Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Page 4 of 108

Inconceivable

It’s not bad enough that abortion rights are under attack in much of the USA, conservatives are going after contraception now too. This has become a hot issue because of three things:

First: Rick Santorum, who has emerged as the Not-Romney candidate du jour, said the following to a right-wing Christian blog:

One of the things I will talk about that no president has talked about before is I think the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea. Many in the Christian faith have said, ‘Well, that’s okay. Contraception’s okay.’ It’s not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be within marriage, they are supposed to be for purposes that are, yes, conjugal, but also [inaudible], but also procreative. That’s the perfect way that a sexual union should happen. We take any part of that out, we diminish the act. And if you can take one part out that’s not for purposes of procreation, that’s not one of the reasons, then you diminish this very special bond between men and women, so why can’t you take other parts of that out? And all of a sudden, it becomes deconstructed to the point where it’s simply pleasure. And that’s certainly a part of it—and it’s an important part of it, don’t get me wrong—but there’s a lot of things we do for pleasure, and this is special, and it needs to be seen as special.

Again, I know most presidents don’t talk about those things, and maybe people don’t want us to talk about those things, but I think it’s important that you are who you are. I’m not running for preacher. I’m not running for pastor, but these are important public policy issues. These have profound impact on the health of our society.

Second: Santorum’s patron Foster Friess recently said “Back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly.” Classy.

Third: the Obama administration angers the Catholic hierarchy and gives the GOP something to bash him over by insisting that even Church-affiliated institutions must cover birth control in their health-care plans. For the Catholic church, their opposition is presumably sincere. For the GOP, it’s tactical.

All of this contributes to a climate of demonizing sex and treating women as either sluts who deserve to get pregnant for their wantonness, or baby-making machinery with no say in the matter.

That is, by far, the worst part of it. But any self-respecting man who doesn’t want to have as many kids as Santorum (seven) should be angry as well as women, and not just from a sense of solidarity with women (although that too). It’s a ridiculous state of affairs that we have three kinds of boner pills on the market, but the only forms of male birth control are mechanical or surgical. I took the surgical option years before I ever met Gwen, and I’m happy with that decision. Santorum is telling me that our marriage is as invalid as he considers a gay marriage to be (another can of worms for another time).

Ultimately, this is just another facet of the right wing’s war on anyone who’s having more fun than they are.

Book Review: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

Is That a Fish in Your Ear is a book about translation, so it should be no surprise that I picked it up. But it’s not so much a book about the mental process of translation as it is a book about the business of translation and its role in society at large. So it certainly has some tidbits that are of interest to translators, but not a lot of insight. It isn’t the endless buffet of food for thought that Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter is.

Early in the book, the author, David Bellos, discusses how many different words the Japanese language has for “translation,” wandering perilously close to snowclone territory—though he later tackles the idea of snowclones head-on.

He does talk about the size of the international translation market, which is interesting, but his source is UNESCO’s Index Translationum, which only covers books. This is only a part of the translation industry, and as far as I can tell, only a small part (also, digging through UNESCO’s statistics reveals some very messy data). There are some interesting facts about the flow of translation—English is overwhelmingly dominant as a source language, exceeding the second-most common source language, French, almost sixfold. Japanese, the language I translate from, comes in at 8th, with only about 1/8th as many works translated as French, and only about 1/47th as many as English.

English is much less popular as a target of translation, coming in fourth to German, French, and Spanish (with only about half as many works as German). Japanese comes in fifth, with only about 15% fewer works translated into Japanese than into English. This would suggest that English speakers are not that interested in hearing what the rest of the world has to say.

But I am sure these figures are not representative of commercial translation. In patents, for example, I have read that English is the dominant target language, and the most frequently translated source languages for English are Japanese, German and French. Not sure where those statistics come from, but they don’t surprise me. It should be relatively easy to get statistics on patents, because they wind up being collected by a few government agencies. Much less so all the newspaper clippings, press releases, user manuals, depositions, specifications, clinical drug trials, and so on that make up the bulk of commercial translation, some of which are never intended for public consumption (and some of which is probably hardly read at all, in any language).

There are also different market forces at work here: a lot of patent translation is “push” translation (by the authors), whereas book translation is “pull” translation (by literary agents in the target language that are proxies for the eventual audience).

As to some of the standard problems of translation—He does talk about translating poetry (with reference to Hofstadter’s book), and to a lesser extent, humor, but these were fairly superficial treatments. He talks about the problem of translating culture-specific features to some extent and some of the solutions. He points out that it is not hard to translate a high social register satisfactorily, but translating uneducated-sounding regional dialects is much more problematic, and in the last pages of the book, he actually gets around to an interesting observation that might explain why: he makes the argument that language in its original form did not emerge to communicate ideas, but to reinforce social bonds, like monkeys grooming each other. And the aspects of speech that are peculiar to one community—which reinforce those social bonds—are exactly what can’t be translated to another, and seem glaringly misplaced when “translated” to the speech habits of a different community.

