Tidbits from Around the Web: Memento Mori Edition

Happened on a fascinating data animation by Nathan Yau,
Years You Have Left to Live, Probably.


In addition to being cool to play with, it’s a great example of mathematical representation, as the data it uses comes from this table.


Same content, different form and experience. (A lot of projects I have worked on as an educational media producer have focused on helping teachers figure out how to get kids comfortable moving among mathematical representations, from a table, to a graph, say, or from a function, to words. Grasping the power inherent in the idea that one phenomenon can be represented in these varied ways. How neat would it be if kids today are adding animation to that list: a calculus text book with examples that show accelerations as animations that, um, accelerate!).

But back to planet morbid: After fooling with this for a while, I remembered The Death Clock, which terms itself “The Internet’s friendly reminder that time is slipping away.”


I assume this uses more detailed actuarial data, and gives a specific day rather than a probability, and a helpful count of the number of seconds until you shuffle off either to Buffalo or “this moral coil” depending on your religion. My appointment with “dust to dust” is 2050.

Finally, a poem by W.S. Merwin on this theme. An angle that many have considered, I’d bet.

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

QZ On the SEP

ResearchBuzz: Firehose picked up a nice story on one of my favorite resources online, SEP.

ResearchBuzz: Firehose

QZ has a nice writeup on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “The internet is an information landfill. Somewhere in it—buried under piles of opinion, speculation, and misinformation—is virtually all of human knowledge. But sorting through the trash is difficult work. Even when you have something you think is valuable, it often turns out to be a cheap knock-off. The story of how the SEP is run, and how it came to be, shows that it is possible to create a less trashy internet—or at least a less trashy corner of it.”

View original post

Funny Words: Peter Godfrey-Smith

Boston Review has a perceptive, and droll, review of a new philosophy title, Retrieving Realism by Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor. There are lots of interesting takes in it and John Dewey and Martin Heidegger figure prominently. (So of course I was interested, as Dewey is a fascinating figure to me.)

The full review will likely be of interest mainly to philosophy nerds like myself, but one passage was too good to pass up quoting. Just after untangling a number of moves and distinctions presented in the book, Godfrey-Smith writes,

I don’t want to suggest, through this assertion of Dewey’s place in the story, that he had all the answers. Far from it, and I will look in a moment at an area he handled quite badly. In explaining his larger neglect in this part of philosophy, I am also mindful of other deficiencies. Dewey’s writing has an exhausting earnestness, which contrasts with the dark edginess, the anything-can-happen feel of Heidegger’s. If someone sees you reading Heidegger on a train, they might think you would be an interesting person to have sex with. If they see you reading Dewey, there is a risk they will think you would be an excellent person to serve on a committee.

deweyPersonally, seeing somebody peruse Sein und Zeit on the Red Line wouldn’t exactly flick my switch, but I can vouch for the fact that Dewey evokes committee service: perhaps because it reads a bit like it was written by a committee, and ‘exhaustingly earnest’ is definitely apt as well.

Blogging 101 Day Five: Love Your Theme

So I’m not doing the Blogging 101 Lessons in order (I was like this in school, if Hamlet was assigned I read King Lear. Not particularly admirable, but at least I did read Lear).

This assignment is “love your theme” with the advice to try at least three different themes. “Even if you’re happy with the one you first chose. Try one you’re drawn to, and one you would never use.”

As I have blogged before, trying out themes is something that I do a lot–in fact it’s a problem.  (See https://afewreasonablewords.com/2015/06/14/words-of-advice-the-tragedy-of-theme-addiction/)

My current theme, 2015, from WordPress.

What’s more I’m very happy with 2015 (one of the standard WordPress themes) when it comes to my personal blog. I don’t do anything particularly tricked out in terms of features, widgets, doodads, and the like, so haven’t encountered anything it can’t cope with  and it’s responsive and works well with my signature image (a blue sky over Monhegan, ME).

