation method:
Svetlana Geier’s method, if one can call it that, is an acoustic one. She immerses herself in the text until she has absorbed it completely, is able to hear its unique tenor, or as she says, "its melody." Then she induces it to resound in German, and this again takes place acoustically, for Geier dictates her translations. They ring out aloud before ever becoming fixed on paper. Her Dostoevsky translations have received extraordinarily praise for this "sonorous" character in particular. Finally, it is said, the divergent voices of Dostoevsky’s protagonists have become distinguishable.
Geier's last translation, of a book by Dostoevsky that I haven't read, Podrostok - Geier's title, Ein grüner Junge, brings the German closer to Constance Garnett's A Raw Youth -- also sounds fascinating. But, I've already excerpted this short article to death, so you should click on it if you, you know, actually want to know something about her/FD's book.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Recommended, Worldsnark
The New Socialism is the New Humanism
We loooove Kevin Kelly around here at Snarkmarket. Robin tipped me off to his stuff and he's since joined Atul Gawande, Roger Ebert, Virginia Heffernan, Clay Shirky, Michael Pollan, Clive Thompson, Gina Trapani, Jason Kottke, Ben Vershbow, Hilzoy, Paul Krugman, Sy Hersh, and Scott Horton (among others) in the Gore-Gladwell Snarkfantastic Hall of Fame. Dude should have his own tag up in here.
But I think there's a rare misstep (or rather, misnaming) in his new Wired essay, "The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online." It's right there in the title. That S-word. Socialism.
Now, don't get me wrong. I like socialism where socialism makes sense. Almost everyone agrees that it makes sense to have a socialized police and military. I like socialized (or partially socialized) education, and I think it makes a lot of sense to have socialized health insurance, as part of a broad social safety net that helps keep people safe, capable, knowledgeable, working. Socialism gets no bad rap from me.
I know Kelly is using the word socialism as a provocation. And he takes pains to say that the new socialism, like the new snow, is neither cold nor wet:
We're not talking about your grandfather's socialism. In fact, there is a long list of past movements this new socialism is not. It is not class warfare. It is not anti-American; indeed, digital socialism may be the newest American innovation. While old-school socialism was an arm of the state, digital socialism is socialism without the state. This new brand of socialism currently operates in the realm of culture and economics, rather than government—for now...
Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective worlds. Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories connected to virtual co-ops. Instead of sharing drill bits, picks, and shovels, we share apps, scripts, and APIs. Instead of faceless politburos, we have faceless meritocracies, where the only thing that matters is getting things done. Instead of national production, we have peer production. Instead of government rations and subsidies, we have a bounty of free goods.
But I think of socialism as something very specific. It's something where a group of citizens pools their resources as part of a democratic (and at least partially technocratic) administering of benefits to everyone. This could be part of a nation-state or a co-op grocery store. And maybe this is too Hobbesian, but I think about it largely as motivated by a defense against something bad. Maybe there's some kind of general surplus-economy I'm missing where we can just socialize good things without risk. That'd be nice.
When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it's not unreasonable to call that socialism.
But I'll put this out as an axiom: if there's no risk of something genuinely bad, no cost but opportunity cost, if all we're doing is passing good things around to each other, then that, my friend, is not socialism.
This is a weird paradox: what we're seeing emerge in the digital sphere is TOO altruistic to be socialism! There isn't enough material benefit back to the individual. It's not cynical enough! It solves no collective action problems! And again, it's totally individualistic (yet totally compatible with collectivities), voluntarist (yet totally compatible with owning one's own labor and being compensated for it), anti-statist (yet totally compatible with the state). It's too pure in its intentions and impure in its structure.
Kelly, though, says, we've got no choice. We've got to call this collectivism, even if it's collective individualism, socialism:
I recognize that the word socialism is bound to make many readers twitch. It carries tremendous cultural baggage, as do the related terms communal, communitarian, and collective. I use socialism because technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions. Broadly, collective action is what Web sites and Net-connected apps generate when they harness input from the global audience. Of course, there's rhetorical danger in lumping so many types of organization under such an inflammatory heading. But there are no unsoiled terms available, so we might as well redeem this one.
In fact, we have a word, a very old word, that precisely describes this impulse to band together into small groups, set collective criteria for excellence, and try to collect and disseminate the best, most useful, most edifying, most relevant bodies of knowledge as widely and as cheaply as possible, for the greatest possible benefit to the individual's self-cultivation and to the preservation and enrichment of the culture as a whole.
And that word is humanism.... Read more ....
File under: Braiiins, Language, New Liberal Arts
May 25, 2009
NLA Micro-Teaser Update
The very final pieces have just now locked into place. There's still a bit of work to be done -- most of it involving moving atoms from place to place -- but the New Liberal Arts book is coming very, very soon. And you're going to love it.
The Soul of American Medicine
If I ever meet Atul Gawande, I'm giving him a high-five, a hug, and then I'm going to try to talk to him for about fifteen minutes about why I think he's special. From "The Cost Conundrum," in the new New Yorker:
No one teaches you how to think about money in medical school or residency. Yet, from the moment you start practicing, you must think about it. You must consider what is covered for a patient and what is not. You must pay attention to insurance rejections and government-reimbursement rules. You must think about having enough money for the secretary and the nurse and the rent and the malpractice insurance...
When you look across the spectrum from Grand Junction [Colorado] to McAllen [Texas]—and the almost threefold difference in the costs of care—you come to realize that we are witnessing a battle for the soul of American medicine. Somewhere in the United States at this moment, a patient with chest pain, or a tumor, or a cough is seeing a doctor. And the damning question we have to ask is whether the doctor is set up to meet the needs of the patient, first and foremost, or to maximize revenue.
There is no insurance system that will make the two aims match perfectly. But having a system that does so much to misalign them has proved disastrous. As economists have often pointed out, we pay doctors for quantity, not quality. As they point out less often, we also pay them as individuals, rather than as members of a team working together for their patients. Both practices have made for serious problems...
Activists and policymakers spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about whether the solution to high medical costs is to have government or private insurance companies write the checks. Here’s how this whole debate goes. Advocates of a public option say government financing would save the most money by having leaner administrative costs and forcing doctors and hospitals to take lower payments than they get from private insurance. Opponents say doctors would skimp, quit, or game the system, and make us wait in line for our care; they maintain that private insurers are better at policing doctors. No, the skeptics say: all insurance companies do is reject applicants who need health care and stall on paying their bills. Then we have the economists who say that the people who should pay the doctors are the ones who use them. Have consumers pay with their own dollars, make sure that they have some “skin in the game,” and then they’ll get the care they deserve. These arguments miss the main issue. When it comes to making care better and cheaper, changing who pays the doctor will make no more difference than changing who pays the electrician. The lesson of the high-quality, low-cost communities is that someone has to be accountable for the totality of care. Otherwise, you get a system that has no brakes.
File under: Cities, Recommended, Science, Snarkpolicy
The Editor as Wizard
Joanne McNeil over at Tomorrow Museum has a terrific post about self-publishing that deals with the idea more deeply than most things I've read. There's lots to dig into, but this part resonated with me:
[...] I was talking about some of this the other night with Diana Kimball, who recently wrote a paper on the subject. [...] She made the often lost point about a major publisher's role as validation for the author, as well as the reader. The author needs to know someone with expertise and good judgment found his or her material worthwhile. Otherwise, why risk the embarrassment of bringing unsatisfactory material to a wider audience?
(Here's Diana's paper. And yes, a post that cross-references Diana Kimball and Tomorrow Museum starts to feel like a cunningly-designed trap for Snarkmarket. I'm afraid my laptop is about to shoot me with a poison dart.)
"The author needs to know someone with expertise and good judgment found his or her material worthwhile." This is a deep point. Part of what makes blogging so "do-able" is the low stakes. First, the stuff you're pointing to is already published; you're operating entirely under a pre-existing umbrella of validation. Second, the work you're doing is pretty easy, anyway. If people don't respond immediately... no big deal.
