Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On reading "the other stuff"

"When Matthew Arnold keeled over, in April, 1888, while hurrying to catch the Liverpool tram, Walt Whitman told a friend, “He will not be missed.” Arnold was, in short, “one of the dudes of literature.” Whitman probably figured that his own gnarly hirsuteness would save him from becoming a dude. He was wrong, and therein lies a lesson for all hardworking scribblers: stick around long enough, develop a cult following, gain the approval of one or two literary dudes, and you, too, can become respectable...For the longest time, there was little ambiguity between literary fiction and genre fiction: one was good for you, one simply tasted good....The guilty pleasure label peels off more easily if we recall that the novel itself was something of a guilty pleasure. In the mid-eighteenth century, there was a hovering suspicion that novels were for people not really serious about literature. Instead of laboring over" An Essay on Man" or some musty verse drama, readers could turn the pages of an amusing French nove or even on e by Richardson or Fielding. Unlike works of moral or religious instruction, novels were diverting. Of course, if they proved too diverting, how good could they be?"
~"Easy Writers" by Arthur Krystal The New Yorker May 2012.

Great piece on the development and role of "guilty pleasure" reading and the weird shifting criteria that is used to determine what falls into that area. Should it be all Plato all the time or is there a role for the mind expanding story like DFW's Infinite Jest or Bolano's 2666 or Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad or the latest Grisham? The reader simply doesn't have to work as hard at Grisham, or even Egan, as the other two. Reading can't always be work, I think, because then that process ceases to be measureable by the pleasures of the process.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Fly fishing

My family grew up about 20 minutes from the Jersey Shore so fishing with my dad, and occasionally other siblings, off the jetties of Sandy Hook for blackfish in the early morning sunlight with the incoming tide crashing over the rocks was a fairly regular occurrence and are treasured childhood memories. My brother Drew still lives in this area and focuses his fishing time and energies on the pursuit of the striped bass. Striped bass fishing is exciting because it entails wading out into the surf to about belly button or chest deep water and throwing your line with clam attached out and then just standing there waiting for the striped bass to hit. It's 11:00 at night so it's pretty dark standing in the ocean while occasionally things swim into one of your legs. And you need to make sure to pay attention as to where the water is hitting you because an ideal time to fish for striped bass is when the tide is coming in which means the water is going to climb up your body necessitating a slow retreat back towards the shore. Because the tide is coming in, the distance back to shore can be longer than the distance originally traversed to get out. It's a really lovely and enjoyable experience. The gentle slap of the waves against your chest, quiet conversation and, when fortunate, the excitement of the fish on the line.
I took a couple of years off/away from fishing after a largely empty week-long fishing trip at Lake Champlain. After finishing college though I've started to get back into fishing slowly but surely. While there's two different areas of fishing (fresh-water and salt water) there's also two main types of fishing gear.* The majority, and easiest, is what is known as a spinning reel which is your standard rod and reel setup. You throw out your lure, worm, what-have-you and reel it back at the appropriate speed to whatever it is you're trying to catch. Spinning setups have some variation but are pretty uniform and fairly easy to operate.  The other gear option is fly-fishing. Fly-fishing is an approach to fishing that carries with it a decent amount of romance, think Hemingway's Nick Adam stories, and is pretty difficult to do well. Successful fly fishing requires the ability to whip a tiny fly tied to 9-10 feet of quite tiny line which is in turned to a much thicker line, back and forth through the air gathering distance and velocity so that the fisherman can gently lay the fly exactly where he wants it. This requires a decent amount of space especially if one wants to avoid the dreaded side sport known as "tree fishing". 
Largely because of the romantic aspect of fly-fishing, I've always wanted to try it. A little over a year ago, Drew was given a fly pole and reel by a friend which Drew passed on to me. Part of this was pure brotherly altruism the other part was the fact that it's a left-handed reel that can't be switched to be used as a right-hand reel. 
I've been practicing, off and on, trying to get the technique down which is a decent chunk of work because not only are you thinking about where the line is going in front of you, there is also the backcast, when the line goes back behind you, to be concerned about. There's also the angle of the rod to maintain, how far forward and back you're working the rod tip because too far forward and the fly crashes prematurely into the water and not far enough forward and the fly smacks into the back of your head. There's a lot to think about and it's a decent amount of work. However, it can also be rewarding where "rewarding" equals actually catching a fish.
My father-in-law and I headed out to Russica Falls last weekend to try out the fly fishing. The falls are about 50 minutes south of the Clarks Summit area. My father-in-law had fished there a lot in the 80's but hadn't been back in a while. The falls, and the ensuing stream/tiny river is a part of the Bushkill which has some pretty decent falls farther downstream.
For perspectives sake, here's a picture of Russica Falls.
Another picture w/ less brush in the way:

