Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


From the website : "Freedom is an application that disables networking on an Apple computer for up to eight hours at a time. Freedom will free you from the distractions of the internet, allowing you time to code, write, or create. At the end of your selected offline period, Freedom re-enables your network, restoring everything as normal.

"Freedom enforces freedom; a reboot is the only circumvention of the Freedom time limit you specify. The hassle of rebooting means you're less likely to cheat, and you'll be more productive. When first getting used to Freedom, I suggest using the software for short periods of time."

Do I dare to use it?

one app to rule them all

I’m with Steven Frank on this:

For years I’ve had this bordering on Howard Hughesian vision that one day I would have a giant, private, wiki-like document that had a page containing everything I knew about anything.

It would be complete, readable, editable, and searchable from whichever device I happened to have on me, from desktop computer, to laptop, to iPhone, even if I wasn’t connected to the net.

It would support basic text formatting (bold, italic, bulleted list) and let me plop images into the page and position them.

So far, this has proven to be mostly impossible. There are all manner of technologies that do bits and pieces of this, but no way I’ve yet thought of to combine them fluidly. (And believe me, I spend a lot of time thinking about this. So there’s no need to email about TiddlyWiki or Evernote because I’ve already been down that road.)

I think what I want is an instant-on Newton-like device in the Kindle form-factor but with a stylus and it only runs OneNote (but better than OneNote) and is also my iPhone. Or something like that. Yeah. That sounds about right.

That’ll be the day.

nobody is in favor of technology

This is the kind of thing that drives me to distraction: a post by Kevin Kelly on what he would call the opposition to technology:

I believe we have a moral obligation to increase the power and presence of technology in the world, but not everyone believes that – to put it mildly. Many believe the opposite: that we have a moral obligation to reduce the power and presence of technology. I want to fully understand those arguments so I am collecting them in order to confront them as well as I can.

We have “a moral obligation to increase the power and presence of technology” — just any old technology? Does it matter what technology it is? Also, are there really any people out there who are against technology tout court? Consider the original Luddites: they destroyed mechanical looms not in order to eliminate technology altogether, but in order to restore a simpler technology that required more physical human direction and gave scope for more human control. Neither the Luddites nor the textile barons were simply for or against technology: instead, the conflict was between a technology of cost-saving efficiency and a technology scaled to the labor of the individual artisan.

Of course, opponents of certain technologies often make the same mistake that Kelly makes here. Everyone needs to stop talking this way. The real debates are not about technology per se but rather technological innovation — the replacement, as Wendell Berry put it in his famous essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” (not available legally online), of one tool by another. Berry argues that in determining whether to employ a technological innovation he employs the following criteria:

  1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
  2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
  3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
  4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
  5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
  6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
  7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
  8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
  9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

If Kevin Kelly really wants to promote “the power the presence of technology in the world,” he should start by describing what technologies he has in mind, and then should respond to serious critiques like Berry’s, not abstract and generalized straw men.

(By the way, one of the wittiest and most provocative things ever written about the Luddites is by Thomas Pynchon.)

Monday, March 30, 2009

I saw that book review. . .

This is Alison Bechdel's review in the NYT of Jane Vandenburgh's A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century:

You can see a larger version here.

Why shouldn't there be more of this kind of thing? I can imagine that there would be many books — not all, not most, but many — that would be very well served by graphic reviews. (Along these lines, see my review of the graphic version of The 9/11 Report.)

 UPDATE: Thanks to commenter Mark, here's Ward Sutton's review of Roth's latest. It's a lot less substantive and useful than Bechdel's work: there are only a handful of words, and the images add no information. Bechdel's words and images work together much better and provide a denser and more meaningful experience for the reader. 

Sunday, March 29, 2009

after all, you're my wonder wheel

Via the Blogoscoped blog, something interesting about searching and sorting data. If you read that post, you’ll see a little snippet of code that you can copy. Go to the Google home page, paste that code into your address bar and hit return, and you will discover that future search results will be accompanied by a link called “Show options.” Click this, and you’ll see that one of the options is to display your search results in what Google calls a “wonder wheel” but what many people would see as a kind of mind map — a central idea as the hub and, radiating out from that, a series of related ideas. Click on one of those and you get a new wheel, but one connected to the previous wheel. For people with visual orientations to learning, this could be a really effective way of understanding search results and pursuing searches in depth.

A similar project is the fabulous Debategraph, a “visualization tool” to help people see the different positions taken in contemporary debates — about climate change, say, or the Middle East — and how those positions relate to each other and connect to other debates.

