Three Years Late: A Lengthy Review of Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarism, Part 4

This is part 4 of multi-part series; things will make more sense if you start at the first post.

Open Source and Creative Commons

As part of the broad brush, Helprin attacks the Creative Commons and open source code.  It's unsurprising, given that I spent a year of my life developing open source software, that this was the point at which his arguments soured for me.  This was point at which I decided that I needed to write this absurdly detailed review.  (You can stop now, nobody's forcing you to read it.)

Helprin's perspective is that open source, the Creative Commons, and anything free inherently attacks non-free things because it implies that people who want to be paid are greedy.  This is is just blatantly untrue.  While some people may hold this perspective, I believe that the majority do not.

An example will serve us well here.  Take Photoshop: it's a fabulous tool and a lot of engineering effort has gone into it; it deserves to be sold rather than given away.  However, its price is steep and most people can't afford it if they just want to learn a little more about it.  GIMP is an open-source alternative.  People like myself who do not need the full power of Photoshop for professional use can use GIMP to manipulate images in a similar way.  GIMP doesn't take away from Photoshop's revenues because professionals will still buy the cutting edge tool, but people who can't afford or don't professionally need Photoshop still have access to a similar tool.  Nobody loses.

Further, open-source projects are a great venue for teaching; many people become better programmers by contributing to open source code.  Think of open-source and Creative Commons not a substitutes to paid services, but supplements.  They are tools and resources that everyone can use, eliminating some of the barrier to entry into the digital world.  One could even argue that they increase revenue.

It is obvious to me that Helprin has no programming experience.  If he had, he would not be so condemning of open source.  High-end proprietary products use open source code like OpenGL, programming languages themselves are often open source (like Python and PHP), and Helprin's own website uses the open-source Javascript library jQuery.

The idea of technology being free is not now--Steve Wozniak wanted to give away the plans for the original Apple in the 1970s.  Some knowledge should be in the public domain; each car company did not literally reinvent the wheel, nor should they have needed to do so. Open source code allows for developers to spend their time on new ideas.

Supporting the existence of free resources does not imply the condemnation of proprietary products.  In some ways, Helprin needs to take his own advice and slow down before jumping to conclusions.  Admittedly, I have the advantage of having seen the years of progress since this book was written; perhaps I am too harsh on the author, whose perspective is cast from another point in time.

to be continued...


Three Years Late: A Lengthy Review of Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarism, Part 3

This is part 3 of multi-part series; things will make more sense if you start at the first post.

Intellectual Barbarism

The public reaction to Helprin's article was incredibly negative, with an almost barbaric approach in the comments--hence the title of the book. His discovery of this side of humanity shocked and appalled him, and rightfully so. Unfortunately, I feel that Helprin, in an understandable emotional reaction to such negative feedback, swept far to many people under the label of savages.

Certainly individuals bare their teeth when they are allowed to hide behind a veil on anonymity--we see this all the time.  Online media allows people to speak (or write, really) before thinking, or the occasionally worse: speak without having anything to say.

As Helprin points out, people often don't read things in full (or at all) before responding to them.  There is no time to process the material and form a coherent thought, let alone with proper grammar, lest your place on the comment thread is unfathomably low.  Group thought is also pervasive, and taints opinions before individuals can form their own. These problems relate to the acceleration of life that he discussed at the start--that we need time in order to function as our best selves.

I cannot help but agree that there does exist a kind of intellectual barbarism in online communities, or in Helprin's words "Blogging's anonymity makes it the intellectual twin of road rage." This made me laugh out loud--I have seen this, the intellectual twin of road rage.  However, I do believe that it would be better put, The Internet's anonymity allows for the intellectual twin of road rage. Simply put, this is no more full of rage than is a leisurely Sunday drive.

Setting down the too-broad brush, we can see a more resounding message.  As individuals, communities, and perhaps even as a society at whole, we need to address intellectual barbarism. We need to take the time to attempt to comprehend others and then carefully craft our responses. I want to see more thoughtful questions and fewer accusations.

Continue to Part 4


Three Years Late: A Lengthy Review of Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarism, Part 2

This is part 2 of multi-part series; things will make more sense if you start at the first post.

Easing into Copyright

The majority of Helprin's book is dedicated to the defense of copyright.  The connections between this topic and the subject of the first post--the acceleration of tranquility--are not obvious at first.