But in the spirit of trying of doing the homework as assigned for once, I checked out two different ones; here they are and what I learned:

Cyanotype theme

Here’s Cyanotype, love the color and type, and how the photos pop. Not sure if the antique photography inspiration works visually or editorially with my content. Seems a little too spare. (This is the one I chose because it appealed to me).


And then there’s Patch, which I chose because it was one I would never use. It’s all “cards” (how is that still an Internet design thing, aren’t we on to the next idea?)  But I will grant that 1) this kind of approach dissolves the distinction between content for mobile and content for desktop sizes (by making it mobile first, not a bad idea). 2) It pointed out to me that featured images and tagging are  as important as what you post.

Patch WordPress theme. You can smell the hipster mustache wax. Can see it being great for a news-oriented blog.


A useful exercise, but I’ll stick with my current rig.



Reasoning Words: Should Public Libraries be TOR Exit Relays?

The Electronic Freedom Foundation reports that a a pilot project at the Lebanon, New Hampshire, Library to serve as a TOR exit relay has been temporarily halted, and potentially totally scotched, by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. ProPublica has a rundown as well.

To shed some light on the the question of whether this is an outrage or reasonable, here’s a quick TOR 101 lesson.  TOR (name comes from The Onion Router, but no relation to the satirical web site) is a means of using the Internet anonymously. Individual computers (of volunteers) provide entry into and exit from anonymous, encrypted network paths–sort of a series of safe houses that let computer traffic pass from one to the next without recording from whence it came or whither it goest. (Disclosure: I’ve not used it, got as far as downloading the software, installing it, and chickening out. So somebody who has it running live can no doubt improve and correct that description.) Also: lots of good explanations around the web, including one from EFF’s “in plain English” series. The key thing is that the set-up provides a theoretically untraceable way to navigate the Internet, and can be installed on any computer.

The library proposes to offer an exit for TOR, meaning people could use its computer network to download materials anonymously. A bunch of questions ensue: what do people do in TOR, and does this activity matter as a point of library policy? The dark speculations come easily: Deal drugs? Send a bomb threat? Plot insurrection or worse? Just steal software? But in the other column, there are better possibilities: evading censorship for for political art? Blowing the whistle on unconstitutional surveillance? Negotiating a job offer across international borders or protecting a trade secret? Organizing for rights in a closed regime? Negotiating safe passage for a political prisoner?

Since it’s software, TOR is simply a platform for human purposes, be they benign or malignant. It is no more culpable than the library card catalog of a previous era: those listed  how to find books on the shelves, providing neutral access to anything, be it The Anarchist Cookbook or Charlotte’s Web. What patrons did with the books was their concern, and librarians at least aspired to stay out of that question.

Were I still a librarian, I would be vexed by this one. It’s a first-amendment loving profession, and access is central (both characteristics resonate with me). At the same, criminal activity such as Silk Road, or ransomware bots, may live in TOR, organizing capacity for hate groups, and human trafficking networks could lurk as well. Yet, TOR’s stated goals are to support free expression, privacy, and human rights, and libraries, in their nerdy, sometimes quaint way aim to live that mission every day. If some teenage Ai Wei Wei-type in is trying to get her message out, and my library is her exit relay, should I say no? Access is entwined with the right to privacy: being able to checking out the oft-banned Ulysses, for instance, means being able to check this out more or less anonymously. If I use a library terminal to tap the Internet, what content is fair game, and what level of privacy is appropriate?

I think on the whole (particularly if I were a New Hampshire librarian–a state that has “Live Free Or Die” on its license plants), I’d brave the battle and provide the relay. Libraries are networks, and although its easy to stay out of the fray, and let others fight this battle, who is really doing it from the public interest side? Our Google overlords have already got a huge advantage, and are so unfazed by their ability to track our every move online that their position–something which I think the STASI would have been fine with — is “don’t do anything that you shouldn’t, and everything will be fine.” Privacy in our lawful actions is not something we should compelled to give up, nor do our intentions and our explanations of what we might do become property of the state, even if some of our fellow inhabitants of the planet have dark ones, and use tools to foment them. TOR is tool to keep things private, at least some of which should be, even at a public library, perhaps even particularly there, where there is a means to discuss the public good and answer to it.


