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December 31, 2012

The top 5 stories in my town

Here are five of the top stories of the year according to our local weekly paper, the Brookline Tab. The paper says that these stories are in no particular order, and that another five will follow next week.

  • Styrofoam and plastic bags have been banned.

  • Residents are reporting that a a few of the wild turkeys roaming our streets have been aggressive.

  • A 180-pound black bear was spotted around town. It was tranquilized and transported to a wilder part of the state.

  • After losing a bid to build 271 residential units in Hancock Village, developers filed for permission to build an affordable housing project.

  • A dean at the public high school claimed he was passed over for the headmaster job because he’s African-American. A settlement was reached.


First world problems? What privilege looks like? Sure. But also an occasion to remember how blessed peace is, how wretched anything but peace is, and how fortunate we are that for our town peace is so mundane.

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December 30, 2012

[2b2k] My world leader can beat up your world leader

There’s a knowingly ridiculous thread at Reddit at the moment: Which world leader would win if pitted against other leaders in a fight to the death.

The title is a straightline begging for punchlines. And it is a funny thread. Yet, I found it shockingly informative. The shock comes from realizing just how poorly informed I am.

My first reaction to the title was “Putin, duh!” That just shows you what I know. From the thread I learned that Joseph Kabila (Congo) and Boyko Borisov (Bulgaria) would kick Putin’s ass. Not to mention that Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (Bhutan), who would win on good looks.

Now, when I say that this thread is “shockingly informative,” I don’t mean that it gives sufficient or even relevant information about the leaders it discusses. After all, it focuses on their personal combat skills. Rather, it is an interesting example of the haphazard way information spreads when that spreading is participatory. So, we are unlikely to have sent around the Wikipedia article on Kabila or Borisov simply because we all should know about the people leading the nations of the world. Further, while there is more information about world leaders available than ever in human history, it is distributed across a huge mass of content from which we are free to pick and choose. That’s disappointing at the least and disastrous at its worst.

On the other hand, information is now passed around if it is made interesting, sometimes in jokey, demeaning ways, like an article that steers us toward beefcake (although the president of Ireland does make it up quite high in the Reddit thread). The information that gets propagated through this system is thus spotty and incomplete. It only becomes an occasion for serendipity if it is interesting, not simply because it’s worthwhile. But even jokey, demeaning posts can and should have links for those whose interest is piqued.

So, two unspectacular conclusions.

First, in our despair over the diminishing of a shared knowledge-base of important information, we should not ignore the off-kilter ways in which some worthwhile information does actually propagate through the system. Indeed, it is a system designed to propagate that which is off-kilter enough to be interesting. Not all of that “news,” however, is about water-skiing cats. Just most.

Second, we need to continue to have the discussion about whether there is in fact a shared news/knowledge-base that can be gathered and disseminated, whether there ever was, whether our populations ever actually came close to living up to that ideal, the price we paid for having a canon of news and knowledge, and whether the networking of knowledge opens up any positive possibilities for dealing with news and knowledge at scale. For example, perhaps a network is well-informed if it has experts on hand who can explain events at depth (and in interesting ways) on demand, rather than assuming that everyone has to be a little bit expert at everything.

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December 29, 2012

Excellent PSA. Bad Algorithm.

This is a terrific public service announcement about the Special Olympics.

youtubescreencapt

Unfortunately, take a look at the upper right at what YouTube thinks is a related video you might enjoy:

Retarded Elephant Running

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December 28, 2012

[2b2k][eim] Over my head

I’m not sure how I came into possession of a copy of The Indexer, a publication by the Society of Indexers, but I thoroughly enjoyed it despite not being a professional indexer. Or, more exactly, because I’m not a professional indexer. It brings me joy to watch experts operate at levels far above me.

The issue of The Indexer I happen to have — Vol. 30, No,. 1, March 2012 — focuses on digital trends, with several articles on the Semantic Web and XML-based indexes as well as several on broad trends in digital reading and digital books, and on graphical visualizations of digital indexes. All good.

I also enjoyed a recurring feature: Indexes reviewed. This aggregates snippets of book reviews that mention the quality of the indexes. Among the positive reviews, the Sunday Telegraph thinks that for the book My Dear Hugh, “the indexer had a better understanding of the book than the editor himself.” That’s certainly going on someone’s resumé!

I’m not sure why I enjoy works of expertise in fields I know little about. It’s true that I know a little about indexing because I’ve written about the organization of digital information, and even a little about indexing. And I have a lot of interest in the questions about the future of digital books that happen to be discussed in this particular issue of The Indexer. That enables me to make more sense of the journal than might otherwise be the case. But even so, what I enjoy most are the discussions of topics that exhibit the professionals’ deep involvement in their craft.