There are other kinds of work that feel much more high-stakes. A short story, a novel. An EP. A long piece of research and analysis. Or, I guess, even a certain kind of incredibly labor-intensive blog. And it does seem to me that, in these cases, the editor's touch is transformative.
That doesn't have to exist in the context of publishing as we know it today. What you're really looking for is a smart mind, "with expertise and good judgment," who you trust to evaluate your work honestly, saying: Yes. There is a place for this in the world.
That doesn't have to mean print; it doesn't have to mean payment. It simply means solving this riddle, posed by Diana:
The problem with self-published books, for authors and for potential readers, is that the physical book no longer signifies that anyone has read it. In fact, the physical fact of a self-published book is far more likely to signify that astonishingly few people have read it.
I think there's a generalizable version of that problem, even for non-books, and even for work that stays digital forever. And the solution? I imagine a tiny editor standing on top of the work, shouting: "Hell yes someone has read this! I did! And you think I publish just anything? I've got standards, people. Come check this out."
I guess it's a kind of risk-shifting: You, as the writer, musician, researcher, whatever, no longer bear it all yourself. In fact, you suddenly bear very little. And, I mean, wow, thank goodness. Making things is hard enough as it is. Let me, as editor, take the chance here; if people think your work sucks (or worse, if they don't think about it at all) I'm the one who made a mistake. You just keep working.
I'm overstating it a little for effect. But to me, it feels like alchemy, or sorcery. It changes the terms entirely.
A lot of bloggers think of what they do as "editing the web," and I wonder if more shouldn't take it a step further. They (we?) could spend curatorial capital to bring new work into the world. Hey blogger: Why don't you expand that post about Proust and Professor X into a whole little essay? We'd love to work with you on it and cross-post it on Snarkmarket when it's finished.
In other words: Yes. There is a place for this in the world.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy, Society/Culture
Two Houses, Both Alike in Awesomeness
Nav over at Scrawled in Wax just blew my mind, twice:
May 24, 2009
I don't wear glasses, but have always wished I did. Once, in college, I was getting a lot of headaches, and I realized it: This was my chance! So I went to the eye doctor, basically begging for glasses. His response: "Um. Your eyes are fine. I mean, I guess I could prescribe the closest thing to plain glass that is not in fact plain glass."
So he did, and I got my glasses -- which I never wore, because come on, who can remember to wear glasses when you don't actually have to? I still have them; they sit, dusty, at the bottom of a drawer.
All of this is to say that a) I like glasses a lot, and b) if you're looking for non-hipster glasses options, maybe you should peruse this wonderful post over at A Continuous Lean. I hope to make use of it in 10-20 years, after decades of blogging have finally pulled my eyes out of focus.
Two Visions Of Our Asian Future
Looking to the east for clues to the future (or the past) of the west isn't the least bit new, but these two recent takes (both in the NYT, as it happens) offer some interesting contrasts.
First, Paul Krugman looks at Hong Kong:
Hong Kong, with its incredible cluster of tall buildings stacked up the slope of a mountain, is the way the future was supposed to look. The future — the way I learned it from science-fiction movies — was supposed to be Manhattan squared: vertical, modernistic, art decoish.
What the future mainly ended up looking like instead was Atlanta — sprawl, sprawl, and even more sprawl, a landscape of boxy malls and McMansions. Bo-ring.
So for a little while I get to visit the 1950s version of the 21st century. Yay!
But where are the flying cars?
In the subway, Ms. Kim breezes through the turnstile after tapping the phone on a box that deducts the fare from a chip that contains a cash balance. While riding to school, she uses her mobile to check if a book has arrived at the library, slays aliens in a role-playing game, updates her Internet blog or watches TV.
On campus, she and other students touch their mobiles to the electronic box by the door to mark their attendance. No need for roll call — the school’s server computer logs whether they are in or how late they are for the class.
“If I leave my wallet at home, I may not notice it for the whole day,” said Ms. Kim, 21. “But if I lose my cellphone, my life will start stumbling right there in the subway.”
It has been a while since the mobile phone became more than just a phone, serving as a texting device, a camera and a digital music player, among other things. But experts say South Korea, because of its high-speed wireless networks and top technology companies like Samsung and LG, is the test case for the mobile future.
“We want to bring complex bits of daily life — cash, credit card, membership card and student ID card, everything — into the mobile phone,” said Shim Gi-tae, a mobile financing official at SK Telecom, the country’s largest wireless carrier. “We want to make the cellphone the center of life.”
It was easier in the 1950s for Americans to imagine flying cars than it was to imagine cashless subways. Hell, it may still be easier.
Height or distance? The billboard ad or the cellphone ad? Physical mobility or mobility of information? The skyscraper or the network?
File under: Cities, Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark, Worldsnark
May 23, 2009
Virginia Woolf on the Future of the Book
From a BBC radio debate with her husband (and publisher) Leonard, titled "Are Too Many Books Written and Published?":
Books ought to be so cheap that we can throw them away if we do not like them, or give them away if we do. Moreover, it is absurd to print every book as if it were fated to last a hundred years. The life of the average book is perhaps three months. Why not face this fact? Why not print the first edition on some perishable material which would crumble to a little heap of perfectly clean dust in about six months time? If a second edition were needed, this could be printed on good paper and well bound. Thus by far the greater number of books would die a natural death in three months or so. No space would be wasted and no dirt would be collected.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Radio
Adventures in Paleoblogging
Clusterflock's skeleton crew has some nice nineteenth-century stuff this weekend:
- First Barbary War (May 1801-1805)
- First edition of Byron's Don Juan
- Tabloid write-up of Richard Wagner's affair with Franz Liszt's daughter Cosima
- Blogging about Van Gogh
- Dancing "the German"
- William Carlos Williams's Birth Announcement
- 1883 Dinner Menus from the New American Hotel
- Gayetti's Medicated Paper for the Water-Closet
- My favorite -- pictures of the first postage stamp used for the penny post in the UK
- Victorian Pornography And many more!
May 22, 2009
Something For the Kids
Have a good weekend, you guys.
International Relations Primer
Stephen Walt, whose column I've been enjoying over at Foreign Policy, has a list of ten international relations articles you must read.
Unfortunately it looks like only one of them is available online for free. (Will do some googling this weekend to confirm/deny this.)
You know what would be cool, though? If FP paid to license these articles and hosted them at FP.com.
One neat role a media company can play in today's weird world: It can "ransom" content from a thicket of licenses to make it available in a simple, useful way. (I think the way we make tons of library music available to producers in our VCAM program at Current is an example of this.)
An End to Ghostly Labors (2009)
Hey! Whoah! Matthew Crawford's "Shop Class as Soulcraft" returns -- in the NYT Mag, and apparently soon as a book!
Can you say ahead of the curve?
Returning to the essay (and the post), I'm struck again by that phrase "the most ghostly kinds of work." Back in 2006 it sounded like email and Powerpoint. Now it sounds like CDOs and exotic derivatives, too.
Crawford's new piece in the NYT Mag is great. This seems as clear an articulation as any of what you should be looking for in a job:
As I sat in my K Street office, Fred's life as an independent tradesman gave me an image that I kept coming back to: someone who really knows what he is doing, losing himself in work that is genuinely useful and has a certain integrity to it. He also seemed to be having a lot of fun.
I also think this is incredibly crisp and correct:
A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.
This is important stuff.
Papa's Got A Brand New Bag
File under: "Why didn't you just Twitter this, again?" I've been shopping for a laptop bag as we speak, so I am 100% primed for this, but I still love Lifehacker's "What's In Our Bags" series. Gina Trapani just posted her bag + contents, shouting-out a bagufacturer I'd never heard of, and an awesome idea I'd never thought of -- headphone splitters so two people can watch a movie on a plane or train!
Me, I keep insane junk in my bag -- whatever the Bookstore was selling the day my old whatever the Bookstore was selling up and quit on me -- for way too long -- receipts and airplane stubs, books and student papers (oops), pens in zippered components that don't even work (the pens, not the zippers). The only constant companion is laptop plus plug. Even then, sometimes I discover (as I did on a trip to central NY for a job talk) that there's a scone from Au Bon Pain where my plug should be.
