Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, April 30, 2009

another reason I'm glad to be a Certified Microsoft-Free Zone

Steven Frank, on the recently released screenshots of Office 2010:

Part of the reason my reaction was so negative was that, in my mind, I was trying to walk through a phone conversation with a hypothetical family member who was struggling with that window. It’s not hard to imagine: “OK, now click on the delete button. It’s in the upper left of the window. It says Delete, but it’s not the big black X, it’s the smaller red X to the left and below that. No, not the red circle with the slash through it, that’s a different kind of delete. You want the X. No not the big X. You don’t see it? Are you on the ribbon tab that says Message, or the other tab that looks sort of like four interlocking rectangles? The ribbon is the main part of the window at the top. OK, why don’t I just drive over there.”

As he says in his first post on the topic, "This is impenetrable. It’s UI salad."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

URLs for books

One small but, to me, significant point that Steven Johnson raises in his recent essay on e-reading is the increasingly evident need for something like a URL — a Universal Record Locator — for books. Without this, the utopian dreams of connecting the world of readers are bound to failure.

For centuries, we've had an explicit system for organizing print books in the form of page numbers and bibliographic info. All of that breaks down in this new digital world. The Kindle doesn't even have page numbers -- it has an entirely new system called "locations" because the pagination changes constantly based on the type size you choose to read. If you want to write a comment about page 32 of "On Beauty," what do you link to? The Kindle location? The Google Book Search page? This sounds like a question only a librarian would get excited about, but the truth is, until we figure out a standardized way to link to individual pages -- so that all the data associated with a specific passage from "On Beauty" point to the same location -- books are going to remain orphans in this new world.)

As a teacher I assign particular editions of books for my classes, of course, and that means that usually we are all quite literally on the same page in class. But not always. A student who already has the Robert Fagles translation of the Odyssey might not see a good reason to buy the Robert Fitzgerald translation I have assigned — or just might not have the money. Understandable. But when I tell the class to turn to page 271, and read a passage from that page, I could be moving on to another passage before the student with a different edition finds those lines. Sometimes, if there are book and line numbers, I will mention those, and that helps — but line numbers vary in translated texts (as they do in editions of Shakespeare’s plays).

In the course on Christianity and Fantasy I have been teaching this term the problem has been acute, because there are so many different editions available of The Lord of the Rings and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and, to a lesser extent, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It was consistently difficult to get everyone in class looking at the same passages at the same time.

There are some books that don't present this problem. Poems in English with line numbers. The Bible, which we can cite by chapter and verse. The works of Aristotle, universally cited by Bekker numbers and those of Plato, which use the Stephanus pagination. Most recent editions of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which draw on the lineation established by Hans Walter Gabler, even when they don't use Gabler’s text. But these are few and far between. URLs for books would be a boon to the whole world of readers, but especially for teachers and students.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

just a moment in time

Bill James, so-called "guru of baseball statistics" — he hates that moniker — and general Really Smart Guy, on the past and future of newspapers :

You and I entered the scene at a certain point, where each city had one or two big newspapers which had hundreds and hundreds of features, and they had these things when we were 10 years old and learning to read and they had them when we were 25 years old and 35 years old, so we tended to think of that as the natural and permanent order of the universe -- but it wasn't; it was just a moment in time; the newspapers were very different in 1935 and very different in 1935 from 1910 and hugely different in 1910 from 1885.

Eventually the newspapers -- as a natural outcome of processes that began in 1836 -- became SO big and so expensive that they were dinosaurs, unable to compete with smaller and lighter information providers.

We're back to 1836 now, in a sense; everybody who wants to has his own "newspaper", and it's tough to know who is good and who is reliable and who isn't, but the same processes are still running. The blogs will get bigger; the good ones are hiring a second helper and a third and fourth, and we'll spend a century or more sorting things out and re-creating the market. It's hard, but it's not a bad thing. It's a good thing.

Hat tip to Nathan Bierma , who got it from someone else, but that's how the internet goes.

what price What Price Liberty?

