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What is Art For?

A really good article in the New York Times Magazine today about Lewis Hyde. I had not heard of Lewis Hyde before. First of all, the article makes me want to pick up his book, The Gift:

"“The Gift,” the core argument of which depends on establishing an analogy between the making of art and how objects accrue value in traditional “gift economies,” has been praised as the most subtle, influential study of reciprocity since the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s 1924 essay of the same name." (from What is Art For?)

The article tries really hard to summarize Hyde's work and views but admits that it's impossible. There are threads about open source, and creative commons, and art, and copyright law, and the constitution, Thoreau, Emerson and much more:

"For Hyde, redressing the balance between private (corporate, individual) and common (public) interests depends not just on effective policy but also on recovering the idea of the cultural commons as a deeply American concept.

To that end, he excavates a history of the American imagination in which the emphasis is not on the lone genius (Thoreau scribbling hermetically in the Massachusetts woods) but on the anonymous pamphleteer, the inventor eager to share his discoveries. In an essay that offers a preview of his book (posted, fittingly, on his Web site), Hyde posits that the history of the commons and of the creative self are, in fact, twin histories. “The citizen called into being by a republic of freehold farms,” he writes, “is close cousin to the writer who built himself that cabin at Walden Pond.

But along with such mainstream icons goes a shadow tradition, the one that made Jefferson skeptical of patents, the one that made even Thoreau argue late in life that every ‘town should have … a primitive forest …, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever,’ the one that led the framers of the Constitution to balance ‘exclusive right’ with ‘limited times.’ It is a tradition worth recovering.” (from What is Art For?)

Good stuff.

Do you like this building?

I came across this ad in the New York Times magazine. I should say, I was riveted by this ad. Is this a real building? Is it built yet? You have to take a look at some of the images on (what I think is) their main site.

But really the ad in the magazine is the one that is still the most impressive.

Which leaves me with the question, is this thing a good idea? I wonder?

Just quickly looking around some of the stuff I read online about it leaves me with the question of whether this is an architectural/engineering/construction tour the force which in the end will not much improve the world.

Garrison Keillor: America is cool!

A neat article in Salon, by Garrison Keillor - America is cool:

"The world expects us to elect pompous yahoos and instead we have us a 47-year-old prince from the prairie who cheerfully ran the race, and when his opponents threw sand at him, he just smiled back.

He'll be the first president in history to look really good making a jump shot. He loves his classy wife and his sweet little daughters. He looks good in the kitchen. He can cook Indian or Chinese but for his girls he will do mac and cheese. At the same time, he knows pop music, American lit and constitutional law. I just can't imagine anybody cooler.

Look at a photo of the latest pooh-bah conference -- the hausfrau Merkel, the big glum Scotsman, that goofball Berlusconi, Putin with his B-movie bad- boy scowl, and Sarkozy, who looks like a district manager for Avis -- you put Barack in that bunch and he will shine." (from Salon, America is cool)

Yeah, Putin, what's with that B-movie bad-boy scowl?

It’s even worse than you think

Michael Lewis writes a great article in Portfolio online about the, let's say, inevitability, of what's happened to economy, or wall street, or the markets -- take your pick. You can file this under "if you're so smart why aren't you rich", or, my personal favorite, "it seemed like a good idea at the time."

Michael Lewis is the author of two of my favorite non-fiction books, Moneyball and Liars Poker. Moneyball is about the use of modern statistical and quantitative methods in managing baseball, and Liars Poker about his experiences on Wall Street at 24. This is from the Portfolio article:

"I’d never taken an accounting course, never run a business, never even had savings of my own to manage. I stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later, and even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still strikes me as preposterous—which is one of the reasons the money was so easy to walk away from.

I figured the situation was unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds if not thousands of young people like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people’s money, would be expelled from finance."

The article gets quite technical and I didn't follow more than 50% of the financial chicanery but the overall message is comes through loud and clear:

That’s when Eisman finally got it. Here he’d been making these side bets with Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank on the fate of the BBB tranche without fully understanding why those firms were so eager to make the bets. Now he saw.

There weren’t enough Americans with shitty credit taking out loans to satisfy investors’ appetite for the end product. The firms used Eisman’s bet to synthesize more of them.

Here, then, was the difference between fantasy finance and fantasy football: When a fantasy player drafts Peyton Manning, he doesn’t create a second Peyton Manning to inflate the league’s stats.

But when Eisman bought a credit-default swap, he enabled Deutsche Bank to create another bond identical in every respect but one to the original. The only difference was that there was no actual homebuyer or borrower.

It's a good, but depressing article.

Invest in Innovation

Jim Manzi (of Lotus fame) has an interesting article in "The Nation" about our need, as a nation, to invest just a little bit more in innovation:

"But with only a little bit of extra funding, foresight and determination, it may be possible to kick-start an innovation revival. Especially at the federal level, we see an opportunity for a modest investment to create a whole new generation of idea-growing, job-creating technology hubs all across the country-perhaps even an "automotive Silicon Valley" in otherwise moribund Detroit." (from Invest in Innovation)

A good article, with several memorable phrases, starting with "automotive Silicon Valley" ('…In such a hub, just as in Boston and Austin, a virtuous cycle of innovation and product development might be generated.'). Also "hegemon tax" ('…the 50 to 60 percent share of R&D the US spends on warfare innovations…')

Good article, worth reading.

