Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lobo of London

My hometown team, the New Mexico Lobos, beat Brigham Young on Saturday night 83-81 for their 27th win (6-0 against ranked teams). Reading the recap of the game, I learned that there's an ESPN commenter named LoboofLondon. Fantastic.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is that a luge sled or a giant squid?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Remembering George Leonard

My father remembers a good friend and colleague, who, like him, identified strongly with the Southern liberal tradition:
George Leonard -- 1923-2010

Just after New Year's last month, Esalen lost one of the giants of our first 50 years as a catalyst for transformation in American and world culture. George Leonard first met Michael Murphy in 1965, an encounter he often said “changed his life.”...

That change came at the exact midpoint of George's long life: he was 43 in 1965; 86 when he died last month, surrounded by a whole pilgrimage of family and friends... Naturally much of the focus has been on the second half of George's eventful life -- “our” half. But the first half, what we might call the “pre-Esalen days,” is very much worth attention too. As a fellow Southerner, I've always been attuned to George's roots and core influences, which I share, deep in what we might call the “Southern dissident tradition” -- a rich if lesser-known legacy of liberal progressive humanism which was always there, running under and alongside the dominant strains of White Southern culture, at times bursting into the light and sending many key transformational leaders, Black and White, into the larger cultural stream.

George and I often spoke of this shared legacy, which ranged from some of the founders of the nation down through the Southern Abolitionists, into the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th Century and on to today. George Washington was an ambivalent figure in this tradition, selling property toward the end of his life in order to fund the terms of a last, secret will, under which all his slaves were to be emancipated. Jefferson's discomfort and contradictions and open family entanglements with slavery are now well-known. Andrew Johnson was another -- Lincoln's hapless Southern Vice-President who struggled to carry out Lincoln's intended legacy of both healing and Reconstruction (and was rewarded for his efforts with the nation's first impeachment trial of a sitting President, which he survived by one vote). Moving to the 20th Century, we spoke of Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, both of them white Southern farm boys, with roots in the great economically disenfranchised class -- black and white -- that they grew up seeing all around them, and never lost sight of as the united beneficiaries of progressive reform. Together they then led the most sweeping Civil Rights legislation since Emancipation.

As one of the pioneering journalists of the Civil Rights Movement of the 50's and 60's, George was very mindful of the reach and influence of Southern progressives through journalism into the hearts and consciousness of Americans. Hodding Carter and his opposition to Japanese internment in WWII as well as the outrageous racial injustice all around him, Ralph McGill and the Atlanta Constitution, Ronnie Dugger and the Texas Observer, Willie Morris and others, right down to one of our personal favorites, the late lamented Molly Ivins, who we agreed made “bush-whacking” into an art form. George was a proud player on this Southern team, with his early feature coverage of the renascent Civil Rights Movement for Look (the largest of the photojournalism magazines, in an era when the rich documentary text and imagery on current events affected the national consciousness, often in a deeper, more thoughtful way than some of today's fleeting bombardment of web and tv coverage). And of course along the way he was also the first to take an early pulse of the 60's generation and find that it was very different indeed from “PTSD” trance of the post-War, Eisenhower, red-menace years. Which is what led him to Esalen, where, as they say, the rest is history.
A treasured memory of mine is a conversation with him about the figure of Atticus Finch, anti-racist hero of Harper Lee's (and Truman Capote's) To Kill a Mockingbird, and George's interest in my Texas small-town liberal lawyer grandfather and the crusade against the resurgent Ku Klux Klan in the South of the 1920's, which George remembered from his own childhood.

If you grew up in the apartheid South of the Jim Crow era, as George and I both did, 20 years apart, then you grew up in a world of separate drinking fountains, separate restrooms (if there were any restrooms for “Colored”), a world where your relations with Black people were intimate, if stratified by a feudal class system. A world where as a child you could see a man you knew well personally, knew to be kind and honorable and intelligent, be humiliated (or worse) publicly with impugnity by any White citizen who happened to be a bad man, or even just in a bad mood. A world where a woman you knew personally to be the absolute backbone of several extended families, Black and White, could be worked into her 70's or 80's and then simply left to fend for herself, in illness or poverty. A world where your Sunday School teacher might go out of his way to impress racist doctrine on you; and yet some other family, not notably politically conscious or activist, might reach out across and against all this, to act like -- well, like real Christians, in the best, truest sense.