But I wish, nay long for, a genuine system! And the Lifehacker folks actually seem to have one!
It's also positive proof that the dematerialization thesis (you know, the idea that objects themselves don't matter, everything is up in the cloud, etc.) is bunk at worst, needs to be qualified at best. We just pretend that matter doesn't matter, until you can't get your Prezi on the screen 'cause you forgot your DVI-VGA thingy, if you ever even took it out of the box in the first place.
Here are people living the life digitale to the fullest, and what do they do? Schlep their stuff around in a bag, just like us jerks. And when they have a good idea, do they whip out their magic pen-with-a-microphone for instant digitalization? Only if they're jotting it down on a 99-cent spiral notebook. All this is very reassuring to me.
File under: Design, Object Culture, Recommended, Self-Disclosure
May 21, 2009
A Conservative Vision
I love Dave Eggers' style and spirit, but...
Nothing has changed! The written word -- the love of it and the power of the written word -- it hasn't changed. It's a matter of fostering it, fertilizing it, not giving up on it, and having faith. Don't get down. I actually have established an e-mail address, email@example.com -- if you want to take it down -- if you are ever feeling down, if you are ever despairing, if you ever think publishing is dying or print is dying or books are dying or newspapers are dying (the next issue of McSweeney's will be a newspaper -- we're going to prove that it can make it. It comes out in September). If you ever have any doubt, e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you're wrong.
...this is demonstrably untrue, and far worse -- if you consider what an idea factory McSweeney's and 826 National have been -- it's uncreative. "Don't get down" is 100% the wrong advice.
OK, so here's my pitch for the right advice -- just a simple rewrite:
Everything is changing! The written word -- the love of it and the power of the written word -- is still as powerful as ever, but it's undergoing a seismic shift. If we care about the deep, durable stuff, then we need to get moving and get learning. Don't simply have faith that things will work out; work them out. It's time to get down to it. I actually have established an e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org -- if invention seizes you by the scalp, if you see that publishing is changing and print is morphing and books are evolving and newspapers are rebooting and you want to be part of it (the next issue of McSweeney's will be an E-Ink prototype -- we're going to do something with the medium you've never seen before). If you have any ideas, e-mail me, and I will help you make them real.
Even if you're not a developer, you should sign up for the Amazon Web Services email list. Think of it as a newsletter about the cutting edge of cloud computing. Even if half of it doesn't make sense to you, it sets an enviable example -- both in terms of Amazon's pace of innovation and the way they communicate about new stuff.
Anyway, the newest program? Send Amazon a hard drive and they'll load it into Amazon S3 for you. This would be useful if you had, for instance, a petabyte of raw data that would take two weeks to upload via the internet but two days to get to Amazon via FedEx. I love it.
May 20, 2009
The Combinatorial Music Video
As it's being created, any song, picture, game, blog post -- anything -- is like an electron cloud. There are lots of ways it could be (but won't). And a lot of the choices along the way are pretty arbitrary. So, hey: Here, take the whole cloud!
I think this is totally awesome. Art as combinatorial matrix. "Hey, did you hear the new Cold War Kids single?" "Which one?" "Oh... green-green-red-blue." "Yeah! LOVE that combination."
Okay, okay, I know this implementation is pretty simple. But I like that about it. I also like the fact that it's so accessible; it's not like twelve channels of evolving white noise that you can mix-and-match.
Games, Architecture, the Good Stuff
BLDGBLOG's interview with Jim Rossignol has got my brain a-sparking. Rossignol wrote a book called The Gaming Life that I now want to get; it's a tour of gaming cultures in London, Seoul, and Reykjavik.
Lots to recommend in the interview (it's long) but here's a nugget that I liked. Why doesn't game development seem to have the same fast-paced froth as, say, open-source web stuff? Well...
Rossignol: At the last game developers conference in San Francisco, one of my colleagues said to me that perhaps what was most interesting were all the ideas that were walking around inside the heads of the developers -- the ideas that they wouldn't talk about, or stuff they kept secret because it was too good and too commercially important for their companies. It did make me wonder whether the fact that games are so commercial stunts their futurology -- after all, if game developers were given free rein to be pure creatives, I think there would be a massive exchange of ideas. This kind of accelerated avalanche of development could come out of there being no limits on sharing ideas. It makes it very difficult for game designers to get the ideas they need to make games better -- because they're going to be protected, or hidden, or otherwise held back by commercial concern.
Hmm... ideas too valuable to share. At this week's Long Now lecture, I heard Paul Romer talk about the incredible economic benefits of, er, sharing ideas. This strikes me as an interesting challenge, especially because games -- more than, say, movies or books -- can scaffold off of each other so effectively, both in terms of tech tools and play mechanics.
Here's one other bit, really just an aside, from Geoff that I liked. Not related to games at all. He's working at an architect's office in London, and...
At one point, I found a bunch of tapes that were nothing but surveillance footage taken inside Wembley Stadium. It was unlabeled, black and white footage of people milling about outside the bathrooms, near the ticket gate, and so on -- and my initial thought was actually that some sort of crime must have taken place. There had been a stabbing, or a riot -- and, I thought, maybe even someone here at Foster & Partners had been involved. That's why we had the tapes. Then again, that's how it always is with surveillance tapes: you're always waiting for something to happen on them. All CCTV footage of road traffic, for instance, looks like CCTV footage taken right before an accident.
Wow. That is a novelist-caliber insight. "All CCTV footage of road traffic, for instance, looks like CCTV footage taken right before an accident." Unpack that. It's like five dimensions of Our Modern Situation compressed into an evocative visual metaphor. This is the kinda stuff you get reading BLDGBLOG.
It Was Citizen Kane
This Kids in the Hall sketch has come up twice in conversation this week. I consider it, like the film that gives it its name, essential viewing. Enjoy.
File under: Gleeful Miscellany, Movies, Television
May 19, 2009
In This Civil War Reconstruction, The Union Has Dinosaurs
The attraction, called "Professor Cline's Dinosaur Kingdom," imagines a lost chapter from Civil War history. It supposes that in 1863, a group of paleontologists inadvertently stumbled upon a valley of live dinosaurs. The discovery comes to the attention of the Union Army, who, recognizing the destructive power of the giant lizards, decide to capture them and unleash them on the Confederate Army. Naturally, it results in Jurassic Park-inspired carnage.
H/t to friend (and former student) Drea Nelson.
Like Two Halves of My Brain, Battling
I've been posting more links to my Twitter account lately. But sometimes it feels vaguely like cheating on Snarkmarket. On the other hand, sometimes the links don't feel cool or noteworthy enough for Snarkmarket, which is precisely why I post them to Twitter. On the other other hand, maybe everybody just subscribes to both feeds, so who cares?
Quick gut-check: More short links here? Fewer?
From Photo to Painting
There's been this chromatic, geometric, vaguely retro visual meme afoot for a couple of years now. Andy Gilmore is my favorite practitioner, because his stuff feels like a fresh alchemy, not just neon nostalgia. Examples:
I Always Wanted To Live In A Knights Templar's Castle
If only I had 6 million EUR lying around:
Château de La Jarthe was once a refuge for the Order of the Knights Templar, the secretive Christian military order that once wreaked havoc in the region.
Located on 120 hectares (297 acres) in the Dordogne near Périgueux, the restored castle offers many of the amenities buyers might expect in a 12th-century castle ruled by the order, including a chapel, massive fireplaces, stained glass windows and a 102-square-meter (1,098-square-foot) gathering hall known as the Knights Room. Many of the original medieval features remain, such as flagstone beamed ceilings, hand-carved wood details and an old granary.
Exactly what havoc did the KTs supposedly wreak in France? In and around Jerusalem, sure -- but in France, they mostly got slapped around by King Philip. Unless I'm mistaken.
