Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The present is a bully

--- Richard Snow, in Disney’s Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusement Park That Changed the World (2019), quoted by Riley Robinson in a CSMonitor book review, 31 December 2019

Context
"Why did you do this?" a journalist [Walt Disney] asked amid the park's scaffolding, and received the simple answer "For twenty years I wanted something of my own." There was a good deal more to it than that. Disney had become tired of animation, had been embittered by a 1941 strike at his studio, and like so many at the end of World War II felt dissatisfied and adrift. 
And this man who had so acute a sense of what the public would respond to believed that other Americans shared such feelings—that there was a vast potential audience in need of reassurance. 
The present is a bully, always making us think the molten moment we inhabit is the most alarming ever, while the past tends to slip into that specious category of "simpler times." The 1950s now bask in the sunshine of false memory, sock hops, genial Ike, two-car garages, Elvis, and a victorious America, her manufacturing plants unshaken by a single Axis bomb in the war, bestriding the industrial world.
Few saw the decade like that while they were making their way through it. In 1947 W. H. Auden published a book-length poem in which four characters in a New York City bar discuss the cosmos. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, but reading it could be heavy going. Nevertheless, it at once became universally known because of its title: The Age of Anxiety. That's what millions of Americans thought they were living in. 
And with reason. The war had ended with the thunderclap of two doomsday weapons over Japanese cities, and just four years later Soviet Russia, recently an ally, now a threat, possessed those weapons, too. American GIs who had never wanted to see another acre of Asian landscape found themselves fighting a shooting war against Communism in Korea and, once that dwindled to a stalemate, were being urged to help the French in Vietnam.

The fear of Communism simmered, a low fever that ran throughout the decade, spiking every few months, as when the Russians matched the new U.S. hydrogen bomb, or when Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed that reds had infiltrated American life at every level.

Nor was all the unrest in other lands; in a few months Rosa Parks would refuse to yield her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white passenger, thereby triggering the first direct action campaign of the modern Civil Rights Movement.


Sunday, January 26, 2020

every night we close our eyes and go to sleep, and for a few hours, quietly and safely, we go stark staring mad

--- Neil Gaiman, from Reflections on MythColumbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, No. 31 (WINTER 1999), pp. 75-84

Context

But new mythologies wait for us, here in the final moments of the twentieth century. [...] They have their function, all the ways we try to make sense of the world we inhabit, a world in which there are few, if any, easy answers. Every day we attempt to understand it. And every night we close our eyes and go to sleep, and for a few hours, quietly and safely, we go stark staring mad.

Myths are compost

--- Neil Gaiman, from Reflections on Myth, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, No. 31 (WINTER 1999), pp. 75-84

Context
The process of composting fascinates me. I am English, and share with many of my countrymen an amateurish fondness for, frankly, messing around in gardens: [...]
[...]
And one learns a lot about compost: kitchen scraps and garden left-overs and refuse that rot down, over time, to a thick, black, clean, nutritious dirt, teeming with life, perfect for growing things in. 
Myths are compost
They begin as religions, the most deeply held of beliefs, or as the stories that accrete to religions as they grow.
[...]
And then, as the religions fall into disuse, or the stories cease to be seen as the literal truth, they become myths. And the myths compost down to dirt, and become a fertile ground for other stories and tales which blossom like wildflowers. Cupid and Psyche is retold and half forgotten and remembered again and becomes Beauty and the Beast. 
[...]
Too often, myths are uninspected. We bring them out without looking at what they represent, nor what they mean. Urban Legends and the Weekly World News present us with myths in the simplest sense: a world in which events occur according to story logic--not as they do happen, but as they should happen
But retelling myths is important. The act of inspecting them is important. It is not a matter of holding a myth up as a dead thing, desiccated and empty ("Now class, what have we learned from the Death of Baldur?"), nor is it a matter of creating New Age self help tomes ("The Gods Inside You! Releasing Your Inner Myth.") Instead we have to understand that even lost and forgotten myths are compost, in which stories grow
What is important is to tell the stories anew, and to retell the old stories. They are our stories, and they should be told.
[...]
I have lived here for six years, and I still do not understand it: a strange collection of home-grown myths and beliefs, the ways that America explains itself to itself.

