Tom Wolfe Captured American Life from the Center of the Carnival and We’re All Better Because of It

The USA lost an icon today. Tom Wolfe wrote the pants off of every subject he touched, and he will be missed. But that’s what writing is for, right? He is gone, but his work remains. I devoured as much of his writing as I could when I was studying for my B.A. degree. What I got in return wasn’t just a lesson in style or syntax, but a portrait of American history that I wouldn’t have found anywhere else. From NASA to Nascar, Ken Kesey’s quest for the far-out and Charlotte Simmons’ prelude to #MeToo, Wolfe seemed to have a line on everything that happened in the half-century he spent writing. I hope that my generation can come up with a Wolfe of its own – someone who will thread the needle between all the cultural movements happening right now, and instead of illustrating only the divisions, find something …

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the Fictionalizations of ‘the Google’

I had a colleague a few years ago who joked about how his aging parents always referred to Google, the search engine, as “the Google,” as if the internet giant had become an entity of such massive, generic proportion that it deserved its own “the..”, like “the city,” or “the ocean,” or “the internet.” The Google. Popular culture has been producing fictionalized narratives about what life at Google might be like, to complement the hordes of reportage documenting the reality of the company. For an account of how it came to be, and an outsider’s view of the founders, Ken Auletta’s non-fiction book “Googled” tells a fascinating story. But the real story of Google is about the people who work there, and what they are trying to accomplish. There are plenty of imaginary guesses as to what that’s like – in ‘The Internship,’ actors Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn actually …

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on the Humanities

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal asked – “Who ruined the humanities?” The writer’s premise is that students of art and literature are at a disadvantage when studying at a university, where a rigid pedagogy is imposed on works that should be considered personally and at leisure, thus leaving the students with no real benefit upon graduating but having soaked up and learned to reproduce the opinions of professors. The article is rich with opinion and gives an interesting history of literature studies that I didn’t encounter at all during my years of college. He writes: Only a knave would applaud the falling-off in the formal study of books that cultivate empathy, curiosity, aesthetic taste and moral refinement. But the academic study of literature leads to nothing of the sort. Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that …

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on “The Bug”

For several years, my job has been testing web sites. There’s several ways to describe what I do, the commonest being that I “look for bugs.” I perform a role known formally as ‘Quality Assurance’ on web development projects, and I’ve worked on a variety of sites, like HGTV, the Washington Post, TroopSwap, and Better Medicine. I’m not a programmer by training, but much of the QA process requires logical thinking and familiarity with engineering practices. As someone who majored in English and spent more time reading Shakespeare than learning UNIX commands, my career has been an experiment of patience. Testers are usually outnumbered by coders, so it can be a lonely (and thankless) task. I recently found a novel that lucidly captures the mentality of testers, developers, and anyone who has had to deal with the often infuriating process of creating software. “The Bug” by Ellen Ullman tells the …

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Herman Hesse on Trees

This has been blogged on Brain Pickings and several other places, but it pops into my mind often when I’m outside walking and looking at the trees, so I wanted to share (for Earth Day): For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary …

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on ‘What Technology Wants’

Working in the web development industry, where growth and innovation happen at an incredible rate, it’s easy to become enamored with the internet, software, screens, and devices, and put off the big questions about our use of technology. Kevin Kelly’s book, “What Technology Wants” is a vivid analysis of the human compulsion to create and use tools, adding depth to the commonly superficial perspective we take on daily interactions with things like the web and mobile phones. Kelly writes with authority on many subtopics (from the sentience of rock ants to the ‘evolution of evolution’) but the book’s most eye opening theme, for me, was the analogous relationship between biological life and technology. “We can think of technology as our extended body,” he writes. He relates the evolution of technology to the evolution of life, finding parallels over time in increasing complexity, structure, and mutuality. The story of new ideas unfolding in …

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On the Hunger Games

I finished reading the Hunger Games, too late to see the movie when it first opened, but better late than never.  On the surface, without any analysis, its a simple, entertaining, well-paced read.  In discussion it could easily open up topics like modern entertainment and gender roles. Like ‘1984’,’ Fahrenheit 451′, or more recently, ‘A Super Sad True Love Story’, ‘Games’ portrays the authorities of the future as inconsolable. Like ‘Lost’, ‘Castaway’, and ‘The Beach’ it also gives nature and human survival a furious posture. Like ‘the Truman Show’ it warns against the relentless nature of celebrity. I was a bit skeptical about the innocent sexuality of the characters, who were otherwise ferocious murderers and survivalists. In many works of gratuitous violence, examples of extreme sexuality are also present – ‘..Dragon Tattoo’, ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘Clockwork Orange’.  A world where characters murder each other is more imaginable if they aren’t concurrently experiencing a kiss for …

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On Taking Sips (of Books)

Since I first got my hands on a Kindle, I’ve liberally abused the “Sample This Book” feature available in the Kindle Store.  In the last two years, I’ve downloaded and read samples of dozens of books. Here’s an incomplete compilation of the samples I’ve acquired, which are surely all very interesting books worth a full reading… but we are only given so much time, right? If anyone reading has a suggestion for which of these I should follow through to their conclusion, let me know in the comments…  Punk Rock Dad – Jim Lindberg Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe Bossypants – Tina Fey Mental Models – Indi Young In The Plex – Steven Levy Guitar For Dummies – Jon Chappell Understanding Marijuana – Mitch Earleywine The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien What Technology Wants – Kevin Kelly Aleph – Paulo Coelho Alone Together – Sherry Turkle What I Talk About …

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Literary Diversion

“Those who arrive at Thekla can see little of the city, beyond the plank fences, the sackcloth screens, the scaffoldings, the metal armatures, the wooden catwalks hanging from ropes or supported by sawhorses, the ladders, the trestles. If you ask, “Why is Thekla’s construction taking such a long time?” the inhabitants continue hosting sacks, lowering leaded strings, moving long brushes up and down, as they answer, “So that its destruction cannot begin.” And if asked whether they fear that, once the scaffoldings are removed, the city may begin to crumble and fall to pieces, they add hastily, in a whisper, “Not only the city.” from “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino

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Endless Life

A few months ago before the semester ended, while turning in one of my last assignments, I saw sitting on a shelf of free books a collection of “Taoist Drinking Songs from the Yuan Dynasty,” a collection of Chinese poetry. I picked up the free copy and didn’t think much of it. Since deciding to travel to China, I’ve looked at the book and found a few nice poems. Here is one: done with the world and pure as darkness nothing to hold me nothing restrain the old guy here within the grove before blue cliffs the moon’s companion mad and singing drunk and dancing smashed, polluted with the wine of endless life I’m getting ready to start my trip this evening. This will be my last post from America, and I hope I can update frequently while on the road. Adios!

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