Three Good Ledes

It’s been said that “80 percent of success is showing up” (or a closely related “genius is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration”). In newspaper writing, getting the lede right is sometimes nearly 100% of the job.

Three ledes I’ve encountered recently and enjoyed:

1. Jacob Brogan in Slate on Paul Manafort’s technical maladroitness.

“There are two types of people in this world: those who know how to convert PDFs into Word documents and those who are indicted for money laundering. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is the second kind of person.”

2. A fascinating Times obit by David Margolick of one Alan Gershwin, who might or might not have been the issue of George, a claim he pursued his whole life.

“As Alan Gershwin told the story — often — he was hidden away at his Uncle Ira and Aunt Leonore’s house on North Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills in late 1945, right after his discharge from the Navy. Ignoring the orders of his hosts, he headed downstairs to join one of the parties the Gershwins regularly gave. When a guest spotted him on the landing, he dropped his glass of Scotch in shock. Or maybe two guests did.

By then, seven years had passed since the man Alan Gershwin called his father had died. But all anyone eyeing 19-year-old Alan that night saw was George Gershwin, reincarnated.

For 70 years or so, Alan Gershwin insisted he was George Gershwin’s long-lost son. And with his death on Feb. 27 at 91 in a Bronx hospital, the curtain came down on what was surely the Gershwins’ most bizarre show ever, revolving around whether this affable but monomaniacal man was one of the greatest victims in American musical history, or a grifter running a long-term con, or someone suffering decades of delusion.”

3. Finally, Vanity Fair‘s Darryn King catches up with Uwe Boll, a director who was not up for an Academy Award last weekend.

In a small, cold film studio in early 2016, the man known by the Internet as the “worst director in the world” was doing what he does, well, worst.

“O.K., one more time,” said Uwe Boll (his first name is pronounced “OO-vah”), feeding lines to one of the actors in the absence of a script. “Straight in the lens: ‘. . . has been killed. By the law . . . er . . . the law enforcement? Has been shot by law enforcement.’ Yes. O.K., do it. Ready, and . . . Action!”

“This is the worst-looking set,” assistant director Michael Pohorly admitted between takes. “The budget on this set was . . . nothing. Twenty dollars for a lick of paint? It’s a $20 set.”


The Sensor Society: Invisible Infrastructure

So much about the Internet age has turned out to be vexing–a far cry from my enthusiasm a generation ago, shared by many nerds, for a utopian future of connectivity and a library of one’s dreams.

“I would not open windows into men's souls.” — Attributed to Queen Elizabeth IHard to know where to start with the disappointments and fears, but one that particularly nags is the feeling that we are building (with our eyes closed and tacit consent) an infrastructure that monitors our every move, encasing every one of us in a personal surveillance state, in return for the convenience of carrying a connected device everywhere we go.

Australian Prof. Mark Burdon has termed this the “Sensor Society,” the notion that passively, without our knowledge or consent, and for unknown purposes, everything we do becomes raw data for commercial discovery (and possibly for government snooping). This follows inevitably from the “always on/always connected” world, but is it too high a price to pay?

The entire interview is worth reading, but herewith a few bracing bits:

Q: What are the implications if sensors completely permeate society?

A: Well, it’s not necessarily just about the complete permeation of sensors. Rather, the greater implications regard the emergence of pervasive and always on forms of data collection. The relationship between sensors, the data they produce, and ourselves is important to understand.

For example, sensors don’t watch and listen. Rather, they detect and record. So sensors do not rely on direct and conscious registration on the part of those being monitored. In fact, the opposite is the case. We need to be passive and unaware of the sensing capabilities of our devices for the sensors to be an effective measurer of our activity and our environments.

Our relationship with our devices as sensors is consequently a loaded one. We actively interact with our devices, but we need to be passively unaware of the sensors within our devices. The societal implications are significant—it could mean that everything we do is collected, recorded and analysed without us consciously being aware that such activities are taking place because collection is so embedded in daily life.

Q: How would you recommend someone learn more about the impact of living in a sensor society?

A: Look at your everyday devices in a different way. Behind the device and the sensor are vast and imperceptible, invisible infrastructures. Infrastructures of collection enable the explosion of collectible data and infrastructures of prediction enable understanding and thus give purpose to sensors. Otherwise, sensor-generated data without an analytical framework to understand it is just a mountain of unintelligible data.

The sensor society, therefore, redirects us towards the hidden technological processes that make data collection capture, storage, and processing possible. This, in turn, highlights the importance of understanding relations of ownership and control of sensors and the infrastructures in which sensors operate. So when you’re at home with your devices, realize that you are not alone and just think about those invisible infrastructures that are also present with you. Then question to ask then is: What data is being collected, by whom and for what purpose?

Our metadata, ourselves… how are we ever to be left alone? He’s got a good TedX talk as well.

“[The framers] sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone-the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”  — Louis Brandeis

Roll Your Own Film Series

Washington’s Building Museum, one of the city’s often overlooked gems, recently had an Architecture & Design Film Festival that I unfortunately missed.

