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June 18, 2012

The Famous NJ Turnpike Witch

Most fiction is crap. Often the plot is arbitrary or unsurprising. More often, the you can see the author’s plans behind the writing: The author needs a brainy nerd, a wisecracking minor character, a mysterious presence, someone with the key to the jalopy. Whatever. The characters, the plot, the entire mess feels constructed. Which is usually the opposite of art. (This is certainly true of my pathetic stabs at fiction.)

Then, of course, there are the magicians. John Updike could make you feel you were inhabiting a real person within a single paragraph. I’m reading Philip Roth’s Nemesis now, and while I often find Roth’s world unpleasant to live in, I find myself in that world without any sense of Roth standing between it and me.

So, meet Brad Abruzzi. Brad was a Berkman Fellow last year, and we hit it off. Brad was also a lawyer in Harvard’s Office of the General Counsel, and I got to know him in that capacity since he was a silent hero in the effort to negotiate the freedom of 12M+ bibliographic records from Harvard Library. He has since moved to MIT, which is too bad for Harvard. I like Brad a lot.

But I had no idea, none at all, that he is a fiction writer whose work is the opposite of crap. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but the guy can write. Of course, I don’t know what I would expect a good fiction writer to look like, short of a beret and a thick coat of pretension.

I downloaded Brad’s novel New Jersey’s Famous Turnpike Witch with trepidation, figuring I’d have to say something nice to him about it while technically salvaging my integrity through some clever, noncommital choice of words. But NJFTPW is just wonderful. I’m only 70% through, and I’ll let you know how the whole thing goes, but I’m loving it so far. Brad has created a skewed world in which the NJ Turnpike is its own realm, with its own culture, sociology, and politics. The fulcrum of the story is Alice, a performance artist who — implausibly, until you realize that this is not the NJ Turnpike you’re used to driving — is beloved by the long lines of cars she ties up with her antics. The story is brimming with characters, none stock, most somewhat over-the-top, each richly imagined and each with her or his own unexpected history — funny short stories on their own. Brad, it turns out, is endlessly inventive. You would never ever read back from this book and figure it was probably written by a Harvard-MIT lawyer.

This is a really good book. Once you give into its absurd premises, it follows a logic that makes sense as it unfolds. It’s funny, satiric, frequently hilarious, and full of sentences you’ll re-read because they’re that enjoyable.

Holy cow, Brad! Holy holy cow.

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June 17, 2012

Amsterdam in three museums

I love Amsterdam so much. I know the residents have their complaints — including that tourists love it too much — but it is such a physically beautiful city, and so full of life. So, I’m very happy to have 2 days here between jobs.

Over the past 1.5 days, I have done nothing but walk, so long as you include walking through museums as walking.

My first walk brought me to the Van Gogh museum first, but on a Saturday afternoon the line stretched down the block, so I went to the Rijksmuseum instead. This is, of course, the grand museum of Amsterdam, but it has reduced and concentrated its exhibitions while it undergoes what feels like 30 years of renovation. Your €14 gets you into about a dozen rooms of works by Dutch masters. Despite the intensity of the art, and the fact that I generally get tired after about a dozen rooms in a museum, it felt a bit small.

Still, there are many stunners there. I am a sucker for Rembrandt, so I was happy. In fact, I’ve found that I’m gotten more and more awestruck by painting as I’ve gotten older. I think that’s due in part to my not feeling shallow for being moved by technique. I used to think that admiring a painter’s technique is like admiring a violinist because she plays real fast. Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations awakened me to Bach (re-awakened me, perhaps) which I grew to love both for Bach’s moving outside of the form to express himself and for Gould’s ability to do the same because of his unbelievable virtuosity. These notes, so difficult to conceive together, so impossible to play that way! I’ve come to think that technique is not a trick played on art. (Open Source Goldberg Variations here.)

And Rembrandt’s technique is so stunning. I am one of those guys who peers up close and then steps back and then steps forward again. (Yes, I try to stay out of people’s way.) I like to see how it looked to the artist and how the artist had to imagine how it would look to the viewer. I spent a good amount of time in the Rijksmuseum in front of Rembrandt’s portrait of Maria Trip admiring how he painted the lace and the dozens of pearls. He does pearls so well! But then I’d step back to see that slightly uncomfortable face. Is she someone who struggles with trying to look natural, or does she just not have a lot of naturalness to express? And then: How the hell did he paint that?

I was surprised to find myself spending a long time in front of the Wedding portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix von der Laen. It’s by Frans Hals, an artist I usually don’t respond to. But I was pretty much overcome by it. The newlyweds are relaxing in front of some treees and bushes, with the formal building and fountain in the distance. She’s got her arm on his shoulder and he’s leaning back with one hand in his shirt (symbolizing fidelity, the notes say). They are so clearly in love, yet still two distinct people. And of the two, she’s got the clearest view of the situation — and the situation is going to be full of happy mischief.

(Thank you, Rijksmuseum, for posting the paintings online.)

I then went to Rembrandt’s House. I was there with my family 10-15 years ago when it was undergoing renovation, and I was a little disappointed in how it came out. The first time I was there, in the 1970s, I remember having a strong sense of the size of the house. The renovation removes the sense of the house’s original boundaries, although the stairs remain damn narrow. For 10€ you can see the reconstructed kitchen (which is interesting in a diorama sort of way), demonstrations of how he printed etchings and how he mixed paint, lots of contemporary paintings, and a room full of his exquisite, tiny etchings.

This morning I went back to the Van Gogh museum. It opens at 10am on Sundays, and by 10:30am there was already a short line. The entrance fee is 14€. I have to say that I was a little disappointed, although it was still well worth the visit. Most of the iconic Van Gogh’s are in other collections, although you’ll certainly find some here. I’d guess that about half of the pictures are not by Van Gogh; some provide interesting context (the precursors section was helpful) and some are in special exhibits that don’t have too much to do with Van Gogh; the current exhibit is on the Symbolists, which the museum interprets quite broadly.

There are some very early drawings and paintings where you see Van Gogh mastering technique the way a future master would. And I enjoyed as well the Parisian paintings, from before Van Gogh left for Arles. There’s a painting that is composed like a Dutch landscape, except the earth-based portion is of Paris rendered almost like the undergrowth he was painting towards the end of his sanity.

There are fewer in the familiar Starry Night style where you wonder what the hell drug he was on, but that’s ok with me since I tend to prefer the ones where the brushstroke reveal more about the subject than about Van Gogh’s subjective state. And there are some gorgeous ones. As seems especially the case with Van Gogh, the reproductions can utterly suppress the beauty of the originals, so I was startled to see how rich the sky is in The Yellow House. It gives such a sense of a small yellow building sitting in an infinitely deep universe. (My idiosyncratic reaction was: Heidegger was right, at least for this painting: Earth and world, gods and mortals, all at their intersection.) (Thank you. Van Gogh Museum, for not only posting your paintings, but letting us zoom in on them.)

Some of the non-Van Gogh works are also pretty great. I loved a Monet vista of Monaco from a turn in the road, and a hilarious Mondrian sun-over-the-sea painting that the legend says he intended not to be ridiculous but to capture some Theosophical truth.

Anyway, it was well worth going to. But do try to find a time when it isn’t jam-packed; it was often hard to get to see the paintings instead of the backs of the heads of other visitors.

Damn tourists!

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May 13, 2012

[2b2k] The Net as paradigm

Edward Burman recently sent me a very interesting email in response to my article about the 50th anniversary of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. So I bought his 2003 book Shift!: The Unfolding Internet – Hype, Hope and History (hint: If you buy it from Amazon, check the non-Amazon sellers listed there) which arrived while I was away this week. The book is not very long — 50,000 words or so — but it’s dense with ideas. For example, Edward argues in passing that the Net exploits already-existing trends toward globalization, rather than leading the way to it; he even has a couple of pages on Heidegger’s thinking about the nature of communication. It’s a rich book.

Shift! applies The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to the Internet revolution, wondering what the Internet paradigm will be. The chapters that go through the history of failed attempts to understand the Net — the “pre-paradigms” — are fascinating. Much of Edward’s analysis of business’ inability to grasp the Net mirrors cluetrain‘s themes. (In fact, I had the authorial d-bag reaction of wishing he had referenced Cluetrain…until I realized that Edward probably had the same reaction to my later books which mirror ideas in Shift!) The book is strong in its presentation of Kuhn’s ideas, and has a deep sense of our cultural and philosophical history.

All that would be enough to bring me to recommend the book. But Edward admirably jumps in with a prediction about what the Internet paradigm will be:

This…brings us to the new paradigm, which will condition our private and business lives as the twenty-first century evolves. It is a simple paradigm, and may be expressed in synthetic form in three simple words: ubiquitous invisible connectivity. That is to say, when the technologies, software and devices which enable global connectivity in real time become so ubiquitous that we are completely unaware of their presence…We are simply connected.” [p. 170]

It’s unfair to leave it there since the book then elaborates on this idea in very useful ways. For example, he talks about the concept of “e-business” as being a pre-paradigm, and the actual paradigm being “The network itself becomes the company,” which includes an erosion of hierarchy by networks. But because I’ve just written about Kuhn, I found myself particularly interested in the book’s overall argument that Kuhn gives us a way to understand the Internet. Is there an Internet paradigm shift?

The are two ways to take this.

First, is there a paradigm by which we will come to understand the Internet? Edward argues yes, we are rapidly settling into the paradigmatic understanding of the Net. In fact, he guesses that “the present revolution [will] be completed and the new paradigm of being [will] be in force” in “roughly five to eight years” [p. 175]. He sagely points to three main areas where he thinks there will be sufficient development to enable the new paradigm to take root: the rise of the mobile Internet, the development of productivity tools that “facilitate improvements in the supply chain” and marketing, and “the increased deployment of what have been termed social applications, involving education and the political sphere of national and local government.” [pp. 175-176] Not bad for 2003!

But I’d point to two ways, important to his argument, in which things have not turned out as Edward thought. First, the 5-8 years after the book came out were marked by a continuing series of disruptive Internet developments, including general purpose social networks, Wikipedia, e-books, crowdsourcing, YouTube, open access, open courseware, Khan Academy, etc. etc. I hope it’s obvious that I’m not criticizing Edward for not being prescient enough. The book is pretty much as smart as you can get about these things. My point is that the disruptions just keep coming. The Net is not yet settling down. So we have to ask: Is the Net going to enable continuous disruption and self-transformation? If so will it be captured by a paradigm? (Or, as M. Knight Shyamalan might put it, is disruption the paradigm?)

Second, after listing the three areas of development over the next 5-8 years, the book makes a claim central to the basic formulation of the new paradigm Edward sees emerging: “And, vitally, for thorough implementation [of the paradigm] the three strands must be invisible to the user: ubiquitous and invisible connectivity.” [p. 176] If the invisibility of the paradigm is required for its acceptance, then we are no closer to that event, for the Internet remains perhaps the single most evident aspect of our culture. No other cultural object is mentioned as many times in a single day’s newspaper. The Internet, and the three components the book point to, are more evident to us than ever. (The exception might be innovations in logistics and supply chain management; I’d say Internet marketing remains highly conspicuous.) We’ve never had a technology that so enabled innovation and creativity, but there may well come a time when we stop focusing so much cultural attention on the Internet. We are not close yet.

Even then, we may not end up with a single paradigm of the Internet. It’s really not clear to me that the attendees at ROFLcon have the same Net paradigm as less Internet-besotted youths. Maybe over time we will all settle into a single Internet paradigm, but maybe we won’t. And we might not because the forces that bring about Kuhnian paradigms are not at play when it comes to the Internet. Kuhnian paradigms triumph because disciplines come to us through institutions that accept some practices and ideas as good science; through textbooks that codify those ideas and practices; and through communities of professionals who train and certify the new scientists. The Net lacks all of that. Our understanding of the Net may thus be as diverse as our cultures and sub-cultures, rather than being as uniform and enforced as, say, genetics’ understanding of DNA is.

