Saturday, January 29, 2011

Nabokov's Butterflies; Ellen Stewart's Death (La MaMa)

[The lobster & the canary will be moving their physical abode to Manhattan's Lower East Side this week, so may be a little delayed in posting. But please stay tuned!]

C.P. Snow famously wrote of the two cultures-- science and the arts-- as sundered, incommensurate endeavors, a dialogue of the deaf. Yet, as Snow knew well and lamented, the bifurcation is recent. Goethe made a serious study of optics, Erasmus Darwin and Humphrey Davy promoted in verse some of their discoveries, while Keats and Shelley keenly followed the latest scientific news. Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (2008) is a particularly fine survey of how poets, artists, naturalists and chemists found common ground for discussion two centuries ago.

Thus, it pleases me greatly to read this past week that entomologists have vindicated Nabokov's theory on the origins of the Polyomattus blue butterflies. Nabokov once said: “A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” This is how Erin Overbey starts a January 27th essay on The New Yorker blog, that in turn links to the Jan. 25th New York Times article reporting on scientists' acceptance of what had been Nabokov's long-spurned hypothesis.

Click here for more.

The other news that hits is the death at age 91 on January 13th of Ellen Stewart, a protean, hugely influential figure in 20th-century American culture. Founder 50 years ago of LaMaMa ETC (Experimental Theatre Club) on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Stewart pioneered Off Off Broadway, broke and bent all sorts of genre rules and artistic protocols, helped invent new aesthetic vocabularies, and launched/collaborated with an enormous range of the country's best stage and musical talent. (Among many others: Pacino, DeNiro, Olympia Dukakis, Harvey Keitel, Richard Dreyfuss, Bette Midler, Sam Shepard, Harvey Fierstein, Nick Nolte, Elizabeth Swados, Meredith Monk, Philip Glass.)

Many of the techniques and attitudes she helped foster have moved from the fringe into the American mainstream. Many folks who have never heard of Stewart or LaMaMa are nevertheless conversant now in the styles she and they pioneered, much as people who have never heard of Schwitters are comfortable with collage. That's a deep and pervasive legacy.

For more, read Mel Gussow's obituary in the NYT: click here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Arisia-- A Wonderful Gathering in Boston

Lobster & Canary heartily recommends to you the fantasy/science fiction extravaganza that is Arisia, a four-day, entirely fan-run convention in Boston.

First held in 1990, Arisia this year had record attendance of c. 3,000. In Boston. In very, very cold weather.

Like most cons, Arisia is a smorgasbord...with a little something for just about everyone. The fact that Boston is home to so many colleges and universities may contribute to the wide-ranging, idiosyncratic nature of the offerings. Certainly it means no one bats an eyelash when a panelist refers to his day-job programming robots as he talks about Asimov's Three Laws. Or when someone in the audience brings out a dog-eared copy of the Grimm's fairy tales, in German, while making a point about Rumpelstiltzchen or Rapunzel.

Among many other things, Arisia features the Carl Brandon Awards (click here for more information). The con is also a good place to talk about the use of folklore, mythology and fairy tale in modern spec fic. The art show is a cut above the usual at cons. The steampunkery is impressive, the anime/manga components appear (I am no expert) robust, the LARP and gaming sections (again, no expert) seem to thrive. Arisia is a good, thoughtful, safe place for discussions about sexuality and gender. There are readings by authors almost around the clock.

And the food in the green room is really tasty (not always the case at other events).

I thank the organizers for their good work, and especially Shira Lipkin for her welcoming self. I could name many others whom I enjoying meeting but, since one always runs the risk of leaving someone out inadvertently, I will stop here.

For much more on Arisia, click here.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Deborah Mills On The Martha Stewart Show

Dear friends,

I am thrilled to say that my artistic collaborator, the designer and woodcarver Deborah A. Mills (who is also my wife), appeared this past week on the Martha Stewart Show.

Click here for more information.

Deborah is on the far right of the picture below, holding one of her guardian angel sculptures.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Heading to Arisia

Lobster & Canary will be at Arisia in Boston this weekend.

Arisia claims to be "New England's largest and most diverse science fiction and fantasy convention."

We had a marvelous time there in 2010, so are looking forward to Arisia again this year.

We promise to report upon our return.

In the meantime, check out the con here: Arisia.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sunday Morning Coffee: One Million Words!; Culturomics; Seamus Heaney

1.1 million words...1.1 million words!

That is the total English-language lexicon estimated last month by The Cultural Observatory at Harvard, directed by Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel. (For more, see Patricia Cohen at the NY Times-- click here-- and the team at io9-- click here.)

The Cultural Observatory's mission is (per their website) "to enable the quantitative study of human culture across societies and across centuries...[by]...:

* Creating massive datasets relevant to human culture
* Using these datasets to power wholly new types of analysis
* Developing tools that enable researchers and the general public to query the data."