When searching for information on the internet, we have typically been presented with a simple list of links. If we follow one of those links, it may lead us to others, or we may find it unhelpful and return to the original list to try out others. In the end the only record we have of our pursuits is our browser history — again, a simple list. What these new technologies offer is an informationally richer model for displaying our searches. Now, it would be awfully nice to have the ability to order and present our search histories this way. Here’s at step in that direction — I wonder if there are others. I seem to remember a Mac app that did just this, but I can't seem to retrieve it. (Maybe my search tools are insufficiently sophisticated. . . .)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

a word from your host

I'm off first thing in the morning for a visit to the Pacific Northwest — I'm going to be speaking at a retreat for the very fine MFA program in creative writing at Seattle Pacific University — so I'll be back online next week. Cheers! (link fixed)

Fulford on Orwell

Here are the first two paragraphs of George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language”:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

In a recent column for Canada’s National Post, Robert Fulford argues that, though “We cannot be reminded too often of Orwell's central thesis that slovenly writing produces slovenly thought and foolish thought leads to ugly prose,” Orwell nevertheless got it wrong:

That opening, coming down to us from just after the Second World War, seems, when you consider the historical context, thoughtless.

Can we still say that the English language in 1945-46 was in a particularly bad way? In retrospect, it seems to have been used in the mid-1940s by some remarkable stylists, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, among others. The funniest English writer, P. G. Wodehouse, was spinning out an endless series of books in never less than superb English. T. S. Eliot and W.H. Auden were hard at work.

Most important, at that moment the English language had just given the greatest political performance in its history, turning away from England's shores the most formidable of all military machines, Germany's.

In the hands of Winston Churchill, language rallied the British, sustained them through desperate years and led them to victory. It was the supreme political accomplishment of Britain in modern times.

How could Orwell, writing at precisely that moment, have ignored this central fact of his and England's existence? In an essay called "Politics and the English Language," how could he have failed to notice both the pre-eminent English politician of the century and his uniquely effective eloquence?

I think Orwell could have neglected the “central fact” of Churchill’s eloquence, and the perhaps equally central facts of all the other wonderful writers Fulford mentions, because they were not his concern. What worried Orwell was the state of English as practiced by the average relatively-well-educated person, and indeed by the average super-educated intellectual. If those people, several of whom he quotes to discomfiting effect in his essay, had learned from the examples of Churchill or Waugh or — O consummation devoutly to be wished! — the incomparable Wodehouse, Orwell would never have had to write his essay.

By Fulford’s logic, English in America couldn't possibly be in bad shape: just look around at Marilynne Robinson, Michael Chabon, the just-recently-deceased John Updike, et al. Alas, language don't work that there way.

Monday, March 23, 2009

my local library

In the past few years there has been a great deal of conversation about the present and future of public libraries — especially, it seems to me, in the U.K. Here’s an interesting recent article, full of the usual, and as far as I can tell completely warranted, anxieties. In the midst of all this concern, though, there are a few success stories, and one of them is in my own town, Wheaton, Illinois. About 55,000 people live in Wheaton, but we are blessed to have a public library that would be unusually fine even in a much larger town. Just a couple of years ago an addition to the library was built and the whole of the building redesigned. The exterior now looks like this:


That’s the entrance that faces Adams Park, and if you turn around here’s what you see:

Adams Park

(I took these pictures last October — things aren't quite so lovely here at the fag end of winter, but hey, I’m a community booster.) Before the expansion there had been a little-used street separating the library from the park, but that was eliminated, and the resulting landscaping leads you naturally from the library to the park and back again. Some reading rooms in the library that overlook the park are especially fine, but I couldn't find a time to take pictures when the rooms weren’t in use, and I didn't want to disturb the readers. Maybe later.

The Wheaton library was ahead of its time in amassing large collections of CDs and videos to lend, and it seems clear that the traffic those items have drawn has simply increased the circulation of books as well. It’s common to see people at the front desk checking out multiple media; the library has become a kind of one-stop shop for many residents looking for entertainment and instruction. Wheaton has an unusually high population of readers, and it’s a relatively well-off community as well, but I think there are lessons here for other towns and libraries. In any case, it’s really nice to see a library become so central to the social life of a town.


For years now I have followed the same general practice when trying to read something online, especially on a newspaper or magazine site: first, stumble across an interesting article; second, look for a “print option” so that I can rescue the article from the surrounding noise and clutter of ads and links; third, increase the size of the text to a readable level; fourth and last, read the article. (And that assumes that the “print” option is available — when it isn't, sometimes I just give up and go to another site.)

All that has changed, thanks to Readability. Now I find the article, click the Readability bookmarklet in the bookmarks toolbar of any browser I happen to be using, and read away. I think it’s safe to say that no one has made a bigger contribution to online reading than the good folks at arc90. I am very much in their debt.

(Also, for those who have similar frustrations while trying to watch YouTube videos, there’s quietube.)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

true confessions

Jacob Weisberg is worried about becoming a Kindle bore. Yeah. Been there. I've sworn off further posts on the subject.

Friday, March 20, 2009

literacy and suicide

Via our faithful reader Tony Comstock I see this post commenting on this post reflecting on the Central European suicide rates and their relation to literacy.

