Archive for May, 2009

12th Century Wisdom

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

I found this quotation recently on Andrew Sullivan’s blog from 12th century theologian-philosopher Hugo St. Victor:

The person who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong person has extended his love to all places; the perfect man extinguished his.

This came as a reassuring message to me, as I’ve always felt like something of a stranger in a strange land. I’m from Harrison, Arkansas, but not of it. I live in New York City but it’s just as foreign to me.

The same statement could be applied to race and religion. Race, place and religion are the primary causes of war. While I lament the homogenization of America, the loss of native languages and cultural practices, I realize that for everything we lose culturally, we gain peace.

What divides us is what defines us. As in my previous post, if I say, “I’m an Arkansan,” then that’s 49 implied statements about the states I’m not from[1]. Ideally, we should not give objective preference to any one place or race (or religion but that’s much harder to do); we should only recognize them as subjective preferences, personal to our life experiences. Pride of race, place or religion may help give people confidence and identity, but they lose a greater understanding of the world at large in the process.

1.) Plus all the lovely inferences and assumptions that come with making that statement.

The Mechanics of Statements

Monday, May 11th, 2009

This thought occurred to me on the subway yesterday: every declarative statement implies hundreds of opposites.

For example, if I say, “this chair is blue,” then the following statements have been implied:

The chair is not red.
The chair is not yellow.
The chair is not green.
The chair is not orange.
The chair is not purple.
The chair is not brown.
The chair is not black.
The chair is not white.

I found this peculiar, because while I’m acquainted with the notion that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, the idea that every statement has hundreds, thousands, or even an infinity of opposite reactions to be mind-boggling.

In much the same way, a statement like “God Bless America” implies that God should favor us over others, that God should not bless France or Eritrea or every other nation in the world. Why would he do that? Why would we want him to, but out of selfishness and arrogance?

Another example: you sit down at a table of women, and you greet one of them by saying she looks beautiful. In doing so, you’ve effectively stated that the other women at the table are not beautiful.

Language is dangerous.

Know Your Subway Cars

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

I tripped over a fun series of Wikipedia entries today – the various types of New York subway cars.

R32 – The tin cans from the 1960′s favored by the C line. Built by the lowest bidder in 1964 for the paltry sum of $117,000 per car!

R42 – The popular, all shiny gray interior trains with poles perfect for pole-dancing. From 1969.

R46 and R44 – The funky 70′s orange and yellow interior cars, the ones we F line travelers know so well.

R62 – Still funky 70′s colors, but with all the seats pointing the same way. From 1983, when train cars cost $918,293 each.

R142, R143, R160A and R160B – The fancy new trains with all the digital displays and automated announcements. Built by Kawasaki for a cool 1.2 million dollars each. The B article contains the information I’ve long been wondering about: the distinctive stepped-pitch whine that these cars make.

Most of the older cars were rebuilt and refurbished in the 1990′s. The names indicate the contracts under which they were purchased. There are even more articles on decommissioned trains like the R9, for example.

I love Wikipedia. It’s a place where expert trainspotters can share their vast wealth of useless minutiae. For those who want to dig even deeper into the trainspotting obsession, here is a deeper breakdown at nycsubway.org.

Twitter Love and Twitter Hate

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

I keep hearing people hating on the Twitter. Maureen Dowd wrote a nasty little interview with the founders (parodied here to genius levels), and my friend Mark is convinced that Twitter is the event horizon of the coming Idiocracy.

I tend to side with the cautiously optimistic. I can see the potential for a vast wasteland of irrelevancies broadcast amongst the foolish, and I can also see the value in knowing what my friends and heroes are up to in something approximating real time. Living in New York, it’s uniquely fantastic when someone like Imogen Heap tweets that she’s headed to Apple Store, so that I might have a chance to bump into her (I missed her), or when my friend Tom tells everybody the admission price to his latest show dropped to ten bucks. It’s also nice to be entertained by John Mayer, who clearly wishes he were a standup comedian.

On the other end of the spectrum, though, there’s Ashton Kutcher. He really thinks Twitter is the logical evolution of radio to telephone to TV to web to tweet, and that its founders are to be enshrined alongside the names Marconi, Farnsworth, and Bell.

Maybe. One thing I’ve noticed, though, about life-changing inventions in my lifetime is that almost none of them have individual inventors. No one person can be credited with inventing the Internet, the cell phone or the personal computer as we know it. As the Master Control Program says in Tron, “No one User wrote me. I’m worth millions of their man-years.” The real lasting value of something like Twitter will take a decade or two to determine. After all, what is Twitter but a MySpace or Facebook status update? And what will come along in 5 more years that might replace it? The Internet makes so much collaboration possible that I wonder if the next hundred years of inventions will be defined by networked team efforts rather than individual genius.

For now, we have Twitter to play with. Maybe it will go away as people get bored with it, but it seems to be of enough value that it will never truly die. Like MySpace, which nearly everyone I know as all but abandoned, persists because its vast musical platform continues to provide value for musicians. As long as it provides a service people enjoy, it will continue to exist in some shape.

Video never really killed radio. So why should MySpace or Twitter be any different?

Advantage: Kindle

Monday, May 4th, 2009

One thing no one seems to have mentioned among the advantages of the Kindle: it lays flat. How many times have I tried to eat a sandwich while reading a paperback, and had to put the book down to take up the sandwich? Or pizza? Or any meal involving a knife and fork? Holding books open is often annoying. And newspapers – all the folding, spine snapping and the inky fingers. Deliver us from the third dimension, oh Kindle! Guide us home!