Blur Circle

Steve Yost's weblog

April 30, 2002
Another link for AKMA

From Arts & Letters Daily: In the Wilson Quarterly Wittgenstein's Curse, which asks the question "why does academic writing have to be so jargon-ridden and opaque?", especially zinging postmodern writers. From what Tom Matrullo says of AKMA's book, AKMA's writing is the antithesis of what the article complains about.

This could be viewed as just another post to keep AKMA's book on the Onfocus Weblog Bookwatch, but I really did find the WQ article refreshing.

April 29, 2002
pearls before swine/after time

Am I just a slow learner, or has it simply taken awhile, like any really finely subtle piece of work, for Joe's songs to grow on me? There's some real genius there, and I'm sure I'm still missing things. If you're thick and distracted like me, give them a few close listens and maybe they'll unfold like that for you.

Anyway, dammit Joe, you're ruining what's supposed to be full-out screaming QuickTopic business-building day. I hereby resolve to take off my headphones.

April 26, 2002
Media Unlimited -- Todd Gitlin

Just finished a quick careen through Todd Gitlin's new book Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms our Lives. It's not worth much more attention than that, I think. It's padded heavily with rambling glibly worded illustrations and lists of examples.

Its best points are references to interesting statistics and quotes from other sources. I've extracted my choices here. First, stats, paraphrased from the book, pp. 16-18:

In 1999 Americans spent an average of three hours a day actively watching television. (One survey of 43 nations showed the US ranking third in viewing hours, after Japan and Mexico.) Of American children 8-18, 65% have a TV in their bedrooms, 86% a radio. 42% of all American households with children have the TV on "most of the time" according to survey responses.
...and some quotes:
Nietzsche in The Gay Science (1882) wrote:
One is ashamed of resting, and prolonged reflection almost gives people a bad conscience. One thinks with a watch in one's hand, even as one eats one's midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market; one lives as if one might "miss out on something."... Virtue has come to consist of doing something in less time than someone else. [p. 73]
Historian James Truslow Adams wrote in 1931:
...a resident of New York to-day is getting more sensations and of a more varied sort than the Neanderthal... As the number of sensations increase, the time which we have for reacting to and digesting them becomes less... [S]uch a life tends to become a mere search for more and more exciting sensations, undermining yet more our power of concentration in thought. Relief from fatigue and ennui is sought in mere excitation of our nerves, as in speeding cars or emotional movies. [p. 74]
These two interestingly dated citations could suffice to summarize the book. For the most part, Gitlin merely embellishes with current examples. Two more pithy quotes and we're done. The first is a summary of historian Gary Cross's work:
In Cross's view, the Great Depression was a turning point, frigthening workers with the burden of an impoverished free time. After World War II, pent-up consumer demand for a high-consumption way of life was boosted by government subsidies (via the low-interest mortgages and expensive highways that helped suburbanize the country). The die was cast: the public would choose money over [liesure] time, preferring to seek its pleasures and comforts in the purchase of goods guaranteed to grow ever more swiftly obsolescent rather than in the search for collective leisure -- or civic virtue.[pp. 78-9]
And lastly, another anti-TV fact. Gitlin takes this one from Robert D. Putnam's Bowling Alone:
According to surveys from 1994 and 1995, the more television people said they watched, the less likely they were to be registered to vote. ... The additional hour a day Americans on average spent in front of the TV in 1995 as compared to 1965 might account, by itself, for "perhaps one-quarter of the entire drop in civil engagement".[p. 166]

April 24, 2002

Dave Rogers mused a couple days ago on dreams as a metaphor for the web. One function of dreams seems to be to try all kinds of random associations and see which ones "work". I think he gets to the heart of it here:

What's most important is that these dream-producing links and associations are often woven together into a tapestry of richer meanings that can give us remarkable insight into ourselves if we are skilled and committed to understanding them. They can tell us glorious stories about life and contribute to our personal growth.
Links and associations play a similar role on the Web. It's a madhouse of wildly disparate hyperlinks...
Interesting thought. Regarding determining which links "work", Google's page ranking algorithm helps bring the best-linked "ideas" to the forefront. Wouldn't it be interesting to somehow reinforce link priority given how often links are followed? That would mimic what seems to happen in our brains: links would fade (but never quite to oblivion) out of disuse. But to track this you'd need a central place through which all links were directed, and this butts up against the trust catch-22 I mentioned earlier.