And you couldn't -- at least some of us couldn't -- then forget this, any of it. Not the amazing human capacity for blindness, injustice, dissociation of one part of ourselves from another, and cruelty based on greed and fear; and not the equally amazing human capacity for love, for new beginnings, for creative invention and progress.
This was an after-dinner wedding toast, the lead toast since he'd “given away the bride” -- but George delivered it in what first mocked, then played off, and then was an all-fire southern sermon (a form that crosses the Black-White cultural divide in the South). Soon other guests, especially the Southerners, were calling out “A-men, brother,” to great applause, and the toasts were off to a rousing start. So fervid did the praises of love and marriage grow after that that Jungian writer James Hillman felt impelled to rise, with mock severity, and start by chiding, to great laughter, “As an elderly psychoanalyst, I feel that a voice must be raised here for the Reality Principle…” and went on to detail what marriage really means (commitment -- as in “one person stays with the luggage at the airport, so the other person can go to the toilet.” Or “One person unloads the dishwasher, and the other person loads it -- and they always do it wrong…” and more in that deadpan vein. It was a great evening, and as I remember it now, and remember George's vivid, one-of-a-kind presence and spirit, the screen goes blurry, and I have to take off my glasses and wipe my eyes.
Rest in Peace, George. Or rather, relax into that special creative restlessness that characterized your whole life, and keep sending us the fruits and sparks of your transformational vision, from wherever you roam. As the Bard put in the mouth of his fullest, most self-identified character: “We shall not see his like again.”
I second all of this -- George had the rare ability to remind everyone around him of what was important in life.

Vertiginous, haunting

On the day after Thanksgiving I listened to Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" over and over and over again, until I couldn't hear. Can't really say why. There was some scarf-tossing and -swirling involved.

"The Only Three Female Musicians, According to Many Male Music Critics"
(from The Awl) is a very funny pastiche of rock music criticism in which any lady singer gets compared to Kate Bush, Bjork, or Tori Amos:
I can only base my review on the handful of visual and sonic reveries I’ve had of it, including a long stare at its cover and other related photos of Newsom. On the cover, Newsom is accompanied by objects that Björk’s husband Matthew Barney might have considered using in an art installation when he was in college, except imagine if Tori Amos was the curator of that exhibit and insisted that things be a little more motherly and a little less terrifying than Barney wanted them to be. Newsom is situated at the center of this veritable props room, ready to draw inspiration from a taxidermied deer the way Barney drew inspiration from je ne sais quoi enough to release five films and a 500-page exhibition catalogue of said quoi. For those unfamiliar with Barney’s work, I will deign to hazard this approximate description of the cover of Have One On Me: Björkesque.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

We stick to our thirteens, thanks to the shadow pope offers a Spanish word of the day via e-mail -- you can sign up on their website. It is unusually well-written and -researched.

A recent favorite, explaining an alternative meaning of trece, which normally just means "thirteen":
trece, adjective, noun
not to budge, to stick to your guns

Seguir or mantenerse en sus trece is an idiomatic phrase which means to refuse to change your position on something, for example:
Los dos líderes se mantienen en sus trece
The two leaders are refusing to budge
But why does thirteen come into this expression? The explanation goes back a long way. For a short period in the fourteenth century there were two Popes, one based in Rome and the other in Avignon, in the South of France. Pedro de Luna, a Spaniard from a noble family, was elected Clement XIII, based in Avignon. However, he later lost support, but despite attempts to negotiate by the rival Pope, based in Rome, Clement XIII refused to stand down, and was eventually excommunicated. He insisted to the end of his life that he was the only true Pope, hence the expression.
I love how history gets mixed in when you learn a language; Spain had one of the longest lasting Roman colonies, and it's very Catholic, so its languages have an especially large number of echoes of Latin, Rome and the Vatican. And then there are words like ojala, an exclamation that descends from Moorish culture and its cries to Allah.

