Tuesday, December 30, 2003
Each will have his personal Rocket
I finally finished my review of Thomas Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow. Since I blogged about the novel often, I figured I'd let everyone know it's out there. Oddly, when writing the review, I wrote the last paragraph first:
If I were to meet Thomas Pynchon tomorrow, I wouldn't know whether to shake his hand or sucker-punch him. Probably both. I'd extend my right arm, take his hand in mine, give one good pump, then yank him towards my swinging left fist. As he lay crumpled on the ground beneath me, gasping in pain, I'd point a bony finger right between his eyes and say "That was for Gravity's Rainbow." I think he'd understand.Heh. I also wrote up a rather lengthy selection of quotes from the novel, with some added commentary. And in case you missed the previous bloggery about Gravity's Rainbow, here they are, in all their glory:
Posted by Mark on December 30, 2003 at 09:47 PM .: link :.
Sunday, December 28, 2003
On the Overloading of Information
Jonathon Delacour asks a poignant question:
who else feels overwhelmed by the volume of information we expect ourselves to absorb and process every day? And how do you manage to deal with it?Judging from the comments, his post has obviously struck a chord with his readers, myself included. I am once again reminded of Neal Stephenson's original minimalist homepage in which he speaks of his ongoing struggle against what Linda Stone termed as "continuous partial attention," for that is the way in which modern life must be for a great deal of us.
I am often overwhelmed by a desire to consume various things - books, movies, music, etc... The subject of such things is also varied and, as such, often don't mix very well. That said, the only thing I have really found that works is to align those subjects that do mix in such a way that they overlap. This is perhaps the only reason blogging has stayed on my plate for so long: since the medium is so free-form and since I have absolute control over what I write here and when I write it, it is easy to align my interests in such a way that they overlap with my blog (i.e. I write about what interests me at the time). I have been doing so for almost three and a half years, more or less, and the blog as it now exists barely resembles what it once did. This is, in part, because my interests have shifted during that time. There was a period of about a year in which blogging was very sparse indeed, but before I tackle that, I wish to backtrack a bit.
As I mentioned, this subject has struck a chord with a great deal of people, and the most common suggestion for how to deal with such a quandry is a form of information filtering. Usually this takes the form of a rather extreme and harsh filtering system - namely removing one source of information entirely. Delacour speaks of a friend who only recently bought a television and vcr, and even then he only did so so that his daughters could watch videos a few times a week. The complete removal of one source of information seems awfully drastic to me, though I suppose I've done so from time to time. For about a year, I had not bought or sought out any new music, only recently emerging from this out of boredom. It was a conscious decision to remove music from my sphere of learning, though I continued to listen to and very much enjoy music. I simply didn't understand music the way I understood film or literature (inasmuch as I understand either of those) and didn't want to burden myself overinterpreting yet another medium. Even as it stands now, I'm not too concerned over what I'm listening too, as long as it keeps my attention during a rather long commute.
Some time ago, I used to blog a lot more often than I do now. And more than that, I used to read a great deal of blogs, especially new blogs (or at least blogs that were new to me). Eventually this had the effect of inducing a sort of ADD in me. I consumed way too many things way too quickly and I became very judgemental and dismissive. There were so many blogs that I scanned (I couldn't actually read them, that would take too long for marginal gain) that this ADD began to spread across my life. I could no longer sit down and just read a book, even a novel.
Eventually, I recognized this, took a bit of a break from blogging, and attempted to correct, with some success. I have since returned to blogging, albeit at a slower pace, and have taken measures against falling into that same trap, though only with limited success. I have come to the conclusion that I can only do one major internet endeavor at a time. During the period of slow blogging, I turned my attention towards Everything 2 (a sort of online collaborative encyclopedia), but I have found that as I returned to blogging, I could not find time for E2, unless they somehow overlapped (as they do, from time to time). Likewise, I cannot devote much time to discussion of various subjects at various forums if I am blogging or noding (as posting at E2 is called). Delacour's description of his own quandry is somewhat accurate in my case as well:
Self-employment, a constant Internet connection, a weblog, and a mildly addictive personality turn out to be a killer combination-even for someone who no longer feels compelled to post regularly, let alone every day.So the short answer to Delacour's question of how do people deal with information overload is of course filtering. It is the manner and degree to which we filter that is important. And of course it must be said that any filtering system which you set up must be dynamic - it must change as you change and the world changes. It is a challenge to find the right balance, and it is also a challenge to keep that balance.
