Sunday, May 31, 2009

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.

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:
  • the five-page magazine article, serving as filler among the ads

  • the book, with a minimum of 200 pages

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.

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.

Friday, May 29, 2009

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.

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.)

What Kinds of Math Do We Need?

Biologists are debating how much quantitative analysis their field needs; at Language Log, Mark Liberman pivots to linguistics:

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?

The Negative Dialectics of Whiteness

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

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."

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.

Via Willing Davidson at The Book Bench.

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.

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.

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.

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?

And Choe Sang-Hun shows us South Korea:

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?

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.

Via the New Yorker's Book Bench.

Adventures in Paleoblogging


Clusterflock's skeleton crew has some nice nineteenth-century stuff this weekend:

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.

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.

In This Civil War Reconstruction, The Union Has Dinosaurs


I like this so much. From

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.

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.

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:

An unfinished  miniature portrait of Oliver Cr...

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.)

Now That's What I Call "Inventio"

James Fallows, "On eloquence vs. prettiness":

[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.)

Also --

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").

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.

Frühling Für Hitler Und Vaterland

Springtime For Hitler.jpg

A German adaptation of Mel Brooks's The Producers opens in Berlin.

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.

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.

Okay? Good.

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 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.

Obama's Promise To A Soldier

Shhh -- don't ask, don't tell's days are numbered:


H/t to Howard Weaver.


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 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?

Friday, May 01, 2009

Unique Viewers / Unique Readers

Translator/critic Wyatt Mason sums up a year of terrific writerly blogging for Harpers:

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.

Nom De Whatever

Intriguing aside in this Slate article by Huan Hsu on office workers in China adopting English names:

In the United States, people tend to view names and identities as absolute things—which explains why I agonized over deciding on an English name—but in China, identities are more amorphous. My friend Sophie flits amongst her Chinese name, English name, MSN screen name, nicknames she uses with her friends, and diminutives that her parents call her. "They're all me," she says. "A name is just a dai hao." Dai hao, or code name, can also refer to a stock's ticker symbol.

h/t: Saheli

You Want Bookporn? Oh, Man. We Got Some Bookporn.

VERY mature books (is 8000 BC old enough?) with an astonishingly sexy zoom feature -- similar to Google Maps, but smoother and more natural, especially with a two-finger trackpad. It's all yours, for free, at the World Digital Library.

Every Little Thing About Things

So, I've been following this Columbia U course blog called "thing theory" for a while now, enjoying the smart discussions of philosophy of things as they've trickled out. (Things are a personal passion of mine, and my dissertation is on the material culture of modernist art/lit/cinema.)

Well, it being the end of the semester, the blog is now positively blowing up. People are taking stances, saying what and who they like and don't like, and generally trying to put it all together for future thinking about, um, things.

So if you like sentences like these:

I understand that if one focuses on these aspects, the zebra ceases to exist, but the zebra is not a hard concrete thing, it is the manifestation of a particular network, a network that repeats itself (with slight variations of course) to create millions of similar networks we call zebras. I get it.

Then, my friend, you've got to jump in and check out this discussion. Tell them that Snarkmarket sent you.

Gay History vs. Queer Studies

Larry Kramer at Yale:

It took a long time for Yale to accept Kramer money. After a number of years of trying to get Yale to accept mine for gay professorships or to let me raise funds for a gay student center, (both offers declined), my extraordinary straight brother Arthur offered Yale $1 million to set up the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies and Yale accepted it. My good friend and a member of the Yale Corporation, Calvin Trillin, managed to convince President Levin that I was a pussycat. The year was 2001.

Five years later, in 2006, Yale closed down LKI, as it had come to be called. Yale removed its director, Jonathan David Katz. All references to LKI were expunged from Web sites and answering machines and directories and syllabuses. One day LKI was just no longer here.

When this happened I thought my heart would break.

I wanted gay history to be taught. I wanted gay history to be about who we are, and who we were, by name, and from the beginning of our history, which is the same as the beginning of everyone else’s history.

This is a great speech, even though it's peppered with the occasional, um, surprising claims ("George Washington was gay, and that his relationships with Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette were homosexual... his feelings for Hamilton led to a government and a country that became Hamiltonian rather than Jeffersonian") and a tirade against queer studies that feels misplaced and, at times, childish:

It seems as if everything is queer this and queer that... Just as a point of information, I would like to proclaim with great pride: I am not queer! And neither are you. When will we stop using this adolescent and demeaning word to identify ourselves? Like our history that is not taught, using this word will continue to guarantee that we are not taken seriously in the world.

Just like dressing "in drag," "acting" transgendered, or not wanting to let other people define your identities for you guarantee that you won't be taken seriously in the world. Oh, it matters so much to be taken seriously.

In particular, it seems foolish to blame scholars of literature and anthropology or communication for doing what they do with anything rather than history or politics departments who refuse to give gay history a foothold.

