Tales From the Trenches: Analog Saturday

Yesterday morning (September 26, 2015), I did a very quick pass through social media and then, around noon (all times EDT [USA]) I pulled the plug. iPad never turned on. Big Iron, aka the iMac, just sat unused, iPhone not used beyond lock screen for time and counting my steps. The last twenty-four hours were wonderful. So much so that there may be a weekly Analog Day in these parts. And, by the way, I am emphatically not into self-mortification, sackcloth and ashes; as for poverty-chastity-obedience, I could with difficulty hack the first two, but obedience would be the Deal Breaker. Simeon Sylites, this boy is not. [No one should miss the absolutely wonderful Buñuel short film, Simon of the Desert.]

What was so wonderful? What I got done. Totally caught up on one of my favorite publications, The Chronicle of Higher Education, a very high quality rag for those in…higher education. Wallowing browsing in some, by no means all, of the new books which have come in. You’ll take my point if I say that the most dangerous job in this neighborhood is…riding shotgun on the Amazon delivery truck. [There is no such truck…yet. But you get the idea.]  Speaking of books, when an undergraduate I counted books. When it hit one hundred, I switched to measuring bookshelf length. When that hit one hundred feet I considering switching to yards. But I didn’t. I jus t stopped trying to quantify. I have many books, let’s leave it with that and a picture of a pile just above where I’m writing this:
Alone with my thoughts on a whole lot of things, from calculus to my writing projects to just enjoying the exciting mental life of feeling and hearing myself think. Time to sit down and read through some piano music: two movements from Bach’s French Overture, the last movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique.

Did I think about the digital world? Couple of brief times, but knew that The Republic was not in danger, and if it was, my services couldn’t change things. Didn’t even thing about problems with digital solutions, like cataloging an enormous xerox collection, or an even more enormous clipping collection. The best thing was just feeling life slow down to normal speed, to whatever speed I chose to use.

Kant would have had no problem with this. Digitality [is that a word? it is now.] has its own categorical imperative. All those little switches in a CPU which put a device through its computing paces…to humans this can feel like, to use a Star Trek analogy, trans-warp speed. Humans simply can’t go as fast, fast as the neural connections of our oligodendrocytes may be. And that’s in large part because we don’t follow an instruction set; we make connections, we wonder down related paths, in short, we reason and intuit. No machine can do that. Programming a machine to reason? No can do…contradiction in terms. Ditto “Artificial Intelligence”, contradiction in terms.

So moving at human speed, without digital intervention, is part of what being human is about. Machines can curate by algorithms, but it’s a human curator who can do world-class curating with its/her/his reasoning and intuition.

Someone, probably an alleged Digital Native, probably is thinking “Luddite.” Did I say “no can do”? When computers were just one step ahead of Eniac and Univac and still called Electronic Brains…that’s when I started with computers. I’ve seen it all and done a lot of it; the “About Robert” page here has some of it, so I’ll not belabor the point much further than to say…I’ve programmed in Fortran and Assembler and C, including some Windows apps, beta tested for, among others, Microsoft and Adobe (including the PDF spec; every time you use a PDF file, there’s a little bit of me there). Kiddies, you claim to be Digital Natives, but being able to use a smartphone is not being a digital native. I claim the title for myself, and others of my generation, who got in on the ground floor of computing. So watch it when you say “so easy your grandmother could use it”…because I’m of grandparent age, have done and can do things digitally that will leave you at the starting line. So there.

Don’t get me wrong. I do digital all the time. Being able to yank in an 1896 in PDF format is wonderful. But it’s also wonderful to go after that book in a library…serendipity is sadly underrated these days. Some of the best references I ever had came from a book or journal I just happened to notice as I was going after something else. Of course, you can’t get a manuscript finished if you’re always doing serendipity. I always make time for it even when I’m working the digital to meet a deadline.

And maybe that’s he key thing here. An analog day forces you to do serendipity because you have time for it, because you don’t have to schedule it. It restores the balance. And that, in this usually unbalanced digital world of fast, fastest, instant and more instant…is something we humans need.




