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The Economist: “Stanford creating a new Florence?”

22 May
May 22, 2014

stanford_quad

Liberal arts: useful in Silicon Valley? It’s not an entirely new debate, although it does seem to be picking up slightly more steam in the past year or two. The Economist has a quick blog post, on Stanford University’s role in such a possible Tech Age Renaissance: “A Florence for the 21st Century

‘The Palo Alto-based university is trying to help answer one of the questions that haunts our “knowledge society”: where will new ideas come from? Many successful start-ups are the result of their founders spotting gaps in their own lives. But what if their thinking stretched far beyond their daily horizon? “The labour market is a rat race, so you’re in a permanent state of distraction,” notes Wiley Hausam, the executive director of Stanford’s new Bing Concert Hall (pictured). “Art stops all of that and allows creative ideas to emerge almost on their own.”’

It’s a somewhat romantic, but not entirely farfetched idea: “Stanford has been the catalyst of the Silicon Valley revolution, and we want to have the same effect on the arts … The Bay Area has the human and material resources needed to become the Florence of the 21st century.” Palo Alto: artistic community? And what kind of artists can afford Palo Alto rent prices anyways?

For more background on the are-liberal-arts-useful-in-tech debate, here’s an interesting article that Vivek Wadhwa wrote over at TechCrunch,Engineering vs. Liberal Arts: Who’s Right—Bill or Steve?

New Book: Toronto World Film Locations

29 Apr
April 29, 2014

toronto world film locationsHere’s a new book that I worked on: World Film Locations, Toronto (ed. Tom Ue).

This was a fun project — combining brief film essays, local Toronto history, and some fascinating side-by-side photo comparisons of familiar movie scenes with their real-life locations. As it turns out, Toronto has quite the long history with Hollywood projects (just take a quick glance at this long list of films shot in Toronto).

The book covers quite a range of movies –from 1980s classics like A Christmas Story and Police Academy, to superhero genres like X-Men and The Incredible Hulk, award-winning dramas like Good Will Hunting and cool Indie flicks like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (one of my personal favorites from the book).

scottpilgrimvstheworld7For Toronto film location fans, the Reel Toronto series from Torontoist is an indispensable resource, which sums things up nicely:

Toronto’s extensive work on the silver screen reveals that, while we have the chameleonic ability to look like anywhere from New York City to Moscow, the disguise doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny. Reel Toronto revels in digging up and displaying the films that attempt to mask, hide, or—in rare cases—proudly display our city.” 

Batman, or Shakespeare?

26 Mar
March 26, 2014

who said it shakespeare or batmanHere’s a fun way to spend a couple of minutes: “Who Said It: Shakespeare or Batman?

(I can’t believe I missed the two that I did … clearly I haven’t been reading enough Batman).

batman shakespeare bustDid you know you can buy the Batman Shakespeare bust? (You know, the next to the Bat-Phone). Probably just as well that I don’t have $3oo.o0 for impulse eBay purchases.

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Tangentially related: Greg Hurwitz studied Shakespearean tragedy at Oxford, and gets to write Batman comics!

Amazon’s “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime”

25 Mar
March 25, 2014

100 books to read in a lifetimeOk, I’m kind of a sucker for book lists. Have you seen Amazon’s “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime“?

It’s actually a fairly interesting mix. And here’s a link to the GoodReads version – I wonder what the list composition would look like if it were a crowd-sourced list.

Some tidbits from their press release:

  • Oldest book on the list: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
  • Most recently published book on the list: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)
  • Book on the list that inspired the most internal debate: 1984 by George Orwell
  • A few books that were unanimous across the team: Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Really, Portnoy’s Complaint? Maybe I’m just not a liver fan.

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And for those that don’t want to scroll through the Amazon website to see the full title list (like me), here’s the list:

1984 by George Orwell

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

A Series of Unfortunate Events #1: The Bad Beginning: The Short-Lived Edition by Lemony Snicket

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Alice Munro: Selected Stories by Alice Munro

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt

Are You There, God? It’s me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Born To Run – A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown

Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Book 1 by Jeff Kinney

Dune by Frank Herbert

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared M. Diamond

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Color of Water by James McBride

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The House At Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Liars’ Club: A Memoir by Mary Karr

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1) by Rick Riordan

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Shining by Stephen King

The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Novel by Haruki Murakami

The World According to Garp by John Irving

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

 

Thoughts on Reading, iPads, and Tablets

24 Feb
February 24, 2014

ipad air reading booksWhen the iPad Air came out, GalleyCat asked what some people were probably wondering: “Will the 1-Pound iPad Air Be Better for Reading Books?” After all, it’s half a pound lighter than the previous iteration.

1.5 lbs may not sound like much, but I hope I’m not the only person who has fallen asleep while reading on a tablet, only to be waken up by the tablet smashing me in the face. Then, it actually does feel rather heavy.

