Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

creative futures, the Minecraft edition

Please read Robin Sloan’s wonderful reflection on Minecraft — or rather, the implications of the game for people who enjoy thinking about generative engines and collaborative creation.

Here’s what gets Robin’s wheels turning. As a Minecraft beginner you might find yourself presented with something like this:


But people who really know what they’re doing can end up with something like this:


Or this:


(More examples here.) Robin comments, “People often compare Minecraft to LEGO; both support open-ended creation (once you’ve mastered the crafting table, you can build nearly anything) and, of course, they share an essential blockiness.” But in his view there’s a major, major difference: “I think this comparison is misleading, because a LEGO set always includes instructions, and Minecraft comes with none.”

Now, that is actually only true of what we might call Modern LEGO, which tells you on the box what you’re going to make and teaches you how to make it. But the good old Basic LEGO sets — buckets and boxes of many different kinds of bricks — are a lot more like Minecraft, except that it’s pretty obvious what to do with those bricks, whereas, as Robin points out, finding your way around Minecraft without help is a trial-and-error process with “a lot of errors.”

But see, Minecraft as such doesn’t help you. You’re on your own — unless you consult resources (websites, YouTube videos, books) created by users, by the community of players. This is what fascinates Robin about Minecraft: that it is not complete, exhaustive, and closed, but rather open-ended and generative. It doesn’t finish itself, but is comprised, essentially, of the instructions that allow users to develop it further and further.

And one of the ways this happens is in books. Robin — a tech guy who also loves books, as a recent novel of his demonstrates — is utterly taken with codexes about Minecraft: “I’m not a huge Minecraft player myself—my shelter never grew beyond the rough-hewn Robinson Crusoe stage—but I look at those books and, I tell you: I am eight years old again. I feel afresh all the impulses that led me towards books and writing, toward the fantastic and science-fictional… except now, there is this other door.”

This other door — a door that Robin thinks he might be able to walk through in some future book of his own. A door that links the world of screens to the world of print, a linkage that holds out at least the possibility of stories being collaborative and self-generating in ways that go beyond Choose Your Own Adventure. There have been attempts at this already: the Mongoliad created by Neal Stephenson et al. seemed at one point to be headed in this direction, though in the end users were able only to “supplement” rather than direct the course of the narrative and the development of the fictional world.

I don’t think Robin knows where these thoughts are headed — and that’s the exciting thing. Doors are opening in unexpected places, but we can’t yet know where they’re leading. Not long ago I was having a backchannel conversation on Twitter with a designer whose work I really, really admire, and we said to each other, “We should do something together.” I don’t think either of us had any idea what that might be, and in any case both of us have big tasks to complete. But there is something intrinsically exciting about the idea of collaborating, not only with people in your own field, others who do more or less what you do, but with people who do totally different things. In such a circumstance one of the prime drivers of collaboration is the desire to find out what collaboration looks like and feels like — to connect with the experience of gifted people who think differently than you think, use tools that are alien to you, approach problems from what to you are strange angles. It’s interesting that the mystery at the heart of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore requires people who come from rather different worlds and possess rather different skills to pool their resources and work together.

I’m thinking about all this because of Robin’s post, in which he says that he’s got a book to finish — a book of the kind that he’s written before — but wonders what the generative world of Minecraft might teach him about future projects. Well, I too have a book to finish — but after that, why not something different? And why not look for models of intellectual and creative energy in unfamiliar locations? There might be some pretty cool surprises around the future’s next corner.

why the jerks didn't win

The conclusion of this Jason Kottke post got me thinking:

People ascribe all sorts of crazy stuff to you without knowing anything about the context of your actual life. I even lost real-life friends because my online actions as a person were viewed through a conceptual lens; basically: “you shouldn’t have acted in that way because of what it means for the community” or some crap like that. Eventually (and mostly unconsciously), I distanced myself from my conceptual counterpart and became much less of a presence online. I mean, I still post stuff here, on Twitter, on Instagram, and so on, but very little of it is actually personal and almost none of it is opinionated in any noteworthy way. Unlike Persson or Fish, I didn’t quit. I just got boring. Which I guess isn’t so good for business, but neither is quitting.

When I think about this in relation to my recent posts on Twitter, and Erin Kissane’s recent post, and the increasing number of periodicals that have eliminated comments on their articles, it all tempts me to think: the jerks won.

The jerks: the people who use social media not converse but to crow like demented roosters, to nurse every petty grievance, to do the typewritten version of this — they’re powerful. I don’t know how many of them there are, or what percentage of readers they are, but their persistence is amazing, and eventually they drive most people of good will out of the territory. Eventually a guy like Jason Kottke, anything but a belligerent or controversial person, just starts keeping his opinions to himself because it isn’t worth the trouble of dealing with all the nastiness — not disagreement, the nastiness, of the kinds listed above and others — that comes when you express a point of view about anything.

And yet no. The jerks haven’t won after all, unless we let them.

For one thing, they can’t change the fact that before they grew in numbers and influence, Twitter was pretty cool and many of us made friends there that we wouldn’t have made elsewhere. Take, for instance, Erin Kissane and me. According most socio-political metrics we might not seem to have a lot in common, and if socio-political metrics were the only ones available, Erin and I probably would never have connected. But we both like books and reading and we laugh about some of the same things; and I deeply admire Erin’s determination to be kind even to people who are unkind, even as she stands up for the causes she really believes in. (She’s far more charitable than I am.) She’s one of the best people I have met on Twitter — and I don’t think I ever could have met her had it not been for Twitter.

There’s no question that the increasing power of the jerks on Twitter makes it much harder to cultivate friendships there now; but it doesn’t take away the friendships that have already been formed. Nor does it take away the possibility of cultivating those friendships. While there are seasons for making new friends, there are also seasons for strengthening the ones that already exist. It might be time to start thinking about creating, or going back to, tools that help us achieve those goods. And it’s not just a matter of tools, as Erin explains:

Beyond the tools, though, I’m trying to make an emotional shift from exuberant joyful angry frenetic Twitter to something subtler and gentler. When moved to discuss something about which I feel strongly, I’m beginning to default to a longer form first, to reduce the heat of my Twitter conversations and boost the light I work by elsewhere.

To “boost the light I work by elsewhere” — that sounds like a really good idea.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


When I returned from the physical shock of Nagasaki, which I have described in the first page of this book, I tried to persuade my colleagues in governments and in the United Nations that Nagasaki should be preserved exactly as it was then. I wanted all future conferences on disarmament, and on other issues which weigh the fates of nations, to be held in that ashy, clinical sea of rubble. I still think as I did then, that only in this forbidding context could statesmen make realistic judgements of the problems which they handle on our behalf. Alas, my official colleagues thought nothing of my scheme; on the contrary, they pointed out to me that delegates would be uncomfortable in Nagasaki.
— Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values (1953)

Would Davos Man still want to rule the world if he had to be uncomfortable doing it?

Friday, September 12, 2014

a civil tongue

A sudden consensus seems to be emerging among a subset of current-event commentators: there are big problems with with term "civility." Here's the claim, summed up:

(NB: see important clarifications/corrections from Pat Blanchfield in the comments below.)

Likewise, Elizabeth Stoker Breunig writes of the “cult” of civility, of its “peculiar tyranny.” Freddie deBoer agrees, and goes a step further: “Civility is the discourse of power…. That’s what civility is, in real life: the powerful telling us that we must speak to them with deference and respect, while they are under no similar responsibility to us.”

I think these complaints are immensely counterproductive. Does the term “civility” get misused? Of course it does — just like every other term celebrating a virtue or an achievement. But it’s sloppy and thoughtless to allow criticism of a term’s abuse to slide into dismissal of the term itself. What words have been more abused than “justice” and “peace” and “charity”? Yet it would be madness to stop using those words because of the ways that bad people have sought to deploy them. They must be rescued and redeployed. The same is true, I think, of “civility”, of which, surely, there is not enough in this fetid swamp of abusive language everyone on social media at least dips a toe into every day.

So, to Freddie I would say that if the powerful demand a civility from the powerless that they are not willing to offer in turn — a claim that I agree with whole-heartedly — then the problem is not that the powerful invoke civility as a virtue but that they are rankly hypocritical, acting in a way totally at odds with their rhetoric. The critique should focus on that hypocrisy; such a critique is not aided by the abandonment of the ideal of civil discourse.