Can’t anybody write? …the “Content Curation” problem

Sometimes I seriously wonder. Recently I set Sergey and Larry to work on “content creation”. Limited myself to the first page of Google results; a good thing, because more would have made me feel suicidal. Sounds extreme? Read on….

Starting with the Wikipedia entry, s.v. we read “Content curation is not a new phenomenon. Museums and galleries have curators to select items for collection and display. There are also curators in the world of media, for instance DJs of radio stations tasked with selecting songs to be played over the air.” Okay on museums and galleries since that’s the traditional usage; most curators have either terminal degrees in the fine arts, or advanced degrees in art history. Not okay with the following sentence. With all due respect, DJs are simply not like museum creators, with the possible exception of classical music stations where their DJs usually have either substantial performing experience, or academic degrees in music, or both. By the way, in classical music, “songs” are Lieder, as in Schubert’s songs. The Beethoven Fifth Symphony is many things, but “song” it is not. But the worst thing in the sentence is “tasked”. The first thousand times I read it online, no problem. But it’s omnipresent nowadays in writing, both “legacy media” (another phrase that should never have been coined” and the digital. It’s useless, it’s lazy, it’s cliche.

And here’s a post on Mashable, “If You use the Web You are a Creator'”. Right. Everyone can do it. Those degreed types and real experts…who needs them? Everybody, just everybody can sort through the information flood. If you believe that…why on earth are you visiting this blog?

Finally, there’s the cliché which has entered the common vocabulary for good, I fear. “Content.” If you say “articles” or “essays” or “squibs” or even “riffs”, I’m with you. The word “content” tossed around as it almost always is…says nothing (it’s way too general), is overused, and…fills me with inertia. In the 90s Bill Gates used it a lot, but I’m sure he wasn’t the first. Besides, even though I’m now a happy Mac user, Microsoft has been very good to me in the past. Even though we all know that “GUI” does not mean “Graphical User Interface” but “Gates Understands Income”. Or, if you will, Micro$oft.

Conventional wisdom has it that we inhabit the Information Society brought on by Internet. Wrong as usual,  CW. I’ve been suffering from information overload since computers had memories measured in kilobytes, took up a room, and weren’t called computers but Electronic Brains. If you’ve read the “About Robert” page you’ll see why. Even in those days when a large hard drive was 20 MB and a lot of memory was 640K. information came in faster than I could process it, and even on those computers could process my words faster than my head could process ideas.

There has always been a problem with finding the “good stuff.” Yes, you can get more faster from having a menage à trois with Sergey and Larry than by literally thumbing The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature in the old days. But there’s always way too much to sort through and not enough time. Even though, as the great German classicist Friedrich Leo put it, “there are twenty-four hours in the day, and if that’s not enough, there are the evenings.”

Speaking of that menage à trois. Great if you need to find out about the maker of Amalgamated Widgets. Or if you want the lowest price for a case of Fizzie Swiggles. But even the best crafted search, using Boolean operators and all the advanced search facilities that Google offers, comes up short. Some things aren’t digital, and never will be. Important things. For example, when I’ve taught Roman religion, at one point, through readings and discussion I’ve made my students experts in one small Roman festival. Then I’ve turned them loose online to see what they found, and discuss the ten best links and the ten worst. Nobody could come up with more than a couple of “barely” good links (their phrase), and everyone went way over ten for the bad links. Their comments were shrill. As one wrote “I used to think it didn’t exist or didn’t matter if it wasn’t online. I’ll never use online the same way again.” And another “I never realized how useless online could be for serious learning.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

So I’m going to do a series piecemeal about how I pursue and select, the latter term far more accurate ; cf. above on  the c-word  traditionally applied to museum curators. Further, I’m hoping that by showing what I bring to the table you’ll have your own additions or, at least, find mine useful. Why? Because as a successful academic, I’ve learned how to weed out the great from the good, the bad, and the ugly. It won’t be biased to my own area of academia (fear not!) nor will it be one post after another; it will be biased and totally skewed towards finding good stuff for anyone who realizes that her/its/his head is not for decoration. To coin a phrase.


