Tagged: california

Cal’s Big Data


Catherine Pierre, my boss, likes to tell the story of a conversation she and I had with an astrophysicist a few years ago. I have forgotten most of the details, but at one point he mentioned how much information one group of scientists was gathering about the universe, and I spontaneously exclaimed, “Man, talk about a data set!” Pierre takes undue delight in offering this up to appreciative listeners as an example of my nerdiness.

So there was no chance of my passing up California‘sRiding the iBomb: Life in the Age of Exploding Information.” Written by executive editor Pat Joseph, it’s an 11-page spread in the feature well plus a jump, and Joseph had me the whole way.

When you write about something with the potential for aridity of Big Data, you are well advised to pull some wit from your toolbox. Joseph has a smooth way with droll allusion:

Futurist Alvin Toffler popularized the term “information overload” in the 1970s, but the lament is as old as the Bible. I hear it echoing in my ears whenever I walk into Moe’s Books or the Doe Library: “Of making many books there is no end.” That goes more than double for blog posts and tweets and—God help us—Buzzfeed lists, the dreaded “listicles.” With apologies to Ecclesiastes, the current info glut really is something new under the Sun.

Joseph offers the most astute explanation of Moore’s Law that I have come across recently:

The engine of this acceleration is described by Moore’s Law, which is not really a law so much as an astoundingly accurate prediction. Intel cofounder and Berkeley alum Gordon Moore made the offhand observation in 1965 that the number of transistors on integrated circuits was doubling every two years and would continue to do so for the foreseeable future. And so it has (growing even faster, doubling every 18 months or so), with the concomitant effect that computing has become not only faster but cheaper. In that way, Moore’s Law also helps to explain why most of our electronic gadgets seem to obsolesce overnight.

I was arrested by Joseph’s use of “obsolesce.” Write “obsolesce” instead of the common “become obsolete” and you reveal yourself as a writer attentive to language, which Joseph is, and not just in his prose but in his reporting. Joseph confirms this a bit later in the piece:

The watchword around campus now, much favored over Big Data, which is looked upon as hype-fueled and faddish, is “data-driven discovery.” Faculty members also speak of bringing a “computational lens” to research problems.

There’s a lot of righteous prose here. Joseph has a knack for clarification:

In an interview before he died, Peter Lyman drove home a similar distinction, between information and meaning. Referring to the aforementioned study he conducted with I-school colleague Hal Varian, Lyman said: “All we tried to measure in figuring out how much information is produced was how much storage it would take to hold it all. What we didn’t address is what makes information valuable…. There’s a real gap between the amount of information we store and the amount of information we know how to use.… So in a sense, most of it is noise.”

Filtering the signal from the noise is the principle challenge for all Big Data enterprises, whether it’s astronomers searching for supernovae in raster scans of the night sky, or agents at the NSA listening for whispered hints of terror plots in the vastness of global communications. Big Data is just the haystack; we still have to find the needle. Scratch that. Increasingly, it’s our computers, running what are called inferential algorithms, that have to find it. Our job now is to verify that what is found is, in fact, a needle and not, say, a pin, or a nail, or a piece of hay.


I could go on, but go read the piece yourself. You’ll be rewarded. Last thing: California makes clever use of footnotes in the story. Yeah, footnotes. Joseph scatters them throughout his piece—they are contained in boxes on the pages—and they provide one more opportunity for lively writing. For example:

I should confess here that I’ve assembled much of the information for this article in precisely this way and, that, often as not, my starting point was Wikipedia. No doubt this admission will arouse suspicions, maybe even disdain, in some readers. Perhaps that’s as it should be. As George Dyson’s father, Freeman Dyson, wrote: “Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible.”

All right, that’s enough. Go read it.


Film Festival

california_fall2013_promoThe current issue of California goes to the movies with a special issue devoted to film. My favorite piece was written as a journal by documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss. It narrates the making of a film, The Overnighters, that documents the lives of men and women drawn to the oil fields of North Dakota by the promise of work in that empty but burgeoning state. Moss begins on Day 425 with a confrontation:

“Get off my property or I’ll shoot you.”

I’m in Wheelock, a tiny, crumbling town in Western North Dakota, making a documentary film about broken, desperate men chasing opportunity and redemption in the booming oil fields here.

It’s not an idle threat. The woman making it is brandishing a bolt-action rifle with a scope, and says that North Dakota law is on her side. It’s the first time I’ve had a gun pulled on me. I’m not sure what to do. I’m holding a camera, pointed at my main character, a local Pastor, whose involvement in the lives of some of these men has triggered the current standoff. I keep rolling and wait for a gunshot. Hopefully she’ll fire a warning. That’s what people do, right?

Moss then wheels back to Day 1, and explains the chance nature of his project. He originally traveled to North Dakota on the dime of a television network that needed to cast a documentary series. After the network kills the project—”too soulful” in the words of a TV executive—Moss’ wife challenges him to go back and shoot his own film. (Now that’s a wife.) So he does.