Making a rather different argument, Bruenig writes, “We should all want to be the kind of person who is charitable, merciful, quick to forgive and quick to ask forgiveness; these are all better virtues than ‘civility’ anyway, which is by its own admission little more than a veneer of these genuine virtues.” Well, sure! But the lesson Bruenig draws from this point is the opposite of the one that should be drawn. It is precisely because civility is a lesser virtue that we should be at pains to cultivate it. It is precisely because charity and mercy and forgiveness are so hard that we build a bridge to them by the lesser virtue of civility. I may not be able yet to love my enemies as I should, but if I can practice civility towards them that’s a step in the right direction. If that’s a “cult,” it’s one I want to belong to. A world in which the language we use towards others does not aspire to something nobler than we feel at the moment — well, again, that’s the world of most social media. And it’s not a healthy one.

Nor is civility of discourse incompatible with speaking truth to power. Indeed it may be necessary if one would speak that truth in a way that it can be heard. Consider, as a paradigmatic example of what I mean, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” It’s hard to imagine anything more civil. It’s also hard to imagine anything more devastating. King held himself to a strict standard of civility because setting that standard aside would have reduced the likelihood of his people entering their promised land.

It may well be true that some nasty and ill-intentioned people have tried to co-opt the language of civility. For heaven’s sake let’s not help them do so. Instead, let’s take it back.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Sviatoslav Richter

When I learned to play the guitar, many years ago, I developed a near-obsession with the musical virtue of articulation. I’m not sure why; maybe because I found it so hard to play without slurring notes or missing them altogether, and without introducing unintentional variations in volume. I came to love guitarists, like Martin Simpson and Stephen Bennett, who managed to articulate every note with wonderful precision — but who did so without losing musical flow and flair.

(Simpson is above all others my guitar hero, and if you want a brief master class in mixed finger- and thumb-picking, slide-playing, and alternate tunings, just take a look at this video — and listen to the stuff at the beginning about why he plays what he plays. Also, don’t stop before the six-minute mark. If you want a closer and higher-definition look at what he does, check out this video — especially useful for guitarists interested in technique. )

Oddly — or maybe not so oddly, I don’t know — my fascination with articulate guitar players has affected my listening to other music. For instance, I have long loved Glenn Gould’s way with Bach: his pedal-free, hyper-articulated approach plays right into my obsessions — especially given his famous recording style, with the microphone stuck right into the piano. Gould’s Goldbergs, and his Well-Tempered Clavier, were simply my versions of those masterpieces for many years.

But … that humming. When I’m listening on speakers I can ignore it; but in the past few years I have been listening to music more and more often on headphones, and the extraneous racket increasingly got on my nerves. I decided I needed a new experience of listening to Bach’s piano music.

So I bought this: the performances that Sviatoslav Richter recorded in the 1970s. At first they were almost impossible for me to listen to: all that pedal! And the echo! — as though it were recorded … I don’t know, in a concert hall or something. What’s up with that? I huffed and sighed; Richter made me deeply uncomfortable. In comparison to Gould his playing seemed so florid and Romantic, thoroughly un-Bach-like.

But I kept listening.

And after I settled down, I couldn’t deny that Richter played with great intelligence and, yes, articulation; his playing wasn’t so stereotypically “Romantic” as I had first assumed; he was, I came increasingly to feel, simply adapting Bach’s music to the character of the instrument, which was, after all, not a harpsichord but a pianoforte. The magnificent architecture of Bach was still there, and in a way brought forth with a new clarity and beauty by Richter’s style.

And after Richter captured my imagination, going back to Gould was … well, not disappointing, exactly — but his way of playing Bach no longer seemed to inevitably right to me. Perhaps he was, at times, allowing a fetish for articulation to displace other musical virtues. On the other hand, I noticed that he did indeed sneak a little pedal in there, allow a few resonances — he was not as rigid a purist as I had thought. And Gould, who is famous for his fast tempos, can take things very, very slow as well: try listening to his version of the Prelude and Fugue in F-minor, followed by Richter’s: Richter takes the Prelude about twice as fast as Gould does — I have to listen with some care to be sure that they’re playing the same thing.

I still love Gould, but at this point I think I love Richter more. In fact, I don’t know that I own a record that I treasure more than Richter’s WTC. I do wish that Richter’s recording technique, as opposed to his playing, had been a little more like Gould’s; but he has somehow become my measuring rod, the performance against which I measure others. If only he had recorded the Goldbergs! But if I want contrast to Gould’s approach to that masterpiece, I have Murray Perahia ‚ and, more recently, Jeremy Denk.

Who knows what versions of Bach I will listen to the most over the coming years? But in any case I am immensely grateful to live in an age which offers me so many wonderful recordings, so many performances of such variety. In exploring this music in the company of multiple performers I draw closer and closer to its heart.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


I’m reading the first volume of David Bromwich’s projected two-volume intellectual biography of Edmund Burke, and it’s fantastic. A magnificent piece of scholarship, about which I hope to have more to say. But in my typically perverse way, I’m going to devote this post to a disagreement — though not to be ornery, I promise. I have a constructive point to make.

One of the chief purposes of Bromwich’s book, it seems to me, is to rescue Burke from those who praise him, especially conservatives. (“No serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the founder of modern conservatism” — no serious historian, though I fear that serious historians are defined as those who don’t say that Burke was the founder of modern conservatism.) So any of Burke’s statements that might confirm a conservative or generally traditionalist reading get some careful scrutiny from Bromwich, which in general is, I think, a good thing: conventional wisdom should always get doubled scrutiny.

But what about Burke’s religious beliefs? Here’s a noteworthy passage from Bromwich’s “Introduction”: 

Replying once to a question about his religious beliefs, Burke said he was a Christian “much from conviction; more from affection.” The remark is open to various readings. I take it to imply that for him, ordinary feelings such as trust, though they have a Christian correlative, themselves supply a sufficient groundwork of moral conduct. 

Try though I might, I can see absolutely nothing in Burke’s statement to warrant Bromwich’s inference. Burke doesn’t say anything there about trust, about ordinary feelings, about moral conduct or the grounds thereof. In fact, if you look at the original letter (in Volume VI of The Correspondence of Edmund Burke), he’s not even describing his own beliefs per se: the complete sentence is “I am attached to Christianity at large, much from conviction; more from affection.” The context is reflection on the denominational divisions among Christians, something an Irishman could scarcely not have thought about. And Burke’s point is, quite obviously I think, that his “attachment” to Christianity — something distinct from belief in its teachings — is supported in two ways: first by rational conviction, and second, and to a greater degree, through the testimony of his affections. It is a statement about the grounds of attachment, not about the foundations of moral conduct. 

So why does Bromwich read it the way he does? It seems to be a pre-emptive strike against any claim that Burke’s Christian convictions are essential to his thought. If there is a “sufficient groundwork” for morals outside the framework of Christian teaching, then Christian teaching can be largely set aside in an intellectual biography of Burke, even if it provides a “correlative” to beliefs held on other grounds. 

Yet Bromwich concludes his Introduction by quoting another passage from Burke’s letters that seems to cast doubt on this dismissal of Christianity. To a young woman who had protested against his prosecution of the East India Company for its maltreatment of Indians, Burke wrote, “I have no party in this business, my dear Miss Palmer, but among a set of people, who have none of your lilies and roses in their faces, but who are images of the great Pattern as well as you or I. I know what I am doing; whether the white people like it or not.” Though Bromwich seems not to notice, Burke is grounding his political action in the Christian and Jewish teaching that all human beings are made in the image of God: even the darkest-skinned people “are images of the great Pattern.” It is his conviction of the universal imago Dei that drives Burke’s attempts to bring gross injustice before the judgment of the Law. 

I think that in this case Bromwich fails to see the importance of Christianity to Burke because he is not especially interested in it himself; whereas I see the importance of it because I am both interested in and knowledgable about the subject. Among other things, this incident should be a reminder of how our own inclinations, our own biases, can lead us to shape writers and thinkers we love in our own image. Though I think I have shown that on this one matter Bromwich has misread Burke and I have read him correctly, if I were to write an intellectual biography of Burke I would run a significant danger of over-emphasizing his Christianity. If I were going to write a really first-rate book about Burke I would always need to be on guard against that tendency. 

Similarly, Edward Mendelson and I have had many conversations over the years about W. H. Auden’s religious beliefs and thoughts, and while we agree on much, we sometimes don’t — and when we differ, almost invariably my reading of Auden bends towards my theological inclinations, while Edward’s reading bends towards his. (Oddly enough, the fact that Edward knows five times more about Auden than I ever will does not incline me to defer to his judgment in these matters.)   

E. B. White once wrote, "All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular, although many men are born upright” — a lovely line, but it’s not how you’re born, it’s how you discipline yourself that counts. Pulling yourself towards the perpendicular you know you’ll never quite reach requires a constant struggle. I would like to say that I achieve such constancy; but I don’t. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014


Yuval Noah Harari introduces his new book Sapiens:

We are far more powerful than our ancestors, but are we much happier? Historians seldom stop to ponder this question, yet ultimately, isn’t it what history is all about? Our understanding and our judgment of, say, the worldwide spread of monotheistic religion surely depends on whether we conclude that it raised or lowered global happiness levels. And if the spread of monotheism had no noticeable impact on global happiness, what difference did it make?

