Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, November 30, 2009

you do this, you do that

Rachel Cooke writes, “Amazon does not set the synapses crackling the way the sight of a pristine shelf of books does: it does not surprise you, nor does it fuel book hunger. You click on what you came for, and then you leave.”

One of my most common frustrations in reading evaluations of recent technologies of reading/writing/information is the tendency of almost all parties — technophiles and Luddites alike — to assume that everyone responds to these technologies in the same way: precisely the way the writer does. When Cooke visits Amazon she clicks on what she came for, and then she leaves; but I don't. Amazon doesn't fuel her book hunger; but it fuels mine. (Almost everything does.) Maybe we can't all just get along, but surely we can all stop universalizing our quite individual experiences.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Google's value

One unnamed “prominent media executive” leaned toward Auletta at the 2007 Google Zeitgeist Conference and whispered a rhetorical question in his ear: What real value, he wanted to know, was Google producing for society?

Wait. What real value? Come now, my prominent executive friend. Have you not glanced at Street View in Google Maps? Have you not relied on the humble aid of the search-box calculator, or checked out Google’s movie showtimes, or marveled at the quick-and-dirtiness of Google Translate? Have you not made interesting recherché 19th-century discoveries in Google Books? Or played with the amazing expando-charts in Google Finance? Have you not designed a strange tall house in Google SketchUp, and did you not make a sudden cry of awed delight the first time you saw the planet begin to turn and loom closer in Google Earth? Are you not signed up for automatic Google News alerts on several topics? I would be very surprised if you are not signed up for a Google alert or two. Surely no other software company has built a cluster of products that are anywhere near as cleverly engineered, as quick-loading and as fun to fiddle with, as Google has, all for free. Have you not searched?

I wish Nicholson Baker wrote all book reviews.

Friday, November 27, 2009

discovering an artist

Thanks to things magazine, I have just learned about the illustrations of Eric Ravilious (1903-1942). Beautiful stuff.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

the powers of paper

Don't know how bookish this is, but it's a testament to the magnificent adaptability of paper. Here, with a hat to to Ari Schulman.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

adventures in assigning causation

James Parker:

[Roald] Dahl was not religious by temperament or philosophy, and this seems important. Compare his bristling, stinking, unmetaphorical characters with the watery allegories of the Harry Potter cycle — and his prose with J.K. Rowling's — and you begin to see that a supernatural frame of reference might not always be such a wonderful thing.

Who knew that there was such a direct connection between religious belief and prose style? Let’s try this:

Flannery O’Connor was Catholic by temperament and philosophy, and this seems important. Compare her bristling, stinking, outrageous characters with the watery allegories of the Da Vinci Code cycle — and her prose with Dan Brown's — and you begin to see that the absence of theological orthodoxy might not always be such a wonderful thing.

Works like a charm!

(By the way, there will be light or no posting for the rest of this Thanksgiving week, but I will be doing a good bit of linking on the Twitter feed, so pay attention to that. Lots of things I would love to blog about but don't have time to respond to fully.)

there's no such thing as a free netbook

Great question from Glyn Moody at Slashdot:

The response to Google’s Chromium OS has been rather lukewarm. But suppose it’s just part of something much bigger: a netbook computer from Google that would cost absolutely nothing. Because all the apps and data are stored in the cloud, storage requirements would be minimal; screens are getting cheaper, and the emphasis on lean code means that a low-cost processor could be used. Those relatively small hardware costs could then be covered by advertising in the apps — after all, they are just Web pages. Interestingly, Google has not only rolled out advertising to more of its services recently, it has also started running AdSense ads in the desktop application Google Earth. Would you accept a free Google netbook — or is the price you would pay in terms of the company knowing even more about what you do on an hour-by-hour basis just too high?

(Plenty of links in the original.)

tools of the trade

These are the applications I use most often on my MacBook, in descending order:

