Untranslatable Tuesdays – Media


To mark the publication of Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, we are delighted to share a series of playful graphics by our design team which illustrate some of the most interesting terms from the Dictionary. For week six in the “Untranslatable Tuesdays” series we present Media/Medium (of communication):

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the recognition of a family resemblance between the various “implements of intercommunication” meant that they could be compared and contrasted in profitable new ways. . . . The term “mass media” found its niche in scholarly articles by such influential American midcentury thinkers as Hadley Cantril, Harold Lasswell, and Paul Lazarsfeld. But European philosophers resisted this tendency. . . . For Sartre, Adorno, and their contemporaries, “mass media” was less an untranslatable than an untouchable sullied by intellectual and institutional associations with American cultural imperialism. . . . This resistance was soon exhausted. . . . Cognates like “multimedia,” “remediation,” and “mediality” proliferate globally. This reflects less the dominance of English than the collective urgency of an intellectual project. (Ben Kafka)


Celebrating the genius of Alan Turing

Considered by many to be the father of computer science, Alan Turing is remembered today for his many contributions to the study of computers, artificial intelligence, and code breaking. On December 24, Queen Elizabeth II officially pardoned the late British mathematician and the action recalled attention to his groundbreaking work as well as his personal life. In 1952, Turing was charged with homosexuality, which was considered a criminal act in England at the time. Two years later, he took his own life. Today, mathematicians and computer scientists celebrate Turing’s broad contributions to his field.

For more on the life and work of Turing, check out these resources:


 Princeton University Press recently re-released Andrew Hodges’s biography of Alan Turing: Alan Turing: The Enigma — The Centenary Edition.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) saved the Allies from the Nazis, invented the computer and artificial intelligence, and anticipated gay liberation by decades–all before his suicide at age forty-one. This classic biography of the founder of computer science, reissued on the centenary of his birth with a substantial new preface by the author, is the definitive account of an extraordinary mind and life. A gripping story of mathematics, computers, cryptography, and homosexual persecution, Andrew Hodges’s acclaimed book captures both the inner and outer drama of Turing’s life.

Read Chapter One of the book here.


Turing earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton in 1938. Watch the video below to hear Andrew Appel (chair of the department of computer science at Princeton) discuss Turing’s legacy.

Andrew Appel on Alan Turing’s legacy
(Princeton School of Engineering and Applied Science)


Appel, a Princeton graduate, is the editor of another recent release by Princeton University Press, Alan Turing’s Systems of Logic: The Princeton Thesis.

Though less well known than his other work, Turing’s 1938 Princeton PhD thesis, “Systems of Logic Based on Ordinals,” which includes his notion of an oracle machine, has had a lasting influence on computer science and mathematics. This book presents a facsimile of the original typescript of the thesis along with essays by Andrew Appel and Solomon Feferman that explain its still-unfolding significance.

Preview the book by reading Chapter One.


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More from Gabriella Coleman on the NSA Leaks

Today in a final post in our ongoing NSA debate between authors Gabriella Coleman and Rahul Sagar,  Professor Coleman, author of Coding Freedom, responds to Professor Sagar’s recent post, offering a historical perspective on intelligence agencies and raising the potential for grave abuse in an era of increased technological capabilities. Read the wrap up post in this fascinating series here:

Gabriella Coleman:

Rahul Sagar’s thoughtful response has prompted me to think through a few troubling questions which have been plaguing me since Snowden’s bombshell revelations. It is without question that intelligence agencies require secrecy to effectively work.  I agree that this issue is not new. But if history is any guide, it also shows that secrecy, while necessary, is also a breeding ground for abuse. In a prior era, a dramatic leak by the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI helped put an end to a 40 year reign of outrageous abuses, such as COINTELPRO, at the helm of J. Edgar Hoover who ruled the FBI with an secretive iron fist.

But this surveillance apparatus strikes as technologically and thus historically distinctive. It can be gravely abused with or without a Hoover. Never in our history have we had in place a surveillance infrastructure as extensive and powerful as we do now, nor administrations who have refused so systematically to declassify information. (One does wonder what Nixon could have done with the surveillance methods that the government has at its disposal today).  With enough computer power, it is frighteningly easy for the government to gather data. This ease will likely push them to seek questionable or ex post de facto justifications for their actions. This was put rather cogently and succinctly by civil liberties lawyer Jennifer Granick when “Of course, we see mission creep – once you build the mousetrap of surveillance infrastructure, they will come for the data.” It is not only that they have this power, but as sociologists and others, have noted, secrecy is alluring and really hard to give up/ This state of mind was put best by physicist Edward Teller who wrote, “secrecy, once accepted, becomes an addiction.”

