An Objection to Tim Parks’ “E-Books Can’t Burn”

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about Tim Parks’ pro-ebooks argument in The New York Review of Books. I’ve still been thinking about possible objections to his thoughts (and they were excellent). This weekend, I stumbled upon a blog post by Epicurean Dealmaker (he remains anonymous on the Web) who eloquently distills his objections:

[M]y real objection to Mr. Parks’ argument has to do with the naive Platonism he attempts to sell us. His entire argument seems to boil down to the assertion that there is some sort of “pure text” at the base of every work of literature—words in inviolate sequence, to use his coinage—and that e-readers, by collapsing and standardizing our access to them, somehow make our experience of literature purer and more authentic. But this is just bullshit. The experience of literature—and reading in general—is always and everywhere a solitary interpretative act on behalf of and by the reader. Readers read literature in time, in space, and through some sort of medium. Time spent reading—pace, duration, intervals when one puts down the book—directly and ineluctably affects the reader’s experience of the text. Readers who read Ulyssess in three years may indeed have read the same text as those who read it in two weeks, but they certainly have not had the same aesthetic and cognitive experience. In addition, solitary reading involves the visual faculties and aesthetic senses, too. Font, line leading, margins, and even pagination affect a reader’s experience of a text, often subconsciously. No-one who has ever compared a cheap, cramped, badly-typeset version of a novel to a well-designed, spaciously laid out one can help but notice the difference. And noticing the difference in and of itself alters the experience of the work. Joyce may be as much Joyce in Baskerville as in Times New Roman, but I dare you to find him the same author in twelve point Comic Sans.

A book, properly considered, is a recorded performance of a piece of literature, just like a CD is a recorded performance of a particular piece of music. While musicians have more artistic discretion in interpreting a piece than a book designer and publisher do, the latter are not aesthetically invisible. They subtly influence a book’s format and packaging: font, margins, page breaks, cover art, etc. The sequence, timing, pace, and even completion of the work—its interpretation—lie in the hands of a reader, but the packaging and presentation of the physical object is not. And because reading is a performance, the time and place where you read is important, too. Reading Lord Jim on a plane is not the same as reading it on a tropical beach. The former is forgettable; the latter is not, as I can personally attest.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the same music, whether it is interpreted by the Berlin Philharmonic or the Boise Symphony. But nobody ever hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: they hear a performance of it. By the same token, nobody ever reads Ulysses, they read a version of it, as presented to them through the medium of some sort of delivery device at a particular time and place, and interpreted according to their own engagement, interest, aptitude, and sensitivity. A Kindle or an iPad is just another delivery device, constrained or liberated, as the case may be, by its technical and aesthetic capabilities and limitations. There are many texts where an e-reader’s ability to standardize, flatten, and minimize aesthetic variation may very well be an advantage. (I think in particular of current non-fiction, biography, history, and other trade books.) But to pretend it is therefore somehow more transparent to a work of literature than a physical book is wishful thinking.

A must-read in entirety. I especially like the strong conclusion with a reference to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

Teller (of Penn & Teller) Reveals The Secrets of Magicians

In this Smithsonian Magazine piece, the magician Teller summarizes the principles magicians employ when they want to alter your perceptions. After mildly lambasting neuroscientists and MRI equipment, Teller reveals the secrets of the magician:

1. Exploit pattern recognition. I magically produce four silver dollars, one at a time, with the back of my hand toward you. Then I allow you to see the palm of my hand empty before a fifth coin appears. As Homo sapiens, you grasp the pattern, and take away the impression that I produced all five coins from a hand whose palm was empty.

2. Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth. You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest. My partner, Penn, and I once produced 500 live cockroaches from a top hat on the desk of talk-show host David Letterman. To prepare this took weeks. We hired an entomologist who provided slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches (the kind from under your stove don’t hang around for close-ups) and taught us to pick the bugs up without screaming like preadolescent girls. Then we built a secret compartment out of foam-core (one of the few materials cockroaches can’t cling to) and worked out a devious routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat. More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.

3. It’s hard to think critically if you’re laughing. We often follow a secret move immediately with a joke. A viewer has only so much attention to give, and if he’s laughing, his mind is too busy with the joke to backtrack rationally.