May 18, 2009
A Messe Of Pottage
So there's this huge political money scandal in the UK. The Telegraph's Simon Heffer says, let's get Puritanical -- as in the real Puritans:
Image via Wikipedia
What is now needed is the Cromwellian touch, for I do not believe Parliament's standing has been lower since Oliver dismissed the Rump in April 1653. Mr Cameron should sack from his front bench all those exposed in unacceptable use of taxpayers' money. Central Office should ask chairmen of constituency parties whose MPs have behaved disgracefully to consider whether the chances of the seat being held at the next election would be helped by the selection of a new, financially untainted candidate. To take this swift action now would secure Mr Cameron's moral advantage; it would greatly damage the Prime Minister and the Labour Party; it would put pressure on Mr Brown to do precisely the same.
Heffer even busts out one of my favorite Cromwell stories:
However, we all know what Mr Brown should do, and again Cromwell provides us with our lead. Remember the words he uttered to the Rump, in his anger at its failure to consolidate the new England after the second civil war: "It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt for all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage... Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your god; which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes?... Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; ye were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress'd, and are yourselves gone... In the name of God, go!"
The trouble is, this is EVERYBODY's favorite Cromwell speech, and he probably never said most of it. Mercurius Politicus has got the goods:
The earliest record I can find of it is in Thomas Mortimer’s The British Plutarch (1816), which gives this source for it:
The following piece said to have been found lately among some papers which formerly belonged to Oliver Cromwell is supposed to be a copy of the very words addressed by him to the members of the Long Parliament when he turned them out of the House. It was communicated to the Annual Register for 1767 by a person who signed his name T Ireton and said the paper was marked with the following words Spoken by Oliver Cromwell when he put an end to the Long Parliament.
I've had a look through the Annual Register on ECCO but can’t trace the original source. It's true that various letters and other Cromwelliana were turning up during the eighteenth century and onwards into the nineteenth, but a few things make the speech seem too good to be true. The fact that it purports to be a direct transcript, when it's unlikely anyone would have been recording it verbatim, is one. The reference to T Ireton is another -- perhaps an attempt to suggest authenticity by implying a descendant of Henry Ireton had got hold of the speech, but of course Ireton had died in 1651. So without wanting to be a spoilsport, the version of the speech being quoted in the press may not be what it purports to be.
I would look myself to confirm or refute MP's findings, but an injection my dissertation advisor gave me when I kept on doing research on "blood and treasure" instead of writing about Ezra Pound means that when I look at EEBO or ECCO for more than fifteen minutes at a stretch, my eyes begin to bleed.
For the record though, my all-time favorite Cromwell story involves another speech he purportedly gave, this time about torturing (probably) the Levellers (which Leveller John Lilburne somehow managed to overhear AND get to the printer while he was still in prison):
Lt. General Cromwell (I am sure of it) very loud, thumping his fist upon the Council table, til it rang again, and heard him speak in these very words or to this effect; I tell you, Sir, you have no other way to deal with these men, but to break them in pieces; and thumping upon the Council table again, he said, Sir, let me tell you that which is true, if you do not break them, they will break you; yea and bring all the guilt of the blood and treasure shed and spent in this kingdom upon your head and shoulders; and frustrate and make void all that work, that with so many years' industry, toil and pains you have done, and so render you to all rational men in the world as the most contemptiblest generation of silly, low-spirited men in the earth, to be broken and routed by such a despicable, contemptible generation of men as they are; and therefore, Sir, I tell you again, you are necessitated to break them.
Cromwell certainly did have a way of speaking his mind.
(Via Mercurius Politicus.)
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Learnin', Snarkpolitik, Worldsnark
Somebody Pull a Craigslist on Craigslist
Earlier today, Kurt Andersen said:
Yesterday I told Craig Newmark that craigslist had effectively expropriated newspapers' classified-ad business and put it in escrow....
Right theme; wrong approach. Instead, how 'bout we do what Daniel Bachhuber suggests: out-compete Craigslist.
I don't agree with all of Daniel's points. But I do think that he's directionally correct. On today's web, Craigslist is feeling awfully creaky and old-school. There's an opportunity for disruption there.
Yo Can I Get Some Better Eyes
The galaxy rises. Oh, hi, galaxy. Have you been there all along?
Will people in the not-so-distant future be horrified that we saw so much of the world through naked eyes, unaugmented -- and, for that reason, missed so much of it?
The Transit of the Atlantis
The full image of the transit of the Atlantic across the face of the sun is terrific; a lot of people are posting the cropped image and it doesn't do it justice at all. The full disc of the sun is what makes it seem really iconic, even mythic, to me. I saw somebody write that it looked like modern art; like a giant Gerhard Richter painting.
This Presidential NatSec Briefing Brought to You by 123Publish
To me, the thing that's striking about these national security briefings isn't the hokey combo of Bible verses and combat pics, it's the amateurish design. Something tells me whoever creates Obama's briefing papers has to consult a 133-page stylebook.
Now That's What I Call "Inventio"
[Obama's] eloquence is different from what I think of as rhetorical prettiness -- words and phrases that catch your notice as you hear them, and that often can be quoted, remembered, and referred to long afterwards. "Ask not..." from John F. Kennedy. "Blood, toil, tears, and sweat" from Winston Churchill. "Only thing we have to fear is fear itself" from FDR. "I have a dream," from Martin Luther King. Or, to show that memorable language does not necessarily mean elevated thought, "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" from the early George C. Wallace.
At rare moments in history, language that goes beyond prettiness to beauty is matched with original, serious, difficult thought to produce the political oratory equivalent of Shakespeare. By acclamation Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address is the paramount American achievement of this sort: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right..."
The reason to distinguish eloquence of thought from prettiness of expression is that the former tells you something important about the speaker, while the latter may or may not do so. Hired assistants can add a fancy phrase, much as gag writers can supply a joke. Not even his greatest admirers considered George W. Bush naturally expressive, but in his most impressive moment, soon after the 9/11 attacks, he delivered a speech full of artful writerly phrases, eg: "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." Good for him, and good for his staff.
Rhetorical polish, that is, can be a staff-enhanced virtue. The eloquence that comes from original thought is much harder to hire, or to fake. This is the sort of eloquence we've seen from Obama often enough to begin to expect.
(Sorry for the long quote, but I wanted to include all of Fallows's examples.)
Inventio is the system or method used for the discovery of arguments in Western rhetoric and comes from the Latin word, meaning "invention" or "discovery". Inventio is the central, indispensable canon of rhetoric, and traditionally means a systematic search for arguments (Glenn and Goldthwaite 151).
Inventio comes from the Latin invenire, meaning "to find" or "to come upon". The same Latin root later gave us the English word inventor. Invenire is derived from the Greek heuriskein, also meaning "to find out" or "discover" (cf. eureka, "I have found it").
May 17, 2009
Urban Sky Edens of the Future
Reading through this month's Communication Arts, I encountered an article on the High Line, an abandoned elevated rail platform in NYC. After the line went fallow in 1980, Nature reclaimed it. Trees, grasses and wildflowers overgrew the tracks, turning it into an urban wonder -- a wild garden in the sky. Due to years of legal wrangling, the line somehow never got demolished. So a group of dreamers calling themselves Friends of the High Line assembled a coalition of influential hipster sympathizers to turn it into a park. Back in 2007, New York Magazine chronicled the rail line's evolution from urban ruin to civic treasure. Kottke's been blogging it since 2004, so I may be the last nerd-hipster to hear about it. If I'm not, photos of the thing abound, so do spend some time enjoying them.
Photo from Flickr user cdstar, licensed under Creative Commons. Feel free to make derivative works off this post, if you'd like.
May 16, 2009
What I Have Learned About Teaching By Being A Parent, Vol. 1
Axiom: You can't teach anyone anything without intentionally or accidentally modeling humanity for them. It isn't enough to adequately convey information to students or take care of the mechanics of teaching - this is just feeding and changing diapers. You have to choose or (more properly) cultivate the form of humanity you want to perform/become/become through performing/perform through becoming.
Corollary 1: The most important and humbling thing that any teacher must learn is respect for humanity that fundamentally differs from yours. If you are studious and a hard worker, you have to avoid the temptation to identify with and reward your students who are studious hard workers. If you are a charismatic and eloquent speaker, you have to resist the urge to cut your charismatic students more slack. This is above all true when this identification with your students flatters your own (perhaps aspiring) identity in some way.
