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Posts Tagged ‘computers’

The Sharpened Pencil: An Interview with Nicholson Baker

October 4, 2016 | by

Photo: Jerry Bauer

Speaking to The Paris Review in 2011, Nicholson Baker remembered one of the small joys of his childhood. “The pencil sharpener was probably the best thing about school,” he said. “A little chrome invention under your control. It had a ­thundering sound, a throat-clearing sound, that I especially liked.”

As it happens, pencil sharpeners appear early and often in his new book, Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids. But they’re all electric now, and they’ve lost their thunder. “There was a lot of earnest grinding away at the fancy electric pencil sharpener,” he writes on page thirty. Twelve pages later, “Someone else was grinding loudly away on the mechanical pencil sharpener.” On page 111 he mentions again “the remedial grind of the pencil sharpener.”

There’s a sound reason for this anti-sharpener rhetoric: in 2014 Baker became a substitute teacher at several Maine public schools, where the sharpeners’ grinding is just one agent in a multifront sensory assault, and further proof that technology doesn’t equal improvement. Substitute—Baker’s thoughtful, well-observed chronicle of his twenty-eight days in the classroom—catalogs the bells, the morning announcements, the iPad games, the lively chatter, and all the miscellaneous noise that characterize a day at school. Rather than a broadside against the education system, Substitute’s seven-hundred-plus pages offer a close, empathetic account of Baker’s time as a teacher, trading editorial asides for the richness—and, not infrequently, madness—of our efforts to impart knowledge. For every meaningless worksheet or recess infraction, there’s a warm, witty exchange with a student, or a moment, however brief, of genuine engagement. 

Substitute is Baker’s sixteenth book; though he’s written nonfiction before, it marks his first outing as a participatory journalist, and he called it the most immersive book of his career. I reached him in his hotel room in Atlanta to ask him a few questions about it.


This is basically an act of participatory journalism, but it’s not like any other account I’ve read. Did you have any touchstones in mind?



Well, there’s George Plimpton. If you want to write about football, get yourself on a football team. If you want to write about boxing, you’re going to have to get punched in the head a few times. That’s what I did with Substitute. When I was in high school I read Up the Down Staircase and really loved it—all those wonderful memos—and in fact there was an actual down staircase and an up staircase in the middle school where I was a substitute. Two nonfiction books, Death at an Early Age and The Way it Spozed to Be also made a huge impression back then, even though I’d gone to an alternative public high school that was nothing like what was described in those books. Once I began writing Substitute in earnest, I tossed educational theorizing aside for the most part and went back to the method I’d used in Human Smoke, a book about World War II, where I did a lot of quoting from daily sources—newspaper articles and diaries and speeches on the radio. Substitute is a sort of collage of voices. In Human Smoke, I took my own voice out completely, but in Substitute I couldn’t—I had to be true to my own teacherly fumblings. Read More »

A Battery of Tests for You, and Other News

August 19, 2016 | by

“The Make a Picture Story Test,” a psychological study from 1942. Image courtesy Redstone Press, via The New Yorker.

  • Elif Batuman has been reading Psychobook, a new collection of what can only be described as vintage psychological tests. The book is designed for many things, but not to make its readers feel sane: “No less than the many tests in its pages, Psychobook is itself a kind of inkblot, certain to evoke different emotions and associations from different people. For this reader, one recurring sensation was that of a deeply American beleaguerment, with some Eastern European overtones. I thought again and again of the immigrant woman, landing like Kafka’s hero on American shores after a long and, one feels, psychically taxing boat ride, facing the first of many new puzzles in a strange new land … It’s not immediately clear why this book exists, but it would probably look great in a therapist’s waiting room.”
  • Today in junk that might also be art—or, at least, junk that you could soon own: Tekserve, a computer-support shop not far from the Review’s offices in Chelsea, ended its twenty-nine-year run this week. As a kind of progenitor of the Apple store, the business amassed a lot of obsolete technology over the decades, and now you can buy that stuff at auction. Have you had your eye on a Philco Predicta TV? An early “magic lantern” slide projector? A Braille display processor? A Nagra 4.2 portable mono tape recorder? Or perhaps the storied “Mac Museum,” “which comprises thirty-five computers that represent the development of Apple from 1984 to 2004”?
  • Since 1982, the London Review of Books has had featured writers from all over the world for their Diary column. Until this week, no one could say which corners of the globe, exactly, had been represented in the LRB’s pages—but now they’ve gone ahead and marked all eight hundred of their contributors on a map. Note the presences, of course, but also the absences. No one has ever filed a diary from Mongolia or Indonesia, for instance—book your flights now and refine your pitches from thirty thousand feet.

