Previous month:
April 2004
Next month:
June 2004

May 2004

World Press Photo: winners, 2004

© Jean-Marc Bouju, France, The Associated Press World Press Photo of the Year 2003

An Iraqi man comforts his four-year-old son at a holding center for prisoners of war, in the base camp of the US Army 101st Airborne Division near An Najaf, southern Iraq, on March 31. The boy had become terrified when, according to orders, his father was hooded and handcuffed. A US soldier later severed the plastic handcuffs so that the man could comfort his child. Hoods were placed over detainees' heads because they were quicker to apply than blindfolds. The military said the bags were used to disorientate prisoners and to protect their identities. It is not known what happened to the man or his son.

World Press Photo winners list, 2004

Updike at 72

The task of art is to give the mundane its beautiful due.

Interviewed at the Hay-on-Wye Festival by the Guardian:

... he felt that modern British authors could punch their weight. Singling out Ian McEwan's bestselling novel Atonement, he said: "I thought it was a staggering book — something no American could have published. I have read almost every book by Muriel Spark. She is a marvellous writer. Iris Murdoch I am a great admirer of. I recall she was very harshly treated by the critics for some of her books". Among ethnic minority writers, he mentioned Hanif Kureishi's The Body — "a short novel which I read with admiration".

The Music of the Spheres

David Weinberger (again):

If our hearts were as pure, as chaste, as snowy as Pythagoras' was, our ears would resound and be filled with that supremely lovely music of the wheeling stars. Then indeed all things would seem to return to the age of gold. Then we should be immune to pain, and we should enjoy the blessing of a peace that the gods themselves might envy.
On the Music of the Spheres, John Milton

About 550 years before your Lord was born, Pythagoras came up with the most beautiful idea in Western history. Here's roughly what he thought:

It's obvious from the shape of the night sky and the movement of the stars that the universe consists of five nested spheres. The distances between those bowls must reflect the order and beauty of the universe, for that order and beauty is uniform throughout the cosmos.

We can hear the order in music. Use a bridge to divide a string into the ratios 2:1, 3:2, 4:3, or 5:4 and you hear something beautiful. (Notice that you can make these ratios with only the numbers 1-5, a simplicity required for order and beauty.)

Since the cosmos is perfectly ordered, the distance between the moving objects in the sky must be in the same mathematical relationship that sounds so beautiful when applied to a lyre. The spheres themselves must make a sound as they whir around. That sound must therefore be harmonious and beautiful.

But, why don't we hear the sound? Because we have been hearing it all of our lives. If it were to stop, we would notice its absence.

How wonderful! This idea assumes the Greek notion that perfect orderliness and reason is indistinguishable from beauty. It adds that beauty is so always-present that it is absent; we could only hear its presence if it were to become absent.

Philosophy may start with awe, as Aristotle said, but it usually proceeds pretty quickly to tell us that what we think is real isn't real, but something else we can't see is. If the watery-ness of everything were obvious, Thales wouldn't have had to say that everything is water. If you could take the world at face value, we wouldn't need philosophy. (Yes, maybe you can and maybe we don't.) Having said the the universe is other than it seems, the philosopher then has to explain why it seems other than it is: If everything is made of water, why isn't everything wet? Or, in MadLibs form: "Despite the way it seems, the universe is really ________. It doesn't look like that because _________."

Pythagoras' view of that inevitable mystery of philosophy is remarkable. That which is always present can't itself be known or experienced, the Harmony of the Spheres implies. Knowledge requires lack, imperfection, absence, separation, apartness, nothingness. Our knowledge is a disruption of the perfection of order. That's why the world can be other than it seems. Its truth is in the unheard and the unspoken.

No wonder Pythagoras founded a religion.