4. Keep the trickery outside the frame. I take off my jacket and toss it aside. Then I reach into your pocket and pull out a tarantula. Getting rid of the jacket was just for my comfort, right? Not exactly. As I doffed the jacket, I copped the spider.

5. To fool the mind, combine at least two tricks. Every night in Las Vegas, I make a children’s ball come to life like a trained dog. My method—the thing that fools your eye—is to puppeteer the ball with a thread too fine to be seen from the audience. But during the routine, the ball jumps through a wooden hoop several times, and that seems to rule out the possibility of a thread. The hoop is what magicians call misdirection, a second trick that “proves” the first. The hoop is genuine, but the deceptive choreography I use took 18 months to develop (see No. 2—More trouble than it’s worth).

There are two more items in the post. The biggest takeaway, to me, is the magician’s investment of time to getting his trick down to a T. Practice and then more practice makes the tricks appear flawless.

The Evolution of Jeremy Lin

The phenomenon that is #Linsanity has swept the nation… The saga began after Jeremy Lin had a 25-point Game at Madison Square Garden on February 4. Since then, Jeremy Lin has been averaging more than 20 points and dishing out nearly 9 assists per game for the New York Knicks. In my opinion, he has single-handedly resurrected the shortened NBA season.

But what of Jeremy Lin’s evolution? Cut twice by two NBA teams, this fascinating New York Times story reveals how Jeremy Lin’s evolution as a point guard we observe today was gradual. Over a span of eighteen months, he has shown dedication to get better at his game. It meant coming to the training arena before anyone else and leaving after everyone else has gone home. The Jeremy Lin that is now the starting point guard for the Knicks isn’t the same player as the one who entered NBA after his playing days at Harvard:

It began with lonely 9 a.m. workouts in downtown Oakland in the fall of 2010; with shooting drills last summer on a backyard court in Burlingame, Calif.; and with muscle-building sessions at a Menlo Park fitness center.

It began with a reworked jump shot, a thicker frame, stronger legs, a sharper view of the court — enhancements that came gradually, subtly, through study and practice and hundreds of hours spent with assistant coaches, trainers and shooting instructors over 18 months.

My favorite anecdote from the story is a game called “Beating the Ghost”. This passage shows Lin’s dedication to continue improving:

Doc Scheppler has coached in Bay Area high schools for 34 years. He first saw Lin as a scrawny eighth-grader. But even then, “he had the ability to see the floor, make the right decision, make the correct angle pass. And that is just not done at 13, 14 years old.”

Last summer, Lin sought out Scheppler to help him with his 3-point shot. It was improving, but Lin was still shooting too high and throwing the ball — a “flying weapon,” Scheppler called it.

Working mostly in Scheppler’s backyard in Burlingame, Lin learned to begin his shot on the way up and release it at his peak. They also worked on a variety of in-game situations: the catch-and-shoot, off-the-dribble shots, and hesitation moves to create space.

Lin’s perfectionist tendencies came out in a 3-point-shooting drill called “beat the ghost,” in which Lin earned 1 point for every shot he made at the arc and the “ghost” earned 3 points for every shot Lin missed.

On one occasion, Lin made 17 3-pointers but lost 21-17, then kicked the ball in anger, Scheppler recalled with a chuckle. He refused to stop until he beat the ghost. It took 14 games. When Scheppler tallied up all of the scores for the day, Lin had converted 71 percent of his shots from the arc. “That’s the beauty of Jeremy Lin,” Scheppler said. “It’s not about moral victories. It’s ‘I have to win.’ ”

Of all the stories I’ve read about Jeremy Lin, The New York Times piece is one of (if not) the best explainer of Jeremy Lin’s rising stardom in the NBA. It didn’t happen overnight.

Apple and the Law of Large Numbers

This is a good but flawed New York Times piece which reflects on Apple’s staggering growth. This week, Apple stock hit a record high of $526 per share. The bulk of the piece focuses on the so-called Law of Large Numbers in assessing Apple’s growth:

Apple is so big, it’s running up against the law of large numbers.

Also known as the golden theorem, with a proof attributed to the 17th-century Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli, the law states that a variable will revert to a mean over a large sample of results. In the case of the largest companies, it suggests that high earnings growth and a rapid rise in share price will slow as those companies grow ever larger.