The Glories of Word Processing, and Other News

April 15, 2016 | by

From an ad for the Xerox 860.

  • Our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, on David Foster Wallace’s tennis writing: “David Foster Wallace wrote about tennis because life gave it to him … He wrote about it in fiction, essays, journalism, and reviews; it may be his most consistent theme at the surface level. Wallace himself drew attention, consciously or not, to both his love for the game and its relevance to how he saw the world … For me, the cumulative effect of Wallace’s tennis-themed nonfiction is a bit like being presented with a mirror, one of those segmented mirrors they build and position in space, only this one is pointed at a writer’s mind. The game he writes about is one that, like language, emphasizes the closed system, makes a fetish of it (‘Out!’). He seems both to exult and to be trapped in its rules, its cruelties. He loves the game but yearns to transcend it.”
  • Everyone likes to shit on Microsoft Word now, but Dylan Hicks, reviewing Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, reminds us that the genesis of word processors was an exciting time to be a writer—and that word processing offered a glimpse of perfection: “Culling from specialized publications, mainstream journalism, and author interviews, Kirschenbaum recaptures the excitement and optimism writers often felt in the face of this magical new technology. To many, word processing seemed to promise a new possibility for aesthetic perfection. ‘Perfect’ was the leading marketing keyword, found in ad copy and in product names such as WordPerfect, Letter Perfect, and Perfect Writer, and more than a few novelists greeted the mantra as something more than hype. If, in one traditional view, literary perfection was either illusory or the province of poems and other short works, now, it seemed, even a long novel could be refined to an apotheosis of unalterable integrity. The modularity of word-processed text made major structural reorganization a matter of a few clicks (well, you’d probably need to switch back and forth between several floppy disks). You could tinker endlessly with sentences: transposing phrases, deleting a comma, replacing an adjective, restoring the comma. You could search out and decimate pet words and phrases. Hannah Sullivan, a scholar quoted by Kirschenbaum, wrote in 2013 that, with word processing, “the cost of revision” had ‘fallen almost to zero.’ Kirschenbaum quotes a 1988 interview with Anne Rice in which she held that, with word processing, ‘there’s really no excuse for not writing the perfect book.’ ”
  • The main problem with using enormous mirrors to communicate with extraterrestrials is that it’s too expensive. Yes, it sounds like a surefire way to make contact—you just rig up a heliotrope and beam a lot of light to the moon, where all aliens live—but when Victorian-era inventors tried to make good on this idea, they realized that mirrors aren’t cheap. Sarah Laskow explains: “In 1874, Charles Cros, a French inventor with a flair for poetry (or, perhaps, a poet with a flair for invention), floated the idea of focusing electric light on Mars or Venus using parabolic mirrors. The next year, in 1875, Edvard Engelbert Neovius came up with a scheme involving 22,500 electric lamps. Then, an astronomer writing under the name A. Mercier proposed putting a series of reflectors on the Eiffel Tower, which would capture light at sunset and redirect it towards Mars … In 1909, William Pickering, the American astronomer who ... proposed the existence of a Planet O, gave some idea why. He calculated that a system of mirrors that could reach across the distance from Earth to Mars would cost about $10 million to construct.”
  • Eileen Myles on living in Marfa: “I went to Marfa on a Lannan residency in March of 2015 & fell in love with the place. I had been hearing about Marfa forever and grumpily thinking why can’t I get invited there though most of my friends who had been there are visual artists but I wanted in. I think I even told the Lannan people about my deep frustration as I was accepting the invitation. Everyone loves Marfa though some people love to laugh at it because it’s the most delightful combination of rough and twee. Things are falling down but there’s always someone there to catch it for a year and put a sign on it and make it cool. It sees itself and yet the land is always hovering … But driving that stretch which is bordered by mountains is my real vista. I like to listen to music and drive along that road and sometimes the train passes. That’s heaven to me.”
  • It’s Friday, people. Get out there and befriend a pelican. The dean of a Czech medical school did it, so you can, too: “Vladimír Komárek, the dean of the Second Faculty of Medicine at Charles University in Prague, met his college’s adopted pelican and immediately had a bond with it … In an interview posted on the university’s website, the dean said the faculty had adopted a pelican at Prague Zoo, but he had never personally visited it … He scooped up his new feathered friend in his arms and posed for the cameras. Many commenters lightheartedly suggested that the duo shared the same haircut, and said this was why they appeared to get on so well. The bird seemed calm in his arms, despite the fact he was a human stranger.”