Second, is the Internet affecting what we might call the general paradigm of our age? Personally, I think the answer is yes, but I wouldn’t use Kuhn to explain this. I think what’s happening — and Edward agrees — is that we are reinterpreting our world through the lens of the Internet. We did this when clocks were invented and the world started to look like a mechanical clockwork. We did this when steam engines made society and then human motivation look like the action of pressures, governors, and ventings. We did this when telegraphs and then telephones made communication look like the encoding of messages passed through a medium. We understand our world through our technologies. I find (for example) Lewis Mumford more helpful here than Kuhn.

Now, it is certainly the case that reinterpreting our world in light of the Net requires us to interpret the Net in the first place. But I’m not convinced we need a Kuhnian paradigm for this. We just need a set of properties we think are central, and I think Edward and I agree that these properties include the abundant and loose connections, the lack of centralized control, the global reach, the ability of everyone (just about) to contribute, the messiness, the scale. That’s why you don’t have to agree about what constitutes a Kuhnian paradigm to find Shift! fascinating, for it helps illuminate the key question: How are the properties of the Internet becoming the properties we see in — or notice as missing from — the world outside the Internet?

Good book.

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February 19, 2012

The Artist: No Spoilers Possible

We saw The Artist tonight. Disappointing.

I’m not getting what people are seeing in it. Yes, the hero (Jean Dujardin) is very charming, and there are a couple of laughs. It’s not a terrible movie. But best picture of the year? Really?

It is utterly predictable. It’s message, such as it is, is shallow. The characters are one-dimensional, and sometimes less: the hero’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller) has only one point to make. The female lead (Bérénice Bejo) to me was unappealing and even a little creepy. The dog, about which everyone raves, could have taken lessons from Frasier’s dog.

Taken together, “The Artist” was pretty much the definition of meh. I don’t see why it’s been nominated for Best Picture, much less why it’s being treated as a shoe-in.

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February 1, 2012

[2b2k] Cory Doctorow’s review

Cory Doctorow has reviewed my book Too Big to Know at BoingBoing. It’s the sort of review an author dreams of, not only because it’s positive, but because it gets the book better than the author does.

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January 16, 2012

[2b2k] Jeff Jarvis’ review

Jeff Jarvis’ review of Too Big To Know is not only lovely and complimentary (aw gosh, Jeff!), but he pulls the right quotes and does a great job explaining what I’m trying to get at in the book.

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December 25, 2011

“Hugo”: Anti-spoilers

No spoilers in this. In fact, my aim is to undo a false expectation about “Hugo” that may be keeping you from seeing this amazing movie.

“Hugo” is not about robots, animatronics, or a boy’s relation with a mechanical man. An automaton is an important part of the plot, but that’s not what this movie is about. BTW, “Hugo” is the boy’s name. The automaton doesn’t even have a name.

There are lots of reasons to like it because it works at many levels. Those levels are resonant, and deepen through their redundancy. Also, Chloe Moretz is in it, whose talent as a young teen already can only be measured in streeps.

But mainly I loved this movie because — in a way that is itself redundant with the movie’s content — the filmmaker’s technique turns it into an artwork. Martin Scorsese takes us through a movie that emotionally and aesthetically feels like one long tracking cut, although of course it isn’t. Most movies are constructed as a series of scenes. While “Hugo” has different settings and scenes, it plays without interruption. It’s the difference between traveling by plane and traveling by foot: Scorsese leads us along a path, sometimes walking, sometimes running, but it’s one continuous landscape. Crappy metaphor, but “Hugo” is as close to perfect movie construction as I’ve seen.

I’m not saying that “Hugo” is the greatest movie ever made, but it’s a
movie that makes the most of what a movie can be: so limitless in its ability to move us through spaces, so able to show us what’s going on inside by showing us surfaces, that it is the medium best suited to dreams. (as Norman Mailer once observed).

So, now let me de-hype it. “Hugo” is a wonderful movie, but it’s a small movie. I understand those who see it as sentimental. There are a couple of moments that don’t work. But I woke up thinking about yet more ways in which the movies scenes’ and ideas not only work together like a clock mechanism (you learn early on that Hugo winds the clocks in a Paris train terminal, so he is in effect part of that mechanical system), but reflect upon one another as analogies and correspondences in the Medieval sense…and this is too is what the movie is about.

So lower your expectations from this review and go see “Hugo” before the new Chipmunk movie pushes it off the big screen.