I think that Helprin's own tranquility is disturbed by some modern attitudes toward copyright, namely that more should be accessible to the public.  He appears to be disgusted with the flagrant entitlement and rudeness present in our society, and rightfully so.

Helprin wrote briefly of values in his first chapter, I believe that this work is his attempt to get us to reanalyze our values on the topic of copyright.

The New York Times Article

In 2007, Helprin wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times arguing that the length of copyright should be extended.  The editors chose the inaccurate title, "A Great Idea Lives Forever: Shouldn't Its Copyright?" and all hell broke loose.

Due to the title, many people misread the article (or didn't read) the article and the comments were soon full of public outrage.  Helprin's real argument was that we should extend copyright, but not infinitely  because the constitution is explicit about copyright being a limited term, which he emphasizes repeatedly.  The thrust of his argument is that if people are able to inherent their grandparent's life work as a company, then why can't they inherent their grandparent's life work as a novel?

The public misunderstanding and backlash inspired him to write this manifesto.

Continue to Part 3


Three Years Late: A Lengthy Review of Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarism, Part 1

I rarely read books soon after they are published. Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarism had been sitting on my shelf for at least two years, recommended to me by my mother, before I finally picked it up. Helprin's Winter's Tale was one of the most delicious novels I've ever encountered, mostly because his writing is simply beautiful; thus, I hoped for good things from this manifesto. I did indeed find it to be enlightening in some ways, but in others it disappointed me; I'll attempt to tease apart the facets of my reaction in a series of posts.

The Acceleration of Tranquility

Helprin begins by introducing us to two characters, one living in 2028 and the other in 1908, and asks you to consider which example draws your attraction, which life you would rather live.  This was all a little ironic because I'm also reading Kaku's Physics of the Future, which makes many of the same predictions for the future, but more on that at a later point.

I think that Helprin, knowingly or not, sets the reader up to like the second character and lifestyle with implications of infidelity with the first, among other things.  Setting aside the inherent bias of the setup, I still side with author in his favor for the second, slower life, which is unsurprising given my generally retrogrouch attitude.  He goes on to explore the benefits of each: medicine is an obvious example in favor of the 2028 life, the ease of achieving rest and contemplation for the second.

An aside: if these the ideas sound at least vaguely interesting to you, please read the first chapter of the actual book, which my summary cannot do justice.

His thesis, at least as I perceive it, is that the pace of life is speeding up beyond the pace that is healthy for man, but that we cannot simply throw out technology because it does too much good to be cast away.  To me, the most insightful paragraph of the entire book was his proposition on how to move forward, given knowledge of both ways of life:
Requisite, I believe, for correcting the first paradigm until it approximates the second, and bringing to the second (without jeopardizing it) the excitements and benefits of the first, are the discipline, values, and clarity of vision that tend to flourish as we grapple with necessity and austerity, and tend to disappear when by virtue of our ingenuity we float free of them.
Disciple, values, and clarity of thought.  It's really quite simple: values are the foundational ideas from which we form our lives.  Clarity of thought turn values into blueprints, or unambiguous plans. Disciple allows us to actually build our lives from those blueprints.

While the majority of Helprin's book covers other material, this was its profound point.  The questions this point leads to are: What should our values be?  And then, how do we learn to achieve clarity of thought and discipline?  Knowledge of their necessity helps, but like all virtues, acquiring them is like catching a fish with your bare hands.

Continue to Part 2



I just finished reading Middlesex, which a very sweet friend of mine thought was about Middlesex the county next to ours.  It is most certainly not.

It was a great read, and I plowed through the end, but I can't put my finger on what held it back from being excellent.  Perhaps it was all of the explicit talk about sexuality.  I can be prudish at times, but that's not what it was.  I think it was that the narrator just talked about it too much, and like any topic that's overdone, it gets old.

I wanted less talk of sex and more talk of gender.  Why did the narrator make the choice she/he did?  I wanted more on what mannerisms were hard and easy in the transition.  What were the harder and easier parts of playing each gender?  I wanted to know more about the struggle of familial acceptance. In the end, I felt like I only knew 3/4 of the narrator. Some intrigue is good, of course, but I was left too hungry.


six words

Today I read about a writing workshop in which a prompt was to write your own biography in six words.  This could be mine:

Doing everything except what's needed most.

