Timewaster: Where do the States Go?

Via Flowing data, a good time waster to see if you know where the states fit. (Should be ridiculously easy, as they give you the name of the state. But I’m a native mid-westerner and screwed up all of those states, and ended up with a B- minus. Now I realize I should have borrowed my friend’s copy of “How the States Got Their Shapes.



Twitter and Campaigning

Good piece (tipped by Ed Kilgore) on the history of Twitter as a vector of political mis-information. Scientists have been studying its influence in the Coakley Brown election.

As pundits, journalists and citizens traverse the still-evolving social media landscape, scientists are doing the same. Using tools from linguistics, computer science and network science, these researchers are uncovering the digital calling cards of spin. Amid all the genuine discourse, teams are turning up speech dressed in truthful clothing squawked by impersonators, whether a single citizen with an agenda or a well-oiled political machine.

Later in the piece:

The Coakley Twitter bomb was an early case of what Filippo Menczer, a specialist in complex networks and Web data mining, calls “astroturfing.” To the untrained eye, a surge in vitriol against a candidate can appear to be a grassroots outcry, growing naturally from constituent concern or discontent. But in actuality, it’s machine-made artificial grass, or AstroTurf. Astroturfing campaigns (which are prohibited by Twitter policies) can give the impression that a discussion is truly representative of what a lot of people are thinking, Menczer says. This could prompt people to change their minds at the polls, he says, or to not vote.

Apparently Google Bombing is passé. (Although now the first result for Santorum is still not his site, it’s the Wikipedia article about the google bombing.).

Interesting points later on about the Turing test and bots and the suggestion that soon, already?, 10% of our social networks will be bots we think are humans. (Apparently bots get sleep/wake patterns programmed in so people think they are real.) If these bots hook up with the ones that like looking at cat videos, goodbye bandwidth!


Beautiful Words: Ella

About to enter in the whirlwind that is real estate acquisition and moving, so less writing and more linking on the blog.

Will try to go for quality, not quantity. To wit:

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong doing Autumn in New York.

And Charlie Parker for good measure.

(Like so many “American” standards, Autumn in New York was written by a Russian Jew: Vladimir Dukelsky, better known as Vernon Duke.)

Reasonable Words About an Unreasonable Man

We only bury saints it’s said, “never speak ill of the dead,” with John Silber of BU fame, or perhaps infamy, being the latest to get the full hagiography.

The Brainiac blog from the Globe tipped me off to at least one naysayer (I seem to remember quite a number during Silber’s contentious BU tenure, and I didn’t even live in Boston during those years. He was a national symbol of a certain flavor of authoritarian academic leader.)

Brainiac quoting philosopher Brian Leiter’s blog:

Silber, who began his career as a Kant scholar (!), but was best-known as a serial violator of academic freedom as the tyrannical ruler of Boston University for more than a quarter-century, has passed away. It’s curious how gullible journalists repeat the myth that he enhanced BU’s academic stature, and cite as evidence a few Nobel Laureates in literature whom he hired in their dotage. Where is the evidence that he helped create and sustain top 20 PhD programs in any fields that didn’t have them? I’m not aware of any–maybe economics? Older philosophers will recall the exodus from the Philosophy Department in the late 1970s and early 1980s (including Alasdair MacIntyre), as philosophers fled the autocracy. (The Department today is probably stronger than it was then, I should add, but much of that happened despite or after Silber over the last 15 years.) I imagine similar things happened in other departments. He may well have improved the school’s finances (as the linked article claims), but it’s not at all clear he improved the academics. That appears to be a self-serving myth he promoted, and which journalists simply repeat.

If you missed the whole Silber era, there’s a nice 60 Minutes piece on him, which I remember watching on TV.

Classical Revolution: Not Your Piano Teacher’s Recital

John Cage, who seems to be showing up in this blog a lot these days, had some dismissive words about “conventional” classical music. “I am less and less interested in music because I find environmental sounds and noises more aesthetically useful than the sounds produced by the world’s musical cultures….A composer is simply someone who tells other people what to do. I find this an unattractive way of getting things done.” Although, as Philip Clark reports in his wonderful Gramophone piece where I found this juicy morsel, Cage was saying this while also flirting with Maoism, who would seem to be the ultimate in telling people what to do.

Composers do tell people what to do–still leaving wide leeway about just how to do it, but even beyond playwrights, they dictate the content of an experience down to the precise rhythm (never that precise when I am playing the piano or singing, sad to say).

By association, they dictate what an audience in a classical concert setting will experience. Sit quietly, and through some magic of group introspection let the genius of, for example, the Moonlight Sonata wash over you. (Link is to Wilhelm Kempff’s beguiling utterly centered performance of it.)

This is a concert format that’s okay with me, I grew up with it, whether hearing some musical giant like Van Cliburn amaze with thundering octaves in Chopin, or sitting through student recitals that go no deeper than “The Happy Farmer.” Either way, you sat quietly, you worried about when to clap, you hoped that it wouldn’t go over your head, and for every amazing bit, there were two or three, that were let’s face it a bore.

There are signs afoot that this old format is crumbling. Classical performances have been cropping up in bars, and now often include pieces that call for a lot of improvisation. Classical ensembles like “Brooklyn Rider” seem to have the vibe and cred of indie rockers.

A nice piece in SF Weekly’s Exhibitionist blog outlines an effort in San Francisco called Classical Revolution.