If Apple’s share price grew even 20 percent a year for the next decade, which is far below its current blistering pace, its $500 billion market capitalization would be more than $3 trillion by 2022. That is bigger than the 2011 gross domestic product of France or Brazil.

Unfortunately, the writer of the piece (and its editors) don’t fully grasp the meaning of “Law of Large Numbers.” That law states that if you perform an experiment enough times, the average of results will approximate the expected value of the random variable. Here’s the rub: you can use this law to predict the behavior of experiments where you can deduce (or solve for) the expected value. For instance, if you toss a fair coin enough times, the Law of Large Numbers implies that the coin will land on heads (approximately) equal number of times as tails. Similarly, if you toss a fair six-sided die enough times, and look at the face value, the result should approach the expected value of 3.5 (the average of 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6).  But you can’t use the Law of Large Numbers for experiments where you can’t deduce the expected value. Who’s to say that Apple’s earnings or share price should follow a certain reversion to the mean? What if we’re witnessing a novel company that is going to break all kinds of records? I think this is the case here.

The New York Times piece then attempts to justify the Law of Large Numbers by citing examples such as the fall of Cisco systems from a record $557 billion market capitalization to close to $100 billion today. Again, the major assumption there is that stocks tend to behave in a similar fashion, and that history repeats itself.

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Disclosure: I am long AAPL.

The Concept of the Mind

Vaughn Bell has a good post reminding us that the “mind” as a single distinct concept is an assumption that many cultures don’t share:

The idea that the self can be split into body and mind is at the root of psychology, but there is no laboratory test, questionnaire or brain scan that tells us this – it is a product of our culture. In fact, we inherited the notion from the Ancient Greeks and it has stuck with us because we find it convenient (presumably, a bit like stuffed vine leaves). If you’re not sure how we can possibly think about ourselves without thinking about the mind, it will be easier, perhaps, to briefly touch upon other forms of psychology where the mind does not exist in the form we understand it.

In traditional Haitian culture, there is no direct equivalent of the mind. The self is made up of a three components. Thecorps cadavre is the physical body; the ti-bon anj or ‘little good angel’ loosely represents what we would consider as agency, awareness and memory; while the gwo bon anj or the ‘big good angel’ is the animating principle that manages motivation and movement. Incidentally, a traditional Haitian zombie is created when a sorcerer steals the ‘little good angel’ leaving a coordinated body capable of understanding and following instructions but without reflective thought, clearly demonstrating a split where we see a single mental realm.

The traditional Javanese concept of the self, a synthesis of many Eastern influences, is even more complex. Humans consist of the selira or body which is the source of physical desires. The organic structure is kept active and alive by theatma (energy), the kama (sensory desire), and the prana(vital principle). Unlike other beings, humans also havemanas (deliberate thinking), manasa (intellect) and jiwa(immortal essence).

We often assume that understanding other cultures is about comprehending how other people ‘think’ about the world, when many other cultures do not even have an equivalent concept of the mind. Consequently, Western psychology is about as culturally neutral as Coca-Cola.

Very interesting.

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Related: one of the best articles on Wikipedia is on philosophy of the mind.

The Quirks of Living Alone

The New York Times profiles the quirks of people who are living by themselves:

What emerges over time, for those who live alone, is an at-home self that is markedly different — in ways big and small — from the self they present to the world. We all have private selves, of course, but people who live alone spend a good deal more time exploring them.

Rod Sherwood’s living-alone indulgences center on his sleep cycle. A music manager and record producer who works from his railroad apartment in Brooklyn, Mr. Sherwood, 40, said he’ll go to bed at 2 a.m. one night, and then retire later and later by increments, “until I go to bed when the sun comes up.”

He mused: “I wondered how many times in a year I repeat that cycle? I’d be interested to chart it.”

Ronni Bennett, who is 70 and writes a blog on aging, timegoesby.net, has lived alone for all but 10 or so years of her adult life. She said she has adopted a classic living-alone habit: “I never, ever close the bathroom door.”

Leaving it open “is one of those little habits that makes no difference most of the time,” she said. But when guests visit her two-bedroom apartment outside Portland, Ore., she added: “I have to make huge mental efforts to remind myself to close the door. Sometimes I think, Just put a Post-it note by the bathroom door. Well, wait, I don’t want them to see that.”