There might be a very good reason to have the surveillance methods that the NSA has now, but until that reason is disclosed, there is no reason for them to have such awesome technical (and questionable) legal powers currently at their disposal. The problem is we have these programs and our government could use them as a tool of oppression (in fact the mere fact of their existence serves to stifle dissent). Even if abuses are not so grave today, what is so troubling is how these programs enable any future person who might gain control of them to utilize these tools for serious oppression.

We as a society have to ask whether this is a gamble we are willing to take. Since the stakes for the future are so high, the decision about the scope and depth of eavesdropping cannot and should not be an undertaking that is decided by the President, the FISA court, or even all the three branches of government acting in agreement. Only we as a people, who hold the truths described in the constitution as self-evident, are allowed, by that very constitution, to make changes to these rights. “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men [and Women et al.], deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government” At some point, the actions of the government go too far, and it is up to us to sound the alarm. The Pentagon Papers, the COINTELPRO leaks, the Tet Offensive, these are many instances when citizens have not trusted our elected officials and with good reason.

It is our responsibility to hold our elected officials accountable, although we  can only effectively do so with the aid of a free press. Journalists help keep whistle-blowers accountable. Snowden worked with journalists, from independent film maker Laura Poitras to Glenn Greenwald at the Guardian to Barton Gellman of the Washington Post. The fact that respected news organizations accepted the leaks, filtered the information, and wrote extensive and thoughtful stories demonstrates the validity and responsibility of Snowden’s actions. If his leaks posed such a grave threat to the state of security, I trust these media establishments would not gone public with them.

Finally, I would like to clarify Snowden’s statements on Nuremberg. He is not equating the NSA with Nazi Germany, he just simply referencing a principle. He is also not saying that this principle exonerates him in any US court, but simply that it justifies his actions on a moral level. Snowden is saying that there are times where it is not only moral to break the law, but that it is immoral and wrong to not break the law. Further, it might be interesting  engage  in a thought experiment about how Snowden’s actions also might relate to the Nuremberg Principles.  For the purposes of this experiment, we would submit some undisputed facts about The United States. The United States continues to torture and cause substantial suffering to 44 people who are still held against their will in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, via forced nasal intubation twice daily. In the past, they were tortured by electrocuting their genitals, and simulated drowning through waterboarding. The US has forcibly rendered people to other countries for purposes of torture, and deprive them of their liberty without charge or due process, calling them “detainees”. If we look how Nuremberg Principles defines a “crime against humanity” the United States has committed over half of the abuses on that list. The programs that Snowden has revealed likely were involved in the capture and detainment of many of these people.

In the end I, like everyone else, wants to live in a state of security. This means not only  thwarting terrorism—though it invariably includes it—but means having the security to engage in dissent, thus the security to call out the grave human rights abuses—such as those at Guantanamo Bay—which our elected officials have allowed to transpire and to raise red flags about programs, such as Prism, which might lead to grave abuse in the future.



A very Kafkaesque 130th birthday anniversary!

In case you haven’t looked at today’s Google Doodle yet, July 3rd marks the 130th birthday anniversary of novelist Franz Kafka. Kafka is the subject of a major three-part biography by Reiner Stach and translated by Shelley Frisch, the first two of which are just out this month from our fair Press (KAFKA: The Years of Insight and KAFKA: The Decisive Years, for those not already in the know).

In the commercial publishing world,  Peter Mendelsund came up with some stellar cover overhauls for many of Kafka’s works for Schocken Books, a division of Random House, including “The Trial,” “Amerika,” and “The Castle.” Here’s a fun birthday video they released for the anniversary, as part of what graphic artist Neil Gower aptly calls the “Tour de Franz“:

The birthday coverage has also been picked up by Michael Cavna of Washington Post‘s Comic Riffs blog, Mashable, PC Magazine, the Guardian, and the Toronto Star, among others. Over at the Christian Science Monitor, Katherine Jacobsen identifies a great quote from British poet W. H. Auden on the brilliant German-language writer:

Kafka is important because his predicament is the predicament of modern man.

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves, so in that spirit, happy birthday, Dr. Kafka!

Why has Nikola Tesla become a countercultural hero?

This video was taped at a recent event at the Johns Hopkins University bookstore. The speaker here is W. Bernard Carlson, author of Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age.

Bernard Carlson talks Tesla at Johns Hopkins Bookstore tonight!

j9941[1]Did Tesla really invent a death ray? Could he have provided unlimited free energy to the world? Did he really fall in love with a laser-eyed pigeon? There are many rumors and myths surrounding Nikola Tesla, and biographer Bernard Carlson will separate fact from fiction tonight at the Johns Hopkins University Bookstore at 7 PM.