The Radiohead experiment repeated for a book: Ben Wilson's What Price Liberty? , which you can download from Faber's website and pay whatever you think appropriate. Well, you can if you have a PayPal account, which — after a nightmarish experience last year in which some PayPal employees acknowledged that my account info had been stolen while others denied it — I do not. I understand that Faber couldn't feasibly have followed the Radiohead model to the point of creating their own online store . . . but I wish they had. I'd like to participate in this little endeavor. Also the book looks interesting.

Monday, April 27, 2009

one man's meat. . .

Attitudes :

1.  Anne Fadiman, the author, was relieved to learn that her essay collection, “Ex Libris,” was not available on Kindle. “It would really be ironic if it were,” she said of the book, which evokes her abiding passion for books as objects. “There’s a little box on Amazon that reads ‘Tell the publisher I’d like to read this book on Kindle,’” she said. “I hope no one tells the publisher.” 

2. Given the sorry financial state of the book business, most authors may be willing to set aside any prejudices. Chris Cleave, a novelist who writes a column for The Guardian, put it bluntly. “I love my readers and I want them to read my stuff,” he said. “I’d write it out longhand for them if necessary.”

understanding comments, redux

I’ve written about the everlasting problem of blog comments before, as have many bloggers, and now I see that Virginia Heffernan has weighed in at the NYT. Why do we keep doing this? After all, it’s well-established that Americans in general are poorly-informed about just about everything, and that levels of hostility on the internet often reach pathological levels. So what more is there to say? Anger and stupidity are the order of the day, every day.

I think we keep writing about these matters because we don't know what’s going on in any given case, in any given mind. When you get to know a particular blog well you're likely to come across a regular commentator who is just astonishing in his ignorance — but wait: how do we know he’s not just jerking our chain? Can someone really be that clueless? Or must there be malice involved?

We ask questions like this because we have a natural, and apparently quite intense, interest in what makes other people tick. (Insert your favorite sociobiological explanation here.) But nothing is harder to understand than human motives, as a few minutes of self-examination would reveal to any of us. And none of these people who clog the internet with their anger and/or ignorance are interesting. So it’s curious that so many of us keep worrying over this issue.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

the future of making

This Future of Making Map is pretty cool, though I wish I had the real thing rather than a PDF. Thanks to Core77 for the link.

Friday, April 24, 2009

a new illuminated Bible


Sally Mae Joseph, 'Now the Word, Jeremiah 1:4-10', illuminated bible page, 2004. Hill Museum & Manuscript Library Collection. More information here .


About ten years ago James O’Donnell published a provocative book called Avatars of the Word: from Papyrus to Cyberspace. The latter chapters of the book turn towards the changing role of teachers in an unprecedentedly information-saturated environment. There’s a good deal of material in these chapters about tenure, credentialing, teaching vs. research, “experiential learning” — a whole range of issues that have been debated ever more hotly over the past decade, and about which O’Donnell has interesting (and in some cases prophetic) things to say. But today I just want to emphasize his belief that that teachers — especially on the college level — are less and less needed to be sources of information, and more and more valuable as instructors in the fine art of discrimination.

O’Donnell doesn't use the word “discrimination,” but it’s the appropriate one, even though its reputation is lower than it should be. When we hear the word today we are likely to have negative associations, since for the past fifty years it has been used primarily with the adjectives “racial” or “gender.” Discrimination in our context is usually something one is guilty of. But older senses of the word are more positive. Some of them still survive: we occasionally hear of “discriminating collectors” of this or that, for instance. But it was once a great compliment to say of someone that he or she possessed discrimination. It meant that that person had a general but acute facility for assessing the value of objects, or works of art, or books, or even arguments.

Articles like the one by Steven Johnson I commented on the other day make me think about discrimination. Technologies that identify identical or similar strings of characters cannot assess the relative value of those connections. To what extent, then, is that my job as a teacher? To what extent should I think of myself as an instructor in the arts of discrimination?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

link dump!

The fabulous web designer Jason Santa Maria on the value of keeping a sketchbook. (Santa Maria usually has a different design for each entry in his blog, so click through and see the fun.)

Some months old, but here are some interesting thoughts from then-NEA-head Dana Gioia and Sunil Iyengar on what we know and, more important, what we don't know about reading online.

I wish I could see this BBC documentary on Why Reading Matters.

A lovely little piece In Defense of Readers by a web designer. Designing beautiful, even pleasant, text for online reading is a tough job.