(Side note --I am glad to see that the press has almost completely adopted the practice of calling the Muslim God just "God" and not "Allah". "Allah" is no different then "Jehovah" or "Yahweh".)

Surprisingly, I can't find an entry that addresses this papal controversy on Wikipedia.

I also like this phrase:
If you’re suspicious about a situation, you might say:

Aquí hay gato encerrado.
There’s something fishy going on (word for word, there’s a cat cooped up in here).
But my favorite foreign saying remains the French:

Tu veux la creme, l'argent de la creme, et la cremiere.
You want to have your cake and eat it too (literally, you want the cream, the money for the cream, and the woman that churns the cream!).

Thursday, February 18, 2010

All possible worlds

All Possible Worlds, the Candide blog and digital edition are up at the New York Public Library. I've been working on these projects for months, and now they need readers and commenters to make this experiment in public reading work!

I'm most excited to see how discussions bubble up from the marginal comments, so that will work when there's a good feedback loop going. Nicholas Cronk, the director of the Voltaire Foundation, began his digital marginalia with a comment on how story-telling is suspect in Candide from the very first paragraphs. That's a great conversation starter! That question about story-telling shows up other chapters, especially in the many interpolated tales by the people Candide meets on his travels. And it's a good way to think about the project as a way to tell a story about reading that is associative, linkable, digressive. In future weeks, we're hosting commentary and digital marginalia by novelists, professors, singers, translators, librarians, and other people associated with Candide in its many forms. It's a Candide media extravaganza, so it's fitting that Nicholas Cronk kicked off the event with a great post about the Candide phenomenon in 1759:
Of course, the censors tried to halt the progress of the work, and of course they failed: the more they criticized the work, the more it sold, and the more it sold, the more pirated editions were produced. The censors and the pirate publishers – often seen as the author’s enemies – all contributed hugely to the success of Candide. Part of Voltaire’s genius lay in his understanding of the medium of print and his ability to manipulate the book market for his own ends. If he had lived today, we can only imagine his career as a spin-doctor working in the modern media of TV and Twitter…

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Cellar door

A lovely On Language column in the New York Times Magazine about the unlikely genealogy of the phrase "cellar door" as a pure aural aesthetic pleasure: H.L. Mencken, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Parker, Norman Mailer, among others have evoked it as a perfect term. Whereas, the other day my friends were mulling over how 'oiled boys' is another such example of perfection, but 'boiled boys,' 'oiled boils,' 'boiled oys,' don't have the same effect. For some reason.

Grant Barnett's article is funny and weird, and what I want to know most is, How does one do research for such a piece? The strangeness isn't so much in who named the unlikely phrase so perfect in the first place, but that it has circulated so widely, often with some claim to first discovery or a mysterious provenance, as in Donnie Darko.
Often, commentators claim cellar door is beautiful without reference to any other source or author. Did they rediscover it? Or did they simply not remember where they first heard it? The writer and famous wit Dorothy Parker didn’t think much of the collection of beautiful words compiled in 1932 by the dictionary-maker Wilfred J. Funk, who topped his list with words like dawn, hush and lullaby. Parker said she preferred check and enclosed — but also cellar door. A journalist named Hendrik Willem van Loon was one of two other people who suggested cellar door as an omission in Funk’s list. Van Loon expressed surprise that Parker selected the same term: “I’ve only met Miss Parker twice in my life, and we’ve never talked of cellar-doors.”
In a similar vein, the drama critic George Jean Nathan used cellar door to mock Gertrude Stein in 1935: “Sell a cellar, door a cellar, sell a cellar cellar-door, door adore, adore a door, selling cellar, door a cellar, cellar cellar-door. There is damned little meaning and less sense in such a sentence, but there is, unless my tonal balance is askew, twice more rhythm and twice more lovely sound in it than in anything, equally idiotic, that Miss Gertrude ever confected.”

(On that note, I am going to start using 'confected' or its other delightful verb forms every day.)