Dr Andrej Maruai, a Slovene psychiatrist involved in organizing the conference, presented a paper called "Suicide in Europe: Genetics, Literacy and Poverty" which convincingly shows the links between the social factors of literacy and poverty, and suicidal behavior. . . .

According to Maruai's theory, the higher any given country's literacy rate and the lower that country's GNP, the more likely the country is to have a high suicide rate. The theory can be convincingly applied to the countries with the highest suicide rates in Europe, namely the three Baltic states, Hungary and Slovenia, where literacy is at almost 100 percent and where the GNP and standard of living have been adversely affected by the transition process.

Western European and Mediterranean countries have lower literacy rates, more stable GNPs and, accordingly, lower suicide rates. Maruai maintains that better-educated people, especially in countries in transition, are more conscious of their current lower social and economic positions and are therefore more likely to resort to suicide. Furthermore, such people are more familiar with more effective means of taking their own lives, thereby increasing the suicide rate.

Reading this I was immediately reminded of those powerful scenes from Frederick Douglass’s Narrative that involve his rise to literacy. Sophia Auld, the wife of his master, started to teach him to read but was reproached by her husband, who told her that literacy “would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become manageable and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”

Much later, Douglass began to feel that in many ways Hugh Auld was correct. “I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but offered me no ladder upon which to get out.”

Those of us who love reading often praise its ability to open our eyes to other worlds, other lives, other possibilities. We don't often pause to note that such opening can, for some, be a mixed blessing at best.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Self, typing

Will Self on his writing practices:

Self, who prefers to write his fiction on a typewriter, adds that his daily word count is lower than it used to be, "partly because I shifted to the Imperial Good Companion, which is a slower machine, about four or five years ago. Writing on a manual makes you slower in a good way, I think. You don't revise as much, you just think more, because you know you're going to have to retype the entire fucking thing. Which is a big stop on just slapping anything down and playing with it." Joan Didion once told an interviewer that she used to retype her whole draft every morning to get back in the rhythm. "I'm not that good a typist," Self says incredulously. "I'd aim to write, on a first draft, not a great amount any more, only about 1,200 words a day. I write the book through. And then I start rewriting it, in successive waves."

I’ve been telling myself for years that I’m going to take out the old Smith-Corona that I used all through college and most of grad school and . . . nah. Not gonna happen.


One of the really cool things about the Internet is that if you wait long enough someone else will say all the things you wanted to say and will thereby relieve you of the responsibility to say them.

I suggested recently that I might have some comments about Clay Shirky’s essay on the present and future of newspapers, but I think I’ll just forward you to Steven Johnson, who thinks, as he invariably does, that everything is going to be hunky-dory: “there is going to be more content, not less; more information, more analysis, more precision, a wider range of niches covered . . . the venerable tradition of the muckraking journalist will be alive and well ten years from: partially supported by newspapers and magazines, partially by non-profit foundations and innovative programs like Newassignment.net, and partially by enterprising bloggers who make a name for themselves by breaking important stories."

But also see David Simon of The Wire fame, who — with his beloved Baltimore Sun having cut back its local reporting to the nub — recently tried to track down some information about a Baltimore policewoman who shot an unarmed man: “Well, sorry, but I didn't trip over any blogger trying to find out McKissick's identity and performance history. Nor were any citizen journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against officers. And there wasn't anyone working sources in the police department to counterbalance all of the spin or omission.”

Shirky compares the informational landscape in these last days of the newspaper to the informational landscape in the first days of the printing press; for a different but equally interesting comparison, see this look at the rise of he Internet in relation to the rise, a hundred and fifty years ago, of the telegraph. Here’s a rich related article from Make magazine.

On a very different topic, here is, I hope, my last go-around for a while on the Kindle and its ilk: John Siracusa has a good overview of e-reading here, and the single best account of the usability plusses and minuses of the Kindle, the best by a long shot, is by Jakob Nielsen.

Happy reading, everybody!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

re-reading re-visited

For the last few years — and, I regret to say, only for the past few years — I’ve been keeping a record of the books I read, and I append a little “r” to the title if it’s one that I’ve read before. But lately I’ve begun to think that I need more categories. For instance, the other day I read E. C. Bentley’s delightful Trent’s Last Case, which I had read before — more than thirty years ago. I didn't remember anything about it except that the protagonist’s name was Trent. That’s a very different kind of re-reading that the experience I recently described of returning to books and finding them more impressive than I had originally found them to be. So I probably need more symbols:

RF = I read this before but had forgotten it

RU = I read this before but had underrated it

RO = I read this before but had overrated it

R? = Why in the world did I decide to read this again?