What would yours be?


laundry and quarters

Our building has a laundry room on the first floor with about 8 washers and 16 dryers. It costs 50¢ to wash and 25¢ per 15 minutes of drying; one load usually takes 45 minutes to dry, so it costs us $1.25 per load of laundry (plus soap).

However, one of the washers has been running for free over the past several weeks, and two of the dryers have also been running for free.  Most other people are hesitant to use them, which I find odd.  Other than not forcing you to put in money to use them, they aren't "broken" in any way.

We produce roughly two loads of laundry a week, between clothes, towels, and cleaning rags.  When we had more clothes, we used to do laundry every two weeks.  Now, we're in a pretty regular habit of doing it once a week, usually on Fridays or Saturdays.

However, when I was cleaning tonight, I ended up with a decent pile of gross wet cleaning rags, and instead of letting them sit in the laundry basket all week, I decided to run down and put them in the free washer, which was empty, despite some other washers being occupied.  After they were done, I was able to use the free dryers too.

Why don't people use the free machines?  This baffles me.  Do they think that they are broken?  I had to explain this to a fellow resident the other day.  He was waiting for me to take out my laundry, but the free washing machine was ready to go. "Why don't you use that one?  It's free," I said. "Yeah, but I don't want to waste quarters on it if it's broken." "But it's free. You just put it in and press the button.  If I'm wrong, all you waste is a little soap." Eventually he got it.

I'm transitioning to rearrange my laundry schedule to optimize use of the free machines, as long as it doesn't get in the way of anything else I need to do.  Other students, who are very bright, no doubt, are avoiding these machines, and continue to postpone doing laundry as long as possible, doing huge batches at once.  I guess I'm optimizing for money and other folks for time?

More generally, why do folks continue to use inferior products or systems?  Mental effort to switch?

The moral of the story: if you have laundry machines at home, enjoy them.


bing it on challenge

I'm glad that Microsoft for trying to break into the search sphere with Bing.  It's good to keep search competitive so things continue to improve instead of stagnating.

That said, I find the "Bing it on" ads and marketing campaign to be misleading.  I think that their Bing vs. Google test favors Bing (surprise, surprise) for three main reasons.

First is Google's info sidebar that now accompanies search.  Google Obama, for instance, and you get the typical search engine list of blue links and their summaries, but you also get a really helpful side panel with a picture and biographical info.  This side panel is not present at all in the Bing challenge, so you're not using the full experience for the comparison.  Sure, Bing has it's own side panel that it's excluding, but it's social networky, hard to parse, and really uninformative.

Second, my hunch is that the kind of searches people do for these kind of challenges are really generic, like "butterflies," "red dresses," or "sports cars."  These will all result in picture-heavy results, and Bing puts pictures closer to the top than Google does, and people like pictures.  Further, these generic searches don't really represent what people actually search for.  If you do this challenge, try to use something specific that you'd actually look for, like a professional colleague's name, an academic paper or book title, or a food dish that you'd like to cook.

Finally, if you do the challenge on someone else's computer, like for all the commercials and stats they're showing you, you're not signed into Google, and so the challenge isn't showing personalized results.  Doing the challenge at home, this isn't an issue, but the stats and commercials are crucial to the marketing campaign.  Google is really smart about knowing what you like and what's relevant to you, and as far as I can tell, Bing isn't, but I might not have used it enough to pass verdict.  Bing hooks into Facebook, but that's not relevant information for personalizing search.  (It is, however, how they track you from session to session, the way Google does with your Gmail or your Google account.)  What is relevant information is what you've searched for and clicked on in the past, which Google has by the bucketful.

It's possible that Bing is really great.  Lots of people like it for the pretty search page, but I always search by hotkey, so that doesn't matter to me.  It's also entirely possible that Bing can give great personalized results once they build up enough data about you.  But I don't want to waste my time training them, when I already have a trained engine.  I also use a bazillion other Google products: Gmail, Calendar, Drive, Blogger...the list goes on, so I'm going to be signed into Google anyway.  I don't really use Facebook that much, and don't like the idea of my search experience being tied to my Facebook account.  I want the freedom to delete that account without losing quality of search.

