Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A digital Humement

Tom Phillips now has an iPad and his landmark work A Humement is now available as an iPad app/reading experience. What's really interesting is that Phillips was a friend of John Cage's who got Phillips into the I-Ching and randomness which the iPad, as this interview/article demonstrates, actually helps generate. So that out of an extremely proprietary shop and technology comes a random dependent technology. As it were. Good article!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Metaphors on your Brain

This is your Brain on Metaphor

This is an interesting article and well worth the read. It's always interesting when neuroscientists start talking about language as opposed to a philosopher talking about language because scientists want to track what chemicals the brain fires when you call for a pizza where as the philosopher is interested in how you actually phrased the question and how that expresses your opinion of the world. The studies that Sapolsky cites are interesting because it is always fascinating how our external stimuli affects, often without our realizing it, our responses to the world around us. I'm not sure if that is really metaphor because if you read Lakeoff and Johnson who suggest that metaphor is such a fundamental part of our thinking so that language, how we talk about the world, is the way we view the world and often without recognizing how deep the metaphors go. Where as Sapolsky, and the cited studies, argue the way we interpret the stimuli around us, aware or unaware, is how people view the world rather than the way we talk about it. Wittgenstein's idea that "language is not only the vehicle of thought, it is also the driver" has implications here as well. So what that you though a person was more intelligent because they handed you a heavier clipboard? What if they handed you a rabid badger? The limitations of what is calculated in these types of studies is not nearly as interesting .
I think the one aspect of talking about metaphor that is exceptionally hard to pin down is the discussion of where our knowledge of it comes from. Sapolsky suggests that it is evolutionary but I think that it is learned which very well might be a type of evolution. In the first cited study, when volunteers are asked to think of something immoral and were given the choice to wash hands, what if they had thought about being hungry and then given the choice to wash their hands? While the results are interesting, there is such a wide range of human responses to the world that while limiting the study is necessary to make it actually functional gauging the level of importance can be difficult. Because at a more fundamental level I don't think the brain is confusing literalness and metaphor but that what is understood as metaphor is literally true because language drives our thought processes. Perhaps a group of people are more likely to wash after recalling ethical failures because of a shared way of thinking/talking about an incident (guilt as uncleanliness,innocence as cleanliness) rather than a brain process. I think it depends on your view of what comes first. I would suggest with W. that language drives while Sapolsky would, as of this article, argue that the brain processes drives and there is not a hard and fast distinction, I don't think, that enables to know which is which.

Monday, November 8, 2010

E. O. Wilson (from Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge)
"We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world
henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the
right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make
important choices wisely."

"It is not the finding of a thing, but the making of something out of it
after it is found that is of consequence."

James Russell Lowell in My Study Windows
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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Idea of the Book

A recent review in Books & Culture entitled "The Idea of the Book" by Alan Jacobs examines The Oxford Companion to the Book and the idea of the book in general. The article overall is interesting both as a review and an essay exploring what is the nature of a/the book. However I'm not sure that Jacob's focus on defining what a book is succeeds in its endeavor. Agreed that the formats of reading these entities we understand as books are changing both in format and design. The Kindle features location number rather than page numbers. I read this article on my computer rather than the physical copy. Jacob calls for a re-definition of the term 'book' but then continues to use it after sort of complaining about it. Jacobs suggests that the form of the book is under attack. And while that might be true I think it is dangerous to think of these changes as attacks rather than changes to be reckoned with in an intelligent fashion.
Besides the discussion of the definition of the book the review of the Companion to the Book is quite good. Jacobs makes an excellent point that as a reference work this dual-volume lacks the flexibility that has brought the issue of books to the recent forefront of the discussion of content delivery. Jacobs discusses toward the end of the essay a desire for better inter-textual connections within the Companion which raises an interesting point/question. Jacob's understanding of how the printed work ought to work (cross-references, indexes, images, editorial changes, etc.) is based upon his experience with other digital reference works and in fact "'s hard not to see the digital version as constituting an improvement in many ways." Where 'improvement' is defined really as 1) lack of errors and 2) updatability. And for a reference work these are the defining bits that really matter. But it is the fixed nature of a work that I think speaks to Jacob's desire for a proper definition of the book. What is the benefit of being able to constantly and forever being able to fix or update or upgrade a piece of text? The logical conclusion of such an idea may well turn into a Borgesian work that strives to provide a complete map of the world. The physical book allows for the work to stop. For those words to be declared enough and complete, sent out into the world and allowed to flourish. This is the benefit of the book, the measured "sense of an ending" that provides a sense of history and knowing, of boundaries and lines, clear topography and elevations before everything is leveled by simply being information.

Here's an fairly interesting article on student apathy in the classroom.