But I think what I enjoy most of all is the discovery that something as seemingly simple as generating an index turns out to be indefinitely deep. There are endless technical issues, but also fathomless questions of principle. There’s even indexer humor. For example, one of the index reviews notes that Craig Brown’s The Lost Diaries “gives references with deadpan precision (‘Greer, Germaine: condemns Queen, 13-14…condemns pineapple, 70…condemns fat, thin and medium sized women, 93…condemns kangaroos,122′).”

As I’ve said before, everything is interesting if observed at the right level of detail.

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December 25, 2012

Some ways Jews are different from Christians

For the holidays, here are some differences between Judaism and Christianity.

But first, here are some caveats:

  • I know there are many different branches of Christianity, and there are different types of Judaism as well. I’m generalizing.

  • It will amuse my Jewish friends that I have the chutzpah to write about Judaism since I am at best an agnostic, and am non-observant except occasionally to support my wife, who is an observant Modern Orthodox Jew.

Jews are a people

You are a Jew if your mother was a Jew. Even if you despise all Jewish beliefs, you are a Jew, just as you would be an Italian even if you rejected every aspect of Italian culture. (Even the cooking? What are you, crazy?)

This is one good reason we generally have not evangelized our religion. You can’t convert to Italian. Exceptions can be made, however. So, if you go to a rabbi and say you want to convert to Judaism, he will send you away. On your third try, he’ll probably agree to start you on some instruction. If you do convert, the fiddle is that we assume your soul must have been at Mt. Sinai back at the revelation, so you were really a member of the people all along.

Note that this means that Judaism is not a religion based solely on belief. You are a Jew even if you lack Jewish beliefs — you’re probably not a particularly good Jew (as I am not), but you’re a Jew. This is way different from Christians who believe that you come to their religion by deeply accepting a set of propositions.

There is no Jewish fundamentalism

I’m taking fundamentalism as an adherence to the literal meaning of a religion’s basic text. Keeping in mind that I’m generalizing (and I’m now going to stop inserting that caveat), Jews believe something like the following:

God gave the Jews a sacred text. That text has been preserved letter by letter throughout the ages through some careful information-transmission techniques. But, that text cannot be simply read and understood, because reading a text requires human participation, and participation is always based on one’s history and situation. There is no possibility of reading without interpreting, and thus there is no possibility of fundamentalism.

Put differently, God intended this text — what Christians call “The Old Testament” — to last through the ages. The ages are historical. Therefore, the text has to be capable of being reinterpreted within each age. What made sense to people wandering through the desert 5,000 years ago doesn’t make sense now if taken exactly as written. For example, treating your slaves exceptionally well made sense then, but not having slaves makes sense now. Having multiple wives made sense then. Re-re-defining marriage so that it can be between two men or two women makes sense now (at least according to many Jews — this is still a controversial issue).

But we are not free to interpret the text any old way we want. The interpreting of the text requires many years of scholarship. Interpretations must also be done in close conversation with the history of interpretation by the revered tradition of scholars. You must cite your sources. And not to avoid plagiarism. You have to be in dialogue with those sources, using a critical methodology that has evolved over the millennia.

This mix of fidelity to a text and an ability to re-interpret it for modern times while in conversation with the continuing tradition of interpretation is what has kept Judaism alive for 5,000 years. (At least according to my interpretation :)

This enables most Jews to favor harmonizing the divine text and science. That’s why few Jews are Creationists, and many are scientists.

Judaism is not a matter of faith

The caricature of religion put forth by atheist ranters such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins is entirely wrong about Judaism. They portray religion simply as a belief in impossible things, belief against all evidence.

Now, there are elements of faith in Judaism, if only the beliefs that the Torah was given by God to Moses, and that it is a guide suitable throughout all of human history. But Jews also believe that God gave us minds and hearts so that we can progress in our understanding, and we need to apply His gifts to our understanding of the text he gave us.

Jews also believe that if forced to make a choice, it’s better for Jews to act in accordance with the Law than to believe in God, although it’s of course best to act well and to believe.

Rabbis have no special relationship with God

Rabbis are teachers and scholars. That’s it. You don’t need a rabbi in order to pray.

You do need a minion, though: ten Jewish men. Judaism is a community-based religion.

Arguments about the Torah are not signs of failure but of health

We do not think there is one right interpretation of the Torah even within any one time or community. An interpretation that does not acknowledge the wisdom of contradictory interpretations will gather little respect.

This is why Jews are argumentative.

It’s always why we make such good lawyers.