Let me just put my cards on the table and say that this entire paragraph is so nonsensical that it’s not even wrong. It is so conceptually confused that it has not, to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis, risen to the dignity of error.

To begin with, what in the world might it mean to say that happiness is “what history is all about”? History, as I and everyone else in the world except Harari knows, is “about” what has happened. And many things, I think it is fair to say, have happened other than happiness.

I truly can’t guess, with any confidence, what Harari means by that statement, but if I had to try I’d paraphrase it thus: The chief reason for studying history is to find out what made people happy and what didn’t. Lord, I hope that’s not what he means, but I fear it is.

And as for “what made people happy,” Harari wants to define that in terms of “global happiness levels.” And how are we supposed to evaluate those? Where would we get our data set? And — to ask a question that goes back to the earliest responses to Bentham’s utilitarianism — how do we count such stuff? Does one person’s horrific misery count the same as another person’s mild pleasure? Or do we add an intensity factor? Also, on the unhappiness scale, how might we compare a quick and painless death at age 19 to an extended agony of fatal illness at age 83?

I suspect Harari hasn’t thought much about these matters, but let’s try to go with him. Instead of considering something as amorphous as “monotheistic religion,” let’s focus on the militant Islam of today. It has clearly made many people very miserable; but it has equally clearly given other people great satisfaction. If the number of people who delight in militant Islam exceed the number of people made miserable by it, then do we conclude that militant Islam is a net contributor to “global happiness levels” and therefore something to be applauded? And what if the balance sheet comes out pretty level, so that global happiness has been neither appreciably increased nor appreciably decreased by militant Islam? Are we to conclude then that it really hasn’t “made a difference”? 

This little thought experiment also raises the question of whether happiness might be defined differently by different people in different cultures. Harari has this one covered. Some people, he tells us,

agree that happiness is the supreme good, but think that happiness isn’t just a matter of pleasant sensations. Thousands of years ago Buddhist monks reached the surprising conclusion that pursuing pleasant sensations is in fact the root of suffering, and that happiness lies in the opposite direction…. For Buddhism, then, happiness isn’t pleasant sensations, but rather the wisdom, serenity and freedom that come from understanding our true nature.

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere! Finally, time for a serious consideration of rival views of happiness! So here’s Harari’s response: “True or false, the practical impact of such alternative views is minimal. For the capitalist juggernaut, happiness is pleasure. Full stop.”

Full stop. The “capitalist juggernaut” has decided what happiness is — and, needless to say, resistance is futile — so we don’t need to think about it any more. We don’t even need to ask whether said juggernaut is equally powerful everywhere in the world, or whether, conversely, there are significant numbers of people who live in a different regime — even though the scale of the book is supposed to be global.

So here we have an argument that happiness is “what history is all about,” and that therefore everything that we do should be evaluated in terms of its contribution to “global happiness levels,” but that can’t be bothered to ask what happiness consists in. As I say: not even wrong. Miles from being even wrong.

Friday, September 5, 2014

resistance is futile, part zillion

Alex Reid is very unhappy with teachers like me who ban laptops (and other internet-enabled devices) from class.

I’ve written about this a number of times before, so let me put it in a nutshell: My students are in class with me for two-and-a-half hours, 150 minutes, per week. During those 150 minutes I choose to focus on our using, together, the technology of the codex. They spend much of the rest of their waking time connected to the internet, and I do my best to teach them how to use it wisely and well for learning. (You can read through the archives of this blog to get a sense of some of the things I do and have done, or look at the syllabus for a course I’ve taught.)

And yet, for Reid, anyone who does not use the internet during class time is failing to confront the ways that “we think differently in the context of digital networks. That’s scary and difficult” and we just can’t handle it. People like me ”offer little or no opportunity for those laptops to be productive because our pedagogy is hinged on pretending they don’t exist.”

Get that? Use laptops all the time or you’re “pretending they don’t exist.”

That’s where we are now with the true-believing digerati: there is no time at which it is legitimate to unplug. There are no good pedagogical reasons for focusing, for less than three hours per week, on learning to use codexes better. Everyone must conform to the all-digital-all-the-time regime!

on The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks

I can’t write something orderly and coherent about David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, which I finished yesterday, but I want to record some responses. There are no major plot spoilers in what follows, but maybe some mood or tone or context spoilers. I’m trying to be relatively discreet, but caveat lector and all that..

1) If you don’t know much (or anything) about David Mitchell, this passage from James Wood’s review of The Bone Clocks will help:

David Mitchell is a superb storyteller. He has an extraordinary facility with narrative: he can get a narrative rolling along faster than most writers, so that it is filled with its own mobile life. You feel that he can do anything he wants, in a variety of modes, and still convince. “Black Swan Green” (2006) is a funny and sweet-natured semi-autobiographical novel, conventionally told, about a boy growing up in a stifling Worcestershire village. “Cloud Atlas” (2004), his best-known book, is a brilliant postmodern suite, comprising six connected and overlapping novellas, set in such eras as the eighteen-fifties, the nineteen-thirties, the nineteen-seventies, and the dystopian future. His 2010 book, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” is a more or less traditional historical novel, set in 1799, in the bay of Nagasaki, about relations between the Japanese and the Dutch. He has a marvellous sense of the real and of the unreal, and his best work keeps these elements in nice tension—a balancing of different vitalities. One of the reasons he is such a popular and critically lauded writer is that he combines both the giddy, freewheeling ceaselessness of the pure storyteller with the grounded realism of the humanist. There’s something for everyone, traditionalist or postmodernist, realist or fantasist; Mitchell is a steady entertainer. Pleasing his readership, he has said, is important to him: “One of the questions I always try to keep in the front of my mind is to ask why would anyone want to read this, and to try to find a positive answer for that. People’s time, if you bought it off them, is expensive. Someone’s going to give you eight or ten hours of their life. I want to give them something back, and I want it to be an enjoyable experience.”

But beyond that, Wood’s review is just useless. Mitchell’s books all work the boundaries between what people call “literary” fiction and what they call “genre” fiction, and Wood simply lacks the ability to respond to fantasy; and The Bone Clocks has stronger elements of the fantastic than any of Mitchell’s previous books.

2) So when Wood writes of our encounters in the novels with immortal beings, and others who strive for immortality, “these happenings, which occur over hundreds of pages, feel a bit empty, because they are not humanly significant.” Well, they don’t seem empty to me, and I would say that they are indeed “humanly significant,” because one of Mitchell’s chief goals in this book is to explore how this world we live in and the people who occupy it just feel different to those who live only once, so briefly, than they do to those who live hundreds of lives. Though it would be hard to imagine a book less Tolkienian in tone and structure than The Bone Clocks, this contrast between mortals who have received the “gift of death” and those who must bear the burden of long centuries brings to mind Tolkien’s treatment of Men and Elves — both “children of Iluvatar” (God) and yet doomed to experience the same world in radically different ways.

3) It seems to me that Mitchell especially wants us to think about the relationship between death and love. The immortals — who have formed a society called Horology — are not without love. But their loves necessarily have a texture that is largely alien to ours. Holly Sykes, who is effectively the protagonist of this story, asks one of them a question that, in the context of Holly’s own experience, is telling:

“Do you have families?”

“We’re often resurrected into families…. We form attachments, like Unalaq and Inez. Until the twentieth century, traveling alone as an unmarried woman was problematic.”

“So you’ve been married yourself?”

“Fifteen times, though not since the 1870s. More than Liz Taylor and Henry the Eighth combined. You’re curious to know if we can conceive children, however.” I make a gesture to brush her awkwardness away. “No. We cannot.”

And this seems to the Horologist a good thing. It would be exceptionally painful “to live, knowing your kids died of old age decades ago. Or that they didn’t die, but won’t see this loon on the doorstep who insists he’s Mom or Dad, reincarnated. Or discover you’ve impregnated your great-great-grandchild.“ However: ”Sometimes we adopt, and often it works well. There’s never a shortage of children needing homes. So I’ve never borne or fathered a child, but what you feel for Aoife, that unhesitating willingness to rush into a burning building, I’ve felt that too. I’ve gone into burning buildings, as well.”

In some ways going into burning buildings is what Horologists do — and yet it’s clear that whatever love the Horologists feel for mortals is simply not the same as the love we mortals have for one another, especially our families, whether those families are biological or adoptive. Death may not be the mother of familial love — as Stevens said it is the mother of beauty — but it is deeply intertwined with our connections to those who came before us and those to whom we pass the torch. Many episodes in the book, including the last one, confirm this point. 

