Thursday 26 January, 2023


Wonderful photograph from Quentin’s blog. One person who commented on it thought that the seagull ruined the picture. I disagree. The bird upsets the symmetry, which is the whole point!

Quote of the Day

”If I have to prove I’m not a computer by identifying traffic lights and busses, perhaps we’re not quite ready for self-driving cars.”

  • Mastodon user

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Crosby Stills and Nash | Suite: Judy Blue Eyes | Live 2012


A small memorial to David Crosby, sadly no longer with us.

Long Read of the Day

Wikipedia Quietly Shapes How We View the World

Really interesting piece by Noam Cohen in The Atlantic

As veteran readers of this blog will know, I am an admirer (and user of) Wikipedia. (I also try to donate to it regularly.) What fascinated me about it from the beginning — and certainly from reading the chapter about it in Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet — was the elaborate protocols its founders developed to handle disagreements. They were extraordinarily prescient in that they anticipated what would happen when people would not only have their own opinions, but their own ‘facts’ too. They saw the future in which we are now living.

What’s nice about this essay is that it starts with a contemporary case study that brilliantly illustrates this.

For more than 15 years, Wikipedia discussed what to call the third child of Ernest Hemingway, a doctor who was born and wrote books as Gregory, later lived as Gloria after undergoing gender-affirming surgery, and, when arrested for public disorderliness late in life, used a third name, Vanessa. Last year, editors on the site finally settled the question: The Gregory Hemingway article was deleted, and its contents were moved to a new one for Gloria Hemingway. This would be her name going forward, and she/her would be her pronouns.

Wikipedia’s billions of facts, rendered as dry prose in millions of articles, help us understand the world. They are largely the brain behind Siri and Alexa. They have been integrated as official fact-checks on conspiracy-theory YouTube videos. They helped train ChatGPT. So, unsurprisingly, when you search Google for “Gregory Hemingway,” it follows Wikipedia’s lead: You are told about Gloria instead…

Worth your time.

PS: I have a standard modus operandi whenever I get into discussions with people about Wikipedia. If the person is complaining about an error in an entry, my response is: well then, if you know it’s wrong, why haven’t you corrected it?

And to the person who gushes about how wonderful Wikipedia is! I ask: well, then, have you given it a donation?

You can guess what the most common responses to both questions are!

Books, etc.

Recently my good friend Quentin embarked on reading Joyce’s Ulysses and blogged on how unimpressed he was by it. He drew comfort, he said, from the fact that no less a person than Virginia Woolf herself was repelled by the book and quoted the well-known extract from a her diary entry on the subject:

“Never did I read such tosh. As for the first 2 chapters we will let them pass, but the 3rd 4th 5th 6th–merely the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges. Of course genius may blaze out on page 652 but I have my doubts. And this is what Eliot worships…”

I took him to task about this and we had an enjoyable exchange on Signal. My point was that VW’s views on the novel were rather more complicated than you’d gather from just reading that extract, and so I set about gathering everything Woolf had written about the book in her diaries. It was an enjoyable rabbit-hole for someone who’s interested in Joyce, as you can imagine.

But then yesterday morning Quentin alerted me to a lovely essay  by James Heffernan published in the Yale Modernism Lab. He had, of course been reading Woolf’s diaries (like me) but (unlike me) had also been reading her letters. So it was an enjoyable and instructive read.

Heffernan insightfully illuminates one aspect of the controversy which had always annoyed me, namely what I saw as Woolf’s obtuseness (or even hypocrisy) in ostensibly dismissing Joyce’s method while at the same time using it herself in the writing of Mrs Dalloway. She may have had trouble admitting it but she and Joyce were in the same business. And he had beaten her to it.

“A few days earlier,” writes Heffernan,

she had told her diary that in her “laborious dredging . . . for Mrs Dalloway” [her story, that is] she was “bringing up light buckets” (D 2: 189). Having begun to suspect–as noted above–that Joyce was probably beating her at her own game, how could she avoid measuring herself against him or, more precisely, wanting to find his buckets just as light as hers? And could she finish her story or turn it into another novel of her own so long as this strange new giant of literature cast his shadow before her? The answer, I think, is no. To go on writing, she had to stop reading Ulysses. I believe that she stopped at page 200 and then did all she could to drive it from her mind. On August 26 she tells her diary: “I dislike Ulysses more & more–that is think it more & more unimportant; & dont even trouble conscientiously to make out its meanings. Thank God, I need not write about it” (D 2: 195-96). By this she clearly meant that she would write no more about it for publication, since she did indeed have a few more things to say in private. On September 3, eight days after last reporting that she had read just 200 pages, she tells her diary, “I should be reading the last immortal chapter of Ulysses: but I’m hot with Badmington [sic] in the orchard . . . we dine in 35 minutes; & I must change” (D 2: 197). And three days later she tells her diary, “I finished Ulysses” (D 2: 199).

“Just what does this mean?” asks Heffernan,

I believe it can only mean that she had finished with it – not that she had read it all, let alone tried “conscientiously to make out its meanings.” In the more than four months from mid-April to August 24, she had read just two hundred pages of Ulysses even though she had already read many of them once or twice before. Could she have read the remaining 532 pages in the eleven days from August 26 to September 6, when she claims to have finished the novel? The answer is both yes and no. On one hand, she could have read those pages in one long day, for the whole of Ulysses has been many times read aloud–typically by a team of readers– in twenty-four hours. On the other hand, given the rate at which she had been reading Ulysses, she could not possibly have read it all by September 6 – especially since she was already overloaded with other tasks.

Thanks to Quentin (who is now listening to an audio version of Ulysses) for launching me down such an enjoyable slippery slope.

My commonplace booklet

What if everything ran on gasoline?

Fabulous ad for the Nissan Leaf. It’s only a minute long. Don’t miss it.

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