march 08



Here is a story that sounds like a beloved children’s book come to life: Hong the elephant paints with her trunk. But she doesn’t just make a few fingerpainting-like marks on a canvas, she makes portraits of other elephants! And they are good!


So what might we expect from elephants next? Are they going to organize soccer leagues? Form a sovereign nation? Start a group blog? Not so fast says Jessica Palmer of Bioephemera:

If other species do start producing fine art, I’d expect elephants to be at the front of the line. But we have no idea what’s going on in this elephant’s brain, because the narrator doesn’t ask any of the right questions – the most salient being does the elephant intend to represent anything?
Given that the elephant has a very limited repertoire, does not seem to paint from life or references, and uses a stereotyped series of motions that could easily have been entrained, this appears to be no more than a dexterous novelty act. As far as we can tell, the cartoonish painting produced in this video clip doesn’t symbolize anything in the elephant’s mind, except attention and rewards from a trainer. Ergo, it’s not art …
Many of AEACP’s elephant paintings are abstractions, which raises a thorny question: what motivates the elephant to choose colors or shapes in an abstract piece? Is it random, or is the elephant moved to create something genuinely reflective of its emotions? If the expression of emotion is involved, we begin to trespass on a grey area that may well be considered art. But it’s difficult to get any artist to clearly express what he or she intended when creating a piece, and animals are among the least communicative of “artists.” We can’t just ask. Or can we?

She also makes the point that, “Much more commercially exploitative and arguably less interesting art is created by human beings (as always, I refer to Thomas Kinkade).”

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After today, (I hope) this won’t be necessary, but New Scientist posted a link to Project Implicit, where you may discover an unconscious bias for a candidate.

Asked about my conscious feelings of warmth or coldness towards the candidates, I rated Barack Obama top, followed by John McCain and then Mike Huckabee. I ranked Hillary Clinton lowest – not because I disagree with her policies, but because I have negative feelings about her personality, and because I feel she is a divisive figure who is unlikely to heal the rifts in contemporary American politics.


The results revealing my implicit attitudes were an eye-opener. While the three male candidates appeared in the same order, Clinton jumped up the rankings to place equal second with McCain.

Do I have a secret crush on Hillary? Well, if so, I’m not alone. According to Tony Greenwald of the University of Washington in Seattle, people often rate Clinton more highly on the implicit test than when asked about their conscious attitudes towards her. Interestingly, the same pattern is emerging for both men and women

My experience was just the same, except that for me, a preference for Hillary was far above Obama and McCain (tied, with Huckabee last.) And I have an extremely low opinion of her husband. Whether it works or not, it’s the game of advertising. As I wrote about that inexcusable Intel ad, marketers aim straight at your limbic system. We’ve seen so many examples of dogwhistling, whether obvious or unlikely, one can’t discount the power of subtext and implication.

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Several months ago, I went to a lecture at MIT called “What is Civic Media?” Ethan Zuckerman gave an amazing presentation, pointing out a number of ways activists have worked around China’s Internet filter. Here’s one:




The Chinese don’t censor, they “harmonize. As it turns out, the word “to harmonize” and “river crab” are homonyms. Blogger Wang Xiaofeng uses the handle “wears three watches,” which is, as Zuckerman’s Global Voices-cofounder Rebecca MacKinnon points out, a pun on a political slogan coined by former President Jiang Zemin.

Remember the songs and images and tshirts about 09-f9-11-02-9d-74-e3-5b-d8….? Chinese activists avoided typing text and transfered information in the same ways:

Widespread use of Flickr to spread the URLs of unlocked proxy servers could have an effect in countries like China, UAE and Ethiopia… until governments began blocking FLickr (which they have in many countries that filter the Internet.) To spread clandestine information, it’s important not to have a single point of failure, like a single website that can be blocked. That, in turn, requires that an idea “go viral”, that hundreds of individuals decide to start spreading the information. And that requires an idea that’s sufficiently compelling that individuals agree to take on the risk – however small – of spreading the information.
What would it take to harness this sort of viral spread to harness the net in spreading human rights information? Can activists learn from the story of The Number and find ways to spread information that otherwise is suppressed or ignored in mainstream media?