An interesting post-script to this is that I ran across Delacour's post several weeks ago, and am only coming to post about it today. Make of that what you will.
In any case, I'd like to turn my attention to another of Delacour's posts, titled I'll link to whoever he's linking to, in which he talks a lot about what drives people to link other blogs on their blog. It is an exceptional analysis and well worth reading in it's entirety. At one point, he points to "six principles of persuasion" (as defined by a Psychology professor in the context of cult recruitment) and applies those principles to weblogs and blogrolls with some success. This has prompted some thought on my part, and I have decided to update the blogroll. As you might guess, a number of the six principles of persuasion are at work in my blogroll, but I would note that the most accurate in my case are "liking" (as in, the reason all of those links are there is because I like them and read them regularly - indeed, it is almost there out of a pragmatic want of having the most common sites I visit linked from one place) and "Commitment and Consistency." By far the least important is the "Social Proof" principle which states that "In a given situation, our view of whether a particular behavior is correct or not is directly proportional to the number of other people we see performing that behaviour" or, applied to blogs, "If all those other people have X on their blogrolls, then he definitely should be on my blogroll."
In fact, I had updated the blogroll somewhat recently already. One of the blogs I added then was the Belmont Club, which has enjoyed a certain amount of noteriety lately, thanks in part to Steven Den Beste (who, interestingly enough, had promted Delacour's post about linking in the first place). So Belmont Club went from a relatively obscure excellent blog to a blog that is well known and now highly linked to. Believe it or not, this has weighed unfavorably upon my decision to keep Belmont Club on the blogroll. I have opted to do so for now because my "liking" that blog far outweighs my distaste for "social proof." In any case, the blogroll will be updated shortly, with but a few new blogs...
I find both of these subjects (information overload and linking) to be interesting, so I may spend some time later this week hashing out a little more about both subjects... or perhaps not - perhaps some other interest will gain favor in my court. We shall see, I suppose.
Posted by Mark on December 28, 2003 at 11:17 AM .: link :.
Sunday, December 21, 2003
My body hath been besieged by a foul sickness, held at bay only by my weakened immune system's army. Like the warriors trapped in Minas Tirith, my only hope lies in our ability to overcome odds, with a little help from my friends (namely, the Riders of DayQuill and the hoards of Chicken Noodle Soup).
In case you cannot tell from that first paragraph, my body was not the only thing negatively affected by this enemy I face. I grow tired of both body and mind, and thus do not have the energy to do much else but throw a few links at you and rest. So here we are:
Update: I'm a cheater, I added the Sedaris story long after this post, but I didn't want to create a whole new post just for that, and it fit here, so there. Take that. If your reading this at all, I suppose.
Posted by Mark on December 21, 2003 at 08:50 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, December 17, 2003
Reflections on LotR II
I had the pleasure of viewing Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King last night, and I must say, I am impressed. Peter Jackson deserves a whole lot more than the Oscar he'll receive for this. The Return of the King is remarkable in that it is even better than it's predecessors, which were exceptional movies in themselves. Naturally, we have the source material to thank for that, but it is in no small part due to Jackson's vision and imagination as well.
My reflections on the Fellowship of the Ring still hold true and apply equally to The Return of the King:
I would describe the film as a sweeping epic, in the true sense of those words (before they were perverted by the use of critics describing the like of, say, Gladiator) and Peter Jackson should be honored for being able to capture the spirit of Tolkien's work while, at the same time, not shutting out those who are not familiar with the books. This is perhaps one of the most ambitious efforts in film history, and Jackson actually manages to imbue the film with the depth and texture that it demands. From beginning to end, the film showcases the grand beauty of Middle Earth, with graceful vistas, immense landscapes of forbidding snow or rolling greenery, and sweeping shots of terrifying battles, but don't let that fool you - Jackson was able to temper the pace and suspense of the film so that its scale does not detract from it. This is grand filmmaking, yes, but Jackson also focuses on the human side, letting his wonderful actors do their thing and also showing the details of Middle Earth's history and architecture... This is an adventurous effort at its best, and its one of the best movies I've seen in a long time.The Return of the King builds on the base created by the first two films, making for an even more grandiose experience - complete with yet another breathtaking battle (the cavalry charge floored me), jawdropping visuals, and genuinely powerful emotional arcs. This being the conclusion of the story, there are several compelling dramatic moments (which elicited cheers from the crowd), and Jackson absolutely nails it. Also, unlike most trilogies, the climax of Lord of the Rings doesn't dissapoint. I don't know what it was about this film, everything just seemed better. Bravo!
