Tag Archives: books

man as industrial palace

22 Jun

You’re Part of Technology, Too

I use Radiolab as an escape while I work out. As a radio show, it can be fascinating, funny, cute, and gruesome in a single episode. It’s the perfect distraction while I lift weights or bike—things that don’t come naturally to me.

I was at the gym when an episode stopped me in my tracks. I felt the wind go out of me, and I ceased moving. Robert Krulwich, one of the hosts, was interviewing Kevin Kelly, author of What Technology Wants, and something Kelly said was chilling. Going back to it now, I can’t recreate the poignancy of the moment, but it was a haunting realization for someone who avoids technological gadgets and fancies himself “set apart” from the fast-paced world of technology.

Let me set the scene. Krulwich has been talking to Kelly for nearly 20 minutes, and Krulwich has repeatedly made known his discomfort with several of Kelly’s ideas. At this juncture, Krulwich reads someone else’s summary of the book, and asks Kelly if he too is not at least a little creeped out by these notions.

Robert Krulwich (quoting): “‘Humans cannot direct or prevent technology’s course. Like water contained behind a dam, relentlessly seeking escape, technology will eventually find its own way.’ Now doesn’t that creep you out a little?”

Kevin Kelly: “No, no—”

RK: “Oh, you’re just you.”

KK: “No, no, no. Seriously. If you said the same thing about life, would that creep you out?”

RK: “No, I’m part of life; I’m just worried about the things—”

KK: “No, you’re part of technology too. Don’t you understand? We humans have invented ourselves. We have this external stomach we call cooking, that has changed our diets, that has changed our teeth, our jaws. We remade ourselves when we became literate; our brains are rewired, we think differently. We’re not the same people that left Africa. We have domesticated ourselves. And we’re going to continue doing that.”

Now, I’ve read about technological devices as extensions of human ability. The telephone was an extension of our mouths; it projected our voices across impossible distances. But this was an eye-opening way to see myself: An invention. Not readily separable from technology.

I found myself the next morning trying to imagine life with no technology, not just without our MacBook or Civic, but without the building systems that were used to create our apartment building 80-some years ago. Without the pipes and pumps that bring water up three stories and into our tub. And, yes, even more basically: without the books on our shelves or a simple pencil or written language at all.

If technology is not just gadgetry but the whole invented world—every machine, no matter how simple—then I can’t distinguish myself from that world any easier than I can pretend I’m not part of the natural system of sun, water, and air.

:: :: ::

Right up there with Swaziland

No matter how you run the data, you get a correlation between technology—whether you buy the above definition or not—and a change in the way we work. Faster, everyone says. And they’re right. In college, we learned it by rote: “Technology may mean that things get done faster, but you’re now expected to do ten times as much.” They were trying to prepare us for the real world. Except, what we didn’t learn was that this real world wasn’t everywhere.

Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans. The differential isn’t solely accounted for by longer hours, of course—worldwide, almost everyone except us has, at least on paper, a right to weekends off, paid vacation time, and paid maternity leave. The only other countries that don’t mandate paid time off for new moms are Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Samoa, and Swaziland.

Now, certain economic systems that sound great don’t always live up the hype. Greece, for instance. It probably offers weekends off, paid vacation time, and paid maternity leave. But it also has zero accountability, which means government officials there make about three times as much as a private-sector employee and collect bribes to boot. One IMF official put it this way:

“The way they were keeping track of their finances—they knew how much they had agreed to spend, but no one was keeping track of what he had actually spent. It wasn’t even what you would call an emerging economy. It was a Third World country.”

So we don’t want to always call the European grass greener, but I must admit that my views on work don’t necessarily align with American culture’s, and yet from within such a powerful system, it’s difficult to see a way out. Not to say I’ll quit trying. Just like I won’t quit creating ways to limit—or at least remain in control of—my relationship with technology.

:: :: ::

Man as Industrial Palace

I didn’t initially see the connection, but I ran across something today that well symbolizes these complex thoughts on human evolution and industry. It doesn’t answer any of the questions, but it does provide a little room to breathe. It’s an animated installation of Fritz Kahn’s 1927 lithograph, “Der Mensch als Industriepalast,” or “Man as Industrial Palace.”

twitter = literature

20 Jun

Anyone who either a) lives in Chicago, or b) reads the news, knows about Dan Sinker, aka @MayorEmanuel. They may not have seen, however, the absolutely brilliant cover for his new book, The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel, illustrated by Paul Hornschemeier.

It’s a bit inexplicable as to why, but I find it hilarious. It may have something to do with the fact that Rahm looks a bit like Robert Downey Jr. But it’s also the duck, the mustache, the falconer’s glove, the foreword by Twitter’s founder, and the blurb from Rahm himself (whether the last is real or not).

the kinetic nature of A and H

26 Apr

After months of carrying it from place to place, drawing looks and raised eyebrows and questions and guffaws, I’ve finally finished Adam Levin’s The Instructions. I’ll probably write a bit about it here, but for now, here’s an excerpt from the novel, a chunk I’ve been typing out since I read this passage, way back on page 414.


Name: Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee

Grade: 5 6 7 8

Homeroom: The Cage

Date: 11/15/2006

Complaint Against Student (from Complaint Against Student Sheet)

Fistfight with Ronrico Asparagus and on top of that assaulting Michael Bregman by spitting on the guy. Gym locker-room. 2nd Period. 11/14/06. Mr. Desormie.

Step 5 Assignment: Write a letter to yourself in which you explain 1) why you are at step 5 (in-school suspension), 2) what you could do in order to avoid step 5 (receiving in-school suspension) in the future, 3) what you have learned from being at step 5 (in-school suspension), 4) what you have learned from writing this letter to yourself. Include a Title, an Introduction, a Body, and a Conclusion. This letter will be collected at the end of in-school suspension. This letter will be stored in your permanent file.


Kinetic Principles of Your A and H


1. Attention (A) must fix itself on something. Once a thing is fixed on, that thing demands concentration.

2. If we measure A in units, and we assert that 100 units of A = the amount of A it takes to concentrate on one typical task (one fullthing), then most people in the world have exactly 100 units.

3. Some people, like me and Benji Nakamook, have more units of A than are needed to concentrate on a fullthing. People like us have 175 units of A. These people will henceforth be known as You.


Hardly anything in the world demands exactly 75 A-units for concentration, let alone 175.

Normal Places

In normal places, ones that are filled with brief actions and randomness, there are, in addition to some fullthings, thousands of things for A to fix on that are not full. Therefore, if You are in one of these normal places, it is not unlikely that Your A will fix on a set of things that, together, demand exactly 175 unites = It is likely, in a normal place, that You will be able to concentrate on whatever things You’re doing = Your A probably won’t get D’d.

Abnormal Places

In abnormally still and quiet places like classrooms, although there are many available fullthings for A to fix on—many available things that demand exactly 100 units of A—there are hardly any that demand less than 100 units. Fidgeting, for example, demands just 10-20 units, depending on the intricacy of the fidget. Another 20-30 units, depending on the quality of the sound, may be demanded by the task of listening to the background noise that gets past where Your earlids would be if You had any. But even if while concentrating on one fullthing, You fidget and listen to noise 25-45 more units remain, and all of them must fix on something.

The Remainder

What the remainder fixes on will be the nearest thing, which—as You are in a place containing few breif actions and little randomness—is almost always going to be a fullthing.

Because a fullthing demands 100 units of A for concentration, the 25-45 unit remainder is insufficient.

But even if You don’t fidget or listen to noise—even if Your 175 units of A are divided between only two fullthings—You are still 25 units shy of the A required to concentrate on both: While 200 units are being demanded by a pair of fullthings, only 175 are available, and that is why the fullthings enter into a cycle of thievery.

An Ultimately Doomed, However Momentarily Useful, Analogy

To understand the thievery cycle, it is a little bit useful to think of A-units as electrons—to think of A as being stolen back and forth between fullthings to fill their concentration-demands the way electrons get traded between bonded atoms to complete their outer-rings.

With atoms, the trading of the electrons happens at the speed of light—so fast that it is as if at any given time, each atom has a full outer ring, which is why it is only a little bit useful think of A like electrons: A does not move nearly as fast as light, and so A is never as if in more than one place at a time. When demanded A arrives at one fullthing, that fullthing holds onto it for a second or two while the other fullthing demands it back; not only that, but the A takes time to travel from one fullthing to the other.

So then, with two fullthings demanding Your A, the following four arrangements cycle over a period of seconds.:

1. Fullthing1 has 100 units and Fullthing2 has 75 units

2. Fullthing1 has 75 units, Fullthing2 has 75 units, and 25 units are traveling from Fullthing1 to Fullthing2

3. Fullthing1 has 75 units, Fullthing2 has 100 units

4. Fullthing1 has 75 units, Fullthing2 has 75 units, and 25 units are traveling from Fullthing2 to Fullthing1

In a vacuum, this cycle would repeat forever, but You are never in a vacuum. This cycle is only the beginning of a larger one.