1) My web browser is OmniWeb. Despite a somewhat archaic appearance — drawers in Mac apps are so 2003 — it’s the most feature-rich browser in the Mac world, and the features are well-chosen and well-designed. I’m especially attached to its workspaces and search shortcuts, and the ability to set site-specific preferences for all kinds of webpage behavior.
1a) When I’m in OmniWeb, the pages I visit most often are Gmail and Google Reader for my RSS feeds (I’m not going to bother linking to those); Remember the Milk for tasks; and Pinboard for bookmarking. I think Pinboard, despite or because of its simplicity, is a big advance over Delicious.
2) I write almost everything, from books to these blog posts, in BBEdit, which has been my text editor of choice for about a decade now. I stopped writing my books and articles in a word processor in, I think, that year I already mentioned: 2003. I do most of my text formatting via John Gruber’s Markdown, but more and more often I’m using LaTeX, which often sends me to TeXShop — an amazing free suite of writing and typesetting tools.
3) My “everything bucket” is Together. It used to be Yojimbo, but Together works slightly better for my workflow, and has a more responsive and less grumpy developer.
4) Because of my interest in the graphico-visual display of thoughts I like making certain kinds of class handouts in the remarkable OmniGraffle. To get a sense of what OmniGraffle can do, take a look at Will Benton’s comment on this post.
5) Oh yeah, iTunes.
And that’s about it. I rarely venture outside those apps.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Gene Wolfe's Sun

Over at the Guardian, Alison Flood has been reading some science fiction and fantasy classics, and has gotten around to Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series — the first half of it, anyway. She is impressed, as she should be. But I have never been quite sure how highly to rate this series. It's brilliant in so many ways, but I have always suspected that Wolfe never really grasped the essence of his own design — that he followed an imaginative trail that was very rewarding in many ways, for him and for his readers, only to find that it concluded in a dead end. To shift metaphors, there seems to be no heart to the series, no core or center — just a magnificent series of images and events that add up to nothing in particular.
Someday I will try to express this more clearly.

the disappearance of all things human

Finally, a reasonable, measured, intellectual substantive critique of electronic books, from Alan Kaufman:

The book is fast becoming the despised Jew of our culture. Der Jude is now Der Book. Hi-tech propogandists tell us that the book is a tree-murdering, space-devouring, inferior form of technology; that society would simply be better-off altogether if we euthanized it even as we begin to carry around, like good little Aryans, whole libraries in our pockets, downloaded on the Uber-Kindle. . . .

Not since the advent of Christianity has the world witnessed so sweeping a change in the very fabric of human existence. . . .

Heinrich Heine, the early 19th century German Jewish poet, wrote: "Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people." The advent of electronic media to first position in the modern chain of Being—a place once occupied by God—and later, after the Enlightenment, by humans—is no mere 9/11 upon our cultural assumptions. It is a catastrophe of holocaustal proportions. And its endgame is the disappearance of not just books but of all things human.

I don't think any comment on this is possible — or necessary — except to say that one should never underestimate the cultural reach of Godwin’s Law. Thanks to Daniel Green for the link.

Friday, November 20, 2009

one last video

British Pathe - ( EARLY TRAFFIC SCENES ) - Watch more Videos at Vodpod.
Not really about about anything connected to this blog, but amazing stuff. From here, via Brian.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

more bookmaking in action

Love the Ratatat score. Via Jason Santa Maria.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

book machine in action

today's nits, picked

In my own personal “little things that annoy me more than they should” file, most entries concern the European past — especially the European Christian past. I’ve added two entries today. First, I’ve been enjoying James Gleick’s concise biography of Isaac Newton, but I scratched my head at this sentence:

The very existence of the Bible in English — long opposed by the church establishment and finally authorized only a generation before Newton’s birth — had inspired the Puritan cause.

Gleick seems to be under the impression that “the church establishment” opposed “the very existence of the Bible in English” until the Authorized Version of 1611. That is, he assumes that if the Bible was “authorized” then it must have been “uauthorized” — i.e., prohibited — before then. Which is, um, wrong. (Also, I wonder if he’s aware of the difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England.)

And then this, from Dwight Garner’s review of Margaret Visser’s The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude, which Garner repeatedly calls “scholarly”:

In Dante’s “Inferno,” she observes, “at the bottommost circle of hell, the ungrateful are punished by being eternally frozen in the postures of deference they had failed to perform during their lifetimes: trapped rigid in enveloping ice, they stand erect or upside down, lie prone, or bow face to feet.”

In fact, they are scattered in random postures, some immersed wholly in ice and some only partially — one is eternally gnawing the head of another — and they are not “the ungrateful” but rather the treacherous. There is quite a difference between failing to feel or show gratitude and actively betraying a benefactor.

Just for the record.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

modern warfare

Chris Sullentrop writes about his experience playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 — in particular, a scenario in which his protagonist goes undercover, pretending to be a terrorist:

The game had instructed me to follow the lead of my fellow terrorists, and I had been told that preserving my undercover status was important for the country. But after an introductory gun burst, I couldn't do it anymore. It was the most powerful emotional experience any video game has ever given me. I don't know that I cried, but I was knocked off balance by emotions that I thought I had tucked away. As the travelers screamed and fled from the indiscriminate slaughter, I strolled through the airport. I didn't fire my weapon anymore, but I watched the three Russian terrorists kill. One of the men shot a passenger as he crawled along the blood-streaked floor and pleaded for his life.

