Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

returning: a process

Hello everybody. I'm back from a wonderful visit to the good people at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, and am now in the midst of a harrowing game of catch-up. So while regular posting will resume here soon, it won't resume immediately.

At the Institute I presented 79 Theses on Technology, for disputation, and while we didn't conduct a full-fledged disputatio, I got some wonderful responses from the group there that will make my thinking better. There will also be more detailed and formal responses on the Infernal Machine blog, and the first of them has now been posted by my friend (and kind host while I was there) Chad Wellmon.

Look for more responses there, and for my own counter-blasts, which will probably be posted both here and at the Infernal Machine.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

one small step towards simplification

I sold my iPad recently, and I don’t expect to buy another one. (By the way, I love the Amazon buy-back program: I got $150 for a device I had used for more than two years. I’ve already spent most of the money on books.) In general I find navigating the iPad cumbersome, though it’s great for reading PDFs and comics. And those experiences were good enough, and frequent enough, that I’m not saying anything stronger than “I don’t expect to buy another one.” I could weaken.

But so far I am really happy with the decision, because I now spend less time asking myself, for example, whether I want to take my laptop or my iPad to the coffeeshop. I also don’t have to make software choices based on cross-platform compatibility. Indeed, this simplification of my life has been sufficiently pleasant that I’d like to extend it. I have thought a lot about Boone Gorges’ decision to ditch his smartphone and his recent re-endorsement of that decision — as I say, I have thought about it — I have given it serious consideration — and I still have an old phone around the house — but no. I don’t think I can.

And the chief reason is not that my iPhone has tons of cool apps; in fact, I’d like to get away from those apps. Rather, I’m attached to my iPhone because I think it’s an exceptionally elegant and beautiful device. I like holding it and even just looking at it. So what I’d love to see — what would take me away from the iPhone — is a really beautifully designed and engineered cellphone that does nothing but make phone calls, send texts, and take photographs.

When I first decided that I want that kind of phone, I immediately thought Why hasn’t Apple made one of those? But then two seconds later I realized that it would make absolutely no financial sense for Apple to sell us phones that are disconnected from the company’s enormous app ecosystem. And the same logic holds true for Android and Windows phones.

But surely there’s a market here for a new (or maybe an old) company to exploit? An elegant and utterly simple phone that, freed from the need to support apps, could have the bonus of greatly extended battery life. I’d buy one of those in a minute — and sell my iPhone to Amazon.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

on reading diverse books

I wasn’t going to weigh in on the #readdiversebooks thing, because, after all, I’m the read-at-whim guy so you can guess my opinion about it, but also because if you are going to reject whim and confine your reading to certain approved categories, you could do worse that this. But okay, Saladin Ahmed — you’re the one who made this not about ethics, or exposing yourself to a wider variety of points of view, but rather boredom:

Now certainly, one could spend one’s life reading only books by straight white men, and never run out of wonderful material. But this is akin to spending a lifetime’s worth of vacations visiting only Disneyland. Whether or not one agrees with ‘the SJWs’ that it’s ethically contemptible, it is, in a word, boring.

I know, right? I mean, I was reading this book by Richard Dawkins and then I put it down and picked up Dante’s Divine Comedy and I’m like How am I supposed to tell these apart? James Joyce and George Herbert, Karl Marx and Dostoevsky, Samuel Johnson and Petrarch … all this heteronormativity and white supremacy … the sameness of it, you know? SO. BORING. Just one big old heterocaucasian Disneyland.

However, I do have some questions for Ahmed and the more moralistic Reading Monitors. First, I’m intrigued by this new book by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant — can I read that? I had no idea what his sexual orientation was but Wikipedia helped me out with that — so he’s straight — but is he white? He was born in Nagasaki to Japanese parents, but moved to England as a small child and has lived there ever since, so I’m confused. But I’m thinking that since Japanese people in apartheid-ruled South Africa were classified as honorary white people, I’d best stay away.

But I’ve also been looking at Augustine’s Confessions and that’s a real puzzler. Was Augustine a white person? I know most of the people who read him are white … well, probably … maybe … anyway, can you help me with that?