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Monday, February 08, 2010

Football and Pynchon: deeper than oddity ought to drive

"I like football for the graphic interfaces!" I remarked to Ben's brother, Alex, last night. He replied that Ben has said the same thing: "You guys should start a blog or something." I was thinking about this article from The New York Times about how military intelligence officers are looking to John Madden's telestrator technology as a way to mediate information gathered by drones in Afghanistan:
They are even testing some of the splashier techniques used by broadcasters, like the telestrator that John Madden popularized for scrawling football plays. It could be used to warn troops about a threatening vehicle or to circle a compound that a drone should attack.

“Imagine you are tuning in to a football game without all the graphics,” said Lucius Stone, an executive at Harris Broadcast Communications, a provider of commercial technology that is working with the military. “You don’t know what the score is. You don’t know what the down is. It’s just raw video. And that’s how the guys in the military have been using it.”
So Cmdr. Joseph A. Smith, a Navy officer assigned to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which sets standards for video intelligence, said he and other officials had climbed into broadcast trucks outside football stadiums to learn how the networks tagged and retrieved highlight film.

“There are these three guys who sit in the back of an ESPN or Fox Sports van, and every time Tom Brady comes on the screen, they tap a button so that Tom Brady is marked,” Commander Smith said, referring to the New England Patriots quarterback. Then, to call up the highlights later, he said, “they just type in: ‘Tom Brady, touchdown pass.’ ”

Having been the "videographer" and "statistician" for the high school girls basketball team (read: the totally thankless job of being the manager because I am clumsy), I'm always interested in this subject of how one mediates visual perspective into information. I spent a lot of time watching live basketball through a camera lens, and most of the basketball I watch now is mediated through a television camera lens. I like watching games from the aerial perspective to see how plays work, and I was stunned by how cool the XFL camera angle looked last night when Tracy Porter intercepted Peyton Manning. I got interested in football when I was in college, when one of my friends had two big-screen televisions in his suite--one for playing Madden NFL, one for the ladies (which seemed to have Four Weddings and a Funeral on a loop). When I learned that football players were using Madden to study plays, I found my entry into the sport--if you can turn it into a question about how people process information, then I'm hooked! From this month's Wired:
It’s one thing to suggest that videogames may be making us smarter. It’s another thing altogether to say they might be making us better athletes. But when you add it up, the evidence starts to look pretty overwhelming. At the Pop Warner Super Bowl in 2006, the winning team had 30 offensive plays, which it had learned through Madden. (”I programmed our offense into Madden to help me memorize our plays,” one 11-year-old told Sports Illustrated. “It was easier than homework.”) Dezmon Briscoe, an all-conference wide receiver for the University of Kansas, credited Madden 2009 with teaching him how to read when defenses “roll their coverages” — move their defensive backs to disguise their strategy. Chuck Kyle, a high school coach who has won 10 state championships in football-mad Ohio, has programmed his team USA playbook into Madden and uses it to teach players their assignments. So have coaches at Colorado State, Penn State, and the University of Missouri, among other schools. An offensive lineman for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used the videogame as a preparation tool for an entire season, scouting his opponents digitally. While even-more-sophisticated software is available for virtual sports training, coaches and players at all levels of football say that Madden’s off-the-shelf simulation is good enough.

Marshall Faulk, former superstar running back for the St. Louis Rams (he appeared on the cover of Madden 2003), says that when he entered the NFL in 1994, “probably 10, 15, 20 percent” of the players were gamers. “Now? Anywhere from 50 percent on up,” he says. “Because Madden is sort of a mainstay in football, a lot of the kids playing in the NFL now grew up on it. It makes you a better football player.” Faulk may be understating the title’s popularity in the league: When I asked Stokley how many NFL players are Madden players, his estimate was even higher: “Everybody.”

Side note on interfacing information in text: Wired's commitment to adding hyperlinks and YouTube as supplements to the articles really pays off in a way that the Times is trying to do but can do more of.

A Times reader recommends James Paul Gee's What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy for more on this phenomenon.

