Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, May 29, 2009

Lessig on Helprin

Mark Helprin's new book Digital Barbarism is shockingly bad; Larry Lessig explains why here.

O'Reilly and the Wave

Tim O'Reilly has a post up today about Google Wave, the new project-in-development by Jens and Lars Rasmussen, the primary creators of Google Maps. According to O'Reilly, Lars describes the project in this way: "We set out to answer the question: What would email look like if we set out to invent it today?" O’Reilly continues,

In answering the question, Jens, Lars, and team re-imagined email and instant-messaging in a connected world, a world in which messages no longer need to be sent from one place to another, but could become a conversation in the cloud. Effectively, a message (a wave) is a shared communications space with elements drawn from email, instant messaging, social networking, and even wikis.

It’s obvious that O'Reilly is pretty chuffed about Google Wave. He thinks it’s great that in Wave “conversations become shared documents.” “I love the way Wave doesn't just build on what went before but starts over. In demonstrating the power of the shared, real-time information space, Jens and Lars show a keen understanding of how the cloud changes applications.”

Okay. I guess Wave could be pretty interesting, though to me it doesn't seem as game-changing and world-changing as O’Reilly and the Rasmussens claim. But we’ll see how it works out.

My larger concern is this: O’Reilly is among the leaders of a group of technophiles and technocrats whose one concern with every information technology is: How can this be more social? The primary purpose of Wave seems to be to make communications networks more extensive, to create more and more and more nodes. But there are other things that communications can do than generate more points of intersection. I tend to think that among email, IM, Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, shared bookmarks on Delicious, shared RSS feeds on Google Reader, and [insert your favorite social technology here] we already have enough nodes. We already have enough shared information. Instead of asking how our existing information technologies can do more and more of what they already do well, why don't we ask what they’re not doing well — or at all?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

e-books in Africa

Could e-books provide a way of getting expansive intellectual resources into the hands of poor and historically deprived people — say, in South Africa? Over at The Digitalist, Michael Bhaskar says . . . Maybe. A great idea, but one fraught with challenges. And if the possibilities are so iffy in South Africa, which has a stronger electronic infrastructure than almost anywhere else on the continent, then perhaps those of us concerned with literacy for the poorest of the poor should look towards non-electronic provisions.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

the dangers of focus?

Sam Anderson’s argument that “unwavering focus . . . can actually be just as problematic as ADHD” is the conclusion that follows from this paragraph:

My favorite focusing exercise comes from William James: Draw a dot on a piece of paper, then pay attention to it for as long as you can. (Sitting in my office one afternoon, with my monkey mind swinging busily across the lush rain forest of online distractions, I tried this with the closest dot in the vicinity: the bright-red mouse-nipple at the center of my laptop’s keyboard. I managed to stare at it for 30 minutes, with mixed results.) James argued that the human mind can’t actually focus on the dot, or any unchanging object, for more than a few seconds at a time: It’s too hungry for variety, surprise, the adventure of the unknown. It has to refresh its attention by continually finding new aspects of the dot to focus on: subtleties of its shape, its relationship to the edges of the paper, metaphorical associations (a fly, an eye, a hole). The exercise becomes a question less of pure unwavering focus than of your ability to organize distractions around a central point. The dot, in other words, becomes only the hub of your total dot-related distraction.

This is wrong-headed in a number of ways, but chief among them is this: there’s no good reason for focusing on a dot. The mind trying to focus on a dot gets impatient because a dot is neither interesting nor complex. The artistic achievements mentioned elsewhere in the essay — Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, John Lennon’s songs — were the product of intense focus on complex and multivalent tasks. Indeed, that’s why focus is so important for artists and other intellectual workers — and for that matter dancers and surgeons and bomb defusers: complex tasks demand a great deal of attention and if we lose any of that attention we do those jobs less well. (But at least the novelist can go back and fix things later; this is harder for the surgeon and especially for the bomb defuser.)