I'm obviously a Google loyalist, but I think Bing is a great search engine and I'm glad people can pick.  I'm not objecting to Bing, but to the marketing for it.


circle tile patterns

I like the traditional quilting pattern of overlapping circles, often called "wedding rings," but I've found that I like it best when the rings are thin; in other words, I like it everywhere except in actual quilts.

Today I was thinking that it would be very easy to use as a floor or wall tile, so I started digging around trying to find tiles that were essentially this pattern. Here's what I've found, vaguely in increasing order of favoritism.

Granada Tile's Athens-875Cannes-934 and Torino-937
(colors are customizable)


oodles of apples

The weekend before the storm, I went to a pick-your-own orchard with a friend.  There, I experienced the inexplicable urge to pick all of the apples.  Was it that I knew most of the remaining apples would go to waste due to the storm?  Was it my fruit-picking experiences as a child, where all you had to pay was effort?  Was it the hope of canning a year's supply of applesauce?  We'll never know.  What I do know, though, is that I came home with over 60 pounds of apples.  When N saw them, he just kind of stared.  Then when I told my brother, he said, "Have you ever considered being an agricultural laborer?  Given your interests..." Gimme an orchard one day, baby.

Since then, I've canned about 4 gallons of applesauce, with a great deal of help from my friends--5 quarts the day they were picked, 6 quarts the day after.  Then the final batch this past weekend.  There are "recipes" for applesauce, and I referenced my copy of Canning for a New Generation, but it's really absurdly simple, if time consuming.  I've listed what at did at the bottom of this post.

We picked three varieties of apple: Granny Smith, Pink Lady, and Cameo.  I had never heard of Cameo before, but it became a favorite.  The fruit were huge, a boon for applesauce because it means less peeling and coring.  They are also very sweet and crisp, and so eating nibbles while you peel is delightful.  Or just eating the apple all by itself, which we did plenty of when without power.  Cameo also gets very mushy when baked, making it perfect for applesauce, though not ideal for other baking.  There were three crisps made in the course of using all the apples, and the Cameos didn't keep their form well.

The apples are all gone now, the majority turned into applesauce.  I savored the last one (a Cameo) two nights ago after finishing the final round of canning.  Then last night, I enjoyed applesauce with a dash of cinnamon for dessert.  The age of applesauce has begun.

1 cup water per 4 lbs of apples
Peel and core apples then cook with water until soft.  Use an immersion blender to give the concoction the right texture.  Clean and sterilize jars and lids.  Put applesauce in jars and boil filled jars for 20 min for quart jars.  Let jars cool until sealed.  Magic.


Sandy, part 3

See the first two parts here and there.  I'm making this my last post on Sandy; anything else I'll just append as updates to the end of this post.

We're going on 70 hours without power at home.  The university is back on PSE&G instead of its cogeneration plant.  We took hot showers at a friend's place last night, and then ate with family who have a gas stove.  I've got to put Hurricane Sandy up there with the Northridge earthquake in terms of crazy natural disasters I've lived through, and Sandy probably comes in at the top spot.

PSE&G estimates it'll be 7-10 days before everyone has power again.  I saw a fleet of their trucks near our place this afternoon, so I'm hopeful, but I've been hopeful since Monday.  N had the idea to leave the iPad on at home and turn on the "find my iPad" feature so we'll get notified when power goes back up and it connects to the internet.  Meanwhile, we're still camped out in our offices.

11/1 update: 72 hrs w/o power
The PSE&G fleet is gone and we're still powerless.  Most of our neighbors, including one building in our complex, have power.  Patience is a virtue.

11/2 update: 88 hrs w/o power
We've been getting creative with meal solutions.  Yesterday, we bought pre-made pot pies and cooked them in one of the coffee room microwaves.  Today, we took the rice cooker into work to cook dinner in that--tex mex rice and beans.  We'll see how that goes.

11/2 update: 96 hrs w/o power
The university finally contacts us specifically about our building. The one sentence summary: PSE&G is actively working to restore the power in your area.  No estimates, though the PSE&G estimates I've seen online place the expected restoration time as 3 days from now.

11/2 update: power is back!
After over 97 hours without power, we got an email from Apple saying that our iPad had been "found."  N's brilliant plan worked, and we headed home to hot showers.  Tomorrow I get to clean out the fridge, but for now, we're reveling in it.