Posted by Mark on December 17, 2003 at 06:48 AM .: link :.
Sunday, December 14, 2003
Ladies and gentlemen, we got him
U.S. forces have captured Saddam Hussein. This is exceptional news! And it figures that I had just commented on how intelligence successes are transparent, that we never see them. D'oh! This is a major intelligence victory. We developed an intelligence infrastructure that allowed us to find Hussein, who had burried himself in a hole in a family member's cellar. We captured him with shovels. This will most likely lead to an intelligence windfall, as already captured Iraqi officals who may have been biting their tongue for fear of Saddam may start talking... (not to mention Saddam himself)
The circumstances of the arrest are about as good as we could ever hope:
A lot will depend on how things go from here. The impending trial and how it is executed will be very important. We will also need to make sure Saddam doesn't kill himself or get killed (a la Goering or Oswald). If he turns up dead, we'll lose out on a lot.
Lots of others are commenting on this, so here goes:
Update: I've been updating the link list like crazy...
Update: Dean Esmay steals my picture! Hee hee. He's got more good stuff as well..
Update 12.15.03: And I thought yesterday represented information overload. Tons of new stuff appearing today, much of it excellent, and a lot of it having to do with the challenge of what to do with Hussein...
Posted by Mark on December 14, 2003 at 11:52 AM .: link :.
Wednesday, December 10, 2003
Error, Calibration, and Defiant Posturing
I'm still slogging my way through Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, and I recently came across a passage that I found particularly insightful (or, at least, that overlaps some of my interests). I'm tempted to reproduce the entire chapter, but will limit it for the sake of brevity. The two characters involved in the scene are an ambitious former-slave woman named Eliza, and famed astronomer, mathematician and physicist Christiaan Huygens. Huygens is observing the sun so as to correct any error in his clocks (even a well made clock drifts and must be calibrated from time to time) and this act is used as a metaphor to describe people. The quote is from pages 715-716 of my edition:
"...Imagine my parents' consternation. They had taught me Latin, Greek, French and other languages. They had taught me the lute, the viol, and the harpsichord. Of literature and history I had learned everything that was in their power to tech me. Mathematics and philosophy I learned from Descartes himself. But I built myself a lathe. Later I taught myself how to grind lenses. My parents feared that they had spawned a tradesman."I've written about this sort of thing before, only applied to systems rather than clocks or people. One of the things I left out of this quote is actually quite important: "Of persons I will say this: it is difficult to tell when they are running aright but easy to see when something has gone awry." And the same goes for systems, too. I've often commented on the intelligence community, and one of the truisms of intelligence is that when it is going well, it is transparent - you don't know it is there. We don't reveal intelligence successes, because to do so would prevent us from further exploiting an asset, and so on. But when there is an intelligence failure, it is quite obvious to all, even if it was debatably unavoidable.
One could go crazy applying this concept to the world of current events, but I suppose that it is such an interesting point precisely because it is so broadly applicable.
Update: Removed some of the specific current events originally referenced in this post, as they distracted from the general point and I wanted to be able to refer back to this without worrying about that.
Posted by Mark on December 10, 2003 at 08:28 PM .: link :.
Friday, December 05, 2003
A few weeks ago, Donald Sensing posted an excellent article by one Fawaz Turki, an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq who has since adopted a "revisionist view" of the conflict:
At issue here is whether the Iraqi people have benefited from the overthrow of the Baathist regime and whether the American occupation will eventually benefit their country even more. I'm convinced - and berate me here from your patriotic bleachers, if you must - that what we have seen in the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates in recent months may turn out to be the most serendipitous event in its modern history. ...Intrigued by Turki's commendable self-critical attitude, I looked up some of his other writings. To be sure, he has been a relentless critic of US foreign policy, but he does appear to have a good understanding of America and it's virtues as well. He lays this out in his article Only in America, Folks rather well:
No, I said, the relentless criticism that he has been reading in my column over the years is of American politics - or more accurately American foreign policy - not the American political system. When he began to carp about "Jewish power" on the Hill, I explained that when Arab-Americans, along with Muslim Americans, one day become smart enough, organized enough and influential enough to exercise their constitutional right to lobby Congress effectively, as the Jewish community is doing today, which is what the whole shebang of "Jewish power" is about, then I'll take my hat off to them.It is an excellent article and he makes a point I've long thought obvious, but have rarely seen - that Muslim Americans need to "one day become smart enough, organized enough and influential enough to exercise their constitutional right to lobby Congress effectively, as the Jewish community is doing today." Fawaz Turki is a critic of my country, yes, but he is a reasonable critic who makes valid points and does not respond with reflexive hatred of all things American. Check out his stuff, it's good reading...
Posted by Mark on December 05, 2003 at 04:59 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, December 03, 2003
Is the Christmas Tree Christian?
The Winter Solstice occurs when your hemisphere is leaning farthest away from the sun (because of the tilted axis of the earth's rotation), and thus this is the time of the year when daylight is the shortest and the sun has its lowest arc in the sky.
No one is really sure when exactly it happened (or who started the idea), but this period of time eventually took on an obvious symbolic meaning to human beings. Many geographically diverse cultures throughout history have recognized the winter solstice is as a turning point, a return of the sun. Solstice celebrations and ceremonies were common, sometimes performed out of a fear that the failing light of the sun would never return unless humans demonstrated their worth through celebration or vigil.
It has been claimed that the Mesopotamians were among the first to celebrate the winter solstice with a 12 day festival of renewal, designed to help the god Marduk tame the monsters of chaos for one more year. Other theories go as far back as 10,000 years. More recently, the Romans celebrated the winter solstice with a fest called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture.
Integral to many of these celebrations were plants and trees that remained green all year. Evergreens reminded them of all the green plants that would grow again when the sun returned; they symbolized the solstice and the triumph of life over death.
In the early days of Christianity, the birth of Christ was not celebrated (instead Easter, was and possibly still is the main holiday of Christianity). In the fourth century, the Church decided to make the birth of Christ a holiday to be celebrated. There was only one problem - the Bible makes no mention of when Christ was born. Although there was some evidence to draw from, the Church chose to celebrate Christmas on December 25. It is believed that this date was chosen to coincide with traditional winter solstice festivals such as the Roman pagan Saturnalia festival in the hopes that Christmas would be more popularly embraced by the people of the world. And embraced it was, but the Church found that as the holiday spread, their choice to hold Christmas at the same time as solstice celebrations did not allow the Church to dictate how the holiday was celebrated. And so many of the pagan traditions of the solstice survived during the next millenia, even though pagan religions had largely given way to Christianity.
And so the importance of evergreens in these celebrations continued. The use of the Christmas tree, as we now know it, is generally credited to sixteenth century Germans, specifically the Protestant-reformer Martin Luther, who is thought to be the first to added lighted candles to a tree.
While the Germans found a certain significance in the pagan traditions concerning evergreens, it was not a universally held belief. For instance, the Christmas tree did not gain traction in America until the mid-nineteenth century. Up until then, they were generally seen as pagan symbols and mocked by New England Puritans. But the tradition gained traction thanks to German settlers in Pennsylvania (among others) and increasing secularization of the holiday in America. In the past century, the Christmas tree has gained in popularity, as more and more people adopted the traditon of displaying a decorated evergreen in their home. After all this time, Christmas trees have become an American tradition.
There has been a lot of controversy lately concerning the presence (or, I suppose, the removal and thus absence) of Christmas trees in schools. Personally, I don't see what is so controversial about it, as a Christmas tree is more of a secular, rather than religious, symbol. Joshua Claybourn quotes the Supreme Court thusly:
"The Christmas tree, unlike the menorah, is not itself a religious symbol. Although Christmas trees once carried religious connotations, today they typify the secular celebration of Christmas." Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573, 109 S.Ct. 3086.It does not represent a religious idea, but rather the idea of renewal that accompanied the winter solstice. One can associate Christian ideas with the tree, as Martin Luther did so long ago, but that does not make it inherently Christian. Indeed, I think of the entire Christmas holiday as more secular than not, though I guess my being Christian might have something to do with it. This idea is worth further exploring in the future, so expect more posts on the historical Christmas.
Update: Patrick Belton notes the strange correlations between Christmas Trees and Prostitution in Virginia.
Posted by Mark on December 03, 2003 at 11:31 PM .: link :.
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