Are Coders Worth It?

This is a great essay that calls into question the social and economic privilege that technology workers (not just programmers) enjoy in our time. I had a hard time picking a quote from it.

Ruby on Rails does for web developers what a toilet-installing robot would do for plumbers. (Web development is more like plumbing than any of us, perched in front of two slick monitors, would care to admit.) It makes tasks that used to take months take hours. And the important thing to understand is that I am merely a user of this thing. I didn’t make it. I just read the instruction manual. In fact, I’m especially coveted in the job market because I read the instruction manual particularly carefully. Because I’m assiduous and patient with instruction manuals in general. But that’s all there is to it.

My friends and I who are building websites — we’re kids! We’re kids playing around with tools given to us by adults. In decreasing order of adultness, and leaving out an awful lot, I’m talking about things such as: the Von Neumann stored program computing architecture; the transistor; high-throughput fibre-optic cables; the Unix operating system; the sci-fi-ish cloud computing platform; the web browser; the iPhone; the open source movement; Ruby on Rails; the Stack Overflow Q&A site for programmers; on and on, all the way down to the code that my slightly-more-adult co-workers write for my benefit.

—James Somers, “Are coders worth it?”

After reading more of the essays posted to his site, I suspect James Somers is a web developer the way Einstein was a patent clerk.

See also Rebecca Solnit’s essay from February about the way Silicon Valley employees are changing San Francisco:

…you hear tech workers complaining about not having time to spend their money. They eat out often, though, because their work schedules don’t include a lot of time for shopping and cooking, and San Francisco’s restaurants are booming. Cafés, which proliferated in the 1980s as places to mingle and idle, are now workstations for freelancers, and many of the sleeker locales are routinely populated by silent ranks staring at their Apple-product screens, as though an office had suddenly been stripped of its cubicles.

Taking Notes

This quarter at the iSchool I’m taking a course on the history of recorded information. One of the topics we discussed this month was our own annotation and note-taking practices, by way of the drolleries and doodles in the margins of medieval manuscripts. I thought it might be fun to write up a post about the way I take notes and the tools I’ve found helpful over the years.


Life During Wartime

In the film Stop Making Sense it is during “Life During Wartime” that David Byrne begins running in circles around the stage, around the band, even behind Chris Frantz’s riser. The gesture is paradoxical—mute and eloquent, a singer running away from his microphone and at the same time seeming to say look at all I can encircle. Look at all that the alchemy of my fear and desire has brought into being. My wartime has become a party in my mind and yours. … It is the running of an animal measuring the limits of its cage.

—Jonathan Lethem, Fear of Music, 122.

“Thank you! Does anybody have any questions?”

Reading “Steve Jobs”

Steve Jobs

On October 5, 2011, the night Steve Jobs died of cancer, Lapham’s Quarterly posted this tribute to him, paired with a grainy photograph:

Genius: Range of mind, power of imagination, and responsiveness of soul: this is genius. The man of genius has a soul with greater range, can therefore be struck by the feelings of all beings, is concerned with everything in nature, and never receives an idea that does not evoke a feeling. Everything stirs him and everything is retained within him….

Jean-François de Saint-Lambert, from the Encyclopédie.

He was a charismatic leader, a genius not in technical ability but in the emotive, associative, synthetic sense of St.-Lambert’s definition. If Walter Isaacson’s book Steve Jobs proves nothing else about the man, it is that Steve “never receives an idea that does not evoke a feeling.” This sensitivity to the outside world—especially to the design of objects and experiences—is one of Jobs’s defining characteristics and a major subject of the book. (more…)

Voice and Tone

Voice & Tone is a site developed by the people behind Mailchimp to lay out their house copywriting style. It’s exemplary in a few ways:

  1. This is how to make a simple but charming website. It’s got bright colors, clear structure, intuitive navigation (including keyboard shortcuts), smooth animation, and it’s responsive to different screen sizes. Try resizing your browser window.
  2. This is how to write for the web. Omit needless words, pick meaningful expressions, and teach your readers something new. When appropriate, be funny.
  3. This is how to market your company to people who might not otherwise care—-by sharing and defending the philosophy behind it. I don’t see many internal style guides with their own domain names.

This is good work.

Vannevar Bush’s Democracy: “Modern Arms and Free Men”

This post is adapted from an assignment for an American intellectual history seminar.