With a functioning Tesla coil by his side, Dr. Carlson will discuss his new biography, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age. 70 years after Tesla’s death, this major new book sheds new light on his visionary approach to invention and the business strategies behind his most important technological breakthroughs. Publishers Weekly calls the book “[An] electric portrait,” and it received a starred review in Booklist.

See you there!



Homewood – Barnes & Noble JHU Book Store
3330 St. Paul Street
Baltimore, MD 21218
Phone: 410-662-5850


Find this event on the PUP Calendar, to set a reminder for yourself and share news of the event.

Tesla wins Geek Madness, named Greatest Geek of All Time


GeekWire recently held a Geek Madness. Over several weeks their readers whittled down a field of 32 all-star scientists to name Tesla, the Greatest Geek of All Time.

Tesla entered the competition as the #2 seed in the Math/Science field of competitors, but emerged victorious after vanquishing opponents like Linus Torvalds (ranked 14 on the Technology side), Albert Einstein (1), Charles Darwin (7), and Alexander Graham Bell (15). High praise from a geeky audience and as publishers of Tesla: The Inventor of the Electrical Age, we couldn’t agree more.

Here’s the blow-by-blow from GeekWire:

Tesla led from start-to-finish in the championship match over 14-seed Linus Torvalds, as Mr. Cinderella fell one upset short of what would have been one of the most epic underdog stories in geek history.

But it was Tesla garnering 1,764 of the votes to edge Torvalds, who still managed to do his Linux faithful proud with 1,293 votes to his name.

Read the complete post at GeekWire: http://www.geekwire.com/2013/geek-madness-tesla-named-greatest-geek-trouncing-torvalds/


We hope some of these Tesla fans will show up to meet Bernard Carlson and get an autographed copy of Tesla: The Inventor of the Electrical Age.

Here’s the complete list of dates and places: http://blog.press.princeton.edu/2013/02/22/bernard-carlson-author-of-tesla-to-tour-college-bookstores/

Stanford announces partnership with edX making progress for Higher Education in the Digital Age

I can do everything I need to do from the comfort of my couch. I can order groceries to be delivered to my house, talk to my friends, and write a collaborative paper all online. Today we can do all sorts of things on-line- including getting an education. William G. Bowen, president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Princeton University, explains what he believes are the benefits of technology in higher education in his new book Higher Education in the Digital Age.

Stanford University announced today that they will be teaming up with edX- a massive open online course (MOOC) platform that offers university-level courses online. The Washington Post reports that Anant Argarwal, president of edX “envisions that any school or company could use it to mount a course, part of what he calls a ‘true, planet-scale democratization of education.'”

Bowen believes that this type of technology can transform higher education by making it more accessible and cost-efficient while still being able to provide quality education. He recognizes the potential downsides of the future of online learning and notes in an article for Inside Higher Ed, “One of the issues is really an equity issue, at the end of the day, will the gap between haves and have-nots be narrowed or widened by this development.”

Plenty of people I know take classes online as their primary route to education and others take classes online in addition to going to physical classes. As online courses and MOOC platforms become more and more prevalent, maybe more of us will be taking classes from the comfort of our couches.

Ethnography and Virtual Worlds is virtually everywhere

As our existence and interactions have grown increasingly virtual, the arena has rapidly evolved into a new frontier for human life, with many of the complexities, cultural nuances and and social problems of the ‘real’ world. Several years ago, anthropologist Tom Boellstorff, arguably the first anthropologist to study this realm in its rich complexity, published his breakthrough fieldwork in Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human.  Now he has coauthored, along with Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce, and T.L. Taylor, Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method, the first ever guidebook for conducting ethnography in virtual worlds, and the book is getting a ton of attention in the blogosphere.  For some of the highlights, check out the Mixed Realities piece on the relevance of an avatar, or the wonderful excerpt from the book on New World Notes, or the authors’ Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable here. Naturally the book has gained an enthusiastic following with the Second Life crowd, popping up everywhere from Second Life News to the Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds. Boellstorff is such a natural in virtual worlds that he’s been known to throw book parties in Second Life, where he’s been virtually unfazed by his publicist’s awkwardly manned avatar.



Remember Romney’s Dog?

