Charlie Stross on the Real Reason Steve Jobs hates flash (and how lives change)

Charlie Stross has a typically fascinating post about the real reason Steve Jobs hates flash. The title is deceptive: the post is really about the future of the computing industry, which is to say, the future of our day-to-day lives.

If you read tech blogs, you’ve read a million people in the echo chamber repeating the same things to one another over and over again. Some of that stuff is probably right, but even if Stross is wrong, he’s at least pulling his head more than six inches off the ground, looking around, and saying “what are we going to do when we hit those mountains up ahead?”

And I don’t even own an iPad, or have much desire to be in the cloud for the sake of being in the cloud. But the argument about the importance of always-on networking is a strong one, even if, to me, it also points to the points to the greater importance of being able to disconnect distraction.

In the meantime, however, I’m going back to the story that I’m working on. Stories have the advantage that they’ll probably always be popular, even if the medium through which one experiences them changes. Consequently, I’m turning Mac Freedom on and Internet access off.

Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity — Marc Augé

Marc Augé’s Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity is fascinating because it describes a process and some places that almost all of us feel like we’ve been. In my post about Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, I wrote about one such bureaucratized space in the form of airports:

As I write this, I sit in a Tucson airpot bar. Airports have everything wrong with them: they are transitional, one-off spaces filled with strangers, the “restaurants” they offer consist of pre-made food with character slightly above a TV dinner, and for some reason we as a society have decided that Constitution rights and privacy don’t apply here. People I don’t know can stop me at will, and merely flying requires that I submit to security theater that is simultaneously ineffective and invasive. Everything is exorbitantly expensive but not of particularly high quality. Menus don’t have beer prices on them.

The airport, in short, is designed to extract money from a captive audience; this might be in part why I don’t care much for sports stadiums, Disneyland, and other areas where I feel vaguely captive.

And it’s miserable, at least to me, and Augé traces that feeling at least partially to a place’s relationship or lack thereof with history. His book is useful because it offers a theoretical framework for understanding why we think of some places the way we do and frustrating because it’s written in French academic-ese. John Howe translates it but can’t change the fact that most of the book is actually concerned with how ethnologists view places. In other words, the major action described by the title isn’t reached until about two thirds of the way through the book. And it takes until page 94, and nearly at the end, to get a somewhat clear definition of what constitutes a “non-place:”

Clearly the word ‘non-place’ designates two complementary but distinct realities: spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations that individuals have these spaces. Although the two sets of relations overlap to a large extent, and in any case officially (individuals travel, make purchases, relax), they are still not confused with one another; for non-places mediate a whole mass of relations, with the self and with others, which are only indirectly connected with their purposes. As anthropological places create the organically, so non-places create solitary contractuality.

Any time someone uses “clearly” or “obviously,” they should have their text examined more carefully, because anything that is genuinely clear or obvious doesn’t need the modifier. The text itself is unsure: what are “certain ends” as opposed to “non-certain ends?” I’m not sure: maybe he means where people live. What is the ‘organically social?’ Presumably something like neighborhoods, common cause, not “Bowling Alone” and the like. The gap between what is said and what is probably meant looms large with these phrases, even if the passage as a whole at least yields some kind of framework for discussing the problem.

I would say that non-places are basically commerce or exchange economies, while places are gift economies. In other words, in non-places one cannot have any real recourse to common humanity: you can’t ask to borrow something, to be done a favor, or to expect to know the myriad of strangers you cross. In a place, you can expect to have local knowledge, to not have to rely entirely on signs, to be able to decorate it as you will, and to have the opportunity for whimsy.