Besides, how many people are really in danger of “unwavering focus”? Many years ago I read a magazine profile of the chess champion Bobby Fischer in which the writer described an interview session they had over lunch. At one point the writer asked a question just as Fischer was lifting some food to his mouth, and the grandmaster ended up poking himself in the cheek with his fork. He simply could not do two things at once — a social problem, to be sure, but almost certainly a boon to his attentiveness to the chessboard. Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been so distracted by a question that you speared your cheek with a fork? If not, then you probably don't need to worry about the dangers of being too focused.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

quote of the day

“The Internet is basically a Skinner box engineered to tap right into our deepest mechanisms of addiction.” — Sam Anderson

Anderson continues:

As B. F. Skinner’s army of lever-pressing rats and pigeons taught us, the most irresistible reward schedule is not, counterintuitively, the one in which we’re rewarded constantly but something called “variable ratio schedule,” in which the rewards arrive at random. And that randomness is practically the Internet’s defining feature: It dispenses its never-ending little shots of positivity—a life-changing e-mail here, a funny YouTube video there—in gloriously unpredictable cycles. It seems unrealistic to expect people to spend all day clicking reward bars—searching the web, scanning the relevant blogs, checking e-mail to see if a co-worker has updated a project—and then just leave those distractions behind, as soon as they’re not strictly required, to engage in “healthy” things like books and ab crunches and undistracted deep conversations with neighbors. It would be like requiring employees to take a few hits of opium throughout the day, then being surprised when it becomes a problem. Last year, an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry raised the prospect of adding “Internet addiction” to the DSM, which would make it a disorder to be taken as seriously as schizophrenia.

Don't be ridiculous. I’m not an addict — I can quit any time I want.

Near the end of his essay, Anderson makes the argument that “Focus is a paradox — it has distraction built into it. The two are symbiotic; they’re the systole and diastole of consciousness. . . . The truly wise mind will harness, rather than abandon, the power of distraction. Unwavering focus — the inability to be distracted — can actually be just as problematic as ADHD.” He is apparently unaware how much this sounds like pure wishful thinking. (Maybe he was too distracted as he wrote it.) But there’s something to the argument all the same; I hope to be able to say more about that later.

Monday, May 25, 2009

secrets of the museum

Richard Fortey is a fine writer of books for laypeople about science, and for many years was the “trilobite man” at the Natural History Museum in London. I love museums in general, and natural history museums in particular, and Fortey’s home institution perhaps best of all (though I also have a great fondness for Oxford’s little gem, which is sort of a miniature version of the one in Kensington). So — and yes, I know how absurdly geeky this is — I was pretty pumped to learn that Fortey had written a memoir of his museum years, Dry Storeroom No. 1: the Secret Life of the Natural History Museum.

It’s a rambling and miscellaneous kind of book, which befits a book about a museum, but it’s quite informative about how the various departments of a vast museum work, and how their workings have changed over the years. I most enjoyed the stories about the strange people who have worked at the National History Museum. There was the whale specialist who did his best work while sozzled; and the biologist who, many decades ago, tried on a deep-sea diving suit while in the museum after hours, couldn't get it off, and had to stagger out onto the streets of Kensington to get help; and the meticulous researcher who, it was discovered after his death, had maintained a card index with an alphabetic record of his sexual conquests, complete with an illustrative pubic hair for each entry.

But perhaps my favorite story concerns Geoffrey Tandy, a specialist in algae and other cryptogams who, during the Second World War, was sent to work with the codebreakers at Bletchley Park — obviously some official thought that the man’s speciality was cryptograms. One would think that an “algae man” would be of little use to the cryptanalysts at Bletchley, but it turned out that Tandy had invaluable skills. When encoded notebooks were recovered from sunken German U-boats, they were soaked through, and everyone thought that they were ruined and useless. But Tandy, deeply experienced in the preservation of marine algae, knew just how to salvage the notebooks and render them decipherable. And thus Western civilization was saved.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

the dyes from gas-tar

To John McWhorter's suggestion that we should start performing Shakespeare's plays in translation, D. H. Lawrence has the best answer.

