Posts Tagged ‘technology’
April 15, 2016 | by Dan Piepenbring
- 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.”
March 30, 2016 | by Ryan Bradley
The linguist discusses how technology shapes culture and culture shapes words.
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 »
March 21, 2016 | by Dan Piepenbring
- 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.”
March 8, 2016 | by Reiner Stach
These two excerpts from Reiner Stach’s Is That Kafka? 99 Finds reveal a new side to Kafka—and new shades of meaning for the Kafkaesque.
How Kafka and Brod Almost Became Millionaires
During a trip that they took together in August and September of 1911, traveling to Paris via Lugano and Milan, Kafka and Max Brod hit on the idea of creating a new type of travel guide. “It would be called Billig (On the Cheap),” Brod remembered. “Franz was tireless and got a childlike pleasure out of elaborating all the principles down to the nest detail for this new type of guide, which was supposed to make us millionaires, and above all wrest us away from our awful office work. Then I engaged in a very serious correspondence with publishers about our ‘Reform of Guidebooks.’ The negotiations failed because we didn’t want to disclose our precious secret without an enormous advance.” Read More »
February 18, 2016 | by Sadie Stein
- Lyricist Sameer Anjaan has entered The Guinness Book of World Records—they had to make a new category—for writing the greatest number of Bollywood songs, ever. By the numbers: 3,524 songs, 650 films, 33 years. Writes his biographer, “Sameer was a hit both with the fans and the singers because he wrote songs that did not require dictionary to understand. He wrote in the language of the common people.” Listen to his top twenty-five songs here.
- In other lyrical news: Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin will premiere at the Metropolitan Opera as part of its 2016–2017 season—the first opera by a woman the company has mounted since 1903.
- Female spies in seventeenth-century Northern Europe had all sorts of ingenious means of transporting information, writes historian Nadine Ackerman, author of “Female Spies or ‘she-Intelligencers’: Towards a Gendered History of Seventeenth-Century Espionage.” The women—who ranged from poets to bakers, aristocrats to peasants—were generally considered unsuspicious, even in times of war, and if caught did not face the capital punishment of their male counterparts. In a pair videos, the author re-creates several of their espionage methods: using artichokes and hollow eggs.
- In many ways, we are less intrigued by The Vatican Cookbook revealing the Holy Father’s love of pizza than by the fact that such information is “as told by members of the Pontifical Swiss Guard.” It seems like breaking some kind of seal, or at least NDA, but no! In fact! “Polish nuns do the majority of cooking at the Vatican, but the Swiss Guard chefs do step in to make food on formal occasions or to fulfill a special request. Though a guard cooking is a rarity, these men know more about the Pope’s eating habits than anyone else, since they are no more than a few steps from him at all times.”
- “What does it mean to shift overnight from a society in which people walk down the street looking around to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines?” asks Jacob Weisberg in The New York Review of Books. Writing about four new books that plumb different aspects of our dependence on—ambivalent relationship to—technology, he finds that most raise more questions than they answer—we’re still living the answer in real time.
February 12, 2016 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Kafka isn’t often remembered for his sunny worldview. Surprising, then, to read his effusions about the hustle and bustle of the Paris metro, which you’d think would’ve depressed the hell out of him: “The noise of the Metro was terrible when I took it for the first time in my life, from Montmartre to the grand boulevards. Aside from that it isn’t bad, rather it even intensifies the pleasant, calm feeling of speed. The advertisement for Dubonnet is very well-suited to being read, expected, and observed by sad and unoccupied passengers. Elimination of language from commerce, since one does not have to speak when paying, or when getting on or off. Because it is so easy to understand, the Metro offers the best opportunity for an eager, weakly foreigner to assure himself that he has quickly and correctly made his way into the very essence of Paris on his first try.”
- If Kafka’s too much the Pollyanna for your liking, you can return to abject misery by having a look at Hermann Göring’s art collection: Sarah Wildman writes, “the catalogue of Göring’s art provides a perversely fascinating yardstick for the changing taste of a man known for personal eccentricities as well as horrifying brutality. The emphasis, at first, is on northern European Romanticism, along with the nude female form. But the collection shifts, becomes more expansive, and, occasionally, eschews the Nazi laws on so-called degenerate art to scoop up some of the modern greats … The catalogue provides a fuller picture of how spoliation itself was an integral, early part of the Nazi effort to degrade, dehumanize, and expel the Jews, setting the stage, ultimately, for mass murder.”
- In which Tony Tulathimutte dares to imagine the unimaginable—technology that actually helps writers do their jobs better: “Google could team up with the NSA to digitize and index every word ever written or recorded, and make this omni-corpus available for indexing, mining, and categorizing. Or by being trained on a personal corpus of writing samples, the detector could be adapted to learn an author’s pet phrases. Zadie Smith pointed out that in all of her novels someone ‘rummages in their purse’; our program would flag each instance, as well as any variations … It could be tailored to specific genres: ‘heaving bosoms’ in romance, ‘throughout history’ in student papers, ‘please advise’ in business emails. Beyond merely detecting clichés, the program could also offer statistically unique replacements for each cliché, constructed by thesaural substitution and grammatical reshuffling.”
- Today in enduring industry dilemmas: How much should writers and publishers get paid? James McConnachie renews the oldest debate in books: “Writers and publishers are in it together, I tend to feel. Not always in a cuddly way. Sometimes more in a screaming-down-the-mineshaft way … When a publisher tells you he ‘shares your frustration,’ ask him how much he earns—and quite how little he’d pay his lowest paid editorial assistant before he felt he was exploiting the vulnerability of their position. Before he felt he was endangering the long-term sustainability of his business. Publishing is a market, but it is also a fragile ecosystem, and right now we are losing not just individual writers but entire species of authors.”
- If you’d prefer to think on something loftier, you might ask yourself instead: How do sea creatures have sex? Marah J. Hardt’s Sex in the Sea is here for you. “From rays finding each other through magnetic charges, to whales with labyrinthine labia,” Colin Dickey writes, “Hardt trawls the sea for all manner of odd reproductive habits, including the deep-sea worm, the Osedax, the males of which are tiny, microscopic animals that live entirely inside the females … For many species, including the clownfish, the fish have it both ways: they start off as male, impregnating females left and right; then, as they mature and grow, they switch sex, becoming larger, mature, adult females who can hold more eggs. Known by ichthyologists as BOFFFFs (Big, Old, Fat, Fecund Female Fish), these matriarchs incorporate a number of reproductive advantages not available to those of us stuck with one sex our whole lives.”