Monday, January 20, 2020

the problem comes not from mythos itself, but from mythmongers demanding that their story be validated by logos institution

--- Peter Heehs, in Myth, History, and Theory, History and Theory, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Feb 1994)

Excerpts:

Since the Greeks, logos (word as demonstrable truth) has been opposed to mythos (word as authoritative pronouncement). […] The Agastya-Aurobindo narrative is an example of an account based on factual materials that gradually became transformed into fiction. […] The Ramjanmabhumi narrative (at the center of sectarian conflict in India) took form in much the same way.
[...]
Clashes between logos and mythos are not uncommon, and are not confined to the third world. Greece's blocking of the European Community's recognition of Macedonia on account of that country's name and flag is the result of a mythos notion even if couched in logical language. The debate over the suitability of basing the teaching of geology and biology on the Hebrew scriptures is another example. And when a prominent speaker tells the Republican National Convention, "There is a religious war going on for the soul of America," he clearly is using the language of myth in what is often thought of as a logos forum. In each of these cases the problem comes not from mythos itself, but from mythmongers demanding that their story be validated by logos institutions.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Hypocrisy is the lifeblood of politics

--- Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, quoted in How political tribalism is leading to more political hypocrisy, Christian Science Monitor, January 10, 2020

Some excerpts
But today, it seems, hypocrisy is particularly rampant – and there’s a reason. “It’s a function of our extreme partisan polarization, and really, it justifies anything,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Hypocrisy is the lifeblood of politics.”
“It is pragmatic for politicians to act like hypocrites during periods of hyperpartisanship, since they otherwise might be harassed or expelled from their group for disloyalty,” writes Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology at New York University ... 
But in other ways, commonly cited examples of hypocrisy may in fact represent a misunderstanding of the people who hold seemingly contradictory views. Strong support for Mr. Trump by white Evangelicals is one case, [Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania] says.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

I'd rather be a dysfunctional soul than a well-adjusted robot

--- Thomas Moore, in The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life (1996), p. xiii

In considering magic seriously, we may have to stretch the borders of our scientific assumptions and insist that the moon is not dust and rocks, the human body is not a machine or a gene factory, and the earth is neither inert nor without a personality. We may have to push the limits of psychology and insist that human beings are not aggregates of social influences or brain-driven packets of emotion that can be tweaked by chemicals into well-functioning social machines. Anyway, I'd rather be a dysfunctional soul than a well-adjusted robot.


They say money can’t buy happiness. But that doesn’t stop people from selling it.

--- Douglas Heaven, in his comment pieceof Manufacturing Happy Citizens: How the science and industry of happiness control our lives, by Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz, New Scientist, 31 August 2019

They say money can’t buy happiness. But that doesn’t stop people from selling it. Day passes to Goop’s wellness summit in London in June cost £1000, with weekend tickets (two nights in a hotel, a VIP Sunday workout and Goop-favourite meals) going for an eye-watering £4500.


be suspicious of technocrats bearing gifts

--- Helen Marshall, in a review of Dave Hutchison's book The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man, New Scientist, 31 August 2019, "The science fiction column."
In the finale, we might expect this book to live up to its pulpy title, but by now Hutchinson has become more interested in the politics than in the science. Some readers might feel deflated, but Hutchinson’s point is well made: that we ought to be suspicious of technocrats bearing gifts.


Wednesday, December 04, 2019

A bird does not sing because he has an answer. He sings because he has a song

--- Ascribed to Joan Walsh Anglund by Quote Investigator, Dec 2015 (q.v.)

The quote is perhaps best know because of a 2015 stamp issued by the US Postal Service that feature Maya Angelou and the words, "A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song."

Sunday, December 01, 2019

definitions make for unreliable epistemology

--- Linda H. Edwards, in "Speaking of Stories and Law" (2016)

As part of her critiqiue of Stephen Paskey’s “The Law is Made of Stories: Erasing the False Dichotomy Between Stories and Legal Rules” (2014), Edwards notes that she is “skeptical about how well we can analyze important issues by redefining terms and then applying those newly defined terms to the questions of the day”. From Section II of Speaking of Stories and Law (footnotes omitted, other ellipses marked by “. . .”):
First, as a matter of epistemology, definitions are usually constructed by human beings in order to support or advance their own project. . . . The problem is unavoidable, however. When we try to define a term, we do so from our own rhetorical situation. We cannot help it. . . .

That inescapable subjectivity is part of the reason that definitions make for unreliable epistemology, and this concern leads to my second. Paskey says that “[t]he concept of a stock story is too valuable to use loosely,” but I wonder whether the concept is too valuable to use precisely. In the epigram to this essay, Marilynne Robinson counsels us to forget definitions and instead to simply “watch.” She reminds us that precise and careful explanations are “too poor and small” to explain reality. . . .

Third, . . .

The Marilynn Robinson epigraph from When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (2013):
[F]orget definition, forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Point of View Is Worth 80 IQ Points

--- Alan Kay, quoted passim, confirmed by Quote Investigator, May 2018. It seems to date back to 1982 at the latest.

I first heard him say it in a talk at ATLAS in November 2019 (vimeo, see around time code 41:27), where he says, "The much more interesting ideas didn't come from me but from my reactions to a richer environment "

I suppose this is why creative people congregate in big cities, or at least why big cities (New York, London, LA) are creative.