An interesting Wired interview with Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.

Steven Johnson on e-reading

Over the next few days, as time permits, — here at Wheaton, we’re getting near the end of the semester, and things are getting a little crazy — I’m going to be responding to Steven Johnson’s recent hyperventilation on digital reading in the Wall Street Journal. This is Johnson in his This-Changes-Everything mode, which is my least favorite of his modes, so I may be a little cranky here. Let’s start with just a few points.

Think about it. Before too long, you'll be able to create a kind of shadow version of your entire library, including every book you've ever read -- as a child, as a teenager, as a college student, as an adult. Every word in that library will be searchable. It is hard to overstate the impact that this kind of shift will have on scholarship.

Yes, very cool, I agree. Just yesterday I was teaching a class how to use Google Books and Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” feature to find passages in the books they’re going to be writing their papers on. But I already dread what this is going to do to my students’ papers once they seriously glom on to these new technologies. I’ll have essay after essay analyzing every occurrence of a particular word in a novel or long poem. Why? because that’s what these technologies see: words, or, more precisely, strings of characters. Papers built on the powers of string search will find every use of the word “honor” in the Iliad, but may well be blind to passages in which honor is granted or withheld without the word being used, or where some related concept is invoked: “glory,” say. To someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; so someone with a search engine, every book looks like a set of strings.

With books becoming part of this universe, "booklogs" will prosper, with readers taking inspiring or infuriating passages out of books and commenting on them in public. Google will begin indexing and ranking individual pages and paragraphs from books based on the online chatter about them. (As the writer and futurist Kevin Kelly says, "In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.") You'll read a puzzling passage from a novel and then instantly browse through dozens of comments from readers around the world, annotating, explaining or debating the passage's true meaning.

And in the process be taken completely out of the world of the book itself, losing the attentiveness you need to read anything truly worth reading. (Johnson, to his credit, does acknowledge this loss of attention as a problem.) Kelly’s typically hyperbolic statement fails to see that, if we pause for a moment to think, everything is not equally related to everything else: connections are variable in strength and tenacity. The passage early in The Lord of the Rings in which Gandalf expresses approval of the mercy Bilbo showed to Gollum is especially closely connected with the book’s final scene on Mount Doom — much more than to hundreds of other pages of the book. Kelly in his enthusiasm lacks any sense of the need for intellectual discrimination.

Think of it as a permanent, global book club. As you read, you will know that at any given moment, a conversation is available about the paragraph or even sentence you are reading. Nobody will read alone anymore. Reading books will go from being a fundamentally private activity — a direct exchange between author and reader — to a community event, with every isolated paragraph the launching pad for a conversation with strangers around the world.

Johnson does not even seem aware that to many, many people this vision is nightmarish. There are readers, and there will always be readers, who love books precisely because they offer the opportunity to be alone with another intelligence — one other intelligence. This has indeed been one of the chief joys of reading as long as people have read, and Johnson seems to think it is simply going to disappear, and that people will be perfectly happy to see it disappear. Absurd.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Fixed the links on the previous posts (I think). Now there's no time to write something new. . . .

Monday, April 20, 2009


Nicholas Carr:

Hashmobs [transfer] the flashmob concept into a purely realtime environment. A hashmob is a virtual mob that exists entirely within the Twitter realtime stream. It derives its name not from any kind of illicit pipeweed but from the "hashtags" that are commonly used to categorize tweets. Hashtags take the form of a hash sign, ie, #, in front of a word or word-portmanteau, eg, #obama or #obamadog. The members of a hashmob gather, virtually, around a particular hashtag by labeling each of their tweets with said hashtag and then following the resulting hashtag tweet stream. Hashmobbers don't have to subject themselves to the weather, and they don't actually have to be in proximity to any other physical being. A hashmob is a purely avatarian mob, though it is every bit as prone to the rapid cultivation of mass hysteria as a nonavatarian mob. 


Nabokov's cards

You may recall that there was a significant controversy (I think technically it was a "kerfuffle") a while back about Dmitri Nabokov's decision to have his father's final, unfinished novel published — in defiance of his father's explicit request that the notes for the book be destroyed. 