The Larger One

Within a few passes, something, usually a fullthing, will get in the path of the traveling A-units (i.e., during arrangement 2 or 4) and the units will fix on that something so that now there are three fullthings demanding concentration = three fullthings demanding 100 units each. This not only decreases the frequency at which each fullthing within the cycle possesses 100 units, but increases the overall number of units being demanded at any given time. Worse than that, the amount of time that the A is in transit increases, which creates more opportunities for things—again, usually fullthings—to get in the path of your traveling A. The process thereby continues to degrade at an exponential rate. Nonetheless, it is not an entropic process. If it were entropic, it would eventually stabilize—single units of your A would come to free-float around the universe, fixing on and being stolen from so many random things, both fullthings and non-, that you could never concentrate again. That very sad kind of math, baruch Hashem, is entirely avoided by means of hyper (H).

A Blessing

H is a blessing. Here is how it arises:

After a certain number of things—usually between 9 and 11, depending on how many are fullthings—have entered the cycle, the paths of the traveling A criss-cross and the A begins to act like a thing, itself = the traveling A itself demands A = You get distracted by the fact of Your distraction = You find Yourself paying attention to Your attention.

And paying attention to Your attention, You find Yourself.

Before, You operated as if the A was You, as if it was You being divided and shuffled between fullthings. But now that the A has begun to demand A, You—the most basic You, the part of You that never changes, the part this is always there, that has been there, watching—You think: If I can pay attention to my attention, then I must be something other than my attention. You don’t actually think that so much as You watch it get thought, yet it’s at this point that You come to know, however briefly, that You are neither Your A, nor what Your A fixes on, but a soul. This is where You find out, for the billionth time, that You are partly God. If You were not partly God, how could something like A, something that emanates from you, demand anything of You? If there were no God in You, how could something like A, something that is completely subject to Your will, be capable of willing things on its own, much less things that go against Your will? It couldn’t. And it is here that You become hyper = here You watch, in softer focus that is normally comfortable, every insufficiently concentrated-upon thing that You A has fixed on at once, and You respond to all of it, at once. You do not necessarily respond in ways that are best for the world around You, but You respond to everything. You respond to everything in some way or another because that is the nature of the most basic You, the nature of your God. The nature of God is hyper.


Unlike God, You are not all God (although God is not all of God, all of God is God: where much of You is made of something else like blood and bones and muscle, He has nothing but Him; He is only God minus the pieces of Himself that are inside of us) so you cannot remain for all too long.

After a few minutes of H, the A units spasm like an overworked muscle. They lose their fix on the things they have fixed on, and the things they had been fixed on no longer demand them. Now only You demand them and so your A returns to You, a few units at a time. How long it all takes to amass depends on how far the units that were fixed on the farthest thing have to travel. Once it’s all gathered in You, the A quits spazzing and the cycle starts over.

For Further Consideration

The question arises as to whether or not Your A can be aggregated with the A of other Yous in such a way as to satisfy the concentration-demands of fullthings.

I.e. Suppose there are 4 Yous. With 175 A-units per You, the aggregate number of A-units is 700, which is exactly as many A-units as it takes to concentrate on 7 fullthings.

So, if A can be aggregated, then 4 Yous should be able to concentrate on 7 fullthings at once = 4 Yours should be able to perform the tasks of 7 normal people within the same amount of time and space as it would take 4 normal people to perform 4 tasks. In concentrating on 7 fullthings, then—if 4 Yous can in fact aggregate their A to do so—4 Yous would not become hyper; the kind of A-unit slippage that leads to the thievery cycle that occurs when 1 You attempts concentration on 2 fullthings would never begin, for there would be no remainder of A-units in the case of 4 Yous and 7 fullthings.

And just because 4 Yous who are concentrated on 7 fullthings would almost definitely look very H to an outsider, that does not make it so. Looking H to the eyes of outsiders may, in fact, be to the advantage of 4 Yous.

E.g. If 4 Yous were soldiers, the 4 Yous could conceivably prepare for and maybe even launch a war’s decisive battle right in front of their enemy without their enemy knowing it = The appearance of the 4 Yous’ H-ness could provide a kind of cover similar to that of David ben-Jesse’s youth or the Yiddish accent of that Palmach operative’s telephone voice when he gave fair warning to the British. For what did Goliath see from across the battlefield? He didn’t see a killer taking aim with a deadly weapon. He saw a boy inexplicably swinging a leather strap over his head. A moment later, Goliath was gone. And what did the British colonists hear when the operative phoned in the Palmach’s warning to vacate the King David Hotel? They didn’t hear the voice of a stealth guerrilla group that was about to explode British headquarters. They heard a nut with a Yiddish accent making a prank call. A couple hours later, there was one less place for the Brits to sleep, and quite a few less Brits.