(My wife adds that Jewish thought has vacillated over time, sometimes stressing the power of differences, and sometimes aiming for a consolidation of interpretations.)

Judaism is not a universal religion

God revealed Himself to the Jews at Mt. Sinai and gave us our divine text. In that text are seven universal principles that apply to all children of Noah (= everyone). But then there are the many, many practices and rituals required only of Jews. For example, non-Jews don’t have to keep kosher or keep the Sabbath. You’re free to, of course, but there’s no reason to, unless your religion tells you to. (Jews were chosen to carry out a special burden of practice; that is what “the chosen people” means. At least as I understand it.)

About the status of other religions, there is unresolved discussion. There are inferences, for example, that God revealed Himself differently to different peoples (cf. Amos 9.7). What it comes down to is: There’s no reason for others to follow our Laws (excepting those seven biggies from Noah), and it’s not our business what others believe.

The golden rule is not enough

People looking for a universal religious core sometimes cite an anecdote about Rabbi Hillel, who lived during the time of Jesus.

Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai [a friend with whom Rabbi Hillel often disagreed], and said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”

This is close to the Christian’s golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But there are two differences. The first is often noted by those citing Hillel: The Jewish version is cast in terms of what you should not do, rather than in terms of what you should do. But the other difference is I think more important. Rabbi Hillel does not conclude with this rule. Rather, he continues by telling Jews to study the Torah. My understanding of this is that humans are not wise enough to be able to conduct themselves according to one general rule. We need the details of the divine text, we need a community, and we need a tradition of wise but divergent interpretations with which we can engage. Life is more complex than that, and humans are too small and weak.

Of course Christians also don’t think the story begins and ends with the Golden Rule. Yet it seems to me that Judaism favors complexity in a way that few religions do. But about this we could have a good argument!

Merry Christmas to all my Christian friends!

 


Based on some reactions, I want to clarify three points I did not express clearly enough. First, I meant my comments about Hitchins and Dawkins to apply to their writings about all religions, not just Judaism. The idea of religion that they argue against is drawn from a caricature of Christianity, and is false about Christianity just as it is false about Judaism.

Second, am I committing exactly the same mistake I’m attributing to Ditchin’s and Hawkin’s? I was aware of the danger while I was writing this post, which doesn’t mean that I avoided it. I am even less comfortable talking about Christianity than I am about Judaism, so I tried to stay away from doing so. But the theme of the post at the very least implies some assertions about Christianity. The one that troubles me most is the unintended implication that Christianity is not complex. The fact that Christians have four Gospels to square argues against that, not to mention the history of Christian theology. So, I offered my generalization about Jewish comfort with complexity tentatively. And I’ll continue to maintain it, albeit it even more tentatively. I meant to compare not Christian and Jewish scholars and theologians, but non-scholarly believers. My point was that ordinary Jewish practice has more of the scholarly element than most other religions do. I might be wrong about that and would be happy to learn otherwise. But I certainly wasn’t intending to diminish the work of scholars and theologians in other religions.

Third, I may be using “fundamentalism” differently than others do. I meant it the way I defined it, as a type of literalism, not as a measure of the extremity of belief.

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December 24, 2012

Philosophy as interruption

I woke up this morning from an anxiety dream about an event that doesn’t exist. In the dream, I’ve been tasked with replying to a presentation by someone talking about something philosophical, except they’ve never made clear to me who’s speaking or what he (it’s a he) is talking about. So, I write down some ideas, but then the guy doesn’t show up at the event, and I am bed in the theater as the guy ahead of me gives his talk, and then I can’t find my shoes, and then I can’t find my notes. So, I scribble a new talk on a scrap of paper, and wake up before I go on stage.

I woke up from the dream with my notes complete in my head. Here are the notes, fleshed out so they’ll make some sense to people who are not me. But, it is very important to me that you understand that I know I am not a philosopher. I have a Ph.D. in philosophy, but even when I was teaching (1980-1986) I would never call myself a philosopher. There is nothing original or new in the following.

So, with those caveats, here are the notes for my talk as I dreamt them.

1. Philosophy is an interruption. During uneventful times, it is an interruption in the normal work of society the way my old teacher, Joseph Fell, described it as an “open space of play.”

2. Interruptions in the content of philosophies can be brought about by interruptions: by traumatic wars, plagues, genocides, revolutions in science, in technology, in economic infrastructures…

3. This is not supposed to happen because philosophers tend to think that philosophy shapes our understanding, not that not it is shaped by the accidents of what is around us. Philosophy (Western, anyway) is supposed to transcend that stuff and deal with the eternal verities.

4. Except that it turns out that we’re situated creatures. Our understanding of our world depends on our culture, history, language, family, and even accidents of “fate.”