I have already seen Columbus, which I recommend design minded, about the meaning of a city and outlining low-key relationships that rang true. (It helps perhaps that I have been to some of those buildings in Columbus, IN, and they are remarkable.)

In the process of looking up the others, found that all of Workplace, Gary Hustwit’s film about the creation of new quarters for NYC’s R/GA (a big deal ad agencies/design firms) is available, if and you liked Huswit’s Helvetica (which I loved), you’ll enjoy it. It starts a bit like an RG/A infomercial, but clearly Hustwit got editorial control. The principals say their piece (including candid meeting footage with Norman Foster) and so do those people who can’t believe what is being foisted on them!  Crisply done and worth a watch if you are interested in architecture and design.

The Gluck Berlioz connection

Composers frequently find touchstones in earlier composers, but few seem to manifest as direct a lineage (or in some ways as surprising) as Hector Berlioz’ connection with the music Christoph Willibald Gluck, whom he venerated above all opera composers.

“There are two supreme gods in the art of music: Beethoven and Gluck. The former’s realm is that of infinite thought, the latter’s that of infinite passion; and though Beethoven is far above Gluck as a musician, there is so much of each in the other that these two Jupiters form a single god, and all we can do is to lose ourselves in admiration and respect for him.”

In his study and scholarship on the Gluck scores (already old-fashioned in Paris during Berlioz’s era),  a musical revolutionary composer found common cause with a master of classical equilibrium. Here is Gluck from Iphigenie en Tauride, Regine Crespin singing “Cette nuit … O toi qui prolongeas mes jours“) (Iphigenia always brought forth magic from him–he pretty much owns the doomed classical heroine fach.)

And then, from Berlioz’ The Trojans (as classical a theme as Gluck could have wished for), the duet for Dido and Aeneas that closes Act III. More doom, more beauty and radiance.) A performance with Susan Graham and Gregory Kunde.

“I assure you, dear sister, that the music in Les Troyens is something noble and elevated; it is also compelling and truthful, and if I am not much mistaken there are a number of novelties which will arrest the ears of musicians throughout Europe and perhaps make their hair stand on end. It seems to me that were Gluck to come back to life, he would say of me on hearing the work: “Here in truth is my son.” Hardly modest, you will say. But at least I am modest enough to admit to be lacking in modesty.”

Commonplace Book: Anne Enright

The Irish novelist Anne Enright, with a meditation on Genesis and the evolution of blame. Excerpt below.

She goes on to evoke everything from Milton to Twitter, with her usual lightly worn, but amazing wit and erudition. The whole thing is worth a read.


From the Metropolitan Museum

The story of the Fall is one of the most enduring stories we have, and it is never fair. You could use it as a template for a certain kind of novel: put a choice in there, tip the balance, make the consequences so disproportionate we doubt our sense of cause and effect, make them suffer, make them into better human beings. Visually, the narrative is brilliantly successful, for being so easy to hold within a single frame. There is nothing static about the way the viewer sees an image of the first couple considering apples. It is a moment of great tension, and they are wearing no clothes. So, to the rules for writing a successful fiction, we might add, pretend that it is not about sex, make the world symbolic, expand the small asymmetries. Here are two human beings who are slightly, but perhaps disastrously, anatomically different. She likes something long, he likes something round – what could possibly go wrong?

The story is a riddle about authority and predestination that has survived the theological palaver of generations because, simple to the point of transparency, it is also impenetrably self-enclosed. It is held in a brilliant web of balance and contradiction by a few hundred words; so it is worth looking at those words and what they actually mean.

Just to be clear: there was no seduction. There was no devil, nor any mention of Satan, who was, at this stage, an unimportant figure. Although he played a sporadic role in the torment of Job, or in the temptation of Christ in the desert, Satan was not a mythical force before the bestiary of Revelations, and the rebellious Lucifer was some other angel until Milton came along. The idea of a great battle between light and the forces of darkness did not get going until early Christian times, possibly because this small, persecuted sect needed to find a great spiritual enemy against which to pit themselves. The creature in Genesis was just a snake, and though he was crafty, he didn’t seduce, nor did he ‘tempt’ Eve – this last term means ‘to test’ and is used only once in Genesis, when God tests Abraham, requiring the sacrifice of his son Isaac. So Eve did not tempt Adam, either, nor was he seduced by her nakedness. There is, in fact, very little sex in the story. Our readings of it are all subtext, all interpretation, all error.

Fred, Ginger, and Frank

When it’s all too much–a mode I fall into more and more, & alas not without reason, I happen on something like this, which offers a glimmer of hope.

Somehow makes me think of a line by the poet Frank O’Hara,

“I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”

You can’t imagine Fred and Ginger regretting life.


How Long is the Coastline of Britain?

I’m reading a charming “slow travel” memoir by Dan Kieran, and came across this passage (reflections during a period that he and two friends took a milk float across southern England) about the paradox of measuring the coast of the island, and pointing the way (although Kieran doesn’t mention it) to fractals.


