All posts filed under: Posts

The Twitterverse Goes to the Library

[also at the NYR Blog] “What food for speculation each person affords, as he writes his hurried epistle, dictated either by fear, or greed, or more powerful love!” —Andrew Wynter (1854)     For a brief time in the 1850s the telegraph companies of England and the United States thought that they could (and should) preserve every message that passed through their wires. Millions of telegrams—in fireproof safes. Imagine the possibilities for history! “Fancy some future Macaulay rummaging among such a store, and painting therefrom the salient features of the social and commercial life of England in the nineteenth century,”  wrote Andrew Wynter in 1854. (Wynter was what we would now call a popular-science writer; in his day job he practiced medicine, specializing in “lunatics.”) “What might not be gathered some day in the twenty-first century from a record of the correspondence of an entire people?” Remind you of anything? The Library of Congress is now stockpiling the entire Twitterverse, or Tweetosphere, or whatever we’ll end up calling it—anyway, the corpus of all public tweets. …

Ada’s Birthday

Ada Byron, later Countess of Lovelace, was born 197 years ago, 10 December 1815, so it’s safe to say that many bicentennial preparations are already getting under way. What an unusual sort of celebrity she has become, after nearly two centuries of total obscurity. Let us remember: she was forgotten. Today she is the Google Doodle:   For basic introduction, BrainPOP has a nice little movie. A tweeter has just alerted me to an “indie-rock steampunk musical.” And to mark the day, here’s one letter of hers, from my book. She was a young woman, newly married, and she went to see a model of the new “electric telegraph” in London, & the only other person was a middle-aged gentleman who chose to behave as if I were the show [she wrote to her mother] which of course I thought was the most impudent and unpardonable.—I am sure he took me for a very young (& I suppose he thought rather handsome) governess. . . . He stopped as long as I did, & then …

Harald Bluetooth? Really?

I wrote this—Inescapably Connected—eleven years ago. There was no such thing as “iPhone.” Bluetooth and Wi-Fi were barely coming into view. The “Network” was rising all around. We sipped information through straws that were about to become wormholes. Some of it has come true.

Meta Enough for You?

For the Annals of Recursion. 1. In The Information (pages 408–409, for those who wish to follow along) I mention a poet named Thomas Freeman, who lived from approximately 1590 to 1630. I say he is “utterly forgotten” and add that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. I would never have heard of Thomas Freeman myself, if Anthony Lane hadn’t happened to discover him in the course of reviewing Sir Charles Chadwyck-Healy’s English Poetry Full-Text Database for The New Yorker. That was seventeen years ago, in 1995. (I couldn’t read Lane’s hilarious piece on line when I was working on the book, but you can now, here:  “Byte Verse.”) Lane was making the point that the opportunity to read 165,000 poems by 1,250 poets spanning thirteen centuries on four compact discs priced at $51,000 might be considered a mixed blessing. He quoted this couplet by the aforementioned Freeman: Whoop, whoop, me thinkes I heare my Reader cry, Here is rime doggrell: I confesse it I. 2. From time to time, since the book was …

A Paradox? A Paradox!

In his wonderful new book Zona (“A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room”) Geoff Dyer, who is interested—profoundly interested, I’d say—in the subject of boredom, mentions a voiceover remark that everything’s “hopelessly boring”: a remark that makes one wonder how quickly a film can become  boring. Which film holds the record in that particular regard? And wouldn’t that film automatically qualify as exciting and fast-moving if it had been able to enfold the viewer so rapidly in the itchy blanket of tedium? A paradox. If a film becomes boring quickly enough—that’s interesting! It reminds me of something … but what? Oh, yes. The paradox of the Smallest Uninteresting Number. What is the smallest integer about which there is nothing interesting to say? I discuss this in The Information, in the chapter called “The Sense of Randomness”; you can see why there would be a connection between the admittedly not very scientific notion of “interest” and the possibly more significant notion of randomness. Does an uninteresting number have to be, in some sense, random? Sixteen is …

Babbage: a Birthday Postscript

Charles Babbage was born 220 years ago today—Boxing Day. Here is a little addendum for Chapter 4 of The Information, which contains a joint mini biography of the brilliant and misunderstood Babbage and the brilliant and doomed Ada Byron. This is due to Sydney Padua, an artist (“animator and cartoonist,” she says) in London, who is perhaps as enamored of Charles and Ada (and surely as knowledgeable) as anyone I know. She has uncovered a gem of a memoir, which I had not seen before: a small book titled Sunny Memories, containing personal recollections of some celebrated characters, by “M.L.”—Mary Lloyd—published in London in 1880 by the Women’s Printing Society. A few lovely tidbits: Babbage, interested in the subject of “opinion, public or private, for or against individuals”—yet lacking access to Google, Facebook, and Twitter—”collected everything he could gather in print about himself, and pasted it in a large folio book, with the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ in parallel columns …” Late in his life, troubled by forgetfulness, he went visiting one day without his cards. …

The Flinging of Notes

Anyone interested in the relations between men and women (or any number of other topics) can get great pleasure from the day-by-day online version of The Diary of Samuel Pepys. It’s a soap opera. Especially at this moment (9 November 1668) and for the last few weeks (that is, 343 years ago). If you’re not up to date, Sam’s wife caught him in flagrante with her 17-year-old maid, Deborah Willet. He wasn’t sure exactly how much she saw. At one point he confessed to the embracing but denied the kissing. Or the other way around. In today’s episode, messages are exchanged: [quote]Up, and I did by a little note which I flung to Deb. advise her that I did continue to deny that ever I kissed her, and so she might govern herself … and as I bid her returned me the note, flinging it to me in passing by. And so I abroad by coach … [/quote] The way my mind tends to ramble, what most fascinates me is the flinging of the note. …