Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

post latency warning

Folks, posts will be few and far between here, for a while. I'm working hard on a book, and life in general is sufficiently complicated that I don't have many unused brain cells. I'm finding it healthier and saner to devote my online time to my tumblr, where I mainly post images that I enjoy contemplating. And you know, I've found some very cool stuff lately, so please check it out.


Monday, August 8, 2016

secrets of Apple (not) revealed

John Gruber and others are praising this Fast Company feature on Apple, but I don’t see why. It’s all like this:

The iPhone will continue to morph, in ways designed to ensure its place as the primary way we interact with and manage our technological experience for the foreseeable future. Apple will sell more devices, but its evolution will also enable it to explore new revenue opportunities. This is how Apple adapts. It expands its portfolio by building on the foundation laid by earlier products. That steady growth has made it broader and more powerful than any other consumer technology company.

Contentless abstraction. The iPhone will somehow “morph.” Apple will explore unnamed “revenue opportunities.” Also, Tim Cook thinks health care is really important, and Apple products need to work with networks Apple doesn’t own. Revelatory! Elsewhere in the article we learn that far more people are working on the Maps app than when it launched — that’s about as concrete as the article gets.

Everybody who writes about Apple ends up doing this: madly whipping the egg whites into big fluffy peaks. Because Apple never tells anyone anything.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Self on digital

Will Self's meditation on digital imagery in the Guardian is a peculiar one — I'm not sure he quite knows what he wants to say. If I had to sum it up, I'd call it an essay suspended between two fears: first, that digital imagery in the end won't prove to be a perfectly seamless simulacrum of experience; second, that it will.

Joseph Brodsky once wrote, “should the truth about the world exist, it’s bound to be non-human”. Now we have the temerity to believe we can somehow perceive that non-human reality, although to do so would be a contradiction in terms. Over the next few years a new generation of television receivers will be rolled out. (We might call them “visual display units” since the formal distinction between computers and televisions is on the point of dissolving.) These machines are capable of displaying imagery at ultra-high definition; so-called “8K UHDTV” composes pictures employing 16 times the number of pixels of current high definition TV, which presents us – if we could only see it – with the bizarre spectacle of an image that exists in a higher resolution than our own eyes are capable of perceiving. Will this natural limitation on our capacity to technologically reproduce the world’s appearance lead our scientists and technologists to desist? I doubt it: the philosopher John Gray observes that: “In evolutionary prehistory, consciousness emerged as a side-effect of language. Today it is a byproduct of the media.”

Whatever the digital is and does, Self seems to be saying, it makes us. Thus his fascination with the distorted and decomposed images of Wiktor Forss:

We might compare these images to others that also decompose the digital, give it the qualities of the analog, but in a different way. See Robin Sloan on video style transfer — for instance, Raiders of the Lost Ark in the style of Gustav Doré: give it a watch. What for Self is a source of fear and anxiety could also be a source of playfulness and delight. I'm not sure we need to be quite so angst-ridden about the whole thing.

But in any case, how does Self take the argument, or rather the experience, beyond the sources he cites: Walter Benjamin, Jorge Luis Borges, Marshal McLuhan? (Especially Benjamin). It must be hard for a writer to accept that other and earlier writers have already told his story better than he can tell it.

Friday, August 5, 2016

work in progress

Folks, as some of you know, I've been working for some time on a book about Christian intellectuals in the second world war. But I've set that aside for a while to work on a different project, one prompted by what I guess I'll call the exigencies of the current moment. It'll be called How to Think: A Guide for the Perplexed, and you can get more details about it here.

If you have any questions about it I'd be happy to answer them in the comments below.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

word games

Ian Bogost reports on what some people think of as a big moment in the history of international capitalism:

At the close of trading this Monday, the top five global companies by market capitalization were all U.S. tech companies: Apple, Alphabet (formerly Google), Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook.

Bloomberg, which reported on the apparent milestone, insisted that this “tech sweep” is unprecedented, even during the dot-com boom. Back in 2011, for example, Exxon and Shell held two of the top spots, and Apple was the only tech company in the top five. In 2006, Microsoft held the only slot—the others were in energy, banking, and manufacture. But things have changed. “Your new tech overlords,” Bloomberg christened the five.

And then Bogost zeroes in on what’s peculiar about this report:

But what makes a company a technology company, anyway? In their discussion of overlords, Bloomberg’s Shira Ovide and Rani Molla explain that “Non-tech titans like Exxon and GE have slipped a bit” in top valuations. Think about that claim for a minute, and reflect on its absurdity: Exxon uses enormous machinery to extract the remains of living creatures from geological antiquity from deep beneath the earth. Then it uses other enormous machinery to refine and distribute that material globally. For its part, GE makes almost everything — from light bulbs to medical imaging devices to wind turbines to locomotives to jet engines.

Isn’t it strange to call Facebook, a company that makes websites and mobile apps a “technology” company, but to deny that moniker to firms that make diesel trains, oil-drilling platforms, and airplane engines?

I’m reminded here of a comment the great mathematician G. H. Hardy once made to C. P. Snow: “Have you noticed how the word ‘intellectual’ is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition that doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me. It does seem rather odd.”

As Bogost points out, the financial world uses “technology” to mean “computer technology.” But, he also argues, this is not only nonsensical, it’s misleading. Try depriving yourself of the word “technology” to describe those companies and things start looking a little different. “Almost all of Google’s and Facebook’s revenue, for example, comes from advertising; by that measure, there’s an argument that those firms are really Media industry companies, with a focus on Broadcasting and Entertainment.” Amazon is a retailer. Among those Big Five only Apple and Microsoft are computing companies, and they are so in rather different ways, since Microsoft makes most of its money from software, Apple from hardware.

Here’s a useful habit to cultivate: Notice whenever people are leaning hard on a particular word or phrase, making it do a lot of work. Then try to formulate what they’re saying without using that terminology. The results can be illuminating.


I’m still thinking about the myths and metaphors we live by, especially the myths and metaphors that have made modernity, and the world keeps giving me food for thought.

So speaking of food, recently I was listening to a BBC Radio show about food — I think it was this one — and one of the people interviewed was Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific. Albala made the fascinating comment that in the twentieth century, much of our thinking about proper eating was shaped (bent, one might better say) by thinking of the human body as a kind of internal combustion engine. Just as in the 21st century we think of our brains as computers, in the 20th we thought of our bodies as automobiles.

But perhaps, given the dominance of digital computing in our world, including its imminent takeover of the world of automobiling, we might be seeing a shift in how we conceive of our bodies, from analog metaphors to digital ones. Isn’t that what Soylent is all about, and the fascination with smoothies? — Making nutrition digital! An amalgamated slurry of ingredients goes in one end; an amalgamated slurry of ingredients comes out the other end. Input/Output, baby. Simple as that.

UPDATE: My friend James Schirmer tells me about Huel — human fuel! Or, as pretty much everyone will think of it, "gruel but with an H."

"Please, sir, may I have some more"?