Archive for January 2012
The e-book is not yet a mature medium. I have a Kindle, and its main advantage is convenience of transportation and purchase. In some aspects (for example, any book where you regularly need to flip back a few pages or refer to an index) the Kindle is worse. And the e-books I’ve purchased to date are simply electronic dumps of the same text and images you can find in a traditional dead-tree book. It is like watching a film adaptation of a play that simply consists of a still camera shooting a stage upon which actors are performing the play as written.
Most innovations that I’ve seen so far on my Kindle are at the level of the reader software, not at the level of the text itself. For example, you can highlight passages you like, which is better than dog-earing your pages, and one book I read highlighted passages that had been popularly highlighted by other readers. There’s also a built-in dictionary, and your reading progress is synced between your devices. These are useful features, but I think that we could fundamentally improve the way we read by adapting the text itself to the medium.
I thought of a good example while reading a dead-tree version of Juvenal’s Satires, translated by Peter Green. (Aside: introductions to books should be appreciable prior to having read the book itself. Editors, translators, and anthologists, please put your densely cross-referenced analysis after the text, not before.) In the introduction, Green discusses the challenges translators face in dealing with passages of potentially spurious origin:
Unlike a cautious editor, the translator is bound to produce some sort of coherent sense: he is not allowed to hedge his bets. This awkward fact must serve as a partial excuse for the number of occasions on which I have either accepted emendations proposed by others, or – when all other recourses failed – have tentatively supplied my own. (p. lxi)
There are other more interesting translation difficulties that Green discusses both in the introduction and in footnotes to the text (most interestingly the different numbers of lines featured in different editions), but I highlighted this passage specifically because it attributes to the translator the function of determining a single interpretation for the reader to the potential exclusion of others. This is true in a regular book; a copy of the Satires side-by-side with multiple interpretations, different styles of translation, and summaries of scholarly debates would be too unwieldy to appreciate as an actual piece of literature.
But it is not true in an e-book. I think it would be extremely insightful to have books where at the tap of a finger, the reader could switch between different translations, even at the level of an individual word, line or paragraph. In addition to seeing different versions of the text, the reader could see (or not see, at his choice) annotations explaining why a given translator took the approach that he did, or why two people translated the same passage in different ways. Perhaps they disagreed on its meaning; perhaps they were targeting different audiences; perhaps one translation was older and scholarly developments since then have led to new opinions about the intended meaning of a passage. Under this format there would be a role not only for individual translators but for editors to collate translations for the electronic format, and book buyers would purchase these collations rather than a single translation.
This is just one idea; the real point is that e-books allow features that would not be feasible in a regular book. My hope is that in the near future we begin seeing greater creativity in the e-book format that leads to a better reading experience than ever before.
Text from MIT’s Shakespeare archive. (I have not read/heard/seen even close to all of the linked items; I selected them for a combination of some familiarity and diversity of source material.)
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. – Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.
Julian Sanchez had an article linked from Marginal Revolution today weighing in on SOPA/PIPA. His argument is that online piracy may not be worth worrying about, as it is very unclear that it actually has any adverse impact on the arts and entertainment industry in aggregate. Clearly there are individual winners and losers, as there are with any technological/paradigmatic shift, but on the whole, Sanchez argues that the industry does not appear to be much the worse for the current level of piracy and therefore it is not something we should spend effort to stop.
My personal opinion is one of agreement with Sanchez. Online distribution, whether legal or illegal, cuts out middlemen that sit between the consumer and the artist. I think the main voices of complaint you hear from the arts and entertainment industry are from those middlemen (especially the major film distributors and record labels) who stand to lose a lot under this new distribution model. But if what we really care about is the art, then we should only pursue stronger intellectual property protection if we think that it will incentivize artistic production, quality, and creativity.
Arguing about art can easily get subjective, but for me, I have yet to see convincing evidence that people are discouraged from making books, films, music, etc. because their work can be copied and distributed online beyond their control. In fact, I think that the free proliferation of easily-copied art has led to an increase in artistic production. Art begets art: writers read other writers, musicians listen to other musicians, and directors watch other directors’ films. New artistic developments are not conceived in a vacuum but build upon existing cultural output. It’s truly astonishing and wonderful how much artwork is now available at the click of a few buttons that previously could only be absorbed by haunting libraries and theaters and musty record shops, and I think it has opened the door to more artistic production and wider varieties than ever before.
I particularly agree with Sanchez’s point about taking a step back and asking ourselves whether a law serves the general good before running out with handcuffs and court orders to enforce it. I think it is easy to get accustomed to obedience to law, and to label obedience as “good” (or at least “necessary”) and disobedience as “bad” without thinking carefully about what it is we are obeying or disobeying. The very definition of what constitutes intellectual property is highly fuzzy and disputable, much more so than physical property. It is hard to determine where one idea ends and another begins, who (if anyone) should “own” an idea, and whether a thought should or should not be considered general public knowledge.