Further suggestions welcome.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Pound and Fenollosa

About ninety-five years ago, the American poet Erza Pound, then living in London, received the manuscript of an essay called “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” He was immediately and lastingly fascinated, and for most of the rest of his life would think of Chinese writing as the perfect union of word and image, and would think of the essay as “a study of the fundamentals of all aesthetics.”

The essay was written by Ernest Fenollosa, an American scholar who had taught most of his career in Japan and who had recently died — Pound got the manuscript from his widow. Pound would edit and publish Fenollosa’s essay a few years later, but would also devote a great deal of energy over the next few decades to translating Chinese poetry according to Fenollosa’s aesthetic and linguistic principles. (A few manuscript images from Pound and Fenollosa may be seen here.)

However, it seems that Fenollosa didn’t understand Chinese very well, and by following him Pound was led into all sorts of errors. He also came to share Fenollosa’s curiously Japan-centered view of China — for instance, he always referred to that prince of poets Li Bai as Rihaku, which was the name by which the Japanese knew him. None of his translations are accurate in any meaningful sense, but it must nevertheless be said that simply as English poems they are exceptionally beautiful, as beautiful as anything as Pound ever wrote. The most famous of them, justly so, is this one:

The River-Merchant’s Wife: a Letter

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

Monday, March 16, 2009

the tweebook

Over at Book2, James Bridle reveals the book he made from his tweets:

Turns out that 4100 tweets can produce a 270 page book. Bridle says that he did it primarily to test his InDesign skills and to find out how Lulu handles hardcovers. But isn't that what lorem ipsum is for?

I don't know. It seems to me that tweets are intrinsically ephemeral — not a bad thing in itself — and to preserve them between hard covers is a little like arranging a group of potato chips in an oak-and-glass display cabinet. And isn't Twitter all about connecting with others? 

This does get me thinking, though: just as a decade ago there was a rash of epistolary novels consisting of emails, and in the last few years cellphone novels have been big in Japan, it's only a matter of time until someone writes a Twitter novel. The combination of general tweets, replies, and direct messages could provide an interesting variety of secrets, misdirections, and revelations. It's bound to happen.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Shirky on newspapers

Clark Shirky has written an exceptionally thought-provoking essay on the future of newspapers and what we can learn about it from remembering the first decades of the printing press. Here’s the opening:

Back in 1993, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain began investigating piracy of Dave Barry’s popular column, which was published by the Miami Herald and syndicated widely. In the course of tracking down the sources of unlicensed distribution, they found many things, including the copying of his column to alt.fan.dave_barry on usenet; a 2000-person strong mailing list also reading pirated versions; and a teenager in the Midwest who was doing some of the copying himself, because he loved Barry’s work so much he wanted everybody to be able to read it.

One of the people I was hanging around with online back then was Gordy Thompson, who managed internet services at the New York Times. I remember Thompson saying something to the effect of “When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.” I think about that conversation a lot these days.

I encourage you all to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. I hope to offer some of my own reflections later.

Friday, March 13, 2009

more ideography

In response to yesterday’s post on traditional and simplified Chinese characters, I got a really interesting email from my student Yee Sum Lo that I’d like (with her permission) to share:

Chinese Input software is the same for both cell phones and computers: you can input a traditional character easily on a cell phone and because one/two characters can represent an English word and four characters can already replace a sentence, it is easier to text in Chinese than in English! Most people would agree with the article, there is no reason to switch to simplified in this case because the input of simplified and traditional is nearly identical in any digital medium.

However, as far as "encouraging people to learn" goes, my friends in the Chinese Class at Wheaton simply can't read traditional. Some theorize that because Westerners are used to simple alphabets, their eyes (and brains) aren't adjusted to take in and process so much at one time. I just know that the simplified set already seems more complicated than necessary to them. For me, visual problems aside, traditional characters are easier to learn because each part of the character gives you small bits of information that will guide you to define that term as well as tell you how to pronounce it — all encapsulated in that small character. There is a wealth of information in each stroke, which is why eliminating them has caused such an uproar.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

asses and apostles

Twice in the past few years I’ve had an interesting experience as a reader. The first encounter was with Marilynne Robinson’s celebrated Gilead. I read the book soon after it came out, and liked it very much — but was not especially moved by it or taken with it. But then, in the weeks that followed, certain scenes from the book kept coming back to my mind. I had the increasingly strong feeling that there was more to the book than I had been able to discern. So eventually I sat down and read it again — and this time it bloomed in my mind. I got it. The full beauty and power of the book came home to me.

Similarly: several years ago I read Michael Chabon’s short novel The Final Solution and found it . . . well, just interesting. (Chabon is incapable of being less than interesting.) But recently, for some reason unknown to me, I began to feel that I hadn’t read it well, hadn’t gotten the most from it. So the other day I sat down and read it again — and this time I thought, Wow. What a fabulous little tour de force. What a surprisingly moving book, beneath the delightful gamesmanship of the conceit. (What that conceit is I’ll leave it to you to find out, if you haven't read the book. And if you do decide to read it, try your very best to avoid learning anything about it, even from the cover or the jacket.)

