Archive for September, 2011

[2b2k] Gamers solve molecular puzzle

How proteins fold over themselves has a lot to do with how they work. Envisioning such folds is a hugely complex problem for computers that human brains with eyeballs attached happen sometimes to be able to do better. The FoldIt game supplies humans with protein models and asks them to fold ‘em.

According to a post by Alan Boyle at “Video-game players have solved a molecular puzzle that stumped scientists for years, and those scientists say the accomplishment could point the way to crowdsourced cures for AIDS and other diseases.” The post is about an article in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology by Firas Khatib et al.

Way to go, human brains!

(I talk about FoldIt in Too Big to Know, which has now gone to press. Ohhh, irrevocably ink-stained paper!)


Book notice

As Publishers Weekly puts it, in June ebooks jumped while print plunged:

  • $80.2MM e-books

  • $84.9MM hardcover

  • $48.4MM trade paperback

  • $47.4MM mass-market paperback

Adult paperbacks were down 64% in that month.

empty bookstore
Discussion at Reddit

Well before the last press has punched out its last paper book, we will have switched to thinking that p-books are print-outs of e-books. That’s when the switch will have been made, just as occurred when we switched from typewriters to word processors. That Day of the Modifier — when physical books need a modifier to specify them — is coming fast.


Other news

Hanan Cohen has created a neat little world-expander, called Other News. Bookmark this link and click on it a few times. Each time it loads a random country’s version of Google News. Nice!


[2b2k] Difference matters

I still don’t know why I started getting a free subscription to Game Developer magazine, but I sure enjoy it. The technical articles are over my head and frequently completely over my head, but I enjoy reading articles written from a hard-core developer point of view. (The magazine comes to me under the name Johnny Locust at Wild West Ware — not a pseudonym or anynym of mine. I find traces of him on the Net, but none that lets me contact him directly. Johnny, if you find this, I’m enjoying your subscription!)

The magazine opener this month (Sept.) comes from Eric Caoili. It”s about The Difference Engine Initiative, an incubator to encourage and enable women as game developers. Two sessions are planned in Toronto.

One of the founders, Mare Sheppard, says in Game Developer:

“There’s this huge, homogenous, very insular, established set of developers right now in the game industry, and it happens to be mostly white and mostly male. From that, you can really only get a certain amount of innovation…If we had more voices and more opinions and more people coming in, then we would be able to take bigger steps in releasing games that represent different people, because they’re involved in the development process.”

As for the incubator, says Sheppard, “It’s like a crafter’s circle. It’s loose and low-key, and it’s about peer mentorship.” She sees it as just one step that might help some people get over the initial hurdle.

The project is named after Ada Lovelace’s contribution to Babbage’s Difference Engine, but I enjoy the implicit endorsement of difference as a source of innovation. In fact, difference is the source of all value, isn’t it?


[2b2k] Re-reading myselves

When I run into someone who wants to talk with me about something I’ve written in a book, they quite naturally assume that I am more expert about what I’ve written than they are. But it’s almost certainly the case that they’re more familiar with it than I am because they’ve read it far more recently than I have. I, like most writers, don’t sit around re-reading myself. I therefore find myself having to ask the person to remind me of what I’ve said. Really, I said that?

But, over the past twenty-four hours, I’ve re-read myself in three different modes.

I’ve been wrapped up in a Library Innovation Lab project that we submitted to the Digital Public Library of America on Thursday night, with 1.5 hours to spare before the midnight deadline. Our little team worked incredibly hard all summer long, and what we submitted we think is pretty spectacular as a vision, a prototype of innovative features, and in its core, work-horse functionality. (That’s why I’ve done so little blogging this sumer.)

