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January 19, 2007
We're all familiar by now, or anyone reading this is, with Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia written and edited entirely by its end users. But "wiki" is about more than encyclopedia-building. It describes a kind of online project, in which users are collectively responsible for modifying and improving the product, whatever that product may be. Corporations like Google and even intelligence analysts in the US government are now using wikis internally, as a way to aggregate all the company's knowledge and news on a given topic in one place.
I now notice that there is a wiki devoted to "how to" guides. If you want to know how to remove a splinter (I actually used that one the other day) or make a weather barometer with a balloon or make a model of the Starship Enterprise out of a floppy disk (um, okaaay...), then here's your place.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 06:33 PM
January 19, 2007
The Globe has published several multimedia features over the past several days that I think Brainiac readers might find interesting. Ideas photo editor Susan Vermazen helped create all three of them.
The first is an audio slideshow supporting a profile -- by the Globe's still-new classical music critic, Jeremy Eichler of the Boston-based avant-garde rock/classical composer Lee Hyla. Great photos, supplied by Hyla, of his rock years in the 1970s.
Lee Hyla, on keyboards
The second is a video in which the great cinematographer Gordon Willis (the "Godfather" movies, Woody Allen's "Manhattan," etc.) talks about some of the best scenes he's shot. The interview was conducted by Mark Feeney, and Mark also provided the complete transcript.
And here's a sneak preview of an audio slideshow that won't be officially published till Sunday. In it, the legendary set designer Eugene Lee ("Saturday Night Live," "Sweeney Todd," "Wicked") discusses some of his all-time favorite sets.
Have a good weekend!
Posted by Joshua Glenn at 04:06 PM
January 19, 2007
I confess I can't always keep straight which Romantic poet died of consumption, which perished fighting for Greek Independence, and which, if any, offed himself through some dramatic means.
Keats, it turns out, falls into the "consumption" camp -- or so it's usually thought. In an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, however, a literature professor at Syracuse points out that, two months before he succumbed to "drowsy numbness," Keats told a friend he believed he'd been poisoned.
Was he right? Or paranoid? Are those two answers mutually exclusive? The author, Amy Leal, doesn't quite resolve the mystery (which includes a deliciously tantalizing, partly obliterated letter), but the piece fascinatingly sketches Keats's strained relationships with various friends, rivals, and lovers.
Plus, I learned the quintessentially frail, hypersensitive artist was, in his youth, famous as a... boxer.
Posted by Christopher Shea at 03:44 PM
January 19, 2007
A reader writes in perturbed by my admission that I am among the throng who view fiction as growing comparatively small in stature in the years since Sep. 11, 2001. Her view is wroth airing and considering. She writes:
Perhaps the problem is American fiction or British and American fiction. Since 9/11 wasn't that long ago, and I don't think great novels come along that often, I don't expect the yearly product from fill-in-the-blank novelist is going to be good.... Perhaps the moment for fiction has simply moved away from the (declining) world powers to more remote regions, where people are more inclined to exist in the slower time that fiction requires. The best novels I have read in recent times are Italian, Spanish, and so forth... and if I were more adventurous, I'm sure I would find comparable ones in Africa and Japan....
Posted by Evan Hughes at 10:50 AM
January 19, 2007
I've been doing some concert-going, of the classical variety, in New York, and I thought I'd share some thoughts, some of it helpful for the Boston enthusiast. First order of business is to let you know that the young piano phenom Lang Lang comes to Boston for one concert only, Sun. Jan. 28, in recital as part of the Bank of America Celebrity Series. I saw Lang Lang perform with the wonderful Bavarian Radio Symphony at Carnegie Hall in November. I felt that his physical movement on stage was no more distracting than other intense performers such as Yo-Yo Ma or Joshua Bell. (This has been a consistent criticism of Lang Lang.) Very knowledgeable listeners didn't care for his playing -- "I don't know what that was, but it wasn't Beethoven" -- but I, who have musical experience, too, was transfixed.
For Boston exiles in New York, the BSO comes to Carnegie Feb. 12 to play a program of only the giant piece "La Damnation de Faust," by Berlioz.
I don't see that the violinist Christian Tetzlaff or the young cellist Alisa Weilerstein are coming to Boston this season, but when they do, go see them.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 10:18 AM
January 18, 2007
According to several news reports, most recently in the Financial Times, major industrial manufacturers are reaping windfalls from a particular kind of emissions-trading credit offered at high rates of return. According to the environmental blog Terrapass, "a small investment in process changes in aging factories can easily destroy" HFC-23, "a refrigerant with very powerful effects on global warming -- it’s almost 12,000 times as bad as carbon dioxide."