4) The Anchorites, those who would achieve immortality, or at least very long life, by stealing the lives of others — the Horologists call it “animacide” — recall J. K. Rowling’s Death Eaters. They fear death and will do anything to avoid it. (It is to them that mortal human beings are merely “bone clocks.”) By contrast, the Horologists — well, some of them, anyway — die repeatedly and are sent back to this world whether they want to be or not. But they have no idea who sends them, or why. They have seen something of what lies on the other side of death, but don’t understand it any more than we do. Two remarkable scenes in the novel explore this. Here’s a passage from one of them:

“I’m still a newbie,” says Arkady, “on my fifth self. Dying still really freaks me out, in the Dusk, looking over the Dunes …”

“What dusk?” asks Holly. “What dunes?”

The Dusk,” Arkady says, “between life and death. We see it from the High Ridge. It’s a beautiful, fearsome sight. All the souls, the pale lights, crossing over, blown by the Seaward Wind to the Last Sea. Which, of course, isn’t really a sea at all, but—”

“Wait wait wait.” Holly leans forwards. “You’re saying you’ve died? That you’ve seen all this yourselves?”

Arkady drinks from his coffee bowl, then wipes his lips. “Yes, Ms. Sykes, to both your questions. But the Landward Wind blows our souls back, like it or not. Back over the High Ridge, back into the Light of Day, and then we hear a noise like … a town being dropped, and everything in it smashing to bits.”

And so they return. Later on, Holly briefly glimpses the Dusk herself. One of the Horologists narrates:

I walk over to the oblique-angled west corner, where a window offers a view over one mile or a hundred miles of Dunes, up to the High Ridge and the Light of Day. Holly follows me. “See up there?” I tell her. “That’s where we’re from.”

“Then all those little pale lights,” whispers Holly, “crossing the sand, they’re souls?”

“Yes. Thousands and thousands , at any given time.” We walk over to the eastern window, where an inexact distance of Dunes rolls down through darkening twilight to the Last Sea. “And that’s where they’re bound.” We watch the little lights enter the starless extremity and go out, one by one by one.

Holly asks, “Is the Last Sea really a sea?”

“I doubt it. It’s just the name we use.”

“What happens to the souls when they get there?”

“You’ll find out, Holly. Maybe I will, one day.”

I don’t know what James Wood has done to his readerly self to see encounters like this as “not humanly significant,” but I pray it never happens to me.

5) All this said, The Bone Clocks is a deeply flawed book. Its primary shortcomings stem from simple self-indulgence. We are treated to extended passages of travelogue, in which globe-hopping writers attend conferences in Shanghai and western Australia and Iceland — as though (I suspect) globe-hopping writer David Mitchell had amassed thousands of words in his travel diary that he didn’t know what to do with. Mitchell is a master of pastiche — there seems to be no literary style that he can’t imitate — but we really don’t need dozens of pages of faux war-correspondent-memoir. And the book is marred above all by a long coda that introduces what amounts to a whole new fictional world for the apparent purpose of making some sober and serious socio-political statements. Perhaps those statements need to be made, but if so, they deserve their own book, and shouldn’t be allowed to disrupt so thoroughly the development of this one. I don’t wish that the book were shorter; but I do very much wish that it had been equally long in a somewhat different way. There is occasional tedium here for the reader, or for this reader anyway — a shocking thing to experience in a David Mitchell book.

6) Still, The Bone Clocks is a massive achievement, and allows us for the first time to see just how ambitious a writer David Mitchell is. He is not stylistically ambitious as, say, James Joyce was — as I’ve noted, Mitchell shares Joyce’s love of pastiche, but it’s fairly pedestrian vocabularies that he likes to imitate. His books don’t quite amount to novels of ideas, at least not in a conventional sense. In fact, it’s hard to describe Mitchell’s ambition. But while it has long been noted that Mitchell tends to recycle characters — people who appear as minor figures in one novel reappear as major ones in another — only with The Bone Clocks are we able to see that this is not just a little novelistic quirk but rather a central feature of Mitchell’s imagination. All of his books are starting to look like a single vast web of story, with each significant character a node that links to other nodes, across space and time. And the essential insight, or image, or hope that provides structure to the whole web is the immortality of the human soul.

What does Mitchell himself really think about this web he is weaving? He himself is not sure. When asked recently what he thinks about souls, he replied, “I doubt that we have them, and I hope that I’m wrong.”

Thursday, September 4, 2014

annals of jerkdom, Answers.com edition

Yes, I know I said I wouldn’t write any more about Twitter, but this is not about Twitter as such — only about a new way of abusing it. 

So here are the people who run Answers.com. And here’s what they do: they tell everyone who is interested in the question “Why is absolutism bad?” (among other things) to tweet their questions to Dan Cohen, the Executive Director of the Digital Public Library of America. (They think he still works at George Mason University, but never mind. Poor research is the least of their crimes.) 

Up at the top of each page on the site you’ll find a question box that says “Ask us anything,” so Dan must work for Answers.com, right? Well, no. He doesn’t. 

So, then, they must be employing Dan as an outside expert and paying him appropriately? The correct answer would be No. 

Well, then, surely they asked Dan if he would be willing to answer questions people send to him on Twitter? Alas, the answer to that question is also No. 

So now Dan — and presumably others whom Answers.com has blessed by choosing as experts — gets deluged with questions from strangers, which doesn’t do much for a person’s Twitter experience. Answers.com doesn’t provide emails for any of its “management team,” and none of them seem to use Twitter. (The CEO hasn’t tweeted since 2011.) The company has not responded — big surprise, yes? — to Dan’s requests that they stop using his Twitter account in this way. 

So how about Twitter itself: will they do anything? Fat chance

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

my own private Kanban

Screen Shot 2014 09 03 at 11 54 04 AM

What you see above is a picture of an approach to task management I’ve been using lately — a simplified and individual version of the Kanban model used in software development and manufacturing/distribution. I dislike the rah-rah cheesiness of the Personal Kanban website, but I have to admit that it gave me the idea that this could work for me. (Larger version of the image here.)

Kanban is supposed to be done with sticky notes on a whiteboard or wall, but that poses a problem for me: I work about half the time in my office, about half the time at home — so where do I put the board? An insoluble problem. So I decided to do it digitally, using the good ol’ Stickies app on the Mac.

Here’s the system as I have developed it so far:

  • Just three stages of action: To Do, Doing (i.e., In Process), and Done (Completed)
  • Three colors of notes: green for teaching, yellow for writing, blue for personal stuff (and a different color for the category titles, I guess)
  • They’re arranged in rough order of priority, with highest priority tasks at the top 
  • Occasionally I might use text styles (color, bolding, sizing) for emphasis

That’s it. When I know I need to work on something I put it in the To Do column. When I start working on it I put it in the Doing column. When I’ve completed it, or think I’ve completed it, I put it in the Done column. Eventually I delete those, of course, but I keep them around for a while in case it turns out that I haven’t finished a task after all but must revisit it, in which case it goes back to one of the earlier stages.

Why do I like it? Because it uses a very simple structure to convey lots of information. At a single glance I can see what’s coming up, how much of it involves writing or teaching or personal stuff, what I’m (supposed to be) working on now, and what I’ve recently completed. Also, I can easily write in detail when I need to and minimize that note to it doesn’t dominate the screen.

What don’t I like? Really, only one thing: it’s not portable. I can’t export my data very conveniently, or view it on other devices. Not sure whether that will be a problem or not — that could end up being a feature rather than a bug. In any case, here it is, in case anyone is interested.

Monday, September 1, 2014

intimacy gradients

Pay attention to the links here: Tim Maly pointed me to this 2004 post by Christopher Allen that draws on the famous 1977 architectural treatise A Pattern Language to talk about online life.

Got all that?

The key concept is intimacy gradients. In a well-known passage from A Pattern Language the authors write,

The street cafe provides a unique setting, special to cities: a place where people can sit lazily, legitimately, be on view, and watch the world go by... Encourage local cafes to spring up in each neighborhood. Make them intimate places, with several rooms, open to a busy path, where people can sit with coffee or a drink and watch the world go by. Build the front of the cafe so that a set of tables stretch out of the cafe, right into the street.

That's the passage as quoted in the book's Wikipedia page. But if you actually look at that section of the book, you'll see that the authors place a great deal of emphasis on the need for the ideal street café to create intimacy as well as public openness. Few people want always to "be on view"; some people almost never do. Therefore,

In addition to the terrace which is open to the street, the cafe contains several other spaces: with games, fire, soft chairs, newspapers.... This allows a variety of people to start using it, according to slightly different social styles.