Is the book worth reading? It’s light. It gives a mile-high view of translation. It doesn’t grapple much with translation problems, much less offer solutions to them. It feels like it’s more intended for people who are interested in knowing about translation than in actually translating (which is fair, since there are probably more of them). It won’t have a lot of keen insights and revelations for translators, but it is interesting.

Gamification

Brent Simmons writes about gamification, saying

you could look at this trend and say, “As software gets simpler, it gets dumbed-down — even toddlers can use iPads. Users are now on the mental level of children, and we should design accordingly. What do children like? Games.”

I’ve been thinking about gamification a little for a while now, and I think it’s actually more sinister than that. Look at a website like Stack Overflow. They’ve got it set up with this treadmill of meaningless rewards to keep you engaged in the site, asking and answering question. In addition to increased ad impressions (which is cynical enough, the sole point of a game like Farmville, which has no rewards that I recognize as such), your labor makes the site more valuable: a good “answer site” like Ask Metafilter (which is a cool community, not an exploitative business play) gets very high Google rankings—Stack Exchange clearly want to cash in on that action getting strong Google rankings for their own site, leading to more pageviews, and the circle of life continues. For your efforts you get a gold star. A virtual gold star. But they’ve figured out that points and achievements activate some hindbrain reward center that they cynically play off of.

In my own vocation of translation, there’s been an increasing trend toward uncompensated crowdsourcing (another hot-button word) as an alternative to professional work, and I fully expect to see gamification tactics applied to that as well before long.

Three things

Three things I have read in the past few days:

From Innovation Starvation, by Neil Stephenson

My parents and grandparents witnessed the creation of the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, and the computer to name only a few. Scientists and engineers who came of age during the first half of the 20th century could look forward to building things that would solve age-old problems, transform the landscape, build the economy, and provide jobs for the burgeoning middle class that was the basis for our stable democracy.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 crystallized my feeling that we have lost our ability to get important things done.

From The Onion, Last American Who Knew What The Fuck He Was Doing Dies

Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Computers and the only American in the country who had any clue what the fuck he was doing, died Wednesday at the age of 56.

From An Investment Manager’s View on the Top 1%

The picture is clear; entry into the top 0.5% and, particularly, the top 0.1% is usually the result of some association with the financial industry and its creations. I find it questionable as to whether the majority in this group actually adds value or simply diverts value from the US economy and business into its pockets and the pockets of the uber-wealthy who hire them.

These all seem related.

The universal design critic

In just the past half day, a lot has been said about Steve Jobs. I’m not sure I have anything unique to add, but I’ve been using Macs continuously since the first one I owned, which was one of the original 128K models, so I can’t let his passing go without comment.

Many of the people praising Steve Jobs have focused on the way that he and Apple have provided them with the tools to do their job, the way they have demystified technology and made it elegant and fun. And I agree with all that. But Steve Jobs and Apple have had a more subtle and deeper effect on us than that.

One of Jobs’ greatest talents was as a critic, particularly of design. He didn’t design Apple’s hardware or software, but he had strong, detailed opinions on all of it, which he would forcefully deliver when anything failed to live up to his very high expectations. So it’s no surprise that Apple has delivered consistently well-designed products, but they’ve also delivered design-oriented products. The very first Mac had multiple fonts and typographic controls, could mix pictures with text. Even the screen resolution of 72 dpi was chosen to parallel the point-size system.

We take these sorts of thing for granted today. They would have happened eventually, but they happened when they did because of Steve Jobs and Apple.

Today, we know what a font is, and many of us have opinions on which ones are better than others. We look more critically at industrial design and engineering. There are even movies and shorts about fonts and industrial design. By putting exemplars of good design into the marketplace and making them accessible to regular people, and by giving his competition a higher mark to aim for, Steve Jobs has transmitted some small part of his critical acuity and insistence on quality to the rest of us.

When Jobs resigned as CEO about 6 weeks ago, John Gruber wrote

The company is a fractal design. Simplicity, elegance, beauty, cleverness, humility. Directness. Truth. Zoom out enough and you can see that the same things that define Apple’s products apply to Apple as a whole. The company itself is Apple-like…Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.

Zoom out farther.

Boundaries

I often use this blog as a way to think out loud. This will be one of those posts.

This is a post about Burning Flipside and boundaries. Burning Flipside is the central Texas regional burn. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, you might not want to go past the jump.
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Page One

Gwen and I recently saw Page One, the documentary about the New York Times.

It was a sort of mile-high survey of the problems that most American newspapers are facing today. It was interesting watching it while the scandal surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloids is at its peak—Murdoch had nothing to do with the movie except extolling the iPad as the potential savior of the newspaper industry. The issues that the movie touched on—and there were so many that it didn’t really have much time to do more than touch on them—are all familiar to anyone paying attention to the news about newspapers—declining ad revenue, competition from online sources, the chummy, codependent relationship with power that leads to horrors like Judy Miller—but it was still very interesting seeing these discussed by the people directly affected by them.

Just as the movie hopscotched from issue to issue, it never quite developed a central thesis. But if a documentary can have a hero, this one definitely did in the person of David Carr. And if it can have one defining moment, this one’s came when he was on a panel talking about the future of journalism or something like that, clearly representing the old guard. At one point, Michael Wolff stands up and talks about how the world would manage without the New York Times. Then Carr gets up, shows a printout of the Newser.com (Michael Wolff’s project) front page; then shows the printout with all the stories sourced from old media ripped out, leaving nothing but a rough paper sieve.

There was talk about the role of the professional journalist vs citizen-journalists, of whether the civic function of newspapers actually makes business sense. There was a lot of talk about Twitter. Interestingly, not a lot about Facebook. The talk about blogs was mostly in the context of tabloid-grade professional blogs like Nick Denton’s properties—at one point, Denton is interviewed, and we see his “leaderboard”—the most popular current stories—on a big TV. None of the stories are news. They’re gossip.

For a brief moment, when blogs were new to most people, some people suggested that in the future everyone would have a blog and we’d get our news through legions of citizen-journalists, with some editorial control or artificial intelligence or something to make sure we as readers got the stuff that was of highest quality and greatest relevance to our interests. Technically, that’s possible. My friend Chip long ago set up the website Austin Bloggers, where anyone with a blog can post a link to their Austin-related postings. There’s definitely some good stuff there that’s too finely focused for traditional media.

But the idea that citizen journalists could replace professional journalists entirely was naive from the start, and since then, we’ve learned that most people, even if they are interested in sharing stuff online (and lots of people are), are not very interested in blogging per se.

I think there are two reasons for this: the effort and the reward. While it is possible to dash off a simple blog post, blogging software has not really encouraged this. The writing interface for this blog looks like this:

Admittedly, there are blogging systems that are simpler than this, but this is the system I’m using, and it’s a mainstream one. Contrast that with the posting interface for Twitter:

Even once you’ve got a blog set up, there’s just a lot more cognitive load in getting a post up.

And then there’s the payoff. With Twitter or Facebook, your friends are probably going to see what you write and can easily comment on it; if you’re writing something personal, it’s relatively easy to make it so that only your friends see it. There’s more of a message-in-a-bottle quality to a blog post. Friends are less likely to comment (partly because even the commenting interface is more complicated, thanks in part to comment spam in blogs), and making a blog post visible only to friends involves considerably more administrative overhead for the writer and readers. Live Journal, as easy as it is to ridicule as the repository for bad poetry by teenagers, got this right by providing a blogging platform with social-networking features built in.

And unfortunately, while Facebook and Twitter have displaced what might have otherwise been a lot of blogging, they have not adequately replaced blogging. They’re fine for ephemeral, off-the-cuff communication—better than a blog, I’d say. A friend’s Twitter or Facebook postings are like a running stream that I can dip into when I feel like it, but they don’t work as a repository for sustained writing—one the writing side, because Twitter and Facebook are designed for off-the-cuff and short writing, and on the reading side, because it’s relatively difficult to backtrack and look at previous postings. As a medium for citizen journalism, this means that Twitter can be useful as a channel for minute-by-minute breaking news (Facebook less so, because posts are more often hidden from those you don’t know even if they are on Facebook, and Facebook in general is walled off from the rest of the Internet), but worthless for anything longer than that—especially with Facebook, where it seems almost impossible to dig up an old post. The same is true for discussions on posts, so while Facebook is great for getting people talking, it’s lousy for looking back at what people were talking about. For superficial gossip-grade conversations, this is fine. For more substantial discussions that one might want to look back on, it’s a problem.

Google Plus is too new to have been discussed in the movie. It allows for longer-form writing than Twitter or Facebook. The fact that Google is behind it suggests that maybe old posts would be searchable (though right now, they aren’t). And Google already owns a blogging platform, Blogger. I’ll be interested in seeing how they play out.

Bird down

This morning while Gwen was puttering in the back yard, a juvenile bluejay landed on the ground, near our back door. He looked like he had his flight feathers, but the feathers on his head were still downy. He wouldn’t or more likely couldn’t fly away; he could hop, but mostly stayed put.

Not knowing what else to do, we set out a shallow pan of water for him. He made no effort to get away from us, but did hop into the pan of water.

About an hour later, I looked in on him. He was still in roughly the same spot. I refilled the pan of water and set it next to him. He looked at me and opened and closed his beak a few times as if silently chirping or begging for food. He flapped his wings for a moment and flipped over on his back. The nictitating membranes blinked across his eyes and he died.

When we looked at his corpse, we saw a spot on his back where he had been attacked.

Sometimes the new ways are the best

Char Griller brand dual grill

I’ve been barbecuing all my adult life. I don’t claim to be a grillmaster. I haven’t made a study of scientifically optimized barbecuing techniques. But I can usually get pretty good results. I’ve always been a traditionalist about it, only using charcoal, and always owning a primitive grill. I had a L’il Smokey in college. I had a tiny thing that fit in a backpack when I lived in Japan. Since then, I’ve always had one of those converted 55-gallon drums. I always felt that part of the fun of grilling was the unpredictability—that each time I got good results in spite of the lack of control, it was a small triumph over chaos, and my ability to get good results was evidence of some inarticulable talent.

It turns out that this represented one of those unexamined assumptions that turns out to be wrong.

The bottoms on those drum grills eventually rust out completely, so I’d wind up replacing them every few years. After the last one was gone, Gwen decided it was time for something different. She knew that charcoal grilling tastes better, but she also knew that gas grilling was more convenient, and can be a better-tasting option than stovetop cooling. She picked out a two-way grill, with gas in the left barrel and charcoal in the right. It was on sale at the big-box store, and we bought it. This is not something I would have picked out for myself—the charcoal side alone is fancier than any of those drum grills I’ve owned. And I felt a bit odd about allowing a propane grill into the household, even though I can avoid using it if I want.

We took the grill on its maiden voyage yesterday, and it immediately proved itself to be vastly superior to any grill I’ve owned before. To hell with triumph over chaos and inarticulable talent. I’ll stick with convenience, predictability, and control from now on. At least when it comes to grilling.

Lakes of Fire 2011

I participated in Lakes of Fire, the regional burn for the upper midwest.

LoF apparently is run coequally by the Chicago and Detroit communities of burners—I get the impression that most burns are run by the burners in one town, so in that respect, it’s a little unusual. This is only LoF’s third year, and it has quickly ramped up to a pretty big event—I heard there were 1150 people there this year. LoF got on my radar last year, when it was held very close to the spot where my grandfather once had a blueberry farm. That, plus the fact that it’s associated with Chicago, piqued my interest. I’d been wanting to experience a different regional burn, so LoF seemed like a natural.

I had lined up a ride from Chicago to LoF with someone on the chicago-burners mailing list, and had lined up a theme camp I could camp with. Twelve hours before I was to board my flight to Chicago, my would-be ride bailed on me, but referred me to someone running a bus up there. So I wound up getting on board that, along with about a dozen hippies. I don’t have much patience for hippy woo-woo, but they were all nice folks.

This year’s LoF was in a new location farther north, near Muskegon. It was raining off and on all the way there, and when we got there (probably after 10:00 PM), the venue had been drenched, with more rain still coming down. The event was being held at the site of a commercial campground that encircles a small lake, and parts of the ring road were too muddy to pass. The bus was diverted to a spot other than what had been set aside for it, and nowhere near the theme camp I was supposed to be joining up with. I had no interest in schlepping my stuff over there in the rain/dark/mud, so I pitched my tent where we landed and wound up befriending the folks of the neighboring theme camp, Shady Cinema, whose ringleader is a film geek. In fact, I wound up being adopted into that camp—they gave me so much food I barely had a chance to break into my own food, and they had shelter and entertainment. And good people. It was a lucky break that I wound up there. That night I also met Shirley, LoF’s placement lead, who drove me around on her golf cart while we chatted. She bears an uncanny resemblance to Mia Farrow. Also went wandering around with my new friends at Shady Cinema and wound up in Tick Town, a bar camp, where we chatted for a while with Monica, a woman participating in her first burn.