Fat kid explosion

Facts about kids in the US from Jane Brody's recent article in the NYT:

  • 1/4 of all school-age children are now overweight
  • 1/8 are obese
  • It's a 2x increase over 20 years ago
  • Obesity accounts for > 300,000 premature deaths a year and direct health care costs > $61Billion
  • 26% of children 8-16 watch 4 or more hours of TV per day.
  • In 1991, 46% of high school kids had daily PE classes; in 1999 it was 29%.
  • Other bad trends in schools: Schools are "bribed" to install soda and candy machines, usually in or near the cafeteria. School lunches are riddled with fat, often from well-known fast-food companies.
  • The original McDonald's burger/fries/coke was 590 calories. Today's super-size meal is 1550.
It's of course really up to parents to encourage healthy eating and exercise, including activism in the schools, I think. Get those coke machines the hell outa there.

April 23, 2002
Bjørn Lomborg

To Read: SciAm articles on Bjørn Lomborg. Via A&L Daily


Yet another technology is now in place here. After a week or so with Greymatter, I've switched to MovableType, mostly because it supports categories, which I'd eventually like to use to integrate my blog entries with my original wiki pages. Wiki gives me more potential linked structure than a simple weblog format.

TV Parsimony

Anti-TV sentiment seems to be one of the memes bubbling to the top recently. I thought about what TV outliers we are while at my parents' fully-media-equipped house, and returned to see Halley and Doc commenting on similar themes.

At our house, we have no cable TV. Actually it turns out that we could have it -- we have a cable modem, and the TV feed apparently can't be turned off by the cable company -- but I spent an hour looking through the full cable TV listings and didn't see anything worth watching besides Dick Van Dyke re-runs. We have a 19-inch screen TV (my logic: a small screen wouldn't be such an all-absorbing brain hoover). Our kids get zero to one hour of TV a day, just before dinner because it's a way to veg out as blood sugar levels drop as we get dinner ready. Some of my co-workers are incredulous that I don't watch TV. I'm incredulous at the national watching stats: three hours of real TV watching per person per day on the average. This is from Todd Gitlin's new book Media Unlimited -- a quick read, worthwhile mostly for the stats and other quotes, which I'll try to excerpt here later. Surprisingly, the French stats are higher at 3.5 hours a day - encroyable!

Being with my dad

We spent the past few days in Michigan with my parents. My father is in his eighties and has always been amazingly robust, but lately prostate cancer and its treatments have diluted away most of his old rock-steady vitality. I'm forced to see, as he does in his good-natured grudging way, that he's getting old.

My father's historical good health is tightly entwined with his obsession with golf, something he practices every day he can. For years, each short visit has included a ritual round or at least a visit to the driving range -- my only exposure to this game that I've never really enjoyed except for the fact that it gets us outside and lets us talk. Sometimes, especially early on, I'd demur, resisting the boredom of the game and wanting to avoid my dad's inevitable chain of graphical tips: "imagine a plumb line...", "your torso and arms are cracking the whip". These tips would be meted out until, overlayed with so many mechanistic images, my mind totally short-circuited my body.

A couple of years ago, though, I had a change of attitude (and I think it was inspired by being a parent myself): this was the time and place for me and my dad to be together, and this was simply the ritual that took place then. My resistance fell away, and eventually I was able to just enjoy the whole thing -- the transfer of knowledge from father to son, the wish for improvement, being outside. I even managed to absorb some advice and hit the ball better.

This most recent time, we went to the driving range, and my dad was so weak that he had to sit down after every three shots, taking a few deep breaths. Nevertheless, he was able to keep up his usual end of the deal, parsing out his illustrious advice, which I did my best to absorb. I was thankful for it. I was truly thankful, especially now, that we have this thing we can still do together.

April 17, 2002
The Lottery in Babylon

What was originally supposed to be a tragic accident -- the truck explosion outside the synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia -- has now been claimed by a terrorist group as their responsibility.

I'm vaguely reminded of Borges' story The Lottery in Babylon, in which a lottery-like game, run by an omnipotent group "The Company", extends subtly and perniciously into daily life so that no occurence can be confidently assumed to be outside The Company's control of the game.

The analogy is admittedly weak. Terrorist acts are an altogether different level of horror, of course, and done by many different and often small groups. But the boundaries are becoming just a little blurry.

Self-limited trust

Michael Chermside writes at kuro5hin:

...Thus, I assert that the largest problem Digital Identity is that, despite much potential for benefiting everyone, our current social structures are such that AS IMPLEMENTED it will benefit a few large players (mostly corporations or governments), to the detriment of the individual. If the social implications of these technologies are not properly addressed, then instead of eagerly awaiting the promise of Digital Identity we fear it.
This reminds me of something I noted last June in regard to Microsoft's now-shelved HailStorm:
Microsoft is in an interesting position.

There are lots of possible services and tools with real network effects: the greater number of people that use them, the more useful they are. HailStorm, for example.

It seems to be an ironic evolutionary inevitability that the entity that has the ruthlessness to become the most powerful is the one that we rightfully trust least to implement these high-network-effect services -- the services that would benefit most from the quick, widespread implementation the powerful entity could provide.

Because user trust is required for high-network-effect services to be adopted, must it be the case that all HNE services must rise from lesser powers?

If so, what an interesting dynamic: using this extremely limited view, the tendency is that nobody offering HNE services and tools remains king of the hill forever.

This obliquely calls to mind Robert Axelrod's algorithm contest with the iterated prisoner's dilemma problem. The IPD is a nicely distilled environment for examining algorithms of cooperation and competition. The contest pitted algorithms against each other. The winner, tit-for-tat, wasn't the most altruistic, nor the most ruthlessly competitive. It was amazingly simple.


The dimension of community

Last week I had a thought-provoking email exchange with AKMA (whose blog is one of the most worthwhile I've seen -- great, meaningful stuff almost every day! How does he do it?) starting with his commentary on community size, and thought it worth sharing excerpts here, with his permission.


Interesting post on community size. I've been chewing on an idea that as we become more connected, specialized, and cooperative, we're forming a larger organism -- it's an idea covered well by Robert Wright in his book Nonzero, and much earlier by Tielhard de Chardin. Today I posted to my re-nascent sorta-blog that's what's required of us, if we wish to participate in this process rather than let it blindly rule us (e.g. the problems of globalization), is this: we must be able to not only empathize with other individuals, but also to somehow comprehend the nature of the creature we're forming as we group in larger, wider-spread communities.
This gets me thinking about the relation to limits on community size. The larger-organism phenomenon operates on a scale that's orders of magnitude beyond the limits Clay mentions, though it starts to become recognizable even at that level. We might say that 'community' is defined by that scale at which we *do* have a sense of participation as individuals and a sense of the whole group gestalt. By contrast, we may say that this larger-organism phenomenon is at the scale where that sense is lost and we become specialized cogs in the machine (or cells in the organism), but that would be giving up on the call to participate in the process.


I'm sympathetic to the sense that we're building something bigger than we are ("David--I thnk this is bigger than both of us"), though I'm hesitant to identify what that thing might be.
Partly that's because we're constitutively unequipped to *know* about things bigger than we; we need to reduce them in order to make them functionally significant, or acknowledge at the outset that "whatever that thing is, I don't understand it." Dave Rogers blogged about this a while ago in connection with C. S. Lewis, and I think he was largely on target. I was deeply influenced by *Flatland*; we squares will never really get the hang of cubes.


Dave's analogy to Lewis' "transposition" and yours to Flatland are thought-stirring.* I think we have more clues about the larger entities than those analogies let on, though; I think the relationship is more like a fractal-dimensional one than an integer-dimensional one. There are similarities on all scales that, if we can know our selves better, can help us understand the larger scale entities we form. For example, each of us, if we observe carefully, are made up of many different competing motives and roles that constantly vie for center stage, something like a community of humans.
You may gather from my focus on entities-of-different-scale that I think the interesting question isn't so much about what the web/internet is in itself or finding a model for it, but rather what it enables among humans and understanding *that*. From the perspective of my idee fixee, its fundamental feature -- widespread instant communication -- enables entities to form much more fluidly and flexibly and on much larger scales, to suit "demands". (I use this entity/organism terminology loosely, BTW; I hope you'll bear to humor it.) In economics this is manifested as globalization, which we might see as the nasty mechanical face of larger-scale-entity-formation: one that results in humans that are de-individualized and mechanically exploited for their specific usefulness. In-demand specialists can grow immensely rich, and disadvantaged generalists are made into one-function, poorly paid bots (this has happened for a long time, but it's now accelerated and exaggerated). It's a process that we have a good chance of understanding, but beyond any individual's will.
But when we examine a phenomenon like blogging (or this email exchange), it's an amazingly wonderful thing that lets us be even more ourselves and as David W. put it so well "write ourselves into existence". We're no longer limited by geography, and what's really new, we can easily have *group* conversations at distances (synchronously or not), and *that's* where the really humanizing entity-formation is happening. Maybe at its best this collaboration is even in opposition to the mechanical evolutionary law that drives globalization. And maybe we find it to be humanizing because the "demands" here are not purely economical, but a deeper feeding of ourselves. And that's where I really should shut up, read David's book, and see if you'd like to add more.