The falls are the first thing you see. You park and then hike down to pick up the creek/river way farther down and then work back up towards the falls. I'm wearing neoprene chest waders and my father-in-law is wearing hip waders because we work our back up the falls in the water. Usually this is pretty straightforward but the water was about six inches higher than normal, due to the amount of extra rain recently received and the stream was pretty hard to navigate due to the current. Also the following pictures appear somewhat blurry or smeared because my phone was in a plastic bag to make sure if I fell all the way in the phone would stay dry. I did actually catch a decent brown trout but since the pole was in one hand and the fish was in the other no picture was taken. My father-in-law can vouch for me, if needed.

How the stream appeared most of the way. You can kind of see the white water splotches.

My father-in-law fishing.

This shot was taken at a pool where the water was calm enough to try traditional dry-fly fishing.Up to and past the pool we were nymph fishing which consists of a nymph, 2 split shots and a strike indicator which is a bright yellow foam float attached your line that sinks when a fish, presumably, has bitten. You flip the nymph into a likely spot watch the strike indicator float past you and then flip the entire assembly upstream again to repeat the process. While this is dramatically simpler than traditional fly-fishing, it still takes a decent amount of finesse and practice.

View from my pole headed upstream.

Father-in-law working the opposite bank. 
What should follow here is a picture of the 300 lb. bear we saw crossing the road on our way back home but neither of us were coordinated enough to get our phones pointed in the right spot to take the picture or to remember there was an actual camera in the center console of the car so no picture of the bear follows. 
Overall, it was a good outing. We both caught fish, neither of us fell all the way in and saw a bear. Really for a fisherman the only part the really matters is the first part-we caught fish.

*There's also spearfishing, used w/ scuba and bow fishing which is trying to shoot fish w/ an arrow that has a line attached to it but these are peripheral.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Imagining the past-Paris Review Interview with William Gibson (Sum. 2011)

In keeping with the "disruptive technologies" theme, I came across a William Gibson interview from Summer 2011 via the Paris Review. While I've not read any of Gibson's fiction, though it's on the ever-growing book list, I have read some of his non-fiction esp. the op-eds that show up periodically in the NYT. What's particularly excellent about this interview is Gibson's wide-ranging discussion of his writing habits, a short history of sf writing and the interconnection of his thinking about the future/tech, etc.
There are particularly quotable bits from this interview that are definitely worth sharing. (Any emphasis added is mine.)

"It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. What we were prior to our latest batch of technology is, in a way, unknowable. It would be harder to accurately imagine what New York City was like the day before the advent of broadcast television than to imagine what it will be like after life-size broadcast holography comes online. But actually the New York without the television is more mysterious, because we’ve already been there and nobody paid any attention. That world is gone....
It’s very, very difficult to conceive of a world in which there is no possibility of audio recording at all. Some people were extremely upset by the first Edison recordings. It nauseated them, terrified them. It sounded like the devil, they said, this evil unnatural technology that offered the potential of hearing the dead speak. We don’t think about that when we’re driving somewhere and turn on the radio. We take it for granted."

"The strongest impacts of an emergent technology are always unanticipated. You can’t know what people are going to do until they get their hands on it and start using it on a daily basis, using it to make a buck and u­sing it for criminal purposes and all the different things that people do.We’re increasingly aware that our society is driven by these unpredictable uses we find for the products of our imagination."

"I think the popular perception that we’re a lot like the Victorians is in large part correct. One way is that we’re all constantly in a state of ongoing t­echnoshock, without really being aware of it—it’s just become where we live. The Victorians were the first people to experience that, and I think it made them crazy in new ways. We’re still riding that wave of craziness. We’ve gotten so used to emergent technologies that we get anxious if we haven’t had one in a while."