Modern Arms and Free Men

The first half of Vannevar Bush’s Modern Arms and Free Men (1949) is a straightforward explanation of the progress made in military technology since 1918. This is the “Modern Arms” part of the book: Bush wants to be certain the reader understands recent developments before he tackles what they mean for “Free Men.” He is careful not to alienate readers without an existing grasp of the subject, and he also seems to step very carefully in establishing his authority: “For ten years,” he writes, “thanks to the accidents that direct men’s lives in a democracy, I was in a position to see as much as any single man could see… It is part of the obligation of any citizen who has been given such responsibility and opportunity as I have, no matter by what accident, to set down for the record what he has learned, and to share with others any light it may throw on the great question of war or peace that haunts us all.” In the second half of the book, he ruminates on democracy and the coming Cold War, as well as on the influence of modern military technology on both issues.

In general, Bush comes across as a technocrat who believes that scientifically trained experts can and must have a disproportionate influence on national policy, particularly as the United States continues to face off against totalitarian powers like the Soviet Union. But this technocracy and elitism is tempered by a democratic idealism that seems to rely on alchemy, a faith in a political process that works in eldritch ways to make everything turn out for the best. (more…)

“Because the seams are hid from us, you see.”

This is what paragraphs were invented for:

What does Caborca know of Huisiachepic, Huisiachepic of Caborca? They are different worlds, you must agree. Yet even so there is but one world and everything that is imaginable is necessary to it. For this world also which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale. And all in it is a tale and each tale the sum of all lesser tales and yet these also are the selfsame tale and contain as well all else within them. So everything is necessary. Every least thing. This is the hard lesson. Nothing can be dispensed with. Nothing despised. Because the seams are hid from us, you see. The joinery. The way in which the world is made. We have no way to know what could be taken away. What omitted. We have no way to tell what might stand and what might fall. And those seams that are hid from us are of course in the tale itself and the tale has no abode or place of being except in the telling only and there it lives and makes its home and therefore we can never be done with the telling. Of the telling there is no end. And whether in Caborca or in Huisiachepic or in whatever other place by whatever other name or by no name at all I say again all tales are one. Rightly heard all tales are one.

—Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing (143)

Believing in Belief: William James’s “Varieties” and the New Atheism

This post is adapted from an assignment for an American intellectual history seminar.

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902) is a collection of William James’s lectures on what you might call the parapsychology of religion. It’s an exploration of personal religiosity through two lenses: first, the philosophy of pragmatism that James would come to symbolize, and second, the experimental psychology that James had pioneered at his Harvard laboratory in the late 19th century. (more…)

“Zap Gremlins…”

Zap Gremlins

I’m sure this feature has been around since the 1990s. (Clicking this brings up a dialog box for finding and deleting useless characters.) But it’s one more reason to love the premier OS X text editor, BBEdit.

And there’s—apparently a lavish tribute to this menu item.

History as Contest

William Hogeland responds to my last post with a clarification:

What I’m really saying isn’t just that history isn’t interesting until contested. It’s that history doesn’t exist independently of contest.

I can agree with that, but perhaps it’s more useful to agree with Hogeland and then say that most of the cultural products we consider “history” are really something else, or something less. This reminds me of the last few paragraphs of a two-part article by David Greenberg in Slate: (more…)

William Hogeland on not learning history

This is historian William Hogeland responding to yet another poll that demonstrates a basic lack of public knowledge about American history and civics:

There’s a widely held idea, I think manifestly false, that arguments like these, over interpretation, can’t be profitably held until people are in possession of the same set of neutral, agreed-upon facts. Hence the endless force-feeding of the same baby food that people keep spitting out. To me, the real “American ignorance” problem lies in a patronizing tendency by educators, writers, public historians, and cultural institutions (hello, PBS) to seek to correct ignorance by imposing as indispensable fact what are actually overdetermined interpretations, even while denying every interesting social, economic, and political ramification of those interpretations.

Why You Can’t Quote Philip K. Dick

Michael H. Rowe for The Millions:

In Dick’s novels, his plots are like thinking machines. You have to operate them like a piece of equipment to understand what they do, not expose one gear and say, Wow, it’s spinning so fast…

Dick isn’t out to crystallize a particular sentiment. He does not aim to be quotable—to be, in a word, reducible. Instead, his novels feel like labor, as though they are tabulating the results of some desperate experiment.

I’ve always found it really difficult to write anything about PKD’s books in my ongoing reading log, but never wanted to stop reading them. The “desperate experiment” running through most of these books is an attempt to express and defend feelings of dread, paranoia, and psychological instability.