But just like George Bernard Shaw saw no famines in Ukraine, Westerners will find no censorship in their hotels during the Olympics. Jim Fallows in The Atlantic explains it at great length:

Let’s not stop to discuss why the vision of democracy-through-communications-technology is so convincing to so many Americans. (Samizdat, fax machines, and the Voice of America eventually helped bring down the Soviet system. Therefore proxy servers and online chat rooms must erode the power of the Chinese state. Right?) Instead, let me emphasize how unconvincing this vision is to most people who deal with China’s system of extensive, if imperfect, Internet controls.
Think again of the real importance of the Great Firewall. Does the Chinese government really care if a citizen can look up the Tiananmen Square entry on Wikipedia? Of course not. Anyone who wants that information will get it—by using a proxy server or VPN, by e-mailing to a friend overseas, even by looking at the surprisingly broad array of foreign magazines that arrive, uncensored, in Chinese public libraries.
What the government cares about is making the quest for information just enough of a nuisance that people generally won’t bother. Most Chinese people, like most Americans, are interested mainly in their own country. All around them is more information about China and things Chinese than they could possibly take in. The newsstands are bulging with papers and countless glossy magazines. The bookstores are big, well stocked, and full of patrons, and so are the public libraries. Video stores, with pirated versions of anything. Lots of TV channels. And of course the Internet, where sites in Chinese and about China constantly proliferate. When this much is available inside the Great Firewall, why go to the expense and bother, or incur the possible risk, of trying to look outside?

Discussing Fallow’s article, MIT CMS student Xiaochang Li writes:

touting technology as the solution to China’s censorship and social control issues, we run the risk of glossing over the complex mechanisms of control that go into successful censorship. The Chinese government in all likelihood recognizes the impossibility of really controlling online traffic, not just because of the technology but also because of the commercial needs of both domestic and foreign corporations–of China’s bottom line. What the firewall does is provide an additional barrier, and added nuisance and reminder that you’re doing something potentially prosecutable, a far more effective tactic than full-out blocking.
After all, the censorship doesn’t begin and end with not being able to access some websites or getting your blog taken down – it can have very harsh real-world consequences, and thus relies on mechanisms of self-censorship as much as if might rely on the effectiveness of its state-of-the-art technology.

Somehow it’s a lot more terrifying to know that citizens can access information on Tiananmen Square if they really want to, but either choose not to or just do not know the reference at all. Last year I wrote about Frontline’s episode on the GFW, when a handful of Beijing University students looked puzzled at the otherwise world famous photograph of the man standing up to the tank. One asked the reporter, “Is this a piece of artwork?”

This reminds me of Neil Postman’s introduction in Amusing Ourselves to Death, when he says we have a Brave New World dystopia, not a 1984 nightmare. But that idea I’ll save for a later post.

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Nicholson Baker, whose previous uphill battles have included a plea to save San Francisco card catalogues, creation of a nonprofit saving hard copies of newspapers, and the resulting book condemning librarians for their expensive switch to microfilm, reviewed John Broughton’s Wikipedia: The Missing Manual, revealing an interesting beef with the web’s font of (almost) everything.




Everyone consults Wikipedia. Part of its appeal is the egalitarian spirit, the possibility that right now a Harvard physics professor might be taking notes from an article authored by a Starbucks cashier. There may not be a hierarchy of “editors,” but the articles themselves are always at risk of getting blackballed. Baker writes about his own contributions to the site, “I tinkered a little with the plot summary of the article on Sleepless in Seattle, while watching the movie. A little later I made some adjustments to the intro in the article on hydraulic fluid—later still someone pleasingly improved my fixes.”

After reading a page on self-publishing Beat-poet Richard Denner, and seeing two users called for its deletion, Baker’s preservationist gears kicked in. He added some information to Denner’s biography and voted to keep it, asking, “What harm does it do to anyone or anything to keep this entry?” Nevertheless, a volunteer administrator killed the article.

Soon Baker was patrolling “AfDs” (the Articles for Deletion debate pages,) “speedy deletes” and “PRODs” (proposed deletes,) for items “unjustifiably at risk”:

I found press citations and argued for keeping the Jitterbug telephone, a large-keyed cell phone with a soft earpiece for elder callers; and Vladimir Narbut, a minor Russian Acmeist poet whose second book, Halleluia, was confiscated by the police; and Sara Mednick, a San Diego neuroscientist and author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life; and Pyro Boy, a minor celebrity who turns himself into a human firecracker on stage. I took up the cause of the Arifs, a Cyprio-Turkish crime family based in London (on LexisNexis I found that the Irish Daily Mirror called them “Britain’s No. 1 Crime Family”); and Card Football, a pokerlike football simulation game; and Paul Karason, a suspender-wearing guy whose face turned blue from drinking colloidal silver; and Jim Cara, a guitar restorer and modem-using music collaborationist who badly injured his head in a ski-flying competition; and writer Owen King, son of Stephen King; and Whitley Neill Gin, flavored with South African botanicals; and Whirled News Tonight, a Chicago improv troupe; and Michelle Leonard, a European songwriter, co-writer of a recent glam hit called “Love Songs (They Kill Me).”

All of these people and things had been deemed nonnotable by other editors, sometimes with unthinking harshness—the article on Michelle Leonard was said to contain “total lies.” (Wrongly—as another editor, Bondegezou, more familiar with European pop charts, pointed out.) When I managed to help save something I was quietly thrilled—I walked tall, like Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men.