The point of this post is to think about what exactly we mean by “better” for reading, and what kinds of reading we have in mind.

For example: MacWorld (“Why and when the iPad is the best e-reader“) points out the useful distinction between studious reading (“The iPad facilitates note-taking and skimming—the kind of reading done by college students. But at the end of a book, it’s so much easier to go back, find your notes, and give yourself a Cliff’s Notes overview of what you just read. If you’re in information-processing mode, the iPad is usually the way to go. Making and navigating these sorts of notes on an e-ink Kindle is painful“) on the one hand; leisure reading; and old-fashioned immersive reading, giving the slight overall edge to the iPad mini.

Also worth a reading, from The Guardian (“Which is the best tablet for reading?“) which favors the new Nexus 10 for its impressive 2560 x 1600 pixels high resolution screen, while keeping in mind:

paperwhite is still best for reading“There is no “best” tablet for all kinds of reading in all kinds of situations, which can range from sitting out in the midday sun to reading in bed. Also, people have different responses to different types and sizes of screen, especially when reading for long periods. … The Kindle Paperwhite e-reader is better than tablets at handling a wide range of lighting situations. Tablets are hard or sometimes impossible to read in bright sunlight, and their glossy screens can pick up annoying reflections.

Gizmodo weighs in on ereaders (“5 Ways Ereaders Are Still Better Than Tablets“). Yeah, the article is over a year old, but I think the first three reasons are legitimate, and it certainly seems as if ereaders can get away with a longer product lifecycle than a tablet (iPad 2? Are you kidding? That’s so 2011).

If you think “better” means serving the function of reading books, an ereader is probably the way to go: “ Let’s face it, as much as you love Middlemarch, you love checking your email more. Notifications, tweets, messages, even a handy digital clock; these are the things that make tablets great multitasking machines and terrible reading devices.”

kobo glo pride and prejudiceSpeaking of e-reading devices, CNET’s “Best e-book readers” is a useful primer. Having had experience with all of them, I would have to agree with the Kindle Paperwhite as the best pure e-reading device, and the Kobo Glo does present a legitimately interesting Kindle/Nook alternative.

Math, and The Simpsons

17 Feb
February 17, 2014

Math and The Simpsons

I finally got a copy of Simon Singh’s The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets. You can also check out an excerpt from Singh’s book at Slate: “Homer’s Last Theorem

[update: Here's another book excerpt, this time from Homer3, one of my all-time favorites. Slate: "One, doh!, three: Homer Simpson is a math genius. Really!"]

Interesting to learn that Fermat’s last theorem was an easter egg of sorts in Season Ten’s The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace.

homer 3d n and npWired has a great list of  top Simpsons Math moments: “The Simpsons Has Been Tricking You Into Learning Math for Decades.” Henry Kissinger’s glasses and ““the sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side” will still be my favorite, especially for the Wizard of Oz allusions. But “Girls Just Want to Have Sums” gets points for its educational topical relevance, even if it does end on a cop-out at the end.

Jordan Ellenberg from UW Madison wrote a solid review of the book: “Mathematics and Homer Simpson“, with the following reflection:

One “Simpsons” writer tells Singh: “I think the mathematical mind lends itself best to writing very silly jokes, because logic is at the heart of mathematics. The more you think about logic, the more you have fun twisting it and morphing it. I think the logical mind finds great humor in illogic.”

Homer math fermat's theorem

And while we’re on the subject, the best website on the subject has to be Sarah J. Greenwald and Andrew Nestler’s SimpsonsMath.com

Mother Jones (“How the Simpsons Have Secretly Been Teaching You Math“) shares a cool article and podcast with even more info.

Lastly, Simpsons math geeks will also want to check out this 9-minute video:

Do We Really Care How Long It Takes Us To Read a Book?

10 Feb
February 10, 2014

Delay iphone reading app

What if we could know exactly how long it took us to read a book before we bought it? Does it really matter?

This article from Publishing Perspectives (“Should Books Tell You How Long They Will Take to Read?“) got me thinking. In particular, PP mentions a new type of reading app:

“the Delay App, which asks readers to indicated the amount of time they would like to read and, in turn, the app offers them selections that can be read during that period.” 

Here’s a link to the related press release (PP: “Dutch Delay App Gives You Stories Tailored to Your Free Time“), and it does take an interesting approach: marketing ebook content by length of reading time.

With the Kindle, for instance, we get an estimated reading time based on our reading speed and pace at which we scroll through pages. From personal experience, I started out as a big fan. But lately, if I want to read simply for the sake of reading (right now, I’m reading Anna Karenina), the thrill has worn off and I longer get a thrill out of knowing how many hours and minutes are left in the book.