But here's something interesting: according to the NYT , when Penguin publishes The Original of Laura this November, it will consist of photo reproductions of the 138 index cards on which Nabokov drafted this novel, as he did most of the ones that preceded it, with transcripts on facing pages. A brilliant decision. Can't wait to see it.

(I am reminded — and yes, you knew Vladimir Nabokov, you worked with Vladimir Nabokov, and I am no Vladimir Nabokov — that I wrote all the notes and drafts for my first couple of books in the late, lamented HyperCard. I still miss HyperCard. Nothing has come out since that fits my workflow quite so well.)


My friends and former students David Michael and Kristen Scharold, along with some other smart folks, have started an online magazine: Wunderkammer Magazine. It debuts today, so check it out.


I really love Scott McCloud's seminal guide Understanding Comics, but in general I'm not a big fan of McCloud's work. And that work hasn't gotten better as, for the last decade or so, he has explored web-based and other post-print media in what seem to be uncertain and half-hearted ways. A case in point is his long-unfinished web comic The Right Number, whose format develops from a single strategy: each panel — or "panel" — contains at its center a tiny rectangle that, when clicked on, comes forward as the next panel. It's okay, I guess, but it gives the comic the feel of being a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation. For me that's not a great vibe (even though I think Keynote may be the best app Apple makes). 

I was then reminded me of a rather intriguing new web-based presentation app, Prezi , which allows you (really kinda forces you) to create presentations that zoom in and out and around, making not images but text highly animated. And this in turn reminded me of some of the experiments at Usetext  that have paragraphs emerging from other paragraphs which they displace and then return to. 

All this is sort of cool, I guess, but it is always working against, or at least stretching, the nature of text — as concrete poetry does quite consciously — and that gets tiresome after a while. Sometimes after a short while. Most of the people I know who have tried Prezi say it makes them seasick. I wonder if this is a temporary or a permanent phenomenon? That is, I wonder if people will eventually get used to animated texts and find animation normal, or whether these strategies will always be resisted by text itself?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

the future of memoir

In one of my classes we've been reading and discussing three autobiographical stories — three versions of memoir, you might say: Augustine's Confessions, Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory, and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. The other day I remarked to the class that all three of these authors are, in their varying ways, displaced persons — displaced from homeland, or upbringing, or culture, or language, or some combination thereof — and that displacement is one of the major prompts for memoir and other forms of self-narration. The person taken out of the environment in which he or she was formed is almost forced to reconsider the self and its components, is almost forced into redefinition. And one of the classic ways to achieve a successful redefinition is by telling one’s own story, in large part because through telling it one discovers what it is.

Given the mobility of American culture (I went on to say), and the resulting vast numbers of displaced persons, can anyone be surprised that memoir has become the dominant literary genre of our time?

But here’s what I’m wondering: does Facebook make self-narration less compelling, less necessary? In a much talked-about essay, Peggy Orenstein has speculated that Facebook denies to young people “an opportunity for insight, for growth through loneliness”; it makes it harder for them “to establish distance from their former selves, to clear space for introspection and transformation.” Maybe it also eases — or hides from us — our displacements, and creates a false sense of seamlessness in lives that have actually undergone significant ruptures.

Or perhaps it does what it promises to do: offer a real sense of seamlessness, allow us to shift our lives in innumerable ways without ever leaving anyone or anything vital behind. We’ll see.

Friday, April 17, 2009


I commend to you all the excellent comments by — darn these pseudonyms! — some Biblical verse and nadezhda on this post . You will be glad you invested the time.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

the late age of print

This has been an overwhelmingly busy week, so posting has been light, but I have to pause in the midst of the uproar to commend to you Ted Striphas's website The Late Age of Print — and to point out that the book of that name, published by Columbia University Press, is now available as a PDF download under a Creative Commons license. Striphas comments that his is the first book that Columbia has released in this way. Columbia is here following the example of Yale UP, which recently made James Boyle's The Public Domain available via download under the CC license. I haven't finished reading either book yet, but both are fascinating, and I hope to comment on them later.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

a bookish experiment

A great idea from Michael Bhaskar:

I’m convinced that all reading relies on rhythm in some way, a rhythm that is signified by breaks in the text. Turning the page establishes a certain rhythm, just as swiping a page on the iPhone does, or even the lines between tweets. Nonetheless what remains consistent is that we rely on the relationship between rhythm, break and comprehension for our experience of texts.