5. But it’s not that simple. We are shaped by our historical world, but how that world shapes us depends at least in part on how we understand that world.

6. The interruptive effect of technology on thought is especially significant when it is the technology by which philosophers engage in the activity of philosophy: talking, writing, talking about what’s been written.

7. Technology doesn’t determine how we understand it, but (a) insofar as the technology offers some possibilities and closes others, (b) insofar as it occurs within a situation that already has meaning, and (c) insofar as it is designed to be taken one way and not another, it affects our understanding of it. How we understand it in turn affects how we understand our world, and how philosophers understand philosophy.

8. The mixed-up mutual effect of thing and world happens because we think in the world by using the things of the world. (Thank you Heidegger, and thank you Andy Clark.) The relation of the two is not mystical.

9. Finally, none of the above escapes the situatedness of our existence. The concept of an interruption itself implies a belief that there is a normalcy of existence — something that is capable of being interrupted — that belief is itself situated.

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December 22, 2012

Rock ‘n’ Roll has been here and stayed

I was talking witha 20 year old today. It turns out that he was in a rock band. Played bass and keyboards. Not very seriously, in his case.

“Yeah, me too.”

I was the lead guitarist in Wheel and the Spokesmen. Perhaps you remember us? No? Perhaps that’s because you didn’t graduate my high school in 1968, and even so, we were a third-tier local band. Awful, actually. Sorry, bandies. I played guitar guitar after that, sometimes with others — including a stint as the world’s worst pancake house lounge band in college — and in grad school I wrote a lot of songs that I’m counting on being discovered in a carton in the back of my closet after I’m gone when my works will be celebrated worldwide with a tinge of shame that my culture ignored my genius during my lifetime. But my purist rock ‘n’ roll band days were in high school.

My parents didn’t play in a rock band, probably because rock didn’t exist in the 1930s, but they also didn’t play in a jazz band. This everyone-plays-in-a-band phenomenon began with my generation, I believe. It seems to — that is, I have no actual data — to cross some socio-economic lines, although it also seems to stay largely within gender lines (less so now, of course), and I’d be interested in knowing what the race lines look like. And it’s been going on for a long time now. I’m not sure why. Because the hurdles to playing rock at a minimally acceptable level (a level that Wheel and the Spokesman falsely believed that volume could achieve) are low? Because it has the right mix of group cover and raw narcissism that liberates teens? Because rock and roll is special?

I don’t know. But two things I do know for sure and in my heart: I completely did not expect in 1968 that in 2012 I’d be talking with a 20 year old who had the same experience. And Wheel and the Spokesmen sucked.

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December 19, 2012

What the recording industry fears

Paul Sanders on a mailing list wrote the following:

And I can assure anyone who is feeling a bit hot under the collar about the music industry in general, that the thing they fear in corporate HQs and trade associations far far more than the digital consumer and bittorrent etc., is an emancipated artist.

Here’s to a world full of ‘em!

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DPLA looking for an executive director

The Digital Public Library of America is looking for an executive director. This is an incredible opportunity to make a difference.

I think it’d be fantastic if this person were to come out of the large, community-based Web collaboration space, but there are many other ways for the DPLA to go right. The search committee is pretty fabulous, so I have confidence that this is going to be an amazing hire.

The DPLA team gave a presentation at Berkman yesterday, and has been showing some initial work, including a collaboration with Europeana and wireframes of a front page. It’s looking very good for the April launch date.

Our little group, the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, is working on a visual browser for books within the DPLA collection, so we’re pretty excited.

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December 18, 2012

[misc] I bet your ontology never thought of this one!

Paul Deschner and I had a fascinating conversation yesterday with Jeffrey Wallman, head of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center about perhaps getting his group’s metadata to interoperate with the library metadata we’ve been gathering. The TBRC has a fantastic collection of Tibetan books. So we were talking about the schemas we use — a schema being the set of slots you create for the data you capture. For example, if you’re gathering information about books, you’d have a schema that has slots for title, author, date, publisher, etc. Depending on your needs, you might also include slots for whether there are color illustrations, is the original cover still on it, and has anyone underlined any passages. It turns out that the Tibetan concept of a book is quite a bit different than the West’s, which raises interesting questions about how to capture and express that data in ways that can be useful mashed up.


But it was when we moved on to talking about our author schemas that Jeffrey listed one type of metadata that I would never, ever have thought to include in a schema: reincarnation. It is important for Tibetans to know that Author A is a reincarnation of Author B. And I can see why that would be a crucial bit of information.


So, let this be a lesson: attempts to anticipate all metadata needs are destined to be surprised, sometimes delightfully.

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