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Where the blog driver learns to step lightly

Thursday, 30 December 2010 — 7:39am

As 2010 nears its close and I begin to comprehend just how little I produced in this space all year, I think the time has come to reconsider the purpose of the blog—not this blog, nor any specific blog, but the blog as a medium.

Over the lifetime of Nick’s Café Canadien, which is now well into its seventh year of operation, I’ve toyed with several different approaches to what kind of content I publish and how I go about organizing it. As my dissatisfied longtime readers know, the trend has been towards the lengthier, more polished, and considerably more sporadic.

It became apparent early on that this would never be a good place to syndicate a constant stream of news and online articles with few remarks of my own. For one thing, I refuse to turn this space into a specialist journal about one subject alone: that’s a good way to build a news readership, yes, but a bit impersonal and not reflective of my interests. There are better places to go for that sort of thing. Bundled with this is the problem of frequency: the more I post, the more unique and witty titles I have to concoct, and those are in short supply.

Blogging took off at the turn of the millennium when website folks realized that sometimes, you just want a painless way to push new content without bothering with anything beyond the text. Many of its functions have now been supplanted by services that specialize even further in specific online tasks. What was once a thriving personal blogosphere among the students I knew as an undergraduate collapsed with the rise of Facebook, which offered easy photo sharing along with relative (if now decaying) privacy. My experiment earlier this year—using Nick’s Café to deposit semi-regular bags of links—itself collapsed when I concluded that if all I’m doing is passing things on as I read them, then as a rule of thumb, more Twitter, less clutter. There are easier platforms than blogs to “have what he’s having”, so to speak.

When career journalists got in on the blogging game, they saved their best work for media willing to pay them—something that I think has contributed to their attitude towards a blog as a subsidiary portfolio: on the ball, topical, with a scent of casual Friday about it. Their professional output delivered them a ready-made base of readers, and for this kind of audience the side-of-fries school of blogging makes perfect sense. Not so, I think, for those more interested in analysis than reportage, particularly outside the world of word limits and hard deadlines.

The function of a nonprofessional blog today, as I see it, is to get away from the hustle and bustle of social networks and have a podium to yourself. I turned to blogging in the first place because the anarchy of discussion forums was no longer satisfying: forums brought people with similar obsessions together, yes, but the rapid-fire debates were not conducive to essay-length thoughts or to drawing the attention of passersby from outside the community. Blogging isn’t a night at the pub with your fellow philosophes; it’s more like Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.

I’m told there is an article in the current issue of Wired, not yet in the online edition, about precisely this: that blogs are by and large becoming a place for infrequent but developed thoughts, rather than brief and pithy remarks. A moment of searching, however, uncovers this article from 2008 (“Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004”), which in retrospect seems less prescient than premature.

For my part, I’m quite happy with the shift in the blogging form towards essay-length thoughts—a place where there’s a morsel of sharing thanks to the power of hyperlinks, yet where the primary purpose is not to share, but to produce the objects to be shared.

This is my roundabout manner of promising that I do, in fact, have some things on the way.

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On wanting to be a polymath when I grow up

Monday, 26 October 2009 — 3:43pm

I never did keep up with the book reviews and other oddities I promised, did I? It appears I’ve run into what I’m beginning to term the Cambridge Problem: there’s so much to do, on top of all the interesting things I read (sometimes required, but more often not), that it has left me absolutely no time to sit down and write about any of it.

Only this weekend did I finally catch up with some of the blogs and periodicals I regularly follow. And if there was one article that caught my eye, it was the Edward Carr piece in The Economist‘s sister publication, Intelligent Life, entitled “The last days of the polymath”. The issue at hand is scarcely a stone’s throw from the usual humdrum crisis of breadth versus depth, but Carr eloquently navigates his way through the obstacles to the budding specialist-in-anything: lack of acceptance in expert circles, the danger of merely dabbling, reverential nostalgia for Thomas Young, and so on. It’s a bittersweet picture, yet not a hopeless one.

The accompanying list of twenty living polymaths may turn some heads. Mark Liberman has already remarked on the telling absence of “linguist” under Noam Chomsky’s credentials; similarly, the entry for Michael Ignatieff surely sheds some light on how he is perceived in Britain (“Historian, TV presenter, politician”). I think Douglas Hofstadter is listed with too few “strings” (“Mathematician, aesthetic theorist, author”), and the same is likely true of Oliver Sacks and Alexander McCall Smith, who both get a second string solely for writing for the public. It can’t be that uncommon to be a two-string polymath (and if we include popular writing as a profession in itself, it’s downright frequent), although it may be a real challenge to make significant and independent contributions in two separate fields.

For an alternative game of measurement, I suggest finding low Erdős numbers for non-mathematicians. This doesn’t tend to yield polymaths so much as it yields academic authors outside of mathematics who share publication credit over something with a mathematical element—co-publication and individual specialization are two very different beasts, and may in fact be mutually negatory—but it does highlight where disciplines cross.

One proposed measure is the Erdős-Bacon number, which is equal to an individual’s co-publication distance from Paul Erdős plus his or her screen-credit distance from Kevin Bacon. (Natalie Portman’s is 6.) As a profession-dependent model, it’s little better for identifying polymaths, but I think it has the right idea: we ought to use a composite metric, if only for fun.

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Tiananmen, squared

Thursday, 4 June 2009 — 11:04pm

I am usually not the sort to aggregate the coverage of world events, but for the remembrance of what happened twenty years ago in Tiananmen Square I will make a special exception. No other event of geopolitical consequence has made a more indelible impression on the family history. Indeed, Tiananmen is probably my earliest memory, however hazy, of living in a world of monumental scope, where the actions of strangers far away crept through the news on the television set and into your very lives. I was four.

There is really no understating the anxiety in Hong Kong at the time: it was so palpable a toddler could feel it. Only five years earlier had Thatcher made the cessation of the colony to the People’s Republic a certainty with a date stamped on it, and there was reasonable cause for worry that the fate of the Tiananmen students would be the fate of Hong Kong as well. I have a theory that this was the final shred of evidence my parents needed to affirm that packing the bags and spending the rest of their adult lives in Canada would be the right move from there. In this household, no name was spoken with as much revulsion as that of Deng Xiaoping. When Deng croaked in the early weeks of 1997, there was more than a little jubilant schadenfreude that he did not live to see the handover.

In case anybody is under any delusions that the China is a repentant modern state unafraid of the history it has made for itself, take one look at the schizophrenia of its media control. They don’t know what the hell they’re doing.

Here is footage of Beijing authorities shutting down BBC reporter James Reynolds with the aid of plainclothesmen carrying umbrellas on a suspiciously sunny day. Reynolds’ account is here, and one only need scroll down to see the shocking comments of Chinese apologists still in denial. (I don’t know if they’re propagandists or civilians, or which of the two would be the more depressing.)

John Simpson, the reporter from the original BBC broadcast of 4 June 1989, has this to say:

There is a noticeable lack of confidence, a nervousness, at the heart of a system which has otherwise been spectacularly successful, industrially, economically and socially. […] It is embarrassing to hear intelligent, highly educated officials who would have sympathised with the students at the time, calling the massacre “the incident”, or even pretending it did not happen.

James Miles, also a BBC correspondent at the time, provides a fascinating account, ascribing the discrepancies in the reporting to the fact that the majority of the killings occurred throughout Beijing and not in the square itself.

The New York Times Lens Blog has a feature on the photographs of the man blocking the tanks. The BBC interviews Jeff Widener, who snapped the shot for the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, 150,000 attended a vigil in Victoria Park—an encouraging sign in the face of reports that Tiananmen is ill-understood by Hong Kong youth. The helplessness of the Chinese government there is splendid to watch, and anyone who celebrated the former colony’s handover as a death blow for the British Empire should bear in mind the good that western liberal ideals and institutions have done for the place.

Charles Burton provides a Canadian perspective here, reminding us that meaningful change in China sure isn’t coming from the state.

Finally, an anecdote. Last year my mother showed me a book she received from old friends in Hong Kong, a large-format photo history of the former British colony. There was a full-page photograph of a protest march that filled a city street. On the front lines, bearing a bold red banner, were my parents and a handful of extended relatives shouting something with a furious look in their eyes. As someone who had the luxury of growing up in a country where real threats to liberty have simply never materialized, it was a rare moment of discovery where I suddenly perceived the historical intrigue concealed in ordinary life.

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Notes from the blunderground

Wednesday, 3 June 2009 — 9:12pm

Book blogging is on hold again, almost as soon as it resumed. Here’s why: a week ago I read a novel that was not only bad, but bad in the most uninteresting and redundant ways. It is a popular novel, and you can probably guess what it is. I had about half of a review written up before I decided to put it on hold and see Pixar’s ninth consecutive work of mad brilliance, Up, which promptly restored my faith in storytelling. I now lack the motivation to go back to spinning invective about said novel, which I have previously done in an identical fashion for a nearly identical book by the same author.

That, and the n-thousand words I dump here each week presently need to be directed to another project. No, it is not this. In the interests of this mysterious project I am rereading a number of wonderful books in scraps.

In other news, I am now on Twitter (as Nicholas_Tam), though I haven’t put it to any use, and by no means will it supplant this space. I will do something unique with it eventually, and remain open to suggestions. To my dismay, NicholasTam was already reserved by my Australian rival, with whom I have conducted a username turf war for years. As I am wont to remark: Winston Churchill never had to put up with this crap.

An announcement of a rather different flavour will follow shortly. I have been sitting on it for weeks, but most of the paperwork is now complete and the relevant parties have been informed.

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The not-so-Wednesday book club

Saturday, 7 February 2009 — 3:25pm

In case anybody is wondering about the state of the weekly book feature: I am still doing it. The service interruption of the past fortnight is of a temporary nature, and I fully plan to catch up and stay on pace for 52 reviews in 52 weeks.

While the plan is to adhere strictly to the weekly schedule once more, I must admit that one of the difficulties of keeping myself to a book a week is how it discourages tackling larger volumes on a whim. One can probably gather, from the brevity of the last few books I’ve featured, that I am ever so slightly busier than before. Selecting them was a good idea at the time, though now the long books on my shelf are mustering and ready to strike.

I do have some other ideas on the go that will hopefully make it to this space soon, but I make no promises. For those of you who aren’t doing so already, may I recommend a subscription to my RSS feed so you don’t have to drop by the site to wait for updates in vain, and eventually forget it exists.

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