Dave Eggers will buck you up

Like this:

To any of you who are feeling down, and saying, “Oh, no one’s reading anymore”: Walk into 826 on any afternoon. There are no screens there, it’s all paper, it’s all students working shoulder to shoulder invested in their work, writing down something, thinking their work might get published. They put it all on the page, and they think, “Well, if this person who works next to me cares so much about what I’m writing, and they’re going to publish it in their next anthology or newspaper or whatever, then I’m going to invest so much more in it.” And then meanwhile, they’re reading more than I did at their age. …

Nothing has changed! The written word—the love of it and the power of the written word—it hasn’t changed. It’s a matter of fostering it, fertilizing it, not giving up on it, and having faith. Don’t get down. I actually have established an e-mail address, deggers@826national.org—if you want to take it down—if you are ever feeling down, if you are ever despairing, if you ever think publishing is dying or print is dying or books are dying or newspapers are dying (the next issue of McSweeney’s will be a newspaper—we’re going to prove that it can make it. It comes out in September). If you ever have any doubt, e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you’re wrong.

God bless Dave Eggers.

Monday, May 18, 2009


I’m going to be traveling for the next week or so, so posting will be light to non-existent, but before I go I want to take belated note of this thoughtful post from Sebastian Mary (or maybe it's sebastian mary) over at if:book.

Let's look at books for a moment. While in the early Wild West publishing days of the 18th-century print boom works were produced in a bewildering array of formats (elephant folio, pamphlet, poster, flyer, handout along with more familiar books) in today's mature publishing industry there is an inverse correlation between the size of the print run and the variation in the book's dimensions. In other words, the more mass-market a book, the more likely it will be to conform to the average book dimensions: 110-135mm wide, by 178-216mm high. This is the easiest size to produce inexpensively, and sell at a price point the market will bear.

Yes, and (though seb. mary doesn't say this) the Kindle and other e-readers constitute a move towards absolute standardization of dimensions. Here’s the next paragraph:

Length is determined as well, by manufacturing constraints at the top end, and the fixed overheads of printing at the bottom. Bookshops are crammed with full-length books whose contents could just as well be communicated in a short essay, or even in the title alone: I'm thinking of Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, but a glance at the self-help or business shelves of your local bookshop will show you plenty more. And yet to make economic sense they have to be padded out for publication in ‘proper’ book size. But to conclude from this (as many unwittingly do) that long-form books are necessarily the best, rather than just the most familiar, way of communicating ideas is mistaken; and to assume that this practice will transplant to e-readers, imagined as a kind of iPod for these long-form essays, is just wrong.

Right again, and interesting, because in the matter of word count e-readers are creating vastly greater flexibility, even as they necessarily standardize dimensions. The other day I realized that I didn't have a copy of “The Monkey’s Paw,” the classic scary story by W. W. Jacobs (no relation), and discovered that I can download it all by itself from Amazon — no need to buy a whole collection of stories just to get that one. On the other hand, one of the reasons I got a Kindle in the first place was because I didn't want to lug around big fat books like Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

Or let’s consider Brandon Sanderson, the fantasy writer charged with completing Robert Jordan’s ultra-massive Wheel of Time series: he has recently decided to split what was to be the last volume into three books, and one of the reasons for this is the problem of printing and binding books beyond a certain size. And anything even associated with Robert Jordan is, well, beyond a certain size. But if e-reader publication was the norm, that wouldn't matter at all — you could put the whole four million words of the series (that’s what it’ll amount to by the time Sanderson’s done, near enough) into a single file if you wanted to.

There are also some interesting possibilities for serial publication, but that’ll have to wait for another post on another day.

Friday, May 15, 2009

pulp covers

Thomas Allen's work has been noted on many blogs over the past few years — just start with this page and follow the links — but Text Patterns would be incomplete without some acknowledgement of it.