Blogging 101, Day 3: Reading Other Blogs

Assignment #3 was learning your way around the WordPress Reader, and also thinking about your blogging in the context of others you read. The other bit was following five new blogs and five new tags. Useful prompt–I haven’t used the Reader that much (I just follow stuff on FB), and I didn’t know that you can just use it for RSS feeds, so have hooked in my favorites. Interesting to think about how varied the content of the blogs I follow is, and how catching a particular voice is what grabs me.

Also a reminder that tying into the (vast) community of WordPress is partially dependent on tagging and categorizing.  My self, my meta data.


The vast expanse of WordPress.com blogs. (Well, actually it's Big Meadows at Shenandoah National Park, but they're both big!).
The vast expanse of WordPress.com blogs. (Well, actually it’s Big Meadows at Shenandoah National Park, but they’re both big!).

Commonplace Book: Abbey Simon

Taking a break from the “Blogging 101” stuff to share an Abbey Simon track I encountered (or probably re-encountered) last night.

This is his performance of an arrangement from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. (The arrangement is more than a tad old-fashioned, but the piano sound–and the way he gets from phrase–gentle, golden, and singing).

And another lovely take on it–maybe even more haunting–gets a little of the operatic darkness too. Plus the bonus of being able to see the video of performer, Yuja Wang who, like many a great pianist, somehow barely seems to be moving her fingers from the top of the key to the bottom. (What did we do before ‘keyboard cam?’)

Wang’s power at the keyboard is astonishing–I’ve heard her live twice, and out comes this tiny person who thunders and sings through big pieces, for instance the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1 with the high beams on, and the curves taken thrillingly fast, but with calm confidence. She’s incredibly strong, but what impresses is the delicacy. Going back to Simon, he was once asked “whether strength matters in piano technique?” and here are his reasonable words, applicable to other instruments and genres.

Abbey Simon:   I don’t think [muscle strength] comes into it.  You have to realize you don’t play a musical instrument with your fingers.  A musical instrument is played by the ears.  My own theory is that what sets apart the great artist from the competent one is that he hears differently.  When people say, “The sound of Rubinstein,” Rubenstein played the same old piano that everybody else played.  It was that he had a different conception of sound.  The miracle of Horowitz is not the octaves.  Conservatories are churning out people who can play octaves even faster than Horowitz can play them.  The miracle of Horowitz is the color, the ability to change color.  It’s all of those things, and those are things that are governed by the hearing.  The wonderful sound that Heifitz had is because Heifitz heard differently.  In addition to that brilliant ability, he heard things differently.  All of these great artists hear things.  They have an extra talent, an extra technique, and it’s the hearing technique because in the most elementary way our ears tell us we played a wrong note.  We have to practice so that we don’t play a wrong note.  From then on, it’s a constant refinement.  The ears demand refinementplay faster, play louder, play softer, do this or that; you didn’t phrase that nicely.  Some people’s ears become more sensitive and more demanding, and they’re the ones who are the great artists. 

Blogging 101, Day 2: Wrangling Titles & Taglines

Today’s assignment is “take control of your title and tagline.” Mine perhaps needs some help.

My title is:
A Few Reasonable Words
And the tagline is: “One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a poem, see a fine picture, and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words.” — Goethe

With my usual tendency to over explain things, I see that I have used up the tagline space to gloss the quotation. Time to dump that (or do the explaining elsewhere). (Oops, already do.)

But, what to use as a tag instead? My blog is probably more often a Commonplace Book than anything else, also sort of a library reference desk display rack–things of (possibly infinitesimal) interest.  “More information than you require” would work, but that has been taken by the droll John Hodgman.

Some bloggy riff on “Books you Don’t Need in Place You Can’t Find” might fit the bill (that’s the motto of the Montague (MA) Bookmill). “Bits and bites you don’t need on a blog you can’t find…”

I think I will go with that for now. The beauty of the interwebs means I can change it tomorrow, of course.