Baker joined the “Article Rescue Squadron,” after reading about it in Broughton’s manual, and turned to the WPPDP, “WikiProject Proposed Deletion Patrolling”:

Since about 1,500 articles are deleted a day, this kind of work can easily become life-consuming, but some editors (for instance a patient librarian whose username is DGG) seem to be able to do it steadily week in and week out and stay sane. I, on the other hand, was swept right out to the Isles of Shoals. I stopped hearing what my family was saying to me—for about two weeks I all but disappeared into my screen, trying to salvage brief, sometimes overly promotional but nevertheless worthy biographies by recasting them in neutral language, and by hastily scouring newspaper databases and Google Books for references that would bulk up their notability quotient. I had become an “inclusionist.”

That’s not to say that I thought that every article should be fought for. Someone created an article called Plamen Ognianov Kamenov. In its entirety, the article read: “Hi my name is Plamen Ognianov Kamenov. I am Bulgarian. I am smart.” The article is gone—understandably. Someone else, evidently a child, made up a lovely short tale about a fictional woman named Empress Alamonda, who hated her husband’s chambermaids. “She would get so jealous she would faint,” said the article. “Alamonda died at 6:00 pm in her room. On august 4 1896.” Alamonda is gone, too.

Still, a lot of good work—verifiable, informative, brain-leapingly strange—is being cast out of this paperless, infinitely expandable accordion folder by people who have a narrow, almost grade-schoolish notion of what sort of curiosity an on-line encyclopedia will be able to satisfy in the years to come.


Anyone can delete an article with a simple double-bracket, but it’s harder to improve an article or write something from scratch. Baker writes of the resulting internal bullying. I hadn’t heard of the “web-comic articles purge of 2006,” until this piece, but it turns out this was a long running battle with many casualties.

But Jimmy Wales isn’t to blame for anything besides bringing Rachel Marsden back in the public eye. He is against building a moat:

Jimbo Wales, Wikipedia’s panjandrum—himself an inclusionist who believes that if people want an article about every Pokemon character, then hey, let it happen—posted a one-sentence stub about Mzoli’s, a restaurant on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa. It was quickly put up for deletion. Others saved it, and after a thunderstorm of vandalism (e.g., the page was replaced with “I hate Wikipedia, its a far-left propaganda instrument, some far-left gangs control it”), Mzoli’s is now a model piece, spiky with press citations. There’s even, as of January, an article about “Deletionism and inclusionism in Wikipedia”—it too survived an early attempt to purge it.

Wikipedia is, of course, a “wiki,” so anyone who feels something is unjustifiably excluded, may write wikia of their own. There is a good comment on Andrew Leonard’s Salon blog post about the article:

This sort of trivia certainly belongs on internet somewhere, but Wikipedia is supposed to be an encyclopedia. A comprehensive, encyclopedic treatment of everything still doesn’t justify logs of every time a cartoon character has mentioned the article topic.


And as you might imagine, quality control in the form of excluding certain content enrages many people.

Other wikis exist with different standards. For any given topic one might like to write about, usually already has a wiki going, and if not they’ll create a new one where there is sufficient interest. Other similar providers are listed on
Wikipedia does not have to please everyone. Let Wikipedia can be Wikipedia.

The web itself, providing us with endless room to pursue randomata and obscure whims of fancy, calls for a vast, if not infinite net; but is there anyone that really wants Wikipedia to include everyone who happens to have a public Myspace profile? So what are the limits?

“Writer” isn’t much distinction when about 300,000 books are published every years, and web columns and bylines are even more numerous. Last year, Slate’s Timothy Noah discovered his brief Wikipedia bio failed the “notability guideline.” He wrote an amusing article about it, ending with an updated note that his entry was restored, “can the dividing line between eminence and obscurity really be the authorship of a single magazine article about Wikipedia? I note with interest that Stacy Schiff, author of the excellent New Yorker article cited above, failed to impress Wikipedia’s arbiters of notability by winning the Pulitzer Prize in biography, writing several other well-regarded books, and receiving fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It wasn’t until she wrote her Wikipedia piece that she became sufficiently notable to be written up in Wikipedia.”

Remember Googlewack? I think I might try reading several books a year by authors in print but out of Wikipedia. This seems easier with writers of nonfiction. Plugging in authors on my Amazon Wishlist, the first to come out without a Wikipedia entry at the top of a google search was Marilynn Gelfman Karp , who wrote In Flagrante Collecto. Obscure-ish fiction writers Unica Zurn, Mary Butts, and Sylvia Townsend Warner are all there. Writer Sonia Greene, better known as H. P. Lovecraft’s wife, was briefly erased from Wikipedia, until Annalee Newitz on the (now retired) Wired blog Table of Malecontents argued for her inclusion.