It sounds wonderful:

In the fall of 2006, a group of classically trained musicians began playing a weekly chamber session at the Revolution Café on 22nd Street in the Mission. Charith Premawardhana, the founder of Classical Revolution, says that he and his cohorts wanted to take the environments in which they had met and played — basements and living rooms, mostly — and transfer that vibe to a café setting. In the beginning, he says, “it was mostly so that we could have a fun place to play music. But it’s served a lot of different purposes since then. It creates a space for chamber music that’s more casual and fun. People can show up and dress how they want, and it doesn’t cost a lot of money.”

It also sounds a lot like the house parties Schubert composed for and attended, still the best way to experience his chamber music and songs, a few people around the piano.

Gaffes: A Typology

Gaffes by politicians have been with us a long time, but during a lackluster and overlong campaign season, they loom large. (Perhaps it helps that they are usually short enough to fit in a tweet, and thus go viral at the speed of light?)

Commentator Paul Waldman has a nice rundown of gaffes by category, and some speculations on their possible impact. He misses my fave of late, not by a politician, but from another category of paragon of public life, the major league baseball player. Remember Ozzie Guillén? who back in April decided Miami would be a good audience to express his grudging admiration for Fidel Castro.

Ozzie knew better (outrageous comments are part of his brand) but we do now all live in the era of “is this thing on?

The “country” where Reagan probably thought everyone spoke “Latin.”
And another wonderful one from Reagan: “Well, I learned a lot… I went down to Latin America to find out from them and (learn) their views. You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.”

Unreasonable Weather: Rain

In P-town, gray, soggy, a little chilly, but luminous too. A poet’s weather, and to wit: a poem.

Rain on Tin

If I ever get over the bodies of women, I am going to think of the rain,
of waiting under the eaves of an old house
at that moment
when it takes a form like fog.
It makes the mountain vanish.
Then the smell of rain, which is the smell of the earth a plow turns up,
only condensed and refined.
Almost fifty years since thunder rolled
and the nerves woke like secret agents under the skin.
Brazil is where I wanted to live.
The border is not far from here.
Lonely and grateful would be my way to end,
and something for the pain please,
a little purity to sand the rough edges,
a slow downpour from the Dark Ages,
a drizzle from the Pleistocene.
As I dream of the rain’s long body,
I will eliminate from mind all the qualities that rain deletes
and then I will be primed to study rain’s power,
the first drops lightly hallowing,
but now and again a great gallop of the horse of rain
or an explosion of orange-green light.
A simple radiance, it requires no discipline.
Before I knew women, I knew the lonely pleasures of rain.
The mist and then the clearing.
I will listen where the lightning thrills the rooster up a willow,
and my whole life flowing
until I have no choice, only the rain,
and I step into it.

Reasonable Words: The Internet Effect

There’s been a run on (to me somewhat specious) books about the supposed baleful effects of the Internet. I went to hear Nicolas Carr read from The Shallows, his take on this phenomenon at the Harvard Book Store a while back. You could do a fun social history of the supposed deleterious effects of cultural formats and content through the ages. (I think it starts with Plato, down with reading and writing as they impair memory and extemporization.)

Plato’s points are true, as are many of the criticism of subsequent developments–jazz’s immoral effect, TV’s vast wasteland, video games recalibrating of visual cortext). But are these bad things or just trade offs? A trivial example, is it so bad that handwriting is getting lousier and is not even taught in schools in the U.S. any more? That seems more of the measure to make of these changes. It doesn’t strike me as a moral evil, although good handwriting was once considered a moral good. (Don’t ask me though, my handwriting was always crap.)

Support for that argument that the Internet is not making us dumber, and may be helping us avoid dementia, from Der Spiegel (translated into English).


Most of the report is tied to rising IQs, and does note that vocabulary is changing.

“Linguistically, the generations are growing apart,” Flynn states. “Young people can still understand their parents, but they can no longer mimic their style of speech. That was different in the past.” One possible reason for the change is that today’s young people read and write many short messages on Facebook and on their cell phones, but they rarely immerse themselves in books anymore.

Flynn says this is a pity — but no reason to panic. What some have taken for “digital dementia,” he explains, is ultimately just children and young people adapting to a world that is faster-paced and strongly influenced by digital media.



“Children and young people adapting…” Reasonable words indeed: a technology is neither intrinsically good or bad.

MLK Library: The Continuing Saga

What to do with the main branch of DC’s public library, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Martin Luther King Memorial Library, remains a minor, but contentious, issue in the DC architecture scene. Points of agreement: the building is suffering after decades of deferred maintenance; it’s horrendously expensive to maintain (custom glass and lighting all over); it’s not environmentally efficient, and it doesn’t work well for library users.

Beyond that, there’s not a lot of common ground. Preserving modernist buildings is a passion for some, even buildings like this which arguably never really fit in the context of the city (MLK Memorial Library is Mies’s only DC building, and his only library. It was finished by his associates after his death, which makes its claim to Miesian authenticity a little tenuous.) A bunch of big high profile library construction or renovation projects have been sources of civic pride (Minneapolis, Seattle, Cambridge, MA for instance). Although these observations can be rallied in support of or against the building (His only library? save at all costs! vs. His only library, and  it was a mistake from the start.)

My (uncomfortable) viewpoint is more in the “mistake from the start” camp, and that Mies approach was just not that suitable for libraries…or at least this one. The  scale of the building seems off, and the open span interiors are oddly gloomy and industrial, despite being walled by windows. Admittedly, building a truly great library must be one of architecture’s harder assignments, particularly during the torrent of digital change that is reshaping what libraries are for.

In any event, the pics of the proposed new MLK certainly are enticing.

As it is now:

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library