Of course you do. You could probably refresh your memory of the story in a few clicks. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is the author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, which argues that the all-too-perfect memory of the digital realm has serious implications for all of us. Case in point: Just last week, Mitt Romney suffered a setback at the hands of a certain widely released fundraiser video. It’s a familiar story. Politicians and public figures have suffered countless humiliations courtesy of cyberspace’s refusal to let bygones be bygones, a comeuppance that can seem unfair when the result can mean an entire career of public service cancelled out by one all-too-visible error in judgment (or tweet). Perhaps with so much of life digitally preserved,  mankind can learn to adjust and filter accordingly?  Read Schönberger’s Election 101 post here.


Remembering Romney’s Dog

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger


Mitt Romney’s dog, tied to the roof of the family car during a long vacation drive, is one picture (even if only imagined, based on the light-hearted story told by Romney’s son) that fails to fade. A year ago, aspiring young Democratic Congressmen Anthony Weiner, married to Hilary Clinton’s long-time personal aide abruptly resigned; he had sent partially nude digital pictures of himself together with explicit messages to at least six women he barely knew.

This election cycle is no different from the last. Stories and pictures from a politician’s past appear and shape our perceptions of who he (or she) is. And these images don’t go away, they stay in our collective mind, and no matter how hard politicians try, these images continue to define them in the public eye. At best they go away when the politician does. Rep. Weiner’s images have faded from the public eye, because so has he.

With so much of our daily lives captured digitally, so many digital photos taken, so many billions of emails exchanged, Tweets sent, Facebook Status messages posted, many of the digerati, the self-proclaimed Internet experts, predicted that humans would swiftly adjust to comprehensive digital memory, and develop robust cognitive filters. We would, the argument went, simply disregard the meme of Romney’s dog or Weiner’s explicit messages as an irrelevant little piece of digital trivia that is not representative of Governor Romney or Representative Weiner. If everyone has such skeletons in the closet, why should we bother? Wouldn’t we be better advised to scrutinize politicians’ agendas than their digital memories?

It’s an admirable viewpoint – and always struck me as terribly naïve. For one, not all of us strap our dogs to car roofs for long rides, or send sexually explicit messages to people we barely know. And the ubiquity of digital cameras (and the ease of sharing photos) does not turn us into Exhibitionists or Peeping Toms. But even more importantly, human cognition is primed to remember the exceptional, and to forget the ordinary. That is how we think. For thousands of years it helped us to quickly recognize changed conditions; it made us aware of dangers and saved our ancestor’s (and perhaps our) lives. We have this particular ability to see the red rose in a field full of yellow tulips – and that rose is what we later remember in detail, not the thousands of tulips around it. Because we recognize and remember exceptions, we can’t quickly forget Romney’s dog and Weiner’s explicit messages, even if we wanted to.

Thus, if more of our lives is captured digitally, preserved, and kept accessible, neither politicians nor we ourselves can hope for a cognitive adjustment that lets us put aside extraordinary bits of the past.

In politics this means that we may continue to remember Romney’s dog as much (or more) as his political agenda, even though that’s not how most of us like to see ourselves: rational and objective. It does not only complicate a politician’s life (she has to assume to be constantly watched), it also makes politics an unattractive career. That is troubling for a democracy.

But retaining an ability to forget in the digital age is important not just for democracy, but for all of us. We all have trespassed in the past, and unlike in the analog age these misdeeds are more frequently captured digitally now, and preserved long-term. It may be time to think how we best can rid ourselves of some of these digital memories that are no longer relevant to who we are today.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is professor of internet governance and regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, and a member of the academic advisory board of Microsoft. His other books include Governance and Information Technology. A former software developer and lawyer, he spent ten years on the faculty of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Charter Schools, Information Technology, and Experimental Democracy

John McGinnis, author of the forthcoming Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Government Through Technological Change will be taking to Election 101 to blog regularly about technology and the election. This week he returns with an unusual structural argument for charter schools. With better tools available for evaluating success or failure of policy, can a case be made for charter schools on the basis that their sheer diversity of approaches provide perfect opportunities for testing which educational policies work and which are outright failures? Read his post here:



Charter Schools, Information Technology, and Experimental Democracy

John McGinnis


Education is again a central topic in many of this year’s political campaigns. One example: a state senate race in California seems to be turning on a debate about education in general and charter schools in particular. While the United States dominates the lists of the world’s greatest universities, it consistently fails to be near the top of the global charts of the best performing K-12 schools. There is a strong consensus in the United States over the need for better education. Political disagreements concern the policies that will improve learning.

The Economist had an article a week ago praising charter schools for generally better performance than other government funded schools. The article concedes that not all such schools work better. Some in fact need to be closed as outright failures.