Moss is a smart, literate, capable storyteller. I love his introduction to the town of Williston:

Frederick Jackson Turner famously described the frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” It’s an apt description for Williston, once a small town of 16,000 that has tripped in size in just two years, becoming the fastest-growing small town in America. The roads are crumbling from truck traffic, and gruesome car accidents are a daily occurrence. The saloons and strip clubs are packed. Local law enforcement is outmatched. The cold-blooded murder of a local woman by two drugged-out men who’d travelled to North Dakota to find work has stirred fear and suspicion of outsiders. One church member, a long-time resident, tells the Pastor she fears these men are here to “rape, pillage, and burn.”

Good stuff. Moss describes spending nights in a local church along with other workers who have nowhere else to sleep, forking over $15 to take a shower in a laundromat, and scrounging for money to keep filming.

Home in San Francisco, where the summer air is clear and cold, I’ve edited a few scenes together and applied for a grant. I need the money. Shooting a film is a constant, low-grade cash hemorrhage, like owning a sailboat. Might as well just tear up hundred-dollar bills.

I do my best to outline the potential of the film, grandiosely invoking Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which, in truth, I’ve never read. I only have a few roughly sketched characters, and the barest contours of a story.

Moss pretty much goes broke, but carries on, filming people more desperate than himself.

The men I’m following here are having a very hard time. They are unable to outrun their demons, their pathologies, their criminal records, and their plain bad luck.

One of my film subjects—Keegan, a big, handsome nineteen-year-old kid with Buddy Holly glasses—breaks his neck in an accident. He was one of the ones who was supposed to succeed. Keegan’s parents come from Antigo, Wisconsin, to pick up their broken boy and take him home.

There are no dead spots in Moss’ story. Go read it.

UMag inbox

What all is stuffed into the mailbox this week? Let’s see . . . mm-hm . . . mm-hm . . . Portland . . . looks like a food issue . . . damn you Doyle!

The winter issue of Portland flaunts editor Brian Doyle’s unparalleled ability to convince world-class writers to contribute to his magazine. This time, damn him, he has pieces from Michael Pollan, Pico Iyer, and Edward Hoagland. Pollan to Iyer to Hoagland—man, there’s an infield. To be accurate, Pollan’s long contribution, “The End of Cooking,” is an excerpted reprint of something he published in The New York Times Magazine, and Hoadland’s “The Top of the Continent” is drawn from the essayist’s new volume, Alaska Travels. But still.

By the way, there’s a lot more to a meaty issue. I especially liked the photo essay by Steve Hambuchen of Pacific Northwest farmers, bakers, vintners, and brewers.

IC View from Ithaca College sports a redesign, as well as my favorite subhead of the week: “Alumni See Trash With Fresh Eyes.” Robin Roger edits the magazine. (Below, new cover is on the left. Relative dimensions are not accurate. The new design has the same trim size.)

The 2013 record for most people smiling and facing the camera on the cover is currently held by The Baylor Line (editor Todd Copeland:

California (editor Wendy Miller) produced my favorite lead sentence of the year, so far, in David Tuller’s “Putin v. Pussy Riot“: “In a cozy, two-room apartment in a leafy Moscow neighborhood, I gathered with half a dozen local gay and lesbian activists on a mid-August evening to drink tea, munch on zakuski (snacks), and discuss the regime of creepy Russian president and former KGB thug Vladimir Putin.” Love the opening spread, too:

Good words alerts:

— Binghamton University Magazine (Diana Bean edits) has a recurring feature called “The Other Side,” and in the Fall 2012 issue devotes it to a four-question Q&A with associate professor Steven Tammariello, who at age 43 still plays football for the semi-pro Cortland Bulldogs. (I know what you’re thinking . . . another story about a PhD biologist who plays semi-pro football?) My favorite line: “I used to be the only player with a PhD, but one of our defensive linemen earned his doctorate in organic chemistry from Cornell, so I have some company.”

— My second-favorite lead sentence so far in 2013 comes from Immaculata Magazine: “When Bob Kelly’s radio station asked if he knew a football expert who could be on their morning show The Breakfast Club, he immediately said, ‘I know just the nun!'”

— Extraordinary, moving essay by Mel Livatino, “Dogged by the Dark,” in the latest Notre Dame Magazine, Kerry Temple, editor.

Finally, since I began this post with my nose out of joint—damn you, Brian Doyle!—I will end with this great spread, from the Fall 2012 Medicine at Michigan. The photo illustration is by Clint Blowers; editor of the magazine is Richard F. Krupinski.

A matter of taste

California, the consistently fine magazine from Cal Berkeley edited by Wendy Miller, devotes its Winter 2011 edition to taste. Taste in wine, taste in architecture, taste in decor, taste as predicted by those algorithms that lead Amazon.com to insist that I really, really want to read Tony Judt’s Thinking the Twentieth Century because at some point in my past I expressed interest in William H. Gass’ Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts. Yeah, I don’t see the connection either, but I’m not an algorithm.