Corollary 2: The first corollary to this axiom does not follow logically from it, but rather contradicts it. This is just and proper.
Corollary 3: The Latin word for both this axiom and its first corollary is caritas. It means both charity and love.
File under: Beauty, Learnin', Self-Disclosure
Frühling Für Hitler Und Vaterland
A German adaptation of Mel Brooks's The Producers opens in Berlin.
May 15, 2009
Another One from Michael Pollan
This guy is has mastered the art of the useful epigram. Here's another one to go along with "eat sunlight, not oil":
Don't buy any food you've ever seen advertised.
May 13, 2009
Curtis Roads, Aaron McLeran, and the Future of Music
Curtis Roads is one of the pioneers of computer music, and he's not done pioneering yet. He calls the current era of electronic music its "golden age," because sound is more plastic than ever before:
Electronic music extends the domain of composition from a closed, homogenous set of notes ... to an open universe of heterogeneous sound objects ... All of a sudden, we're working with any sound possible. And that really changes the game.
Early case in point: Friend-of-Snark Aaron McLeran, who wrote the score for EPIC 2014 back in the day and now works with Roads at UCSB, has been investigating a new kind of synthesis that gives you more flexible, high-fidelity control over sound samples than ever before. Here's an explanation and example. (Be sure to play the sample files.) Check out some of Aaron's other work, too -- it's like the online lab of a mad audio scientist!
Update: Aaron has a new blog -- Digital Poesis.
It Is Not Logical
Andrew Hungerford -- aka the smartest, funniest dramatist * astrophysicist = lighting director you should know -- has written the best post on the physical holes in the new Star Trek movie that I think can be written.
Basically, almost nothing in the movie makes sense, either according to the laws established in our physical universe or the facts established in the earlier TV shows and movies.
Wherever possible, Andy provides a valiant and charitable interpretation of what he sees, based (I think) on the theory that "what actually happened" is consistent with the laws of physics, but that these events are poorly explained, characters misspeak, or the editing of the film is misleading. (I love that we sometimes treat Star Trek, Star Wars, etc., like the "historical documents" in Galaxy Quest -- accounts of things that REALLY happened, but that are redramatized or recorded and edited for our benefit, as opposed to existing ONLY within a thinly fictional frame.)
If you haven't seen the movie yet, you probably shouldn't read the post. It will just bother you when you're watching it, like Andy was bothered. If you have, and you feel like being justifiably bothered (but at the same time profoundly enlightened), check it out right now. I mean, now.
Twitter's Bigger Than a Mere Integer
Twitter's status IDs -- the unique numbers that identify each tweet -- are about to cross the line where they can be expressed by a signed, 32-bit integer, which only goes from -2,147,483,648 to 2,147,483,648. This might mean that there have been about two billion tweets so far.
This thread reminding Twitter API developers about the change is interesting, even if you don't understand all of it. Lots and lots of bugs have been caused by programmers thinking: "Pshaw! This number will never get that big..." -- and indeed, the system I built for Current's twitterized election coverage will be rendered inoperational when tweets cross the 32-bit threshold. (Luckily, web apps are a lot easier to upgrade and fix than space probes.)
Okay, I realize this post might be really boring. I've always been unaccountably fascinated by the limits imposed by computer architecture -- length of numbers, number of colors, size of files, etc.
Also: Two billion tweets! Whoah!
May 12, 2009
The Story of a Life
Wow. This anecdote from the new Atlantic article about long lives and happiness is... stunning. I can't believe it's true:
In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they're future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs -- protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections -- but in the short term actually put us at risk. That's because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.
To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his "prize" Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. "On his 70th birthday," Vaillant said, "when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, 'Would you write a letter of appreciation?' And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters -- often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him." Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. "[Dr. Vaillant], I don't know what you're going to make of this," the man said, as he began to cry, "but I've never read it." "It's very hard," Vaillant said, "for most of us to tolerate being loved."
You gotta read this article. It's weird and long and counterintuitive and interesting.
X, Y, and F#
Here's how St. Vincent wrote her new album:
Annie Clark, who does business as St. Vincent, wrote much of her new album, "Actor," by drawing, not playing. Mainly a guitarist, Clark began the album in a French hotel room in December of 2007, using GarageBand software and a pair of headphones, "drawing notes one by one, until they sounded how they should sound."
I am not a good musician, but for what it's worth, I've always found the piano-roll grid of computer music apps a million times more intuitive than either music notation or (worse) music language -- e.g. "Okay, give me a G-major!" My brain just doesn't work that way.
I like this part best: "...until they sounded how they should sound." You can have Ableton Live (and lots of other programs too) just loop through the sub-section you're working on, again and again. You tweak it as it's looping, adding and moving notes, listening to the differences. Nudging and scraping the sound like clay.
The Future Is Bright Indeed
Saw Star Trek. Yes, it's great fun. But I want to take a moment to celebrate a contributor not noted on the IMDb page. Really, it ought to read: "Star Trek (2009), starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and... SOOO MANY LENS FLARES."
Lens flares are all over Star Trek, even -- especially -- when there's no bright light on screen. They're different shapes, different colors, but they're omnipresent. They streak across the frame, across characters' faces:
They're most evident on the bridge of the Enterprise, but even in dark and dingy scenes, there's the suggestion of something luminous just off-camera:
Maybe it was my imagination, but it even felt like the flares had a certain character-specific quality, like the recurring melodies in Peter and the Wolf. Spock's flare was long and linear, straight across the eyes:
Kirk's flare was a spark of pink light circling his face. It's hard to see here -- look for the three bars hovering over the scratch on his cheek:
Anyway. Some people thought the near-constant flaring was overdone. I found it totally enchanting. Here's a bit of the behind-the-scenes story.
The Enterprise As A Start-Up
This is a post about the new Star Trek movie that contains no spoilers.
Here's my rule about movie and television spoilers. If you're giving information that's already given in a preview, then you're spoiling nothing that hasn't been spoiled already. Likewise, if you're giving information that can be reasonably inferred, no spoiling has occurred.
If you're not willing to entertain either of these possibilities, if you scrupulously avoid movie trailers or cast lists, and you still haven't seen this movie, then not only are you a weirdo, you also stopped reading this post long ago.
So, you will be shocked, shocked to learn that at one point in the new Star Trek movie, just as you've seen in the trailer, James T. Kirk sits in the captain's chair, and that by the end of the movie, most of the characters that we associate with the Enterprise's crew are working together on the Enterprise.
So here's Henry Jenkins's thoughtful post, "Five Ways to Start a Conversation About the New Star Trek Film," which DOES contain more detailed spoilers. My excerpt, however, does not:
In the past, we were allowed to admire Kirk for being the youngest Star Fleet captain in Federation history because there was some belief that he had managed to actually earn that rank... It's hard to imagine any military system on our planet which would promote someone to a command rank in the way depicted in the film. In doing so, it detracts from Kirk's accomplishments rather than making him seem more heroic. This is further compromised by the fact that we are also promoting all of his friends and letting them go around the universe on a ship together.
We could have imagined a series of several films which showed Kirk and his classmates moving up through the ranks, much as the story might be told by Patrick O'Brien or in the Hornblower series. We could see him learn through mentors, we could seem the partnerships form over time, we could watch the characters grow into themselves, make rookie mistakes, learn how to do the things we see in the older series, and so forth. In comics, we'd call this a Year One story and it's well trod space in the superhero genre at this point.
But there's an impatience here to give these characters everything we want for them without delays, without having to work for it. It's this sense of entitlement which makes this new Kirk as obnoxious as the William Shatner version. What it does do, however, is create a much flatter model for the command of the ship. If there is no age and experience difference between the various crew members, if Kirk is captain because Spock had a really bad day, then the characters are much closer to being equals than on the old version of the series.
This may be closer to our contemporary understanding of how good organizations work -- let's think of it as the Enterprise as a start-up company where a bunch of old college buddies decide they can pool their skills and work together to achieve their mutual dreams. This is not the model of how command worked in other Star Trek series, of course, and it certainly isn't the way military organizations work, but it is very much what I see as some of my students graduate and start to figure out their point of entry into the creative industries.