Big blocks of text have no break and rhythm, hence they are so intimidating to look at and confusing to read. Ebooks fundamentally work as they effectively recreate, if subtly alter, the rhythm and beat of reading long form texts.

My experiment would be something along the lines of: assemble the same text on every different reading platform, device and print mechanism possible.  Get a focus group and then either get them to read the passage on every device and answer a series of questions, or get everyone to read on one platform and answer a set series of questions.

The goal would be to try and work out how our understanding and enjoyment of texts shifts with the platform and the various rhythms established. With that data writers and publishers could then start to think of optimising, adapting and even composing content for different reading experiences.

Somebody do this!

the production line

Mark Bauerlein of Emory University is concerned about the “production line” of little-read and little-noticed scholarship in the humanities, and the extent to which it distracts from teaching — especially the teaching of undergraduates. (PDF here.) He makes the following recommendations:

• The Modern Language Association should convene a committee to follow up on the work of the Ad Hoc Committee on Scholarly Publishing. The Ad Hoc Committee’s report regretted the productivity requirements, and a new committee made up of distinguished scholars, teachers, and administrators would pursue the problem to its source. That is, it would address parties fomenting the problem, such as organizations that rank universities mainly by the research output of faculty, administrators who evaluate their own faculty mostly by research output, and tenured faculty members who do the same with junior colleagues and job applicants.

• Foundations such as the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, which fund humanities research, should shift some of their grants and awards away from research activities and toward undergraduate teaching activities.

• Three departments in prominent institutions of similar type (for instance, three large flagship public universities) should announce collectively that they no longer require a book for tenure. Instead, these literature and language departments will review a maximum of 100 pages of scholarship in the tenure file. Assistant professors will soon realize that doing more counts for nothing, and they’ll slow the research pace. . . .

• Most importantly, language and literature departments in research universities should hire professors on the basis of teaching capacity, not research expertise. On the model of small liberal arts colleges, job descriptions foreground undergraduate teaching, and annual reviews and promotion follow accordingly. No publishing pressures, no research demands, just solid teaching and close mentoring. . . . Students count more than articles in quarterlies.

Had Bauerlein made these recommendations ten years ago, I would have said that they had no chance of succeeding. But given current and (almost certainly) future economic conditions in American universities, I think they have a real chance of success, at least at most universities (all but the very top tier). And I think that would be a good thing indeed.

Commenting on this article, Alex Reid argues that “if we can begin at least to open the question of how we value scholarly work, we can begin to see how digital, collaborative enterprises might create more scholarly value.” I agree with this too. If professors spend less time trying to write scholarly books and articles that even they are not interested in — an all-too-common phenomenon — they could devote some of that time to becoming critical, thoughtful, and imaginative explorers of new technologies of learning. Or, if they prefer, in becoming more critical, thoughtful, and imaginative readers of books. That’s a worthwhile activity too.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Nicholas Carr on Google

Interesting stuff :

When it comes to Google and other aggregators, newspapers face a sort of prisoners' dilemma. If one of them escapes, their competitors will pick up the traffic they lose. But if all of them stay, none of them will ever get enough traffic to make sufficient money. So they all stay in the prison, occasionally yelling insults at their jailer through the bars on the door.

None of this, by the way, should be taken as criticism of Google. Google is simply pursuing its own interests - those interests just happen to be very different from the interests of the news companies. What Google can, and should, be criticized for is its disingenuousness. In an official response to the recent criticism of its control over news-seeking traffic, Google rolled out one of its lawyers, who put on his happy face and wrote: "Users like me are sent from different Google sites to newspaper websites at a rate of more than a billion clicks per month. These clicks go to news publishers large and small, domestic and international - day and night. And once a reader is on the newspaper's site, we work hard to help them earn revenue. Our AdSense program pays out millions of dollars to newspapers that place ads on their sites."

Wow. "A billion clicks." "Millions of dollars." Such big numbers. What Google doesn't mention is that the billions of clicks and the millions of ad dollars are so fragmented among so many thousands of sites that no one site earns enough to have a decent online business. Where the real money ends up is at the one point in the system where traffic is concentrated: the Google search engine.