T Allen

Allen takes old pulp paperbacks, carefully cuts out figures from their covers, reassembles the images into something like little pop-up books, and photographs the results. They're fab.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

more on book piracy

Peter Wayner:

The kind of book I write, thick with equations that play to computer lovers, is also the first to be pirated. It’s a canary. O’Reilly Publishers, one of the top technical presses, reported that in 2008, the computer book market was the only segment to lose sales. According to the company, the category sold 8% fewer titles in 2008 than 2007.

I’m not going to write more books if the revenues will be wiped out by pirates. While authors like Cory Doctorow like to argue that the author’s real enemy is obscurity, there was no real uptick in the sales of my book when these pirated versions appeared.

I recently discussed the piracy problem on my blog and got few responses. Many of my friends from universities tend to take a vaguely Marxist approach to the piracy, perhaps because the bursar’s office shields them from the trauma of commerce. One person told me all of this theft was a compliment: I should enjoy the fact that my book was selected to be a part of the pirated file, “Great Science Textbooks,” and indeed, some of my fellow victims are very famous. But as Langston Hughes said, “I love Ralph Bunche — but I can’t eat him for lunch.”

More evidence for Ethan’s comment on this post. Also, here’s one of the places where Cory Doctorow dismisses the idea that piracy is a threat to authors.

the future of archives

At the Chronicle of Higher Education I read this:

Leslie Morris is used to handling John Updike's personal effects. For decades, Mr. Updike had been sending a steady stream of manuscripts and papers to Harvard University's Houghton Library, where Ms. Morris serves as a curator.

But in late February, several weeks after the iconic writer died, some boxes arrived with unexpected contents: approximately 50 three-and-a-half and five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks — artifacts from late in the author's career when he, like many of his peers, began using a word processor.

The floppies have presented a bit of a problem. While relatively modern to Mr. Updike — who rose to prominence back when publishers were still using Linotype machines — the disks are outmoded and damage-prone by today's standards. Ms. Morris, who curates modern books and manuscripts, has carefully stored them alongside his papers in a temperature-controlled room in the library "until we have a procedure here at Harvard on how to handle these materials."

Harvard isn't the only university puzzling over new media from old — and not-so-old — masters. Emory University recently received four laptops, an external hard drive, and a Palm Treo personal digital assistant from Salman Rushdie. The University of Texas at Austin recently acquired a series of Zip disks and a laptop containing Norman Mailer's files.

(Zip disks! — God help us. Mailer’s technological judgment was evidently a match for his literary.)

There’s something a little odd about this article, and that’s its temporal scheme: you’d think from reading this article that writers started using computers about three years ago. Five-and-a-quarter floppy disks from “late in the author’s career”? Those are probably about twenty years old, which places them roughly in the middle of Updike’s career.

But the article reads like that because libraries are just now starting to get archival materials from authors in the PC age. And they’d better not set those disks aside for too long: it’s hard enough these days to find a floppy drive that reads 3.5-inch disks, much less the old five-and-a-quarters.

What especially intrigues me is Salman Rushdie’s Palm Treo. Will such devices be the mainstays of future biographers? Will they spend untold hours scrolling through calendar applications to discover lunch dates and article deadlines? And what will happen if the next generations of writers buy into cloud computing and keep all their appointments in Google Calendar or 30boxes? And what if they end up using Google Docs to write their novels? I can imagine a future in which Sotheby’s and Christie’s get libraries participating in fierce bidding wars not for typescripts or notebooks or iPhones or laptops but for just this: a username and a password.

serendipity, alchemy, convenience

Jeremy Paxman tells the story here of his love of reference books. “A long time ago, when I had ambitions to start a personal library, a bookish friend told me there were three sets of reference books I had to get hold of. They were the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Dictionary of National Biography.” That friend advised him well, and Paxman took the advice, eventually managing — through assiduous attention to London’s used book shops — to get them all: more than fifty large, thick volumes.