Anyway, I now have gained a great deal of pleasure from two books that would have meant little or nothing to me if I hadn’t re-read them. And I re-read them because I heeded a nagging feeling that as a reader I had not done them justice. Surely we fail books at least as often as they fail us. And as G. C. Lichtenberg said, “A book is a mirror: If an ass peers into it, you can't expect an apostle to look out.”


Here’s a fascinating post by James Fallows on a current debate in China about how to form the ideographic characters of the Chinese language. During Mao’s reign simplified forms of the traditional characters were introduced, but many people believe that the the simplified versions are not only less informative, but are also more easily confused with one another. Fallows argues that, because more Chinese are typing these characters on keyboards rather than writing them by hand, the justification for the simplified versions is disappearing:

Increasingly, Chinese people don't actually have to write (rite? right?) out these characters by hand. More and more, they key them in with mobile phones or at computers. And when they do that, it's just as easy to "write" a traditional-style, complex, information-dense character as a streamlined new one. (Reason: you key in clues about the character, either its pronunciation or its root form, and then click to choose the one you want.) So — according to current arguments — the technology of computers and mobile phones could actually revive an important, quasi-antique style of writing.

Fallows links to further information about the debate here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

department of no comment

From here:

Twitter of the Shrew - adapted for Twitter by @BrianFeldman from the classic comedy attributed to William Shakespeare, with additional material by @irenelpynn, is a Twitter adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew (1590-1594). Spanning 19 Twitter accounts and presented over 12 days (one scene per day), “Twitter of the Shrew” attempts to live up to Shakespeare’s “Brevity is the soul of wit” proverb, by condensing the play’s iambic pentameter dialogue down to updates of 140 characters or less. “It’s a great idea!,” says Austin Tichenor of The Reduced Shakespeare Company.

Okay, one comment: I like the “attributed to” Shakespeare. A nod to the Oxfordians is always in order, I’m sure.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

choice architecture, continued

So, a further thought about Paul Graham’s Hacker News and its comments policy. (See yesterday’s post for details.) If reddit allows you to approve or disapprove of things you haven't even read, Hacker News appears not to allow you to disapprove of things at all: you can click the “up” arrow or . . . well, do nothing at all. Or so it appears. Because it turns out that when your karma points reach a certain threshold — apparently 100 — you suddenly acquire the opportunity to downvote a post/link. Interesting! It’s only when you have contributed value to the community that you are entrusted with the power of negativity.

Something similar is being done at another hacker site, Stack Overflow, where upvotes add 10 karma or “reputation” points to a post’s author, while downvotes remove two reputation points from the post’s author — and one from the reputation of the person doing the downvoting. This too is interesting! Here you have to ask yourself before voting something down whether you feel strongly enough about it to take a chunk out of your own reputation to register your disapproval. Kinda like real life.

These are great examples of “choice architecture,” but not quite of the “nudge” variety. They are more than nudging you to make certain kinds of decisions, though. Hacker News is allowing you to purchase power with good behavior, while Stack Overflow is subtly threatening people who consistently misbehave with expulsion from the community.

I like these models very much, but at the moment I can't see how they could be applied to sites where there are just comments rather than votes on the value of posts. Regular old blogs — as ace commenter Tony Comstock remarks in relation to my previous post — may have to depend on the blogger’s own ability to model civil discourse and to gently manage comment threads. But I have seen many, many peaceable and thoughtful bloggers get overwhelmed by trolls and other hostile figures. So there is, I think, a desperate need to develop a choice architecture that works for the garden variety blog and its comment threads.

the archangels' library

A tweet from Suggested Donation, via librarian.net: “Can anyone tell this ignorant museum and library blogger where this is? Our guess was heaven.” Not a bad guess, for book lovers anyway.

Monday, March 9, 2009

flamethrowers and fire extinguishers

I keep chewing on the problem of blog architecture: If the basic structure is going to be based on posts-plus-comments, how could thoughtful, sane, reasonable posts and comments be encouraged? Can that structure be re-engineered so that the “choice architecture” nudges people towards something other than snarkery and contempt?

As I have noted in my previous posts on this subject, the karma-based moderation system at Slashdot is the most famous example of such an attempt, and has been imitated in various ways. Another example within the hacker world is reddit, which simplifies the Slashdot system into a thumbs-up and thumbs-down model. Interestingly, reddit is happy to let you give your opinion about a link you haven't even followed. If you’re logged in, you can just run down the page clicking up or down arrows at your pleasure. You can do the same for comments, though you at least have to look at them, if only out of the corner of your eye. Perhaps not surprisingly, reddit is known for its exceptionally fierce flame wars. What would you expect from a site where you arenudged towards giving opinions about stories you haven't even read?