Friday, April 10, 2009

mapping the land of books

land of books

Explanation at the fabulous Strange Maps

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Internet Asperger's Syndrome

That's what Jason Calcanis calls the lack of empathy, the failure to acknowledge common humanity, that he sees too often in the online world. And yes, he knows that this is an insult to people with Asperger's. See his links and also Catarina Fake's reflections for further details.

Whenever someome raises these concerns, there are always plenty of people who show up and say "What, can't you take it?" or "You need a thicker skin." What these comments tend to miss is the fact that participating in online discussions is almost always a voluntary activity. So sure, most of us "can take it" — the question is, Why should we? What value do we get in return? When you blog and welcome comments, you're hoping for constructive and interesting ones, and if you get too high a proportion of belligerent and dimwitted ones, you're likely to consider disabling the comment function. And why shouldn't you? Nobody has an obligation to interact online, much less to do so through the one medium of blog comments. (In fact, there are some people who think that you can create better conversations by using your own blog to reply to what people say on their blogs. Kinda like what I'm doing here.)

So, what counts as "too high a proportion of belligerent and dimwitted" comments? There's obviously not a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. I've been amazed for some time at the levels of hostility Megan McArdle is prepared to accept (though lately she has been more active in moderating than she used to be, and that's had a real effect on the conversation). Over at my other internet home, The American Scene, the general tone of comments is milder, but there's still too much wrangling, sneering, and mocking for my taste. I've stopped subscribing to the comments and am less inclined to visit the site at all. It's not as pleasant as it used to be, and — maybe this is a function of age — I don't see why I should expose myself to more unpleasantness than life is already prepared to deal out to me.

Note that I'm still enabling comments on this blog, though. Maybe that's because I don't get too many. . . .

be brief, be blunt, be gone

My title consists of the three traditional guidelines for auricular confession, but it applies in many other situations too. Here's a nice post on academic windbaggery by Mark Bauerlein — though I think it should be said that many (most?) academics never learn the lessons Bauerlein learned as a young scholar, and as they near retirement are still, in their conference presentations, yammering away far beyond their allotted times, continuing in the blithe assumption that everyone in the room enjoys listening as much as they enjoy speaking. This is a symptom of what my former teacher Anthony Winner used to call "academentia."

Some years ago I was at a conference for people who had received grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts: we were all supposed to report on what we had done with our grant money. I ended up on the last panel of all, on a Saturday evening after a big dinner. There were four of us on the panel; each was to talk for fifteen minutes and then take a couple of questions.

I was the last to go — and therefore my talk was to be the last talk of the whole conference. Two hours into the session, I was still waiting to speak. The person at the podium was doing what the previous two persons at the podium had done: exceeding her time limit by a factor of three.  When I finally craweld up on stage, I said, "I was given this grant so I could write a book about the poet W. H. Auden. I did write that book, and I really enjoyed it, because Auden is a delightful poet. I'm going to recite for you one of his poems ." And when I was done reciting I sat down.

the settlement

Despite the widespread concerns about Google's power over the scanning and distribution of books, I had decided to go ahead and accept the provisional Google Book Settlement — but then I read this letter by Caleb Crain, and I'm going to have to rethink the whole business. The whole situation is starting to seem more momentous than I'd like it to be. . . .

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Blake, digitized

You can see some of the technical challenges involved in the multimedia-digital-book idea by checking this out: an approach to William Blake called “Songs of Imagination and Digitisation.” I love the Future of the Book people, but this just doesn't strike me as a promising endeavor. As I browse through this I get (a) intentionally “jumpy” page backgrounds, presumably meant to give a sense of energy and action; (b) low-resolution audio/videos of talking heads saying just a few words at a time, reading poems (some of them split into multiple videos) or giving historical background; (c) texts of poems; (d) a few images.

This is all done in Flash, and there’s clearly an awareness of bandwidth limitations — thus the brevity of the videos. But I wonder how much bandwidth would be necessary in order to give us Blake’s work in proper fullness and resolution — along the lines of what you get on a CD like this one, from Octavo. An Octavo CD doesn't give you the videos or the sounds, and you have to pay for it, and you can't access it online — but it’s the closest thing to having Blake’s poems as he meant for us to have them, in their full illuminated vibrancy. And if you are determined to have free and online access, I would recommend the Blake Archive. Flash is good for some things, but I don't think “Songs of Imagination and Digitisation” is, after all, the future of the book.