One thing I like about universities is that they do a decent job of being both gift and commerce economies, thanks in part to state subsidies: although my students have to pay the bursar’s office to take my class, once they are within it, we do not discuss or exchange money directly, and this mediating bureaucratic influence helps maintain something closer to a gift economy. Most professors I have met are more than willing to give their time to those who do not waste it and who wish to learn. By “do not waste it,” I mean those who are prepared, conscientious, and willing to read or experiment per the professor’s instructions, as opposed to the inevitable students who, at least in English, want the professor to read a half-baked paper the night before it is due in order to receive a higher grade. Professors are willing, in short, to make what Augé calls a “relational” space that is “concerned with identity,” or, as his long quotes have it:

If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relation, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place. The hypothesis advanced here is that supermodernity produces non-places, meaning spaces which are not themselves anthropological places and which, unlike Baudelairean modernity, do not integrate the earlier places: instead these are listed, classified, promoted to the status of ‘places of memory’, and assigned to a circumscribed and specific position. A world where people are born in the clinic and die in hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotels chains and squats […]) (78 – 9).

This is the sort of assertion that almost works: notice how it starts with a major “if” at the start and never quite defines the terms relational, historical, and concerned with identity: although airports feel like they have none of those attributes today, they might a hundred years from now. Maybe airpots will one day be places in the sense that Belltown or the University District in Seaattle are. It’s hard to say, even if I feel like the idea that “supermodernity produces non-places” is correct, since those kinds of spaces (like airports, as stated above) produce the unhappy torpor of being totally unmoored and being buffeted by bureaucratic forces that cannot be directly negotiated with.

The last comparison Augé uses is curious: hotel chains feel quite different squatter camps, although I only have direct experience of the former. And being born in the clinic and dying in the hospital sounds like an improvement over being born in a hut and dying in a house, if the latter involve an earlier death. And what it means to be modern is something that seems like it’s being ceaselessly re-described—to be modern is to debate what it means to be modern, or to be acutely aware of history. This is another way of thinking about connections between people, among groups, and the like. Here’s one way Augé gets at that:

Collectivities (or those who direct them), like their individual members, need to think simultaneously about identity and relations; and to this end, they need to symbolize the components of shared identity (shared by the whole group), particularly identity (of a given group or individual in relation to the others) and singular identity (what makes the individual or group of individuals different from any other). The handling of space is one of the means to this end, and it is hardly astonishing that the ethnologist should be tempted to follow in reverse the route from space to the social, as if the latter had produced the former once and for all (Augé 51).

Neither wholly produces the other, but they both work systematically, space constraining daily contact and time constraining members in terms of particular history. Notice the idea of the “reverse […] route from space to the social,” although the social also affects space. In Jane Austen this happens less, but the space of the manor or inheritance affects everything the characters do: think of the vitality of the entailment on the actions of the characters in Pride and Prejudice. Love does not conqueror all in that novel, even if it affects relations with space and vice-versa. It is hard to imagine Charlotte Lucas loving the irritating Mr. Collins if not for his eventual, deferred wealth.

The book’s penultimate paragraph suddenly moves away from place and toward humanity:

One day, perhaps, there will be a sign of intelligent life on another world. Then, through an effect of solidarity whose mechanisms the ethnologist has studied on a small scale, the whole terrestrial space will become a single place. Being from earth will signify something. In the meantime, though, it is far from certain that threats to the environment are sufficient to produce the same effect. The community of human destinies is experienced in the anonymity of non-place, and in solitude (120).

The idea of distance and perspective is evoked from the first words: “one day” implies a day so distant that it cannot be envisaged, only held up as a trope. And the sense of vastness continues, with the “whole terrestrial space,” as opposed to the way we divide up now, and the possibility that such an orientation, however improbable that it will come to pass, might bring. I hope we get there, unlikely though it may seem, and unlikely as it is that non-places will bring us closer to place.

Paging Captain Obvious regarding Why Women Have Sex

Paging Captain Obvious:

Women also have specialized emotional defenses that protect them from being deceived. Research from the Buss Lab shows that women become extremely angry and upset when they discover that men have deceived them about the depth of their feelings in order to have sex. These emotions cause women to etch those deceptive episodes in memory, attend more closely in the future to possible instances of deception, and ultimately avoid future occurrences of deception.

In other words, women get mad when men lie to them. I wonder if men feel the same. Without a research study, I wouldn’t want to guess. (And what are these “specialized emotional defenses,” and how can they be biologically imparted?)

The quote is from David Buss and Cindy Meston’s Why Women Have Sex, an occasionally useful and often frustrating book that I describe in further detail at the link.