And then I started shooting again. I thought that a guard was going to kill me, so I went after him first. The bullets hit his corpse — he was shot first by one of the other men — and it shuddered on the ground. As we approached a team of riot police, I thought, You don't have to do this. You can stop. You can refuse. You can walk away. I didn't.

For a while, though, I sat there. I picked up a riot shield and tried to hide behind it and let the others do the killing. That didn't work. Then I picked up a gun and tried to fire it into the skull of the lead terrorist. The game wouldn't let me do that, either, wouldn't even let me shoot. The rules of play were clear: If you want to go forward, if you want to keep playing, you have to kill these cops. Do something awful with me, the game asked. And I did.

This is interesting for any number of reasons, but what I find most noteworthy is the game designers’ decision to withhold moral choices from players. Or rather — since all games limit players’ choices, and have to, since they cannot provide infinitely variable gameplay — I’m interested in what choices it withholds. In real life, a man pretending to be a terrorist has many options. He can decide not to shoot when the other terrorists are shooting, or deliberately miss, or run away, or, yes, fire his pistol into the skull of the lead terrorist. But Modern Warfare 2 gives its players essentially two choices: do something morally horrific, or quit the game.

Of course, that’s what many games do: the difference here, if Sullentrop is right, is that Modern Warfare 2 makes it impossible for you to avoid seeing that what you’re doing is morally horrific. Or does it? Sullentrop certainly felt that he was being forced to confront certain realities of “modern warfare”: “It's a first-person shooter that plays as a tragedy, not a power fantasy. It's the most anti-war war game I've ever played, a murder simulator that won't let you forget the nature of your actions.”

But there are some things I’d like to know: First, what percentage of this game’s players experience no qualms at all about gunning down cops and innocent bystanders? And second, when people do respond so blithely, does that tell us something, anything, about their moral state? Would such people be more likely to do really nasty things in real life? Or are they just better than Sullentrop at separating the logic of game-playing from the moral quandaries of lived experience?

In any event, no game (no work of art) can compel a given response from its players (its audience). What G. C. Lichtenberg said about reading applies to video games as well: “A book is like a mirror: if an ass looks in, you can't expect an apostle to look out.”

Monday, November 16, 2009


Read James Poulos’s post on lists. Done? Okay, now read these selections from W. H. Auden’s essay “Infernal Science”:

All exact science is dominated by the idea of approximation. (Bertrand Russell). If so, then infernal science differs from human science in that it lacks the notion of approximation: it believes its laws to be exact. [. . .]

The first anthropological axiom of the Evil One is not All men are evil, but All men are the same; and his second — Men do not act, they only behave. [. . .]

One of our greatest spiritual dangers is our fancy that the Evil One takes a personal interest in our perdition. He doesn't care a button about my soul, any more than Don Giovanni cared a button about Donna Elvira’s body. I am his “one-thousand-and-third in Spain.”

One can conceive of Heaven having a Telephone Directory, but it would have to be gigantic, for it would include the Proper Name and address of every electron in the Universe. But Hell could not have one, for in Hell . . . its inhabitants are identified not by name but by number. They do not have numbers, they are numbers.

From The Dyer’s Hand (1962).

nota bene!

Having mentioned in the previous post the always-valuable work of Ann Blair, I think I’ll add a reference to an article of hers on the history of note-taking. I am not sure whether this is freely available online — I get access to a lot of stuff when I’m using the college internet connection that I can’t get at home, thanks to wise expenditures by our excellent reference staff — but here’s the link and here’s a sample:

More widespread than techniques associated with particular professions were the note-taking methods taught in schools. From earliest antiquity teaching was mostly dispensed orally; what we know of ancient teaching is largely dependent on the notes that listeners took. What we call the works of Aristotle, for example, are thought to be mostly composed from student notes. Different forms of notes would have resulted from different teaching settings: for example, the acroamatic, major works from lecturing, and the problemata, with their multiple answers to questions, from a more discussion-oriented kind of teaching. One seventeenth-century teacher concluded that note taking must have been practiced even by the followers of the prisca sapientia famous for their reliance on memory and their contempt of writing: “How else would their writings survive to us?...They wrote on all kinds of things: they used wax, wood, cloth, bark, tree leaves, lead, skins, and palimpsests. We most conveniently use paper and rejoice in the printers; this way of writing is so easy that leisure is not more pleasant than work.” No doubt this rational reconstruction of ancient note taking is a better indicator of attitudes in the seventeenth century than among the Pythagoreans. But the point is well taken: only those teachings that were committed to writing at some point have survived. Historians too might consider the extent to which note taking played a role in the transmission of learning even in a period noted for its cultivation of memory — indeed note taking was long perceived as a powerful aid to memory.