John Adams’s Quarter-Life Crisis

To what Object, are my Views directed? What is the End and Purpose of my Studies, Journeys, Labours of all Kinds of Body and Mind, of Tongue and Pen? Am I grasping at Money, or Scheming for Power? Am I planning the Illustration of my Family or the Welfare of my Country? These are great Questions.
In Truth, I am tossed about so much, from Post to Pillar, that I have not Leisure and Tranquility enough, to consider distinctly my own Views, Objects and Feelings.—-I am mostly intent at present, upon collecting a Library, and I find, that a great deal of Thought, and Care, as well as Money, are necessary to assemble an ample and well-chosen Assortment of Books.

—-Diary of John Adams, January 30, 1768.

Bob Dylan in China

This week Bob Dylan played his first gig in China. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, in a very poorly thought-out opinion piece, is upset with him for “selling out,” as uptight people of all persuasions have been for the last 48 years:

Before Dylan was allowed to have his first concert in China on Wednesday at the Worker’s Gymnasium in Beijing, he… let the government pre-approve his set.

Iconic songs of revolution like “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” wouldn’t have been an appropriate soundtrack for the 2,000 Chinese apparatchiks in the audience taking a relaxing break from repression…

Harbottle Dorr and the Boston Massacre

One of the American Revolution’s more obscure figures to have left a good record is the memorably named Harbottle Dorr, a merchant and selectman of colonial Boston with a gift for political diatribes. (For more information, see Bernard Bailyn’s classic essay on Dorr, collected in Faces of Revolution; an earlier version is archived on JSTOR.) His lasting legacy is the 3,280-page “Index and Commentaries of Harbottle Dorr”—-a kind of proto-blog in which he assembled, indexed, and marked up decades of newspapers and assorted print materials.

Like most Boston residents, Harbottle Dorr was deeply upset by what became known as the “Horrid Massacre” of May 1770, in which British soldiers stationed in Boston fired on a crowd of civilians. (more…)

UC Berkeley Students in the Loyalty Oath Crisis, 1949–1951

This post is adapted from an assignment in a California history course.

In 1940, the Regents of the University of California dismissed teaching assistant Kenneth May on the grounds of his being an admitted Communist. Nine years later, the Regents formally amended an existing oath of allegiance to the California state constitution—to include an anti-communist clause, with the provision that “the foregoing statement is a condition of… employment.” Many professors refused to sign, and a few were fired. The ensuing conflict over this loyalty oath was largely limited to faculty members (via the Academic Senate and other groups) and the administrators concerned about their politics. But students, too, were drawn into the controversy. In a few cases, they were called on to take the oath themselves; generally, they supported the faculty in opposing “McCarthyism” and the problems it posed for academic freedom. Sources collected in the Bancroft Library’s California Loyalty Oath Digital Collection indicate that UC students were active and vehement opponents of the oath—in many cases just as radical in their opposition as the faculty and staff who were actually required to take the oath.

The Supreme Love and Revolutionary Funk of Cornel West, Philosopher of the Blues

“There’s a way in which you could think about Cornel as a kind of sick soul,” says Glaude. “In the sense that he begins with the dead, with darkness. He begins with suffering. The blue note. And all too often people want to move too quickly beyond that.”

“That’s the American way,” says West when I raise the question of the blue note and its dismissal, the common conviction that looking forward means forgetting the past. “‘No problem we cannot solve,’” he says, paraphrasing conventional wisdom. Well, that’s a lie. I don’t know why Americans tell that lie all the time.” He laughs, shaking in his chair, mimicking a voice that sounds like a suburban golfer in pants a size too small. “‘No problem we can’t get beyond.’ That’s a lie! But—it generates a strenuous mood.”

Great profile of a fascinating person. I can’t vouch for West’s own writings, or the extent to which he’s just playing a character, but this is worth reading.

Gordon Wood reviews Jill Lepore’s “The Whites of Their Eyes”

The fact that many ordinary Americans continue to want to ask about the Founders evokes no sympathy or understanding whatever from Lepore…
Memory is as important to our society as the history written by academics.

This is very weird criticism coming from Gordon Wood, an academic historian at the top of his profession. I thought Lepore’s book was quite fair, and those parts of it that Wood has concrete problems with were mostly anecdotal and personal—“Hearing this person say this reminded me of this counterexample,” that sort of thing. The Whites of Their Eyes is about history, but it’s also by necessity about politics and what Lepore identifies as “historical fundamentalism”—because that’s what the Tea Party is all about. There are perhaps good reasons to leave the Tea Party movement unexamined and unprovoked, but Wood’s argument that disagreeing with misinformed people is rude? Not a good reason.