What's wrong with that? The problem is that HFC restriction projects by 17 companies are expected to account for 31 percent of all Kyoto credits, even though "the gas makes up a small fraction of industrial greenhouse gas emissions." In other words, HFC is worse pound for pound, but an emissions lightweight. Developing countries are glad to buy the credits from these manufacturers so they can legally let methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Mitchell Feierstein, who works at an investment management firm, tells the FT, "We believe a proportional amount of investment should be focused on technologies...to curb emissions.” But he's hardly in a position to insure that that's the case.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 04:48 PM
January 18, 2007
Last week I wrote here about the Institute for the Future of the Book, which has embarked on an ambitious project to create a user-annotatable and -annotated version of the Iraq Study Group Report. Now the folks who blog for the Institute are inspired by a computer science presentation available online involving multi-point touch screens.
Doesn't sound that exciting, but have a look at the video embedded in their post. It's a long demonstration, but at several points it has members of the audience going clear beyond the "ooh" stage into fits of laughter at how cool this toy is. (The guy doing the demonstrating also slays the geeks with a boast that they should have one of these screens in the Google lobby.)
The bloggers see this as a gateway application to changing the nature of the way we publish and read the printed word:
And that brings me around to the real reason the touchscreen zooming interface is the key to the next generation of 'books.' It allows users to move into 3D networked space easily and fluently and it gets us beyond the linearity that is the hallmark and the limitation of the paper book. To come into its own, the networked book is going to require three-dimensional visualizations for both content and navigation.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 10:55 AM
January 18, 2007
In The Guardian (UK), Zadie Smith, who rarely produces an essay but always produces a good one, has published a piece about literary failure that is in fact more about all that it takes for literature to succeed. When the novelist, particularly a young one, sets out to write a book, she sees an image of perfection in her head that makes her giddy, drives her forward.
What emerges on the other end invariably falls short -- though often it is only the writer herself who knows just how distorted and misshapen is the final image. Often, Smith says, critics, who concern themselves with craft more than with art, don't notice. Smith is perceptive about the difference, in a way that makes her aesthetic pleasingly old-fashioned. She also can write:
A skilled cabinet-maker will make good cabinets, and a skilled cobbler will mend your shoes, but skilled writers very rarely write good books and almost never write great ones. There is a rogue element somewhere -- for convenience's sake we'll call it the self, although, in less metaphysically challenged times, the "soul" would have done just as well. In our public literary conversations we are squeamish about the connection between selves and novels. We are repelled by the idea that writing fiction might be, among other things, a question of character. We like to think of fiction as the playground of language, independent of its originator. That's why, in the public imagination, the confession "I did not tell the truth" signifies failure when James Frey says it, and means nothing at all if John Updike says it. I think that fiction writers know different. Though we rarely say it publicly, we know that our fictions are not as disconnected from our selves as you like to imagine and we like to pretend. It is this intimate side of literary failure that is so interesting; the ways in which writers fail on their own terms: private, difficult to express, easy to ridicule, completely unsuited for either the regulatory atmosphere of reviews or the objective interrogation of seminars, and yet, despite all this, true.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 10:10 AM
January 17, 2007
In Sunday's Times of London, under the Comment heading, there appeared a piece by Rod Liddle that combined "Why is it that..." observation with a kind of jeremiad against contemporary fiction. This is an issue I've thought about a lot since I worked at two magazines that take books and novels seriously (The New Leader and The New York Review of Books). It has become commonplace to talk about the decline of fiction not as a skill (though Liddle throws that in) but as an increasingly irrelevant from of communication, particularly since Sep. 11.
It's hard to know, as far as my personal experience goes, whether I was reacting to this line of argument or simply coming to the same conclusion when I worked at these magazines, but it seemed so much less vital to engage with the hot new novelists. (I'm aware this is something of a risky confession.) Are novels still bringing "the news that stays news," in Ezra Pound's phrasing? Of course. An entire generation hasn't forgotten how to write. But it seems we're still coming to grips with how to handle, in art, the confusion that assails us in the new world of threats real and imagined.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 01:17 PM
January 17, 2007
Robert Wilson, editor of The American Scholar, has written in to correct me on two points in my appreciation of the old, Anne Fadiman-edited American Scholar. The first is that Brian Doyle has in fact written for the AS since Wilson took over, which I'm very glad to hear, and the second is that Doyle's first appearance in the magazine preceded Fadiman's tenure. May he be a contributor now and forever.
Wilson also said that the personal essay still has a place in his magazine, while also adding a defense of his decision to depart from Fadiman's consistent focus on that genre. Part of what he wrote is a window into the editor in chief's task and it's worth quoting at length:
I don't think devoting a magazine to a particular literary form is a very ambitious thing to do. One thing I did while applying for the job was to read Emerson's thrilling speech called "The American Scholar," delivered to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard College in 1837. In that speech, which clearly inspired the founders of the magazine, Emerson encourages the educated person of his day (he calls that person the American scholar), to complete his education by venturing out into the world. My sense is that Anne's magazine, for all its many strengths, was very much, too much, about the individual sensibility. We live in a time when we ought to think more about "we" and less about "I."