Folks care about the words they use, and are chilly towards "homosexual," not because they refuse to grant that same-sex desire/partnering/sex have always been around, but because 1) lots of people's sense of their gender/sexuality doesn't fall under what we'd just call "gay" or "homosexual," not least because 2) to pick of an example, if you were born an anatomical woman but think of yourself as a man attracted to women, you wouldn't think of your attraction as "same-sex," and 3) people finally get to define the words for themselves! "Homosexuality" is a medical word; "sodomy" is religious; "queer" is social. They all have different valences, but the last offers a flexibility that for many, many people, is highly desirable.

Now, I absolutely agree that Eve K Sedgwick doesn't do what George Chauncey does, and that we need about a hundred more Chaunceys a hundred times more than we need a hundred more Sedgwicks. But gosh, Larry, don't bash folks for not being serious because you don't like the name. Bash the institution for taking your money and not supporting what you wanted to do.

Also, pick up Epistemology of the Closet sometime and give it a read. I think you'd find that this marvelous turn of phrase you use (wait for the end) echoed nicely there:

Franklin Pierce, who became one of America's worst presidents, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who became one of our greatest writers, as roommates at Bowdoin College had interactions that changed them both forever and, indeed, served as the wellspring for what Hawthorne came to write about. Pierce was gay. And Hawthorne? Herman Melville certainly wanted him to be.

Google: The World's Medical Journal

A good anecdotal lead. Carolina Solis is a medical student who did research on parasitic infections caused by contaminated well water in rural Nicaragua.

Like many researchers, she plans to submit her findings for publication in a medical journal. What she discovered could benefit not just Nicaraguan communities but those anywhere that face similar problems. When she submits her paper, though, she says the doctors she worked with back in San Juan del Sur will probably never get a chance to read it.

"They were telling me their problems accessing these [journals]. It can be difficult for them to keep up with all the changes in medicine."

Hey, Matt, if you want to sink your teeth into a medical policy issue that's right up your alley, I think this is it.

There's legislation:

Washington recently got involved. Squirreled away in the massive $410 billion spending package the president signed into law last month is an open access provision. It makes permanent a previous requirement that says the public should have access to taxpayer-funded research free of charge in an online archive called PubMed Central. Such funding comes largely from the National Institutes of Health, which doles out more than $29 billion in research grants per year. That money eventually turns into about 60,000 articles owned and published by various journals.

But Democrats are divided on the issue. In February, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., submitted a bill that would reverse open access. HR 801, the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act, would prohibit government agencies from automatically making that research free. Conyers argues such a policy would buck long-standing federal copyright law. Additionally, Conyers argues, journals use their subscription fees to fund peer review in which experts are solicited to weigh in on articles before they're published. Though peer reviewers aren't usually identified or paid, it still takes money to manage the process, which Conyers calls "critical."

And cultural/generational change:

The pay-to-play model doesn't jive with a generation of soon-to-be docs who "grew up Google," with information no farther than a search button away. It's a generation that never got lost in library stacks looking for an encyclopedia, or had to pay a penny for newspaper content. So it doesn't see why something as important as medical research should be locked behind the paywalls of private journals.

Copyright issues are nothing new to a generation that watched the recording industry deal its beloved original music sharing service, Napster, a painful death in 2001. Last October, it watched Google settle a class-action lawsuit brought on by book publishers upset over its Book Search engine, which makes entire texts searchable. And just last week, a Swedish court sentenced four founders of the the Pirate Bay Web site to a year in prison over making copyrighted files available for illegal file sharing. And now the long-familiar copyright war is spilling over into medicine.

There's even WikiDoc

And, the article doesn't mention this, but I'll contend there's a role for journalism to play. Here's a modest proposal: allow medical researchers to republish key findings of the research in newspapers, magazines, something with a different revenue structure, and then make it accessible to everyone. Not perfect, but a programmatic effort would do some good.

Speaking of which -- what are the new big ideas on the health/medicine beat? This is such a huge issue -- it feels like it should have its own section in the paper every day.

Every Day Like Paris For The First Time

Jonah Lehrer + Allison Gopnik on baby brains:

The hyperabundance of thoughts in the baby brain also reflects profound differences in the ways adults and babies pay attention to the world. If attention works like a narrow spotlight in adults - a focused beam illuminating particular parts of reality - then in young kids it works more like a lantern, casting a diffuse radiance on their surroundings.

"We sometimes say that adults are better at paying attention than children," writes Gopnik. "But really we mean just the opposite. Adults are better at not paying attention. They're better at screening out everything else and restricting their consciousness to a single focus."

This (in bold) is the money-quote, though:

Gopnik argues that, in many respects, babies are more conscious than adults. She compares the experience of being a baby with that of watching a riveting movie, or being a tourist in a foreign city, where even the most mundane activities seem new and exciting. "For a baby, every day is like going to Paris for the first time," Gopnik says. "Just go for a walk with a 2-year-old. You'll quickly realize that they're seeing things you don't even notice."

I can confirm that this is true.

Also, peep this graph charting synaptic activity + density according to age (via Mind Hacks):


Apparently, that's where the real action is: contra Lehrer's article, baby brains don't actually have more neurons than adults, but way more (and way denser) synapses (aka the connections between neurons).