Paul Graham, an internet entrepreneur who helped fund reddit, has started an alternative to it called Hacker News. His primary goal here was to construct an architecture that would discourage the hostility and craziness that often seems to dominate reddit. As he has recently written:

It's pretty clear now that the broken windows theory applies to community sites as well. The theory is that minor forms of bad behavior encourage worse ones: that a neighborhood with lots of graffiti and broken windows becomes one where robberies occur. I was living in New York when Giuliani introduced the reforms that made the broken windows theory famous, and the transformation was miraculous. And I was a Reddit user when the opposite happened there, and the transformation was equally dramatic.

I'm not criticizing Steve and Alexis. What happened to Reddit didn't happen out of neglect. From the start they had a policy of censoring nothing except spam. Plus Reddit had different goals from Hacker News. Reddit was a startup, not a side project; its goal was to grow as fast as possible. Combine rapid growth and zero censorship, and the result is a free for all. But I don't think they'd do much differently if they were doing it again.

In other words, flame wars draw eyes. There are a lot of people out there who like participating in flame wars — who like breaking windows and just wants someone to provide them lots of windows to break. Paul Graham doesn't seem to have a problem with the existence of such people or even with sites that encourage them; but he does want to create a site that covers similar issues but promotes a different kind of conversation. How he does that, and whether it works, is a topic I’ll take up in another post.

Friday, March 6, 2009


When we talk about reading, and whether The Screen is an enemy of The Book, we need to pause to make distinctions. We need to be aware that we read for several diffferent reasons: for pleasure, for benefits intellectual and academic (these are not always the same) and spiritual. We need to be aware that we read in different modes: the kind of intensely focused attentiveness that the medieval monastic world called studium, the kind of contemplative reflection that world called meditatio, the easy relaxation of reading for fun. We read different kinds of texts: sacred, artful, informative, pleasure-giving. And we read using different instruments:

You can see from the above that it's just not helpful to talk about "the book" and "the screen." The books comes to us via multiple technologies, and there are many kinds of screen, which we interact with in a variety of ways. (Thus the distinctions made by Marshall McLuhan and many other thinkers since about the many and significant differences between watching TV and going to the movies.) 

You can also see that what makes the Kindle and other e-readers so productive of debates and arguments is their appearance under both "book" and "screen." They are a new way of experiencing books but also a new kind of screen.


moment of surrender

I was walking to work this morning (in more pleasant weather than I’ve been afforded in quite some time) and decided to listen to some music. I don't usually do this: I like to reserve that fifteen minutes for prayer or just silence. But I hadn't had a chance to give a thorough listen to the new U2 record, No Line on the Horizon, so I decided to put on a song. What the shuffle yielded first was “Moment of Surrender,” which strikes me as the one certifiably transcendent song on the record and sure to be a fixture in all future U2charists.

At the moment of surrender
I folded to my knees
I did not notice the passersby
And they did not notice me

As the iPod rose to world dominance earlier in this decade, the most common complaint we heard was that they isolated their users from humanity; they locked listeners up in their inner worlds and made them heedless of others. Now that the iPod has become simply furniture, the minds of the anxious have shifted to sites like Facebook and Twitter, which immerse us in a tingling sphere of constant connectivity. Technology can't win, can it?

I don't want to deny that either of these concerns has substance. I’ve been annoyed by podheads crashing into me on the street, and I’ve experienced first-hand the buzz, and then the diminishing returns, of social networking. But I just want to say that I’m going to remember this morning’s walk to work for a long time.

At the moment of surrender
Of vision over visibility
I did not notice the passersby
And they did not notice me

Where does the power come from, the power that music has to connect you to yourself? It's something very different than the power of the social. I didn't crash into any passersby, but I didn't notice them either. And when I got to work I had to stop in the men’s room for a moment to wipe away a tear.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

top rejected names for this blog

Some from me, some from James Poulos.

Literal Digitacy 

Literate Digits 

Texts R Us

Read It and Weep 

Unicode Festival 




Hermes' Hermeneuts

Presse de Digitator

Word Up


The Rosetta Zone

(Honesty requires me to admit that James came up with the brilliant "Presse de Digitator.")


This story is surprising to me. I am not at all surprised that people claim to have read books that they haven't read, but I certainly didn't expect that Nineteen Eighty-Four would be at the top of the list. I mean, it’s not an especially challenging or especially long read, and there are plenty of folks out there — I among them — who have found it pretty darn riveting. Curious.

I wonder what would top an American version of that list: A recent feature on Oprah’s Book Club? Something universally assigned in high school? Would we more want to present ourselves as ambitiously literate — saying that we read Gravity’s Rainbow when, like everyone else, we really didn’t — or would we want to present ourselves as socially normal — saying not only that we read Catcher in the Rye in high school but that it was our favorite book, when in fact we never got past page three?