In general we have insufficient evidence to reconstruct the specifics of the classroom experience from antiquity through the Early Modern period, and certainly we can expect it to have varied. Medieval lectures were not simply dictations; students came equipped with a manuscript version of the text being discussed and might not always have needed to take notes. From the sixteenth century we have printed school texts abundantly annotated in the margins and on interleaved pages with commentary that was likely dictated in the classroom and copied over neatly after the fact in the printed book. In one example from 1629 in Paris students in the same class came away with full-text notes from a course on geography, identical but for aural mistakes; the entire text of this extracurricular course was evidently provided by dictation. 150 years later student notes of Kant's lectures on anthropology were circulated and sold as complete versions of his lectures. How exactly these notes (now extant only in later copies) were produced by listening students is a matter of some speculation. The students may have used forms of abbreviation and condensing (stenography was only developed for German in 1834); students may also have worked together to each take down successive sentences of the lecture, following a method first devised by pietistic preacher August Hermann Francke (1663-1727) and which he called a Schreibechor or writing chorus. Indeed it would be helpful to study as a parallel to note taking in lectures the tradition of note taking during sermons. The written reportationes of medieval sermons produced by listeners were not a verbatim transcription of the oral sermon but rather a reconstruction based on schematic notes. Judging from the elaborate solution attributed to August Hermann Francke, we can surmise that note taking at the Sunday sermon was a common practice centuries later among German pietists.

Fascinating stuff.

ut pictura poesis

Over at Snarkmarket, Tim Carmody is meditating — here and here — on Kenny Goldsmith’s claim that “with the rise of the web, writing has met its photography.” Tim rightly finds this statement pleasingly epigrammatic but historically inaccurate, and tries to come up with a better formulation. I think he does — it’s kinda complicated, so you should read his posts — but I think what he really should have said is that Goldsmith’s analogy goes wrong right from the start, because he’s confused about what photography did to painting:

Writing has encountered a situation similar to what happened to painting upon the invention of photography, a technology so much better at doing what the art form had been trying to do, that in order to survive, the field had to alter its course radically. If photography was striving for sharp focus, painting was forced to go soft, hence Impressionism. Faced with an unprecedented amount of digital available text, writing needs to redefine itself in order to adapt to the new environment of textual abundance.

Is it really true that painting “had been trying” to do what photography came along and did better? If so, what exactly was that? Was it a matter of achieving “sharp focus”? That might account for some painters (George de la Tour, maybe, or Joseph Wright of Derby), but what about Turner? Or Rembrandt for that matter? There’s no doubt that photography came to supplant painting for some purposes, but even architectural painting did not disappear with the advent of photography, much less portraiture.

Might Goldsmith be suggesting something else? When he mentions text he cites its “abundance,” so maybe he’s thinking that photography brought images into “the age of mechanical reproduction”. But that’s not right, either, because printing presses reproduced images as well as text, and by the time photography came along there were many techniques for the reproduction of images, via intaglio or relief.

Moreover, “textual abundance” is not new. As Ann Blair has been showing us for some time, the printing press very quickly brought us more books than we could ever hope to read — and all the anxieties that accompany information overload.

So, in short, while Tim provides an account that’s much better than Goldsmith’s, I think he would have done better to reject the image/text analogizing altogether. Both sides of the story are too complex for any epigram to be better than misleading. The advent of photography changed painting, but not in simple ways; and I would contend — though I can but assert the point here — that the printing press changed our relations to texts in far more fundamental ways than digital transmission has.

Friday, November 13, 2009

letteratura grafica

A famous Borges story visualized, here. Click the photo for a larger version. Thanks again to Matt Frost.