It also goes to the question of  whether to be a small fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a small pond; cf. the BFLPE.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Truth ... resides in ... generalizing myths that direct attention to what is common amid diversity by neglecting trivial differences of detail

--- William H. McNeil, via his 2016 NY Times obituary mentioned by Brad Bernthal, quoting a Times op-ed of 28 December, 1981, Make Mine Myth.

Contetxt from the op-ed

Historians' assaults on myth are themselves based on a myth: the faith that facts speak for themselves, that infinite detail somehow organizes itself into meaningful patterns without the intervention of human intelligence, and that historical truth resides in faithful transcription of recorded words and deeds.

...

The trouble with this approach to truth is that it makes the world unintelligible. ...

Truth, in short, does not reside in exact recording of every detail. It never has. Instead, it resides in myth - generalizing myths that direct attention to what is common amid diversity by neglecting trivial differences of detail. Such myths make subsequent experience intelligible and can be acted on. When results conform to expectations, truth has been tested and the mythical formulation gains or retains plausibility. When experience contradicts expectation, it is time to mend the myth, if one can, to look for limiting conditions or overriding patterns that somehow distort its applicability.

every time a Jew and his teacher argue together, they must imagine themselves standing on Mount Sinai with Moses

--- Karen Armstrong, in a CSMonitor interview with Randy Dotinga, 22 November 2019

In context

Scripture was a performative art, such as the intensely emotional and argumentative art of Jewish midrash. They weren’t meekly reading their Bibles silently. There’s also a spiritual experience of imagination. The Talmud says every time a Jew and his teacher argue together, they must imagine themselves standing on Mount Sinai with Moses. Revelation will come to them.

Monday, November 11, 2019

You flip a bunch of microscopic switches really fast and culture pours out

--- Paul Ford (@ftrain), in Why I (Still) Love Tech: In Defense of a Difficult Industry, Wired cover story, Jun 2019

In context

I still love software. . . . [but] I rarely get to build software anymore. I would like to. Something about the interior life of a computer remains infinitely interesting to me; it’s not romantic, but it is a romance. You flip a bunch of microscopic switches really fast and culture pours out.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

You will never displace a feeling with a fact

--- Andrew McAfee, in conversation with Russ Roberts on the EconTalk podcast, Andrew McAfee on More from Less, Oct 14 2019, at about 1:31:25

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

a proper dictionary is a book of spells

--- Jeanette Winterson, in the New York Times, "Jeanette Winterson Owns the Entire Oxford English Dictionary," Sept. 26, 2019, via Jana Luther in episode of RSG's Taaldinge, Oct. 6, 2019

In context

I have the 24-volume hardcover O.E.D. plus supplements. My young friends look astonished: Why not just Google it? But there is so much else in there than simple definition or derivation. To me, a proper dictionary is a book of spells.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

[Science Fiction is] that branch of literature that deals with the consequences for humanity of the use of tools

--- Nalo Hopkinson, quoted by Amanda Rees on the BBC Radio 4's In Our Time program on HG Wells's The Time Machine (timecode 11:33)

According to various web sources, Isaac Asimov defined it as "that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings" (Modern Science Fiction, 1953).

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough

--- William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, according to goodreads Quotable Quote. Via Akiko Kinney, 25 Sep 2019.

A few lines around this aphorism from Project Gutenberg's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, section "Proverbs of Hell":

He who has suffered you to impose on him knows you.

As the plough follows words, so God rewards prayers.

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

Expect poison from the standing water.

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

Listen to the fool’s reproach; it is a kingly title.

The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air,[18] the mouth of water, the beard of earth.

The weak in courage is strong in cunning.

The apple tree never asks the beech how he shall grow, nor the lion the horse how he shall take his prey.

The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.

If others had not been foolish we should have been so.
For more quotes from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, see https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/24837-the-marriage-of-heaven-and-hell.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The photos of the future will not be recorded, they’ll be computed

--- Ramesh Raskar, MIT Media Lab quoted in New Scientist article "AI-powered smartphone cameras are changing the way we see reality" 16 March 2019

In context

The goal of digital photography was once to approximate what our eyes see. “All digital cameras, including ones on smartphones, have always had some sort of processing to modify contrast and colour balance,” says Neel Joshi, who works on computer vision at Microsoft Research.
Computational photography goes beyond this, automatically making skin smoother, colours richer and pictures less grainy. It can even turn night into day. These photos may look better, but they raise concerns about authenticity and trust in an era of fakeable information. “The photos of the future will not be recorded, they’ll be computed,” says Ramesh Raskar at the MIT Media Lab. 