The capacity to aggregate A would be a very useful capacity. Whether or not such a capacity exists, and how one (or 4 or 8 or 12 or 40) might engage it if it does exist, is surely worth further consideration.

culling and surrender

21 Apr

Walk into a local bookstore.Look at the lit journals. Look at how much you’ll never read.

And that’s just lit journals. What about psychology journals? Neuroscience? Media studies? Anthropology? History? What about consumer magazines? What about the great political commentary in Vanity Fair? What about the New Yorker and the Paris Review?

Add books.What about all the novels, biographies, sociological studies, classics, contemporaries, travel writing, music writing, food writing, you’ll never read?

If you’re overwhelmed, you’re not alone. But Linda Holmes, writing for NPR, has an interesting perspective on this glut of great stuff being created and published:

There are really only two responses if you want to feel like you’re well-read, or well-versed in music, or whatever the case may be: culling and surrender. Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It’s the sorting of what’s worth your time and what’s not worth your time.

Surrender, on the other hand, is…the moment when you say, “I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I’m supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn’t get to.”

What I’ve observed in recent years is that many people, in cultural conversations, are far more interested in culling than in surrender. … I see people culling by category, broadly and aggressively: television is not important, popular fiction is not important, blockbuster movies are not important. “Don’t talk about rap; it’s not important. Don’t talk about anyone famous; it isn’t important. And by the way, don’t tell me it is important, because that would mean I’m ignoring something important, and that’s … uncomfortable.” That’s surrender.

I admit I cull too often. But I’m learning to surrender. And here’s maybe the best reason to be ok with that.

Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you’re “supposed to see.”

Imagine you got through everybody’s list, until everything you hadn’t read didn’t really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime.

That would make us failures, I think.


As a postscript, a few of the local lit journals I enjoy. I’m still negotiating our terms of surrender.

Logan Square Literary Review. It’s logo: Vulpes vulpes = The red fox. I have such a fox sitting on my desk, “Le Petit Prince” embroidered on his side.

Artifice. Published by a team who seeks “creative work aware of its own artifice.” Love this: “The things we like, we like more than we can stand.” Also love that it’s about the size of a stack of index cards.

Anobium. Brand new. Name comes from Anobium punctatum = common furniture beetle, which “will tunnel through wood and paper if it is nearby the wood.” i.e. bookworm.

loco moco and other news

13 Mar

Reports from the lit world:

• our miniature universes are, in fact, connected

• DFW keeps writing from the grave

• Hawaii’s history is revealed through its incongruous eating habits

• design meets food (and everything meets everything else) via a British thesaurus

• and a Chicago poet elongates her vowels


Patrick Somerville’s delightfully titled The Universe in Miniature in Miniature has been getting a lot of local press recently, perhaps because many of its 30 interconnected short stories are set in Chicago, and it’s enough to pique my interest. The book breaks apart into “15 mini novels” and the limited-edition cover can be turned into a retro sci-fi mobile. Inside the stories are “aliens, universities dedicated to hair regrowth, and magical empathy-helmets,” writes Gapers Block.

Add to all this that Somerville will be reading at the release of The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s latest posthumous effort, alongside Adam Levin, and I’m certain he’s someone worth paying attention to.


Sarah Vowell (comedic social commentator, This American Life contributing editor, and voice of the adorable Violet in The Incredibles)  tackles Hawaii’s incongruous diet (its love of plate lunches and loco moco) and makes an astonishingly fun trailer for it:

It brings new meaning to Anthony Doerr’s comments on books as recipes, which, according to GOOD, are ripe for a redesign.


Speaking of GOOD and recipe redesigns, The Flavour Thesaurus beautifully melds the worlds of design and food. By British food columnist Niki Segnit, the book “lists 99 flavors and common flavor pairings for home cooks, say, combining celery and horseradish or melding tomato and anchovy,” writes Peter Smith. “Each of the 900 pairings…comes with a short digression. You can learn about the history of the Bloody Mary, which didn’t originally include celery and horseradish, or read a brief description of pizza and umami.”


