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Bot or Not?

Increasing numbers of Twitterers don’t even pretend to be human. Or worse, do pretend, when they are actually bots—tiny, skeletal, incapable robots, usually little more than a few crude lines of computer code. The scary thing is how easily we can be fooled.

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For Sale: Magna Carta. Slightly Used.

What is MagnaCarta worth? Exactly $21,321,000. We know because that’s what it fetched in a fair public auction at Sotheby’s in New York. Twenty-one million is, by far, the most ever paid for a page of text, and therein lies a paradox: Information is now cheaper than ever and also more expensive. Mostly, of course, information is practically free, easier to store and faster to spread than our parents imagined possible. In one way, Magna Carta is already yours for the asking: you can read it any time, at the touch of a button. It has been preserved, photographically and digitally, in countless copies with no evident physical reality, which will nonetheless last as long as our civilization. In another way, Magna Carta is a 15-by-17-inch piece of parchment, fragile and scarce and practically unreadable. Why should that version be so valuable? Magna Carta itself is a nice reminder of how costly it once was to store and spread information. Its very purpose was to get the king’s word down in tangible form, safeguard it, …

Why Must an Author Twit?

Howard Jacobson: “So that you can do our business for us. So that you can connect to your readers, tell them what you’re writing, tell them where you’re going to be speaking, tell them what you’re reading, tell them what you’re fucking eating.”

March of time, arrow of time, time warp

This is the kind of thing that’s buzzing through my head as I work on the next book. (It’s an N-gram, computed on the fly by Google here, from the contents of all the books they [in some cases illegally] scanned from libraries.) (Were you wondering about those “time warp” occurrences in the early 19th century? They come from passages like this (1812): “By keeping up the sluices, and drains, and banks, the land can be refreshed at any time. Warp land has had crops of flax …”)  

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The Zone of Uncertainty (What Pope Francis Said)

Everybody has an opinion or a summary or an interpretation of the  with Pope Francis, and this is the last place you’d come for more, but one part resonates especially powerfully for me. It’s when he talks about uncertainty and doubt. In seeking God “in all things,” he says, “there is still an area of uncertainty [una zona di incertezza]. There must be.” If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation. For me, this is where …

Metaphors of Time: 1850

Whilst pondering metaphors of time, I happened upon a novel published in 1850 with the title, The Mistake of a Life-Time: or, the Robber of the Rhine Valley. A Story of The Mysteries of the Shore, and The Vicissitudes of The Sea. The author, Waldo Howard, promised “a truthful panorama of the events of a stirring and romantic period.” I don’t know anything about Waldo Howard. If you do, please tell me. Let us jump to Chapter 13, “Lady Gustine and the Jew.” Lady Gustine is a dignified and high-toned beauty of 18 years (“summers”), while her companion for the evening (not the Jew, obviously) is an equally dignified and beautiful 20-year-old. They have been dancing. She is fatigued. “I fear you are fatigued,” says the gentleman. “Oh, no,” said the lady, panting to regain the breath she had expended in the waltz.” Their balcony overlooks a convenient river. They gaze upon it awhile. Finally dialogue ensues: “Are you dreaming?” “O, no, lady. I—I was thinking how truly the passage of yonder tiny craft resembles …

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The OED Redefines “Information” Yet Again

The entry for information in the Oxford English Dictionary always makes good reading. It’s substantial: close to 10,000 words long. I see it has changed again. The last time I looked, the Number One definition was “The imparting of incriminating knowledge.” Excellent! As far as I’m concerned, they could stop right there. Of course, the relevant citations mostly came from early English law texts—Rolls of Parliament from the time of Edward IV, that kind of thing. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. The objects of the other species of informations, filed by the master of the crown-office upon the complaint or relation of a private subject, are any gross and notorious misdemesnors, riots, batteries, libels, and other immoralities of an atrocious kind. But no longer. This definition has been quietly demoted. Maybe the lexicographers thought it was too quaint. Now the Number One definition of information is “The imparting of knowledge in general.” I guess it’s hard to argue with that. Many other important senses remain, of course. There’s the modern, scientific one, due to Claude Shannon (“a …