EDIT May 6 2010: Still, as Dawkins and Krebs observe in Behavioural Ecology on “Animal Signals: Information or Manipulation?”, “Whenever there is any form of assessment, for example in combat, courtship or between parents and offspring, bluff, exaggeration and deceit might be profitable strategies.” But in humans, this is obviously not a purely male or female strategy.

A brief programming note (and Melville's Pierre)

I’ve been deep in Melville’s Pierre; or, the Ambiguities for the last week (sample sentences demonstrating the novel’s weirdness: “With Mrs. Glendinning it was one of those spontaneous maxims, which women sometimes act upon without ever thinking of, never to appear in the presence of her son in any dishabille that was not eminently becoming” or “Not that in the despotism of other things, the thought of Lucy, and the unconjecturable suffering into which she might so soon be plunged, owing to the threatening uncertainty of the state of his own future, as now in great part and at all hazards dedicated to Isabel; not that this thought had thus far been alien to him.” What is unconjecturable suffering? I don’t think I’ve ever felt it). The novel is so hilariously, insanely bad that there must be some purpose to its badness, and I’ve been plumbing that purpose while trying to let my prose purple through pernicious exposure—with only some success. My theory: the novel’s language, structure, and incestuous tropes point to the past’s simultaneous constructing and strangling influence on the present.

Turning that general idea into a specific and sound paper, however, is tough, not least because of the source material. A presentation on it yesterday went reasonably well, but I’ll be continuing work over the next weeks or months, and we’ll see how that goes. This is a longish way of explaining why posts have tended towards the short and to the point lately: they act as a counterweight to the massive textual leviathan I’m wrangling in my other life.

A brief programming note (and Melville’s Pierre)

I’ve been deep in Melville’s Pierre; or, the Ambiguities for the last week (sample sentences demonstrating the novel’s weirdness: “With Mrs. Glendinning it was one of those spontaneous maxims, which women sometimes act upon without ever thinking of, never to appear in the presence of her son in any dishabille that was not eminently becoming” or “Not that in the despotism of other things, the thought of Lucy, and the unconjecturable suffering into which she might so soon be plunged, owing to the threatening uncertainty of the state of his own future, as now in great part and at all hazards dedicated to Isabel; not that this thought had thus far been alien to him.” What is unconjecturable suffering? I don’t think I’ve ever felt it). The novel is so hilariously, insanely bad that there must be some purpose to its badness, and I’ve been plumbing that purpose while trying to let my prose purple through pernicious exposure—with only some success. My theory: the novel’s language, structure, and incestuous tropes point to the past’s simultaneous constructing and strangling influence on the present.

Turning that general idea into a specific and sound paper, however, is tough, not least because of the source material. A presentation on it yesterday went reasonably well, but I’ll be continuing work over the next weeks or months, and we’ll see how that goes. This is a longish way of explaining why posts have tended towards the short and to the point lately: they act as a counterweight to the massive textual leviathan I’m wrangling in my other life.

On drug laws in Portugal

“The paper, published by Cato in April, found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.”

Thats from a Time article recounting Cato research. Time didn’t note that Portugal has also seen an increase in far-out music production and fantasy writing.

Hilarity in Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City?

It’s not so often that one finds a writer so hilariously, unambiguously, obviously wrong as Richard Florida in a passage from Who’s Your City?, which was published in 2008:

[Yale economist Robert] Shiller’s analysis suggests that during the housing boom of the early 2000s, overall housing values appreciated to such a degree that by 2007 they had become completely misaligned with incomes. He predicted that housing prices would fall anywhere from 30 to 50 percent by the end of the decade.

Maybe. But, housing is different from other investments, and for a very simple reason. The primary purpose of investing in a home is not to make money but to have a roof over one’s head. […]

Housing markets seldom adjust through an instantaneous pop.

Oops! Granted, I’m sure Florida’s reasoning sounded better in 2007, when this was probably being written. With a gaff of this magnitude, however, the rest of the book becomes harder to believe, even if I think many of its arguments about the continued importance of cities are fundamentally sound.

