Monthly Archives: July 2012

Buying books from St. Marks Bookshop

MetaMaus and The Works, two recent purchases from St. Marks Place Books

I recently dropped about $60 at the St. Marks Bookshop for two new books, “The Works: Anatomy of a City” by Kate Ascher and “MetaMaus” by Art Spiegelman.

Neither have Kindle versions, which is where I’ve been getting virtually all my books these days. But “The Works” and “MetaMaus” are both visual works; respectively: an illustrated explanation of the city’s underworkings and a comic-panel/mixed-media reflection of the classic Maus Holocaust graphic novel. I still buy paper books when it comes to art and photography and layout.

But I could still save a lot of money by ordering through Amazon…almost 40%. There’s no shipping costs and since I almost never get to reading books immediately after buying them, the waiting period would be tolerable. But I usually feel an obligation to compensate a brick-and-mortar store for introducing me to new books…kind of a finder’s fee, I guess. As much as I love the digital age and cheaper prices, real-life places like bookstores are one of the few opportunities I have to be exposed to things I wouldn’t normally see in my targeted searches (which these days, almost consist entirely for books about programming or medicine) or through my social network.

The St. Marks bookstore has currently been in the news for trying to crowdfund its move to a smaller location. I have no idea how bookstores can be saved these days given the much cheaper prices on Amazon — relying on spendy purchasers like me won’t pay Manhattan rents. But I do know bookstores still provide a lot of value with their physical footprints.

Learning Music, the Python Way

Just bought this today: Pedro Kroger’s “Music for Geeks and Nerds”, which he announced on Hacker News (see discussion). The foundations of music is one area of knowledge that is totally beyond my grasp, so I’m always looking for new ways to learn it. And this book comes with code examples…so…sold!

Here’s the book blurb:

Are you interested in learning more about music but have found most material condescending or to present things magically instead of logically? The good news is that much of music can be understood with programming and math, two things you’re already good at! In this book you’ll learn some elements of music from a programmer’s perspective.

Kroger, according to his bio, is a professor of music composition, computer music, and computer science.

The book has a launch sale of $15.00, though the Kindle version (with no restriction on number of Kindle devices) is $9.99.

Check out the intermingling of musical notation and code:

Zombie Nouns: Or: Don’t add clarification to your writing. Clarify your writing.

Helen Sword’s NYT Opinionator essay on “Zombie Nouns” is one of the most profound short essays on writing that I’ve read since at least college. Maybe even high school. I don’t know if that says more about my writing ability or Sword’s:

Take an adjective (implacable) or a verb (calibrate) or even another noun (crony) and add a suffix like ity, tion or ism. You’ve created a new noun: implacability, calibration, cronyism. Sounds impressive, right?

Nouns formed from other parts of speech are called nominalizations. Academics love them; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings:

Read the rest of Sword’s essay here. It’s really one of the best practical essays on writing I’ve read in awhile.

Times Square snowball fight photos: now exhibited in Dresden gallery

Snowball Fight in Times Square, Manhattan, Dec. 19, 2009

I guess there’s no better time to post old winter photos than during the summer hellfest we’re currently living in, but there’s an actual timeliness reason, too:

Back in 2009, a blizzard hit New York and I took photos of people balling it up in Times Square. The Flickr blog spotlighted the photos and since then, they’ve been my most requested-for reprints. I received quite a few messages from Germans, especially civic organizations interested in how the then-new Times Square pedestrian-walkways were working out.

At least one non-civic-group liked the photos: STORE Contemporary, a Dresden art gallery, emailed me to ask if they could use the photos in an exhibition. I said, ‘Sure, that sounds fun,’ and then didn’t hear back for about two years.

Well, my international debut is finally here. From July 19 to September 7, STORE (on 14 Pulsnitzer St.), my photos will be featured in an exhibit titled, “Dan Nuygen [sic…er, close enough] & Doug Kim: Snowball fight on main street”.

From Google Translate:

The photographer Doug Kim and Dan Nuygen (both USA) show images of these legendary snowball fight in Times Square in New York City 2009th Of the recent global turmoil images, and a worldwide flashmobs Occupy active movement they did in this little moment. Even before social media enhanced mass events and political actions to habit images of media culture, these were spontaneous rioting led to photographic recordings with unrivaled symbolic effect. (The summer exhibition is the series How the f *** did I end up here? )

I prefer it in the original German, though:

Die Fotografen Doug Kim und Dan Nuygen (beide USA) zeigen Bilder dieser legendären Schneeballschlacht am Timesquare in New York City 2009. Von den jüngsten Bildern globalen Aufruhrs, flashmobs und einer weltweit aktiven Occupy-Bewegung ahnten sie in diesem Moment wenig. Noch bevor social media verstärkte Massenveranstaltungen und politische Aktionen zur Gewohnheitsbildern der Medienkultur wurden, führte diese spontane Zusammenrottung zu photografischen Aufzeichnungen mit konkurrenzlos symbolhafte Wirkung.

So if you happen to be in Dresden during the summer…and for some reason, want to see photos of snow…check out STORE Contemporary. I don’t actually get to go to Dresden, though. Through the magic of the Internet, though, hopefully I’ll get to see what the exhibit looks like.

I had to go back and find the original files for STORE, so I took the opportunity to finally edit through the entire batch I took that night in 2009. Back then, I wasn’t skilled at using the camera controls so most of the shots weren’t of much use. But I was surprised to find a lot of interesting shots that I had apparently overlooked, some of them better than the ones I published 3 years ago.

I uploaded them to Flickr today for archival purposes. They brought back a lot of good memories that night, especially since our recent winters have been weak in comparison:

Crossing the street, NYC Blizzard 2009

NYC Blizzard 2009, Times Square

2009 Times Square Snowball Fight

Charmin girls, NYC Blizzard 2009, Times Square

NYC Blizzard 2009, Times Square

2009 Times Square Snowball Fight

See the rest of the recently uploaded 2009 photos.

Feynman: Don’t you have time to think?

Richard Feynman, courtesy of Fermilab

Richard Feynman, courtesy of Fermilab

I recently discovered “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track,” a 514 page collection of Dr. Richard Feynman’s letters. I’ll try not to turn my blog into a reposting of his letters, but they’re so interesting that I can’t promise not to…

Here’s a couple of letters from students asking Feynman for advice on how to succeed intellectually. It’s impressive that Feynman takes time to write back with advice that is both aspirational and practical.

A pharmacology student asked Feynman for help on being creative:

“How is it possible to reach that high level of preparedness without stifling the creative process that permits the examination of problems in novel ways?”

In this letter dated Mar. 31, 1975, Feynman responds:

Dear Mr. Stanley,

I don’t know how to answer your question – I see no contradiction. All you have to do is, from time to time – in spite of everything, just try to examine a problem in a novel way.

You won’t “stifle the creative process” if you remember to think from time to time. Don’t you have time to think?

Richard P. Feynman

Feynman, Richard P. (2008-08-05). Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track (p. 283). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

In a letter dated Sept. 30, 1969, Feynman wrote back to a student who was struggling with physics:

Dear Mr.Wang:

I am sorry, but of course I cannot advise you without knowing you better. Sometimes a situation like yours arises from a little block of misunderstanding that can be found and cleared away. At other times it may be harder to straighten out and really not worth it.

Your 93 in Electricity and Magnetism looks good. But it is not good to hit yourself on a stone wall, either, so what can I say?

I say this. Try to find some friends who are also somewhat interested in physics and try to discuss physics things with them. If you find yourself able to explain things in your own words, so that they are led to understand things from what you say, you are OK.

Soon you will find yourself able to explain things to yourself. Otherwise, give up and plan for a different career. If you can’t find such friends, try to tutor elementary physics, and see how it goes.

Sincerely yours,

Richard P. Feynman

Feynman, Richard P. (2008-08-05). Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track (pp. 255-256). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

(I wonder how Mr. Wang and Mr. Stanely acted on Feymnan’s advice?)

Again, check out “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track,” if you’re a Feynman fan. At under $10 for the Kindle edition, it’s a great bargain.

Related: a letter from Feynman to his wife

Journatic’s hiding game

This American Life devoted 23 minutes reporting on Journatic, a journalism outsourcing company that did its darndest to stay hidden. It’s a great piece, produced by Sarah Koenig, that’s worth a listen even for non-journalists. And Anna Tarkov, for Poynter, has a piece that adds more detail about this “local news” operation.

Both Koenig and Tarkov remark on how difficult it was to find first-hand information on Journatic:

If you’ve never heard of Journatic, that’s kind of the idea. The company, which was founded in 2006, has a website that doesn’t appear on at least the first five pages of Google search results. Job openings, often posted on Craigslist or, once mentioned the company’s name, but no longer.

The technical part of the “why?” is easy; check out‘s metadata:

If I were a Tribune company exec in charge of innovative digital news initiatives, I’d ask: “Why does this innovative online news company have code that eliminates it from Google search results? Have they not yet gone through SEO PowerPoint seminars?” (note that the meta-description appears to have been handled by an outsourced copy-editor). Unfortunately, there aren’t many news company execs who even know what that question means or entails. In Tribune’s case, maybe asking that “geeky” question would’ve prevented the need to answer this ethics question today.