Thursday, June 30, 2011

Google Plus: First Impressions

So I was fortunate enough to be an early user of Google Plus, Google's new answer to Facebook. And, so far, I would say that it's not bad, but it's unclear if it will offer anything that will overcome the inertia keeping most users bound to Facebook.

The biggest promise in Plus is a granular sharing experience, the ability to craft virtual relationships that mirror the nuance of real-life ties. One of the most significant problems with early implementations of Facebook was the homogenization of degrees of acquaintance (e.g. friends vs. closest friends vs. family, etc.) into the binary categorization of "friend." Clearly, this ersatz virtual construct didn't offer the necessary mirroring of real-space relationships, and caused worlds to collide, a la the social networking cautionary tale of the day. Facebook moved toward correcting this with the creation of lists, but Plus takes it a step further.

In Plus, you add people to "circles," arbitrary collections that you can use to replicate the nuance of real-world relationships. For example, you could create a group called "high school" and put all of your high school friends in it, a group for your coworkers, etc. They also state that the group names are private, so friends are unaware of the name of the group you place them in (though I still wouldn't recommend making a group called "enemies"!).  Every time you share anything (a status, a picture, etc.), you make a conscious decision as to which circle(s) you share it with. In the experience I've had so far, this is much more controlled and conscious a process than Facebook sharing through lists.

Another feature I like is that Plus stays true to Google's ethos of "data liberation." That is to say, they make it very easy to get any data you put into Plus out. You can download, for example, any pictures that you upload back to your local machine. This, I think, is actually a big deal. One of the things that keeps people pretty locked into Facebook is the difficulty involved with getting data out of it. To the best of my knowledge, there is not way to download all of your data en masse. Correction in the comments--thanks, Chris L! I didn't realize that.

In terms of design aesthetic, Plus is very austere, in the minimalist tradition of Facebook (in what I think is reactionary to the carnival chic that was MySpace). Though, to me, the feel is bordering on insipid. From an interface perspective, it seems fairly intuitive and easy to use.

While the service does offer some interesting features (video chat, group IM discussions from mobile devices, etc.), I haven't seen anything that feels revolutionary. Unless Plus is able to capitalize on a youth-led exodus from Facebook (as a reaction to the mainstream/adult presence there), I doubt that it will, at this point, make much of a dent in Facebook's market share. But I do feel like it has a better chance of being successful than Buzz or Wave (though I do think Wave was misunderstood and a good product).

Would love to hear your opinions on this.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Poetry of Space: Mise En Scene

Don't ask how my tortuous reading/reference path lead me to reading Theater and Its Double by semi-crazy playwright Antonin Artaud, but it did. While Artaud lays the groundwork for his famous Theater of Cruelty concept, in between some fairly pretentious puffery, he takes a very interesting stance: that words and dialogue are the province of books--not theater. Huh.

Artaud refers to the theater as the "poetry of space," or a "language created for the senses." This is in opposition to written dialogue or text, which he considers to be the domain of the "mind." I thought that this concept was really cool, as it immediately made me think of all of the times I've seen my wife perform modern dance, and it really is the poetry of space.

To appreciate what he means by this dialogue-to-aesthetic dichotomy vis-a-vis theater, we have to consider his definition of "mise en scene." I say his definition because he explicitly points out his disdain for using the term to refer to props on the stage, the costumes, etc.--ornamental additions to the scene. When Artaud uses "mise en scene," he means the complete aesthetic experience: the unique interaction between music, lighting, props, movement, gestures, facial expression--everything but the spoken dialogue, save for its sonic properties, like intonation and cadence. "It is the mise en scene that is the theater," he asserts.

I thought this concept was fascinating. It makes a lot of sense, but I had never considered divorcing the language of theater from the rest of the aesthetics. In fact, the dialogue has always been central to me, and I read more plays than I get to see in person (alas).

But no intelligent point is complete without the devolution of a sound idea into a polemic! Artuad skillfully interleaves his distaste for the mise en scene living "under the exclusive dictatorship of speech" in Western theater:

"In any case, I hasten to say it at once, a theater which subordinates the mise en scene and production…to the text, is a theater of idiots, madmen, inverts, grammarians, grocers, antipoets, and positivists, i.e. Occidentals"

Yikes. Ad hominem at its best!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Socializing the book

The discussion of creation through the juxtaposition of existing elements can take many forms. For example, Lawrence Lessig’s Remix puts forth the idea that mixing individually copyrighted elements, like overlaying a song on top of a series film clips, creates a new entity, the remix, that shouldn’t be subject to copyright constraints on each of its components.  The argument is that the remixer has created something new, a new work of art born of the unique juxtaposition of existing works. In the course of reading a book lent to me by my good friend Warren today, I found myself intrigued by how his notes in the margins transformed the book into something else, a new work of sorts. 