And "When these conditions are present" — all of these conditions, the full appropriate range of intimacy gradients — "and the cafe takes hold, it offers something unique to the lives of the people who use it: it offers a setting for discussions of great spirit — talks, two-bit lectures, half-public, half-private learning, exchange of thought."

Twitter actually has a pretty highly developed set of intimacy gradients: public and private accounts, replies that will be seen automatically only by the person you’re replying to and people who are connected to both of you, direct messages, and so on. Where it fails is in the provision of “intimate places”: smaller rooms where friends can talk without being interrupted. It gives you the absolute privacy of one-to-one conversations (DMs) and it gives you all that comes with “being on view” at a table that extends “right into the street,” where anyone who happens to go by can listen in or make comments; but, for public accounts anyway, not much in between. 

And you know, if you’re using a public Twitter account, you can’t really complain about this. If you tweet something hoping that your friends will notice and respond, that’s fine; but you’re not in a small room with just your friends, you’re in a vast public space — you’re in the street. And when you stand in the street and make a statement through a megaphone, you can’t reasonably be offended if total strangers have something so say in reply. If you want to speak only to your friends, you need to invite them into a more intimate space. 

And as far as I can tell, that’s what private Twitter accounts provide: a place to talk just with friends, where you can’t be overheard. 

Now, private accounts tend to work against the grain of Twitter as self-promotion, Twitter as self-branding, Twitter as “being on view.” And if we had to choose, many of us might forego community for presentation. But we don’t have to choose: it’s possible to do both, to have a private and a public presence. For some that will be too much to manage; for others, perhaps for many others, that could be where Twitter is headed. 

Okay, I’m done talking about Twitter. Coming up in the next week: book reports. 

more on Twitter

Just a couple of follow-up thoughts:

1) I had forgotten, but this piece by Robinson Meyer and Adrienne LaFrance got at many of the issues I talk about, and did it some months ago.

2) I keep hearing from people that they like Big Twitter just fine. Awesome! Then they should keep using it. (This is a genre of response that has always puzzled me. You see it when people say that they’re having trouble with a piece of software or a web service, and others reply “It’s working great for me!” How is that relevant, exactly? If I tell you I broke my arm are you going to tell me that your arm is just fine?) As I said, I want to spend more time in my living room and less time on the street. If you prefer being in the street, that’s definitely what you should do. 

3) Some folks are worried that they won’t know what’s going on in the world — or in some particular corner of it — if they leave Twitter. But consider this: if it’s knowledge you want, then one of the best services Twitter provides to you is linkage: links that take you to places on the open web where ideas are developed at some length. So instead of relying on Twitter to mediate that, why not use an RSS reader and subscribe to a bunch of worthwhile sites? Cut out the middleman, I say. Plus, by using RSS you liberate yourself to some degree from dependence on proprietary services and get back to the open web. As Brent Simmons recently commented,

My blog’s older than Twitter and Facebook, and it will outlive them. It has seen Flickr explode and then fade. It’s seen Google Wave and Google Reader come and go, and it’ll still be here as Google Plus fades. When Medium and Tumblr are gone, my blog will be here.

The things that will last on the internet are not owned. Plain old websites, blogs, RSS, irc, email.

And when I say “use RSS” I mean “use it in its original, open form”: technically speaking, Twitter is little more than proprietary RSS.

4) The past few months have been for me a season of cutting back and cutting down. In addition to my general-if-not-absolute absence from Big Twitter, I stopped reading the New York Times, and have reworked my RSS feeds to feature less news-of-the-moment and more stuff that could have longer-term value. I’ve been reading more books and longer articles. This has all been good.

5) Finally, one interesting (to me) bit of self-reporting: I have missed Big Twitter at certain moments, and most of them have occurred when I’ve thought of something to say that I think is funny. I want to tweet my witticism and then sit back and wait for retweets and faves. That’s pathetic, of course; but good for me to know.

UPDATE: Regarding point number 2 above, someone pointed out to me that I did title my earlier post “The End of Big Twitter,” not something like “Why I’m Leaving Big Twitter.” Honestly, it didn’t occur to me that people would think I was making a statement about what Twitter as a whole is like — Twitter seems to me far too big to make universal statements about. I was trying to focus on a set of experiences shared by some Twitter users; changes a number of us have noticed. Apologies for my lack of clarity. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The end of Big Twitter

As long as I’ve been on Twitter (I started in March 2007) people have been complaining about Twitter. But recently things have changed. The complaints have increased in frequency and intensity, and now are coming more often from especially thoughtful and constructive users of the platform. There is an air of defeat about these complaints now, an almost palpable giving-up. For many of the really smart people on Twitter, it’s over. Not in the sense that they’ll quit using it altogether; but some of what was best about Twitter — primarily the experience of discovery — is now pretty clearly a thing of the past.

Recently Marco Arment got into a something of a pissing match on Twitter, and says that he learned a few things from it. For instance, he’s going to stop hate-retweeting some of the nastiest comments he gets, which I have always thought was a bad idea anyway. He’s going to take more time away from social media. And he’s going to reconsider the access to his life that he grants, that all of us grant, to strangers on social media. “We allow people access to us 24/7. We’re always in public, constantly checking an anonymous comment box, trying to explain ourselves to everyone, and trying to win unwinnable arguments with strangers who don’t matter in our lives at all.”

Brent Simmons comments interestingly on Arment’s experience:

Even though I follow people I like and respect, there’s no way around seeing some of the crap that happens on Twitter. Even if you don’t use Twitter at all, you will have seen articles about people being harrassed and threatened. You will have noticed the pure toxic sludge that pours through the service. (A hypothetical “Dawn of the Idiocracy” prequel would feature Twitter prominently.) 

And it’s worse than any blog comments system, because if you use it, anybody can put something in front of your face whether you want it or not. 

Twitter is also wonderful, and I get so much value out of it. But it’s like 51% good and 49% bad. 

I don’t see it getting any better. Hopefully it can hold the line at just-barely-worth-it. (But the recent changes to the timeline make that a little less likely.)

I don’t see it getting any better either. And no one has offered a better explanation than Frank Chimero:

We concede that there is some value to Twitter, but the social musing we did early on no longer fits. My feed (full of people I admire) is mostly just a loud, stupid, sad place. Basically: a mirror to the world we made that I don’t want to look into. The common way to refute my complaint is to say that I’m following the wrong people. I think I’m following the right people, I’m just seeing the worst side of them while they’re stuck in an inhospitable environment. It’s exasperating to be stuck in a stream. 

Here’s the frustration: if you’ve been on Twitter a while, it’s changed out from under you. Christopher Alexander made a great diagram, a spectrum of privacy: street to sidewalk to porch to living room to bedroom. I think for many of us Twitter started as the porch — our space, our friends, with the occasional neighborhood passer-by. As the service grew and we gained followers, we slid across the spectrum of privacy into the street.

This is exactly right. I have found that my greatest frustrations with Twitter come not from people who are being nasty — though there are far too many of them — but from people who just misunderstand. They reply questioningly or challengingly to a tweet without reading any of the preceding or succeeding tweets that would give it context, or without reading the post that it links to. They take jokes seriously — Oh Lord do they take jokes seriously. And far too often they don’t take the time to formulate their responses with care and so write tweets that I can’t make sense of at all. And I don’t want to have to deal with all this. I just want to sit here on the porch and have a nice chat with my friends and neighbors.

But wait. I’m not on the porch anymore. I’m in the middle of Broadway.

So I’m doing what, it seems to me, many people are doing: I’m getting out of the street. I’ll keep my public account for public uses: it’ll be a place where I can link to posts like this one, or announce any event that’s of general interest. But what I’ve come to call Big Twitter is simply not a place for conversation any more.

I don’t like this change. I made friends — real friends — on Twitter when it was a place for conversation. I reconnected with people I had lost touch with. Whole new realms of knowledge were opened to me. I don’t want to foreclose on the possibility of further discovery, but the signal-to-noise ration is so bad now that I don’t think I could pick out the constructive and interesting voices from all the mean-spiritedness and incomprehension; and so few smart people now dare to use Twitter in the old open way.

Big Twitter was great — for a while. But now it’s over, and it’s time to move on. I’m just hoping that some smart people out there are learning from what went wrong and developing social networks that can strengthen the signal and silence the noise.

Friday, August 29, 2014

"and my profit on't is..."

Swearing “seems to be” getting more common? Talk about an unnecessary qualifier. Obviously, it has gotten dramatically more common in the past twenty years or so, or, it’s better to say, more public. And of course anyone who complains about this — like anyone who complains about the hyper-sexualization of public culture — is immediately mocked and denigrated as a prude or worse. This is what happens when you question the object of anyone’s sentimental devotion.

