Archive for November 2008

Friday Inanity: Stupid Cat Pictures Dept.

November 21, 2008

What Beer Does To Writers

November 20, 2008

Courtesy of Ta-Nehisi, we have reference to Burkhard Bilger’s piece on the revival of American craft brewing and the movement’s recent excursions into  extreme beer — the 10 percent or more alcohol monsters that leave you crying in your cups if you aren’t careful.*  Ta-Nehisi loved it for the quality of Bilger’s writing, quoting the lede as an example of the (writing, not brewing) craft being practiced at the highest level.

It is fine writing — jump either of the links to check it out — but it reminded me of a much earlier piece of equally fine writing by William Least Heat Moon, published in the Atlantic more than twenty years ago, back when the phrase “good American beer” was still an oxymoron to most.

Here’s Moon’s last paragraph, in which he and his companion, “the Venerable,” make the mistake of going to the well one last time:

South of Sacramento, near Interstate 5, we stopped in a bar overhung with ferns, stained glass, old-time signs. We went in looking not for the perfect bar but only for a working phone. We knew that men who discuss the bubbles in a head of beer, who read patterns in the Irish lace – those men do not come into bars like this. Yet we had a small hope that some bottle of an untried oddity might be tucked away. The offerings, of course, were Hobson’s choice. Maybe the wish to put a touchstone to these last days of golden glasses urged us, I don’t know, but we ordered our Hobson’s, our industrial. The Venerable lifted his glass, drank, and set it down. He turned to me blankly and said, “Did I miss my mouth?”

I’ve used that last line I can’t think how many times in the years between then and now to describe all manner of experiences that somehow flat out failed.  It’s perfect.  Read the whole piece — it’s good on its own terms, and it captures a surprisingly distant recent moment in our past.  We live in a different country now — and Moon has been testifying to the change for a long time.

*Bilger writes about, among much else, Dogfish Head’s 120 minute IPA, which has an alcohol content in a double digit ABV percentage.  I have yet to encounter it, but I fear it.  I tried the 90 minute version on the recommendation of another blogospheric beer lover, Tim from Balloon Juice, with its 9% ABV, and even that seemed a bit off balance to me.  But unless it’s just too tame to borne, I can commend the 60 minute IPA, 6% ABV.  Just bitter enough — very nice.  (Though as a Bay Area boy born and bred, and blessed during high school with a bar just north of the UC Berkeley campus that (a) had Anchor Steam on tap and (b) was not exactly meticulous about checking IDs, I give that very fine old beer pride of place.)

Image:  David Teniers II, “Tavern Scene,” 1658.

Quote for the Day: Stephen Pinker/Albert Einstein edition

November 20, 2008

It could be just me, but I ain’t so sure about this:

Some people raise an eyebrow at linguists’ practice of treating their own sentence judgments as objecitve empirical data.  The danger is that linguist’s pet theory could unconsiously warp his or her judgments.  It’s a legiimtate worry, but in practice linguistic judgments can go a long way.  One of the perquisites of research on basic cognitive processes is that you always have easy access to a specimin of the species you study, namely, yourself.  When I was a student in a perception lab I asked my advisor when we sould stop generting tones to listen to and start doing the research. He correcte me:  listening to the tones was research, as far as he was concerned, since he wasconfident that if a sequence sounded a certain way to him, it would sound that way to every other normal member of the species.  As a sanity check (and to satisfy journal referees) we would eventualy pay students to listen to the sounds and press buttons according to what they heard, but the results always ratified what we could hear with our own ears.  I’ve followed the same strategy in psycholinguistics, and in dozens of studies I’ve found that the average ratings from volunteers have alsways lined up with the original subjective judgments of the linguists.  (Stephen Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, 2007, p. 34)

I know (or I think I do) what Pinker is trying to say here.  You can’t even begin to formulate an idea without having some idea of what you’re looking at or for.  Professional experience and a depth of knowledge of other work in the field do count.  One’s own perceptions are real, and can (must) guide experimental design and interpretation.

But at the same time, I fear Pinker’s diminishment of the possibility of observer bias, of the fact that people have commitments both conscious and unconscious to a given idea or expected outcome.

That such expectations can deeply affect one’s ability to understand what your measurements actually are saying to you is a matter of historical fact — and this kind of observer bias can strike even the brightest of investigators, even in fields seemingly safely far removed from the subjectivity and noise that accompanies any attempt to penetrate human mental life.  Peter Galison has dissected the famous (among a certain crowd) case of Albert Einstein’s misplaced confidence in the interpretation of his collaboration with W. de Haas on an experiment to explore properties of what became known as the Einstein-de Haas effect.