The Enterprise as a start-up! It reminds me of that story about the guys who started Silicon Valley's Fairchild Semiconductor.
Let me add that I think Jenkins is wrong about the way promotion is presented in the film -- Star Fleet actually appears to be remarkably meritocratic, much more deferential to performance and aptitude tests than years served. Captain Pike tells Kirk that he could command his own starship (the second highest rank) in four years after leaving the academy. Chekhov is a starship navigator (and not, like Kirk or Uhura, a cadet) at only seventeen years old; Spock is a commander and academy instructor without there being a sense of a considerable age/experience gap between he and Kirk or Uhura. (He's introduced as "one of our most distinguished graduates," like he's a really good TA.)
But it's not academia; it's the NBA. You give these kids the ball.
The important point is that within this highly meritocratic structure, the crew members of the Enterprise are PARTICULARLY and precociously talented. Kirk is the fastest to rise to captain where fast rises are not uncommon. As I said to my friends after seeing the movie, it gets bonus points for emphasizing just how SMART these people are; Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Scotty, and Chekhov (among others) are explicitly presented as geniuses.
Okay, now I've probably actually included spoilers in this thing. So. What. Go see the movie already. Then read the rest of Jenkins's post. You'll enjoy them both.
(H/t: the awesome Amanda Phillips.)
The Most Inverted Pyramid of All
Heh heh. I like the NYT's new TimesWire feed because it grants you a glimpse of parallel incarnations of the same article. If you do any work whatsoever with web content, this little pair will be all too familiar:
The top headline and description, all grace and wit. The bottom headline and description... all blunt Google-juice.
File under: Journalism, Media Galaxy, Technosnark
May 11, 2009
The Tyranny of Solving Problems
Here's a great bit of counter-conventional-wisdom from Jack Schulze. He's talking about design:
4) Some people (they are wrong) say design is about solving problems. Obviously designers do solve problems, but then so do dentists. Design is about cultural invention. There are some people who want to reduce the domain of design to listable, knowable stuff, so it's easy to talk about. Design is a glamorous, glittering world and this means they can engage without having to actually risk themselves on the outcome of their work. This is damaging. It turns design into something terrified of invention. Design is about risk. We all fear authentic public response to our work, but we have to be brave enough to overcome.
On one level, I really respect people who believe that a craft, or a career, should be about Solving Problems, and that everything else is ego, excess, decoration, distraction.
On another level, really? The world is just a set of problems to be fixed? Wounds to be healed? Boxes to be checked? Doesn't seem correct.
I like Schulze's word: invention. Maybe we need more self-identified inventors.
Just the Gentlest Crease
It's just barely-folded paper.
Games and Novels
Joanne McNeil finds a tasty nugget about games and novels.
I like the idea of writing a novel the way you'd write a game. Maybe the end-product is completely traditional -- two covers, 300 pages, plain ol' paper -- but the behind-the-scenes process is very different. Dozens of little Ruby scripts. You combinatorially create 10,000 character sketches and put them all on Mechanical Turk to see which ones resonate. Then drop those characters into a text-based world simulation. Make them autonomous agents with goals and desires. See what happens. Mine the simulation for interesting interactions, and then write those up into polished prose.
That's the key: You use the tools and techniques of video games not as the final product -- you're not trying to generate "automatic fiction" here -- but simply as powerful scaffolding to help you write an interesting story. This combinatorial/probabilistic thing is a huge part of the natural creative process anyway; in this scenario, you just admit it, and then augment it. Plug it into a server cluster.
This is probably not what any of the people in Joanne's post are talking about. But I think it sounds fun.
Related: The widely-linked game/poem Today I Die is a weird little delight. Takes five minutes... if you're smart!
May 10, 2009
Crack This Code
Wow. Gotta say... even in an era of wireless internet, touch screens, and 3D games, the Enigma machine looks pretty badass. It's completely info-steampunk. And the rotor system is sooo evocative. Like magic medallions. Really, Indiana Jones shoulda had his hands on an Enigma machine at some point.
Oops, Turns Out That's Poison Ivy After All
The Ideas! The Ideas! Part... Whatever
Charlie Jane Anders, "Why Dollhouse Really Is Joss Whedon's Greatest Work":
The evil in Dollhouse is harder to deal with than the evil in Buffy because it's our evil. It's our willingness to strip other people of their humanity in order to get what we need from them. It's our eagerness to give up our humanity and conform to other people's expectations, in exchange for some vaguely promised reward. And it's our tendency to put any new piece of technology to whatever uses we can think of, whether they're positive or utterly destructive.
And that last bit, about technology, is the other main reason why Dollhouse is Whedon's most accomplished work, especially if you love science fiction like we do. Unlike Joss' other works, Dollhouse really is about the impact of new technology on society. It asks the most profound question any SF can ask: how would we (as people) change if a new technology came along that allowed us to...? In this case, it's a technology that allows us to turn brains into storage media: We can erase, we can record, we can copy. It's been sneaking up on us, but Dollhouse has slowly been showing how this radically changes the whole conception of what it means to be human. You can put my brain into someone else's body, you can keep my personality alive after I die, and you can keep my body around but dispose of everything that I would consider "me."
Kindle Up Your Textbooks, Children
The Chronicle of Higher Education on the Kindle DX and the market for electronic textbooks:
Most college students—more than 80 percent, according to a survey by Educause—already own portable machines that can display electronic textbooks: They're called laptops. And more than half of all major textbooks are already offered in electronic form for download to those laptops.
Yet so far sales of electronic textbooks are tiny, despite efforts by college bookstores to make the option to buy digital versions clearer by advertising e-books next to printed ones on their shelves. "It's a very small percentage of our sales at this point," said Bill Dampier, general manager of MBS Direct, a major textbook reseller.
What the textbook industry needs is the equivalent of an iTunes store for e-books, say some experts, who note that sales of digital music never took off until Apple created the iPod and an easy-to-use online music marketplace. That's why Amazon seems like a promising entrant.
Except for one thing: Publishers have already set up a digital store meant to serve as the iTunes of e-textbooks, and it has been slow to catch on. The online store, called CourseSmart, was started two years ago by the five largest textbook publishers. Now 12 publishers contribute content to the service, which offers more than 6,300 titles. The e-books are all designed to be read on laptops or desktops, rather than Kindles or other dedicated e-book reading devices.
One problem for CourseSmart has been a lack of awareness by both students and professors that the service even exists.
Yep -- sounds about right. You think we'd be easy to target, but we're actually not. In fact, probably the ONLY two media/publishing companies with significant overlapping penetration among both students and professors would be Amazon and Apple.
Also of note: the only reason why publishers are really interested in electronic books is that they can use DRM to crush sales of used books beneath their foot forever. (I remember the first book I ever used that required you to register a CD w/ a unique ID number in order to use it; SBS sold it to me at about 75% of cover used and then refused to take it back. I had to buy the new copy again.)
Also also of note: one of the lines Bezos used again and again in his Kindle presentation (from the transcripts I've seen -- anybody know where I could find video) with respect to textbooks is "structured content." I actually think this is a hugely important idea. A book gives a text physical form, sure, but that physicality works together with paratextual devices to structure its content. Page numbers, title pages, tables of content, indices, volume and chapter devisions, footnotes/endnotes, captions, commentary, usw.
This is why Project Gutenberg or any other kind of throw-it-up-there text file service will always suck. It's also why a lot of digital archives don't work. We need ways to give content structure, and to make that structure easily and productively navigable to users. Ebooks have suffered from a lack of legitimate and visible marketplaces, but to borrow a metaphor, they've also suffered from really crappy gameplay. Whoever figures out how to solve these problems will solve long-form electronic reading.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Design, Learnin', Marketing, Object Culture, Technosnark, Video Games
May 8, 2009
Obama's Promise To A Soldier
Shhh -- don't ask, don't tell's days are numbered:
H/t to Howard Weaver.
