Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, July 31, 2009

an example to us all

From the Guardian:

A 91-year-old woman from Stranraer in south-west Scotland is believed to be Britain's most prolific library book reader after staff at her local library realised she is on the brink of borrowing her 25,000th book. Louise Brown, who borrowed her first book from Castle Douglas library in 1946, now reads about 12 books every week – chiefly Mills & Boon romances, war stories and historical dramas – and has never had a fine for returning a book late. Janice Goldie, of Dumfries and Galloway Libraries, said: "The staff at Stanraer library think she is a remarkable lady and look forward to her weekly visits."

the knowledge

Brian Cathcart, in Intelligent Life, on matters not unrelated to my previous post:

One day last year a daughter of Earl Spencer (who is therefore a niece of Princess Diana) called a taxi to take her and a friend from her family home at Althorp in Northamptonshire to see Chelsea play Arsenal at football. She told the driver “Stamford Bridge”, the name of Chelsea’s stadium, but he delivered them instead to the village of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, nearly 150 miles in the opposite direction. They missed the game.

Such stories are becoming commonplace. A coachload of English schoolchildren bound for the historic royal palace at Hampton Court wasted an entire day battling through congested central London as their sat-nav led them stubbornly to a narrow back street of the same name in Islington. A Syrian lorry driver aiming for Gibraltar, at the southern tip of Spain, turned up 1,600 miles away in the English east-coast town of Skegness, which has a Gibraltar Point nearby.

Two complementary things are happening in these stories. One is that these people are displaying a woeful ignorance of geography. In the case of Stamford Bridge, one driver and two passengers spent well over two hours in a car without noticing that instead of passing Northampton and swiftly entering the built-up sprawl of London, their view continued to be largely of fields and forests, and they were seeing signs for Nottingham, Doncaster and the North. They should have known.

The other is more subtle. Everybody involved in these stories has consciously handed over responsibility for knowing geography to a machine. With the sat-nav on board, they believed that they did not need to know about north or south, Spain or England, leafy Surrey or gridlocked Islington. That was the machine’s job. Like an insurance company with its call centre or a local council with its bin collections, they confidently outsourced the job of knowing this stuff, or of finding it out, to that little computer on the dashboard.

academic genres

One reason I’d like to see changes in the standards of scholarly publication is that I’d like to see changes in the genres of scholarly publication. I wrote in my previous post on this subject about the “tyranny of the monograph,” but the tyranny of the scholarly article is far stronger and more problematic. The monograph-fixation really only affects people trying to get tenure; the article-fixation affect almost every teacher and almost every student in the humanities departments.

Professors complain endlessly about how boring their students’ papers are, but we rarely stop to think that the students are just writing what we tell them to write. And what do we tell them to write? — imitations of the articles such as appear in scholarly journals. And since we find those crushingly boring, what do we expect when we assign inexperienced writers to do imitations of them?

No: as Grace Kelly says in High Noon, there has to be a better way for people to live. And as technologies of learning and the presentation of knowledge develop, we ought to be able to create more varied assignments — assignments that take advantage of these technologies. We can still teach students to do research, to think carefully, to formulate arguments, to anticipate and respond to objections to those arguments; but we need to realize that the pale imitation of dreary scholarly articles isn't the only way to accomplish these goals. It never has been, of course; but the recent proliferation of ways to find and organize information gives us a lot of incentive to explore alternatives.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

he, she, they

I’ve come across a number of articles lately — here and here and here, for instance — arguing that it’s perfectly correct to use “they” as a generic singular pronoun. I find these arguments compelling, and indeed have long noticed that the British exercise more freedom in this matter than Americans do. But . . . I can't do it myself. Just can't. I’ve spent too many years thinking it wrong and doing the “he or she” thing to change now.

On the other hand, it’s nice to think that I have one less common error to correct when I’m reading my students’ papers.

book art

By Su Blackwell:

(Hat tip to Brian)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

the value of scholarly publishing

Mark Bauerlein’s article on “Diminishing Returns in Humanities Research” gives me the opportunity to make a couple of points. There’s no question that young scholars in search of tenure — and older scholars in search of promotion to full professor — are being asked to publish too much, especially in a time when university presses are cutting back or closing down, and academic journals are folding. And “the tyranny of the monograph” is a big part of this problem. So, agreed on all points.

However, it should also be said that the pressure to publish does have at least one important benefit: it keeps scholars reading work in their field. Scouting around for something to write about, they stumble on forgotten novels or neglected poems, and they see what other scholars are working on. And the regular encounter with new texts and new ideas can be stimulating to their teaching — which is, after all, why we’re supposed to be in this game in the first place. I’ve known too many teachers in my time who give the same lectures — or conduct the same discussions — on the same texts year after year after year. It’s deadly. When I was in grad school I heard a senior professor comment that he had given some lectures so many times that he felt he could walk out of the room while in the midst of one and his voice would just keep on going. I vowed that day never to let myself get into that situation, and I believe that for the most part I’ve kept that vow. (Though you can't teach the Odyssey thirty or forty times without repeating yourself a bit. . . .)

So if the pressure to publish has the indirect effect of keeping people from falling into intellectual ruts that compromise their effectiveness as teachers, to that extent it’s a good thing. But of course there are more efficient and less cumbersome ways of achieving the goal of making sure that professors keep on reading and thinking. Young scholars should be encouraged to write scholarly blogs — group blogs are especially valuable, like The Valve and Crooked Timber — or, better still, to create and add to wikis for each of their classes. That way their students can contribute as well to the generation and organization of knowledge.