The Kotaku video game blog notes that Madden can simulate games with remarkable results, as in this year's prediction of a Saints victory:
Stevenson was proud that the Madden Sim delivered a game-changing special teams play that, while it did not happen in the real Super Bowl, mimicked the effect of New Orleans' shocking onsides-kick recovery to open the second half. In the Madden Sim, Reggie Bush returned a punt 46 yards to put the Saints on top 28-24. While the Colts briefly regained the lead in that sim, "it is cool that our game also predicted a pivotal turning point on special teams."
Whatever the case, with this kind of accuracy after seven years, the Madden Sim has emerged as a counterpart to the Madden Curse for reliably predictive if statistically unproven performance.

And yet the Pynchonian in me reflects on that article about Madden-interfaced drones and wants to read these predictions and mediations in a sinister way. From Gravity's Rainbow:
The rockets are distributing about London just as Poisson's equation in the textbooks predicts. As the data keep coming in, Roger looks more and more like a prophet. Psi Section people stare after him in the hallways. It's not precognition, he wants to make an announcement in the cafeteria or something ... have I ever pretended to be anything I'm not? all I'm doing is plugging numbers into a well-known equation, you can look it up and do it yourself.

His little bureau is dominated now by a glimmering map, a window into another landscape than winter Sussex, written names and spidering streets, an ink ghost of London, ruled off into 576 squares, a quarter square kilometer each. Rocket strikes are represented by red circles. The Poisson equation will tell, for a number of total hits arbitrarily chosen, how many squares will get none, how many one, two, three, and so on.

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Blogger Alice on Tue Feb 09, 01:14:00 AM:

And, of course, Deadspin's favorite telestrator images complete this connection to Pynchon.
Blogger Katy on Tue Feb 09, 12:49:00 PM:
Alice, I love this post. I rely completely on the little yellow line when I watch football on TV to make sense of everything. OK, that and Jay's encyclopedic knowledge of football plays and strategy.

I've been interested in drones lately and have been doing some thinking and reading about how that kind of warfare affects soldiers and other participants psychologically. "On the Media" had this fascinating segment about drones in November, and Jay and I were discussing it last night while watching a PBS show about the bombing of Germany, which was carpetbombing with incendiary devices--the total opposite of targeted drone attacks. Some of the pilots they interviewed were saying that they didn't think about the civilians on the ground when they were on bombing missions--they only thought about military targets and saw the cities they were bombing AS military targets. The OTM piece seems to say that even though the drone operators can clearly see the people they're bombing, one of the things they struggle with is that the killing feels very video game-y, and it's hard to know how to respond psychologically. Tough, and worth a listen.
Anonymous Tove Hermanson on Fri Feb 19, 04:20:00 PM:
You who know me know I am obsessed with all things visual-- graphics, colors, textures, shadows, etc. all excite me more than the average bear. I am also notoriously bad at registering and retaining numbers: dates, statistics, positions / times / locations. Using images to punctuate or demonstrate a point, highlight a time and place, literally showing where / how to look at an image and extract and retain valuable information is not just a convenience for me; it's a necessity. It's amazing to me that there aren't more accompanying photos, sketches, and interactive graphic tools incorporated in situations where information is meant to be analyzed, acted upon, or distributed rapidly, as in sports or war scenarios.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Absorptive reading is historically specific?

I cheered for Richard Brody's wonderful Front Row post about reading, in response to George Packer's concerns about being unable to read Kierkegaard as absorptively as he used to:
But I’d bet that George is a better, if more laborious, reader of Kierkegaard now than he was in his college days, because he brings to his reading a greater variety of experience-—and judicious participation in the Internet flux is a crucial, inescapable part of what counts as experience in our times.

Brody's response is so thoughtful for its gentle recasting of the situation, a nice turn away from the Luddite/Biltonite charges that Packer has dismissed. The final turn to Kierkegaard as media critic is lovely.


Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle grid

A stranger's unconscious habits become intolerable in a confined space. I think I may be a loud tea sipper, or I may sip tea at a completely reasonable volume. But inside the library stacks--where it's first of all forbidden for me to be sipping tea in the first place because it is a Safe Space for books--my tea-sipping must sound atrocious and gauche to my studious neighbors. Yesterday I thought of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Whisper Sticks, which temporarily make a whisperer hear all sounds at that inaudible, annoying volume. That fantasy led me to the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle Wikipedia page, which has a totally amazing grid of her cures, organized by book, chapter title, main character, bad behavior, cure employed, and other children introduced. I put down my tea to pore over the grid and recall my favorite Betsy MacDonald stories. The "other children" column is an adorably precise set of extra information. She had the best names for children: Calliope Ragbag, Paraphernalia Grotto, Pergola Wingsproggle, Jasper and Myrtle Quitrick, Melody and Harvard Foxglove, Cormorant Broomrack, Trent and Tansy Popsickle, Sylvia and Janey Quadrangle, Prunella and Quinton Peasley, Nicholas Semicolon.

I read all the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books in the house where I learned to read, so I have an imaginary neighborhood for these characters based on the Rosedale district in Austin, Texas. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's upside-down house was next door to mine; Evelyn Rover, of Whisper Sticks fame, lived in my house. In this imaginary neighborhood (also home to Betsy, Tacy, and Tib--Betsy lived in my house while Tacy lived diagonal and Tib lived at the end of the street), all the houses had two storeys because they seemed terribly exotic, only to be replaced a few years later in my aspirational neighborhood by Anastasia Krupnik's turret.

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Anonymous Alice's mom on Mon Feb 15, 06:01:00 PM:
I'm pleased, of course, that a childhood home where we didn't, after all, live for very long nevertheless lives for you as an imaginary neighborhood. You learned to read chapter books in that house, especially during the week we were all home with chickenpox, a week that is a precious memory for me.

Perhaps you recall that I grew up in Rosedale, too, only a few blocks away. My imaginary childhood sphere, however, resides with the 25 or so different plants that I can remember from that Rosedale yard.

But I'm curious. What room did Evelyn Rover live in?


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Romanticizing the mundane

I'm lost as a teacher if I don't have a blackboard to chart each session's work. I use it to collect, record, notice patterns and/or discrepancies, classify, and then report on and extend student responses to our activities; I'd say that 2/3 of my aha! moments in the class come from us pointing to the work on the board and making a connection between what the students and I have written in chalk. A couple of downsides: I'm covered in chalk dust by the end of the class, and some other people (including some students) say that it takes up class time to write so much. In the future, I'd like to see how a smartboard could work for me and the students, but I'm OK for now with using that time to write in chalk.

I don't defend this practice in terms of nostalgia; it's just how I learn and teach best. I think it's useful to reformat knowledge in order to see new connections--from notes to grid when I'm making connections in a project (in the classroom or my own projects), from notes to diagram for other types of connections, from computer screen to printout when I'm proof-reading, from one genre of writing to another if I'm trying out an argument or an idea that could crystallize differently...

I'm struck by Anne Trubek's diagnosis of the decline narrative in her essay about the history of handwriting: it's spot-on for historicizing how we came to associate handwriting with character, intelligence, and, earlier on, even religious difference. I like her move of reading the nostalgic tendency in the calls to revive handwriting:
It took the printing press to create a notion of handwriting as a sign of self. For monks, whose illuminated manuscripts we now venerate as beautiful works of art (as they most certainly are), script was not self-expressive but formulaic, and rightly so. When the printing press was invented, the monks were worried about this new capricious technology, which was too liable to foibles and the idiosyncratic mark of the man helming the press. A hand-copied manuscript was for them then the authoritative, exact, regularized text. In his treatise, "In Praise of Copying," the 15th-century monk Trithemius argued that "printed books will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices, especially since printed books are often deficient in spelling and appearance."

Handwriting slowly became a form of self-expression when it ceased to be the primary mode of written communication. When a new writing technology develops, we tend to romanticize the older one. The supplanted technology is vaunted as more authentic because it is no longer ubiquitous or official. Thus for monks, print was capricious and script reliable. So too today: Conventional wisdom holds that computers are devoid of emotion and personality, and handwriting is the province of intimacy, originality and authenticity.

This transition, and the associations we make with old and new technologies, played out while millions of Americans were being Palmerized in school, and the Palmer Method is inextricably linked to a new writing technology that was starting to compete with handwriting: the typewriter.