"In the postwar era, aside from anxiety over nuclear war, we assumed that we were steering technology. Today, we’re more likely to feel that technology is driving us, driving change, and that it’s out of control. Technology was previously seen as linear and progressive—evolutionary in that way our culture has always preferred to misunderstand Darwin."

In the first quote, the idea of "trying to imagine the past that went away" is applicable on several levels to better understanding technological determinism and the view of upgrading as positive/moving forward. The future seems better because anything can be read into the future as a possibility; this is a practice we as humans regularly engage in. The upcoming elections are an excellent example of individuals attempting to claim the future by suggesting the most vote-able versions of it. To imagine the past in a "pure"fashion is to attempt to re-view the emergence of "disruptive technologies". Because, to a large extent, disruptive technologies are what make the past, the past. That is one way to read history is to mark points of change based on the disruptive technology, that more often than not, is accused or credited with "moving technology forward". To the point of the quote, it may not be possible to remember the past because the present technology drives the past out of our collective memory making it impossible to think  past, if you will, what is presently at hand as the present technology requires an investment of time to master.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

When Giants Fail-Christensen and "disruptive technologies"

"The question [Clayton] Christensen began with, twenty years ago, was: Why was success so difficult to sustain? How was it that big, rich companies, admired and emulated by everyone, could one year be at the peak of their power and, just a few years later, be struggling in the middle of the pack or just plain gone? The first industry that Christensen studied was disk drives. He saw that the companies that made fourteen-inch drives for mainframe computers had been driven out of business by companies that made eight-inch drives for mini computers, and then the companies that made the eight-inch drives were driven out of business by companies that made 5.25-inch drives for PCs. What was puzzling about this was that the eight-inch drives weren’t as good as the fourteen-inch drives and the 5.25-inch drives were inferior to the eight-inch drives. In industry after industry, Christensen discovered, the new technologies that had brought the big, established companies to their knees weren’t better or more advanced—they were actually worse. The new products were low-end, dumb, shoddy, and in almost every way inferior. But the new products were usually cheaper and easier to use, and so people or companies who were not rich or sophisticated enough for the old ones started buying the new ones, and there were so many more of the regular people than there were of the rich, sophisticated people that the companies making the new products prospered. Christensen called these low-end products “disruptive technologies,” because, rather than sustaining technological progress toward better performance, they disrupted it. After studying a few exceptions to the pattern of disruption, Christensen concluded that the only way a big company could avoid being disrupted was to set up a small spinoff company that would function as a start-up, make the new low-end product, and be independent enough to ignore what counted as sensible for the mother ship."
The New Yorker Vol 88 No 13 ~When Giants Fail
This article is behind their paywall but if you can get your hands on this article, I would highly recommend it. The idea of disruptive technology applies to a lot of areas, not the least online education or libraries. Christensen's identification of the way smaller/different companies poach the bottom of the market while the big companies ignore the bottom (the steel story-see also Kodak) is the same issue higher education has with online learning. If some colleges are not going to do online education other entities, not necessarily colleges will. Frankly, if higher ed is going to make it online education needs to be treated not as an off-shoot or version of physical education but as a completely different idea. What would happen if a college jettisoned the online program into its department so that it had the freedom to experiment and try different approaches to develop its own "disruptive technology"?