Yes, sentimental. Wallace Stegner explained this fifty years ago, in an essay he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly called “Good-bye to All T—t!” The essay arose from Stegner’s experience as a teacher of creative writing: he has discovered that his students thought they were making their stories more powerful and bold just by inserting lots of swear words.

Now, Stegner used plenty of strong language in his own fiction; but he was not under the illusion that if some swearing is acceptable and appropriate and useful then more swearing is always more acceptable and appropriate and useful.

Words are not obscene: naming things is a legitimate verbal act.... Under the right circumstances, any word is proper. But when any sort of word, especially a word hitherto taboo and therefore noticeable, is scattered across a page like chocolate chips through a tollhouse cookie, a real impropriety occurs. The sin is not the use of an “obscene” word; it is the use of a loaded word in the wrong place or in the wrong quantity. It is the sin of false emphasis, which is not a moral but a literary lapse, related to sentimentality....

Some acts, like some words, were never meant to be casual. That is why houses contain bedrooms and bathrooms. Profanity and so-called obscenities are literary resources, verbal ways of rendering strong emotion. They are not meant to occur every ten seconds, any more than — Norman Mailer to the contrary notwithstanding — orgasms are.

There’s an old saying that sentimentality is loving something more than God does; in that sense you might say that the undisciplined and gratuitous swearer is sentimental. But sentimentality is not true affection. Super-swearers don’t love their words enough: they’re indiscriminate, careless. They toss powerful language around, casually, and over time diminish its power. Stegner mentions D. H. Lawrence’s commendation of having “the courage to say ’shit!’ in front of a lady” — that’s great, says Stegner, but then what do you say when your car breaks down on the Santa Monica Freeway during rush hour?

If you care about language, you’ll swear sometimes; but only sometimes. You’ll save the strong words for the proper occasions, which are few. If you want to know how to do it, read Les Murray’s poem “The Last Hellos.” Read it slowly, all the way to the end.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Great and Holy War


As part of the research for my current book project, I am reading The Great and Holy War, by my colleague Philip Jenkins. It is an absolutely extraordinary book. Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction: 

Contrary to secular legend, religious and supernatural themes pervaded the rhetoric surrounding the war— on all sides— and these clearly had a popular appeal far beyond the statements of official church leaders. If the war represented the historic triumph of modernity, the rise of countries “ruled by scientific principles,” then that modernity included copious lashings of the religious, mystical, millenarian, and even magical. Discussions of the Great War, at the time and since, have regularly used words such as “Armageddon” and “apocalypse,” although almost always in a metaphorical sense. Yet without understanding the widespread popular belief in these concepts in their original supernatural terms, we are missing a large part of the story. As Salman Rushdie remarks, “Sometimes legends make reality, and become more useful than the facts.”

The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict. Religion is essential to understanding the war, to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war. Not in medieval or Reformation times but in the age of aircraft and machine guns, the majority of the world’s Christians were indeed engaged in a holy war that claimed more than ten million lives.

Jenkins supports these claims with ample — and, to me, shocking — quotations. A German pastor, Dietrich Vorwerk, rewrote the Lord Prayer’s on nationalistic and militaristic lines: 

In thy merciful patience, forgive
Each bullet and each blow
That misses its mark.
Lead us not into the temptation
Of letting our wrath be too gentle
In carrying out Thy divine judgment.
Deliver us and our pledged ally
From the Evil One and his servants on earth.
Thine is the kingdom, The German land.
May we, through Thy mailed hand
Come to power and glory.

Meanwhile, as the U.S.A. entered the war an American pastor wrote, "it is God who has summoned us to this war. It is his war we are fighting.... This conflict is indeed a crusade. The greatest in history —the holiest. It is in the profoundest and truest sense a Holy War.... Yes, it is Christ, the King of Righteousness, who calls us to grapple in deadly strife with this unholy and blasphemous power.” 

What Jenkins demonstrates beyond any question is that these were not isolated incidents but rather pervasive sentiments, powerful among political and military leaders as well as among prominent religious figures. If this story has been told before, I have somehow missed it. 

And what I’m learning from Jenkins is providing new and interesting context for what I’m writing about Christian thought in the next war. It seems that many of the most incisive Christian thinkers of that era learned something from the apocalyptic war-theology of the previous conflict. For instance, consider this interesting passage from a letter C. S. Lewis — who had fought and been seriously wounded in that previous war — wrote to his brother Warnie just after war began in September 1939: “In the Litany this morning we had some extra petitions, one of which was ‘Prosper, O Lord, our righteous cause.’ I ventured to protest against the audacity of informing God that our cause was righteous — a point on which He may have His own view.”

For Lewis and for other major artists and thinkers, it was clear that their cause was better than Hitler’s — but that did not make it God’s own cause. They had to think in careful and subtle ways about what it meant to support the Western democracies in their fight against totalitarianism without falling into that earlier trap of baptizing and sanctifying nationalism or “Democracy." Reading Jenkins’s book I have come to understand much better the context in which these figures were working and the dangers they were trying to avoid. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

and the good news keeps rolling in

An unexpectedly quick confirmation of some of the points I made in this morning’s earlier post, and an aid to explaining why so many people just can’t grasp views that don’t fit their pigeonholes.  How Social Media Silences Debate:

Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, has the effect of tamping down diversity of opinion and stifling debate about public affairs. It makes people less likely to voice opinions, particularly when they think their views differ from those of their friends, according to a report published Tuesday by researchers at Pew Research Center and Rutgers University. The researchers also found that those who use social media regularly are more reluctant to express dissenting views in the offline world.

The Internet, it seems, is contributing to the polarization of America, as people surround themselves with people who think like them and hesitate to say anything different. The Internet companies magnify the effect, by tweaking their algorithms to show us more content from people who are similar to us.

All the more reason, I suppose, for people with non-standard or complex views to maintain their patience and charity and just keep on explaining themselves as many times as they need to. Or else give up and get out, which is certainly the more attractive option — if not the more morally admirable one. 

another comment on comments

As anyone knows who has spent much time reading what I write, especially on Twitter, I am endlessly fascinated/puzzled/horrified by the malice and ignorance manifested in many online comments. I’ve been prompted to think about all this again by a handful of recent posts. 

Rebecca Mead’s profile of Mary Beard includes much food for thought, especially regarding the grace and charity and forgiveness that Beard has exhibited towards some people who have been really nasty to her. 

In another highly publicized incident, Beard retweeted a message that she had received from a twenty-year-old university student: “You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting.” One of Beard’s followers offered to inform the student’s mother of his online behavior; meanwhile, he apologized. Beard’s object is not simply to embarrass offenders; it is to educate women. Before social media, she argues, it was possible for young women like those she teaches at Cambridge to enjoy the benefits of feminist advances without even being aware of the battles fought on their behalf, and to imagine that such attitudes are a thing of the past. Beard says, “Most of my students would have denied, I think, that there was still a major current of misogyny in Western culture.”...

The university student, after apologizing online, came to Cambridge and took Beard out to lunch; she has remained in touch with him, and is even writing letters of reference for him. “He is going to find it hard to get a job, because as soon as you Google his name that is what comes up,” she said. “And although he was a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy, I don’t actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.”

What exceptional kindness on her part! But it is also a reminder that the end of (most) legal discrimination against women has not marked the end of misogyny but rather in many cases its intensification. Hatred often emerges when people feel that their social positions are threatened, a tendency that the Ku Klux Klan exploited for decades in the South — a tendency that demagogues almost invariably exploit.

If anything good has come out of anonymous blog comments, it may be the awareness of how deep-seated, and frighteningly intense, these hatreds are. (Though this is a lesson that the True Believers in the inevitability of moral progress seem incapable of learning: thus Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s insistence that “we've ... become a nation that's infinitely less bigoted and misogynist” than we used to be. Almost infinitely less? Tell that to Mary Beard, whose attackers don’t come just from the U.K. Or tell the writers at Jezebel.) The end of legal discrimination is an important, an essential, achievement; but there’s a great deal of good that it doesn’t and cannot do — which is an important truth demonstrated by the response to every advance in legal equality, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. 