How to Travel with a Salmon

February 22, 2016 | by

From the cover of How to Travel with a Salmon.

Umberto Eco’s essay “How to Travel with a Salmon” first appeared in our Summer 1994 issue; it was later the title piece in a collection of Eco’s essays. Eco died last Friday at his home in Milan. He was eighty-four. In an interview with The Paris Review in 2008, he said, “I like the notion of stubborn incuriosity. To cultivate a stubborn incuriosity, you have to limit yourself to certain areas of knowledge. You cannot be totally greedy. You have to oblige yourself not to learn everything. Or else you will learn nothing.”

According to the newspapers, there are two chief problems that beset the modern world: the invasion of the computer, and the alarming extension of the Third World. The newspapers are right, and I know it.

My recent journey was brief: one day in Stockholm and three in London. In Stockholm, taking advantage of a free hour, I bought a smoked salmon, an enormous one, dirt cheap. It was carefully packaged in plastic, but I was told that, if I was traveling, I would be well-advised to keep it refrigerated. Just try. Read More »

HAL, Mother, and Father

December 21, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!


From 2001: A Space Odyssey

Watching the sixties and seventies through 2001 and Alien.

It was April 1968 and my father was sitting in a theater in Times Square watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, certain that what he was seeing wasn’t just a movie but the future. When it ended, he got up and walked out into Times Square, with its peep-show glitz and sleazy, flashing advertisements; he found the uptown subway beneath the yellow marquees for dirty movies like The Filthy 5; and through all of it, he thought that when humanity hurls itself into the depths of the cosmos, this is how we will do it. In the film’s iconic final shot, the space baby looks down at the planet to which it is no longer bound. Freedom, this shot says, is imminent.

My father was twenty-four then, and perhaps at his most world-historical: he was becoming an expert in computers. He’d worked for IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York, a corporate labyrinth of beige cubicles and epochal breakthroughs; a world of punch cards and reel-to-reel magnetic tape, where at least some of the employees were deadly serious about making sure to wear the company tie clip and then, once they were off duty, to switch to their own personal tie clips.

When 2001 premiered, he was working at Columbia University’s Computer Center, in the academic computing branch. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that the movie summed up everything my father was in April 1968. It became something of a talisman for him, a semisacred object invested with all the crazy hopefulness of his youth. For as long as I can remember, my father had talked about 2001. He told me often of HAL, of the monolith of evolution, of how glorious the future would be. Of course, when I finally saw the movie, well after the actual year 2001, it bored me out of my mind. Too slow, too bizarre. Ah, my father told me, that’s because evolution is slow, evolution is bizarre. It wasn’t until much later that I started to understand the movie—and, maybe, to understand my father. Read More >>

Thanks, Sounds Good, I Love You

December 17, 2015 | by

How Smart Reply attempts to mimic the way we talk.

Google’s inbox logo—now with an enviable, elusive sense of satisfaction.

Last month, researchers at Google unveiled Smart Reply, a piece of artificial intelligence that scans the e-mail you’re reading on your phone and suggests three possible responses. Why bother composing an answer yourself? Now you can choose one of Smart Reply’s with a quick tap. “Do you have any vacation plans set yet?” asks the sample e-mail. “No plans yet,” you might choose; or “I just sent them to you”; or “I’m working on them.”

Smart Reply uses neural networks to calibrate its future suggestions, meaning it learns from how we use it. But Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist on the project, observed a “bizarre feature of our early prototype”: “its propensity to respond with ‘I love you’ to seemingly anything.” Analysis suggested “that the system was doing exactly what we’d trained it to do, generate likely responses—and it turns out that responses like Thanks, Sounds good, and I love you are super common.” Read More »