Memorial Day weekend is right upon us, and we here are beginning the count: three summer holidays to get through before things quiet down and we get our Island back. The weather is warm, hot in Houston, and no sign of rain in the forecast, so the crowds will probably be thick and getting around will be more difficult. Time to get some good books, a comfortable chair, a shady spot and let nature and things take their course. Speaking of which, today’s New York Times has a story by Janet Maslin about summer reading choices. You know, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want to be seen reading not on vacation. Some of them sound better than others: I have to get hold of the Davy Barry book. I could use a good laugh right about now and I don’t think I’m alone. Tip: vampires are big.
Google is still in trouble with the Polizei, and is balking at turning over the bits of data it “inadvertently” collected while its little doodlebugs were sweeping up and down the streets of German towns. They’re using some razzamattaz about German privacy laws and getting into hot water if they hand all that stuff over. I don’t know why they’re stalling, since the Authorities have promised no further legal action. Of course, they could just destroy it, no? There was also a picture of a Googler on a biggish tricycle, pedaling his way through Paris, taking shots of the city for Google Maps Street Level. The rig looks pretty heavy to me, with the camera mounted on a tripod that’s fixed to the axle of the trike. I guess it’s one way the Tour de France guys keep in shape. But, I’ll bet it’s a tough pull. The trike has gears though, and that must help a little.
Lastly, the novel To Kill A Mockingbird was published 50 years ago, and is still being read. I don’t think it ever went out of print, and was made into a fairly decent movie, considering the way Hollywood often treats books. That was pretty much it for Harper Lee’s writing career. She kept largely to herself, except for occasional appearances here and there, including one in Philly to accept an award from a lawyers’ association honoring her for her depiction of lawyers in a positive way. I’m not kidding about this. She also accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. “Better to be silent than to be a fool” she says. Hhmmmmmmm. She was also childhood friends with Truman Capote, of all people. They grew up in the same little Alabama town. It’s hard to swallow, I know, but there it is.
Well, the e-book scene is really heatin’ up, as various device makers reveal what their laboratory gremlins have been working on. It’s all very impressive, technically, of course, but a piece in the Wall St. Journal advises readers of e-books, the people not the devices, to think a little bit about what can happen down the line to their purchased favorites. Publishers have been insisting on the inclusion of Digital Rights Management (DRM) software, to prevent what they consider to be unauthorized uses of the e-books anybody purchases. So, lending them or moving them to another reading platform may be difficult or impossible. Manufacturers and publishers will have to work all this out, under prodding from customers, who, I assume, will want the same degree of liberty they have now with printed books.
It’s a brave new world.
Is it or isn’t it? That’s a very good question, one which we find ourselves asking very often. The May issue of the journal Neuroanatomy contains an article asserting the Michelangelo’s apparently inelegant anatomical rendition of God, of all people, well all persons anyway, is really a very subtly disguised depiction of the brain stem and spinal cord. The authors say that Michelangelo was too good an anatomist to have messed up like that, and when you study the line of God’s throat in the ceiling panel entitled The Separation of Light And Darkness you see the structures quite distinctly. Moreover, they say, God’s robe has an image of the spinal cord in ascending up the front in a curious bunch, like a zipper. And, the swirl of the fabric further down matches the depiction of the optic nerves as sketched out by the other great artist-anatomist, a guy named Leondardo Something. Well, OK, but it sounds a little bit like the “image of the Virgin in the grease spots on a bag of donuts” kind of thing. Why would Michelangelo pick those structures to bury in the image of God? Why not the tibia, or the cranial nerves? I mean, what’s the point? Is it some kind of artist’s in joke, or leg-pulling? See what you think.
I have a taste for the quirky, for things that are just a little off-center or slightly out of line. There are all kinds of things we look at and look every day, and we just stop seeing them. For instance, somebody just wrote a book about the dot. See, you’ve grown up with the dot, use it all the time, just take it for granted. But, where did it all start? The plus and minus signs in math have been with us since grade school, but somebody had to start using them, so who was it and why? Anyway, books that tackle topics like these are books I want to read. So it is with the The Finger, a new book by Angus Trumble, a curator at the Yale Center for British Art. It has the waggish subtitle “A Handbook” and it’s an exploration of well, fingers. I mean, the title pretty much says it all. We count with fingers, communicate our emotions semi-consciously, or create elaborate, formal schemes that can transmit quite complicated messages by arranging the hands and fingers in certain ways. Stock traders, divers, soldier have formal systems of finger signals. The way an artist uses fingers in a painting or drawing can often be the key to its meaning. Anyway, it’s all here, or most of it, in Mr.Trumble’s book.
The Finger: A Handbook. By Angus Trumble. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 300 pages; $28.
Dell computers of Round Rock, Tx, has released some informaton about the tablet format device its wizards are working on. It’s called the Streak, is a good bit smaller than the Ipad, maybe a little bit bigger than a Kindle. You can’t buy one right now, but they’re supposed to be on the market “soon”, maybe at the end of the summer. The screen size measures about 5 in. by 4 in. or so. This “form factor”, that’s “size” to people who write and speak ordinary English and not technobabble, may mean that the company wants to spend less on manufacturing and also sell it for less. At least, that’s what some of “industry experts” opine in the item from the Wall St. Journal linked to below. Of course, they may not know a whole lot more about it than you or I do, and all labor under the same disadavantage of not being able to read the future. Smoke, mirrors, bafflegab and spec. But, at least you know there is a such a thing as a Streak, or at least there will be, maybe.
