Unexpected reading binge: Eastern Europe

Have you ever had those days where one little link clicked in the morning leads you down a rabbit hole of reading for the rest of the day?

It happens to me a lot.

Today a few things conspired to lead me on a binge of reading about Poland and Eastern Europe in general.  Based on this review, On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe by Andrzej Stasiuk is going to be a great read, as soon as I can track down a copy.

From there I found reference to Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.  While my library has a copy, it’s in the section of the stacks that are currently moving and inaccessible.  Luckily, The Atlantic has the rather lengthy magazine version available online for free.  I’ve always meant to read some West, and never have until now, but she is truly wonderful and I can’t wait to finish the whole long piece.

It was in a London nursing home. I had had an operation, in the new miraculous way. One morning a nurse had come in and given me an injection, as gently as might be, and had made a little joke which was not very good but served its purpose of taking the chill off the difficult moment. Then I picked up my book and read that sonnet by Joachim du Bellay which begins: ‘Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage.’ I said to myself, ‘That is one of the most beautiful poems in the world,’ and I rolled over in my bed, still thinking that it was one of the most beautiful poems in the world, and found that the electric light was burning and there was a new nurse standing at the end of my bed. Twelve hours had passed in that moment. They had taken me upstairs to a room far above the roofs of London, and had cut me about for three hours and a half, and had brought me down again, and now I was merely sleepy, and not at all sick, and still half-rooted in my pleasure in the poem, still listening to a voice speaking through the ages, with barest economy that somehow is the most lavish melody: ‘Et en quelle saison Revoiray-je le clos de ma pauvre maison, Qui m’est une province et beaucoup d’avantage?’

— Rebecca West

Though wildly unversed in it, I have a fondness for Eastern European and Polish history and literature that stems in large part from my own Polish roots.  Stasiuk and West’s books will likely join Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus on my (short) list of excellent Eastern European travel books.  (This NYT piece points out some complications with Kapuscinski’s body of work, but I, like its writer, still admire the strengths of his work.)

Today is also the birthday of celebrated Polish poet Czesław Miłosz (who died in 2004 at the age of 93).  I love Milosz’s ABCs, a strange and irreverent little collection of prose reminiscences.

Admiration: I have admired many people.  I have always considered myself a crooked tree, so straight trees earned my respect.

I firmly believe that the best way to experience Milosz’s poetry is to hear him read it.  Poets.org has a few suond recordings available.  My favorite of the bunch is “And the City Stood in its Brightness.”

Social networks in the media and the erasure of women

I’ve seen mentions of Diaspora* popping up all over my feeds this week.  It seems like a great project, but I have a few issues with the media attention it’s getting.  The New York Times piece I quote below is only one example out of many.

Working with Mr. Salzberg and Mr. Grippi are Raphael Sofaer, 19, and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, 20 — “four talented young nerds,” Mr. Salzberg says — all of whom met at New York University’s Courant Institute. They have called their project Diaspora* and intend to distribute the software free, and to make the code openly available so that other programmers can build on it. As they describe it, the Diaspora* software will let users set up their own personal servers, called seeds, create their own hubs and fully control the information they share. Mr. Sofaer says that centralized networks like Facebook are not necessary. “In our real lives, we talk to each other,” he said. “We don’t need to hand our messages to a hub. What Facebook gives you as a user isn’t all that hard to do. All the little games, the little walls, the little chat, aren’t really rare things. The technology already exists.”

A teacher and digital media researcher at N.Y.U., Finn Brunton, said that their project — which does not involve giant rounds of venture capital financing before anyone writes a line of code — reflected “a return of the classic geek means of production: pizza and ramen and guys sleeping under the desks because it is something that it is really exciting and challenging.”

I’m really excited to see Diaspora* in action, especially in light of this missive on why gender is a text field on the service.

That being said, I think we should be clear about some things.  These 4 boys are not the only ones creating open source, non-hierarchical social networks.  Dreamwidth has been offering an alternative to Livejournal for quite a while now.  The Organization for Transformative Works, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of fan culture, is doing the same thing around a very different type of interaction with the Archive of Our Own (and other projects still in the works).  Both of these are run and coded primarily by women, many of whom are invested in teaching other women how to code.

An open source alternative to Facebook is likely destined to get more media attention in our present moment, with The Social Network still on the radar.  But that doesn’t mean that what women do is less deserving of press time.

Let’s not lose sight of these immense achievements made by women in light of 4 cute computer boys from New York.