Also, just to free associate on the whole synapse thing: I had knee surgery a few weeks ago to repair a torn quadriceps tendon, and I'm in physical therapy now. Part of my PT involves attaching electrodes to my thigh to induce my quad to flex (this is called "reeducating the muscle.").

Anyways, it is always weird to confirm that we are just made out of meat, and that if you run enough electrical current through a muscle, it'll react whether or not your brain tells it to. That's all your brain is -- an extremely powerful + nuanced router for electricity.

A Fembot Living in A Manbot's Manputer's World

Goodbye, Bea Arthur:

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Audio For Dummies

Copyblogger lays out some guidelines for producing engaging podcasts or other audio recordings. Please note that if you maximize every suggestion, you wind up with a perfect episode of Radio Lab. This seems like a halfway-decent validation of their merit.

Via iLibrarian.

Snarkmarket Reading Survey

Something Walter Benjamin said has interested me for a while now:

If centuries ago [writing] began gradually to lie down, passing from the upright inscription to the manuscript resting on sloping desks before finally taking itself to bed in the printed book, it now begins just as slowly to rise again from the ground. The newspaper is read more in the vertical than in the horizontal plane, while film and advertisements force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular.

--- One Way Street (1928)

If Benjamin's right, then this is a reading revolution that's still underway -- expanding from film, advertisements, and newspapers to television, computer, and telephone screens. Even though we're using all these different devices, they just might be participating in this dyad of vertical vs. historical reading.

I've become something of an amateur anthropologist of how people read -- watching people read books or papers or from their phones or laptops in public places -- but I'm curious: how do you read?

* What kind of device(s)?
* Where is your body?
* Where is your reading material?
* How do you prefer to read?
* How do you read most often?
* Where/how is it hardest for you to read?
* What are your reading surfaces -- desks, tables, a bed, your own body?
* Do you use any prosthetic aids -- glasses, something to raise your laptop upwards?
* How did you read as a child? Ten years ago? What's changed?

Send pictures or movies even! Images of reading!

La Jolie Rousse

Guillaume Apollinaire, "La Jolie Rousse [The Pretty Redhead]":

Here I am before you all a sensible man
Who knows life and what a living man can know of death
Having experienced love's sorrows and joys
Having sometimes known how to impose my ideas
Adept at several languages
Having traveled quite a bit
Having seen war in the Artillery and the Infantry
Wounded in the head trepanned under chloroform
Having lost my best friends in the frightful conflict
I know of old and new as much as one man can know of the two
And without worrying today about that war
Between us and for us my friends
I am here to judge the long debate between tradition and invention
Between Order and Adventure

You whose mouth is made in the image of God's
Mouth that is order itself
Be indulgent when you compare us
To those who were the perfection of order
We who look for adventure everywhere

We're not your enemies
We want to give you vast and strange domains
Where mystery in flower spreads out for those who would pluck it
There you may find new fires colors you have never seen before
A thousand imponderable phantasms
Still awaiting reality
We want to explore kindness enormous country where all is still
There is also time which can be banished or recalled
Pity us who fight always at the boundaries
Of infinity and the future
Pity our errors pity our sins

Henri Rousseau, "La Muse inspirant le poè...

Henri Rousseau, "La Muse inspirant le poète," 1909. (A portrait of Apollinaire and Marie Laurencin). Image via Wikipedia

Now it's summer the violent season
And my youth is dead like the springtime
Oh Sun it's the time of ardent Reason
And I am waiting
So I may follow always the noble and gentle shape
That she assumes so I will love her only
She draws near and lures me as a magnet does iron
She has the charming appearance
Of a darling redhead

Her hair is golden you'd say
A lovely flash of lightning that lingers on
Or the flame that glows
In fading tea roses

But laugh at me
Men from everywhere especially men from here
For there are so many things I dare not tell you
So many things you would never let me say
Have pity on me

-- From Calligrammes, 1918

Annus Mirabilis

Wow, super podcast find -- on Apple Hot News, of all places. The Year Was 1959, a series of lectures (w/music) on a single year (but what a year) in the history of Jazz. Georgia State professor Gordon Vernick starts with three of my favorite records ever: John Coltrane's Giant Steps, Miles Davis's Kind Of Blue, and Ornette Coleman's The Shape Of Jazz To Come. (The two other great albums that people usually talk about are Charles Mingus's Mingus Ah Um and Dave Brubeck's Time Out.)

When you look at 1959, it's almost impossible to believe that it would be rock and roll (plus folk and ballad pop) that would chart the musical revolution. Rock was stagnant and jazz was endlessly inventive ten times over. Such a delight to listen -- this one year is an education in music itself.

Please, More Literary Theory Radio Shows, Please

If you've got twenty-five minutes to listen to two smart + funny people talk about Marcel Duchamp, Ezra Pound, comparative literature, American poetry, and French philosophy, give this podcast a whirl. It's by two of my teachers (and friends, and readers), the poet Charles Bernstein and literary critic Jean-Michel Rabaté. It's an intelligent and charming interview that could be subtitled "the stuff Tim thinks about all of the time."

Anémic Cinéma

Marcel Duchamp, 1926:

I even like the John Fahey-esque score, added by whomever.