Category Archives: Information Technology

Moretti Event/A Misunderstanding

I’ve announced the upcoming Valve book event on Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees, about which I’m excited.

Also, Mark Bauerlein has an article (currently subscription) in the Chronicle about adolescent culture and the decline of literacy. In many ways, I think Bauerlein misses the mark here; but for now I just want to note that this:

The fact that involvement fell while access rose signals a new stance toward literature and the arts among the young. I don’t know of any research that formally examines the trend, but a snippet of conversation that occurred during a National Public Radio interview with me last year illustrates the attitude that I’m describing:Caller: “I’m a high-school student, and I don’t read and my friends don’t read because of all the boring stuff the teachers assign.”

Host: “Such as?”

Caller: “Uh … that book about the guy. You know, that guy who was great.”

Host: “Huh?”

Caller: “The great guy.”

Host: “The Great Gatsby?”

Caller: “Yeah. Who wants to read about him?”

Has another interpretation. What kind of high schooler listens to NPR? That’s right, the prankster. The caller was so funny, in fact, that I suspect that he or she skipped college and now writes for Joey. (Does Bauerlein really believe that anyone watches this? Where did that come from?)

It Starts with the Loss of a Semicolon

The most famous paragraph in “bad writing discussions”:

Theodor Haecker was rightfully alarmed by the fact that the semicolon is dying out; this told him that no one can write a period, a sentence containing several balanced clauses, any more. Part of this incapacity is the fear of page-long paragraphs, a fear created by the marketplace–by the consumer who does not want to tax himself and to whom first editors and then writers accommodated for the sake of their incomes, until finally they invented ideologies for their own accommodation, like lucidity, objectivity, and concise precision. Language and subject matter cannot be kept separate in this process. The sacrifice of the period leaves the idea short of breath. Prose is reduced to the “protocol sentence,” the darling of the logical positivists, to a mere recording of facts, and when syntax and punctuation relinquish the right to articulate and shape the facts, to critique them, language is getting ready to capitulate to what merely exists, even before thought has time to perform this capitulation eagerly on its own for the second time. It starts with the loss of a semicolon; it ends with the ratification of imbecility by a reasonableness purged of all admixtures. (Adorno, “Punctuation Marks.” Notes on Literature. Vol. 2. [Columbia UP, 1991], 95.)

Since you are probably too familiar with the debate this paragraph recalls, I’ll instead consider what aspects of Adorno’s argument might be relevant to academic blogging. People don’t like to read long things on-line. (Sorry, John). I’ve heard many claim that five-hundred words is about their limit for reading blog posts. Comments on posts don’t work very well as a means of fostering careful discussion. Most blogging software, including this site’s, simply publishes a flat list of comments in chronological order. Even the well-known sites that use comment-threading technologies dating from the Holocene have their own problems to contend with, which generally are related to the quantity of their commenters. The various moderation schemes which rely on community involvement rather than the diligent attention of a small number of people are unsuccessful.

Is the link, then, a loss or addition? Is the link a punctuation mark? (Trackbacks too, trackbacks are dead.) How about if links didn’t always go to the same location but either a) went to the original intended location, b) went to a random location, or c) asked the follower to provide a new location? Would this continue to ratify imbecility? Should the posts themselves be reader-editable? The Wiki-ization of blogs, using the technology to filter levels of sediment, commentary, or disputation is one potential solution. But having the content of each post be dynamically changed with each read is better. The much-lamented used, or claimed to use, as I remember, an automated link-generator. The intent of this was to poke gentle fun at the superfluous linking cultures of Slashdot and Kuro5hin, I think, but it has considerable potential. The author of the posts flags several phrases that would then be searched in a variety of databases using the Google and Amazon APIs, scholarly indexes, del.ic.ious, etc. The blogging software would randomly generate links from one of the sources and, using cookies, regenerate them from deeper tiers within the search results for each revisit. If I flagged the phrase “evolutionary theism,” for example, the first visitor might see this article about Frank Norris’s The Octopus the first time and this piece concerning the “dialectical affinities between East and West” the next [Both JSTOR links]. Another user would go find this book about Alfred Russel Wallace on the first visit.

Part of the articulation and shape of the blog is determined by its format. Bradley Dilger has some thoughts on the ubiquity of the grid in web design, and a palimpsest or overlay on a grid is still a grid.


Jottings on Manovich

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT, 2001.

“In this respect the computer fulfills the promise of cinema as a visual Esperanto” (xv, 78).

I wonder here, and in the later comments about the universality of the interface, about the distinction between a recovered universal language and an artificial one. Esperanto invokes questions of “ease,” which I believe my friend Bradley discusses in his dissertation. Is the simplest language the most perfect? The Modistae, Bishop Wilkins, Leibniz, Chomsky and several others seem relevant here.

“As theorized by Vertov, film can overcome its indexical nature through montage, by presenting a viewer with objects that never existed in reality” (xviii, 149).

I’m curious about self-referentiality here. Film can represent an object; montage enables film to represent non-existent objects. The non-existent objects are created in the process of reference, however.

“Synthetic computer-generated imagery is not an inferior representation of our reality, but a realistic representation of a different reality” (xxiii, 202).

So much depends on the meaning of “reality.” In a recent paper I wrote on Primer, I discussed the effect of the director’s choice not to use differently exposed film to indicate different temporal loops or subcreated domains. eXistenZ uses a progressively nested expressivism. It’s an interesting metaphysical idea, and one that the metaphysicians have in fact investigated in compelling detail.

“The avant-garde strategy of collage reemerged as the ‘cut-and-paste’ command, the most basic operations one can perform on digital data” (xxxi, 306).

Is it? “By the distinction that there is one section of it which the soul is compelled to investigate by treating as images the things imitated in the former division, and by means of assumption from which it proceeds not up to a first principle but down to a conclusion, while there is another section in which it advances from its assumption to a beginning of principle that transcends assumption, and in which it makes no use of the images employed by the other section, relying on ideas only and progressing systematically through ideas” (Republic 510b).

I am curious about the logic of sections here and that of Manovich’s windows. And discovery and invention.

Complaint about Social Bookmarking; Interesting Book; Why I Am Waiting on Something Available for a Macintosh, Does This Not Subvert the Natural Order?

Neither nor have allowed me to register for their services. I don’t expect I’m missing something. I just never get to where I’m able to add the bookmarklet. None dare call it treason.

Via Grand Text Auto, I found Florian Cramer’s Word Made Flesh, a book that seems to touch upon several of my more obscure research interests at the moment. Perhaps I’ll have a chance to post more about it later.

Reading, as I sometimes do, Andrew Plotkin’s site, I came across his review of Rhem 2, which convinced me to download the demo. Said demo intrigued me, to say the least, and I immediately ordered the game on Amazon. That was August 1st. It still hasn’t shipped, and it’s been available for convenient download on the Mac since July I’m guessing. What manner of madness is this?

JSTOR Search Flaw

Let’s say that, for obvious reasons, you do a search for “Silenus entropy.” You get your five or three results, depending, but from there, you can not select pages based on which word they match. If the article is about entropy and mentions it on every page, you’ll have to do another search or look in vain for the odd mention of Silenus.

Anyone else had this problem?

A Blog Is Being Obscured

I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. Blogs have been making google nearly useless for a long, long time. My quotation of an AP story was the number one hit for “Carisa Ashe” for at least a day, for example. That’s not what you want out of life.

And this will also help eliminate the motivation for comment and trackback spam. Thanks to Clancy for passing along the news.

Kevin Drum Overreacts to Google Initiative Criticism

The former Calpundit has some harsh things to say about this L.A. Times piece by Michael Gorman, the president-elect of the ALA. Drum’s main criticism is that there is no rational grounds for Gorman to object to an initiative that will make it easier for scholars to do what they already do in physical libraries. Gorman argues that the process of digitization will encourage the improper use of scholarly knowledge, turning instead into mere decontextualized information.

There’s a lot of backstory to these debates that starts with Plato’s attitudes towards writing and moves up through effects of the printing press (especially in contrast to the competing mnemonic technologies associated with some of the early Renaissance magi), mass media, and most certainly the computer. McLuhan and Ong replace Bruno and Ricci, etc. Keeping in mind that any discussion of Gorman’s argument is itself decontextualized without that type of historical background, I’m only going to focus on what I’ve observed as a teacher of literature and composition.

Is there a fundamental difference between holding a book in your hand, looking quickly through its index, perhaps glancing at others near it on the shelf, and then replacing it (seven times out of ten in the wrong spot) while only retaining a vestige of something on p. 121 and doing a keyword search on google through the same content? If you’ve spent a lot of time in libraries and are familiar with the ways and techologies of books, perhaps not. In some cases, the latter might even be preferable. If you lack such knowledge, however, as I find that the overwhelming majority of students at the large research institutions where I’ve taught do, then there is an important difference. If you’ve never learned about books and libraries, your ability to use tools that allow you to peruse their contents without distinction is going to be compromised.

Without the ability to distinguish good information from bad, the internet is an open sewer. You might find something rare or novel floating in it, but you’re also likely to come away diseased, worse than you were before. Thus, I think that “print literacy,” in the sense of knowing how books and libraries work, is a necessary precondition for being able to use the internet effectively, and many college students do not have it. I think perhaps that older and well-read people who aren’t educators, such as Drum, may fail to perceive the extent of the problem and that Gorman’s argument has to be understood in that context.