Finally, at a reading last night, I  got to see two local poets: the lovely Simone Muench, whom I’d heard of (she was featured recently in The Believer) and Jennifer Karmen, whom I had not but whose book, Aaaaaaalice, I am now on the hunt for. Neither of these women were the main event, but they were the stars of the show.

films | books |&| why they mix

14 Oct

As I was at work, thinking about writing this post (which was to be a list of actors and actresses you can count on to be part good, creative projects), I got off on a tangent. So we’ll start there.

At the top of my great actors list would have to be Daniel Day-Lewis and not because he’s a “man’s man” who I can idolize to compensate for my own lack of bad-ass qualities (my favorite character of his is actually a subtle yet masterful portrayal of a dying father in The Ballad of Jack and Rose).

I was trying to recall if there had been a Day-Lewis film that just was not good at all. My mind went to The Crucible. I’m not certain that it wasn’t great, I’m just not certain it was great. And that got me thinking about something else: I saw The Crucible in high school. We watched it in class. I started thinking about why we watch movies in school, because we rarely watched the whole thing, and it was usually only to compare and contrast (high school English teachers’ favorite phrase) the book to the movie.

And that’s asinine, right? Like how do you do that, exactly? A book and a film are so different, what rubric can judge both? Can an author actually be compared to a director? Is that even the comparison that should be made? With a film there are a thousand different people involved, whereas a book is the story of one person, told by that one person with creative input coming from two, maybe three, people. So already the forms, and the processes required to create them, are totally different.

This spawns yet another question: if the media are vastly different, but both are used to relate a narrative, why are only books (or the movies of those books) used for education? If we can learn from stories (and I’m convinced we do all the time), why not use films, films with thought-provoking and young-adult-worthy themes? Is it because it’s too time-consuming? Obviously not, because they do allow for the movies of books for those fruitless — and deceptive (“kids, you actually CAN compare apples to oranges!”) — compare-and-contrast exercises. They could easily use that time to watch a different movie, one that would actually further supplement the discussion of issues brought up by that year’s literature. For example, you could read The Odyssey and then watch O Brother, Where Art Thou? or read 1984 and watch V for Vendetta.

This could work. Kids could learn and have fun watching good films that illustrate the same issues and themes that their books contained. There is only one problem: Ratings. In the U.S. you have to be 17 to watch an R-rated film. Obviously that puts a PG-13 limit on every single teacher who has a freshman, sophomore or junior class. So the 1984 and V for Vendetta pairing wouldn’t work.

Now here’s the question: is that how it should be? I don’t know about anyone else, but many of the books I remember reading in high school (and middle school for that matter) would’ve easily been rated R had they been made into movies. But they stayed in the library because books don’t get ratings. Even with other previously unrated media now receiving them (i.e. television programs and video games), books are still untagged. Why is this? I know seeing something is different than reading about it, but books can get you emotionally charged up. In fact, I’m not certain that seeing something in a movie is actually worse than reading about it at all. I’m reading Life of Pi right now and the description of the hyena attack on the zebra had me recoiled in nauseated horror, probably much worse a feeling than seeing it in a movie would have produced.

Or I remember reading books like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and similar stories that had some fairly explicit sexual content, some of it described graphically enough that in a movie it would probably been seen as straight-up pornography. So we should rate books? Not necessarily. What I find interesting is that they seem to be ok without them.

But why? Why do we trust ourselves and our kids with books whose pages could be filled with hyper-descriptive violence, graphic and gratuitous sex, or abusive language? And therefore, why don’t we give ourselves the same leeway with movies? I’m not advocating we rid our movies of ratings, instead I have a different idea.

What I propose is this: Schools should be allowed and encouraged to lower the suggested age limits for the sake of education. I believe there are as many good lessons in films as there are in books. I believe teachers should be allowed to qualify as a legal guardian in terms of age restrictions so that they have the final say on an R-rated film, like whether the Oscar-winning Crash and its thoughts on race might just be as or even more relevant to today’s high schoolers as To Kill a Mockingbird.

For now, teachers should search out great films they can show. There are some fascinating movies out there that are, surprisingly, only PG or PG-13. Here are a few, none of them R, that could be used in numerous high school classrooms, from freshmen English to advanced U.S. History: Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet, The New World, The Visitor, and Mona Lisa Smile.

Those are just some off the top of my head, but any film that is quality and incorporates themes that help further the education of America’s youth could, and should be shown.

And hopefully someday a teacher will decide that comparing movies and books is just plain ridiculous.

Oh, about that list of actors and actresses… umm, next time.