At the time I was going slightly mad, but when I got home a friend pointed me towards the paper called ‘How long is the coast of Britain?’, published in 1967 by a mathematician named Benoît Mandelbrot. It suggests that the depth of your journey–in terms of how closely you perceive it–really does increase its length in mathematical terms. The answer to the question posed by the paper is that there is no answer. It’s a paradox because the length of a coastline depends entirely on the way you measure it. It comes down to context, and the context in which you perceive something is a function of the brain.

To explain the coastline paradox you first have to accept that there is a definitive geological coastline of Britain, which would depend on high or low tide and all manner of other variables. Assuming you’re prepared to accept this, you then have to imagine measuring this coastline with a three-foot ruler. You would, eventually, come up with the coastline’s length. But what if you then repeated the experiment with a one-foot ruler? The smaller ruler would give you a greater distance because you would be able to get into lots of nooks and crannies that the three-foot one would have to stretch across.

Now you’re probably thinking, ‘Well, fine, but if you went down to a one-inch ruler you get an even greater distance. At least that would be accurate though, because you can’t get smaller than a one-inch ruler.’ The problem is, of course, that you can. You can shorten the ruler over and over again, going deeper and deeper, getting smaller and smaller, and the length of the coastline will increase each time. So there really is no definitive answer to the question. It’s a rather disconcerting thought, isn’t it? We all work on the assumption that the real world is defined according to measurable things, but once you begin to focus on it, the act of measurement itself becomes fraught with uncertainty.

Teaching as a Craft: Bansho-Keikaku

On and off in my life, I’ve been engaged in what might be called ‘comparative pedagogy’ –that is, looking at different ways of teaching and learning topics, most typically math, which, in addition to being a favorite subject of mine, has been the subject of intense educational reform battles my entire life.

I’m not going to wade into those fights, but am sharing one fascinating thing in comparative math teaching that I learned about doing a project a few years back on problem solving (an explicit part of the much debated Common Core standards).

Teaching problem solving in a typical U.S. classroom, indeed even what we think of as a problem for math class, can differ from what is presented in other countries. In Japan, problems, even at early grades have more conceptual richness, requiring a ‘puzzling out’ period, not just an application of a procedure. And when a teacher works with a class to teach a problem, he or she plans out how the entire problem will be written out progressively on the board (using chalk, not an overhead) and taking a substantial portion of the class time.

By the time this interactive work is complete, the group’s thinking about the problem will be visible on the board it its entirety.  Part of the planning for this, is the teacher’s planning how to present it, Bansho-Keikaku, and it is part of the lesson study that Japanese education is so well-known for.

A guest post on Larry Cuban’s great blog explains more about this board writing and what it accomplishes.

It isn’t just math class that relies on this practice, but the humble chalk and chalkboard when used with skill intention brought coherence to other disciplines too. A representative quote.

“Most importantly, teachers carefully preserved a lesson storyline as they progressed across the board. They added elements in a strategic sequence that helped bring coherence to the lesson, and rarely erased content unless they reached a major instructional transition.”

I have seen (although never had) teachers in the U.S. who had this kind of skill and approach, but it does seem like a rarity here, and a missed opportunity.

Commonplace Book: Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith (of theThe No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series among many other books) has penned a gentle tribute to W. H. Auden. He’s an enthusiast rather than a scholar in my view, and these “How writer x can change your life” usually leave me cold (is there nothing that can’t be instrumentalized into self-help, even reading for pleasure?)  But this effort charmed me. Here he is recalling a trip to a speaking engagement in Perthshire, Scotland, a beautiful landscape that sets up his claim for the central role books play in the Scottish character.

The library lay at the end of the Roman Road, surrounded by fields in which wheat and barley were yet to ripen—lush green paddocks half-hidden by unruly hedgerows. Rioting nettles, clumps of blackthorn and rowan, wide-leafed docken grew along the side of the road until suddenly we reached an old schoolhouse and an ancient graveyard of weathered gray stones. The organizers appeared and introduced themselves, and I was taken to see the library before the guests arrived.

Belief in the word can assume the qualities of a religious faith. At the time when Lord Drummond built this place to house his precious collection of books, Scotland was prone to outbreaks of lawlessness and fierce local enmities. The lives of many were lived under the heel of powerful local clan chiefs who administered rough justice. Life was hard in every respect: this was not the rich landscape of settled England—Highland Scotland was a place in which people scraped a living and more often than not went to bed hungry.

It was a place of strong religious views. The Scottish Reformation was late but had been passionate and had brought with it a commitment to the setting up of a school in every parish. What later came to be seen as a strong Scottish commitment to education had its roots in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Books were the instruments of truth. Books were the means by which the poor could free themselves of what Auden once described as “the suffering to which they are fairly accustomed.” This attitude toward books has stubbornly survived in Scotland, mirroring, perhaps, the Irish attitude to music: both are consolations that will, in their individual way, always see one through.