There’s another side to all this, too: people who deny having read books that they actually love. How many people falsely assert that they have never read a Stephen King or John Grisham novel? I bet more people untruthfully deny having read the Harry Potter books than untruthfully claim that they have.

What about The Lord of the Rings? Are there more people who haven't read it but say that they have or have read it but say that they haven't? Inquiring minds want to know.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

a dialogue

ENTHUSIAST: My Kindle is awesome. I can carry around hundreds of books in one small package; I can order more books from almost anywhere and have them downloaded to the device in a few seconds. And the books cost a good deal less than their dead-tree equivalents. It’s revolutionary, I tell you.

SKEPTIC: I guess. But what if you lose it, or break it? Then you haven't lost one book, but hundreds.

EN: No, actually, I haven't lost any books at all: they’re all backed up on Amazon’s servers, and I can re-download them whenever I want. (Something I can't do with the music I buy from iTunes or for that matter from Amazon.)

SK: But how can you re-download them if you’ve lost your Kindle? Can you read them online at Amazon’s website?

EN: Well . . . no. That would be cool, but no. I would have to buy another Kindle, and then I could get all my books back.

SK: But at that point you’d have paid around eight hundred bucks for your two Kindles. You’d have to buy a hell of a lot of books at the reduced Kindle price to make that pay for itself.

EN: Well, I do buy a lot of books — but okay. Still, how likely is it that I’ll lose my first Kindle?

SK: Don't know. It varies from person to person, I guess. How careless or accident-prone are you?

EN: Well, I can't remember the last time I lost a book or had one stolen, and I am more careful with the Kindle than with individual books. So I think it’s worth the risk. Especially when I travel, to have so many reading options available to me.

SK: I’m glad you mentioned that. Is having all those options really such a good idea? Think of it this way: Suppose you bring one book along with you on a trip. Suppose you start it and it’s not really doing much for you — you’re having trouble getting into the mood of it, the swing of it. If you have it on a Kindle, you’re almost certain to give up and turn to one of the dozens of other books you have available. But if it’s the only book you’ve got, you’re more likely to stick with it. And if it’s a good book — if it’s a book that holds real pleasure or instruction for the persistent and non-distracted reader — then later on you’ll be glad that you read it. You’ll be glad that you didn’t have something else to read on that trip. You’ll be glad that you had a book instead of a Kindle.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Birkerts and the Kindle

Well, Sven Birkerts suspects the Kindle — no surprise there. Interestingly, in the seminar I’m currently teaching we just finished reading Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies, and at the end of that discussion I brought my Kindle to class and passed it around. So this brief essay by Birkerts is for me and my students a timely one.

I have my own concerns about the transition from book to screens — assuming that such a transition is really taking place — but I can't think of anyone who expresses such concerns less clearly than Birkerts. My students and I were continually puzzled while reading The Gutenberg Elegies — we just couldn't figure out exactly what his complaints were. And the same terminal vagueness afflicts this new essay. Consider:

Why, then, am I so uneasy about the page-to-screen transfer — a skeptic if not a downright resister? Perhaps it is because I see in the turning of literal pages — pages bound in literal books — a compelling larger value, and perceive in the move away from the book a move away from a certain kind of cultural understanding, one that I’m not confident that we are replacing, never mind improving upon. I’m not blind to the unwieldiness of the book, or to the cumbersome systems we must maintain to accommodate it—the vast libraries and complicated filing systems. But these structures evolved over centuries in ways that map our collective endeavor to understand and express our world. The book is part of a system. And that system stands for the labor and taxonomy of human understanding, and to touch a book is to touch that system, however lightly.

The electronic book, on the other hand, represents — and furthers — a circuitry of instant access, which giveth (information) as it taketh away (the great clarifying context, the order). This will not be an instant revolution. Paradigm shifts take time. Right now the Kindle still lives within the context of print. But what would happen if, through growing market share and broad generational adoption, the Kindle were to supplant the bound book? For me the significance of this is not whether people end up reading more or less, or even a matter of what they read. At issue is the deep-structure of the activity. My fear is that as Wikipedia is to information, so will the Kindle become to literature and the humanities: a one-stop outlet, a speedy and irresistibly efficient leveler of context.

As far as I can tell, Birkerts is saying here that it doesn't matter how much you read or what you read; all that matters is that you are physically turning the pages of a codex, because that specific action is “a larger value” than what you read and constitutes “the deep-structure of the activity.”

I cannot find any other way of interpreting what Birkerts says here, but that’s just nuts — as well as totally inconsistent with the arguments he makes in The Gutenberg Elegies about the unique value of reading novels. Does he really want to suggest that a person reading a biography of Paris Hilton in an actual book is having a deeper and richer experience than a person reading Henry James on a Kindle?