Saturday, July 20, 2019

the fluid zone between the world in itself and our image of it is what painting explores, that is its core activity

--- Karl Ove Knausgaard, So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch (2019), p. 221

Context

And yet it would be a big misunderstanding to think that whatever has no form, no shape and no weight — in other words, our thoughts, feelings, notions, ideas, memories, mental images — always dissolves in the presence of the reality of the now. One could also argue the opposite, that reality is something we have learned how to see, that it appears in and affirms an image we have beforehand. Of course, it isn't that simple either, but the fluid zone between the world in itself and our image of it is what painting explores, that is its core activity. That we still remember Munch, and that his art is still alive in our culture, is because he went further in exploring that territory than most of his contemporaries.
But in what way is his art still alive? The actual pictures exist in actual places — most of them in museums — in the same way that the motifs they depict exist in concrete places. But it isn't in the realm of the concrete that they live on, it is in our notional world, in the minds of each and every one of us.

in this mass of nature, there is a set of things that carry in their front, though not in capital letters, yet in stenography and short characters, something of divinity

--- Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, see Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend, Gutenberg Etext #586

Context, On Philosophy

"Beware of philosophy," is a precept not to be received in too large a sense: for, in this mass of nature, there is a set of things that carry in their front, though not in capital letters, yet in stenography and short characters, something of divinity; which, to wiser reasons, serve as luminaries in the abyss of knowledge, and, to judicious beliefs, as scales and roundles to mount the pinnacles and highest pieces of divinity. The severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes, that this visible world is but a picture of the invisible, wherein, as in a portrait, things are not truly, but in equivocal shapes, and as they counterfeit some real substance in that invisible fabrick.

We are only that amphibious piece, between a corporeal and a spiritual essence

--- Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, see Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend, Gutenberg Etext #586

Context, On Humankind:

"These are certainly the magisterial and masterpieces of the Creator; the flower, or, as we may say, the best part of nothing; actually existing, what we are but in hopes, and probability. We are only that amphibious piece, between a corporeal and a spiritual essence; that middle form, that links those two together, and makes good the method of God and nature, that jumps not from extremes, but unites the incompatible distances by some middle and participating natures."


Now for my life, it is a miracle of thirty years, which to relate, were not a history, but a piece of poetry, and would sound to common ears like a fable. For the world, I count it not an inn, but an hospital; and a place not to live, but to die in.

--- Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, see Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend, Gutenberg Etext #586

Context


"Now for my life, it is a miracle of thirty years, which to relate, were not a history, but a piece of poetry, and would sound to common ears like a fable. For the world, I count it not an inn, but an hospital; and a place not to live, but to die in. The world that I regard is myself; it is the microcosm of my own frame that I cast mine eye on: for the other, I use it but like my globe, and turn it round sometimes for my recreation. Men that look upon my outside, perusing only my condition and fortunes, do err in my altitude; for I am above Atlas's shoulders. The earth is a point not only in respect of the heavens above us, but of the heavenly and celestial part within us. That mass of flesh that circumscribes me limits not my mind. That surface that tells the heavens it hath an end cannot persuade me I have any. I take my circle to be above three hundred and sixty. Though the number of the ark do measure my body, it comprehendeth not my mind. Whilst I study to find how I am a microcosm, or little world, I find myself something more than the great. There is surely a piece of divinity in us; some- thing that was before the elements, and owes no homage unto the sun. Nature tells me, I am the image of God, as well as Scripture. He that understands not thus much hath not his introduction or first lesson, and is yet to begin the alphabet of man."
 

Monday, July 01, 2019

every historian is the obedient servant of his or her own point of view

--- Paul Cartledge, quoting "a famous Dutch historian," speaking on a BBC4 episode of In Our Time on The Mytilenaean Debate, 20 Jun 2019, starting timecode 26:40

In context:
A famous Dutch historian once said that the historian -- every  historian -- is the obedient servant of his or her own point of view. So it is the historian who selects what episodes, what  events -- it's the historian who chooses what to sources he  or she will accept and it's the historian who, as Thucydides says in his very first sentence, writes the war.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Re-watching familiar videos can be a kind of secular prayer

--- Laurence Scott, in his wonderful  article "In Search of Lost Time on YouTube: How the platform takes us to places where we ache to go again," The New Atlantis, Number 59, Summer 2019

In context

The digital, unbloody ease with which YouTube revives the past, so much more nimbly than its DVD and VCR predecessors, invites us to become re-watchers of the same content. Indeed, quick repetition is a main feature of our new digital aesthetics. Whereas we use GIFs — those twitchy, looping clips — as public illustrations of our feelings or responses to events, an oft-repeated YouTube video is the GIF’s private counterpart. Re-watching familiar videos can be a kind of secular prayer. There is comfort in the repetition, and the videos to which we give this repeated attention can feel deeply personal. We wouldn’t necessarily want others to know that we return to them in this way. Aren’t we wasting the time of our own lives? It’s easy to attach embarrassment or shame to the act of re-watching.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

We don't want to be watched but we want to be visible

--- Patricia Lockwood, LRB podcast "The State of ... The Internet" at 20:50

In context:

And the stubbornness of the human mind, I think, because again, with all this surveillance, like, yeah we do want to be visible -- right? -- but we're being watched. We don't want to be watched but we want to be visible.

