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Francesco Bacone

A new hobby: reading Wikipedia’s featured articles of the day in several languages (only the ones I can understand: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and German).

This is what I found today:

La speranza è buona come prima colazione, ma è una pessima cena.

Francesco Bacone

Right on, Francesco.

A converter for Kindle clipping files

I have just released Zitat, a Python script to import Kindle 3 clipping files and convert them to emacs org-mode files (which can also be read with any text editor). More details here.

I’m back

Not by popular demand. I don’t do things by popular demand. I don’t give a shit about popular demand.

I’m just back. If you don’t like that, go read some other blog, maybe one with stupid pictures of cats.

Do recommendation engines really help me to become more like me?

Recommendation engines are very good at figuring out what people like me would do and telling me what that is, so I can then find out what people like me do. I can become much more like a person like me.

(…)

Recommendation engines, by telling me what people like me do and encouraging me to be like a person like me, they help me to become more prototypically one of my kind of person. And the more like one of my kind of person I become, the less me I am, and the more I am a demographic type.


Douglas Rushkoff, in an interview for “The Virtual Revolution” (2010)

Happiness vs. entrepreneurship: it is not corny when it is a children’s book

Der Schilderputzer

One of the most inspiring books I have read so far this year is a 32-page volume titled “The Sign Cleaner” (Der Schilderputzer), written by German author Monika Feth and illustrated by Antoni Boratynski.

I came across it today, when my 8-year-old son brought it home from school as a reading assignment.

Here is a pretty accurate summary I found at the International Children’s Digital Library:

Feth, Monika (text)
Boratynski, Antoni (illus.)
Der Schilderputzer (The sign cleaner)
Düsseldorf: Patmos, 1995. [32] p.
ISBN 3-491-37310-7
Work – Happiness – Education – Fame

Working in streets named Bach, Beethoven, Brecht or Kästner has unanticipated consequences for a street cleaner. He suddenly realizes that he knows nothing about the people whose names he is cleaning daily. At first he goes to concerts to hear their music, then to the public library to read their books. Soon he is singing and reciting while he works. An audience gathers around him and he is given a show on television. To make a long story short: the street sign cleaner turns down a post at the university and continues to his own work, holding lectures for his own and his listeners’ pleasure.

And here, the anonymous reviewer felt he also had to gift us with a couple of critical remarks (my italics):

Antony Boratyniski gives his protagonists realistic expressions but rather dream-like appearance, their faces are stereotypic but also lively. Two dimensional colors and distorted proportion, often out of perspective, correspond in a formal way to the substance of this
sympathetic, but unfortunately hardly imaginable story about a happy person.

“Hardly imaginable”?

When the reviewer says this is a “hardly imaginable story about a happy person”, I can’t help but feel sad to live in a world where people find it hard to believe that

  • someone would be happy to dedicate an enormous amount of his leisure time to reading great writers and listening to great music,
  • someone would do this for no material reward at all and be happy in the process,
  • someone would turn down the opportunity for a reasonably prestigious and profitable career as a university professor and instead be happy to share his knowledge freely, “holding lectures for his own and his listeners’ pleasure”.

This is a children’s book. Children read books like this to learn how the world around them works. When author Monika Feth wrote the book, I think (well, at least I hope) that she was trying to teach children that people can in fact be happy while dedicating a lot of their time to such noble and pleasurable interests without having to

  • start a business in order to make such interests profitable;
  • allow such interests to be tethered to the framework of a career — it is not as if the character would starve, for he already had a job; and the book also serves to teach us that there is nothing dishonorable with being a street sign cleaner;
  • write academic papers in the worst of the publish-or-perish tradition in order to convince college administrators that time and money are not being “wasted”.

And this is where it becomes clear why this book pleased me so much.

I have had it with all the pressure to dedicate my time and energy to looking for ways of inching ahead in the petty and senseless dispute to seem productive, to engage in ever sillier contests of personal/academic self-advertising in order to find favor with administrators.