Part of that is probably related to the fact that the Kindle estimated reading time varies from fairly good to terrible. Reddit definitely comes in handy if you are looking for a way to reset that pesky Kindle timer: “How to fix Kindle reading time estimates.

suggested reading timeAnd here’s another interesting viewpoint, from Flavorwire: “No, Alexis Ohanian, I Don’t Want Books to Tell Me How Long I Should Spend Reading Them“:

“… the purpose isn’t so much informational as it is, I think, sort of hilariously disciplining of both author and reader. A slow reader will feel guilty; a fast reader will feel pride; in both cases the feelings serve no useful purpose. For a writer of any real caliber the thing is actively self-debasing. This is an author saying to you: “I have written a book. Isn’t it great? It is, but it is only worth five hours of your time. It might take you longer to read War and Peace, sure, and you might have to do a couple of re-reads. But the whole sum of human knowledge on offer in this book: it’s five hours only. I’m just efficient like that.”

My Kindle Paperwhite tells me that War and Peace should take about 30 hours. I don’t know how much of a bearing that has on my life or my reading experience.

What’s the point of all of this? I doubt the suggested reading time is a trend that will really catch on. But, as more and more of everyday life becomes quantified and organized into more and more slices of data, I can’t help but wonder that there is some importance in resisting over-scheduling certain things, like our reading time.

Very Cool: “Graphing the History of Philosophy”

03 Feb
February 3, 2014

Graphing the history of philosophy

(Click on the image above for a way bigger and more interactive version!)

Simon Raper of Drunks&Lampposts has created this amazing visualization “Graphing the History of Philosophy“, derived from the Influenced By section for every philosopher on Wikipedia. Some detail on his methodology:

“Each philosopher is a node in the network and the lines between them (or edges in the terminology of graph theory) represents lines of influence. The node and text are sized according to the number of connections (both in and out). The algorithm that visualises the graph also tends to put the better connected nodes in the centre of the diagram so we see the most influential philosophers, in large text, clustered in the centre. It all seems about right with the major figures in the western philosophical tradition taking the centre stage.”

The whole thing really is worth a close look (and there’s even a helpful download link of the 8MB complete file).

io9 (“The complete history of philosophy visualized in one graph”) has a good breakdown of this massive philosophy cluster:

“Conspicuous by his absence is Descartes, but Raper offers a possible explanation: The chart only measures direct influences, and it’s likely that Descartes’s tremendous contribution has trickled through second and third degree associations. Alternately, it could also be the fault of strictly using associations established by Wikipedia editors.

Other highly influential philosophers (rightly) include Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, Leibniz, Rousseau, Hume, Wittgenstein, and even Noam Chomsky.

The graph also shows a certain amount of “clumping” that one would expect — a logical grouping of philosophers within their respective traditions, and in close relation to their precursors and eventual offshoots.” 

Bertrand Russell The History of Western Philosophy book coverHumanities in a Digital Age (“Visualizing the History of Philosophy?“) also offers a thoughtful counterpoint about the vagueness of influence involved, along with a more exact description of what we are looking at: “If we are after a graphic representation of what late-twentieth- and early twenty-first-century contributors to Wikipedia would have been likely to say about the relations of influence between figures in the Western tradition, this likely does a very good job of delivering us that.”

It’s a very cool visualization. And there’s always the old-fashioned way, like one of my favorites: Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy.

Books, Blogs, and Our Memories

27 Jan
January 27, 2014

Remembering Blogs, Remembering NovelsI came across this snippet, while doing some research, from GalleyCat: “Your Brain Can Remember a Blog Post Better Than a Novel“:

“It might be easier for your brain to remember this post than it is to recall details from a perfectly composed novel.

In a new paper in the Memory & Cognition journal, researchers discovered that “mind-ready” and casual formats like blog posts, Facebook status updates or Twitter writings might be easier for your brain to remember. These are powerful lessons for writers to learn about connecting with readers.”

Maybe … or, maybe not. Perhaps blogs that are more visually-oriented tend to stick in the memory better, but  personal experience tells me that I can still remember a novel better than the blog posts I read even yesterday (maybe because we’re concentrating more on novel reading than the more distracted, casual reading we do with blogs?)

Does this suggest that we remember fact better than fiction? The kind of evocative fiction involved in novel reading would seem to be easier to visualize. And then again, blogs (generally speaking) are easier to edit and update than novels — so unless we go digging around cached website copies, who’s to say how well we remember those blog posts?

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While we’re on the topic, have you read Slate’s excellent 2010 (“The Ministry of Truth“) piece in its experiment on “changing history”? Cool, and kind of creepy. Definitely worth a read.

Digital words are more fluid than printed words, and this is a topic that I find endless fascinating; one of my favorite recent TED talks: Elizabeth Loftus and The Fiction of Memory.