My 15 seconds of fame….

Probably nanoseconds in Internet time. Couple weeks back I found a very interesting illustration of ruined ancient structures as if they still existed intact in today’s cities. Hanging gardens of Babylon, Inside the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and more, including…the Parthenon. Grab that image and tweet it. Q.E.D. = “Quite Easily Done”. But then the Favorites and retweets started coming in. No, make that pouring in. Or, changing the metaphor, a thundering herd. I’ve never had more than single digits of either Favorites or RTs, and often wondered what it would be like to have a really popular post. My education needed expanding. And it was. Oh my, how it was.

Evgeny Kazantsev Acropolis calendar


“Be careful what you ask for.” Usually I tweet thank-yous to the nice people who retweet or favorite one of my tweets. But twenty favorites in one morning alone makes for paralysis. Some added comments (infra) but sometimes those comments were in languages that I don’t read [I do read, of the modern languages, English, French, German, Italian; never mind the dead languages for now]. Maybe their comments were “this is the stupidest tweet I’ve ever seen.” Or worse.

I started to wonder how the crowd with six and seven digit numbers of followers cope. Not for long. Each morning brought a new onslaught to my innocent posting. Finally quiet reigned in my Twitter notifications, and you can see the final numbers here:

IMG 031 stats


I thanked everyone who made substantial comments which I could read. There were several common themes.

More than one person noted that Parthenon’s friezes were white rather than in colors. Good catch! We classicists have known for years that the Parthenon was painted from flecks of paint on the stone. But very recently, advanced imaging techniques have produced far more color evidence, and not just for the Parthenon. Two examples:

parthenon colors

greek sculpture color harvrd

Scholars have known for a very long time that Greek sculpture and architecture was painted from minute traces of paint thereon. But in the last decade new imagining techniques have made reconstruction possible. The second picture shows a Greek stele (tombstone), left to right: original, colored and a b/w which shows the kind of information that can now be found. It comes from a wonderful Harvard exhibit; you really should look at the other pictures here. The first picture shows how the Parthenon probably looked in the fifth century.

Garish, n’est-ce pas? Do that in an intro painting course and with luck, you’ll be toast; without luck, extremely dead. But what about all the “white classical purity” of the “noble Greeks” who believed “nothing in excess; know thyself”? Hah. Gone, because it never was and they never were…but that must wait for an upcoming post.

Several carped about the arrangement of the buildings, that some of the other Acropolis were in the wrong places. Well yes they are. But this wasn’t an illustration for a book; it was part of a calendar advertising campaign; see the other illustrations here. In portrait orientation, you just can’t get the whole Acropolis in and still have the modern city unless the former is way, way, tiny. So get real.The posters seemed to think that painting and illustration is supposed to be photographic. Perhaps they were thinking of this Renaissance painting:


But compare it with just two other Renaissance paintings whose perspective is rather…singular:

Mantegna_Andrea_Dead_Christ 1435-1506


And as for building inaccuracies, no real cafe could stay in business long if van Gogh had turned architect:

Le_café_de_nuit_(The_Night_Café)_Van Gogh Yale 1888

[Aside: The Yale Art Gallery was just around the corner from my residential college. It was a rare week when I didn’t commune with it]

The visual arts are rather like poetry, on whichW. H. Auden remarked “poetry is what is lost in translation.” I rest my case.

But most commenters simply enjoyed it, as I did. I’ve not dared to ask my fellow classicists their opinions. Because the results would for the most part by nattering, niggling, and nit-picking…the last-name is surely best left to the simians. This is the crowd who still carps about Robert Graves’ wonderful novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God. Why…because Graves is rather free with his primary source, the great Roman historian Tacitus. Likewise for the wonderful television series of that name.  Some people just don’t know how to have fun. Nothing like being cross-threaded with most of your profession, is there?

I keyboard, therefore….

…therefore I am”

It would have driven Descartes crazy. And if that didn’t do it, this real quote would have made him ready for Thorazine, in industrial strength:

“Typing is an antiquated input method….”

