Friday, March 23, 2018

Day jobs

From an essay by Katy Waldman, “Does Having a Day Job Mean Making Better Art?,” a glimpse of Philip Glass at work:

“While working,” Glass recounted to The Guardian in 2001, “I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him that I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”

Mailboxes of Seattle

Behold Mailboxes of Seattle, David Peterman’s photographs of Seattle’s 346 — no, make that 347 — mailboxes.

My little town has just ten mailboxes — no, make that eleven, if you count the one that appears on no map but which our carrier has assured us is genuine. We’ve yet to risk it.

Looking at these photographs makes me think of the most important mailbox in my life, one that stood at the bleak semi-industrial intersection of Ashford and Malvern Streets in the Allston neighborhood of Boston. In my first year in Boston, that mailbox was my primary connection to friends back in the Bronx. (Phone calls were expensive.) I’d walk out at night to mail a letter and think about messages in bottles. The loneliness of the long-distance mailbox.

[Via Atlas Obscura. The Allston mailbox still stands, though its surroundings are less bleak, less industrial.]

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Highway nostalgia

Remember the olden days, when the information superhighway allowed a kid working on a school project to interface with world-class scientists for advice? Me too, or neither.

“This was a breach”

From Mark Zuckerberg’s statement about Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and user data:

This was a breach of trust between Kogan, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. But it was also a breach of trust between Facebook and the people who share their data with us and expect us to protect it. We need to fix that.
Anyone else notice the lack of agency in these sentences? Agency is present elsewhere in the statement, sort of: we did x ; we will do y. But at the heart of what happened: “This was a breach of trust,” as if the writer were an outside observer. Moreover, the breach, as Zuckerberg casts it, lies in the transfer of data from Aleksandr Kogan to Cambridge Analytica and in CA’s possible failure to delete that data — not in Facebook’s treatment of its users. Imagine facing anyone you’ve wronged and announcing “This was a breach of trust.” Then imagine the response you might get.

Notice too the way Zuckerberg disavows agency by assigning responsibility to Facebook’s users and to the mysterious workings of Facebook itself:
In 2013, a Cambridge University researcher named Aleksandr Kogan created a personality quiz app. It was installed by around 300,000 people who shared their data as well as some of their friends' data. Given the way our platform worked at the time this meant Kogan was able to access tens of millions of their friends’ data.
You installed the app; you shared data: as the song says, don’t blame me. It’s just the way things happened, “given the way our platform worked at the time.” Not “given the way we designed Facebook, to scrape and sell your data, because that’s how we make money.”

Now I almost wish I had a Facebook account, just so I could have the satisfaction of deleting it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Goodbye to all that

The Washington Post reports on a plan to drop thirteen majors at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. The majors in question: American studies, art, English (without teacher-certification), French, geography, geoscience, German, history, music literature, philosophy, political science, sociology, and Spanish:

Students and faculty members have reacted with surprise and concern to the news, which is being portrayed by the school’s administration as a path to regain enrollment and provide new opportunities to students. Critics see something else: a waning commitment to liberal arts education and a chance to lay off faculty under new rules that weakened tenure.

The plan to cut the liberal arts and humanities majors . . . is in line with a failed attempt by Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2015 to secretly change the mission of the respected university system — known as the Wisconsin Idea and embedded in the state code — by removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
To be added or expanded: majors with what the school calls “clear career pathways,” including captive wildlife and fire science.

Thanks to Slywy for passing on this news.

Three related posts
“A fully realized adult person” : The gold standard, haircuts, and everyone else : Philosophers and welders

[Revised to make clear that while some majors are slated for removal, others are to be added.]

How to improve writing (no. 74)

From a New Yorker review of a memoir by Andrew Lloyd Webber:

Could we, terrible thought, have been unfair to Andrew Lloyd Webber? The answer turns out, on inspection, to be a complicated and qualified Yes. Certainly, no artist as hugely successful as he has been can have struck a chord without owning a piece of his time.
I’ve stared at these sentences to figure out why they bug me. The we is not as pompous as it might seem: the word refers to “American lovers of musical theatre who blame Andrew Lloyd Webber for pretty much everything that went wrong on its stages, starting in the early seventies.” But there’s the breathless “terrible thought,” the meaningless “on inspection,” the amplified “Yes,” and the final sentence, with its hype (“hugely successful”), awkward pun (“struck a chord”), and piled-up verbs (“has been can have struck”). I thought of a number of ways to revise that sentence:
An artist as successful as Lloyd Webber owns a piece of his time.

An artist as successful as Lloyd Webber is an integral part of his time.

An artist as successful as Lloyd Webber has made his mark on our time.
But I gave up, agreeing with Elaine that the sentence is nothing more than a truism: anyone who’s successful and famous is successful and famous. My revision:
Could we have been unfair to Andrew Lloyd Webber? The answer turns out to be a complicated and qualified yes.
Related reading
All OCA “How to improve writing” posts (Pinboard)

[This post is no. 74 in a series, dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

Impromptu in D

Fresca suggested a Lassie story in which a little boy named Donny visits the Martins. I can’t go there. But I did suggest that if Donny were to visit the Martins, he might be gored by a boar, gored real bad. So bad that he’d turn into Jake Barnes. John Barron, John Miller, David Dennison: what’s one more name? Imagine this scene:

“Oh, Jake,” Peggy said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. Was that supposed to mean something? The car slowed suddenly pressing Peggy against me.

“Yes,” I said. “Sad!”
Lassie stories
“The ’Clipse” : “The Poet” : “Bon Appétit!” : “On the Road”

[Jakes Barnes: from The Sun Also Rises. John Barron, et al.: Trump pseudonyms. Peggy: Peterson.]

Recently updated

Mozy, sketchy The e-mail is real.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Mozy, sketchy

[Update: It’s real.]

Here’s the text of an e-mail I received this morning, purporting to be from the (excellent) backup service Mozy:

This message looks sketchy to me: no greeting, no signature, no contact information. The tech jargon reads as if its purpose is to baffle. There’s significant inconsistency: upgrade, update. And the strange underlining in that ominous final sentence: “Please accept the update request when it occurs.” Even the period is underlined.

This stern, cryptic message makes quite a contrast to Mozy’s shiny, cheerful newsletter-like e-mails to users. Here’s an excerpt from one such e-mail, one I received this morning, twenty minutes before the upgrade e-mail:

I can think of two ways to explain the upgrade e-mail:

1. It’s bogus.

Yet the e-mail appears to come from a genuine Mozy address. So:

2. It’s genuine, written by a tech-minded employee who wasn’t thinking about how the message might look to a lay reader.

At Mozy’s user forum, the authenticity of the upgrade e-mail has been an open question for eleven hours. How about it, Mozy? Will you tell your users whether this e-mail is real? And if it is, will you do better?


March 21: I went to Mozy chat support and found the answer: it’s real. Still no answer on the forum, but I suspect that will change soon.

Later that same day: Still no response. Something I hadn’t realized: some users assume that the underlined sentence is a link (it’s not), which deepens their suspicion that the e-mail is bogus.

Thoreau pencil

From an auction to benefit the Thoreau Society and Thoreau Farm Trust: a “genuine Thoreau pencil.” Current bid: $250.