Josephine Saxton of “The Hieros gamos of Sam and An Smith,” isn’t listed, and I’m not quite sure how I found about about this book in the first place. I added it to my Amazon wishlist in May of last year, a few months before someone of metafiler mentioned it as good post-apocalypse lit. I think I was reading The Road around then. Maybe I saw John Crowley’s review alluding to it. After a couple clicks on Amazon this is shipping, soon to be my first experiment of author Wikiwack. I might like it so much I’d be inspired to write a Wikipedia bio for her.

Baker ends his review by saying, “Someone recently proposed a Wikimorgue—a bin of broken dreams where all rejects could still be read, as long as they weren’t libelous or otherwise illegal. Like other middens, it would have much to tell us over time. We could call it the Deletopedia.”

Not a bad idea. Card catalogs, by the way, are now highly sought-after as hipster furniture. Perhaps a website for discarded Wikipedia articles might encourage similar ironic fetish and sympathy … but wouldn’t that create an Ouroboros ring eventually resulting in Wikipedia viability?

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It’s hard to appreciate winter’s beauty in the middle of its chilly reality. But as the weather warms, so might we treasure the use of ice as metaphor in books, music, and movies.




DJ Spooky (Paul Miller) lectured at the ICA last month, and unlike some critics in the audience, I was impressed with his presentation. He just came back from several weeks in Antarctica, and displayed gorgeous video and music recorded during the trip.


The sound of ice is unmistakable: we can recognize anywhere the sound of cubes cracking in a glass. But echoed in Spooky’s samples it takes an otherworldy quality. Chilly, echoey, conjuring up images of outer space as much as glacial scapes. Every year in Geilo, Norway, musicians make instruments out of ice to celebrate the first full moon:





I’ve written before about how much I love the ANS machine, a window-chiseling instrument Coil’s played with, (previously used by the incomparable Edward Artmiev in his Solaris and Stalker soundtracks,) but maybe I miscategorized it as sci-fi sound effects. Listening to those tracks again, they makes me think of ice.

While I was trying to figure out why snow and mirrors make me think of one another, I came across Dan Rozin’s Snow Mirror video art. Perhaps it has to do with Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen. A devil makes a mirror that distorts things and makes them ugly. He thinks he’ll carry it up to heaven to make fools of God and the angles, but on the way, the devil drops it. It shatters and pierces people, making their hearts blocks of ice.The victims’ eyes are now glazed with the troll’s mirror and they only see the ugliness of their surroundings. I’ve tried in the past to find the etymology of the term “ice princess,” (a mistranslation of “Snow Queen”?) but came up with links to a Disney Michelle Tractenburg movie and Torvill and Dean

Understanding the geometry of snowflakes, Gustavian-like detailing always seems natural on ice, as if Katerina Witt pirouetted over it just that way. In Sweden, the ICEHOTEL is built from scratch every year (via BLDGBLOG.)





And here are some incredible Flickr sets. But my dream is to one day visit China’s Harbin Snow and Ice Festival, which at night, becomes an arctic Blade Runner:



HP Lovecraft “collapsed in the street and was carried unconscious into a drug store” because the temperature dropped from 60 degrees to 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and so he conveyed his hatred in At the Mountains of Madness.

In fiction, ice is always presented as a front that might melt. It is “coldness,” but usually with some sympathy. The character is hermit-like, because she’s suffering, hibernating, lost in her interior world. Nowhere better is this conveyed than Anna Kavan’s novel “Ice.” The world taken over by its namesake, while two men lust for an aloof and suffering young woman, with blonde hair frequently and memorably is described as “silvery” in the light.





Winter is an alien society in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. All the people are androgynous and the world is covered in glaciers and snow. I haven’t read Craig Harrison’s Days of Starlight, but me-fi, on this topic, says I should.

Everything2 has a great write up of Rene Barjavel’s The Ice People (the writer stumbled across it the same way I did.) “La nuit des Temps” (once rumored as a Luc Besson project–oh, i hope so!) It is Romeo and Juliet in the snow.

Ice caves house The Thing and set the stage for Alien vs Predator. Lyra in The Golden Compass, flies over the tundra with a polar bear to see the Northern Lights. “Eisbar,” one of my favorite songs by Grauzone, is about a polar bear, (but the lyrics are ridiculous if you know German, so listen to it full before consulting Babblefish.) C.S. Lewis

Smilla’s Sense of Snow, like The Constant Gardner, is one of those potboiler books/movies with characters richer than they deserve to be. Smila’s a half-Inuit snow researcher, but she’s also got a temper and she’s one of the most awkward and angry females I’ve ever encountered in fiction.

I wonder if The Ice Storm was smart enough with the sound effects to have the keys in a fish bowl mimic icicles breaking off Connecticut McMansions? Rick Moody and Katie Holmes are among my least favorite people, so I’m not going to watch it again to find out.

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