Art Is The Realm of the Problem

“I am troubled by how often people talk about likability when they talk about art.

I am troubled by how often our protagonists are supposed to live impeccable, sin-free lives, extolling the right virtues in the right order – when we, the audience, do not and never have, no matter what we perform for those around us.

I am troubled by the word “problematic,” mostly because of how fundamentally undescriptive it is. Tell me that something is xenophobic, condescending, clichéd, unspeakably stupid, or some other constellation of descriptors. Then I will decide whether I agree, based on the intersection of that thing with my particular set of values and aesthetics. But by saying it is problematic you are saying that it constitutes or presents a problem, to which my first instinct is to reply: I hope so.

Art is the realm of the problem. Art chews on problems, turns them over, examines them, breaks them open, breaks us open against them. Art contains a myriad of problems, dislocations, uncertainties. Doesn’t it? If not, then what?”

-Jen Silverman, “Swimming in It: Art and (Im)Morality.” macdowell.org. April 21, 2022.

Refuse That Final Word

“The more authoritarian a social regime is, the more insistently it will simplify the possible responses—always converging on thumbs up or thumbs down—and demand the correct one. I don’t think we live in a totalitarian, or even an authoritarian regime—not even close—but in any given culture there are always authoritarian subcultures, and we have more of those than we used to, because our social media empower such attitudes and practices and demands. And to accept those attitudes and practices and demands is to undergo a diminution of personhood.

Someone who lived under a genuinely totalitarian regime, the great Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin, often wrote about what he called the “surplus,” a term he used in several ways. The one I want to emphasize is this: The surplus of any human being (me, you, my neighbor) is what exceeds description, what cannot be expressed in any sociological definitions of identity. In his magnificent essay “Epic and Novel” (1941), Bakhtin writes of the “surplus of humanness” that each of us possesses and that makes us—this is a numinous term for him—“unfinalizable.” No one can say the last and complete word about any of us. It is the ambition of all authoritarian regimes, social or political, to utter that final and definitive word about whoever comes within its orbit; it is, for Bakhtin, an ethical imperative to refuse that final word, whether uttered about myself or my neighbor.”

-Alan Jacobs, “You Are Not a Server.” The Hedgehog Review. April 26, 2022

I enjoyed this little essay. Then, I realized I follow the author. Alan Jacobs has a blog and a newsletter that is currently on hiatus. He focuses on Christian themes and is not always my cup of tea. But, it’s worth occasionally dipping in for pieces like this one. Other recent writing from him can be found at his website.

Nukes, NUBS And Coners

“Living in a machine with over 100 sailors requires a person to be flexible socially and sometimes physically. I spent two decades on United States Navy submarines performing sonar duties among eccentric personalities in incredibly stressful situations. When sailors report to their first submarine, they are joining a work culture unlike any other. Surrounded by crew members busily moving about tight spaces and narrow walkways, announcements over the circuit boxes, roving watchstanders, equipment humming to 400hz fans, it can be anxiety-inducing to any sailor. 

That is why every new crewmember starts as a NUB. But, if they work hard and learn the systems, they will earn their dolphins and become a member of another entirely unique subculture within the grander social hierarchy that exists within the confines of the submerged tube they call home for months on end.

-Aaron Amick, “Nukes, Nubs And Coners: The Unique Social Hierarchy Aboard A Nuclear Submarine.” The Drive. June 16, 2020

An unusual and interesting piece of sociology.

Which Computational Universe Do We Live In?

“In 1995, Russell Impagliazzo of the University of California, San Diego broke down the question of hardness into a set of sub-questions that computer scientists could tackle one piece at a time. To summarize the state of knowledge in this area, he described five possible worlds — fancifully named Algorithmica, Heuristica, Pessiland, Minicrypt and Cryptomania — with ascending levels of hardness and cryptographic possibility. Any of these could be the world we live in.”

-Erica Klarreich, “Which Computational Universe Do We Live In?” Quanta Magazine. April 18 , 2022.

Quanta has some really interesting content. Let’s hope we live in Cryptomania.

My Writing Advice

“Most of the rules that apply to writing long-form documents like Tech Narratives, Blog Posts or Papers hold up for writing short documents like E-Mails or issue tickets. Use this documents to practice your writing skills, by make them well structured, usable and polished.

-Heinrich Hartmann, “Writing for Engineers.” HeinrichHartmann.com. April 15, 2022.