[*I do find the transposition/Flatland idea to be applicable to the personal/God relationship, but even there it misses the inkling of God's manifestation within us, something I think we're called on to be cognizant of (and act on). As you say, AKMA, we fall far short of *knowing*, though.]


Nice point about God; the catch in that self-revelatory relation is that we don't control or even apprehend it, but take a deep breath and a best-estimate and stake everything on that (the difference in proportion between what we apprehend and what's at stake in our estimate perhaps accounts for some of the heat that theological controversies generate).


For me it's a journey of discovery - the biggest risk is to be too forgetful, lazy, or timid (guilty, guilty, guilty as charged) to seek diligently and subtly. But yes, when it comes to basic religious beliefs there are crucial choices at each fork. I favor the notion that when you go deep enough the paths become one, but it's along that line of conjecture that I start feeling a lot like a Flatlander. Hmm, wait, there's an image forming: all the divine manifestations on Earth that are the basis of our religions are just like the irregular 3D shape passing through the plane. We see the various 2D outlines and the effects of our descriptions ripple out for centuries. But that fanciful (it's too inapplicable to be heretical, I think) image aside, I have to struggle with understanding and faith to the best of my ability, within my puny human limits. Yes, I'm coming to see exactly what you're saying about the heat of theological controversies. Now, is there another image that incorporates the fractal view? We need one, and it may even be applicable to the notion of Man created in God's own image.

April 14, 2002
Blogging is better than photography

When I started photography as a hobby years ago, I found myself mentally framing all I saw, looking for photo subjects and compositions. This heightened my visual awareness in general, and specifically I was more sensitive to colors, shadow and light, and lines: beauty in the abstract everywhere. But it was accompanied by a sort of acquisitive frame of mind. Everything was open to potential capture on my film -- the tourist syndrome. The constant evaluation got in the way of the pure joy of seeing. But would I have seen so consciously without the photograph potential? I've read Susan Sontag's On Photography, which must have covered this, but I don't remember the details.

Now that I'm starting to put consistent effort into this weblog there's a similar effect. The benefits and drawbacks are similar but, I think, more positive. A thought or experience strikes me, and I immediately consider blogging it. That frames the thought and makes me chew on it further. If I decide to write about it, the writing brings out even more (much more than framing and squeezing a shutter, in fact).

I used to have a similar thing: my good friend Jeff and I exchanged snail mail over the years -- mostly glimpses of subtly quirky things. It kept my radar tuned for the "interesting" parts of the world -- the world as potential Jeff-letter material. Our schtick involved a more skewed viewpoint than this weblog does, so it had a bigger "framing" impact. Writers of all kinds must have the same experience -- looking for material in everything. Yes? Discuss

All that said, I'll be careful not to start viewing the world as potential weblog material.

Has Susan Sontag written "On Blogging"? She should, but surely someone else has beaten her to it.

Rachel McCartney

We saw Rachel McCartney tonight at Passim. What a voice! I'm lifted three feet higher every time I hear her.

As an occasional dabbler in music, I often find myself imagining ways to make music I hear better. That can be a drawback, getting in the way of just being there to enjoy the music. Anyway, there I was doing it again: I think Rachel could fill a much bigger venue (is that something she'd want?) if she worked with a creative, melodic bassist and a bare-bones solid, but sensitive drummer (a restrained jazz drummer, maybe). The guys she was playing with tonight were excellent too (guitar and mandolin), and in a couple of moments they really caught fire together. But while I was knocked out by Rachel's voice, my ear eventually wanted a bass underpinning for her huge gospel/blues wail, especially on Will I. Watch for her! She can go far, especially if she chooses carefully who she works with. Update I sent Rachel email with the same general message, and she responds positively, saying loves to collaborate with folks. And now that I've heard the disc Eye On The Horizon, which I bought at the show, it's clear that she does. With a lineup like that live, her next stop oughta be headlining at the Orpheum.

April 13, 2002
New blog format

I've decided to move from wiki to Greymatter for my blog/personal page. While I like the way I can structure wiki (I was using UseMod wiki, and thanks for that, Clifford) it's not so much the coin of the blogging realm, and I've gotten excited about the community aspects of blogging.

I've kept links to the top-level wiki pages on the lower right of the new blog's main page, and I plan to keep it updated with links to blog entries I particularly want to categorize for my own use.