They call this approach "culturomics," describing it in a December 16th paper in Science, (Michel et al., "Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books"). Here's the article abstract:

"We constructed a corpus of digitized texts containing about 4% of all books ever printed. Analysis of this corpus enables us to investigate cultural trends quantitatively. We survey the vast terrain of "culturomics", focusing on linguistic and cultural phenomena that were reflected in the English language between 1800 and 2000. We show how this approach can provide insights about fields as diverse as lexicography, the evolution of grammar, collective memory, the adoption of technology, the pursuit of fame, censorship, and historical epidemiology. "Culturomics" extends the boundaries of rigorous quantitative inquiry to a wide array of new phenomena spanning the social sciences and the humanities."

Michel, Lieberman and their colleagues co-authored the paper with a team from Google, and together they have launched Ngram, Google's freely available, searchable database of the 5.2 million scanned books referenced in the abstract above, comprising c. 500 billion words and phrases.

Which leads us back to their estimates that the English language contains c. 1.1 million words, with about 8,500 new words entering every year. The Oxford English Dictionary includes perhaps half that total; one of culturomics first claims is that dictionaries miss 50-60% of the words actually in the lexicon, because low-frequency words do not make the cut. (A truly exhaustive dictionary would be a Borgesian venture, it seems to me, truly exhausting the capacity of humans to document; culturomic datasets such as Ngram complement and augment but do not replace dictionaries.) Ngram is a tool--like the specialized telescopes that search for quasars in the infinite-- to explore what The Cultural Observatory calls linguistic/lexigraphical "dark matter."

Let's plunge into this dark matter, this hitherto unrecognized aquifer, a river-ocean flowing beneath the sunlit waves we think we know. Let's dig deep through the strata of words, hunt for truffles in the roots, find the still-living marrow in ancient bones.

As Seamus Heaney puts it in "Bone Dreams":

A skeleton
in the tongue's
old dungeons.

I push back
through dictions,
Elizabethan canopies,
Norman devices,
the erotic mayflowers
of Provence
and the ivied Latins
of churchmen

to the scop's
twang, the iron
flash of consonants
cleaving the line."

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year's Wisdom: Festina Lente-- The Long Now Foundation--The Planetary Skin Institute

Welcome to a new year, another revolution around the star that warms us, another 5.3 million intakes of breath, another 36.8 million heartbeats.

Another year to peer a little deeper into time itself, and into space, to gain another scrap--small but real and nourishing--of knowledge about ourselves and the world. (Whether we act wisely upon that hard-won knowledge is another matter altogether). At the hinge of the year, we might contemplate the wider "Now," try to imagine the arc of consequence beyond our most immediate heartbeats.

Pause to think about the words of computer scientist Daniel Hillis (born 1956):

"When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 02000. For the next thirty years they kept talking about what would happen by the year 02000, and now no one mentions a future date at all. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life. I think it is time for us to start a long-term project that gets people thinking past the mental barrier of an ever-shortening future. I would like to propose a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium."

To realize this vision, Hillis (co-founder of Applied Minds Inc., a pioneer in massively parallel supercomputers) in 01996 co-founded The Long Now Foundation with creator of the Whole Earth Catalog Stewart Brand. I encourage you to click here for more on the "Long Now."

To act based on a knowledge of Deep Time, we need to see temporal effects from a new vantage point. Happily, well-resourced players are creating structures for us to do so. For instance, in 2009, Cisco and NASA formed the independent non-profit Planetary Skin Institute (PSI). The PSI states its mission this way:

"Two powerful trends are re-shaping the world as we know it. The first trend is resource scarcity, the result of demand growth (water, energy, food, land, etc) driven by growing populations with rising incomes and increasing constraints on the supply of these resources given environmental degradation, land use change, inherent variability of weather conditions and resource productivity, and the threat of climate change. The second trend is information abundance, driven by a massive increase in data and information processing capabilities, driven by new sensor networks and a host of emerging information and communication technologies.

The...PSI aims to address the challenge posed by the first trend with the opportunity presented by the second. In short, PSI aims to harness the power of information technology and networks to help decision-makers manage scarce resources and risks more effectively in a changing world>"

Click here for more on the PSI.

The Long Now Foundation and the Planetary Skin Institute embody truths known to humans from the beginning, and well stated in Classical Roman and Renaissance Italian terms as "festina lente," i.e., "make haste slowly." Roman emperors favored this adage, as later did the Medicis, Erasmus, Aldus Manutius, Shakespeare.

Festina lente: Aldus symbolized it as a dolphin and an anchor. The Romans visualized it as a crab and butterfly. I think a lobster and canary might also fit the description.