Bonus link: Gordon Wood, “In Defense of Academic History Writing,” April 2010:

If academic historians want popular narrative history that is solidly based on the monographic literature, then they will have to write it themselves.

Unless they wind up being disrespectful to the memories created by “ordinary Americans,” I guess.

A Mind in the Water

A long and thrilling profile of John Cunningham Lilly, America’s foremost mad dolphin scientist.

In fact, by 1962, Lilly even presided as the “Grand Dolphin” over a kind of semiserious secret society of prominent astrophysicists, radio astronomers, atmospheric chemists, and computer engineers who called themselves “The Order of the Dolphin,” wore small, engraved Tursiops insignia (a little like a tie clip), and exchanged messages in binary code to test each others’ readiness for extraterrestrial contact.

One of these visionary “Dolphins” was a brilliant young Harvard astrophysicist named Carl Sagan, who made his way down to St. Thomas several times in these years to meet Lilly’s dolphins and muse about alternate forms of life in the cosmos.

By 1964, “Want to come and see my dolphins?” had become an irresistible invitation.

Scott Nearing, “Social Sanity,” and Eugenics

This post is adapted from an assignment for an American intellectual history seminar.

Scott Nearing’s Social Sanity: A Preface to the Book of Social Progress (1913) is a call to arms for the late Progressive Era. Nearing’s primary argument in it aligns with a homily often delivered by one of my high school teachers: “Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” Sanity, in this case, is defined by the willingness to try something new in terms of social and economic organization. The book is an extended discussion of the proposition that “man” is the master of his domain, and need not be shackled by any so-called laws of the status quo:

“We are no more subject to the laws of economics than our ancestors were subject to the laws of military tactics… there is an economic lawgiver—man, who can unmake or remake that which he has made.”


Newspaper Culture in Old California

This summer, I read and transcribed a lot of California newspapers (Daily Alta California, Sacramento Daily Union, and the S.F. Chronicle) from 1868 and 1856, as part of a research project on 19th–century communication practices at the School of Information. In the course of this reading, I discovered some weird aspects of California history. Here are some of the more light-hearted bits of newspaper culture, not counting the racism, misogyny, and genocidal anti-Indian sentiments of the period…


Mark Twain on Constellations


Constellations have always been troublesome things to name. If you give one of them a fanciful name, it will always refuse to live up to it; it will always persist in not resembling the thing it has been named for. Ultimately, to satisfy the public, the fanciful name has to be discarded for a common-sense one, a manifestly descriptive one. The Great Bear remained the Great Bear—and unrecognizable as such—for thousands of years; and people complained about it all the time, and quite properly; but as soon as it became the property of the United States, Congress changed it to the Big Dipper, and now everybody is satisfied, and there is no more talk about riots.

—Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897), pg. 80.

I’ve never been very good at recognizing constellations, and now it occurs to me that the names are probably why. If Pegasus) was known instead as The Box with Things Sticking Out of Two Corners, maybe that part of middle school would have been more effective.

Breathe Our Iodine: Big Sur

Big Sur

“Big Sur is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked at from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.”

—Henry Miller, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch


Robert Hooke: The Keith Richards of Science

You may, if you are a science nerd, know Robert Hooke (1635-1703) as the author of the Micrographia, the accomplished observer who first identified cells; as the originator of Hooke’s law, a physical approximation of elasticity in springs; or as the man who claimed to have come up with gravitation before Newton. You may even know him as the cranky-but-loveable mascot of the Royal Society in Neal Stephenson’s historical-fiction epic The Baroque Cycle. But you probably don’t associate him with the birth of drug culture in England.

Along with his other duties as a university lecturer and a city surveyor charged with rebuilding London after the Great Fire of 1666, Hooke served as curator of experiments to the Royal Society. This meant, in practical terms, keeping rich dilettantes and impressionable visitors entertained at the regular meetings and trying to raise interest in the Society’s scientific projects. He was charged with procuring and figuring out every imaginable kind of experimental instrument, and arranging demonstrations of all kinds at the Society’s meetings. He was a founding member of the new generation of scientific “virtuosi” in seventeenth-century England.

Living a stressful, experiment-based life, and being in addition a frail yet determined hypochondriac, it’s no surprise that Robert Hooke took all the drugs he could get his hands on.

And, as curator of the Royal Society, he was in a position to get his hands on many drugs.