A few more

John Lanchester talking about mixed feelings about technology, around 32:39

 There's a funny thing, this shiny device has liberated us, but [...] it's trapped us too.

John Lanchester talking about early use of modems by tabloid journalists, starting at 35:58

I remember that seeming like a kind of ... magic trick, but at the same time it was in that really intermediate stage, that wonderful -- I can't remember who said it, something about technologies -- "Technology's stuff that doesn't work yet." ... Because once things really work, we stop experiencing them as technology; glasses are the thing I'm obsessive about: technology but we don't think of them as technology because they just work. But technology being in that kind of liminal state between working and not working ...



Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world

--- Albert Einstein, in an interview that was published in “The Saturday Evening Post” in 1929, according to Quote Investigator. In context

“I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am. When two expeditions of scientists, financed by the Royal Academy, went forth to test my theory of relativity, I was convinced that their conclusions would tally with my hypothesis. I was not surprised when the eclipse of May 29, 1919, confirmed my intuitions. I would have been surprised if I had been wrong.”

“Then you trust more to your imagination than to your knowledge?”

“I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

Friday, June 14, 2019

Rule 34: If something exists, there is porn of it

According to Know Your Meme:

Rule 34 is an Internet adage in the "Rules of the Internet" list of protocols and conventions which asserts that "if something exists, there is porn of it." The humorous concept is commonly illustrated through fanarts and fanfictions in which fictional TV and cartoon characters engage in sexual behavior, in similar vein to the Ruined Childhood meme.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

... build something that you haven’t done before, you don’t know how to do it, and it’s kind of amateur way of doing things ...

--- Karl Ove Knausgård, in an interview with Kurt Anderson, Studio 360 interview, May 2, 2019

The blog post paraphrases the verbatim (see my transcription of the audio below) as follows

If you want to get rid of all the automatic ways in, then you have to do something from scratch so to speak and build something that you haven't done before . . . It's like you do it for the first time. And I think that's that's the best place to be in writing…. And I think Munch somehow searched for those places in his painting throughout his life.

Quote in context (my transcription)

[12:55] Kurt Anderson: And, and, you don’t just mean the overused formula that everybody would regard as, that’s been used forever, that’s a cliché; you mean, any technique or any trope or any idea that an artist just comfortably returns to in his or her own work, right? It’s all of one’s personal habits, as well, and tics.

[13:16] Karl Ove Knausgård: Yes, exactly, and its about safety, it’s easy if you find a way to do it, find a way to paint or find a way to write, and it’s works to be successful, or at least it works, it’s very tempting to just continue because [sigh] the risk of failure is enormous in doing these things, you know. So, for instance, a man like David Bowie, he should be admired so much for the courage he had to completely go somewhere else you know, every second year, since 70s and 80s. Because the risk and what’s at stake is a comfort and you know your skill, you can do it, and it’s easy, you can do it one more time, but if you do it, then you know what it is, and there’s no curiosity anymore, and you won’t find anything else, anything new.

[14:08] Kurt Anderson. Right. I’m fascinated by the common struggles and common challenges and problems of artists in different disciplines. You say, for instance, that a serious painter, quote, starts a work because he knows what he wants to do but not how to do it. And that seems at least as true of writing as painting.

[14:35] Karl Ove Knausgård: Yeah. If you want to get rid of the novel before the novel, if you want to get rid of all the automatic ways in, then you have to do something from scratch so to speak, and build something that you haven’t done before, you don’t know how to do it, and it’s kind of amateur way of doing things, you know, there’s no professionalism in it, it’s as if you do it for the first time. And I think that’s the best place to be in writing, and you can feel it in the novel. It’s not like a professional, you know, smooth, … it’s much more awkward, and I think Munch somehow searched for those places in his paining throughout his life, actually.

Friday, May 31, 2019

In astronomy, one is an outlier, two is a population


--- Emily Petroff at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, quoted in "Radio wave bursts from space keep hitting Earth and we don't know why," New Scientist, 9 January 2019

In context:

Knowing there is more than one repeating FRB means we are likely to find further ones. “In astronomy, one is an outlier, two is a population,” says Petroff. Hunting down that population requires looking at a large portion of the sky for a long time.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Technology is also the central character and actor in our social drama, an end as well as a means. In fact, technology plays the role of "the trickster" in American culture

--- James W. Carey, in "Communication, Culture, and Technology: An Internet Interview with James W. Carey," in Journal of Communication Inquiry 22:2 (April 1998): 117-130; https://doi.org/10.1177/0196859998022002001.