I have had it with people overrating the virtues of entrepreneurship, something that is becoming annoyingly common in universities not only in the certain underveloped Latin-American country where I live and teach, but all over the world.

Wikipedia says: “Entrepreneurs assemble resources including innovations, finance and business acumen in an effort to transform innovations into economic goods.”

But there are important goods that are not economic in nature. Entrepreneurship fanatics seem to have forgotten the meaning of the word “intangible”.

More than one person became happier — and the world became a better place — when the sign cleaner sought to pursue his intellectual goals with no material reward in mind, and then decided to share freely the knowledge and the inspiration he had acquired in the process.

So I beg you: never buy your child a book about entrepreneurship. Buy this book instead.

Production vs. moving the intellectual content forward

I hate to see computer-science departments that feel their role is to prepare people to work in an industry, and the industry is going that way, and therefore we have to teach our students that way. It’s exactly the wrong thing to do. What you should be doing with your students is teaching them to think generally — think outside the box and plot the other courses we should be pursuing.

(…)

It’s a little bit the difference between computer science in the service of production and computer science in the service of moving the intellectual content forward.

DCoders at Workan Ingalls
in Peter Seibel, Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming,
p. 379, APress, 2009.

If I were Bob Dylan

If I were Bob Dylan — or rather, if I had been Bob Dylan in 1965–66, when he was getting hell for “going electric”, and when he was being charged with not living up to his role as the “voice of the new generation”… If I had been Bob Dylan then, well, I would have done exactly as he did. I would have refused interviews, autographs and explanations.

Or maybe not; not having the guts that Dylan had, I would have done just the opposite: I would have explained myself more emphatically, spelled it out in more detail. But then I wouldn’t be Bob Dylan any more, because Dylan is not the kind that spells things out in detail.

In fact, that is what makes Dylan much more interesting than all the pretentious people who spell things out in detail and are often just plain wrong.

Better be right and cryptic than be crystal clear but dead wrong.

Everywhere nowadays, including in the certain underdeveloped, Latin American country where I live, people occupying certain positions are automatically acclaimed by the masses as visionaries, as the voices of a generation, as beacons in the darkness, as explainers of the world.

Actors, models, singers, athletes, politicians, talk-show hosts, you name it. The public and the press seem to be thirsty for their opinion and their guidance. Being famous is tantamount to being worth listening to, it seems.

How naive. How stupid. How misleading. How dangerous.

Everything Dylan had to say, he said in his songs, in his lyrics, in his prose, in his performances (acoustic, electric, whatever). And that should be enough. Why the hell would anyone want to interview him, or get his autograph, or take his picture, or — the horror — ask him to explain his writings?

Could these people possibly think that a few improvised, off the cuff, reluctant remarks in answer to the brainless questions usually posed by journalists would be more enlightening than the great works of art that Dylan had produced after days — months — years — of inspiration and hard work and… whatever it was that drove him to create what he has created?

One possible reason is that people don’t want to go through the trouble of interpreting Dylan, or anybody else that writes as cryptically as he does. (But does he really?) That’s why they asked him to interpret himself.

That is just plain intellectual laziness. Journalists usually suffer from that, and they encourage the same in their public.

And when he went electric, that was his own business. It was part of the act, part of his artistic statement. He didn’t owe anybody anything. The part of the public that didn’t like it could just stop listening to his songs.

Unlike Judas, he hadn’t signed up as anybody’s apostle. Rather, it was the fans who betrayed Dylan for not understanding where he was going then.

Not to mention the freedom that every artist should have to create, to copy, to be influenced by and to experiment with whatever ideas and sources he sees fit to. Which reminds me of the big issue about copyright and “intellectual property” and sharing, but that is the subject of another post.

So in 1966, when Dylan was being harrassed by the fans and by the press, he faked the motorcycle accident (or so some people say) to get away from it all. I find it very easy to understand. If I had been Bob Dylan, I would have done exactly the same.

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