The experiments the two conducted did advance the understanding of the magnetic behavior of electrons, though a proper interpretation of what was going on had to wait (in a familiar trope for early 20th century physics) for quantum mechanical intervention.  But the point here is that Einstein had made a theoretical calculation to determine the expected value of the ratio of the magnetic moment to the angular momentum of electrons travelling in their closed orbits around atomic nuclei.  In his calculation, he derived a value of one.

Then he and de Haas performed the measurement, using a delicate and complicated experimental set up. Sure enough, they were able to extract data that produced a value for the quantity to be confirmed of 1.02.   Einstein was aware that this looked almost too sweet — he wrote that the “good agreement may be due to chance” — but the coincidence of expectation and result was too much for him to ignore.

Unfortunately, subsequent experiments, and then the theoretical description in quantum mechanical terms showed the correct value to be two.

The moral?  Pace Pinker, while judgments by practitioners immersed in their fields do and should go a long way, past (and future) performance is no guarantee that observer bias ain’t about to bite you in the ass right now.   (Say I, ex cathedra — that is, someone whose last lab experience involved hideous acts performed on a frog — see E. M. Fogarty, “Anatomy of a Frog,” Journal of Irreproducable Results, 1963, 11, 65.)

That said — I’m well stuck into The Stuff of Thought and am enjoying it greatly.  I just got stuck for a moment on what might be the scientist-popularizer’s equivalent of an episode of irrational exuberance.

Michael D. Reveals The Secret Homosexual Tactics For Taking Over America

November 20, 2008

Over at Balloon Juice, Michael D. finally succumbs to the pressure and admits what we all suspected:  gay shock troops are trained and ready  to take over your town.

Here, hour by hour, see the the diabolical sequence of moves through which the gay militia will achieve their nefarious ends:

Homosexual agenda:

1. Get up at 6
2. Drink 2 cups of coffee
3. Get stuck in traffic on way to work
4. Work
5. Lunch
6. Work
7. Gym
8. Dinner
9. TV
10. Bed
11. Get up at 6

And you know what’s worse?

Once those dastardly destroyers of my own personal marriage get their way, they’ll have spouses and kids who will increase the deadly efficiency with which the gay agenda as they find themselves  in parent-teacher conferences; bread sales to raise money for school trips; long, unheard explanations about why cleaning up one’s own Lego instead of watching Danny Phantom is in fact an essential element of childhood; extended conversations about whose in-laws are least likely to drive their own child back into infantile derangement during the holidays; whose turn it is to bag the recycling…and so on.*

You have been warned.

*Not that I, my wife, and my son have experienced any of these phenomena, of course.

Image:  Caravaggio, “Amor Vincit Omnia” (Love conquers all), 1602-1603.

And Speaking of David Mamet….

November 18, 2008

A true story (or at least one too good to check):

My Uncle Dan (whom I’ve had sad occasion recently to write about in this venue) had a professional relationship with David Mamet — as his personal lawyer for matters including estate issues and similar stuff.

I don’t know any details, so I couldn’t violate attorney-client confidentiality if I wanted to (my uncle was more than rigorous about such matters), but he did tell me th is story about the time when he and an associate were drafting a new will for Mr. Mamet.  They bent to their task for a while, and then all of a sudden the associate looked up.  The dialogue as reconstructed is not guaranteed to be accurate.  But the sense is there:

Associate;  “This is David Mamet’s will.”

Dan:  “That’s right.”

A:  “Mamet.”

D:  “Yeah?”

A:  “So we can’t just say, ‘I David Mamet, being of sound mind and body.”

D: “So?”

A:  “How about this:

“So I’m dead.

Fuck you.”

Works for me.

Image:  Original painting by J. Northcode, R.A., engraved by P. Simon, “Last Scene of Romeo and Juliet.

Let Me Tell You A Story: Hollywood comes to MIT…maybe.

November 18, 2008

Via The New York Times today comes this story about the creation of a new mini-lab hosted by MIT’s Media Lab to attempt to “revolutionize how we tell our stories, from major motion pictures to peer-to-peer multimedia sharing” — as the press release describing the new effort modestly proposes.

It will do so, the announcement goes on to declare,

By applying leading-edge technologies to make stories more interactive, improvisational and social, researchers will seek to transform audiences into active participants in the storytelling process, bridging the real and virtual worlds, and allowing everyone to make their own unique stories with user-generated content on the Web.

And lastly the nascent Center for Future Storytelling is down with the tech side of the issue:

Center research will also focus on ways to revolutionize imaging and display technologies, including developing next-generation cameras and programmable studios, making movie production more versatile and economic.

I mostly post this for general interest reasons:  there may be some of you for whom news of a tech-centered approach to narrative will stimulate ideas, projects or even a possible collaboration or visit to 02139.

But I do have a couple of quickie reactions, born of no more knowledge than the two sources linked above.  The first is that it looks to me like the Times reporter did not quite grasp the significance of MIT culture and the specific history and practices of the Media Lab.  The NYT piece emphasizes what it sees as the destruction of narrative produced by Hollywood blockbuster productions, and uses the Media Lab announcement as a kind of validation to suggest that eggheads and members of a Hollywood-diaspora are coming together to rescue storytelling from Jack Sparrow’s mincing embrace.

At the top line, the Future Storytelling people are happy to play that role.  But dig down into the MIT initiative and something that more seasoned observers of my home institution could have predicted starts to become clear.

That is:  MIT is first and still most an engineering school.  The Media Lab itself is part of the School of Architecture, but the basic approach to media is technology and not content driven.

You can see that here.  The headline may be the ambition to revolutionize the making of narrative, but the details as described so far all about process, not the actual act of engaging some one or many in a new tale.

To put that another way. We are already experiencing the fact of technological change in the creation of mass and interactive media.   Movie making is already cheap.  $5,000 cameras and professional laptop editing systems that add maybe a grand or so to the cost of a computer bring video narrative into the realm of the possible for almost anyone.  (Even if not an individual — you can still find this tech at institutions like public libraries (for the computers) and public access cable outlets.  If you really, really want to make a movie, nowadays, the gear itself is not the impediment.

Interactive story-telling?  All sorts of free platforms exist to do so in text, spoken word, still and moving image.  They may not be perfectly tailored, but the spreading tentacles of what began as the blogosphere show that the forms of interactive and community conversation are alive and well.

And so on.  There are some amazingly cool things going on at the MIT media lab — see for one example among many Ramesh Raskar (one of the new center’s co-directors) and Dennis Mlaw’s project to create a wearable motion capture fabric.  Such research and much else besides holds out enormous promise for the creation of tools with which to advance communication through any number of genres.

But I guess it is the claim of insight, or even interest in storytelling as a form rather than as an ongoing engineering practice that leaves me a little uncertain.  When  project co-founder David Kirkpatrick tells the Times that “The idea, as we move forward with 21st-century storytelling, is to try to keep meaning alive,”I don’t quite get it.  Bluntly: technology and its deficits does not constrain good story telling in Hollywood or anywhere else.  Rather, it all rests on the quality of the script or its genre-appropriate equivalent.

This isn’t to say that the Media Lab or its funders shouldn’t try to make the most innovative cameras imaginable, or come up with software that permits things as yet undreamt of to connect individuals in this world of pain.  It’s not even to argue that new technology does not play a role in the evolution of new forms; self evidently they do.

Think about the emergence of the novel as a major form after the adoption (in Europe) of movable type — and then the rise of genre fiction enabled by the less noticed innovations that created a supply of cheap paper on which the penny dreadfuls could be printed.  But in the end storytelling comes back to the quality of story creation, which at bottom is platform agnostic. I’m glad the Media Lab has got a new pile of money in this benighted time with which to pursue the kind of technological sweet spots that have always animated that group’s greatest passions.  I just quarrel with the implied (and occasional explicit) conflation of the tools with the thing to be made.

I guess I qualify as a fogy.  When I and my grad students start thinking about storytelling, we begin back at the beginning, here.  For a view of the problems Hollywood creates for would be storytellers in film, you could do worse than read this.  Its author, David Mamet, has no shortage of views. But he understands the telling of tales a bit, I’ve heard — and this other brief, three part essay precisely maps the classical structure of narrative drama.

Image:  Albert Bierstadt:  “Campfire Site, Yosemite,”  1873.

How To Think About the Lieberman Decision…A Historical Perspective.

November 17, 2008

This story fills me with all the megrims it does Kos.

Seriously, my fellow Democrats — I’m looking at you, Senators — just ask yourself, WWLBJD?

Do you think for a moment that Lyndon Johnson would have said, in effect, “pretty please Mr. Lieberman won’t you play nice with our caucus?”

Hell no.  He’d be looking for stringed instruments in need of a some Nutmeg-State-guts with which to strike a chord.

That is all.

Image:  Jan Vermeer, “The Guitar Player,” before 1670.