Google and manhole covers

This will be old news to some of you, but: today I came across an article listing "15 Google interview questions that will make you feel stupid," and among them was an old chestnut: Why are manhole covers round? The official Business Insider answer: "So it [sic] doesn't fall through the manhole." Apparently these people are not as familiar as they ought to be with imagined conversations with Richard Feynman.

gliding over

I’ve made it clear that I think Edward Tufte is great, but I can't help but smile at this comment on his use of T. S. Eliot: “There are many wonderful lines in Four Quartets and I simply glide over the heavy-handed religious material.”

This could be a useful approach elsewhere: “There are many wonderful lines in the Aeneid and I simply glide over the heavy-handed founding-of-Rome material.” “There are many wonderful lines in Pride and Prejudice and I simply glide over the heavy-handed courtship-and-marriage material.”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

taking it to a whole 'nother level

The chart thing, I mean. Choose your own adventure. Thanks to Matt Frost.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

looking down the bookcase/staircase

Thanks to Ari Schulman for the link. As always, click on the photo for a larger version.

unreasonable expectations

This post by a student who's frustrated by professorial use and misuse of PowerPoint got slashdotted and as a result has a boatload of comments. The best/saddest/most intriguing of them is this one:
I’ve been a computer science professor for many years at a very good university, and in most of my classes I try to *only* use slides for images or diagrams that are so complicated or precise that I would not want to reproduce them by hand. Everything else is either me talking or writing on the whiteboard. Sometimes I have handwritten notes to remind me what topics I wanted to cover.
My students, for the most part, HATE this. It completely turns their expectations of a class upside down. After a few weeks, I start getting a deluge of “when are the slides going to be online” from the students who never attend class and don’t realize that there aren’t slides. Even students who *are* in class complain bitterly that they don’t have “anything to study from”. I’ve had students complain (in groups, sometimes with signed petitions) to my department chair and to my dean, saying that not providing slides creates (and I quote from one recent complaint) an “unreasonable expectation of attendance and/or note-taking”. I have fielded angry phone calls from PARENTS saying that their student isn’t doing well in my course because I’m not providing him/her with the “expected study aids.”
You gotta love that, don't you? "Unreasonable expectation of attendance and/or note-taking."

living in a tweet-only world

If that's your goal, you need this device, don't you?
Think about it. When people originally started talking about Twitter, the first thing they'd always mention was the 140-character limit that the service imposes on tweets. So short! Who can say anything in 140 lousy characters? Crazy!
And it's true that when a person who is used to longer forms of writing starts emitting tweets, keeping to just 140 characters can be a challenge. You actually have to think a bit about how to squeeze your thoughts to fit the format. It doesn't take long, though, for a twitterer to adapt to the new medium, and once you're fully adapted something funny happens. The sense that 140 characters is a constraint not only disappears, but 140 characters starts to seem, well, long. Your own tweets shrink, and it becomes kind of annoying when somebody actually uses the full 140 characters. Jeez, I'm going to skip that tweet. It's too long.
The same thing has happened, of course, with texting. Who sends a 160-character text? A 160-character text would feel downright Homeric. And that's what a 140-character tweet is starting to feel like, too.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

specimen boxes

Covers for Vladimir Nabokov's books, designed as specimen boxes in homage to the author's second career as a lepidopterist. Gorgeous.

don't tell anyone, but I agree with Germaine Greer

When she says this, anyway:

If you haven't read Proust, don't worry. This lacuna in your cultural development you do not need to fill. On the other hand, if you have read all of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, you should be very worried about yourself. As Proust very well knew, reading his work for as long as it takes is temps perdu, time wasted, time that would be better spent visiting a demented relative, meditating, walking the dog or learning ancient Greek.

Seriously, I wish I had back the time I've spent reading Proust. And I never made it all the way through. I want to say to Proust what Ezra Pound said to Joyce, for somewhat different reasons, about Finnegans Wake: “Nothing, so far as I can make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clap can possibly be worth all that circumambient peripherization.”

Monday, November 9, 2009

about those charts

The Lord of the Rings (etc.) chart I posted the other day is not as good an example of my chart-fascination as the John Bunyan chart that came before. The LOTR timeline is an Edward Tufte-ish kind of chart: what Tufte calls “the visual display of quantitative information.” And Tufte’s explorations of how quantitative information is, and can be, displayed are really fascinating.

But what I’m interested in is the graphico-visual display of thoughts. That is: in what circumstances do we decide that words are not enough to present our ideas, but that the words must be placed in an organized visual field? — maybe something as simple as a table, or org chart, but maybe something more sophisticated and visually complex. Look again at that Bunyan chart: it has many words, but not nearly as many as it would have had if Bunyan had decided to present his ideas in ordinary prose. Instead, the graphico-visual display makes a series of linkages that allow Bunyan to use far fewer words and to get a very complex account of human behavior onto one page. One very large page, true, but still.