I never read California without finding something that widens my sense of life’s preposterous complexity. The first of the taste stories, “Tip of the Tongue,” is wine writer W. Blake Gray’s compact discussion of how the vocabulary of your native language does not just determine the words you have to describe the flavor of a wine. It changes how you taste it, how you respond to and evaluate whatever’s swishing in your mouth. Your palate doesn’t record sensations that your vocabulary subsequently labels. Your vocabulary determines, or at least influences, your response to the sensations noted by your palate. American wine vocabulary, for example, tends to emphasize flavor by association; a wine has a perfume of black cherries  and subtle oak, with hints of chocolate in the finish. French vocabulary tends to emphasize region; a wine will be highly regarded not because of its big fruit or piquant hint of apricot but because it exhibits all the best qualities of a Rhone or Bordeaux. Chinese vocabulary contains words not found in English to describe sensations in the mouth, and Chinese wine drinkers evaluate a sip of the grape, in part, by how it feels rolling around on the tongue. I know. Who knew.

Reconciling Tastes,” by Adair Lara, is really lovely. It’s a single-page essay about an uncommon living arrangement, but it’s really about being human. Central to the story is Jim, the author’s first husband, 25 years her senior and . . . I’ll let Lara tell it:

He and I met in 1970, when he was an English teacher at College of Marin, in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais. A couple of years later we were dating. One night at the Savoy-Tivoli in North Beach,  he must have grown impatient with my failure to see the obvious. “Have you noticed that the restaurant here is straight and the bar is gay?” I hadn’t. “Well, I’m more like the bar than the restaurant.”

There’s not a bad sentence in the essay, which ends on this grace note:

He kept every friend he’d ever had. Just as he looked at tired carpeting and still saw the gleaming expanse of wool he had installed when Nixon was president, so when he looked at you, he saw the best in you. His worst qualities—refusal to countenance change—were also his best. His love was unwavering, ungrudging. You can depend on it.

And those recommendation algorithms? Those are covered by Tara Duggan in “Taste by Numbers.” Did you know that if you love leather, you also tend to like “movies with a dramatic finish that also have a romantic story”? You do now.

Eight Questions for Wendy Miller

Wendy Miller, editor of the excellent California out of Cal Berkeley, responds to the UMagazinology questionnaire.

How long have you been in your job?

Three years and six weeks.

What has proven to be the most significant thing you had to learn to do that job?

Managing my time effectively. After 25 years of riding the adrenaline rush of daily newspaper journalism, I suddenly found myself with bi-monthly magazine deadlines, which then became quarterly deadlines. It was both a gift and a burden, like being a 5-year-old who gets her allowance in a monthly chunk and is expected to spend it judiciously. There was so much time, until there wasn’t. Now I grasp that I need to work far in advance on more than just the conceptual frame of each issue. Which, more or less, puts me back where I started: being agitated all the time.

What has been your best experience at the magazine?

Working with a small team of exceedingly gifted colleagues.

What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

California magazine is in an alternate universe. We serve UC Berkeley but we operate under the auspices of the non-profit Cal Alumni Association. CAA is the only independent alumni organization in the University of California system, thus the magazine is the only editorially independent alumni magazine in the system. The benefits to us are enormous: We have a generous and supportive benefactor and a mandate to produce a general interest magazine that covers issues in a broad context, challenges certain institutional assumptions, and asks questions we believe an enlightened readership expects us to ask about the nation’s premiere public university. The downside is that because we are not a pure fundraising or marketing vehicle for UC Berkeley, we don’t get the recognition from the university administration that we have earned. It is particularly frustrating to us because we think there is no better fundraising and marketing tool than a high-quality, general interest magazine.

What part of your magazine never quite satisfies you, despite everybody’s best effort?

“Sather Gate,” the segment dedicated to the university and to the alumni association, is not as well integrated into the rest of the magazine as I would like. We have made it much better over the last two years, but we still need to make improvements in creating a seamless transition from the feature well.

What story are you proudest to have published?

That’s like asking me to choose my favorite child. I like different stories for different reasons. But since we are putting out a quarterly magazine, I guess the ones that I am proudest of are those that are richly layered and feel relevant and timely. Joe Brown accomplished that in the piece “Econo-Art” in our Winter issue. The imploding economy forced the Berkeley Art Museum to abandon a much-ballyhooed blueprint for a destination building and replace it with a more affordable plan. A simple “Tale of two Museums” would have been a perfectly good feature all on its own, but Joe placed that event in the broader context of cities all over the country who responded to the go-go economy with plans for, as he put it, “stately pleasure domes and cutting-edge structural showcases.” Good stuff.

If you could commission a story from any writer in the world, who would it be?

Adam Gopnik (whose sister, Alison Gopnik, is a professor here, so I can still dream).

If you weren’t an editor, what would your dream job be?

As a developmental psychologist working in a baby lab. Maybe after he does the piece for us, Adam could put in a good word for me with Alison.