If I were to break down what I think of as important in writing.

I’ll add more to this as it occurs to me.

Histotripsy: Solid Tumor Oblation With Ultrasound

“Early tests suggested that the sound waves successfully decimated up to 75 percent of liver tumor material in the rat bodies, which enabled the little critters’ immune systems to jump into action and beat the leftover cancerous tissues out of existence, preventing reemergence…

…The new treatment is called “histotripsy,” and it noninvasively directs ultrasound waves so that the target tissue is mechanically destroyed — and with millimeter precision. This novel technique is presently being deployed in a human liver cancer trial in both the U.S. and Europe.

This is significant because a great number of clinical situations preclude direct (read: invasive) interventions, because of the size of the tumor, its location, or stage. But this new study looked at reducing only a portion of the cancerous bodies, leaving behind much of the tumor intact. This method also enabled the team of UM researchers to exhibit the effectiveness of the novel approach in less than ideal conditions.

-Brad Bergan, “A new technique successfully fried up to 75 percent of tumors using ultrasound.” Interesting Engineering. April 18, 2022.

Lots of interesting developments with ultrasound. There’s point of care ultrasound, which is bringing ultrasound imaging into the clinic. And now, there’s an interventional technique for solid tumors. Really interesting.

Red Dawn “Wolverines” in Ukraine

“A photo posted to Twitter on Friday morning by journalist Nolan Peterson showed a burned-out Russian T-72 tank on a roadside supposedly near western Kyiv. Along the barrel, scrawled in white spray paint, was the word ‘Wolverines,’ another seeming homage to the 1984 Cold War-era movie ‘Red Dawn’.” 

-Max Hauptman, “‘Wolverines’ graffiti straight out of ‘Red Dawn’ showing up all over battlefields in Ukraine.” taskandpurpose.com. April 16, 2022

I find it interesting how the story of Red Dawn was re-purposed for the Ukrainian cause.

Words: Inclusion, Exclusion & Questioning

“Dictionaries project an image of disinterested expertise. This is because they are produced with stunning care by a professional team whose job it is to monitor a culture’s temperature. Consequently, they project authority. Yet what makes culture, particularly in a country like the United States, move is often an anti-authoritarian drive: rebellion, protests, marches. We like to think of ourselves as having a voice, and that voice, in linguistic terms, is in a constant state of unsettlement. We not only like to oppose power; we also like opposing the languages of power…

…Maybe every dictionary has its own double: the book features all the words its makers included, and the double features the words that were excluded. Inclusion is power, but so is exclusion. I say this because dictionaries exert a strange allure: an urge to completion. And the exclusions are a statement about life itself: the words that were left out haven’t been co-opted; by not yet being cataloged, they still belong to us.

It is a source of constant amazement to me that English doesn’t have the equivalent of an Académie Française. No institution forces us to use our words in a particular way. Yet we do have, of course, mechanisms of authority — for instance, peer pressure: we use the words we hear. So, usage is a mechanism of cohesion. And dictionaries, too, are tools of consent. I say this with absolute reverence. No language, especially no standardized language, is able to exist without a drive toward cohesiveness; otherwise, it would disintegrate rapidly. At the same time, those mechanisms of authority, including dictionaries, need to be questioned. Who is behind them? Are we satisfied with the dictionaries we have?”

Ilan Stavans and Margaret Boyle, “How Dictionaries Define Us: Margaret Boyle and Ilan Stavans in Conversation.” Los Angeles Review of Books. March 30, 2022

True of words. True of our lives.

Centralization vs. Decentralization

“Recently, a reader asked me to lay out the concerns about centralization and decentralization in relation to the internet…

…The people who own networks can change the rules at any time, and not just from a free-speech standpoint: Recently, Vimeo faced controversy over how it changed its business model to charge heavy consumers for the bandwidth their videos took up.

With centralization, the model can change at any time, and you just have to accept it—think of how Facebook would often redesign its site, disrupting the routines of millions of people.

In effect, decentralization gives you more control over the knobs, but the inconvenience of having to use them. When you hear about things like Web3, what they’re really trying to get at, beyond any financial windfalls, is the idea that a decentralized platform can be as easy to use and safe as a centralized one.”

-Ernie Smith, “The Central Question.” tedium.co. April 6, 2022.

Convenience vs. capability. There are many ways to frame this discussion. But, ultimately, like much of life, it is about trade-offs you want to make.