Monday, April 6, 2009

me and the amoral menace

In the Guardian of London, Henry Porter says that “Google is just an amoral menace.” His evidence?

Google presents a far greater threat [than Scribd] to the livelihood of individuals and the future of commercial institutions important to the community. One case emerged last week when a letter from Billy Bragg, Robin Gibb and other songwriters was published in the Times explaining that Google was playing very rough with those who appeared on its subsidiary, YouTube. When the Performing Rights Society demanded more money for music videos streamed from the website, Google reacted by refusing to pay the requested 0.22p per play and took down the videos of the artists concerned.

It does this with impunity because it is dominant worldwide and knows the songwriters have nowhere else to go. Google is the portal to a massive audience: you comply with its terms or feel the weight of its boot on your windpipe.

So let me get this straight: if Google/YouTube chooses to take down music videos rather than pay the fees their makers request, this constitutes a boot on the windpipe of the musicians? Moreover, for the musicians there is “nowhere else to go”: YouTube is the only site on the whole internet where music videos may be posted and viewed. (Who knew?) And this situation is so intolerable that “it may be time for the planet's dominant economic powers to focus on the destructive, anti-civic forces of the internet.”

An interesting argument. And presumably Porter would extend this model to other forms of content. For instance, I have recently been asserting my legal claim to the books I wrote that have been scanned by Google Books, according to the (tentative) terms of the Google Book Settlement. If the settlement holds, Google is going to pay me sixty dollars for the right to scan each of my books. (There are some interesting complications regarding terms of distribution that I will write about another time.)

Now, according to Henry Porter, I should have the right to determine my own price for the scanning of my work, and Google should not have the right to refuse to meet my terms. If I demand a thousand bucks per book, then Google needs to fork over, or its boot is on my windpipe and I have every justification for asking the world’s dominant economic powers to intervene to force Google to pay me what I want.

I am so buying this argument.

first 11 char

  • Jakob Nielsen says
  • people read
  • first 2 words
  • (11 characters)
  • of online lists
  • or thereabouts
  • (I’m hoping for a longer attention span among TP readers)


I’ve written before on this blog that what I like most about the Kindle is the way that its design promotes linear reading. As I see it, the Kindle, far from providing the distractions that webpages and some other screens offer, makes it easy to keep turning the pages.

Well, for at least one person, that’s just the problem. Bradley Inman is developing Vook, a platform for integrating text, video, and social networking. (I learned about Vook from this story.) So, as I see it, Inman is trying to take the single most annoying kind of webpage — the kind that surrounds the text you’re trying to read with animated GIFs and other attention-distracting gambits — the kind that Readability was created in order to help desperate readers avoid — and make it the foundation for a whole publishing platform. This sounds like one of the worst ideas I can imagine. Why would you want to put a bunch of text on a screen and then do everything you can to make it impossible for people to read it?

Thursday, April 2, 2009


Here’s a delightful little essay by Emily Bazelon on her children’s fixation on Star Wars. Bazelon makes a brave attempt to explain this development, but while it’s possible to explain — at least to some degree — why a story is good or interesting or even popular, I doubt that it’s ever possible to explain how something becomes an obsession — especially when it becomes an obsession for large swaths of a whole culture.

I tried to offer such an explanation for the Harry Potter books once — sorry about the blizzard of links there; the original and link-free essay is not available online at the moment — but I think that even as I was doing so I knew that I was doomed to failure. No matter how many distinguishing traits of a book or movie or series you list, it’s always possible to think of other works that have precisely the same traits and yet have not become objects of obsessive interest.

It’s really one of the most curious artistic phenomena: the work of art that creates a cult around itself. The music of Wagner, The Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars movies, the Harry Potter series — they all have It — whatever It is.

more on visual criticism

Following this earlier post, here’s another example of visualized criticism.

so moved

What do the images add to this — what shall we call it — little essay? There aren't many words here. Does that make this analysis superficial? If the space taken up by the images was filled with words instead, would the analysis likely be deeper? What do the images do?

(Utopia isn't a novel, by the way.)