In context
Langdon Winner called this belief "autonomous technology," the faith that technology is and must be highly differentiated, identifiably disengaged, and objectified. While common to all industrial societies, autonomous technology occupies a peculiar place in the life of North Americans. Technology, for us, is more than an assortment of artifacts or practices, a means to accomplish desired ends. Technology is also the central character and actor in our social drama, an end as well as a means. In fact, technology plays the role of "the trickster" in American culture: At each turn of the historical cycle it appears center stage, in a different guise, promising something totally new.
More excerpts
Our national storytelling is, to an unusual extent, embedded in the history of technology; it is the story, to use Leo Marx's useful phrase, of the "machine in the Garden."

… once constituted, technology, like any God, must be propitiated.

The rituals of theory are themselves ways of propitiating technology. If human imagination operates mainly by a process of analogy-a "seeing-as" comprehension of the less intelligible by the more (the universe is a hogan, the world a wedding)-the main analogy of modem thought is technology.

The consequences of technology are always profoundly contradictory; contradiction is of the essence of technology, not just some accidental byproduct of the historical process.

The more appliances that our lives require-appliances rather than our own biological capacity-the more influence their producers have over the texture of our lives.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

By consuming what the algorithm says I want, I trust the algorithm to make me ever more who it thinks I already am

--- Jon Askonas, in "How Tech Utopia Fostered Tyranny," The New Atlantis, Winter 2019

Quote in context

We can see the shift from “access to tools” to algorithmic utopianism in the unheralded, inexorable replacement of the “page” by the “feed.” . . . The feed was the solution to the tedium of surfing the web, of always having to decide for yourself what to do next. Information would now come to you. Gradually, the number of sites involved in one’s life online dwindled, and the “platform” emerged, characterized by an infinite display of relevant information — the feed. . . . But the opacity of these models, indeed the very personalization of them, means that a strong element of faith is required. By consuming what the algorithm says I want, I trust the algorithm to make me ever more who it thinks I already am.
Some more quotes:

"Authoritarians’ love for digital technology is no fluke — it’s a product of Silicon Valley’s “smart” paternalism"

"Tools based on the premise that access to information will only enlighten us and social connectivity will only make us more humane have instead fanned conspiracy theories, information bubbles, and social fracture. A tech movement spurred by visions of libertarian empowerment and progressive uplift has instead fanned a global resurgence of populism and authoritarianism."

"But what we are searching for — what we desire — is often shaped by what we are exposed to and what we believe others desire. And so predicting what is useful, however value-neutral this may sound, can shade into deciding what is useful, both to individual users and to groups, and thereby shaping what kinds of people we become, for both better and worse."

"As long as our desires are unsettled and malleable — as long as we are human — the engineering choices of Google and the rest must be as much acts of persuasion as of prediction."

"Each company was founded on a variation of the premise that providing more people with more information and better tools, and helping them connect with each other, would help them lead better, freer, richer lives."

"Moreover, because algorithms are subject to strategic manipulation and because they are attempting to provide results unique to you, the choices shaping these powerful defaults are necessarily hidden away by platforms demanding you simply trust them"

"What’s shocking isn’t that technological development is a two-edged sword. It’s that the power of these technologies is paired with a stunning apathy among their creators about who might use them and how. Google employees have recently declared that helping the Pentagon with a military AI program is a bridge too far, convincing the company to cancel a $10 billion contract. But at the same time, Google, Apple, and Microsoft, committed to the ideals of open-source software and collaboration toward technological progress, have published machine-learning tools for anyone to use, including agents provocateur and revenge pornographers."

"They and their successors, based on optimistic assumptions about human nature, built machines to maximize those naturally good human desires. But, to use a line from Bruno Latour, “technology is society made durable.” That is, to extend Latour’s point, technology stabilizes in concrete form what societies already find desirable."

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The first scent you pour in a jar stays there / For years

--- Horace, Epistles I, 2 (to Lollius), transl. by Burton Raffel, in The essential Horace: Odes, epodes, satires, and epistles (1983), p. 200

The closing stanza
    A good groom trains a colt, teaches it obedience,
Before its neck grows too strong; a hunting hound
Works in the woods from the day it finds a deerskin
In the yard, and barks at it. You’re still a boy: drink
My words with a boy’s pure heart, trust in men who know.
The first scent you pour in a jar stays there
For years
. God as fast as you like, go as slow:
My pace is my own, now, indifferent to the world around me.