But sheer malice, or malice born from ressentiment, is not the only problem with online commentary. It’s often mixed with other things. See this post by my buddy Rod Dreher, which considers how a conservative pundit named Erick Erickson has alienated his base by suggesting that sometimes Christian commitment can conflict with standard conservative positions, and that when that happens Christian commitment needs to win out. Rod writes, 

I’ve mentioned before how y’all can’t know how many nasty comments I don’t post. We’re doing really well on this blog’s traffic, and will before much longer cross the one million page views per month mark. Still, if I had the traffic that I imagine Red State does, I don’t know how I would be able to both write the blog and manage the comments section. Every day or two we decide to block a commenter who has been consistently nasty, or who has posted something so ugly that I don’t want to see them on this site again. I’d say about two-thirds of them are from the political left, but what they share with their compatriots in nastiness on the political right is the belief that their side is pure, and the other side is pure evil. American politics have never been the School of Athens, of course, and certainly not at the populist level. But I would like to believe that we Christians have higher loyalties that restrain us from rolling in the mud with ideological haters.

I would like to think that. It’s hard, I know. Believe me, I know. I struggle with this all the time, myself. But all you need to do is read the comments section on any blog or website having to do with politics and current events, and you will despair of democracy, and maybe even of humanity. I’m pleased and proud that this blog’s comments section is not like that. I’ve worked hard, and do work hard, to keep it that way, but so do you all, and again, I want to thank you.

And he’s right: his comments section is not like that. But only because he (like Ta-Nehisi Coates, another careful cultivator of his blog’s comments) relentlessly prunes it; if Rod enabled unmoderated comments, his whole site would be an utter cesspool in a matter of days. Probably hours. The online analogue to Gresham’s Law, that bad comments drive out good, is ironclad. 

Again, sheer malice is not the only reason for this. The Erickson case is instructive in this regard: Erickson is telling people that certain positions they would like to hold together may not be perfectly compatible with one another. It is difficult to overstate how passionately many people hate being told that, because if it is true, then they may have to make very difficult choices. So when you present them with such complexities, they not only become agitated but determine to believe that you hold positions you don’t hold — simplistic positions that they can (or feel they can) easily refute. 

So, for example, take the comments on this post of Rod’s about what he calls the Benedict Option, and Rod’s responses to them. You see person after person insisting that the Benedict Option involves a frightened and complete withdrawal from society into a tiny isolated community of the same-minded — no matter how many times Rod says that that’s not what he’s talking about, and not what the communities is invokes do. Again and again (not just in this post but in many he has written on the subject) he says That’s not what I wrote — and again and again they persist in attributing to him simplistic and extreme claims. Why? Because those are the claims they can (or think they can) refute. 

Just through linking to the post on Twitter I got the same kinds of comments: people attributing to Rod views he has never held. I’ve started calling this particular kind of response Christian Derangement Syndrome: a kind of cognitive lock-up that occurs whenever people are confronted with the possibility that being a Christian might exact from them a substantial cost. Their peace of mind — what Reinhold Niebuhr called their “easy conscience” — much be defended against anyone who would agitate it. So agitators have to be portrayed as extremists who hold bizarre and evidently indefensible views. 

In some ways these tendencies make me even sadder than does the presence of the purely hateful. The malicious can often be ignored and marginalized; but what can we do when we have to explain over and over and over again that what the commenter is attacking is not our view? That we never stated or even implied it? I would estimate that more than two-thirds of the critical comments I receive on Twitter and even in comments here are based on straightforward misunderstandings of this kind: the kind that stem from a desire for mental simplicity and exacerbated by hastiness — the hastiness that leads people to argue with stuff they haven’t even read

One last thought: Why am I so perennially concerned with this topic? (People have asked me that before.) I think it’s because I’m a teacher, with a professional interest in helping people to understand things that they didn’t previously understand. All of the strategies and tactics I have learned over the years to guide people towards understanding are close to useless in the online world. Why? For many reasons, but mainly because I’m not in a position of authority in relation to blog commenters. They haven’t paid to be taught by me; they haven’t given me the power to evaluate their work; they probably don’t think I’m any smarter or know any more than they do. Why should they even try to understand what I’m actually saying, especially if it doesn’t fit into the mental pigeonholes they already have? 

Monday, August 25, 2014

who wants to know?

So here’s a survey that wants to know whether I think I’m a narcissist or not. The problem — from my point of view — is that it begins by asking for my Twitter handle. So my first, and quite immediate, thought was, “So is Twitter — as opposed to Facebook — bankrolling this one?” Perhaps a rather suspicious question, but in light of recent events, by no means a cynical one. 

So I read the consent form, first tipping my hat just because there is one. And it’s rather confusing, though commendably upfront about one key point: "This research is not designed to help you personally.” (Well why not?) More positively: "The results may help the investigator learn more about how people use social media websites. We hope that, in the future, other people might benefit from this study through improved understanding of how friendships are formed and what kind of information people post online.” Well, okay, but where does the narcissism come in? That is only mentioned on the form itself: "We are trying to see if the things people say on Twitter can tell us if they are narcissists or not.” Aha! But how does that relate to the statements on the consent form? How all this works out I can imagine — I can guess — but….

I understand that the researchers are in a tough spot. They seem to be revealing as much as they can without tipping off their specific research questions, because the more people know about the experiment the more they are likely to adjust their responses in light of what they know. But given the close, and seemingly ever-closer, relationship between Big Higher Ed and Big Tech, and the reservations about that relationship that I have frequently expressed, there’s no way in the world I would ever fill out such a survey. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

stock and flow: the metaphor that keeps on giving

Last night I posted to my tumblelog some thoughts about what Rod Dreher calls the Benedict option: a kind of Christian retreat from engagement with the larger world. Among other things, I said that 

the life of Jesus embodies a kind of systolic/diastolic alternation between public ministry and private retreat — with intermediate stages in the company of the Twelve or his friends.

Each of us needs such alternation, and it seems likely that communities do too. Sometimes batteries need to be recharged, energy regained, ideas and options considered. Nobody, and no community, can live in the thick of things all the time, and it is foolish to try.

All this reminds me of a fantastic post Robin Sloan put up in 2010 about some concepts he learned as an economics major: stock and flow. 

There are two kinds of quantities in the world. Stock is a static value: money in the bank, or trees in the forest. Flow is a rate of change: fifteen dollars an hour, or three thousand toothpicks a day. Easy. Too easy.

But I actually think stock and flow is the master metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:

  • Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist.
  • Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.

I feel like flow is ascendant these days, for obvious reasons—but we neglect stock at our own peril. I mean that both in terms of the health of an audience and, like, the health of a soul. Flow is a treadmill, and you can’t spend all of your time running on the treadmill.

People choose the Benedict option, or choose digital disconnection (or less connection) because they feel that they’re getting overwhelmed by the flow and have been insufficiently attentive to the condition of their stock. 

I am feeling that way myself right now, about the digital world anyway, so I’m trying a few things: putting Twitter out of sight, taking my RSS reader out of my Dock, deleting some apps from my iPhone. I need to spend some time replenishing my stock. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Genealogy of "Carol Brown": An Intertextual Reading of Parodic-Travestying Song

The Flight of the Conchords’ “Carol Brown (Choir of Ex-Girlfriends)” is an exemplary case study in the intertextualty of the comic song, or rather, the parodic-travestying song (see Bakhtin, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse”). Its major and obvious debts are to two previous popular songs, one American and one English, which, given that the Conchords are from New Zealand, might allow us to note the ongoing generative power of the postcolonial; but those concerns may perhaps be set aside for now. The tropes of a certain masculinist discourse shall be our primary focus here. “Carol Brown” and its ancestors point to a kind of “gender trouble” (see Judith Butler’s book of that title) in parodic-travestying popular song.

When “Jemaine” — let us employ, with due reservation, his self-nomination — sings “There must be fifty ways that lovers have left me,” he’s clearly signaling a debt to Paul Simon’s 1975 song “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.”

But though “Fifty Ways” is explicitly invoked by the Conchords, a perhaps more direct and substantial influence goes unremarked. This is “Song for Whoever,” by The Beautiful South (1989).

Note that each of the three songs features a list of names, hearkening back to "Madamina, il catalogo è questo” — the famous “catalogue aria” from Mozart and da Ponte’s Don Giovanni — and perhaps even to the genealogies of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles (see, e.g., Genesis 5 and Matthew 1). 

Of the three songs, “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” might at first seem to be the least thoroughly captured by the masculinist rhetorical enterprise, since it features a woman listing the names of men: Jack, Stan, Roy, Gus, and Lee. But this appearance is misleading: note that no woman actually speaks in the song, but rather is spoken for by the masculine singer — and the emphasis is solely on how she relates to him: “The problem is all in side your head, she said to me.” (This is not a song that would pass any musical version of the Bechdel Test.) If a woman seems to have power in this song, it is power yielded to her by the singer, provisionally and temporarily. He remains the true decision-maker. 