So, the first example of re-reading is editing a bunch of explanatory Web pages — a FAQ, a non-tech explanation of some hardcore tech, a guided tour, etc. — that I wrote for our DPLA project. In this mode, I feel little connection to what I’ve written; I’m trying to edit it purely from the reader’s point of view, as if someone else had written it. Of course, I am oblivious to many of the drafts’ most important shortcomings because I’m reading them through the same glasses I had on when I wrote them. Things make sense to me that would not to readers who have the good fortune not to be me. Nevertheless, it’s just a carpentry job, trying to sand down edges and make the pieces fit. It’s the wood that matters, not whoever the carpenter happened to be.

In the second mode, I re-read something I wrote a long time ago. Someone on the Heidegger mailing list I audit asked for articles on Heidegger’s concept of the “world” in Being and Time and in The Origin of the Artwork. I remembered that I had written something about that a couple of careers ago. So, I did a search and found “Earth, World and the Fourfold” in the 1984 edition of Tulane Studies in Philosophy. (It’s locked up nice and tight so, no, you can’t read it even if you want to. Yeah, this is a completely optimal system of scholarship we’ve built for ourselves. [sarcasm]) I used my privileged access via my university and re-read it. It’s a fully weird experience. I remember so little of the content of the article and am so disassociated from the academic (or more exactly, the pathetic pretender to the same) I was that it was like reading a message from a former self. Actually, it wasn’t like that. It was that exactly.

I actually enjoyed reading the article. For one thing, unsurprisingly, I agreed with its general outlook and approach. It argues that Heidegger’s shifting use of “world,” especially with regard to that which he contrasts it with, expresses his struggle to deal with the danger that phenomenology will turn reality into a mere appearance. How can phenomenology account for that which shows itself to us as being beyond the mere showing? That is, how do we understand and acknowledge the fact that the earth shows itself to us as that which was here before us and will outlast us?

Since this was the topic of my doctoral dissertation and has remained a topic of great interest to me — it runs throughout all my books, including Too Big to Know — it’s not startling that I found Previous Me’s article interesting. And yet, Present Me persistently asked two sorts of distancing questions.

First, granting that the question itself is interesting, why was this guy (Previous Me) so wrapped up in Heidegger’s way of grappling with it? To get to Heidegger’s answers (such as they are) you have to wade through a thicket wrapped in profound scholarship wrapped in arrogantly awful writing. Now, Present Me remembers the personal history that led Previous Me to Heidegger: an identity crisis (as we used to call it) that manifested itself intellectually, that could not be addressed by pre-Heideggerian traditional philosophy (because that tradition of philosophy caused the intellectual conundrum in the first place). But outside of that personal history, why Heidegger? So, the article reads to Present Me as a wrestling match within a bubble invisible to Previous Me.

Second, my internal editor was present throughout: Damn, that was an inelegant phrase! Wait, this paragraph needs a transition! What the hell did that sentence mean? Jeez, this guy sounds pretentious here!

So, reading something of mine from the distant past was a tolerable and even interesting experience because PreviousMe was distant enough.

Third, I am this weekend reading the page proofs of Too Big to Know. At this point in the manufacturing process known as “writing a book,” I am allowed only to make the most minor of edits. If a change causes lines on the page to shift to a new page, there can be consequences expensive to my publisher. So, I’m reading looking for bad commas and “its” instead of “it’s”, all of which should have been (and so far have been) picked up by Christine Arden, the superb copy-editor who went through my book during the previous pass. But, I also am reading it looking for infelicities I can fix — maybe change an “a” to “the” or some such. This requires reading not just for punctuation but also for rhythm and meaning. In other words, I simultaneously have to read the book as if I were a reader, not just an editor. And that is a disconcerting, embarrassing, frustrating process. There are things about the book that pleasantly surprise me — Where did I come up with that excellent example! — but fundamentally I am focused on it critically. Worse, this is PresentMe seeing how PresentMe presents himself to the world. I am in a narcissistic bubble of self-loathing.

Which is too bad since this is the taste being left by what is very likely to be the last time I read Too Big to Know.

(My publisher would probably like me to note that the book is possibly quite good, and the people who have read it so far seem enthusiastic. But, how the hell would I know before you tell me?)