The Atlantic, Fiction 2010, and How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons

The Atlantic‘s fiction issue showed up this weekend and has, as usual, some fascinating material—most notably How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons: The case against writing manuals, which argues that books that teach you how to write like writing is an exercise in carpentry aren’t a good way to actually learn how to write. As he says:

The trouble of course is that a good book is not something you can put together like a model airplane. It does not lend itself to that kind of instruction. Every day books are published that contain no real artfulness in the lines, books made up of clichés and limp prose, stupid stories offering nothing but high concept and plot—or supra-literary books that shut out even a serious reader in the name of assertions about the right of an author to be dull for a good cause. (No matter how serious a book is, if it is not entertaining, it is a failure.)

The real solution for writers? Reading:

My advice? Put the manuals and the how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose.

Note that he makes a distinction between books that deal with the craft of writing or the aesthetics of writing (“we have several very fine volumes in that vein (Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction come to mind”), but rather the books that act like you’re merely laying down two by fours (think of the old wheels that allegedly helped writers by things like “heroine declares her love”).

The books I offered in The very very beginning writer are geared toward the craft/aesthetic approach, not the model airplane approach, although I admit that I’ve ready some of the ones using the model airplane approach and promptly gone back to studying characterization with Robertson Davies, plot with Elmore Leonard, and depth with Francine Prose. D.G. Myers said, “I do not believe that anyone can learn to write fiction from a guidebook […]”, and he’s right. But I think that many if not most artists benefit from reflecting on their craft, especially when they’re learning it, and there’s a difference between guidebooks and ones that help shape fundamental skills, rather than merely giving a formula or recipe.

Some of the fiction in the issue is excellent too: The Landscape of Pleasure is fascinating for its half-knowledgeable narrator in the late adolescent mold, and T.C. Boyle’s The Silence almost ends with “And what was its message? It had no message, he saw that now,” a statement that feels deserved in the context.

Melville and the theme of boredom

I’m writing a paper on Melville’s Pierre: or, The Ambiguities, which is slowly driving me crazy (I leave it to the reader to decide whether I refer to paper or book). While searching the library last week, I came across a book whose content has no doubt been contemplated by many a student over the years:

In case you can’t read the spine, it says Melville and the Theme of Boredom. If I hadn’t seen it in a research library, I’d assume the title to be a work of parody.

Tax day links: Gender stereotypes, sexual mores, universities, and more

* Why men don’t listen. Except they do, as this post into the pseudo science of gender brain differences shows.

* “Generation Scold: Why millennials are so judgmental about promiscuity.” Of course, what people say and what they do are still separate, as we know from descriptions of the Puritan practice called “bundling.”

* Why are novels the length they are? And, implicitly, how will technology change that length over time?

* Where professors get their politics.

* Why humanity loves and needs cities.

* A Defense of Abortion is a fascinating thought experiment in moral philosophy.

* On healthcare nationally and in Massachusetts:

When Massachusetts rolled out its coverage program in 2007, many more people signed up for the new heavily subsidized insurance than was originally predicted by budget officials. Almost immediately, costs far exceeded what had been budgeted, forcing state officials to scramble to find cuts elsewhere in government and other sources of revenue.

After three years, no real progress has been made on rising costs. The program remains well over budget, with no end in sight. Further, state residents who now must buy state-sanctioned coverage are bristling at their rising premiums and the inability to find coverage which covers less and thus costs less.

* Along the same lines as above: For every doctor, there are five people performing health care administrative support. This may be part of our national problem, like the growth of administrators relative to professors in academia. (Hat tip Tyler Cowen.)

* Universities set their prices based on what people will pay. Consequently, they raise their sticker price and then offer discounts to woo top students.

* D.G. Myers’ suggestions for the Library of America, (apropos of the kerfuffle discussed here):

Novelists with large untapped bodies of work, and who are likely candidates, are fewer and farther between, although I would make a case for Stanley Elkin and (less passionately) for Wright Morris. But a two-volume set of New York Jewish novels, including The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925), Call It Sleep, and Daniel Fuchs’s Summer in Williamsburg (1934), would be a terrific addition.

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