That’s the sort of thing I’m interested in, and will be posting about from time to time. The “chart” tag is your entrance ticket.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Watch this video at Ayoka Productions
Thanks to Jessamyn.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

away for a bit

Gentle readers, I'll be traveling for the next few days and will probably be unable to post. However, the occasional tweet may be forthcoming, so check out the Text Patterns Twitter widget to the right of this entry — or, better yet, follow me. Um, not literally, just on Twitter.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

how I discovered criticism

I've written elsewhere about my discovery of irony, but today I wish to remember my discovery of criticism.
Unfortunately, this requires me to disclose that one of the first LPs I bought was by Grand Funk Railroad — their first "greatest hits" recording, appearing when they had been around for about three years. I had actually never heard anything by Grand Funk — I just liked what I thought was a tastefully minimalist cover design. (I was not then troubled by the absence of the serial comma.) (Hey, I was thirteen.)
When I took the record home and got it open, I discovered something odd: the inner sleeves, which for all the other records I owned were made of plain white paper, were covered by photos of clippings from newspaper and magazine articles about the band. Some of these were in a genre familiar to me: denunciations of rock-and-roll music as an instrument of the devil or an enemy of traditional morals. But others were puzzling: one person commented on Mark Farner's off-key singing — a comment amply justified by the recorded evidence, as I was soon to learn — and another said that Don Brewer's drumming sounded like "someone fluffing pillows."
I recall such phrases all these years later because they struck me at the time as being so strange. I knew that there were people who might criticize a drummer for being too loud, but I had no idea that there were people who would lament — in print! in a professional publication! — that one was too soft. I kept looking at the phrase, trying to see if I could assign another meaning to it that phrase, but in the end I had to accept that here was a writer, a real writer apparently, complaining that a rock-and-roll drummer was playing like a sissy and needed to give those skins some serious thumping if he was going to earn the writer's respect.
This was how I discovered criticism. It wasn't criticism of books, or classical music, or art, but of really, really crappy rock-and-roll music. Only at that moment did I come to understand that there are people paid to offer evaluations of other people's cultural or artistic productions. But little did I know that one day people would pay me for that kind of work. I don't believe the idea crossed my mind at the time.
And once I figured out what was going on there, I figured out something else: that, bad as Grand Funk was as a band, they had someone pretty sharp putting together those record sleeves. Because the clear implication was that people who said that the members of the band couldn't sing or play were absolutely equivalent to those who denounced rock music as the devil's playground. Nice one, Mark, Don and Mel!

rivers of narrative time

xkcd, of course. I still haven't explained what I'm up to with this "feature," but all in good time.

Monday, November 2, 2009

supernatural collective nouns

New adventures in the venereal game. I'm especially fond of "an opulence of succubi" and "a yearning of sasquatches."

wisdom and old age

All I want to do here is to juxtapose two quotations. The first comes from Philip Greenspun’s blog:

What has the increasing pace of technological development done to old people in our age?

Let’s start by considering factual knowledge. An old person will know more than a young person, but can any person, young or old, know as much as Google and Wikipedia? Why would a young person ask an elder the answer to a fact question that can be solved authoritatively in 10 seconds with a Web search? . . .

The same technological progress that enables our society to keep an ever-larger percentage of old folks’ bodies going has simultaneously reduced the value of the minds within those bodies. It is sad to contemplate. Perhaps the answer is for every old person to become an expert personal computer and network administrator. Those skills always seem to be in demand by the general public.

Another answer would be to develop obvious wisdom. Unfortunately, the young people who are most in need of an elder’s wisdom are the least likely to realize it. Only a small percentage of old people throughout history have managed to maintain high status and value purely through wisdom.

The second quotation comes from Walter Benjamin’s great essay “The Storyteller”:

Every real story . . . contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim. In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today “having counsel” is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing. In consequence we have no counsel either for ourselves or for others. After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding. To seek this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story. (Quite apart from the fact that a man is receptive to counsel only to the extent that he allows his situation to speak.) Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom. The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out. This, however, is a process that has been going on for a long time. And nothing would be more fatuous than to want to see in it merely a “symptom of decay,” let alone a “modern” symptom. It is, rather, only a concomitant symptom of the secular productive forces of history, a concomitant that has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing.

Wisdom is always in short supply; wisdom is never in great demand.