Daniel S. Greenberg’s new book Tech Transfer was recently released. It’s a work of fiction, a satire, about what goes in at a well ranked school trying to recruit a new president, and settling for an apparently harmless non-entity from the Math department as a kind of interim choice, while something happens in the meantime. This is an old Vatican trick. When the contending factions can’t agree on a pope, the fall-back position is to elect some old guy who, presumably, won’t be around too long, in the hope that by the next papal election, things will have sorted themselves out. The novel is the tale of the new prexy’s education in how things work, who calls which shots, what cows are sacred and to whom, where the money comes form and where it goes. Greenberg knows the story, because he covered the government beat for Science, and while so doing, created the immortal Dr. Grant Swinger, of the Center for the Absorption of Federal Funds, whom he ‘interviewed’ a number of times for his column in the AAAS mag. Greenberg has been watching the interplay and interpenetration of scientific research and government policies for long time now, but I think this is his first venture into fiction. I have to check on that. How funny you find all this will depend a good deal on where you are in the academic bestiary,and how long you have been playing in that sandbox. But, as the guy said, maybe it’s just as easy to laugh as it is to cry.
Tech Transfer: Science, Money, Love and the Ivory Tower (Paperback) by Daniel S. Greenberg. Kanawha Press.
And the band is the Dept. of Justice’s enforcement division, looking at Apple’s business practices in the sale of tunes online, according to a story in this morning’s New York Times. It’s all very preliminary and “we can’t comment on investigations in progress”, and “sources close to the department who requested anonymity”, and like that. But, it seems the DOJ has been nosing around for some time. I blogged earlier about Apple’s transformation into its former arch-enemy and antagonist, Microsoft. Apple used to sneer at the conformity and thought control tactics they attributed to Gates & Co. And, they turned that outsider/rebel shtick into a potent sales advantage, seeming to be on the side of frees spirits everwhere. But, don’t start believing all that bushwah, Sonny, because business is business and the Jobster and his satraps seem to be cool with a fair measure of control, as long as they’re the ones controlling. Nobody should be surprised at any of this. The story also points out that the Feds have other beefs with Apple, and that the Obama administration’s DOJ is rather more muscular in its approach to the technology industry’s practices than its predecessor.
I have an antipathy for the cutesy names that have been stuck onto various web products and services over the years. It’s supposed to make your particular gadget or slant stand out, but often you simply wind up with some arbitrary linking up of syllables having no semantic content at all. So, to be consistent, I should be looking rather balefully at something called Duck Duck Go. Yes, that is in fact the name of it, and it’s supposed to be a Google killer. That’s probably a bit too strong, right now at least. DDG is a search engine, and from the brief review I’ve seen, it may be a good one. But what makes it more interesting than the common run is the care with which its developers have attacked the question of privacy. The starry-eyed idealism of the Internet’s early years has long ago given way to the realization that crass reality will have its way, and the main purpose of the Internet/web is to sell people stuff, or perhaps more subtly, to get people to buy stuff, which is not quite the same thing. Many bucks are to be found in locating virgin fields of suck….I mean, sales prospects to whom you can pitch your underwater pen, singing mechanical fish or other object. Search engines in turn earn a nice piece of change by selling information about the purchasing habits of people who use them. Well, DDG won’t do that. In fact, that possiblity has been engineered out of the system. DDG doesn’t keep a browser trail of visited sites and doesn’t do much of anything about recording who went where and looked at what. The annoyance expressed at the sale of personal data by various social networking sites may turn into a business opportunity for bright young tigers, eager to slay the Great White Whale called Google, or at least mount a creible threat and be bought out at a good sum. All too early to tell yet, but the signs of discontent are pretty hard to miss, and maybe somebody can do something in this climate that would not have been possible earlier.
Duck Duck Go
Facebook is in the uncomfortable position of watching the sharks starting to circle, after just a teeny-tiney bit of blood went into the water. Well, more than a teeny-tiney maybe. FB has been in the spotlight recently after some awkwardness about encouraging people to post personal information which might then, somehow, mysteriously, get into the hands of retailers and other types. Some people have been, like Claude Rains in Casablance, shocked, shocked, to find out that FB is all about money, and not about, like, having Friends share experiences or something. Once FB looked unassailable, but now a bunch of start-ups are gearing up their efforts to cash in on this major goof to offer a social networking alternative platform that doesn’t share the recently revealed liabilities. As I said in another post, I think the whole thing is daft, not to speak of its being a perfect example of American narcissism. Who bloody cares about you, and what makes you think you’re so bloody interesting? Well, my Self-Esteem coach tells me I’m special. No, no you’re not. Leonardo was special, and Jane Austen. You’re just another shmoe, If you’re worried about privacy, stay off the net. If you’re on some networking site such as FB, that’s prima facie evidence you don’t care about privacy. What’s so hard about this?
We note with sadness the death of Martin Gardner, tireless foe of pseudo-science, nonsense, baloney and BS in any form. He was previously profiled in these lines, and I’ll simply link to the Arts & Letters Daily page, which has a number of obits for your further information. The voices of reason have lost one of their strongest. Honor his passing by getting one of his books and reading it. I recommend Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, which is still in print.
Art & Letters