Updated versions of all these works are available online, of course, but, Paxman says,

a reference book's capacity for serendipity will score over the web every time. You may be able to turn up the biography of Roy Jenkins much faster on the ODNB website. But you won't see that the line of J's among whom he's interred includes the trade unionist Tom Jackson; his fellow Labour politician Hugh Jenkins; the great rugby fullback, Vivian Jenkins; the poet Elizabeth Jennings; and the daredevil submariner Norman Jewell.

A reference book is still the place to while away the hours. One moment you're reading about the creator of Zaphod Beeblebrox, Douglas Adams, the next about the bimbashi, explorer, writer and photographer Wilfred Thesiger, or the industrialist, Arnold Weinstock. Do they have anything in common? Not much, beyond determination, and in Adams's case a vivid imagination and a knack for procrastination.

This argument would carry more weight, though, if Paxman hadn’t already said of his authoritative reference books “I can't recall when I last opened a single one of them.” I’ve written about these themes myself, and in doing so I quoted these words from Tim Burke:

There are many contexts where I have very constrained expectations about what I expect to find through search, where serendipdity or unpredictability is not at all what I want. Then I expect to be King User, and woe betide the peasant interfaces and authority-category churls that try to get between me and my goal. But there are other times where I want search to be alchemy, to turn the lead of an inquiry into unexpected gold. I’m hoping that the rush to simplify, speed up, demystify and digitize search doesn’t leave that alchemy behind.

But if Paxman and I are representative figures, convenience is going to trump alchemy almost every time. I too love my collection of reference books. They sit on a shelf at the side of my writing desk, so that all of those lovely tomes are within easy reach at all times. And yet I can't remember when I last opened a single one of them.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

the appeal of digital textbooks

. . . to publishers, that is. Consider this a follow-up to last week's post about the Big New Kindle and its possible use for textbooks: Over at Snarkmarket, Tim Carmody makes an important and troubling point: "the only reason why publishers are really interested in electronic books is that they can use DRM to crush sales of used books beneath their foot forever." Probably true — but the publishers may be being shortsighted. If — sorry, when — someone cracks the DRM for any given textbook and converts it to a Kindle-readable format, the traditional used-book market won't benefit, but neither will the publisher.

Consider in this light this NTY story about digital book bootlegging. It's kind of an individual thing right now — as Stephen King says about the book pirates, "most of them live in basements floored with carpeting remnants, living on Funions and discount beer" — but if textbooks go digital then such bootlegging will become a full-fledged industry. Somebody will make money off it, but it won't be the textbook publishers.

define "book"

Is a book in progress , "version zero," still a book? Would you be interested in buying it? "Marks and meaning" — shouldn't that be Marks and Meaning? — "is a work in progress; an evolving exploration of visual language, visual thinking and visual work practices by the founder and Chairman of XPLANE, the visual thinking company. An unfinished work, it's a hybrid: part sketchbook, part textbook, part workbook, and continuously updated by the author, based on feedback and conversations with readers. When you but the 'book' you'll be invited to an email discussion group where the book's ideas and content are being discussed."

How about this?


Is this a book? "A maroon band surrounds an ingeniously constructed box which, when unfolded, turns out to contain three pamphlets folded accordion-style and a postcard. . . . Each pamphlet is encircled by two stories, all of which share a theme of letter-writing." (I'm quoting from the description here .)

Monday, May 11, 2009

handmade books

I don't seem to be able to get this video embedded properly, so I'll just link to it. The making of books by hand is a beautiful thing.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

alas, poor Bodley

Good news and bad news at Oxford’s legendary Bodleian Library. The good news (especially if you’re Nicholson Baker or share his devotion to saving old books and magazines and newspapers) is that millions of books that there’s no room for in Oxford will be finding a new home in Swindon.

