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Posts Tagged ‘technology’

It’s Time to Don Your Salt Gown, and Other News

August 24, 2016 | by

Sigalit Landau’s salt gown emerging from the Dead Sea. Photo: Matanya Tausig.

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With Some Help from My Invisible Friends, and Other News

June 17, 2016 | by

Georgiana Houghton, Glory be to God, ca. 1868.

  • In 1871, Georgiana Houghton debuted her “spirit drawings,” a set of abstract watercolors that she made with the encouragement of her “invisible friends.” People were scared: “What she put on display was unlike anything any Western artist had made, or any member of the British public had ever seen. The watercolor drawings, a little larger than A4, were intricately detailed abstract compositions filled with sinuous spirals, frenetic dots, and sweeping lines. Yellows, greens, blues, and reds battled with each other for space on the paper. The densely layered images appeared to have no form, and no beginning or end. There was no traditional perspective to enjoy. There was no mythological subject to interpret; no moral narrative to read, and no hint of portraiture or landscape to scrutinize.”
  • It’s been a while since we thought about how worthless most literary depictions of sex are, so let’s think about that some more: “Literature about sex, no matter who has written it, is almost always terrible, and everybody knows it … In writing my own book full of sex, there was almost no one I could turn to for inspiration. There wasn’t a single book I looked to and thought, ‘What I’m trying to do is write sex like she did or like he did.’ There weren’t even movies and TV shows I felt had handled it the way I wanted to see it done. You know what movies and TV shows are really brilliant at capturing? Bad sex. They’re great at doing awkward, depressing, uncomfortable sex scenes where everyone is sort of strangled in the sheets … The other thing that movies and TV shows are good at nailing down is the kind of phonily intense sex scene in which the involved parties are grabbing fistfuls of hair and grunting and slamming each other around because their passion, their chemistry, is so overpowering it can’t be softened by courtesy, affection, or fear of causing actual physical harm.”
  • To read the medieval poem “Pearl” requires a fairly sophisticated knowledge of the New Testament. But just go ahead and read it anyway. You will still like it, as Josephine Livingstone explains: “There is something about the very strangeness of the poem that magnifies its emotional power. When we look at a Byzantine mosaic, for instance, we may not grasp the precise meaning of its images without scholarly help—but that remoteness lends such artworks the marvelousness of something just beyond our understanding. In his new translation of ‘Pearl,’ Simon Armitage, who is currently the Oxford Professor of Poetry, conveys that feeling of the almost-but-not-quite comprehensible, the feeling that can make medieval art at once eerie and wonderful.”

Finally, a Phone Book on CDs, and Other News

June 8, 2016 | by

Photo: Museum of Intellectual Property

  • As the Soviet Union fades into the rearview mirror, it’s becoming harder to find reliable, intimate accounts of life in the USSR. A new graphic novel is trying to change that: “The Italian graphic novelist Igort went to Ukraine in 2008 and stayed for nearly two years. He met people at marketplaces and on country roads, and drew their lives. ‘Word by word I listen to the account of an existence that has become an undigested mass,’ he writes, at the beginning of one section. ‘It pushes its way out from the gut. The following is a faithful transcription of that story’ … These phrases sum up everything that is good and everything that is not so good about The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks: Life and Death Under Soviet Rule … The translation, sadly, is often tone-deaf and downright sloppy—the peculiarly unappetizing language in this passage is just one example. But the stories he has collected are indeed an undigested mass, often a mess, and this is a good thing.”

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.”

Language Leakage: An Interview with Sarah Thomason

March 30, 2016 | by

The linguist discusses how technology shapes culture and culture shapes words.

A uniform for the Spokane Indians in Salish.

The first time Sarah “Sally” Thomason and I spoke, she’d just completed her annual two-day, eighteen-hundred-mile drive from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she teaches, to rural northwestern Montana, where she spends her summers studying Montana Salish. For thirty-four years, Thomason has been assembling a dictionary of this Native American language, which is spoken fluently by fewer than forty people. Thomason, a linguist, is fascinated by what happens when one language meets another, and how those languages change, or don’t. I had contacted her because I was interested in how certain words—say, e-mail, or google, or tweet—had been exported worldwide by American-born technology. I’d already called several linguists, and they all said I had to speak to Sally. No one, they said, had more insight into how linguistic traits travel, how pidgins and creoles are born, and how languages interact and change over time.  