The Great Chain of Being

David Weinberger:

Over sixty years ago, Arthur Oncken Lovejoy, a professor at Johns Hopkins, gave a series of lectures that resulted in his classic work, The Great Chain of Being. Its central aim was to show that there was a:
...plan and structure of the world which, through the Middle Ages and down to the late eighteenth century...most educated men were to accept without question - the conception of the universe as a "Great Chain of Being", composed of an immense, or...infinite, number of links ranging in hierarchical order from the meagerest kind of existents...through "every possible" grade up to the ens perfectissumum.
At the top was God, of course. Then came angels and demons, then humans, then animals, then plants, minerals, and at the bottom, non-being. Within these broad categories, each and every thing had its place, depending on how much "spirit" it contained as opposed to mere "matter." Not only were rabbits ahead of fish, and gold ahead of lead, but squires were above merchants.

While the hierarchy of beings was laid out as rungs on a ladder, the theory of "correspondences" added a layer of complexity and even beauty to the notion: Different sets of rungs reflected the order of larger sets in what we would today call a fractal way: The governmental order reflected the order of the cosmos, human psychology reflected the four elements, etc.

Despite this nicely complicating wrinkle, the fundamental fact and purpose of the Great Chain of Being was to be simple and complete: Every entity had its spot in the hierarchy, every spot was filled, and there could be no movement and no vacancies ... ruling out evolution and extinction, not to mention making social mobility a crime against nature.

Why believe such a foolish thing? After all, it can't be derived from evidence. It does, however, do something that all great theories do: It unifies disparate experience. In fact, the Great Chain is precisely about showing the inner order of the diversity of entities. It unifies them not only in terms of their rank order but also in terms of their value. And it explains why there are precisely these types of creatures and not others.

Even though the Chain has gone through some serious revisions over the millennia, in one important way it has remained the same. In the 18th Century, Linnaeus re-did Aristotle's classifications, adding a couple more grand categories. But, like Aristotle, Linnaeus assumed that he was uncovering God's own way of classifying the world. Likewise, modern "cladistics" redraws Linnaeus' tree (and Stephen Jay Gould would remind us that it's more like shrubbery than a tree) according to each animal's ancestry, not according to the similarities of their anatomy, which is all Linnaeus had to go on. In all these cases, the chain or tree is assumed to represent real classifications, although the nature of the reality — God in Aristotle's or Linnaeus' eyes, Nature's in Darwin's — is different.

But now we are at a breaking point, for the digitization of knowledge makes it inescapably clear that most of the classificatory schemes that we care about are invented, not discovered. Why is this so clear? Because it's so easy to pivot the table, to switch schemes, to file ideas under multiple categories. Classifications are tools.

Further, classifications often no longer are the best guides to value. Google beats Yahoo because, while Yahoo puts everything into neatly arranged folders, Google looks at the one-to-one links that spread across the tree of knowledge like the work of a million spiders on LSD.

The overtaking of trees by webs means that instead of something getting its meaning from the bucket it's in, its meaning is determined by the billion different reasons people thought it'd be interesting to link to it. If you want to see what something is, don't look to where the Great Bucketer in the Sky put it. Instead, look to what the population of people who care about it think that it's about. That's why Google can turn up a page that doesn't even have the words on it that you're looking for: The page thought it was a maintenance manual for O-rings and didn't know that it's in fact about why the Challenger blew up. But the web of interested people knew it.

Once we recognize that classification schemes are tools and not representations of reality, they get much handier as tools. Of course, the price is giving up our place in the eternal order of the universe.

Crosby on the music industry

David Crosby is a music legend known for his solo performances as well as his work with the Byrds, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. In this interview, he recounts how the music industry has changed over his career.
"When it all started, record companies -- and there were many of them, and this was a good thing -- were run by people who loved records," he says. "Now record companies are run by lawyers and accountants. … The people who run record companies now wouldn't know a song if it flew up their nose and died." Crosby also argues that the quality of music has suffered because of corporate interference. "It doesn't matter that Britney Spears has nothing to say and is about as deep as a birdbath," he says. ...

Do I think they deserve to go in the tank, the big companies? Absolutely. They deserve what's going to happen to them completely. It's their own stupidity that's brought them to this point. And their own greed, and their own lack of taste.

I see plenty of future for music. Music is magic. It's been mankind's magic since the first caveman danced around his fire going "Ugga bugga, hugga bugga!" That was music, and he was happy. And we're still doing it, and it makes us happy. It will transcend; it will go on.