(I don't see why Lollius should take Horace's advice, since I'm not sure Horace is indeed one of the "men who know"; his "My pace is my own, now, indifferent to the world around me" sounds smug to me.) Still, the "first scent" image is lovely. It reminds me of a saying of the Buddha that I vaguely remember (and now can't track down; perhaps in the Dhammapada?) to the effect that grass wrapping something smelly (fish?) takes on its aroma; it's a metaphor for bad friends.

avoid the atmosphere of easy acrimony which sometimes haunts footnotes

--- Henry Steel Commager, The Odes of Horace: A Critical Study, quoted by Burton Raffel in his Translator's Introduction to The essential Horace: Odes, epodes, satires, and epistles (1983), p. xvii

Commager as quoted by Raffel:
I have made an effort to avoid the atmosphere of easy acrimony which sometimes haunts footnotes. Since we have inevitably to stand upon the shoulder of previous scholars, it ill becomes us to step on their toes getting there.

Monday, April 08, 2019

researchers’ careers depend more on publishing results with ‘impact’ than on publishing results that are correct

--- Arturo Casadevall in Nature, "Duke University’s huge misconduct fine is a reminder to reward rigour", 2 Apr 2019

Quote in context
The Duke experience is unlikely to be replicated exactly elsewhere. Channelling Leo Tolstoy, every instance of research misconduct is unhappy in its own way. Still, one thing is common: researchers’ careers depend more on publishing results with ‘impact’ than on publishing results that are correct. Pursuit of academic success generally means targeting particular journals, citations accrued and, occasionally, media attention.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Better to be enveloped in a matter that darkly feeds itself with hidden fires

--- Lewis Hyde, in Trickster makes this world (1998), Interlude, p. 90

In context
In the coal fields of West Virginia there are abandoned mines—their entrances long closed, the nearby towns long impoverished—that have caught on fire. These fires are impossible to put out; slowly they burn through the seams of coal, thirty or forty years. How wonderful if the writer of a book should happen on a topic with such longevity! At times he'll wish he'd picked some simpler theme, something he could strip-mine in a season, or something that would flash up and die down in a matter of months so that he could publish and get on. Get on with what, though? Better to be enveloped in a matter that darkly feeds itself with hidden fires; better not to know fully where the veins of fascination lead, but to trust that they will slowly give up their heat in recompense for attention paid.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

J'ai toujours préféré la folie des passions à la sagesse de l'indifférence

--- Anatole France, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard (1881). Via Dale Hatfield, March 2019. Often translated something like, "I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the indifference of wisdom"

From Wikiquote:

J'ai toujours préféré la folie des passions à la sagesse de l'indifférence.
I prefer the folly of enthusiasm to the wisdom of indifference.
Variant: I prefer the errors of enthusiasm to the wisdom of indifference.    
Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard, Pt. II, ch. 4, as translated by Lafcadio Hearn (1890) - full text of translation at Project Gutenberg 

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A metaphor is not an ornament. It is an organ of perception

--- Neil Postman, from The End of Education (1995), quoted on Rattle's page for the Neil Postman Award for Metaphor

Various web sites list this quote, but without a pin cite; the Amazon Look inside seems to confirm it, but I couldn't view the page (p. 171 given). QuoteFancy.com gives a slightly longer quote: “A metaphor is not an ornament. It is an organ of perception. Through metaphors, we see the world as one thing or another.”

ThoughCo.com offers a few sources for this quote, but neither are from Postman:

Gerard Genette on the Recovery of the Vision
Thus metaphor is not an ornament, but the necessary instrument for a recovery, through style, of the vision of essences, because it is the stylistic equivalent of the psychological experience of involuntary memory, which alone, by bringing together two sensations separated in time, is able to release their common essence through the miracle of an analogy — though metaphor has an added advantage over reminiscence, in that the latter is a fleeting contemplation of eternity, while the former enjoys the permanence of the work of art.
(Gerard Genette, Figures of Literary Discourse, Columbia University Press, 1981)

I.A. Richards on the Omnipresent Principle of Language
Throughout the history of Rhetoric, metaphor has been treated as a sort of happy extra trick with words, an opportunity to exploit the accidents of their versatility, something in place occasionally but requiring unusual skill and caution. In brief, a grace or ornament or added power of language, not its constitutive form. . . .
That metaphor is the omnipresent principle of language can be shown by mere observation. We cannot get through three sentences of ordinary fluid discourse without it.
(I.A. Richards, The Philosophy of Language, 1936)

From the Rattle page:

"Much like George Lakoff and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Postman maintained that words (and words, in truth, are metaphors) are as much the driver of reality as they are the vehicle. . . . For Postman, the study of metaphor was unending and metaphors were as crucial as they were omnipresent; they served to give form to and dictate experience. Is America the great melting pot, or is it an experiment in unity through diversity? What metaphors are embedded in television commercials . . . Put simply, Postman (like his teacher and hero, Marshall McLuhan), maintained that the medium through which information is conveyed directly colors meaning and our sense of the world . . . We are, essentially, what we see, hear, and read. Postman might go so far as to opine that we are the metaphors we use."

This makes me wonder about metaphor shading into myth...

writing was invented by introverts who didn’t want extroverts having all the story-telling fun

--- Poet James Valvis, in the biographical statement below his poem The Distracted (2019 winner of the Neil Postman Award for Metaphor) in Rattle  #61, Fall 2018.

Quote in context - the biographical statement:

James Valvis: “I don’t know why I write. Or why I ever started. It feels a bit like asking a penguin why he eats fish. It’s just what penguins do. Still, I’m an unlikely writer, to say the least, a ghetto kid who preferred baseball to Baudelaire, chess to Chesterton, Whitman’s chocolates to Whitman’s poems. I think I simply had too many stories inside not to let some out—and not enough friends to tell them to. I have this theory writing was invented by introverts who didn’t want extroverts having all the story-telling fun.” (web)

Sunday, January 13, 2019

it is not the car that you drive or the clothes that you wear that is important, but whom you dine with

--- Mamdouh Bisharat, quoted in the CS Monitor profile, "Patron of the past: The Jordanian duke who's preserving the soul of the Levant", November 5, 2018.

Quote in context

The late King Hussein, enamored with Bisharat’s love of country, decided to make his nickname official, issuing a royal decree in 1974 recognizing him as “Duke of Mukhaibeh.”

Dukedom has not given Bisharat airs.

While Amman’s rich and powerful clog Amman’s narrow streets with Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis, the duke drives a silver Chevy pickup packed with tomatoes. His blazers and suits are frayed, dating to the 1960s.

“What I learned in England is that it is not the car that you drive or the clothes that you wear that is important,” Bisharat says, preparing for his next supper party, “but whom you dine with.”

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

To me, a formula is a baked idea. Words are ideas in the oven.

--- Judea Pearl, in his 2018 book with Dana Mackenzie,The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect, p. 335


Quote in context:

Many people find formulas daunting, seeing them as a way of concealing rather than revealing information. But to a mathematician, or to person who is adequately trained in the mathematical way of thinking, exactly the reverse is true. A formula reveals everything: it leaves nothing to doubt or ambiguity. When reading a scientific article, I often catch myself jumping from formula to formula, skipping the words altogether. To me, a formula is a baked idea. Words are ideas in the oven.

One is tempted to say, "Great minds think alike," but perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that great problems attract great minds.

--- Judea Pearl, in his 2018 book with Dana Mackenzie,The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect, p. 313


Quote in context:

Unlike Kruskal, we can draw a diagram and see exactly what the problem is. Figure 9.5 shows the causal diagram representing Kruskal's counterexample. Does it look slightly familiar? It should! It is exactly the same diagram that Barbara Burks drew in 1926, but with different variables. One is tempted to say, "Great minds think alike," but perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that great problems attract great minds.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Zeus does not arrive at decisions which he then enacts in the mortal world; rather, human events are themselves an enactment of divine will

--- Harold Bloom. Quote taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prometheus, which seems to be citing Bloom's Major Dramatists: Aeschylus (2002), p. 14-15. (I wasn't able to verify the reference.)

Quote in context (taken from the Wikipedia article):


Much critical attention has been paid to the question of theodicy in Aeschylus. For generations, scholars warred incessantly over 'the justice of Zeus,' unintentionally blurring it with a monotheism imported from Judeo-Christian thought. The playwright undoubtedly had religious concerns; for instance, Jacqueline de Romilly suggests that his treatment of time flows directly out of his belief in divine justice. But it would be an error to think of Aeschylus as sermonizing. His Zeus does not arrive at decisions which he then enacts in the mortal world; rather, human events are themselves an enactment of divine will.


Tuesday, December 25, 2018

He had done as his dreams had told him, but dreams know more than they reveal

--- Neil Gaiman, in the Chapter "The Children of Loki" of his Norse Mythology (2017), p. 96.

In context:

Odin took the serpent to the shore of the sea that lies beyond all lands, the sea that circles Midgard, and there on the shore he freed Jormungundr, and watched it slither and slip beneath the waves and swim away in loops and curls.
Odin watched it with his one eye until it was lost on the horizon, and he wondered if he had done right thing. He did not know. He had done as his dreams had told him, but dreams know more than they reveal, even to the wisest of the gods.



Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing

--- Wernher von Braun, POLITICO Space's Quote for the Day, 12/12/2018 (also sometimes given as "Basic research is...")

Saturday, December 01, 2018

the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand

--- Richard Saul Wurman, in Information Anxiety, via Kenneth Gergen's The Saturated Self

Quote

[Information anxiety is] produced by the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. It is the black hole between data and knowledge, and what happens when information doesn't tell us what we want or need to know.