Later on in the essay he gets rather upset as he recalls a person who used her Blackberry to retrieve the precise words of a line from Wallace Stevens’s poetry. “I pictured us gradually letting go of Wallace Stevens (and every other artist and producer of work) as the historical flesh-and-blood entity he was, and accepting in his place a Wallace Stevens that is the merely the sum total of his facts — a writer no longer cohering in historical imagination but fragmented into retrievable bits of information.” So what, then, is an acceptable way to look up a line of poetry by Stevens? Isn't there something to be said for the fact that a small group of people at that moment, while they were still immersed in conversation, were able to share Stevens’s actual words? Doesn't that count for something? Isn't that in some way better than a scene in which one or two of them remember to look up the line later, while the others forget about it altogether?

Birkerts needs to think past his immediate reactions. Even if the reactions are appropriate ones, they aren't useful to anyone else unless they are thought through and clearly articulated. This is the kind of off-the-cuff reaction than gives us book lovers a bad name.

what to save, continued

Back to the subject of my previous post:

If trusting overmuch in the stability of the cloud — or any one particular cloud in the brave new world of what I like to call Big Sky Computing — is unwise, there are other problems to consider. What if the magazine whose website your link directs you to goes out of business? That’s not likely in the case of The New Yorker, you may say, but how confident can we be in the continued existence of any print publication in these difficult times? Plus, I have on my computer a whole bunch of dead links to New Yorker stories that, during their last major site restructuring, got taken off the web or reassigned to new URLs. Ditto with The New Republic, which has been promising to re-organize and re-present its archives for two or three years now.

The problem of disappearing websites is becoming more and more serious, and it’s interesting that among the first groups to take serious cognizance of that fact are librarians and archivists — people charged with preserving our cultural inheritance. Not easy to do when chunks of that cultural inheritance can be swept away with a couple of keystrokes. You can use the Wayback Machine to find a lot of stuff, but there’s a lot more that you’ll never recover that way.

So maybe it’s better to keep anything you think you’re likely to need on your own carefully-and-regularly-backed-up computer.* It’s not like webpages or PDFs — I save everything as PDF — take up that much hard drive space, especially in comparison to movies or high-resolution photos. And there are a whole set of wonderful information management tools out there — this is the one I use, after having tried pretty much everything available for the Mac — to help you store and organize almost anything you can download.

So why don't I do this more readily? Why is it my reflex to use Delicious? I think it’s because when I’m trying to decide what to do with a story or article I’ve found online, I am (by definition) working in my browser — and Delicious is also in my browser. And if it’s a link rather than a whole story I’m saving, that link will also take me back to (or remain within) the browser. It just seems easier and more natural to remain within the same “space.” For those of us who mistrust, or are ambivalent about, the cloud, this is a resistance that needs to be overcome.

*I could also perform here a Richard-Stallman-like privacy rant, but I shall spare you that affliction.

Monday, March 2, 2009

what to save and how to save it

Here’s a daily decision for me: How to register, note, or save things I read that I’m interested in. So, for instance, this morning I’m reading D. T. Max’s long, detailed, and deeply sad biographical essay on David Foster Wallace. If I hadn’t had time to read it this morning I would have saved it to Instapaper for later perusal. But I did have time to read it — or perhaps I should say I made time to do so — and as I got into it I realized that this is a substantial piece that I will probably want to return to later. (Wallace’s career is a fascinating one for someone with my interests.) So what do I do?

Well, I could just bookmark it, which is something I do via Delicious — that is, “in the cloud.” I like this option for several reasons. First, it’s quick (especially if you’re using the Delicious plugins that are available for both Firefox and Safari). Second, I can paste in an excerpt from the text that makes it clear (to me, anyway) what interest the story holds. Third, I can tag the link with any number of relevant keywords, which gives me multiple layers of organization. Finally, I don't have to worry about backing up the data, because it’s on someone else’s multiply-backed-up servers.

Or is it? Well, another social bookmarking service, ma.gnolia, recently crapped out and lost all of its users’ data. I’d like to think that Delicious, which is owned by Yahoo, has a better backup system. Surely it does . . . doesn't it?

Almost certainly it does. But I export my bookmarks to my hard drive from time to time just in case — thus, I suppose, rendering that fourth reason for using the service nugatory. As much as we’d like to think that living in the cloud solves all our old worries about backing up data, it doesn't. Or it shouldn't. Leslie Lamport’s famous line about distributed computing — “A distributed system is one in which the failure of a computer you didn't even know existed can render your own computer unusable” — is highly relevant to anyone whose data lives in the cloud.

So why don't I keep all the stuff I’m interested in on my own computer? Why not just download the essay on Wallace? As it happens, I just did. And why I did is something I’ll talk about in another post.

better! faster!

This one goes back to the Sixties:

book cover

Courtesy of things magazine.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

more counting

Faithful reader Tony Comstock informs me that those who are eager to multiply and count the words they write, as well as the pages they read, have an option. (Link fixed. I think.)