Thus the CEO of an animated GIF startup hawking his wares. Emoji fare little better since they “can’t express emotional dimension adequately.” Really?

Easily dismissed as just one more Tek booster flogging the alleged greatest and latest. After all, don’t we all know that when the crowd is sourced, it’s never wrong? That pronouncements of Star-Tekers are never wrong? Certainly they got it right predicting in the 1960s that we’d all be using self-driving flying cars by now.

It’s scary and creepy and just a bit sick-making, because it shows in nuce what’s so wrong these days. Fast faster fastest. No time for words or even, gasp, emoji. Save time…just use a picture.Take the Mona Lisa. Please. Nice but hardly the best da Vinci, let alone Renaissance painting. Now, smart sage, tell me what amount of antiquated inputting it’s going to save me? I’m game for anything which could save me the trouble of finishing my current five hundred page (and counting) manuscript.

But I’m going to expand my case with something even simpler, and older, than emoji. Dingbats, aka printers’ ornaments. Hermann Zapf’s are justifiably famous; they first appeared in 1978. But therein lies a tale. Back in the 1990s, doing good typography  on a computer meant using Adobe Postscript fonts for “desktop publishing” as it was called then. Postscript fonts were not an open format, Postscript-enabled printers were ruinously expensive. Adobe had licensed the Zapf Dingbats. In short, if you wanted Zapf Dingbats on the computer, you were going to pay. Generously. Then Microsoft decided to take on Adobe by devising  TrueType, a format publicly available. Obviously Microsoft couldn’t license the Zapf Dingbats since Adobe already had done so. In consequence they made their own dingbat font, WingDings (1990)to be released with Windows 3.1 (that was the release before Windows 95). Incidentally, this gave rise to Bill Gates’ famous “I made John Warnock cry” remark [John Warnock was a co-founder of Adobe].

Now in medias res. In Wingdings, each dingbat can be accessed via an alphabet character. And then, someone discovered that if you input NYC you get:

NYC wingdings

And lo, the conspiracy theories began. “Death to the Jews” became an online buzz long before Twitter or the concept of “going viral” had been invented. Apart from the absurdity of it (Why would Microsoft want to have such a message? Was Brad Silverberg losing it?), no one had considered that it could just as easily have meant “A Jewish physician can save your life.”

See for yourself. Apply to Sergey and Larry with “nyc wingdings” and you can peruse ad nauseam. What all these theorists err is thinking there was meaning in such a random event as producing the Wingdings. James Thurber skewered such an idea beautifully in his “The Luck of Jad Peters” (The New Yorker, 12-8-1934). So did Martin Gardener in several of his Dr. Matrix columns for Scientific American. I may do a post on all this if I can get the math under enough control so as not to frighten the math-phobic.

The skull-and-crossbones, for example, has traditionally meant a pirate (ship) or on a bottle, poison.


But consider. There are poisons and poisons. Most household poisons can definitely make you sick and perhaps damage your internal organs…but with medical assistance, you probably won’t die. Unlike cyanide; you need medical assistance very, very fast. You see the ambiguity of the skull-and-crossbones? Pictography, whether in emoji or Dingbats, is inherently ambiguous. Suits the needs of pre-industrial societies. But when society needs accuracy, pictography won’t cut it. Pictography can form the basis of an alphabet as a syllabary, that is one syllable per image, collections of syllables make comprise a word. Chinese is a wonderful example.

But as for pictures replacing keyboards…No can do. Yes, my sarcasm is showing. Commonplace symbols are ambiguous. People have argued for centuries about the meaning of the Mona Lisa. And even the woman’s identity; the great E.H. Gombrich once waggishly suggested Cesare Borgia in drag. So yes, I take that Tek Troll very very seriously. His ideas need vigorous rebuttal. He’s not taking any prisoners and neither should we. Unless we want a world of no thinking, no writing, not even communicating, but staring at the pictures, pretty or otherwise.

There’s a word for that.



Cited from:
Mike Issac, “The Tiny Moving Message,” New York Times August 4, 2015.

For a better da Vinci try his Ginevra da Benci from the National Gallery, Washington DC

Ginevra da Benci