Feb 25, 2024

pong wars, electoral college edition

I really love watching the random math of Pong Wars play out, but it felt like it needed some actual stakes. So I updated it for 2024.

2024 pong wars

Feb 06, 2024

torturing poets

Of course The New York Times sought out actual poets who would comment on the title of the upcoming Taylor Swift album, “The Tortured Poets Department.” Some loved it! Some were worried about the whole “tortured” typecasting thing! And one even likened Taylor to Wordsworth!

But this 35 word sentence towards the end of the piece floored me.

Some hoped that Ms. Swift’s next era would increase interest in American poetry, a precarious market for academics in real-life poetry departments — usually subsumed by English departments, which themselves face existential threats — across the country.

There’s a lot going on here. It kicks off with the classic indefinite subject (“Some”), and then pins a massive subordinate clause on “hoped” and then twists and turns through…the politics of academia?

My brain hurt trying to deconstruct it all, so I did what any diehard Swift fan / long lost English major would do: I went to Chat GPT and asked it to diagram this sentence.

Alas, GPT-4 was sort of cantankerous, and while it did a lovely job explaining different parts of grammar, it wasn’t terribly helpful in actually drawing anything.

While I can’t draw this visually here, imagine the main clause as the top line of your diagram, with each additional element branching off below it according to its function in the sentence. Each level of the diagram would represent a different layer of complexity within the sentence, from the main clause at the top to the most detailed modifiers and descriptive elements at the bottom.

OK! Yes! That’s what I was imagining!

For actual diagramming, drawing software or a pen and paper would be best to accurately represent these relationships visually.

Oh…OK, sure.

Thank goodness for the marketplace of ideas, because it turns out that Bard is an excellent sentence diagrammer. It spat out an ASCII representation of the sentence diagram in Reed-Kellogg format (full text here, image pasted below), as well as a very detailed description of what’s going on in this sentence.

Sentence Diagram

  • Main Clause: The main clause of the sentence is “Some hoped,” which establishes the basic subject-verb relationship. “Some” acts as the indefinite subject, and “hoped” is the past tense verb.
  • Subordinate Clause: The clause “that Ms. Swift’s next era would increase interest in American poetry” modifies the verb “hoped.” It functions as an adverbial clause, providing more context about the object of hope.
    • Subject: “Ms. Swift’s next era” acts as the subject of the subordinate clause. The possessive construction “Ms. Swift’s” indicates ownership of the “era.”
    • Verb: “Would increase” is the modal verb combined with the base verb “increase,” expressing a conditional possibility.
    • Object: “Interest in American poetry” is the direct object of the verb “increase.” The prepositional phrase “in American poetry” clarifies what is being increased.
  • Appositive Phrase: The phrase “a precarious market for academics in real-life poetry departments” serves as an appositive to “American poetry,” providing additional information and clarification about its nature.
    • Adjective: “Precarious” modifies “market,” describing its uncertain and unstable nature.
    • Prepositional Phrase: “For academics in real-life poetry departments” clarifies who is affected by the precariousness of the market.
      • Preposition: “For” indicates the beneficiaries or recipients of the precarious market.
      • Noun Phrase: “Academics in real-life poetry departments” specifies the group facing the precarious market conditions.
        • Noun: “Academics” refers to the people working in the field.
        • Prepositional Phrase: “In real-life poetry departments” restricts the type of academics to those specifically associated with poetry departments, excluding theoretical or purely literary-focused academics.
  • Participial Phrase: The phrase “usually subsumed by English departments” modifies “poetry departments,” providing further context about their status.
    • Participle: “Subsumed” is the past participle of the verb “subsume,” indicating an action that has already happened.
    • Prepositional Phrase: “By English departments” clarifies who is doing the subsuming.
  • Relative Clause: The clause “which themselves face existential threats” modifies “English departments,” adding another layer of information.
    • Subject: “English departments” acts as the subject of the relative clause.
    • Verb: “Face” is the present tense verb indicating an ongoing situation.
    • Object: “Existential threats” is the direct object of the verb “face.”
    • Reflexive Pronoun: “Themselves” emphasizes that the English departments are facing the threats directly.
  • Adverbial Phrase: The phrase “across the country” modifies the verb “increase,” specifying the geographical scope of the potential rise in interest.

I hope this more detailed explanation clarifies the sentence’s structure and the relationships between its parts!

What were we talking about? Oh yeah, tortured poets. April 19. Can’t wait.

Feb 04, 2024

bobby koons

Somehow I missed Andy Baio’s post from May of last year, The Unhinged Miniature World of Bobby Fingers. As usual I’m late to this party.

If you haven’t seen them before, Bobby Fingers makes elaborate 1:9 scale dioramas depicting embarrassing moments in the lives of famous men, showing off his talents in model-making with a range of techniques from Bronze Age wax casting to modern 3D laser scanning.

But I discovered Mr. Fingers’ work today, thanks to Kevin Kelly’s tip in Recomendo, who calls them “Dada YouTube.”

His long videos are masterpieces of meticulous art craftsmanship, elaborate prank puzzles, indie music, deadpan comedy, all disguised as one of the best maker tutorials I’ve ever seen. It is very hard to describe their obsessive weirdness and elegant absurdity.

Drunk Mel Gibson Arrest Diorama is the best place to start, but Michael Jackson on Fire Diorama deserves a spot in the contemporary canon alongside Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles.

Michael Jackson and Bubbles by Jeff Koons

Jan 31, 2024

books finished, jan 2024

I’ve been reading a lot; here’s a ranked list of books I finished in January, with one pertient highlight pulled from each. Thank God for Readwise or I probably wouldn’t remember a thing.


The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Ultimate Nature of Reality, by William Eggington

The soul or consciousness, in fact, is nothing but the unity of a sense of self over time, the bare fact that to perceive and then to articulate our perceptions something must connect from this very instant to another, and another after that. This connecting of disparate slices of space-time is a necessary condition of the possibility of knowing anything at all, but it is not itself a thing in space and time, a thing that survives our existence on Earth.

Notes on Complexity: A Scientific Theory of Connection, Consciousness, and Being, by Neil Theise

You are this body, and you are these molecules, and you are these atoms, and you are these quantum entities, and you are the quantum foam, and you are the energetic field of space-time, and, ultimately, you are the fundamental awareness out of which all these emerge, Planck moment by Planck moment. This very body and mind, this very heart and soul is the transcendent reality. It was never somewhere else, something we had to reach for or travel to; it was just this body in just this moment.

The Lights: Poems by Ben Lerner

Stop, I interrupted, just stop for a second, John, and listen. Listen to the wind in the birches, a stream of alephs, the room tone of the forest, sirens in the distance, folk music, unnecessary but sufficient. I personally need cities at night, clear glass pavement, impurities, writing paper, all forming together an immense patchwork curtain. I’m listening now, John, Jack, Josh, Josiah, James. Tell me what you need.

Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond Productivity Culture, by Jenny Odell

The world is ending – but which world? Consider that many worlds have ended, just as many worlds have been born and are about to be born. Consider that there is nothing a priori about any of them. Just as a thought experiment, imagine that you were not born at the end of time, but actually at the exact right time, that you might grow up to be, as the poet Chen Chen writes, “a season from the planet / of planet-sized storms.” Hallucinate a scenario, hallucinate yourself in it. Then tell me what you see.

Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America, by Heather Cox Richardson

The fundamental story of America is the constant struggle of all Americans, from all races, ethnicities, genders, and abilities, to make the belief that we are all created equal and have a right to have a say in our democracy come true. We are always in the process of creating “a more perfect union.”

Psych: The Story of the Human Mind, by Paul Bloom

Why would language make us better at thinking about other minds? The obvious theory is that engaging in linguistic communication conveys more and more information about the minds of other people. But a more radical theory is that it’s the structure of language that does the trick.70 The syntax of language allows for a superior understanding of how the world is seen by others.

The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism, by Kyle Chayka

How do you find a way to live the life that you are born with and stake out a space for yourself in the tumultuous present?

Jan 31, 2023

Ten things I loved in January

  1. Aftersun, directed by Charlotte Wells. If Paul Mescal doesn’t win best actor, I’m going to lose my fucking mind. The whole thing felt fresh, delicate, and joyful…despite being devastatingly sad. I have theories about the ending; hit me up on email if you’ve seen the movie and want to discuss.
  2. Oh, William! Elizabeth Strout’s 2021 novel returns to her (doppelgänger?) character Lucy Barton. Strout’s dialog is unreal; think Normal People Rooney and you’re halfway there. But don’t take my word for it, here’s Jennifer Egan in the NYT book review: “Strout works in the realm of everyday speech, conjuring repetitions, gaps and awkwardness with plain language and forthright diction, yet at the same time unleashing a tidal urgency that seems to come out of nowhere even as it operates in plain sight.”
  3. Tár, directed by Todd Field. Cate Blanchett will definitely win best actress, and I’d be surprised if this doesn’t win best picture. I’m imagining an Oscar bit where the entire Kodak Theater audience is cosplaying like the “classical music” audience at the end of the movie. Dark.
  4. boygenius, the record. Three well-crafted songs from the three queens of sad-girl indie: Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker. Go listen.
  5. Stutz, directed by Jonah Hill. If you’re in therapy, or have ever been in therapy, or at some point may need to be in therapy (I think that covers everyone?), you should watch this. Mason Currey’s Subtle Maneuvers newsletter will give you a lovely taste of what Stutz is all about. “I have to worry about forward motion, putting the next pearl on the string.”
  6. The Netanyahus, An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family, by Joshua Cohen. 2022 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction; this is probably the most pretentiously literary book I’ve read in a long time. It’s also completely self-aware about that pretension, which makes it really, really funny. I loved this passage about American television in the 1950s: “I’m ashamed too to think of how entertained I was by the programming, whose lack of options, whose lack of range, is boggling by today’s standards. Game shows and westerns, that was all, game shows and westerns, which were essentially the same to the American mind: zero-sum scenarios of winners and losers, mettle tested by luck.”
  7. White Noise, directed by Noah Baumbach. The book is probably my favorite novel of all time; for years I’ve been hoping / dreading that someone would produce this. Thankfully, Baumbach clearly reveres the book, which makes it really fun to watch if you know it well. Frankly, White Noise is so ingrained in my psyche that I can’t imagine what it would be like to watch it not having read the book. Come for the airborne toxic event, stay for the seven minute credit sequence dance number set in a hyperreal A&P.
  8. Moby, Ambient 23. Yep, that Moby. Dropped January 1st, 16 tracks, two and a half hours of subtlety. Hell of a way for him to kick off the year. Can’t help but think about that moment in Mistaken for Strangers, the fantastic doc about The National, when director/brother Tom shouts across a Los Angeles hillside at what they think is Moby’s house.
  9. Brene Brown’s conversation with Bono on her podcast Unlocking Us. A two parter, recorded in front of a crowd in Austin, TX, covering Bono’s new memoir 40 Songs, love, faith, religion and creativity. Even if you’re not a U2 fan, the pods are worth listening to – they go deep. (And if you are a U2 fan, 40 Songs is worth reading – Bono can write!)
  10. The Creative Act: A Way of Being, by Rick Rubin. It seemed like Rubin was everywhere this month, making the rounds to support his new book. I wanted more storytelling (the guy must have amazing stories to tell), but every koan-like chapter had a gem like this: “We’re not playing to win, we’re playing to play. And ultimately, playing is fun.”