Like many, Ms. Bennett also talks to herself — or, rather, to her cat. “I’ll try things out on him when I’m writing,” she said. “He’ll look at me like he’s actually listening. I wouldn’t discuss what I’m writing with my cat if someone were around.”

Other people say their greatest eccentricities emerge in the kitchen. Eating can be a personal, even self-conscious act, and in the absence of a roommate or partner, unconventional approaches to food emerge. Drinking from the carton is only the start.

“I very rarely have what you would call ‘meals,’ ” said Steve Zimmer, a computer programmer in his 40s who lives by himself in a Manhattan loft. Instead of adhering to regular meals or meal times, he said, he makes “six or seven” trips an hour to the refrigerator and subsists largely on cereal.

If you live (or lived) alone, what are some of your strange quirks?

How Waiters Read Your Table

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece on the increasing trend of restaurants training their waiters to read the tables they serve:

Reading a table happens within seconds of a waiter coming to a table. By asking for a cocktail menu or smiling and making strong eye contact, “they are saying ‘hey, I want to engage with you and I want you to make me feel really important,’ ” says Mark Maynard-Parisi, managing partner of Blue Smoke, a pair of barbecue restaurants in New York, owned by Union Square Hospitality Group. If people seem shy, “you want to put them at ease, say, ‘take your time, look at the menu.’ “

Blue Smoke does seven days of training with new waiters, five days of trailing an experienced waiter and two days of being trailed by the experienced waiter. Each day includes a quiz and a focus such as greeting guests.

With parties of four or more, “the most important thing is to read the dynamic between the group,” Mr. Maynard-Parisi says. Alcohol (who is ordering more or less) is a potential point of contention. He reads eye contact and body language to see if a group is friendly (looking at each other) or less secure, like an uncomfortable work meeting (glancing around the room, fidgeting). “Am I approaching the table to rescue them or am I interrupting them?”

At Cheesecake Factory, employees are taught to look every guest in the eye when moving through the dining room, watching for people looking up from their meal, pushing food around their plate, or removing ingredients from their dish—all signs they might not like their meal. Even if it’s not their assigned table, they are trained to ask if anything is wrong and try to fix problems.

The WSJ then breaks down the signals that the waiter senses (or should sense):

If you’re chatty… A waiter is more likely to assume a friendly, chatty table is there to party. Get ready for more offers of drinks, dessert and a talkative waiter.

If you act moody… You may get better service. Several waiters said they are more careful to get every detail right when they believe a table is already in a bad mood (a couple fighting or a tense business meal perhaps).

If you say ‘It’s OK’… To attentive waiters, saying food is ‘OK’ is a red flag that you aren’t happy with your meal. The waiter or manager might dig for more information to fix the problem.

If you ask about the menu… Food questions are a sign that you either like learning about everything you might eat or you feel lost and need guidance. One menu question could lead to a long, full menu description. If you seem overwhelmed, the waiter might try to steer you toward a particular order.

If you grab the wine list first… Expect the waiter to focus wine explanations and questions about refills to you.

If you’re early and fancy… Diners who are dressed up and have an early dinner reservation may lead waiters to suspect they have another event that night and serve them at a fast clip.

If you’re wearing a suit at lunch… Diners who look like they just stepped away from their cubicle, whether in a suit or business casual, are bound to get speedier service. The exception: If the waiter realizes the boss or valued client wants to set a slower pace by asking for more time before ordering or pulling out papers for a sales pitch.

If you act like the ring leader… 
A waiter will try to determine who is in charge at the table through body language, clues in conversation or by who made the reservation, and defer to the wants of that diner.

If there’s no obvious leader… 
If no take-charge person emerges at the table, the waiter may struggle to figure out whether to be chatty or invisible and whether to make the service quicker or more leisurely.

Something not mentioned and that is a big pet peeve of mine: when I am dining with a group and the waiter doesn’t ask whether the group wants to receive a single bill or separate checks. I realize that splitting a check may be more work for the waiter, but I think getting this wrong at the end of the meal may (and often does) lead to a lower tip for the waiter.