May 6, 2009
Gina Trapani hits on what might turn out to be Twitter's killer feature:
When you post a question on Twitter and get a dozen replies within the next 10 minutes from actual humans–some of whom you know and trust–it’s waay better than impersonal Google search results.
If about.com shows you what random dudes think, Wikipedia shows you what nobody in particular thinks, and Google shows you what everybody thinks, Twitter shows you what the people you trust think. Who needs Wolfram Alpha or the semantic web when you've got real, live people whom you can ask complicated open-ended questions? You can keep the wisdom of crowds -- I'll take the wisdom of MY crowd.
The only trouble with this is that the answers stay bottled up in the little group. Google might not have the personal touch, but at least everyone can benefit from it.
But wait; Trapani's got you covered:
After 1,700 posts and two years on Twitter, this insta-Q&A is my favorite use of the service–except I always want to share what I learn from my followers, and it’s not easy. My post on what people love and hate about netbooks, sourced entirely from Twitter replies, took me hours to compile manually, because Twitter doesn’t easily list replies to a particular “tweet” in a very readable or republishable format. So this weekend I dug into the service’s API to make that happen. Using Kevin Makice’s new book, Twitter API: Up and Running, after just a day of coding I had my entire Twitter archive plus replies ready for viewing and publishing.
I like that this is the complete opposite of what Robin did with his Twitter feed a couple of months ago -- not least because it shows that while the basic principle of Twitter is extraordinarily simple, the implementations of it are varied enough to be tremendous.
What we need now, though, are Twitterhacks for the rest of us! Most of us don't have a day to devote to coding this stuff, even if we knew how to code in the first place. We need an ecosystem of smart implementations and variations that build on this simple infrastructure. We need these more than 101 different spiffy backgrounds or client apps.
So... what happens next?
Videos in B Flat
Oh, this is too cool. Musicians record simple videos, all in the same key. Play, pause, mix-and-match at will.
May 5, 2009
Letters That Aren't Letters
There's a building on a pier near Current HQ in San Francisco. Written on the side of the building, black against very dark gray, are giant letters. Or, at least they appear to be letters. Some definitely are -- one's an E, for sure. But the others are just on the edge of comprehension: Is that an N? Is that one a W? You run through the permutations in your head, trying to settle on a combination that forms a word. Nothing works. You can feel your brain spinning its wheels -- but not giving up, because come on, recognizing letters is what brains do! After too many tries (and trust me, I've tried it a lot) it's actually a bit painful.
Here's that same experience, only thousands of times deeper and more beautiful. Maybe still a bit painful, though?
Okay, so. I feel like we are all sitting around joking about swine flu and arguing about Twitter and Kevin Kelly is sitting in his study in Pacifica unraveling the secrets of the universe.
Help Me Build a Set of Short-Story Feeds
I really like A. O. Scott's suggestion, via David Hayes, that there might be a new, more vital market for short stories sometime in the near future, thanks mostly to the Kindle (and maybe the iPhone, too).
I want to build a quick list of places on the web where new short stories are being posted with some regularity. Here's what I have to start:
Hmm. Yeah. Gonna need some help here.
Bonus points for sources that are outside the MFA-matrix... I'm especially looking for short stories with a popular sensibility. But I'll take anything. I'm sure you've got a few, just off the top of your head...!
Touching Each Other's Mindsthe value of a blog's readers:
This has been an education for me. No one will read all the comments except me, but if you did, you could learn all a layman should be expected to understand about the quantum level. You would discover a defender of Intelligent Design so articulate that when he was away for a couple of days, the Darwinians began to fret and miss him. You would have the mathematical theory of infinity explained so that, while you will still be unable to conceive of infinity, you will understand the thinking involved.
The larger post is a lovely, thoughtful meditation on death, identity, and faith:
What I expect will most probably happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function, and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. Perhaps I have been infertile. If I discover that somewhere along the way I conceived a child, let that child step forward and he or she will behold a happy man. Through my wife, I have had stepchildren and grandchildren, and I love them unconditionally, which is the only kind of love worth bothering with.
Also Van Gogh, Tintin, Walt Whitman, and Quantum Mechanics.
Something For The Ladies (And Gay Men Into Bears)
Meghan Keane defends X-Men Origins: Wolverine:
Taking Wolverine out of his latex X-Man suit is one of the best things that Twentieth Century Fox ever did. Unlike the swarms of spandex clad action stars that populate most films, Wolverine is a testosterone-fueled revenge fantasy. Other superheros/mutants have actual powers of magical proportions, but Wolverine always beats them. It’s never explained why. Presumably because he is hot.
Let Cyclops (“I cry lasers!”) have Jean Gray. Batman “My rubberized suit comes with built in nipples” can save Gotham. But strip Wolverine and force him to wander the countryside? Um, sure. Thanks for thinking of us, Fox. Why don’t you send him naked down a waterfall while you’re at it? Cheers.
Actually, comic readers do know why Wolverine always beats other heroes: because he's the best there is at what he does.
Luxurious Artisanal Bibliophile Dada
Sweet Gods of Heaven and Earth! It's the best bookporn post ever!
That's Xu Bing's Tian Shu (Book From Heaven). Rachel Leow writes:
To make [the four hundred books and fifty-foot scrolls], Xu painstakingly carved Chinese characters into square woodblocks, in just the way his ancient printing predecessors would have done, had them typeset and printed, and the printed pages mounted and bound into books and scrolls.
The result is a truly spectacular display of bookmanship — volumes fit for an emperor’s library. Yet, there’s the astonishing, Borgesian catch: Out of the three or four thousand Chinese characters used in these volumes and scrolls, not a single one of them is a real Chinese character.
They are made up of recognizable radicals and typical atomic components of Chinese characters, but Xu laboured to ensure that while they all retain the unmistakable look of Chinese script, they are all, so to speak, nonsense. They do not exist in any dictionary, and do not mean anything. Chinese speakers and non-Chinese speakers alike approach the books with the same sense of wonder at their beauty, and the same sense of incomprehension at their content — though, for Chinese readers, the frustrated impulse to read might detract somewhat from their aesthetic enjoyment of the art piece. I’ve heard that some Chinese readers have spent days attempting to locate a character they can read — to no avail. It’s a piece of art whose meaning is to be found in its meaninglessness.
I want to GO to there.
Instead, you should go to a historian's craft to check out more images of Xu Bing's two books (there is also a Book of Earth) and read every gorgeous word Rachel's written about them. These are the internet equivalent of being touched by "beautiful calligraphy, by brushstroked words on fine paper, by sensuous lines of scripts that dance provocatively on the page, inviting comprehension." You wish you wrote this well this early in the morning. (It's still early in Malaysia, right?)
It's a completely different tradition, but I'm reminded of Augustine's theory of signs. For Augustine, a sign (whether a word or a symbol) is a tool, an instrument. Signification shows that things aren't used for their own sake, but in reference to something else. This chain of signification and interpretation goes all the way up to God, who is the only thing completely sufficient in Himself, that CAN'T be made to signify anything else. Since everything else is deficient, anything that isn't God, whether a word, a gesture, a picture, a dream, stars, a person, an animal, a tree, usw., can be turned into a sign. In fact, it HAS to be taken as a sign, at least in this broad sense of an instrument pointing to another purpose; otherwise, you're performing a kind of idolatry, taking a deficient thing to be self-sufficient and giving to it what you should reserve for God alone. At this point, Augustine's semiotics dovetails with his ethics; we shouldn't delight too much in food for its own sake, sex for its own sake -- in short, in pleasure, except insofar as it helps us to serve a godly and natural purpose.
So there is a universal potential for signfication. Any worldly thing can be a sign. But to refuse signification, to delight in the pleasure of the letter itself, is an act of rebellion.
Rachel's language may be more instrumental than Xu Bing's, but it's no less of a pleasure to read.
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Language, Object Culture, Worldsnark
May 4, 2009
Joshua Benton over at NiemanLab is right: NPRbackstory is brilliant. Mostly because it's so simple: A script takes trending Google searches as input, queries the NPR API, and spits out related stories. But the related stories aren't necessarily new; sometimes they're years old. And that's a feature, not a bug.