We should always be ready to question the value of any law, but we should especially question those written around nebulous concepts like intellectual property.
I recently read an article entitled “Ethics Without Religion,” by Philip Kitcher of Columbia, that discusses and endorses the separation of ethical principles from religious origin. Leading with the famous Dostoyevskyan sentiment that without God, anything is permissible, Kitcher refutes that standpoint by invoking Darwin’s name and constructing an evolutionary model of ethical development:
So there grew up the rules of kinship still evident in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, rules designed to settle issues about alliances in cases of conflict and about potential mates… Yet this was only the beginning. Different bands could experiment with different systems of ethical rules, and the successful experiments were passed on.
I do agree that human ethics emerged from an evolutionary process and continues to be changed by it. I have no serious quibbles with moral relativism. (I accept the fact that future generations will consider certain things that I do to be barbaric and wrong, just as I consider ancient societal practices like human sacrifice, slavery, and pederasty to be barbaric and wrong, and that it is almost as impossible for them to think like me as it is for me to think like them.)
However, I think it is questionable to conflate ethics with the evolution of altruism and self-inhibitory behavior designed to benefit an individual’s community at his personal expense, as I think Kitcher does:
At cost to themselves, chimpanzees sometimes give aid to an impaired relative, or carry out a task that another has tried without success. These altruistic tendencies make their social lives possible. Nevertheless, these capacities for sympathy are easily strained. Chimpanzee social life is often tense, because loyalties are discarded and selfish impulses override their limited altruism… We became fully human when we were able to find ways of inhibiting tendencies to socially disruptive action and ways of reinforcing our altruistic capacities… we invented a crude system of ethics.
My complaints are based in my agreement with the gene-centered view of evolution, whose best-known proponent is the biologist Richard Dawkins. This perspective reduces evolutionary behavior below the level of individual organisms to the level of genes, which are selected for their ability to replicate and spread. The organism is viewed as a sort of protective construct that genes have found valuable to help themselves propagate.
Viewing evolution at a genetic level helps explain phenomena like why animals are altruistic towards family members: relatives are more likely to have genes in common, and thus such behavior encourages the propagation of those genes, even if they are found in another’s body. Animals that are far more mentally primitive than chimpanzees protect their young. And insects in a hive serve their community in specialized ways that often do them no direct individual good. These behaviors can be explained at the gene level; Dawkins’s book The Extended Phenotype has an interesting tangent on the insect example (from which I learned the term “haplodiploid”).
Are we ready to say that wasps have a system of ethics, perhaps a more sophisticated one than a solitary mammal like a tiger? One might say that perhaps entire insect hives should be considered as individuals and individual insects as body parts, driven by chemical signals and electric impulses with no ethical meaning of their own. But to the genetic evolutionist, human compulsions to behave in an ethical way are also a series of chemical signals and electric impulses, though a far more complex one. Our ethics are not governed by a fundamentally different impetus than the ant, from the evolutionary standpoint. In both cases genes are manipulating their environments and their bodies along certain behavioral patterns.
You could try to attribute ethics at the genetic level, discussing the morality and immorality of different genes’ replication schemes. But I think we should be satisfied to consider ethics (as with all other aspects of human culture) simply to be an incidental product of evolution, like wings and muscles, and nothing further. And if we do not worry about deriving ethics from first principles or trying to define an objective standard of our humanity, we can spend more time thinking about the practicalities of what makes us happy and content – which is really what Kitcher’s main point was in his article anyway.
I recently came across an anecdote that I believe was about Pablo Picasso. (I wish I could remember and present the source for you, but I can’t find it.) Someone once brought Picasso a painting supposedly done by him and asked him whether it was real or a forgery. Picasso signed his name in the corner and said, “Now it’s real.”
I also recently read Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick. The theme of reality and fiction in the realms of our senses, perception, and memory, is one to which Dick returns to again and again. In one story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (the basis of the film Total Recall, which I have not seen), a man wishing to have the experience of having traveled to Mars hires a company to implant his brain with memories of a trip to Mars. “You won’t remember us, won’t remember me, or ever having been here. It’ll be a real trip in your mind; we guarantee that,” the memory implanter tells him. And regarding his desire to actually go to Mars: “You can’t be this; you can’t actually do this… But you can have been and have done.”
According to IMDB, when Peter Jackson concluded filming The Lord of the Rings, he gave a ring to Elijah Wood and Andy Serkis, the actors who portrayed Frodo and Gollum, respectively. Both thought they had the only one.
I would have to concede that the first and the third stories sound a little apocryphal to me, but I suppose that’s only appropriate in this context.
At work today I heard someone debating to himself whether a certain email belonged in this folder or that folder. I use Gmail for my personal mail and it kills me how much better my personal mail is than my work email, particularly in light of the fact that I get so much more mail at work than at home and need modern email client features more badly there. I don’t organize my personal email at all; everything hits my inbox and sits there, and I move nothing to a folder and tag nothing with a label. Every time I have needed to find email on a certain topic, all I have had to do is search my inbox.
Gmail’s biggest positive contribution to my life was freeing me from the need to impose a manual organizational scheme on my email. The value of folders as a method to help locate emails is already negated with a quality search engine. Tags and labels are certainly an improvement over folders because an email could logically belong to many different semantic categories, as my co-worker acknowledged. But a search engine that can parse emails and identify relevant to search strings is effectively tagging everything automatically. There’s no need to hand-label emails regarding your pickup soccer games if searching for “soccer” returns all the relevant email for you.
As far as personal data organization goes, email is a comparatively simple problem to solve (on the scale of things), because the data contained in emails is predominantly textual and is mostly written in conversational prose. The problem of searching one’s email can be generalized to searching one’s personal data, including email, documents, music, software, etc., at which point you encounter new and difficult challenges. How do you attack the problem of searching photos, music, movies, and other media? How do you search data that may require some contextual interpretation?
To the latter point, I think an interesting challenge to personal data organization would be to get computers to recognize relevance that may be true for you but not for others. As a simple example, if you search your data and documents for “soccer teammates,” you might want to see any emails and other data regarding your teammate John Doe even if the email makes no direct mention of soccer or a team; the search engine could have figured out that John is someone relevant to you as a soccer teammate. On the other hand, John’s parents probably don’t think of him as a soccer teammate but as their son. So if they were to query their personal data for “soccer teammates” the search engine should not return John’s emails.
As 2012 is a presidential election year, it’s a pretty good bet that for the next several months we’ll hear a lot of heated discussion about government spending, one of the central ideological wedges that separate Democrats and Republicans. It is very easy to get caught up in speeches, editorials, and personal biases, leading you to form opinions without a solid basis. I think the correct starting point in these matters is to read the headline numbers from the latest 2012 federal budget summary tables (found at the end of the document in the link) to get a big-picture sense of the absolute and relative magnitudes of the figures involved.
The 2012 federal budget is the White House’s plan for government spending in 2012 and a request for funds, and was released in February 2011 and updated in September 2011 (the link in the first paragraph is the update). The White House submits the budget to Congress, Congress votes on appropriations bills, and the President signs or vetoes it as with other bills (and can have his veto overridden by a two-thirds congressional majority, as with other bills). The amount requested in the budget may or may not be the actual amount spent in 2012; nevertheless, digesting the figures does give you perspective on how much money is involved in running the various branches of the US federal government.
The importance of reading the budget summary sounds obvious, but I don’t think many people do it, and unfortunately until recently I would have to have included myself in that crowd. The full budget report is daunting in length and includes a lot of commentary. I am not an expert on the subject at all, but I think reading the summary tables alone will probably cover the most important parts and is a task of manageable size for the everyday concerned citizen.
I think the following four figures are the most important ones to know. (I’ll write all numbers in billions; changing your units between millions, billions, and trillions can generate misleading comparisons.)
- The 2012 federal spending budget is $3,670 billion
- This would produce a projected deficit in 2012 of $956 billion
- Debt held by the public by the end of 2012 is projected at $10,264 billion
- Projected US GDP in 2012 by the White House is $15,673 billion
Once you have seen and understood the numerical picture, you are in a much better position to evaluate claims by politicians, candidates, and pundits. And if you are interested in learning more about a particular policy, you can drill down into the appropriate section of the full budget report to give yourself an even sharper picture. I recommend reading tables S-1 and S-4 in the September budget revision, which contain top-level summaries of receipts and outlays (including the four numbers above), and table S-11 in the original February 2011 budget summary tables, which contains budgeted discretionary expenditure by government branch.
The most useful things I learned from looking at some of the details were:
- We spend a lot of money on health care and retirees. As of the September 2011 revision, Social Security is budgeted at $768 billion, and Medicare is budgeted at $478 billion, and Medicaid is budgeted at $266 billion.
- We also spend a lot of money on national security. On the February 2011 budget, the Department of Defense is budgeted for $553 billion, easily the most of any government branch. The combined “security” expenditures (also including State, Homeland Security, parts of Energy, and Veterans Affairs) plus overseas contingency operations (anti-terrorism spending) are budgeted for $846 billion.
- We don’t spend that much money on anything else. Health and Human Services and Education are the two non-security departments with the biggest budgets and they are, respectively, $82 billion and $79 billion. A lot of other branches that I personally feel are bandied about in the news as targets of spending cuts, such as Interior, Commerce, and NASA, are drops in the bucket by comparison (NASA is the biggest of these three at $19 billion).
Clearly costs are only one side of the story; even large expenditures can be justified by worthy causes and even small wastes should be cut. But if I were tackling the problem of US deficits and I looked at this data, the first two places I would look to improve efficiency would be in health care/retiree spending and defense spending. Policies that save a mere 1% on our national security budget or our Social Security/Medicare budget would pay for most of an entire year’s worth of spending for many other government agencies. Conversely, draconian cuts in these small-budget agencies would have little impact on the big-picture problem of deficits.