At the moment, newspapers are reprinting parts of an extraordinary essay in the current issue by a boyhood friend of Scooter Libby, an English professor at U. Mass. who does not share Libby's politics but who wants very much to understand how he should think about his friend. The piece is personal, yes, but it also reflects seriously on the problem with our politics today, with how we can try to begin to understand each other better. A story that begins with "I" but ends with "we."
The current issue, which I would gladly send you, has a package that in recounting the magazine's history, shows I think that its role has to be bigger than the role it had under Anne.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 11:14 AM
January 17, 2007
I wrote recently about a civil-rights complaint filed against Princeton University by an Asian-American applicant, Jian Li, who had been rejected. With nearly perfect grades and test scores, he charged that the university was effectively capping Asian-American enrollment. (He got into Yale, prompting more than a few jokes that he wasn't the most deprived victim in the world.) At 13 percent or so, Princeton's Asian-American enrollment is significantly below that of its peers.
Well, here's the Daily Princetonian's response to the episode, in what is some sort of joke issue. There's something in the issue to offend quite a few people, as you might expect (however, I did expect more wit). But this essay has campus-incident/protest/statement-from-the-president written all over it.
Let's just say the editorial, under
Jian Li's "Lian Ji's" byline, starts with: "Hi Princeton! Remember me? I so good at math and science." And includes such lines of Wildean wit as, "Yellow people make the world go round. We cook greasy food, wash your clothes and let you copy our homework."
Amazing. (Shirley Tilghman: You may want to clear your schedule for the next couple of days.)
Posted by Christopher Shea at 11:03 AM
January 16, 2007
In another environmental story, the authors of the Stern Report have released a Postscript (follow the link here) to the report they prepared for the British government on the economic costs of global warming. In it they vigorously defend their conclusions against several separate leading objections that have surfaced since the report was made public.
They also briefly address the criticism I've written about here -- that the report treats all future costs as being of the same value of present ones. The argument in the postscript bears a similarity to the one surprisingly advanced by the (mostly) libertarian economist Jane Galt, that discounting future costs is a matter of ethics, and one that requires serious questioning, even if it threatens our worldview and other of our political principles. The Stern excerpt is almost moving in its plea:
Choosing a high rate of pure time preference to analyse a long-term issue that affects the global environment is to make a profound ethical choice with, in this case, irreversible effects on future generations. It is as though a grandparent is saying to a their [sic] grandchild, because you live your life 50 years after mine, I place far less value on your well-being....
Posted by Evan Hughes at 04:33 PM
January 16, 2007
In an unusual and noteworthy move, the oil and energy giant ExxonMobil has officially accepted the contested but widely acknowledged principle that carbon emissions are contributing to global warming. The company has cut ties to organizations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which favors limiting climate regulation, and other bodies skeptical of the human contribution to climate change.
The blogger at Can't See the Forest doesn't get too excited, noting that the world's largest public company (really?) is "still in the business of selling oil" (obviously) and that "Ceres, a group of investors and environmentalists which has functioned as something of a watchdog on corporate environmental policy, gave Exxon a score of 35 on its performance in dealing with the problem of global warming in 2006. British Petroleum, by comparison, had scored a 90." The writer thinks it's an image move on ExxonMobil's part, perhaps akin to the "beyond petroleum" ad campaign of BP. That may be so, but environmentalists can't greet this move with anything but relief.
In related news, reported on the Globe's front page, banks are now getting in on the responsibility act, with the prodding of organizations like Ceres: "The groups say they have won commitments from more than a dozen banks in the last few weeks to turn away from supporting coal-fired electric plants."
[Updated 5:46 p.m.]
Posted by Evan Hughes at 12:33 PM
January 16, 2007
James Wolcott brings to my attention to a little debate has broken out in the blogs over the use of the serial comma -- the third comma in a construction like "I went to the store, the library, and the office."
Many newspapers, including the thousands that adhere to AP style, don't like the serial (unlike Mikey), perhaps on the grounds cited by Andrew Beaujon, who works "here at the copy desk" of the Washington City Paper. He says it's just plain ungrammatical, because if you dropped the first item from the series, you'd have "I went to the library, and the office" -- whose comma would be extraneous and therefore incorrect, I agree.
However, since there is a third item, I think special rules apply, because they aid clarity, which is the basis, really, of grammar. Here's an example of a sentence that would be unclear without the serial comma, an example provided by an online grammar guide: "The following positions are available: clerk, accountant, receptionist and statistical typist." So are there three jobs or four?
The Laughorist, for the record, agrees with me, as do many magazines, including The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, whose grammar authorities are quite insistent on the matter, I happen to know.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 11:03 AM