Readings: U.S. Default, Transocean, Tiny Camera, Light Bulb, Monkey Copyright

Five great things I’ve read today:

(1) “Will the United States Default?” [New York Times] – implications of the United States going into default. If we don’t pay our debt, what’s the worst case scenario?

Three views emerge on whether the United States will default on its government debts, as I talk to people on and close to Capitol Hill. The first is, hopefully yes, and this August offers a good opportunity. The second is, possibly yes, but this would be bad, so we need some form of fiscal austerity. The third is, under no circumstances, and any talk of a need for austerity is a hoax.

The first view is mistaken. The second view hides a dangerous contradiction. And the third view borders on complacency.

(2) “Transocean: No Apologies over Gulf Oil Spill” [Business Week] – fourteen months after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, why doesn’t Transocean take any responsibility/blame in the accident?

Why is Transocean fighting so hard to avoid even a sliver of blame for the disaster? Here’s one theory: The company’s survival is at stake. “Transocean is playing a high-stakes game of chicken because the company can’t afford to admit even a portion of liability,” says Gordon. “The total liability could ultimately be $50 billion. BP wants Transocean to chip in a big percentage, but Transocean is a much smaller company than BP and doesn’t have that kind of cash flow or insurance. … So Transocean’s strategy is to offer zero, nothing—how about zip?—and hope that works in court. … I don’t think they care whether it works in the court of public opinion.”

(3) “Researchers Develop Lens-Free, Pinhead-Size Camera” [Cornell Chronicle] – amazing new invention at Cornell:

The new camera is just a flat piece of doped silicon, which looks something like a tiny CD, with no parts that require off-chip manufacturing. As a result, it costs just a few cents to make and is incredibly small and light, as opposed to conventional small cameras on chips that cost a dollar or more and require bulky focusing optics.

When will it come to market?

(4) “The World’s Greatest Light Bulb” [Slate] – very interesting read on a new LED light bulb developed at Switch Lighting:

Turned off, a Switch bulb looks like an incandescent from the future. It’s got the same pear shape as a standard bulb, but it’s divided into two sections. The bottom half is composed of a wavy metallic structure that looks like the wings of a badminton birdie. Above that is a thick glass orb filled with a cooling agent and a bank of LEDs, which are semiconductors that produce light. 

The current vs. long-term costs are debatable.

(5) “Can a Monkey License Its Copyrights to a News Agency?” [Techdirt] – if a monkey takes a photo in the forest, does the shutter make a sound? More important question: if it manages to take said photo, who does the copyright belong to? Short answer: animals can’t hold rights to copyright, even if they are of high intelligence. If, however, you pass your camera on the street to a stranger and he/she takes a photo, the copyright to that photo belongs to the one who clicked the shutter button.

Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of the Self-Interview

Sarah Fay writes a fantastic piece on Vladimir Nabokov and the art of the self-interview in this month’s Paris Review.

She mentions her father, who attended Nabokov’s lectures at Cornell. This is how Nabokov taught:

My father took Nabokov’s American literature course and says he can’t remember anything about it except for the way that Nabokov, wearing a black cape, used to sweep into the lecture hall with Vera, his wife and assistant, in tow. Nabokov would then deliver his lecture from prepared notes to great affect. His dramatic performances in class drew students to him, and, according to Nabokov’s most meticulous biographer Brian Boyd, his European literature course was second in enrollment to Pete Seger’s folk-song course. As a literature teacher, Nabokov emphasized the importance of reading for detail, assigning students fewer books in order to read them slowly. He quizzed students on the pattern of Madame Bovary’s wallpaper and sketched the path that Bloom walks in Ulysses on the blackboard. According to Nabokov, this approach “‘irritated or puzzled such students of literature (and their professors) as were accustomed to ‘serious’ courses replete with ‘trends,’ and ‘schools,’ and ‘myths,’ and ‘symbols,’ and ‘social comment,’ and something unspeakably spooky called ‘climate of thought.’ Actually these ‘serious’ courses were quite easy ones with the students required to know not the books but about the books.”

In case you didn’t know, this is good trivia. Nabokov took the pen name “Sirin” in his life. But why?

To taunt the critic Georgy Adamovich, Nabokov published under the pen name Sirin. In a review of one of “Sirin’s” books, Adamovich, after having dismissed Nabokov as a writer, wrote that “Sirin” promised to be one of the world’s great talents.

And perhaps the most relevant part of the piece: doing the self interview. According to Sarah Fay, Nabokov is the only author in the world to conduct an interview by requiring the interviewer to send questions in advance:

Although Nabokov is one of the many practitioners of the self-interview, a tradition which includes Oscar Wilde, James Barrie, Evelyn Waugh, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Glenn Gould, Milan Kundera, and Philip Roth, he was the only writer who always conducted his own interviews. Nabokov—to my knowledge—never conducted an interview without having received and answered the questions in advance.

Read the full piece in Paris Review, and don’t miss the embedded video.

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Related and highly recommended: Nabokov’s Invitation to an Interview. See also my book review of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading.