20111031

The Bookstore is Dead, Long Live the written word

I've seen an article bemoaning the end of the book about monthly for as long as I can remember. The most recent one is from Curtis Wright, who argues that the only players left standing in books are Google and Amazon, and that everybody else is just waiting to go out of business. Literature is dead, Oprah's book club just pushes endless waves of trash, etc etc. But why do we even need bookstores?

As far as I’m concerned, the book business deserves to die if for no other reason than that its business model is something out of the 1930s: send a bunch of loser Willy Lomans out as “reps,” people who don’t read and don’t understand the books they sell, and have them place the books on consignment, just as if they were old chairs that you were trying to unload at the local consignment store. As far as the bookstores were concerned, they were mostly purchasing decoration for their stores, so that it at least looked like a place to buy books. The few books that actually made money—celebrity memoirs, confessions of failed politicians, moronic self-help tomes, and jokey piss-jobs about not running with scissors—were profitably located on a few tables at the front of the store. Everything else was just ambience.


Certainly, the bookstore as a business model is imploding. Independent bookstores have been in a persistent vegetative state for decades. Borders went bankrupt this past summer, and I can't remember the last time I set foot in a Barnes & Noble. But bookstores, at least for Wright, are not just about moving paper from publishers to shelves, it's about centers for local literary discussion, for elevating the people above the tedium and banality of life.

Wait, bookstores are essential to literature? When I think of the great bursts of literature from the likes of The Lost Generation, the Beats, Golden Age Science-Fiction, I think about cafes, bars, 5th floor apartments, and odd little magazines, not bookstores. Writers write, they aren't hanging around in bookstores absorbing the ambiance and swapping sentences, they're off in the world engaged in the messy process of translating experience into the written word. Bookstores sites of distribution, not of production. Literature is not written in a bookstore, and does not need a store to survive.

Now, how about the production side? White bemoans the loss of the learned clerk who knew everything about what was in their store, and who could perfectly recommend a book, or the serendipitous find. Now, I've gotten some profoundly good advice from clerks (thanks, Borderlands-SF!), but I've also wandered lost through endless heaps of indistinguishable books, unable to tell which ones were good or bad, ultimately landing on a trusted name I already knew. And not to be blindly technologically optimistic, but at this point, computers are really good at being recommendation engines. Pandora Radio has better taste and more diversity than my 250 GB music library. Amazon recommendations are often pretty spot on, and come with a host of reviews and opinions that you can't get in a bookstores.

If literature is about starting a conversation, we might be right to feel that we've lost something, not being able to see what books other people are reading on the subway, or have on the shelves in their house. This public space is lost. But what do we really get from this most mass-market of shared experiences? What use is it knowing that everybody is reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? White might not like, but the public sphere is data-driven, and these days data is online. For the past year, I've put every book I've read on Goodreads, crossposting perhaps a third of those reviews to Facebook. This is far more exposure than sitting out by the cafe reading some embarrassingly illustrated scifi novel word ever get.

White goes on to decry the potential of an Amazon information monopoly. But the idea that publishing can be monopolized in this day and age is absurd. A monkey can self-publish on Amazon, and get paid. Professional writers may have some valid concerns over the pricing structure, and their relative lack of power in this relationship, but then again, it would be hard for writers to become more destitute. And if you don't like Amazon, grab some web-hosting and throw up a pdf. Or just participate in the massive para-literatures around fanfiction. I'm not going to claim that fanfiction is art, but its certainly words, and more than that it is people engaging with a text, incorporating bits of it into themselves, and sharing stories in a shared universe. It is a literary conversation.

So perhaps literature is dying, if you define literature as something produced by writers, editors, publishers and critics for the good of the elite masses. But that incestuous cycle's artist failure is self-evident. How many books are both Nobel prize winners and best-sellers? Any guesses as to how many of these books will be read in 100 years?

The bookstore is dead. Fine, we don't need it. Literature is irrelevant, but it's okay because we have our own language and our own text. Long live the written word!


20111025

College, Jobs, and the Machine

Race Against the Machine, a recent report from two MIT professors, has gathered media attention by laying the blame for the Great Recession and weak recovery on advancing technology, particularly computers, which are replacing human beings. As the New York Times writes:

"Faster, cheaper computers and increasingly clever software, the authors say, are giving machines capabilities that were once thought to be distinctively human, like understanding speech, translating from one language to another and recognizing patterns. So automation is rapidly moving beyond factories to jobs in call centers, marketing and sales — parts of the services sector, which provides most jobs in the economy.

During the last recession, the authors write, one in 12 people in sales lost their jobs, for example. And the downturn prompted many businesses to look harder at substituting technology for people, if possible. Since the end of the recession in June 2009, they note, corporate spending on equipment and software has increased by 26 percent, while payrolls have been flat."


Digital technologies enables a "super-star" effect, concentrating wealth in the hands of the very best. Thanks to computers, "the best" can be replicated and sold, leading to highly concentrated markets like those for pop stars, major league athletes, or CEO salaries. This argument is more subtle and more powerful than the idea of ever more capable machines replacing humans, a trend which has been with us since the 1800s. It appears that intrinsically, computers might be associated with the immense concentration of wealth we've witnessed over the past 20th century. While everybody is better off now, the top 1% is much better off. The top 0.1% is unimaginably more well off.

What hasn't garnered as much attention are the report's recommendations to resolve this problem, starting with education, entrepreneurship, and regulations. There's something here to irritate everybody: the end of tenure for teachers, removing the mortage tax credit, public healthcare not tied to employment. But the goal is simple, reduce barriers to innovation, allow people to lead flexible yet secure lives, and help people race with machines, not against them.

Education is the first tier of reform, because without an educated population capable of taking advantage of opportunities, everything else is moot. Yet education, and in particular, higher education, appears to be failing. We still teach people with an antiquated lecture style that wastes students' and professors' time, and doesn't impart skills. Recent college graduates feel betrayed by a job market that doesn't need their skills, as this NYMag article illuminates. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees are more valuable than ever, but aren't attracting sufficient students for a variety of reasons, including poor introductory courses, lower GPAs, and (apparently) tedious careers. Korea is requesting that fewer people go to college, a point which PayPal founder Peter Thiel has been making again and again, most recently in a debate in Chicago.

To quote Thiel opponent in the debate, Vivek Wadhwa:

"Your key issue was that education has become far too expensive — that, in the past, the cost may have been justified but is no longer. You compare this to the most recent housing market bubble, which was a leading contributor to the recession. Bienen didn’t agree. He argued that universities greatly subsidize education, offer significant discounts and subsidies for needy students, and provide far more value than what they charge. But I am willing to concede part of this point to you: We do need to improve the cost-effectiveness and productivity of education."

Wadhwa calls on Thiel to help revolutionize education, using the power of the interent to connect students to the best teachers and the best sources of knowledge. This is a worthy, necessary task is human beings are to prevail over the efficiency of ever better machines. With that, let me ask:

What kind of jobs will exist in the 21st century? What kind of skills are necessary for those jobs? How can people learn those skills? How can access to the opportunities of the future be spread as widely as possible?


20111024

Animated Quasicrystals

Inspired by this recent Nobel prize, we've been playing with two-dimensional quasi-crystal patterns again. We spoke briefly of quasicrystals previously : patterns that appear somewhat periodic but never actually repeat. Two-dimensional quasicrystals can be generated by summing together four or more plane waves. In collaboration with Keegan, we've explored ( for entertainment purposes entirely ), what happens when you make these plane waves travel, and also viewing the quasicrystals in log-transformed coordinates as shown in this earlier post. There are more animations over at the Imgur album.


The Java code below generated sequences of images for animation. Once you have a series of images, you can use Gimp to make an animated GIF. I converted to black-and-white and 8-color indexed mode before saving to cut down on file size, and used about 80ms/frame for animation speed.
 import java.awt.image.BufferedImage;  
import java.io.File;
import java.io.IOException;
import javax.imageio.ImageIO;
import static java.lang.Math.*;
public class QUASI1 {
public static void main(String [] args) throws IOException {
int k=4; //numer of plane waves
int stripes = 27; //number of stripes per wave
int N = 800; //image size in pixels
int N2 = N/2;
BufferedImage it = new BufferedImage(N,N,BufferedImage.TYPE_INT_RGB);
for (double phase=0; phase<2*PI; phase+=2*PI/30) {
for ( int i=0; i<N; i++ ) for ( int j=0; j<N; j++ ) {
double x = j-N2, y = i-N2; //cartesian coordinates
double theta = atan2(y,x); //log-polar coordinates
double r = log(sqrt(x*x+y*y));
double C=0; // accumulator
for (double t=0; t<PI; t+=PI/k)
C+=cos((theta*cos(t)-r*sin(t))*stripes+phase);
// use the following line for cartesian crystals:
//C+=cos((x*cos(t)+y*sin(t))*2*PI*stripes/N+phase);
int c=(int)((C+k)/(k*2)*255);
it.setRGB(i,j,c|(c<<8)|(c<<16));
}
ImageIO.write(it,"png",new File("Test"+(int)(180*phase/PI)+".png")) ;
}
}
}
To execute this code, copy it into a file names "QUASI1.java". Then, from the terminal, run "javac QUASI1.java", and finally "java QUASI1" to execute it. Or, paste it into your favorite Java IDE. Changing K will change the degree of symmetry in the crystal. Changing N sets the size of the output images. Changing stripes sets how many wave cycles fit in the rendered image, with larger numbers leading to finer structure. The image on the right was actually rendered using the equation "C+=cos(abs(x*cos(t)+y*sin(t))*2*PI*stripes/N+phase);", with the absolute value added to enforce flow outward from the center.

Since quasicrystals are not periodic, it is not possible to wrap them around the log-polar "tunnel" ( seen on the left above ) such that two edges of the image meet perfectly. However, for quasicrystals composed of only a few plane waves, you can sometimes get two regions to align well enough to be unnoticeable, especially in black and white. In the Imgur album, you can see that some crystals were lined up better than others. Brain massage.


Be sure to check out Keegan's implementation, which doubles as a nice introduction to coding in Haskell. Also, check out this in-browser JavaScript powered port.


I, Scientist Evangelist.

So I guess I should start with a confession. I'm not a scientist, I studied English literature at University and teaching the English language to Korean children is the way in which I feed myself from day to day. Since I lack a white coat, couldn't begin to interpret the mathematics of M-Theory and have never worn reading glasses in my life the public at large would perhaps assume I have no understanding of science whatsoever and am therefore not worth listening to. This is exactly the combustible mix of technology and ignorance that Carl Sagan alluded to before his death. CERN induced black hole paranoia, climate change denial, bizarre nuclear weapons policies, bamboozling allocation of public funds and of course the ability of creationism's lupine offspring intelligent design to hide itself snugly in the most absurd of sheep skins can all be attributed at least partially to the lack of scientific understanding held by the “general public”. This unquestioning belief that if one does not have the letters Sc somewhere after their name then the very idea of empirical thinking had better be left to someone more qualified.

For me the pertinent question is: How can a non-scientist like me go about improving the public understanding of science when I myself admit to being as qualified to lecture on Physics as I am to fly a plane? I believe the answer is in coming out of the closet as a non-scientist who is passionate about science. No one expects to see nothing but young, drunk, Juilliard undergrads stumbling out of the music venues and nightclubs of the world. You do not need a grade eight piano certificate to purchase an Ipod any more than I need to hold my university transcripts to read a book. What is there then to stop a history student or a telemarketing sales consultant from putting his friends hands on a cold beer at the end of a hard shift and explaining the second law of thermodynamics? Perhaps the not unfounded fear that the friend may raise an eyebrow or even walk away. This is possible but not beyond remedy. I believe a public aversion to science, and the belief that if it is 'difficult' it can't be fun exists merely through social conditioning. I don't think there is a gene that splits the human race down the line of Jersey Shore or Johannes Kepler.


See photographic evidence

I doubt I have to say the diagram is not to scale and if we could all overlook the questionable appearance of the comet’s tail I can say I presented this to a room of Korean elementary school students who are learning English as a second or third language. Some of them had never heard of the concept of orbit but by the end of the class I'm quite confident they all had a decent understanding. Not only that, but they were visibly excited by these new ideas. Who wouldn't be? This whiteboard diagram is where we live. Why wouldn't a person be curious about their place in the universe?

A future vision of a society that embraces science and is as literate in scientific ideas as it is in The Beatles discography is no doubt a long way off. However I believe we must all of us make some heavy sacrifices (not limited to appearing to be a 'geek' in front of sexually attractive members of the human race) and become evangelists of the joy of science. This isn't an endorsement of so called 'aggressive' atheism. I neither condemn nor condone what you might call the “Dawkins movement” but do believe it has more to say about religion than it does science. Instead the next time a friend admires the night sky, remind them that they are staring back through time. A piece of information which of course will be of no practical use in their day to day life but as Bertrand Russell tells us. “There is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge.” So go grab someone you love, buy them a drink and tell them how you know they've been drinking Isaac Newton's pee.


20111012

Occupy Wall Street

It's been a month since the start of Occupy Wall Street, and this hmbl blggr is still trying to wrap his head around What It All Means. Occupy has inspired over one hundred similar protests across the United States and the world, prompted some serious discussion of economic inequality, and made pundits say some very silly things (Greenwald has a pretty good summary).

First off, why is everybody so angry? The hippie communists over at Business Insider have produced a series of 40-odd charts showing how unemployment has become permanent, corporate profits and the concentration of wealth have soared, and general wages have stayed flat over decades. I think we were all subconsciously aware of this, that something had gone profoundly wrong with the American Dream, but the Occupy movement is bringing it to the foreground.

And what is it that the Occupy movement wants? They've been castigated as radicals and anarchists who want society to give them a free lunch, but why don't we look at the actual data. Rortybomb performed an analysis on common phrases found in the We Are the 99% (essentially a web equivalent of the Occupy movement), and found that the key phrases were jobs, debt, work, children. In his analysis:

The demands are broadly health care, education and not to feel exploited at the high-level, and the desire to not live month-to-month on bills, food and rent and under less of the burden of debt at the practical level.

The people in the tumblr aren’t demanding to bring democracy into the workplace via large-scale unionization, much less shorter work days and more pay. They aren’t talking the language of mid-twentieth century liberalism, where everyone puts on blindfolds and cuts slices of pie to share. The 99% looks too beaten down to demand anything as grand as “fairness” in their distribution of the economy. There’s no calls for some sort of post-industrial personal fulfillment in their labor – very few even invoke the idea that a job should “mean something.” It’s straight out of antiquity – free us from the bondage of our debts and give us a basic ability to survive.
How mundane, how depressing, but also how liberating. Once people realize where they stand in relation to the big institutions of power, banks and governments and the like, they might begin to think critically about how to free themselves. The 99% might be peasants, but they are peasants with smartphones. Compared to the masses of history, they are connected, informed, and possess political power.

Perhaps the single most impressive lesson of the Arab Spring is that power looks invincible until it no longer does, and once the hollowness at the core of power is revealed, the whole edifice can collapse with incredibly rapidity. Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia relied on brutal police repression and terror. The best that Wall Street can do is ruin our credit scores and empty out our 401Ks, and for the nearly 20% of Americans out of work, or the 45% of 16-29 year old unable to find a job, good credit and 401Ks were never in the offering. As with the Foreclosure Resistance Movement, it turns out that the system of debt has surprisingly little coercive power, and very little to offer to the 99%.

I do not have a crystal ball. The problems with the global economy are complex, systemic, and very difficult to resolve. There are no fast or easy solutions. Similarly, nobody knows what the end game of Occupy Wall Street is, or even if the protests will survive through the winter. But what I do know Occupy Wall Street is an opportunity for the 99% to figure out something new, some way of building social capital rather than financial capital.


20111010

Selling electronics kits to drunk folk on Saturday night

This Saturday we provided phosphene-hallucination visor kits at less than cost of production for sale at one of the VIA music festival events. It was an interesting experience, honestly somewhat stressful, and there are some things I would have done differently in retrospect. One person unfamiliar with electronics soldering and assembly was able to build a kit over the course of 3 hours, which is a good sign. I was able to build about five kits standing there. We also sold all the pre-assembled demo models.

What I learned:
  • Most people don't know how to solder and build things.
  • Some small fraction of technically experienced people will buy electronics kits at music shows
  • People who don't know how to solder will happily buy the assembled demo models, but then might not understand the physical limits of the device or how to repair it if it becomes damaged.
  • Selling for less than cost of production does not necessarily make people more likely to buy your stuff.
  • Its hard for people to pay in cash, and it costs money to take credit cards.
  • My salesperson skills could use some work.
What would I do differently :
  • Prepare business cards for people to contact me again later, and hand those out.
  • Run soldering workshops at hacker-spaces, so that people who don't know how to solder can use the kit under supervision to learn how to solder.
  • Learn how to take credit cards
  • Have someone else handle the actual sales pitch because I just don't have the heart for it.


20111003

Goggles Kits for VIA are Go !

Alright kids, as promised, flicker hallucination visor kits for VIA are packed and ready to go! We should have about 30 kits available at Assemble on Wednesday October 5, 4-7PM. There will also be drawdio kits and LED illuminated kites. The Visor kit is a sexy remix of the brain machine kit, which retails for $35. The Visor also cost that much to produce, but we're still looking for last minute sponsors to subsidize the Assemble workshop and bring that cost down a bit. The remainder of the kits ( about 50 in total ) will arrive by Saturday and will be available at the main event. Assembly instructions and additional information are hosted at www.treehovse.blogspot.com. If there are any extra kits, we've reserved a booth at the Pittsburgh Mini Maker Faire to make them available there. Let me know if you would like me to reserve you a kit. There also might be a very limited number of pre-built kits available, time permitting. By the way, this most excellent Visor cartoon has been brought to you by Austin Redwood.