I'm less sure about the notion of typing as "cognitive automaticity, the ability to think as fast as possible, freed as much as can be from the strictures of whichever technology we must use to record our thoughts." Technodeterminist me wants to push harder on that idea, to consider that the technology we use enables different kinds of thinking rather than just records it to greater or lesser degrees. That is, my thinking is tied to how I'm doing it, and in what form. My composition classes tend to bear this out: students do different work when they reformulate exercises into new genres, diagrams, grids, sentence structures, etc. And it so happens that the computer is very useful for facilitating and storing all of these experiments--more so than the chalky blackboard, which is useful for other types of work.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Nostalgia for the Soviet police

The NY Times reports on a lifelong Russian dissident, Lyudmila M. Alexeyeva, who is still at it at 82 years old. Her specialty, in Soviet times and post-Soviet times, has been playful disruption of the police state:
On her way into K.G.B. headquarters, Ms. Alexeyeva would stop to buy a ham sandwich, an éclair and an orange. These were delicacies in the 1970s, even for the investigator, who was headed for a lunch of gray cutlets. Halfway through, Ms. Alexeyeva would unwrap her lunch and lay it out on the table.

“They reacted very nervously when they started to smell ham,” she said with a sweet smile. “Then I would start eating the orange, and the aroma would start dissipating through the room.” The effect was reliably hypnotic.

“That’s how I amused myself,” she said. “It was a way to play on his nerves.”
The most disturbing part of the story is her observation that the Putin regime exercises authority even more arbitrarily than did the Soviet Union of her youth:
New fears have replaced the old ones, though. Ms. Alexeyeva has received death threats, and last year she buried two friends who were killed. Legal risks are unpredictable, too. While Soviet dissidents could strategize to protect themselves -- knowing, for example, that prosecutors needed at least two witnesses -- their tricks are of no use in a post-Soviet justice system, where cases can be wholly fabricated, she said.

“Now they do what they want,” she said. “There were rules then. They were idiotic rules, but there were rules, and if you knew them you could defend yourself.”
this reminds me of the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara and his wife Yukiko Sugihara, who during World War II wrote thousands of visas to desperate Jews in clear violation of orders -- all of which were then honored by the meticulously bureaucratic Japanese government.

The dissident movement in Russia is small, but it's alive with organizations like "The Other Russia".

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Haphazardly informed institution

One of my favorite former Spectator columnists, Charles Homans, has a great article in the Columbia Journalism Review about weather reporters who deny climate change, as they draw faulty connections from one field (meteorology) to another (climatology):
But the disagreement, then as now, also came down to the weathercasters themselves, and what they knew—-or believed they knew. Meteorology has a deceptively close relationship with climatology: both disciplines study the same general subject, the behavior of the atmosphere, but they ask very different questions about it. Meteorologists live in the short term, the day-to-day forecast. It’s an incredibly hard thing to predict accurately, even with the best models and data; tiny discrepancies matter enormously, and can pile up quickly into giant errors. Given this level of uncertainty in their own work, meteorologist looking at long-range climate questions are predisposed to see a system doomed to terminal unpredictability. But in fact, the basic question of whether rising greenhouse gas emissions will lead to climate change hinges on mostly simple, and predictable, matters of physics. The short-term variations that throw the weathercasters’ forecasts out of whack barely register at all.

From here, he turns to the problem of scientific expertise and science literacy as it's broadcast in local news.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Exile in Guyville

RE: Katie Roiphe's infograph-tastic essay on sex scenes in Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer vs. Benjamin Kunkel, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, etc.:

Didn't Liz Phair already write this essay in 1993, when it was called Exile in Guyville? ("you might be shy and introspective / that's not part of my objective")

Let this also record my ambivalence about Liz Phair: is she the Katie Roiphe of the Lilith Fair set? The contrarianism has always seemed cynical, as though the self-conscious irony left even less room to maneuver than before; what was called honesty collapsed all interpretation into a bleak flatness.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Jan 06, 07:55:00 PM:
Furthermore, I'd (of course) argue that she totally misreads DFW. First off, the quote from his essay is from a friend of his; his own thoughts on Updike are much more reverential, though not uncomplicated. He's not exculpating his generation from narcissism or anything, just saying that--exactly because of Updike and Roth and Mailer, etc--his generation of writers have to contend with a narcissism/nihilism/whatever that, while perhaps similar in existential origin, must now be directed towards something new.

Also, the passages she selects from Infinite Jest are from Ken Erdedy's jumbled stream-of-conscious ramblings while waiting for some weed. Probably not representative of every character in a 1000+ page book. But, even if you stick with poor ol' Erdedy, the point of his (and many other character's) suffering is that it is inward-facing and self-inflicted and imprisoning and so forth. His disinterest in sex is a symptom of this. I'd argue that among the most basic messages of the book is that we can only even begin to tolerate existence by resisting those terribly addictive things which cut us off from one another. Now, maybe there weren't juicy enough sex scenes for Ms. Roiphe, but man I find the relationship between Don Gately and Joelle Van Dyne heart- and brain- and kidneybreaking, and man I'd say pretty electrically charged in the sex department. Maybe not explicit, but maybe that's because DFW was a mature author who recognized that soul-damaged characters like those two are tentative and suspicious and probably even a little afraid of exactly what was going on between them.

Just a thought.
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Jan 06, 08:00:00 PM:
Also, while DFW is DFW and his writing, while not unassailable, doesn't really need defending, isn't it a little unfair to through Kunkel and JSF (and I'd even say Chabon and Franzen, who are, you know, fine) into the mix against the elders? I mean, what's her point? Some hotshot of-the-moment dweeb who has written two books isn't as good as Phillip Roth?

Ross, again.
Blogger Alice on Wed Jan 06, 11:44:00 PM:
I think Roiphe's choices in marshaling Kunkel and JSF for her argument reveals that she's less interested in a making a nuanced critique of anyone's writing and more interested in rehearsing the same anti-feminist contrarianism that she's been writing for years. She's addressing her writing to her friend who threw out the new Roth novel, not so much to those guys (matched weirdly by her sloppy attribution of DFW's anecdote about Updike, in which he's reacting to a friend). She sets them up as straw men to knock down. Unsurprisingly, ambivalence, indecision, discomfort, etc. are easy to knock down. So while I'm tempted to throw out, say, A.M. Homes as a (female) counter-example to her claims, I think Roiphe is cherry-picking and flattening the readings on purpose, which is a curious way to respond to a humorless feminist you've accused of doing the same thing.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

There is only one narcotic

The NY Times reports that some teenagers are canceling their Facebook accounts or voluntarily restricting their usage because it is taking over their lives and keeping them from school, family, and real-world contact with friends. The first psychologist they quote, Kimberly Young, says “It’s like any other addiction. It’s hard to wean yourself.”

I mean to take this sort of addiction seriously, although the Times has a history of sensationalizing youth trends that they don't really understand or have much evidence for. Note that Kimberly Young is introduced as the director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery in Bradford, Pa.; I'm going to go out on limb and guess that this academic-sounding institution is not exactly doing brisk business, and that its director is welcoming of publicity. When the Times states that she "said she had spoken with dozens of teenagers trying to break the Facebook habit", note how many steps far removed this is from actually treating even a single teenager who sought her out.

With that said, I think this problem, and the broader problem of addiction to the mesmerizing World Wide Web, is real. And I think it points to a problem with our education about addiction, which paints drugs as a supremely harmful force unlike any other. Drugs do contain a unique ability to screw up the body and mind, and disorient their users to the point of crashing their cars and unleashing violence. But their greater danger is addiction, and the damage of addiction is hard to explain well -- which is why we fall back on cautionary tales about doing PCP once and jumping through a second story window.

Here's my try: the damage of addiction, irrespective of the narcotic, is that it replaces real life. Potheads, including some friends of mine, generally believe that marijuana is not an addictive drug. But if you check out from the real world every day, you are missing out on real life.

Of course, there is no consensus on what real life consists of. If watching four hours of TV makes you a couch potato, doesn't reading a novel do the same thing? Most people consider reading novels a worthwhile use of time, but of course it depends on the novel; I'd advise putting down the Danielle Steele and smoking a joint instead.