Music business altogether -- a different thing. I think it's going in a tank, and I am standing on the sidelines applauding. I think the way to do it is to find new ways. I don't think any of those people are going to do anything to try to defend their rice bowl, try to defend their parking space and their Mercedes. I don't think they're going to look for a new way. But I see Apple out there doing it. iTunes is a good idea. It delivers the music to you cheap, pays us, doesn't cheat anybody, and it cuts out all middlemen -- very good. …

World Trade Center 'Tim found these old scans while coaxing his data back from a senile hard drive last week. There should be a word for the double emotion of reacquainting with old artefacts at times of stress—moving house, say, or begging your computer files to come back. Memories can mug you when you’re already raw and rushed.

These are accidental portraits of the buildings that were the city compass (and camera hogs, too). We looked for them whenever we surfaced from the subway or climbed onto a roof deck. We triangulated from them on bridges and in strange conference rooms, and steered by them in tug boats and canoes. The towers were Downtown. More useful than True North, in the self-appointed center of the word.'

Link via Memex 1.1.

The Saatchi fire: catastrophe or bonfire of the vanities?

Peter Conrad, in The Observer

The incineration of artworks, no matter how trashy you might think them, should not be a cause for rejoicing. Even so, I have to admit that the Leyton holocaust left me dry-eyed. I wouldn't go so far as Sebastian Horsley - an (ahem) artist best known for impaling himself on a cross in the Philippines - who pronounced the fire 'radical' and declared that the destruction of Saatchi's hyped hoard was 'the best artwork to have happened for years'. It's just that I don't feel personally impoverished by the loss of Damien Hirst's moronic spots, or the tent into which Tracey Emin sewed her scuzzy private archive of sexual misery, or the mashed, melted tangle of toy soldiers assembled by the Chapman brothers. A fireman at the scene reported with officious solemnity that, 'A range of industrial units have been gutted.' I couldn't say the same for myself.

In the annals of cultural catastrophe, this disaster does not register. We are not dealing with an event such as the torching of the library in Alexandria, that shrine to the muses which, when it caught fire 50 years before the birth of Christ, annihilated an entire corpus of classical literature, including 90 tragedies by Aeschylus and 30 comedies by Aristophanes.

Kazaa in decline; no decline in file-sharing News:- Kazaa file sharing traffic has dropped from 90% of the total to just 20% in North America, and from 70% to 20% in Europe, says a study. ...

Sandvine technology monitors p2p traffic and usage patterns and according to New Scientist, the study reveals, "File-sharing traffic via Kazaa has dropped from 90 per cent of the total to just 20 per cent. Users in the US have shifted to alternative networks, in particular eDonkey." ...

The story quotes Sandvine's European managing director, Chris Colman, as saying he believes the dramatic fall in Kazaa's popularity is because the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) has so far only sued Kazaa users.

"The RIAA has also sought to undermine Kazaa in particular by uploading thousands of bogus music files, in an attempt to frustrate users," says the story.

The study also adds to the rapidly increasing number of credible reports that give the lie to music industry claims that its ongoing victimization of p2p file sharers is resulting in meaningful drops in p2p activity.

Rather, file sharing (is) increasing, says Sandvine.

"There's been no decline in the number of people file-sharing," Colman says, according to New Scientist, which goes on: "The company's research indicates that the proportion of total net traffic used for peer-to-peer sharing has declined only slightly in the US over the last year, from 70 to 65 per cent. Furthermore, file-sharing in Europe has not dropped at all - it now accounts for 70 to 80 per cent of net traffic. And internet usage in both the US and Europe is still growing, meaning that file-sharing is growing overall."


Wikipedia has a new look. (Link via Log os.)

Metafilter has this comment (31.5.2004): Wikipedia 'now supports discussions about any article, and provices an easy way for users to look at previous article versions. Maybe it could do this before -- but my memory and the Google cache lead me to think not. To the jaded eye, this looks like just a software upgrade. But the implications are greater than that. Wikipedia is the great white hope for free (as in freedom) information on the web, and this ups the ante. My big questions: Can they handle the load? And how long before anyone notices?'

Link to the Chinese Wikipedia (via Many2Many).