Boston tech scene could be more inviting to students

Scott Kirsner of the Innovation Economy blog, as well of the Boston Globe says that:

"To me, the biggest way to make Boston more competitive and innovative right now is to do a better job connecting students with our innovation economy. Which is why it pains me that our trade associations and networking groups make it so hard for students to get involved." (from Innovation Economy)

He goes on to grade a variety of formal and informal groups who put on meetings regularly in the greater Boston area. It's a really good post , I recommend that you check out "Boston's Biggest Trade Associations Flunk the Student Test"

A few of my own observations:

  • Notice that the meetings that are graded lower tend to be the old-school trade associations, who probably have a standing staff and buraucracy of some kind. Not generally the more interesting meetings to go to.

  • In addition to associations, colleges and universities can also do more. Not to generalize, because I don't have the data, but I have an impression that undergraduates in Computer Science and related fields focus on academically sexy topics (programming in Scheme) and don't do more in preparing students for the actual tech scene (entrepreneurship, intellectual property, open source, agile methodologies.)

  • Link to site: Boston tech scene could be more inviting to students

Election day in Benton, New Hampshire

My post about Barack Obama's election was getting a bit long, so I thought I'd break it up and get some more blog miles out of the story.

First of all, check out this election map from Google. A few things to notice. First of all,the outcome shows (as I said in the previous post) that Obama got a mere 9 votes less than McCain.

Given the comment that 'this is McCain country' we were pretty surprised and really gratified to see this.

There were other signs though. One of the poll workers offered to hold our sign while we went inside to get off our feet for a few minutes, saying "I'd be proud to hold Barack Obama's sign."

She also said how exciting it was to see some Obama presence at little old Benton -- this was the very first time either major candidate had a visibility presence in Benton on Election day.


The other thing to notice is (and this is a traditional theme of mine) the miracle of technology. Within hours of the count by hand, by people in Benton (see previous post) and a phone call that they presumably made to the New Hampshire secretary of state) it appears on this web page, broken out by town and county, in color no less. That 's transparency!

Here are two more snapshots of the day. In the first one you cann see the Benton Town Office.

The reason that the sign that Chris is holding has all kinds of random additional names on it is that we got the very last sign that the campaign office in Plymouth had.

I wonder what would have happened if we arrived 5 minutes later!

The second snapshot is of the Barack Obama sign in wild apples that Chris constructed right next to the ramp into the building.

During a pleasant chat with the town moderator we learned a few things.

First of all, that no Barack Obama (or other signs) were allowed within 10 feet. We said we'd be glad to move or remove it if he said so (obviously we didn't want to get into trouble 🙂

Later on, explaining what the town moderator's duties are at the election he explained that he was in charge.

And for example he could kick out anyone he felt was disrupting or being inappropriate the polling place. Ouch!

Still though he never asked us to remove the Barack Obapple sign.

Barack Obama

On Tuesday, Chris and I volunteered for Barack Obama. I got a very interesting perspective on the election process in the US, and to tell you the truth, it was impressive.

We drove up to New Hampshire, and checked into the Plymouth democratic campaign headquarters. They promptly dispatched us to Benton, NH, apparently half an hour from the Canadian border.

We arrived at around 11:00am and stayed until around 4:00pm. We were asked to call back to the Plymouth office once we had arrived to let them know what was going on. We received no instructions on what to do, where to stand, and what to expect.The only other sign holder was standing for a NH State Rep, Charlie Chandler. There was no sign for John McCain.

This photo shows me in front of the Benton Town Office which is a smallish two room building which apparently serves as town administration and town hall building for Benton.

Democracy in action. In conversations with the town moderator, we learned about the process. There was one curtained handicapped voting booth, equiped for hearing and vision impaired people. There is a telephone in the booth to allow them to call in their vote. They even provide for voters who are paralyzed and who can only communicate by blowing into a straw.

There were some tables with about 6 officials sitting in various spots. At the close of the day, these folks manually tally the results, I am sure everyone checking each other, and then the results are called into the State Attorney General. They are given a password a week ahead of time so when they call in they can authenticate themselves.

The town of Benton has (according to what they told me) around 250 elegible voters. It is a tiny place. When you hear the candiates talk about "the cities and towns and hamlets of New Hampshire", well this is barely a hamlet.

In fact everyone was very pleasant and nice. In addition to being open for voting, the town was having a bake sale. Residents had baked cookies ("Wine Cookies") breads (homemade english muffins), soups, sweets and all kind of stuff. The funds all go into the towns general funds.

We were told that "this is McCain Country," not in a mean way but just in sympathy that we had been asked to volunteer in a place that was basically a lost cause already. It didn't seem that way to us. We had several voters give us a secret thumbs up, and some poll workers telling us that they were proud to see Obama represented by us. We didn't have high hopes, but yesterday when the results were published, it turned out that in Benton, McCain got 94 votes and Obama got 85 votes. Very close!

So McCain still won Benton, but it was far closer than we thought it would be.

All in all, I was impressed at how decentralized the whole process is. We were at the mouth of one of the tiniest capilaries in the election, and the processes were well worked out, redundant, fair, people had training, the sheriff stopped by to make sure that all was orderly.

Anyway, it was a fantastic experience.

Election shenanigans?

I am not at all sure what to make of this. But a friend of mine pointed me to some of the following postings and reports which are interesting, and if true, highly disturbing.

If you want to know more, just google for Stephen Spoonamore and Cliff Arnebeck