The bad news is that many of the books that are actually in the Bodleian — specifically, in the oldest part of the library, called Duke Humfrey’s Library — can no longer be accessed by patrons or staff because the university’s Health and Safety Officer has taken away all the stepladders. “Laurence Benson, the library's director of administration and finance, said: ‘The library would prefer to keep the books in their original historic location — where they have been safely consulted for 400 years prior to the instructions from the Health and Safety office.’” Right. So they are kept in the location where they have been safely cosulted for 400 years but no one will ever again be able to consult them. Safely or otherwise.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ink makes you free

Brian Appleyard: "The truth is that if the web makes no money or, at least, not enough to sustain proper news operations - and it doesn't - then you will either get no proper news or just none on the web. Think on, as they say where I come from, you need Ink, all of you, and one way or another you will have to pay for it. But think on further - Ink may not be free but it makes you free."

why the Big New Kindle is not likely to succeed

Brendan has it exactly right: "The trend right now is smaller and smaller devices that allow you to multitask anything anytime from one device.  Having a device that’s locked down to a single purpose really doesn’t help students achieve what they want.  There’s a reason no one carries around 1) an MP3 player, 2) a cellphone, and 3) a camera jammed into their pockets.  They want less devices doing more, not more devices doing less!" I would prefer him to say fewer devices doing more, but other than that I second the motion.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

the book-buyer's flowchart


from David Wolf, via James Fallows

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

email as marginal technology

Courtesy of my New Atlantis colleague Ari Schulman I see this article by Alastair Croll lamenting that his "inbox is broken . . . in a fundamental, inboxes-will-never-be-the-same-again kind of way." Only a minority of items in his recent email inbox, he says, were conversations he had with other folks; the rest were "records of things I’d done, people who’d followed me on social networks, bookings I’d made, confirmations of sites I’d signed up for, and so on." And he wants his email inbox to be the one place where all the pieces of his social life are organized.

I wonder how many other people will be wanting the same thing in the coming years. I think of my sixteen-year-old son for whom email is a completely marginal technology: it tells him when someone has posted something to his Facebook page, but he already knows that information anyway. His mom and dad are almost the only people who communicate with him via email. If you simply took his email account away from him I don't think he would miss it at all. And he's not unusual in this respect — many of my students only check their email to hear from their parents or their teachers.

Maybe we do need a centralized inbox for our lives, but it seems unlikely to me that email will be the place where that happens — except maybe for old codgers like Alistair and me.

continuing the obsession

Book from the Sky, by Xu Bing:


What's on those sheets on the floor? Here's a close-up:


Well, those certainly look like traditional Chinese characters to me. But since I can't read Chinese, I'm not really in any position to know that they're not

Monday, May 4, 2009

more on Google and books

Though this is an excellent Q&A on the Google Book Settlement from Wired, I am as far as ever from understanding what I should do about my own books. I don't understand what the consequences will be if I sign up with Google, and I don't understand what the consequences will be if I don't.

On a rather different note, some information is coming to light about the technologies Google uses to scan the millions of books it's archiving. 

more debates about Chinese orthography

Following up on two earlier posts about the realtive merits of the traditional and simplified Chinese characters, I'd like to note this debate in the Paper of Record. I don't see any consensus emerging here. It's hard for me not to be sympathetic with the proponents of traditional characters, given how intricately they are intertwined with the greatest productions of Chinese cultural history; but so much time and energy has been invested in the simplified character for the past half-century that it's hard to see how the society as a whole can go back. It makes me aware of how many continuities we take for granted here in the West, focused as we tend to be on the things that change.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

the World Digital Library

The pleasures of the new World Digital Library are many and immensely varied. Check out this picture: “Indian Demons Attacking Fort Defended by European Troops.” This unsigned watercolor by an unknown Indian artist depicts the events of the Third Mysore War (1790-92).


Or how about this, from a section called “Romance and Love-Related Ceremonies”:


“The Naxi language spoken by the Naxi people of Yunnan Province, China, is the only pictographic writing system in the world still in use. A member of the Tibetan-Burman language family, Naxi has many of the tonal and symbolic aspects of Chinese. The Naxi language has four tones; each sound complex has many different meanings based on its tone. The Naxi Dongba script is used exclusively by the dongba (shamans/priests) as an aid to the recitation of ritual texts during religious ceremonies and shamanistic rituals.” This particular set of images dates from . . . um, sometime between the 16th century and 1934.