The book that Warren lent me (Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be, an excellent exploration of the social construction of reality [constructivism] vs. objectivism) stands on its own as a solid scholarly work. But I found my eyes constantly drawn to Warren’s scrawls in the margins. Pithy phrases like, “Descartes” and “Tower of Babel” either created a unique form of synthesis through a juxtaposition he made or pointed out the potential influences in the creation of an idea. 

Of course, it’s not that interesting in and of itself to say that your eyes can be drawn to margin notes in a lent book. What I thought was interesting was the social aspect of the need I felt to respond in some cases. I wanted to, in places, say, “Yes, this is Cartesian in a way! I hadn’t considered that. It made me think of reality constructed through a Manichean lens, myself.” Perhaps he hadn’t thought of that (but he probably did). The point is that as he altered the work to create a new work through his notes, and I wanted to create yet another new work via my responses, we get toward a very social interaction with a long-form piece. 

Consider the full-circle social implications of this: 
• Warren lends me a book that he thinks, knowing me, that I will finding interesting or at least provoking • He’s read this book and marked it up • I read the book and add my own notes and respond to some of his • I give the book back • He skims and looks for my responses.
Unlike a traditional book group, we’ve just interacted with the work in serial. We didn’t have to remember specific ideas and discuss them. We marked all of them, and we could always discuss later. It makes me wonder if a technology exists to do this. Or how hard it would be to create one. For example, Kindle books allow for social underlinings/highlights. But what if you could comment up an ebook and share those comments just with your friends. It would be a new way of interacting with the long-form via social networking technologies!

Monday, June 20, 2011


My dad sent me a link to this really cool site called today. LibriVox is a site that provides completely free audio recordings of public domain works read aloud. I immediately searched their archive for my favorite authors—Christopher Marlowe first, of course, followed by Alexander Pope. I was thrilled to find a full recording of Marlowe’s "Hero and Leander," and one of Pope's "Essay on Man." Hearing the pieces read aloud by someone with knowledge of the works, I thought, was very similar to taking an English seminar and hearing a scholar read a work with the proper inflection and cadence. Except, in this case, there was an entire archive of scholars reading, all at my fingertips.

And so, in a way, the project is very close to the PennSound poetry project, a project very dear to me that provides freely downloadable mp3s of poetry. PennSound gives the opportunity to hear a poet reading his or her own work, and in my favorite section, PennSound Classics, to hear Renaissance and Medieval scholars reading works the way they were meant to be read/performed (it was really awesome to be able to record David Wallace reading Chaucer).

I'm hoping to one day work on a project that will allow for a mixed multimedia presentation of the text of literary works and the audio of a reading of the work. This sort of project is usually called "alignment," and allows for awesome integration of textual presentation and multimedia presentation. For example, one could highlight lines of a poem and hear the author or a scholar read just the highlighted text. If the process could ever be automated well, imagine what could be done by bringing together an audio archive like LibriVox with a textual archive like Project Gutenberg!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Don't You Forget About Me: Super Autobiographical Memories, Funes the Memorious, and the Internet

Just caught a portion of 60 Minutes where they were doing a story on people with "super autobiographical memory," a new scientific phenomenon where people can literally remember everything about their lives in stupefying detail. For example, they asked people what they were doing on random dates—"what did you do on July 7, 1990?"—and they could answer with little to no hesitation, including citing what day of the week it was! "That was a Saturday. I had a music recital in the morning, and then I went to dinner at this restaurant. I had the salmon." This triggered the thought, for me, of one of my favorite short stories, "Funes the Memorious," by Jorge Luis Borges.

In Funes, Borges encounters a boy that was thrown from a horse and subsequently could remember every detail of his life and his environment in excruciating detail. He can recall specific cloud formations from any minute of any walk he took, his exact emotional state and degree of thermal comfort (thanks for teaching me that term, Sara!) from every minute of every day. In fact, he goes so far as to reconstruct every second of a previous day in the current day, which obviously takes the entire day, as it happens in real time. He devises alternate counting systems of arbitrary symbols up to around the number 24,000, and remembers every symbol. The amount of information he absorbs eventually leads to horrible bouts of insomnia (he can’t stop cataloging things), and he mysteriously dies at the end of the story at around 19 years old.