Friday morning was cold and drizzly still, with only intermittent moments of sunshine and warmth. I definitely didn’t bring enough warm clothes. I did just get a new pair of Adidas-brand combat boots, which acquitted themselves well in this environment, and stayed comfortable throughout. I probably walked the perimeter of the lake three times that day, and met a lot of new people, including Shoebocks, the ranger lead and brother of Austin’s own Sodium. I also encountered Tiara, who I knew would be there, and Wulfgar, who I knew might be there. LoF has a mandatory safety meeting for fire performers who want to take part in their fire conclave, so I attended that in the afternoon and signed up to be a spotter. One of my campmates, Earl, had an interactive art project called Earl’s Body Brush, in which he stood naked in front of a bunch of small canvas panels attached to a large frame and had people shoot him with gallons of red, yellow, and blue paint. After the paint on the panels dried, he handed them out as artworks.

That night I spun some fire at LoF’s one significant sound camp, Freakeasy, along with a few other people. There was one older guy, Richard, juggling torches, and I noticed with disapproval that he was having an awful lot of drops. Then he finished and snapped out a white cane with a red tip and I felt like a heel. Later, I spun some fire again back at my own campsite for the folks in Shady Cinema, where I also watched the tail end of Logan’s Run, which I still have never seen start to finish.

Saturday morning I was actually forced out of my tent by the heat, which was a welcome change. I don’t recall doing anything exceptionally interesting on Saturday during the day except for hanging out at the LoF outpost of the Golden Lounge (a well-known theme camp at Burning Man), where I was served a shot of some very fancy aged rum that tasted like good scotch. That night was the night of the effigy burn, so I had to get myself over there for spotter duty. This is an area of special interest for me, since I’ve been in charge of the pre-burn fire ceremony at Burning Flipside. Part of my reason for going to LoF was to learn how another regional operates. They organized their fire conclave somewhat differently than Flipside’s fire procession—some of this is clearly a response to logistical constraints, some of it is probably a matter of local habits, and some a matter of taste.

The fire conclave went well. I didn’t notice any serious issues. After it was done I got just outside the safety perimeter and found myself standing next to Monica, and we chatted as we watched the fireworks display and effigy burn.

One aspect of the way burn night was organized didn’t sit well with me. The effigy was situated on a narrow peninsula on the north side of the lake. This meant that nobody could get a good, close view of it. The fire conclave was on the peninsula, to the north of the effigy. The safety perimeter on the peninsula was at 200′, which was pretty far (too far to feel the heat when it was burning), and probably had something to do with emergency-vehicle access, so for those people at the perimeter, they didn’t get a great view of the effigy and didn’t get the visceral feeling of the fire’s heat. But more than that, a lot of people (a large majority, I think) watched the whole thing from their campsites across the lake, so there wasn’t the close camaraderie and excitement I’d expect at a burn.

After the effigy collapsed and the perimeter was dropped, we were allowed to approach it. Typically, I would circle around the fire a few times, but on this narrow spit of land, it wasn’t possible to make a complete circuit while staying a tolerable distance from the fire and while keeping one’s feet dry. So it’s a good thing my boots are waterproof.

After that, I gathered up my firedancing equipment and went with my Shady Cinema campmates back to Freakeasy for some more firespinning. Didn’t get in as much as I wanted, but had fun anyway. There was also a “monster wheel” race (gigantic homemade big wheels) and a fashion show there.

Sunday was the end of the event. I tried to help the folks from the bus and from Shady Cinema strike camps (my own took very little work). As one might expect, it’s hard to get a busload of hippies to get their shit together in a prompt fashion, and we didn’t roll out until about 90 minutes after the supposed last minute. On our way out the gate, someone flagged us over. Turns out it was the owner of the campground, Don, who thanked us for coming. He said he was happy having us there, which is nice to hear.

I can’t help but compare LoF to Flipside, and it’s interesting to see what’s the same and what’s different. LoF seemed to have a lot more children, a lot less nudity (even on the warm days), and a lot less volume from the sound camps. There’s not as much over-the-topness, but I suspect that’s just a matter of time. Flipside has been around ten years longer, and I get the impression that some of operational details at Flipside were figured out without reference to Burning Man. This may be because either the people who volunteered to handle those functions at Flipside had no experience doing the same thing at Burning Man, and therefore didn’t know the “right” way to do them, or those functions got fleshed out at Burning Man and Flipside after Flipside already existed, so they developed along parallel tracks. LoF seemed, at least superficially, to be following Burning Man as a model in ways that Flipside does not. But on burn night, when I was standing around with some other spotters waiting for things to happen, I got to chatting with a guy named Breedlove, and he told me that for LoF, Burning Man is so big that it just isn’t a useful model to follow. Instead, they’ve looked to Flipside as a model and inspiration for how to run an event. Which gave me great nachas.

All in all, I had fun, the weather being the only drawback. It was nice, as Clovis once put it, to be part of the problem for a change.

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