“Song for Whoever” is more obviously and flagrantly sexist, with its frank emphasis on using the tears of women for financial and reputational gain: “The Number One I hope to reap / Depends upon the tears you weep, / So cry, lover, cry.” Yet the song ultimately deconstructs itself, reaching its aporia in the namelessness of the singer: it is only the women who receive names, while he remains a cipher. He claims the power of speech and song — like Orpheus — but can only receive it by giving up his name, while the specificities of identity remain with the denigrated women. This reversal of power is indirectly acknowledged at the end of the song, with its narration of female vengeance — meant by the singer to be feared, but understood by the listener as a proper and indeed necessary act of retributive justice. 

This “return of the repressed,” as Freud might have called it, finds a completion and intensification in the video of “Carol Brown.” Note here the presence of the woman's name even in the song’s very title — indicative of things to come, as the singer strives unsuccessfully to control the narration of his sexual history. His crucial mistake is the decision to display images of his former lovers, with the obvious purpose of subjecting them to the masculine gaze — but to his surprise and consternation, those images come to life: an ideal instance of the feminine subaltern speaking back to masculinist power. 

Who organized all my ex-girlfriends into a choir  
And got them to sing?  
Ooh ooh ooh, shut up  
Shut up girlfriends from the past  

But — and this is the key point — they do not shut up. (He later repeats his order — “I thought I told you to shut uh-uh-up” — but they do not obey.) Through utterance they overcome their status as mere images, and take control of the song. As Baudrillard might put it, the simulacrum here becomes the hyperreal — and thereby the undoing of the Don Giovanni figure is complete. 

Let me close with one ambiguous, and ambivalent, note. The wild card in “Carol Brown,” the figure that represents and enacts excess of signification, is “Bret” — whose evident chief trait here is silence. Unlike “Jemaine” and unlike the “Choir of Ex-Girlfriends” he does not sing. And yet he acts: and his primary acts involve manipulation of the image of “Jemaine,” including, most notably, shrinking him. Thus through “Bret” we see the reversal of the woman-as-enlarging-mirror trope that Virginia Woolf limned so memorably in A Room of One’s Own.

One might then see Bret as a Trickster figure — see Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, though one might also describe “Bret” as a “whiteface” version of the “signifying monkey” about which Henry Louis Gates has written so incisively — but a trickster acting in order to help liberate women from imprisonment in the image constructed by the masculine gaze. But does such behavior enact a genuine male feminism? Or does it rather re-inscribe masculinist control in the deceptive guise of the Liberator? These questions will have to be pursued at a later date. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

the gravitational pull of DFW

Wallace Books DeLillo 002 large

Ever since the Harry Ransom Center acquired the papers of David Foster Wallace and started posting photos of his annotated books, there has been a great deal of fuss about them. I think I even posted a few images myself on my Tumblr and/or here. People really started going into rhapsodies when someone posted what he said was DFW’s copy of Ulysses — though eventually he revealed that it was just a prank.  

DFW has become something like a patron saint of close reading, and who knows how many young writers and would-be writers out there have started writing copiously in their books in imitatio Davei? It’s hard to regret this, since careful, attentive reading is a pretty cool thing to be the patron saint of. And even if people start annotating just to be like DFW rather than to understand their books better, chances are that the practice will indeed help them as readers if they stick with it. Fake it ‘till you make it, as the wise men say. 

Mike Miley has been working in the DFW archives, and has found it a somewhat harrowing experience, in two ways. First, there is DFW’s habit of reading everything as a commentary on his own struggles and pathologies: 

Critics and fans alike rhapsodize about identifying with David Foster Wallace’s writing as though it can only be consoling and empowering, and I used to think so too, until I got too close and discovered what may be the most important truth about literature, the true “aesthetic benefit of close reading,” though I doubt the Mellon Foundation would be all that interested in hearing about my discovery, as it is beneficial only in the most cautionary of senses: there is such a thing as reading too closely.

Wallace’s annotations suggest that he had been reading too closely, searching for too much validation, guidance, or comfort in the books he read, to the point that his reading only wound up reinforcing his worst tendencies. Wallace found no escape from himself while he was reading; rather, his personal library remained just that: personal, continually bringing him back to his own struggles and inadequacies.

But there is also the danger, the greater danger, that the devoted fan will imitate DFW not just in his moral earnestness and intellectual rigor, but in that very self-absorption: 

And I found myself in danger of following him. Yes, this begins and ends as being about me, the guy in the frosty reading room in Austin, for fandom is always about the fan; the self is always the subject. The artist is, at best, the mask fans wear to distract themselves from the fact that they are looking into a mirror. I learned far more about myself through reading Wallace reading than I learned about David Foster Wallace. I discovered I had been reading Wallace too closely. For years I looked to Wallace for answers to just about everything — how to think, how to live, what to read and how. Turns out, I got what I wanted, if what I wanted was a more erudite way to criticize myself or a higher, more crippling level of self-consciousness than I already had. I did wind up understanding myself better, if only to understand where I might be headed and what I must avoid becoming.

This is why I’ve taken over two years to finish writing this, why I’ve stalled out time and time again in search of the right voice or style or insight into something that feels both too large for me to take on and too close for me to see clearly. This “DFW” persona, this mental state of Wallace’s, was a reflection of mine as well, albeit distorted and exaggerated through a funhouse mirror darkly. Wallace’s work reads like a more articulate, insightful version of the ticker-tape running in our own skulls — this is the cliché that everyone employs to describe Wallace’s writing, and for me it is absolutely true. However, no one really interrogates what that statement means or how far something like that goes. If I keep reading Wallace this closely, will I end up resembling him even more closely? Do the devices I borrow from him here — self-aware reportage, direct interrogation, hyperbolic jokes about mundane locations — show that I have moved beyond him or simply fallen further under his influence? If I continue on this path of emulation, will I reach the same conclusions about being alive as he did?

Miley’s essay is a sobering one, and you get the sense that he reached this level of genuine self-awareness (as opposed to mere self-absorption) just in time. 

I don’t think I’ve seen, in my lifetime, a writer who has generated the kind and intensity of veneration that DFW has. We might contrast his fans to, say, Tolkien fans, who know a little bit about the author — enough to have an image of a man in a colorful waistcoat smoking a pipe — but who can’t spare much time for him because they are so fully absorbed in his legendarium. But the people I know who love every word of Infinite Jest are also fascinated by Wallace himself: they are constantly aware of him as its author, of its relations to the circumstances of his own life.

Montaigne said of his Essays that “It is a book consubstantial with its author,” and this seems to be true for everything DFW wrote. Absorption in his work seems almost necessarily to involve scrutiny of his life. And given how his life ended, it’s hard not to see this as a worrisome trend. What I wouldn’t give for a detailed and sensitive ethnography of DFW devotees — something like what Tanya Luhrmann did for charismatic evangelicals. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

trolls gonna troll

Here (PDF) is some interesting — or depressing, or unsurprising, or all of the above — research on how people in online communities respond to feedback from their peers. The chief emphasis here is on how the more aggressive and hostile members of such communities respond to being called out for their bad behavior, especially when that calling-out takes the form of being modded down by other members. 

Basically, the response of such folks is twofold. First, they make a point of downvoting other people. Second, they double down on their aggression. So: in online communities aggressive and hostile people respond to criticism by intensifying their aggression and hostility. 

If such people primarily want attention from their peers, then the strategy is a reasonable one. Which is, in relation to my first sentence, why I choose “all of the above” to describe the research. 

On a low-traffic site like this one, it’s feasible for all comments to be held for moderation by me. On high-traffic sites there seems to be no workable solution — except, of course, to eliminate comments altogether

Thursday, August 14, 2014

what Facebook wants you to know (or not)

Net neutrality not an issue for you? You find Facebook’s algorithmic selectivity non-problematic?

Read Zeynep Tufekci :

And then I switched to non net-neutral Internet to see what was up. I mostly have a similar a composition of friends on Facebook as I do on Twitter.  

Nada, zip, nada.

No Ferguson on Facebook last night. I scrolled. Refreshed. This morning, though, my Facebook feed is also very heavily dominated by discussion of Ferguson. Many of those posts seem to have been written last night, but I didn’t see them then.

Overnight, ‘edgerank’ –or whatever Facebook’s filtering algorithm is called now — seems to have bubbled them up, probably as people engaged them more. But I wonder: what if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure.

Stay on Facebook, and you’ll know only what Facebook wants you to know. 

And if that doesn’t worry you, consider this point from a recent talk by Maciej Ceglowski:

The relationship between the intelligence agencies and Silicon Valley has historically been very cozy. The former head of Facebook security now works at NSA. Dropbox just added Condoleeza Rice, an architect of the Iraq war, to its board of directors. Obama has private fundraisers with the same people who are supposed to champion our privacy. There is not a lot of daylight between the American political Establishment and the Internet establishment. Whatever their politics, these people are on the same team.

Something to keep in mind. Always.