You get my point — or several of my points — but the most important among them is this: the whole debate is predicated on the unconfronted assumption that people will only be reading books written in the past few years. Ahmed’s ridiculous comment stems from this: he’s addressing readers who without a kick in the pants will just go from Jonathan Franzen to Jonathan Chait to Jonathan Lethem. But the farther you go back in time the fuzzier the relevant taxonomy becomes: both “straight” and “white” are recent categories than can’t be simply retrojected into history. (Evidence: Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People, J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account, Hanne Blank’s Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality — to cite just three flawed but instructive and provocative books.)

Look: white men really are over-represented on editorial pages and periodical tables-of-contents and book-awards shortlists. So I understand what lies behind #readdiversebooks; but it’s really a movement for people who were going to read Curtis Sittenfield or Reza Aslan or Alexander Chee or Denis Johnson. What’s being ruled out right from the very beginning is the possibility of discovering the kinds of challengingly alien perceptions and ideas that arise from an encounter with the distant, or even the not-so-distant, past — or for that matter from other cultures in today’s world where people tend to have fair skin.

All this reminds me of a moment early in Bill Clinton’s presidency when he proudly announced that he had assembled the most diverse cabinet in American history — when 16 of the 20 members were lawyers. Similarly, you can end up praising yourself for the diversity of writers you’re reading when every single one of them got an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

So, by all means, avoid Neil Gaiman and Shakespeare for the rest of this year; but why not keep the #readdiversebooks going next year too? My suggestion: don’t read anything written since 1500.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

designer deaths

Death is such a bummer, but you know, that’s just a design problem:

Bennett’s fixation on death began with the death of his father. He was close to his dad; in a recent talk, he likened his childhood to the plot of Billy Elliot, a story “about a little nelly gay boy who twirled in the northeast of England” and the exceedingly masculine father who dared to love him. Bennett, in fact, traces his identity as a designer to the day in 1974 when his father, Jim, a former military pilot, brought home The Golden Hands Encyclopedia of Crafts. Jim Bennett then spent the next two years sitting with his son, making macramé and knitting God’s eyes, so that sensitive little kid could explore his talent and find his confidence. In 2001, Bennett’s father wound up in a hospital bed, stricken with bone cancer. Bennett was 5,000 miles away at home in San Francisco. He told his father he’d be on the next flight, but Jim ordered him not to come. Eventually, Bennett understood why. His father had painstakingly maintained his dignity his entire life. Now “he was trying to somehow control that experience,” Bennett says. “He was designing the last granule of what he had left: his death.”

In 2013, Bennett started sharing his ideas with the other partners at Ideo, selling them on death as an overlooked area of the culture where the firm could make an impact. He had a very unspecific, simple goal: “I don’t want death to be such a downer,” he told me. And he was undaunted by all the dourness humanity has built up around the experience over the last 200,000 years. “It’s just another design challenge,” he said. His ambition bordered on hubris, but generally felt too child-like, too obliviously joyful, to be unlikable. One time I heard him complain that death wasn’t “alive and sunny.”

T. S. Eliot, 1944:

I have suggested that the cultural health of Europe, including the cultural health of its component parts, is incompatible with extreme forms of both nationalism and internationalism. But the cause of that disease, which destroys the very soil in which culture has its roots, is not so much extreme ideas, and the fanaticism which they stimulate, as the relentless pressure of modern industrialism, setting the problems which the extreme ideas attempt to solve. Not least of the effects of industrialism is that we become mechanized in mind, and consequently attempt to provide solutions in terms of engineering, for problems which are essentially problems of life.

Ah, don't be such a downer, Possum! Everybody, come on, sing along!

Friday, March 20, 2015

while I was away...

Folks, it’s good to be back. Let me just draw your attention to a few things I posted and/or published while I was away from here:

Here’s a description of a new (online only) writing assignment I’m trying out in my classes this term. I’ll give a report on the success, or failure, of the experiment in a near-future post.

Something else worthy of further commentary is this quotation from Charles Taylor on the endless war between code fetishists and antinomians.

Here are a few words on my writing “workflow,” as the kids say today.

Why I doubt that the humanities can be defended.

My skepticism about a commonplace trope on the rate of social change.

Can the computational humanities demonstrate critical tact?

My thoughts on Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage.

It’s behind a paywall, but maybe the first few paragraphs of my review of a new edition of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics will be worthwhile.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

I'm back

Hi. More to come soon.