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Remembering Aaron Swartz: David Foster Wallace on the Meaning of Life

“Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

I recently attended the heartbreaking memorial for open-access activist Aaron Swartz, who for the past two years had been relentlessly and unscrupulously prosecuted for making academic journal articles freely available online and who had taken his own life a week prior. A speaker at the service read a piece by one of Aaron’s personal heroes, David Foster Wallace — an excerpt from Wallace’s famous Kenyon College commencement address, the only public talk he ever gave on his views of life, which was eventually adapted into a slim book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (public library).

I’ve written about the speech previously, but the particular excerpt read at Aaron’s memorial resonates with chilling clarity in light of recent meditations on the meaning of life, how to find one’s purpose, morality vs. intelligence, and whether money can really buy happiness. Wallace remarks:

If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Also speaking at the memorial, data visualization godfather Edward Tufte captured the essence of Aaron’s character:

Aaron’s unique quality was that he was marvelously and vigorously different. There’s a scarcity of that.

Hear This Is Water in its entirety, with notable excerpts, here. Help fight the broken system that mauled Aaron here. Honor his legacy with a contribution to Creative Commons here.

Portrait: Aaron Swartz by Fred Benenson under Creative Commons

BP

How Lantern Slides Revolutionized Education: A Protein Story

When an old entertainment technology brought the world to the lecture hall, bridging science and art.

We’ve already seen how the humble lantern slide changed photography and storytelling, but little credence is given to how profoundly it changed education and the academic world. In the altogether excellent biography I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science (UK; public library) — which tells the story of a pioneering and controversial female mathematician who helped shed light on the molecular structure of proteins, was the first woman to receive a Doctor of Science degree from Oxford University, and embodied the cross-pollination of disciplines two decades before C. P. Snow’s famous lament about the “two cultures”Marjorie Senechal writes:

Lantern slides — glass slides 3.5 x 4 inches, with photographic images transferred to them by any of several methods — were patented in 1850. The invention brought the inventors, William and Frederick Langenheim of Philadelphia, a medal at the first of the great world fairs, the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. The brothers meant to entertain, nothing more. But the impact of these replicable, portable slides was far greater: the lantern slide brought the world to the lecture hall. In its century-long heyday, from the invention of photography to the Second World War, the ‘magic lantern’ transformed the transmission of art and science.

Dorothy Wrinch’s cracked lantern slide showing her protein model. The model was constructed and photographed in Niels Bohr’s laboratory in Copenhagen; the lantern slide was made for Irving Langmuir, 1940.

Senechal, who had assisted with Wrinch with a book and had spent considerable time with the scientists in her final years, recalls trying to make sense of Wrinch’s belongings after her death, including her astounding lantern slides:

As I grope my way back through the cluttered cage, I spot a cardboard box on a high shelf of metal staging. It’s very heavy; I can scarcely lift it down. It’s filled with lantern slides. These slides have no numbers, and most have no envelope. I browse through them: models, crystals, diffraction patterns. The images are elegant, concise, precise. My heart skips a beat; then tears blur my eyes: these are Dorothy’s slides. She must have stashed them here when the science center opened, to great fanfare, in 1965. Her new office was small and by then lantern slides were history, supplanted by new technology: Kodak carousels, overhead projectors. She would never use her lantern slides again.

The oldest slides in the box are hand-made: disintegrating negatives clamped between glass plates, bound with red or black tape. I hold one up to the light. The glass is cracked, the aged tape disintegrating.

Dorothy’s protein model. Simple, beautiful, elegant. The geometrical objet d’art that catalyzed research on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dorothy Wrinch’s lantern slide showing cyclol fragments as denatured proteins.

I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science is absolutely fantastic in its entirety — poignant, rigorously researched, absorbingly narrated, impossible to put down. Do pick it up.

BP

Vladimir Nabokov on Literature and Life: A Rare 1969 BBC Interview

“The arrows of adverse criticism cannot scratch, let alone pierce, the shield of what disappointed archers call my ‘self-assurance.'”

In the fall of 1969, British broadcaster and journalist James Mossman submitted 58 questions on literature and life for celebrated author Vladimir Nabokovbutterfly-lover, master of melancholy, frequenter of ideal bookshelves — for an episode of BBC-2’s Review. Nabokov ended up answering 40 of them in what is best described as part interview, part performance art, eventually published in Strong Opinions (UK; public library) — a 1973 collection of Nabokov’s finest interviews, articles and editorials. Some of the conversation is preserved in this rare original audio, with highlights transcribed below:

JM: Is writing your novels pleasure or drudgery?

VN: Pleasure and agony while composing the book in my mind; harrowing irritation when struggling with my tools and viscera — the pencil that needs resharpening, the card that has to be rewritten, the bladder that has to be drained, the word that I always misspell and always have to look up. Then the labor of reading the typescript prepared by a secretary, the correction of my major mistakes and her minor ones, transferring corrections to other copies, misplacing pages, trying to remember something that had to be crossed out or inserted. Repeating the process when proofreading. Unpacking the radiant, beautiful, plump advance copy, opening it — and discovering a stupid oversight committed by me, allowed by me to survive. After a month or so, I get used to the book’s final stage, to its having been weaned from my brain. I now regard it with a kind of amused tenderness as a man regards not his son, but the young wife of his son.

JM: Does the aristocrat in you despise the fictionist, or is it only English aristocrats who feel queasy about men of letters?

VN: Pushkin, professional poet and Russian nobleman, used to shock the beau monde by declaring that he wrote for his own pleasure but published for the sake of money. I do likewise, but have never shocked anybody — except, perhaps, a former publisher of mine, who used to counter my indignant requests by saying that I’m much too good a writer to need extravagant advances.

JM: You say you are not interested in what critics say, yet you got very angry with Edmund Wilson once for commenting on you, and let off some heavy field guns at him, not to say multiple rockets. You must have cared.

VN: I never retaliate when my works of art are concerned. There the arrows of adverse criticism cannot scratch, let alone pierce, the shield of what disappointed archers call my “self-assurance.” But I do reach for my heaviest dictionary when my scholarship is questioned, as was the case with my old friend Edmund Wilson, and I do get annoyed when people I never met impinge on my privacy with false and vulgar assumptions — as for example Mr. Updike, who in an otherwise clever article absurdly suggests that my fictional character, bitchy and lewd Ada, is, I quote, “in a dimension or two, Nabokov’s wife.” I might add that I collect clippings — for information and entertainment.

JM: Have you ever experienced hallucinations or heard voices or had visions, and if so, have they been illuminating?

VN: When about to fall asleep after a good deal of writing or reading, I often enjoy, if that is the right word, what some drug addicts experience — a continuous series of extraordinary bright, fluidly changing pictures. Their type is different nightly, but on a given night it remains the same: one night it may be a banal kaleidoscope of endlessly recombined and reshaped stained-window designs; next time comes a subhuman or superhuman face with a formidably growing blue eye; or — and this is the most striking type — I see in realistic detail a long-dead friend turning toward me and melting into another remembered figure against the black velvet of my eyelids’ inner side. As to voices, I have described in Speak, Memory the snatches of telephone talk which now and then vibrate in my pillowed ear. Reports on those enigmatic phenomena can be found in the case histories collected by psychiatrists but no satisfying interpretation has come my way. Freudians, keep out, please!

On October 23 the same year, The Listener adapted the interview in an article titled “To Be Kind, To Be Proud, To be Fearless: Vladimir Nabokov in conversation with James Mossman,” the version that appears in Strong Opinions. The title is based on Mossman’s final questions for Nabokov, not included in the audio above:

JM: Which is the worst thing men do?

VN: To stink, to cheat, to torture.

JM: Which is the best?

To be kind, to be proud, to be fearless.

Strong Opinions is sublime in its entirety — highly recommended.

BP

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