Friday, May 18, 2012

On automatic sinks and towel dispensors

The shift to motion sensor- based sinks and paper-towel roll dispensers makes me nervous. On the one hand I recognize the usefulness of the paper towel machine controlling how much paper towel you get at once to help keep the wet-handed individual from ripping off half the roll to dry off his barely moistened fingertips.On the same hand I recognize the sanitary implications. Of the list of all the places to have extra handles, public restrooms aren't anywhere on it.  On the other hand, the nervous one, the motion-sensor based interaction puts the user at the mercy, as it were, of the motion sensor screen, or the towel-dispensor's batteries. Once those batteries die, you're not getting any more paper. If the motion-sensor screen goes, no more water. Also, the lack of a hot/cold handle means that the sensor is choosing your water temperature for you and if you don't like it, you can lump it. Or not wash your hands. Or just carry around hand sanitizer. The marketplace corollary is the self-check out stations in supermarkets and other stores. Though I usually use a card, instead of cash, the times that I do actually use cash, there are specific requirements for those bills in order to be acceptable by the "bill acceptor" as the disembodied voice calls it. The bills need to be crisp, pointed the right way and inserted at the proper time. I've had several instances where trying to feed a particularly aged and crumpled dollar bill into the aforementioned acceptor has failed even though if the dollar bill was handed to a cashier, it would be treated as acceptable currency.
Its is the homogenization or strict guidelines that these type of encounters require that makes me nervous. It's sort of the logical conclusion of the Industrial Revolution. Starting with Henry Ford and the assembly line and moving to Taylor and the Gilbraiths with motion study (the best way to do work) whose work paved the way for robots who can do the same exact repetitive task for hours without tiring or making a mistake. We are moving from having our work performed by robots/automated processes to being expected to make certain of our actions robotic in order to interact with everyday systems. Driving is different because while you can drive like a fool, following the laws of the road make sure you, and other around you, don't die. The automated systems we interact with are programmed to  expect an exact, precise input (crisp dollar bills) which is an additional expectation to just having cash. Now there is a requirement for a particular type of cash (crisp, precise and not run through a cycle of laundry). The cash feeder has no compassion, or use, for the crumpled up, taped dollar bill.While the towel dispenser and faucet are more forgiving, the attitude of expectation is what makes me nervous. I'm used to sticking my hands underneath the interface and getting output.What happens when that input (sticking my hands out) fails? Either a specialist fixes the screen or you get a new faucet, chucking the old one (which is a whole other level of obsolescence-planned or otherwise).
What I'm nervous about is the casual acceptance of interfaces to help us accomplish our work without thinking about the consequences of using/incorporating those interfaces into daily life. I've got nothing against self-check out stations. But the fact that the machine treats different types of currency differently than a person does/would, matters and should not be ignored.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Reading Suggestion

Via the Emerging Scholar Twitter feed there is a link to a free excerpt  from a book called Liberal Arts for the Christian Life edited by Jeff Davis and Philip Ryken.* The excerpt is by Alan Jacobs entitled How to Read a Book. ( Jacobs recently came out w/ a book called The Pleasures of Reading in an Age ofDistraction which I would highly recommend. This excerpt is in a very similar vein.

"Attentiveness is an ethical as well as an intellectual matter; it’s about treating our neighbors as they deserve as much as it’s about getting facts into our heads...Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian polymath who was perhaps the greatest literary theorist of the twentieth century, once commented that in any given conversation the real initiator is the person who listens, not the one who speaks who would ever speak unless he or she believed that someone would be listening? It is the listener who elicits the speech, brings it forth. The speaker counts on a responsive listener. In the same way, a writer counts on a responsive reader...This is what writers want also: for you to “enrich their words” with your own responses....this too is a sign of respect: when I register and explain my disagreement in a book, I demonstrate that I am paying attention and that I care about what the author is saying..."

*I'm not a huge Crossway Press fan. The last two books that I read from this press were pretty lame. This book seems a bit more substantial, esp. considering the editors and even the inclusion of Jacobs in the contents.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)

In the wake of Maurice Sendak's recent demise there's been a slew of articles on Sendak and his work, as expected. There's a quick run down below of several good interviews and obits.
I grew up with Sendak's art in the Little Bear stories which are pretty storeis in the texts but the illustrations give them an almost Gothic/Victorian air. This fits with some of things Sendak says about writing kids books in the articles below. The Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia has, or at least had, a bunch of large format illustrations from Where the Wild Things Are which are worth stopping by and seeing. I've started to keep an eye out for Sendak's name in the illustration credits because he pops up a lot. While WTWTA put Sendak on the cultural map, the sheer reach and quality of his work is definitively worthy of admiration. 

NPR Fresh Air interview from several months ago

Stephen Colbert interviews Maurice Sendak (January 25, 20120)

NY Times Obit

Interview/Retrospective of  Sendak at 80

Guardian Interview with Maurice Sendak

Guardian Obit