And for good measure, a few famous taglines from a previous content delivery medium, newspapers:

"All the news that's fit to print," "the seven most famous words in American journalism" according to the the BBC. And inspiration for a perhaps legendary sign in the Times compositing room, "All the news that fits, we print."
“All the news that’s fit to print,” “the seven most famous words in American journalism” according to the the BBC. And inspiration for a perhaps legendary sign in the Times compositing room, “All the news that fits, we print.”
“Light for all,” a nice tagline, and the changes in the Sun’s vignette  are a mini-history lesson.
In an era in which newspaper barons were equivalent to the tech giants of today, Robert “Colonel” McCormick loomed large. I’m not sure if he named the Trib “world greatest newspaper,” but that was the motto for many years. It also gave his flagship radio and TV stations, “WGN,” their call letters.

There’s another one I couldn’t find an image for, but I love: the San Francisco Examiner’s motto,  “The Monarch of the Dailies” –the flagship paper of the monarch of the press lords, William Randolph Hearst.

Blogging 101, Day 1

Although I’ve been blogging for three years, I finally have gotten around to taking WordPress.com’s Blogging 101, a kick start for a new blog, or a way to rev up an existing one (something I’m ready for).

Today’s assignment (which I wrote while riding back from Maryland’s Eastern Shore (Chesapeake Bay shot below), write a post introducing yourself, “Who I Am, and Why I’m Here…”

Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy: I’m a writer, media producer and sort of WordPress developer/would-be techie. I’ve been involved in editorial this and that for 30+ years, hanging around libraries, museums, performing arts organizations, and public media. Did my first website in 1995, most recent one last week. A couple that a lot of people visit, this one…not so much!

Why I’m here: have always interested in the intersection between content and technology (what happens when they duke it out?).  I also like open software, design, and fiddling with things, and god is WordPress fiddly. It also seemed to be a nice way to train up in a platform that over 20% of the web is using. So mostly I’m here to learn WordPress, and share a bit content that caught my eye.

So that’s me in a nutshell. More soon.


View from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, Labor Day 2015



Commonplace Book: Jacques Bonnet

BonnetStill dipping into Phantom of the Bookshelves, one of those charming books on books that show up from time to time. Chapter 7 addresses a phenomena that many readers encounter.


Chapter 7

Real People, Fictional Characters

“The best bacon omelettes I have eaten in my life have been with Alexandre Dumas.”  — Jacques Laurent

Hundreds of thousands of people live in my library. Some are real, others are fictional. The real ones are the so-called imaginary characters in the works of literature, the fictional ones are their authors. We know everything about the former, or at least as much as we are meant to know, everything that is written about a given character in a novel, a story, or a poem in which he or she figures. This character has not grown any older since the author brought him or her into existence, and will remain the same for all eternity. When we hold in our hand the text or texts in which such a person appears, it feels as if we are in possession of everything the author wanted us to know about the character’s acts, words and sometimes, thoughts. The rest doesn’t matter. Nothing is hidden from us. For us, a novel’s characters are real. We may be free to imagine what we don’t know about them, though we know quite well that these are just guesses. And we are free to interpret their words or their silences, but again these will just be interpretations. We know quite a lot about Odysseus, Aeneas or Don Quixote, correspondingly little about Homer, Virgil or Cervantes. Sometimes characters are even deprived of an author as if their creator had discreetly sipped away. Who made up the first version of Don Juan? Who invented Faust? And while we feel sure that Harpagon, Tartuffe or Monsieur Jourdain undeniably exist, what do we know in the end about a certain Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, whose stage name was Molière. Not very much, not even whether he really wrote all the plays attributed to him.


Authors are just fictional people, about whom we have a few biographical elements, never enough to make them truly real people. Whereas the biography of a literary character, even if it is incomplete–and explicitly so–is perfectly reliable: it is whatever its creator decided.

A real map of a fictional place, R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi, which is nonetheless a place that was very real to me when I fell in love with his books in my twenties.
%d bloggers like this: