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Set theory for heartbroken existentialists: Lesson One

“The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone.” – Cormac McCarthy, The Road. Yes.

Weak signals: But tell me how you really feel

Translator’s note: Chinaderas is the nomenclature assigned [in Mexican Spanish] to imported goods from China, usually those that are knock-offs or replicas of other branded commodities…from direct word play with the word chingaderas: chinga, the Mexican Spanish word for “fuck,” “to fuck” or “fucking” + deras, roughly meaning “things,” thus “fucking things.” And adding China into the wordplay comes off as “fucking Chinese things.”

– From Alfonso Hernández, “Tepito: A barrio of artisans in light of global piracy,” in Superflex’s 2006 Self-organisation/Counter-economic strategies.

On non-convergent folksonomies

Inspired by Nurri’s Insa talk a few weeks back, I’ve been giving renewed thought to issues of classification, categorization, taxonomy and sorting of late. I know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s still a question of enduring interest for me, personally and occasionally even professionally: how do people decide what category a given object belongs to? What constitutes centrality to a category? And why are some things still more than others “boundary objects” that seem to different observers to have entirely divergent characteristics or essences?

These are intractable questions even when applied to discrete material objects, but they spiral dizzyingly out of control when the “object” in question in something squishy…like, say, a blog. If you want an illustration of this, there’s no better place to turn than the social bookmarking service Here’s a perfect example, one that’ll likely be familiar enough to you that you’ll grok my point easily, whatever your interest or lack of same in broader questions of taxonomy:

All of the following 386 people bookmarked what is essentially the same page to, the home page of my old site:
42 who bookmarked;
212 who bookmarked;
67 who bookmarked;
– and 65 who bookmarked

You’d think that with fairly robust samples to work from, all groups would agree what the site was about. This turns out to be largely the case:
– the first group thought the site was about design, architecture, usability;
– the second (and by far the largest) group thought it concerned design, blog, usability;
– the third and fourth both characterize it using the words design, architecture, blog.

There’s obviously a high degree of overlap here: “design” appears atop all four lists, and, indeed, the site’s creator regards that as a perfectly accurate description. But what has always fascinated me, especially with such relatively generous sample sizes, is that there should be any variation at all between groups. Descriptors IA, everyware, inspiration, and theory appear in some but not all of the groups, and there are even outliers like web2.0, which appear under only one heading. Why is it that all six people who (bizarrely, in my personal opinion) tagged the site web2.0 chose to save the URL? What accounts for this?

Time seems to play some role. Bookmarks for (the group of 212) go back a full eighteen months earlier than any of the other variants, all of which start up in April or May of ’04. (This is another mystery to me, because as far as I’m aware all of those URLs returned the identical home page for the entire period under consideration.) The earlier bookmarkers were far more likely to characterize the site as a blog or as relating to IA, and that seems to make sense – I talked about those things a lot more back in the day. So a logical first-pass guess might be that bookmarkers on are accurately tracking the site’s content as it changed over time.

On the other hand, though, none of the cohort who bookmarked (i.e. preponderantly, more recently) thought the site had to do with everyware, during a period when it began to focus on just that – and not a single one of them was apparently inspired either, despite the appearance of that descriptor under two of the other headings, once fairly close to the top. There’s no logic that I could discern that might account for this.

This is just a single example, but you can find other good ones if you poke around some. In my ignorance, I almost want to assert this as a general, if loose, principle of all such bottom-up taxonomies: there is something operating that looks an awful lot like sensitive dependence on initial conditions, and different subgroups of a larger cohort – though apparently homogenous in composition – will eventually diverge significantly in their characterization of a given object.

People who know a lot more than me about classification and taxonomy are, of course, invited to blow this pet theory of mine to tiny little chunks. I’m still curious, though, what might produce such a divergent spread of descriptions for what remained essentially the same object at all times in question.

FDNY: Let Animals be Animals

I have to confess that the current drive move to clean up firefighter unit nomenclature and insignia on the part of New York Fire Department brass makes me more than a little sad.

The gist is that, in the wake of several embarrassing incidents of (alcohol-fueled and otherwise) misconduct among firefighters, the department bureaucracy wants to do away with long-standing stationhouse identities like Animal House, 90 Proof, and the Clown College. Presumably, their assertion is that such sobriquets act to validate the kind of unprofessional behavior that might have passed for “high-spirited” in an earlier age, but these days constitutes a blemish on the department’s image (and a liability risk besides).

I have to wonder, though, if it might not be better to concentrate on punishing actual bad conduct – and I’m sure there’s plenty to be found – instead of attacking intangibles like unit monikers?

You know I’m not one to bandy around the term “politically correct” in circumstances like these. Even before its wholesale adoption by the right (a cohort to whom it means, essentially, “anything that acts to threaten the unearned privileges we’ve enjoyed since time immemorial”), it had already become one of those phrases that tended to nullify thought wherever it appeared. But, y’know, it’s difficult to think of a better way to describe what’s going on here.

I totally get how things like locker-room centerfolds and whatnot can reinforce a hostile work environment. I have no problem with regulating such displays out of existence – you wanna do that, do it on your own time, and not in a space that us taxpayers provide for you. And actual workplace behavior can and should be (and, of course, already is, at least in theory) subject to the strictest standards.

But anybody who’s ever spent time in any kind of uniformed service will understand immediately and intimately how crucial elements like unique insignia, heraldry, and slogans are to small-unit cohesion – how displays of unit pride that seem trivial or silly to outsiders function to hold a group together under pressure, and how easily morale can be crushed when they’re taken away. I can’t imagine that the nominal offense caused by allowing a stationhouse to dub itself “Southern Comfort” outweighs the benefit to the community inherent in that stationhouse having a vivid sense of itself and its heritage of service.

More importantly still, names like these are part of the swagger, the vigor and the vibrancy of the city I love – I’d almost say, of any city worth loving. If the suits and quants upstairs decree that “professionalizing” the Fire Department means that a hook-and-ladder company can no longer dub itself the Happy Hookers, I’m not really sure who benefits from it, but I’ll tell you who loses out: we do. Our city is subtly but immeasurably the poorer for it. And if you don’t like it, I’m sure you’ll feel at home in plenty of other places – Salt Lake City comes to mind, or Colorado Springs. This is New York, baby.

On names and naming: Shaolin Ulysses

Shaolin Ulysses is a documentary for which John Zorn composed the soundtrack – which is all I know of it, not having seen the actual film.

But that name! I love it, I guess, because it suggests to me what Kung Fu could have been: tales relating the wandering, the lengthy trials, and the eventual return home of one rooted not in the Greek or Western tradition at all, but in the 5,000-year legacy of Chinese culture. For Scylla and Charybdis, read “anti-coolie laws” and “railroad work,” for Circe read “opium addiction.” (Maybe that was the intent all along?)

It turns out, of course, that this is not at all what the film is about…but oh well. It was all worth it to hear Min Xiao-Fen going toe-to-toe with Marc Ribot.