The French government tried very hard to resist American loanwords like e-mail, promoting in its place messagerie électronique or courriel. They’d formed a whole agency for this purpose. Laws were passed and enforced. And yet e-mail prevailed—it was simply more efficient. But Sally was especially excited about languages that resist such borrowing, even in the face of extraordinary cultural influence and dominance. Montana Salish was one such language. Our conversations followed a pattern: I arrived expecting one thing and ended up somewhere entirely distinct, thinking differently about language and human culture.

Is it fair to say that you study what happens when languages meet? Is meet too friendly a word? I suppose there’s a whole range of things that happen, and sometimes it’s friendly and sometimes it’s not.

Right, but having a language disappear because all the speakers got massacred is actually really rare. There are a couple of examples where all the speakers of some language got wiped out by a volcanic eruption on an island. And there are a couple of examples, at least one in this country, where almost everybody was wiped out by smallpox and then the remainder was lynched by a mob.

What languages are those? Read More »

Beware the Mean Beach Attendant, and Other News

March 21, 2016 | by

From the cover of Ferrante’s The Beach at Night.

  • Our basketball columnist, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, has stepped over to The New Yorker to bid farewell to Kobe Bryant. And he’s a defender of Bryant’s poem-cum-retirement-announcement: “ ‘Dear Basketball’ was mocked by some, but it has more going on in it, from a literary perspective, than may be immediately clear. Not only is the narrative circular, with a changed perspective at the end, it’s also both an epistle and an apostrophe—a form of rhetoric in which the speaker addresses an inanimate object as though it’s a living thing. As both a basketball player and a personality, Bryant has always put extraordinary emphasis on the importance of craft. He has also always owed a debt to Michael Jordan, and this was the case here as well: Jordan, too, published an open letter to basketball in order to say goodbye to the game. But his was in prose.”
  • Today in parenting, Ferrante style: next year you can lull your sons and daughters to sleep with The Beach at Night, Ferrante’s new book, aimed at readers six to ten. It’s a sunny, feel-good story, suffused with light and hope: “The Beach at Night is a spinoff of The Lost Daughter, one of the author’s lesser-known early novels, in which a teacher goes on vacation in a coastal town and steals a doll from a child. In The Beach at Night, the doll isn’t stolen. Instead, she is abandoned by her young owner to face nighttime terrors such as the Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset and his friend, the Big Rake … ‘A Beach Attendant arrives, I don’t like his eyes,’ the doll says, according to a sample translation … ‘He folds up the big beach umbrellas, the chaises. I see the hairs of his mustache moving over his lips like lizards’ tails.’ ”
  • Geoffrey H. Hartman, whose Criticism in the Wilderness took criticism perhaps farther afield than anything before it, has died at eighty-six. “In Criticism in the Wilderness, he argued that criticism should not only stand on an equal footing with literature but also be literature … In elevating criticism to the status of literature, Professor Hartman did not mean merely that it should be well written. What he also meant was that criticism should function for criticism’s sake alone. ‘The spectacle of the critic’s mind disoriented, bewildered, caught in some ‘wild surmise’ about the text and struggling to adjust—is not that one of the interests critical writing has for us?’”
  • Reminder: art and commerce don’t really “intersect” anymore. They’re running parallel toward the horizon, forever. Want to go the other way? You can’t. Just ask young artists: “A few years ago … if you were a creatively minded person, you might have become a sculptor or a painter. Now you are equally likely to become the founder of a tech startup, channeling your creative ideas and risk into what is, ultimately, a business … A lot of young startup people are viewing their companies as an artwork … I think the creativity involved in painting, say, and that of tech are getting closer. The incredible risk—with vision and values—that artists once represented is now embodied in these tech companies. That has a real resonance for me. People can make a beautiful business or a beautiful venture.”
  • What compels a writer to abandon one language for another? Beckett, Conrad, and Nabokov all traded one tongue for another: “Some do it because they are intoxicated by the possibilities offered in a new language—the words and turns of phrase for which their own language doesn’t have any equivalents, the strange new rhythms and patterns of sound … Yet the adoption of a foreign language isn’t just about looking for a fresh perspective. It can signal a vexed relationship with the original language; the psychological burdens of a writer’s previous texts, his literary reputation in that language, the entire tradition in which he is working … Writers rejuvenate themselves by fleeing to foreign tongues. They escape all the psychic associations that gather around a language and a literary tradition. In a sense, it’s an extreme cure for writer’s block.”