In my book, Accelerating Democracy, I defend charter schools as injecting experimental dynamism into democracy. Because charter schools vary substantially from one another even within a single jurisdiction, they have the advantage of creating more experiments on different kinds of educational inputs (from smaller classes to merit pay). Because of the relentless increase in computational capacity we have continually better tools to evaluate through careful statistical analysis which policies work and which do not. Just as democracy in the eighteenth century needed to be nested in the technology of its time, like the printing press, so democracy today should be nested in our new information technology. Because we have the tools better to evaluate policy experiments, we should structure our institutions better to test policies. Democracy in the information age should be a more self-consciously experimental democracy.

Some structures of governance encourage experimentation more than others. Federalism, for instance, allows states to devise different solutions to social problems rather than have the federal government impose a single solution. But charter schools provide another experimental structure. Even if they deliver results that are not better on average than public schools, their diversity can help us make progress on choosing programs that make children more knowledgeable and successful. Charter schools take widely varying approaches with some emphasizing a back to basic education philosophy and others more progressive techniques. Some will use merit pay. Others will not. The results of such myriad differences can then be evaluated.

Decentralization at both the national and local level promotes experimentation. In this election season, it is important to think about what are the structures that will allow us to evaluate the success and failure of policies with the tools that modern technology makes available. That is the route to long-term policy progress.

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.

Welcoming new regular guest blogger on Technology and the Election, John McGinnis

John McGinnis, author of the forthcoming Accelerating Democracy: Matching Governance to Technological Change will be taking to Election 101 to blog each week about technology and the election.  Anyone with a twitter account and an iPhone knows that technology has advanced at an explosive pace in recent years. We have, after all, elected the first ‘social media’ president, viral marketing has never been bigger, and prediction technology often seems instantaneous.  Yet democratic governance has not yet caught up with all the advancements that have taken place. Technology can, of course, be a boon to democracy in many ways–while social planning was once a top-down enterprise, now we have a stream of information connecting us to the issues everywhere in record time. But technological advancement is not without dangers, and information often moves faster than it can be harnessed to impact public policy. John McGinnis will be dedicating his weekly posts to these issues, and the ways in which the government must keep pace with technological change. Read on for his introductory post:



Predicting the Effects of Policy at Election Time

John McGinnis


In an election season, politicians promise that their policies will deliver wonderful results. But their proposed policies often conflict.  Will more government spending or tax cuts generate economic growth?   Will charter schools improve educational achievement or is it better to spend more on existing schools?  To determine which policies to follow, democracy needs better information about their likely results.

My forthcoming book, Accelerating Democracy: Matching Governance to Technological Change, argues that we can make better policy by bringing democracy within the domain of our digital information revolution.  We are all aware that our lives are being transformed as the devices created by exponential increases in computational power connect us to information and to one another faster than ever before.  But we have not systematically considered how this technological revolution can improve democracy in our day, as the printing press did in its time.

New or improved information technologies, like empiricism, prediction markets, and dispersed media, can refine our evaluation of past policies and sharpen our predictions of future policy results.  But they can do so only if we change laws and political structures to permit the information revolution to wash through our politics.  In this post and those to come, I will use events in our current election to describe in more detail how we can improve democratic outcomes by embracing in contemporary politics our accelerating technological future.

I begin with the question of how we can better predict the consequences of an election.  Experts predict these consequences all the time.  For instance, the economist Joseph Stiglitz stated that Governor Romney’s election would “significantly” raise the risks of a recession.  If this statement were true, it would be a reason to vote for the incumbent.   But Professor Stiglitz is not only a Nobel winning economist, but also inhabits the left side of the political spectrum.  It is not impossible that he is biased against the presumptive Republican standard bearer.

Predictions markets could help us test Professor Stiglitz’s claim.   We could make markets in the likelihood of a recession conditional on victory by Governor Romney and conditional on  victory by President Obama.  One advantage of markets is that they offer powerful incentives against bias. Participants are rewarded for accurate assessments, not ideological frolics. They must put their money where their mouth is.   And, not surprisingly, we have evidence that prediction markets are more accurate at evaluating the future than alternatives.  They have proved better at predicting the winners of elections than polls.

Prediction markets help answer a fundamental question of democracy.  How can America know what Americans know? Prediction markets help pool individual assessments for the collective good. Sadly, United States law greatly impedes the operation of prediction markets because they are seen as internet gambling.  The most important such market, Intrade, is thus run out of Ireland.  By relaxing our legal prohibitions, we could help generate more innovate prediction markets on a wider range of subjects.  Indeed, so important is the information that they can provide, the government should consider subsidizing experiments with these markets rather than banning them.  Information is a great public good and government restricts its effective provision at our peril.

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.