"The NPR content is more rich in its breadth than it is in timeliness," Keith said. "That's probably true of most news archives. But the Internet places a high value on timeliness, and I was looking at the API saying, 'There's nothing timely here!'"
So he hit on the idea of providing the backstory to subjects currently in the news. "I think there's this yearning for meaning in our content," he said. "We want a lot of the same information, but packaged differently. I thought something that looked at the context or the background for something would be something I'd welcome seeing in my Twitter feed."
Reasons to like this:
- Gives good journalism a boost up out of the archives and back into view.
- Reveals hidden context behind the things people are talking about today. (P.S. Our memories are short.)
- The entire app is a few APIs stitched together with Yahoo! Pipes. How can you not love that?
Here's the Twitter feed.
May 3, 2009
If This Were 1998, This Wouldn't Be So Hard
Following on Robin's post about Google Profiles, I've re-entered this old debate with myself about whether to create a personal web page. It'd be fun, I'm sure, and maybe even useful, but maybe not.
When I first became aware of the internet, the way to show that you were a savvy web-user was to create your own web page. This was where you stored all of your information that you wanted to share with the world: contact info, work stuff, pictures, writings and ideas, and a smartly curated set of links to other sites.
Now, of course, we've scattered all of that information all over the web to sites managed by companies (usually) and devoted to that purpose: Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and of course, blogs. Academics (which I am) often keep material on their university pages, but those sites usually aren't suitable for sharing more than a photo, email address and short set of interests.
Strangely, though, that's become in a way the preferred style for contemporary home pages -- a single page that quickly sends you elsewhere, rather than gathering very much together.
My ideal would be to have a site like Bruno Latour's, but I don't have his CV with which to pull it off.
So what say you, Snarkmatrix? How many of you have an all-in-one home page? How does it work for you? If you were putting one together now, how would you do it?
Michigan Boy Makes Good
There are some good lines in Larry Page's commencement speech at U of M. Here's the one-sentence summary of how to change the world:
Always work hard on something uncomfortably exciting.
Also, how to know if you're taking big enough risks:
You're probably on the right track if you feel like a sidewalk worm during a rainstorm.
It's a Weird, Weird World
I admit it, I had to read up on Mine That Bird, the out-of-nowhere Kentucky Derby winner. This bit of backstory is from ESPN.com:
So why did he win and win in a runaway? It had to have been a combination of factors, starting with the track condition. He caught a sloppy track, which had to have moved him up. With a limited sample, sire Birdstone is producing 23 percent winners on the off going. (Ironically, Birdstone ran eighth in the 2004 Derby in the slop in one of the worst races of his career). He is out of an unraced Smart Strike mare and Smart Strike is among the better slop sires out there. His offspring win 19 percent of the time on wet tracks.
Slop sire? Jeeeez. Horse racing is the only sport (or whatever it is) that actually involves heredity as a, like, strategy, right?
May 2, 2009
The Perpetual History of Covert Wonder
I had occasion this morning to read "The Singularity Is Always Near," a 2006 essay by Kevin Kelly; if you haven't given it a look, you should check it out. It's partly a debunking of Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near, but more precisely, it's a periodic glimpse into the perpetual history of covert wonder:
I think that technological transitions represented by the singularity are completely imperceptible from WITHIN the transition that is represented (inaccurately) by a singularity. A phase shift from one level to the next level is only visible from the perch of the new level -- after arrival there. Compared to a neuron the mind is a singularity -- it is invisible and unimaginable to the lower parts. But from the viewpoint of a neuron the movement from a few neurons to many neurons to alert mind will appear to be a slow continuous smooth journey of gathering neurons. There is no sense of disruption, of Rapture. The discontinuity can only be seen in retrospect.
Language is a singularity of sorts, as was writing. But the path to both of these was continuous and imperceptible to the acquirers. I am reminded of a great story a friend tells of some cavemen sitting around the campfire 100,000 years ago, chewing on the last bits of meat, chatting in guttural sounds. One of them says,
"Hey, you guys, we are TALKING!
"What do you mean TALKING? Are you finished that bone?
"I mean we are SPEAKING to each other! Using WORDS. Don't you get it?
“You've been drinking that grape stuff again, haven't you."
“See we are doing it right now!”
As the next level of organization kicks in, the current level is incapable of perceiving the new level, because that perception must take place at the new level. From within our emerging global cultural, the coming phase shift to another level is real, but it will be imperceptible to us during the transition. Sure, things will speed up, but that will only hide the real change, which is a change in the rules of the game. Therefore we can expect in the next hundred years that life will appear to be ordinary and not discontinuous, certainly not cataclysmic, all the while something new gathers, until slowly we recognize that we have acquired the tools to perceive that new tools are present - and have been for a while.
For a different illustration of Kelly's idea, see Louie C.K.'s now-legendary "Everything Is Amazing, And Nobody's Happy":
I also really like Kelly's observation that "if Benjamin Franklin (an early Kurzweil type) had mapped out the same graph [of technological evolution] in 1800, his graph too would have suggested that the singularity would be happening then, RIGHT NOW! The same would have happened at the invention of radio, or the appearance of cities, or at any point in history since – as the straight line indicates – the 'curve' or rate is the same anywhere along the line." So true!
"The Problem With Cable Is Television"
But, it turns out, the problem with television is sports:
The broadband business is doing fine, as costs are coming down. Cable executives do worry that if costs rise as they expect because of surging online video use, they will need to find some way to get prices going up the way they are used to in their video business.
The bigger question is what happens to the video business. By all accounts, Web video is not currently having any effect on the businesses of the cable companies. Market share is moving among cable, satellite and telephone companies, but the overall number of people subscribing to some sort of pay TV service is rising. (The government's switch to digital over-the-air broadcasts is providing a small stimulus to cable companies.) However, if you remember, it took several years before music labels started to feel any pain from downloads...
The wedge that breaks all this may well be sports. ESPN alone already accounts for nearly $3 of every monthly cable bill, industry executives say. With all these new sports networks pushing up cable rates, at some point people who aren't sports fans might start turning in volume to Internet services like Netflix. We're not there yet, but looking at the industry in the last quarter, you can see the pressures building.
Fascinating (and quick!) look at cable companies' businesses. [Everything in bold is my emphasis.]
May 1, 2009
Turn of Phrase
I like it:
A shower in the middle of the day grants precisely the feeling that eating breakfast for dinner or rearranging the furniture in your room does. It's pleasing because it is different and voluntary but not immediately repeatable.
It's hard to say what exactly Magic Molly's subject is. Strange food, city people, and the things you notice sitting alone in a room, mostly. But all wrapped up in one of the best written voices on the web today.
Unique Viewers / Unique Readers
According to the webmaster, some hundreds of thousands of people (or "unique visitors," in the creepily Rumsfeldean turn) have read my posts over the year. Yes, in the web-world, where a nipple slip can net you a million sets of eyes in a breathless blink and click, these are Lilliputian numbers. In my world, however, those are towering digits, enormous for what they might say about the reading life: that there is still, in our noisy culture, a quiet but forcible interest in finding good books to read, and in debating what makes books good.
We "unique readers" know this, in our solitary hours. But it is pleasing, at times, to have company in that knowledge, to know that one isn't alone in one's enthusiasms. For my part, I have taken great pleasure in the enthusiasm of readers for this space, and am grateful for the time you've spent here. For now, know that I'm turning my attention to other tasks, with the expectation, at some point future, of returning to one not unlike this.
I can't quite put my finger on what I like about this farewell address (other than that I really like Mason's blog) -- all of the sentiments and tropes are expected, but their subtle, daisy-chained resonances are so gracefully done that it feels both fresh and sincere.
Kinda wish it didn't have the profile URL at the bottom. Then it would feel like a more honest representation of what people actually do in to check each other out in 2009.
If I lived in NYC I would buy one of these maps now. There's technology and whimsy at play here; good combo. Rationale for the map:
Because the ability to be in a city and to see through it is a superpower, and it's how maps should work.