Matthew Rothenberg's "Unindexed" web project

From Matthew Rothenberg's portfolio, a beguiling publishing experiment:

Unindexed was a website that continuously searched Google for itself over and over. The moment it found itself in the search results it would irrevocably securely delete itself, making the precise instant of algorithmic discovery the catalyst of destruction.

The site was discovered by Google after 22 days on Tue Feb 24 2015 21:01:14 GMT+0000 (UTC) and consequently instantly destroyed. Prior to the automatic deletion it it had hundreds of visitors and dozens of contributions. No backups were kept.

Authoritative typography and the soft underbelly of reason

An excerpt from a study (and conversation) by and with writer and filmmaker Errol Morris, published in the New York Times:

Until about 150 years ago most people wrote out documents by hand. Since the advent of typewriters (from John J. Pratt’s pterotype in the 1860s to word processors in the 1980s), few people write by hand anymore, and we now have a vast array of typefaces available to us. It is an easy matter to change an entire document from Bembo to Garamond to Caslon to Palatino. We forget that written manuscripts, letters and journals were once unique objects often containing clues about the writer and the context of when and how they were written. [...]

DAVID DUNNING: Baskerville seems to be the king of fonts. What I did is I pushed and pulled at the data and threw nasty criteria at it. But it is clear in the data that Baskerville is different from the other fonts in terms of the response it is soliciting. Now, it may seem small but it is impressive.

ERROL MORRIS: I am completely surprised by this. If you asked me in advance, I would have guessed Georgia or Computer Modern, something that has the imprimatur of, I don’t know, truth — truthiness. DAVID DUNNING: The word that comes to my mind is gravitas. There are some fonts that are informal — Comic Sans, obviously — and other fonts that are a little bit more tuxedo. It seems to me that Georgia is slightly tuxedo. Computer Modern is a little bit more tuxedo and Baskerville has just a tad more starchiness. I would have expected that if you are going to have a winner in Baskerville, you are also going to have a winner in Computer Modern. But we did not. And there can be a number of explanations for that. Maybe there is a slight difference in how they are rendered in PCs or laptops that causes the starch in Computer Modern to be a little softer than the starch in Baskerville.

ERROL MORRIS: Starchiness?

DAVID DUNNING: Fonts have different personalities. It seems to me that one thing you can say about Baskerville is that it feels more formal or looks more formal. So that may give it a push in terms of its level of authority. This is, of course, speculation. I don’t really know. What one would do with, when you get surprising results is you now have to think about, O.K., what do we do to take that back-ended speculation and support it with data?

ERROL MORRIS: How surprised are you by this?

DAVID DUNNING: I’m surprised that the damn thing worked at all — because you are conducting an experiment in an uncontrolled environment. Who knows what’s going on at the other end of a computer screen? Their kids could be screaming in the background for all we know. It could be two a.m. It could be two p.m. They’ve had their coffee. They haven’t had their coffee… The font is on their desktops. There is just a ton of stuff out there that could obscure any results whatsoever. That’s why I made sure to have those six levels of confidence —


DAVID DUNNING: Because, basically, there are two different types of questions you can ask in a survey. You can ask yes/no. Do you agree with X? And that is a rather crude question, because if a person says yes, you don’t know if they are saying, “Yes, God damn it,” or if they are saying, “Ye-es.” [in a meek voice]. They both qualify as yes. However, if you ask about gradations of the “yes” (or gradations of agreeing), then if there is a more subtle phenomenon going on you have a better chance of catching it. You catch people going from “Ye-es” to “Yeah.”

ERROL MORRIS: And what did you learn from this data?

DAVID DUNNING: That people either agree or they disagree. They are not hovering around the middle at all. They choose a decisive yes or no. But I thought that some fonts would be rejected rather than that one font was going to be the winner.

ERROL MORRIS: For example, Comic Sans would be a loser.


ERROL MORRIS: The loser font.

DAVID DUNNING: The inappropriate font. What is this font doing here? [laughter] But no. That doesn’t seem to have been the case. And that’s why you do the studies. Sometimes you get exactly what you expect. O.K., great. You publish them. The fun happens when you do a study that comes out in a way that no one would ever have expected. Now you’ve got to sit back and say, how do I explain that? Can I explain that?

Paul Valéry, Pièces sur L’Art, 1931

“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”

Scientism and the future of the humanities

Leon Wieseltier in the New York Times — "And even as technologism, which is not the same as technology, asserts itself over more and more precincts of human life, so too does scientism, which is not the same as science. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new. The contrary insistence that the glories of art and thought are not evolutionary adaptations, or that the mind is not the brain, or that love is not just biology’s bait for sex, now amounts to a kind of heresy. So, too, does the view that the strongest defense of the humanities lies not in the appeal to their utility — that literature majors may find good jobs, that theaters may economically revitalize neighborhoods — but rather in the appeal to their defiantly nonutilitarian character, so that individuals can know more than how things work, and develop their powers of discernment and judgment, their competence in matters of truth and goodness and beauty, to equip themselves adequately for the choices and the crucibles of private and public life. ... ..."Is all this — is humanism — sentimental? But sentimentality is not always a counterfeit emotion. Sometimes sentiment is warranted by reality. The persistence of humanism through the centuries, in the face of formidable intellectual and social obstacles, has been owed to the truth of its representations of our complexly beating hearts, and to the guidance that it has offered, in its variegated and conflicting versions, for a soulful and sensitive existence. There is nothing soft about the quest for a significant life. And a complacent humanist is a humanist who has not read his books closely, since they teach disquiet and difficulty. In a society rife with theories and practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject, the humanist is the dissenter. Never mind the platforms. Our solemn responsibility is for the substance."

E.B. White's poetics of New York

"A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive. At the feet of the tallest and plushiest offices lie the crummiest slums. The genteel mysteries housed in the Riverside Church are only a few blocks from the voodoo charms of Harlem. The merchant princes, riding to Wall Street in their limousines down the East River Drive, pass within a few hundred yards of the gypsy kings; but the princes do not know they are passing kings, and the kings are not up yet anyway -- they live a more leisurely life than princes and get drunk more consistently. "New York is nothing like Paris; it is nothing like London; and it is not Spokane multiplied by sixty, or Detroit multiplied by four. It is by all odds the loftiest of cities. It even managed to reach the highest point in the sky at the lowest moment of the depression. The Empire State Building shot twelve hundred and fifty feet into the air when it was madness to put out as much as six inches of new growth. (The building has a mooring mast that no dirigible has ever tied to; it employs a man to flush toilets in slack times; it has been hit by an airplane in a fog, struck countless times by lightning, and been jumped off of by so many unhappy people that pedestrians instinctively quicken step when passing Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.)"

Questions and speculations: Douglas Hofstadter on music, Wittgenstein, and artificial intelligence

Question: You seem to be saying that AI programs will be virtually identical to people, then. Won't there be any differences? Speculation: Probably the differences between AI programs and people will be larger than the differences between most people. It is almost impossible to imagine that the "body" in which an AI program is housed would not affect it deeply. So unless it had an amazingly faithful replica of a human body -- and why should it? -- it would probably have enormously different perspectives on what is important, what is interesting, etc. Wittgenstein once made the amusing comment, "If a lion could speak, we would not understand him." It makes me think of Rousseau's painting of the gentle lion and the sleeping gypsy on the moonlit desert. But how does Wittgenstein know? My guess is that any AI program would, if comprehensible to us, seem pretty alien. For that reason, we will have a very hard time deciding when and if we really are dealing with an AI program, or just a "weird" program.

Question: Will we understand what intelligence and consciousness and free will and "I" are when we have made an intelligent program?

Speculation: Sort of -- it all depends on what you mean by "understand". On a gut level, each of us probably has about as good an understanding as is possible of those things, to start with. It is like listening to music. Do you really understand Bach because you have taken him apart? Or did you understand it that time you felt the exhilaration in every nerve in your body? Do we understand how the speed of light is constant in every inertial reference frame? We can do the math, but no one in the world has a truly relativistic intuition. And probably no one will ever understand the mysteries of intelligence and consciousness in an intuitive way. Each of us can understand people, and that is probably about as close as you can come.

[From Gödel, Escher, Bach; 679-670.]