I would often use Funes in my classes as a metaphor for the Internet. It was a cool juxtaposition of literature, technology, futurism, and humanism (not to mention constructivism). We would talk about the story during our discussions of the permanence of information on the Internet. The Internet, much like Funes, stores everything, from the most trivial bits of information ("me-formation," such as what your facebook friends had for lunch today) through our most crucial data. It never forgets; it just absorbs more information. And as search technologies improve, it can recall more of it more quickly and easily than ever before. It can lead to fond reminiscence or be the “cruel historian” it’s been called in the past.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Books Through Bars

It would be stating the obvious to declare that volunteering one's time to help the less fortunate can be a perspective-altering, empathy-inspiring experience. But spending time at a recent Kelly Writers House volunteer event at Books Through Bars challenged several misconceptions that I had about prisoners in our correctional facilities.

Books Through Bars is a nonprofit that sends books to prisoners incarcerated in US correctional facilities. I wasn't previously aware of this, but most prisons will not accept books from any sources other than bookstores—Amazon, for example—or approved nonprofits. So BTB fills a crucial role: providing prisoners with literature at a time when budget constraints are forcing prisons to cut back on educational programs (as one of the BTB staffers said, "you can't cut back on food or heat, so education is the first thing to go").

I first became aware of BTB when a good friend of mine, Al Filreis, donated a book to them in my honor as a holiday present. It was a perfect present, really, as it involved two of my loves: education and literature. So when I saw a listserv message land in my inbox about volunteering at BTB, I jumped at the opportunity to help out with this phenomenal program. We planned to spend a Saturday morning/early afternoon reading letters from prisoners requesting books, selecting books accordingly for them, and packing those books for mailing.

The Philadelphia location of BTB, located in the A-Space in West Philadelphia, feels like a cross between an excellent used book store and grade school art class (and I mean that affectionately), with several tables covered in scissors, rolls of tape, and brown paper bags for packing books. The book selection, comprised completely of donated books, was amazing. There's an entire room on the first floor dedicated to fiction and reference books (dictionaries are the most requested books), and the basement looked like a full library, filled with stacks of shelves of categorized books. Most disciplines seemed to be represented.

After a few practice runs of packing up books that had already been picked out by staff members (an activity that exposed by ineptness with most processes in the physical world), we were able to select letters from prisoners, read them, and search for appropriate books amongst the stacks. The letters ranged from brief requests for anything in a specific genre through elaborate letters requesting specific works and authors. The letters themselves, all of them, even the most austerely written, served to provide a sense of humanity to an otherwise anonymous and alienated group, a kind of collective entity we may tend to think of as "criminals." The letters rendered all the more obvious that these are people, perhaps people who've made bad mistakes or harmed others, but people nonetheless.

Going into the event, I was operating under the assumption that most prisoners were undereducated, certainly not intellectuals. The first letter I opened served to disprove this misconception. The letter's author politely introduced himself and asked for works dealing with libertarianism, specifically those of Robert Heinlein. If those were not available, he asked for existentialist literature. I was floored--then thrilled. I quickly made my way to the fiction room, scurrying between others attempting to select the perfect book. While there was no Heinlein on the shelves, I was able to pack up some Camus and Kafka for him. We were given a form letter to put in with the packages (it stated regret that we could not write personalized letters), at the bottom of which I scrawled, "excellent choices! Hope you enjoy these!--BTB."

I drew another letter from the pile, hoping that it would be a request for another genre that I knew something about. This letter, written on a scrap of loose leaf paper, asked for Classical works, specifically philosophy. Ecstatic, I ran down the stairs to the philosophy section and pulled copies of Plato's Republic and Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. Perfect.

The third letter I selected felt thicker than the rest. Inside, there was a letter from a prisoner being held in a Central-PA prison. His visage was photocopied in the upper-right corner of a typed letter. He explained that this was the second time that he had written to BTB, and that the first books had been excellent and influential on the art he creates. He asked for books on modern art, specifically by Jackson Pollock, and works that might help him develop some landscapes he was hoping to complete this year. He also included a photocopy of a short story that he wrote, which was published in a magazine, along with photocopy of some thumbnails of his paintings. (Unfortunately, my expertise in the humanities lies mainly in printed works, so I had to get a consult on which books to select for him.)

And while it's certainly true that not all of the requests were asked for advanced literary material, every single letter was polite and well written—and provided insight into a human life. I came away from the experience with a new outlook and a new compassion for those imprisoned in our correctional facilities. Given that I think that empathy is the most crucial skill for any human to possess, I think that more people should spend a day volunteering at BTB.

Everything BTB does, from providing the hope that literature bestows upon us, through rehabilitating through knowledge, is essential. I've decided to go on my own to volunteer as much as possible. I highly recommend that you check them out and consider getting involved.