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December 21, 2011

[2b2k] Kirkus Reviews likes it

Kirkus Reviews is one of the most important sources for the book trade, so I’m extra special glad they like Too Big to Know.

Razor-sharp analysis of the state of knowledge in the age of computer networking.

Weinberger (Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, 2007, etc.), a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Institute for Internet and Society, argues that the collaborative, hyperlinked, instant nature of the Internet has fundamentally altered the way humans relate with knowledge. In the Gutenberg age, because of the finite nature of the book, limited by both its number of pages and the number of copies that could be printed, knowledge was necessarily ordered and hierarchical. The author added pieces to the collective store of knowledge, while publishers, editors, librarians and the community of scholars decided for the common good what was and was not important to know. The Internet has radically upended that hierarchy and knocked down the walls of the knowledge store. In 1989, pundits worried that with 1,000 books published in the world every day, people were suffering from information overload. That was small potatoes, it turns out. In 2008, Weinberger writes, Americans consumed 3.6 zettabytes, “a number so large that we have to do research just to understand it.” The author suggests that we make peace with this overwhelming state of affairs, and it seems many of us already have. The democratizing of knowledge is not without its dangers. Bad information has equal access to the common well with good information, and is just as viral. But crowdsourced and refereed resources like Wikipedia give Weinberger hope. The difference between the old style of knowing and the new one is embodied in the differences between a set of encyclopedias and Google. One can fit on a shelf; the other is uncontainable, essentially “an infrastructure of connection.”

A witty and wise companion in this new age of information overload.

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December 17, 2011

D is for Digital

D is for Digital

I’m enjoying a book by Brian Kernighan — yes, that Brian Kernighan — based on a course he’s been teaching at Princeton called “Computers in Our World.” D is for Digital is a clear, straightfoward, grownup introduction to computers: hardware and software, programming, and the Internet. [Disclosure: Brian wrote some of during his year as a fellow at the Berkman Center.]

D is for Digital is brief, but it drives its topics down to the nuts and bolts, which is a helpful reminder that all the magic on your screen is grounded in some very real wires and voltages. Likewise, Brian has a chapter on how to program, taking Javascript as his example. He does not back away from talking about libraries and APIs. He even explains public key encryption clearly enough that even I understand it. (Of course, I have frequently understood it for up to fifteen minutes at a time.) There are a few spots where the explanations are not quite complete enough — his comparison of programming languages doesn’t tell us enough about the differences — but they are rare indeed. Even so, I like that this book doesn’t pander to the reader.

D is for Digital would be a nice stocking stuffer with Blown to Bits by Harold Abelson, Ken Ledeen, Harry R. Lewis, which is an introduction to computers within the context of policy debates. Both are excellent. Together they are excellent squared.

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December 10, 2011

[2b2k] Publishers Weekly calls 2b2k a “must read”

Publishers Weekly has posted its review of Too Big to Know. It’s good, not only in the sense of positive, but also as a brief description of what the book is about:

Weinberger…engagingly examines the production, dissemination, and accessibility of knowledge in the Internet era. The fundamental and pertinent question Weinberger pursues is how the new surplus of knowledge afforded by the Internet affects our “basic strategy of knowing.” This strategy evolved from “book-shaped thought,” a form “in which parts depend upon the parts before it.” Unlike books, however, Weinberger contends that long-form argument on the Internet engages a more dynamic dimension than a static book ever could: it is “put into a network where the discussion around it […] will violate its pristine logic.” Despite the slight incompatibility to long-form argument, ideas, and knowledge on the Internet are plentiful, hyperlinked, autonomous, open, and, perhaps most importantly, unsettled, making the Internet a forum within which knowledge is not merely accepted; it is contemplated and questioned. While occasionally tending towards the philosophical, Weinberger’s book is full of relevant and thought-provoking, insights that make it a must-read for anyone concerned with knowledge in the digital age.


Inc. Magazine also ran a review of it, by Leigh Buchanan. It’s a brief and accurate summary of the thrust of the book. Thanks, Leigh!

The book ships on Dec. 13, so I assume it will hit bookstores shortly after that, and will be fulfilled by Amazon very shortly after that.

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