That’s enough for now, but I’ll have more to say later about the audiences of scholarly writing — and perhaps also a bit about why professors are to reluctant to make the kinds of changes I have suggested.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

more about margins

Not long ago I wrote a post about (among other things) the value of marginal annotations of books, and lo and behold, here's a wonderful little essay on the same subject by Daniel Kalder, of Lost Cosmonaut fame, who discovered a quirkily fascinating friend in the margins of "an account of an Austrian adventurer's clandestine journey through the states of Soviet Central Asia in the mid 1920s."

Monday, July 27, 2009


Folks, posting will be light this week. Forewarned is forearmed.

It is my understanding that the requirement to give a (visible!) email address before commenting has been eliminated. I expect the more privacy-focused readers to come out of the woodwork now.

Also, some basic HTML formatting is now enabled in the comments: <b> and <em>, for instance, and bullets and numbering — but not <href> for links. Sorry.

Friday, July 24, 2009

how to apologize

It's rare to see a straightforward public apology with nary a weasel-word in it, but that's precisely what Jeff Bezos has produced.  Good for him. Not that my concerns are assuaged, but good for him.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Wonderful post at A Working Library about libraries, ways of organizing information, and the varieties of metadata:

Aby Warburg’s library opened in Hamburg in 1926. In Manguel’s telling, Warburg incessantly arranged and rearranged his books, moving titles from shelf to shelf in an attempt to map the paths among them. Visitors spoke of books of literature shelved next to those on geography, art history leaning against philosophy. At one point, unable to move the books at the speed of his mind, Warburg resorted to tacking notecards to a cloth — each card relating a text or image, their placement on the cloth relating them to other texts. The cards could be lifted and moved around at will — a visualization of the ongoing, cacophonous conversation around them.

His was a library as creative act — it exchanged the rigor of a single taxonomy for one that was fluid, eccentric, human. In so doing he delayed the act of finding a text indefinitely. You didn’t so much as look for a book as look for the thread that linked it to its neighbor; you didn’t rest on a single title, but instead travelled through them all, assured that wherever you were going, you would never arrive.

I wonder, then, if the promise of an ebook isn’t the book but the library. And if, in all our attention to a new device for reading, we’re neglecting methods for shelving. A search engine cannot compete with Warburg’s delicate, personal library. The metadata of a book extends beyond the keywords held between its covers to the many hands the text has passed through; it’s not enough just to scan every page. We need to also scan the conversations, the notes left in the margins, the stains from coffee, tea, and drink. We need to eavesdrop on the readers, without whom every book is mute. That is the promise I seek.

For more on Warburg, see here. For a similar reflection on neglected metadata, see here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


I wrote a brief post for The American Scene recently in which I talked about how my taste in reading has changed over time. Well, here’s an interesting take on the same issue by Rebecca Mead. The consistent thing is that she loves Middlemarch — what changes is how she feels about the various characters.

the art of the handout

This fits with what I hear from students all the time:

A study published in the April issue of British Educational Research Journal found that 59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring, and that PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw. The survey consisted of 211 students at a university in England and was conducted by researchers at the University of Central Lancashire.

Students in the survey gave low marks not just to PowerPoint, but also to all kinds of computer-assisted classroom activities, even interactive exercises in computer labs. "The least boring teaching methods were found to be seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions," said the report. In other words, tech-free classrooms were the most engaging.

I think when slide presentations are used well the story isn’t quite so sad, but they are almost never used well — and, as Edward Tufte never tires of saying, there are few lecturing situations in which a paper handout is not considerably more useful than a set of PowerPoint slides.

I consider The Handout a great pedagogical art form, and devote a lot of time to preparing handouts for classes. The keys are to (a) provide as much information as possible on the page (b) without overcrowding and (c) in a format that gives clear differentiating structure to the different points, ideas, and quotations. One of my minor fantasies is to be asked to give a seminar in handout preparation for my fellow teachers. Alas, it’ll never happen.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

first they came for the readers of pro-choice literature

Concerning the whole deleted-books-from-your-Kindle imbroglio, Sam Jordison writes in the Guardian:

This early Kindle book-burning episode also provides a reminder of how closely ebook devices monitor their users' reading. And that provokes quite a few questions. What's to stop advertisers paying to find out about your preferences, for instance? What's to stop churches finding out about people reading pro-choice literature in their area? What's to stop governments finding out about your revolutionary reading preferences?

Now, Jordison later grants that these “sinister manipulations . . . are improbable” — though “not entirely impossible” — and as a great believer in the right to hyperbole I won't give him a hard time about that. I won't even say anything about the palpably ludicrous notion that this is a form of “book-burning.”

But: “churches finding out about people reading pro-choice literature in their area”? Seriously? You think your local churches are scheming to find out what people in the neighborhood are reading? (What are you supposing they wold do if they found out — have you stretched on the rack, perhaps? Or pressed to death with stones?)

And you envision churches asking for Amazon’s help in this endeavor? And Amazon perhaps agreeing to cooperate? — Okay, okay, okay: hyperbole it is. But even if you’re going to speculate about the most outrageous improbabilities imaginable, what you come up with is “churches finding out about people reading pro-choice literature in their area”? Really??

accept my cyborg self!

Danah Boyd doesn't just want to be a cyborg, she wants to be accepted as a cyborg. Recently at a conference she was criticized for fooling around on the web rather than paying attention to the speakers. This upsets her.

Interestingly, she doesn't do what — in my experience, anyway — most people similarly accused do: she doesn't claim Awesome Multitasking Powers. She freely admits that she wasn’t paying much attention to the conference speakers, but says that people don't listen to speakers at conferences anyway — “I don't think that people were paying that much attention before” laptops — and anyway she learned a lot while looking up words the speaker used on Wikipedia instead of trying to follow the argument. “Am I learning what the speaker wants me to learn? Perhaps not. But I am learning and thinking and engaging.”

For Boyd, the criticism she received is a function of two things: first, an “anti-computer attitude,” and second, a refusal to “embrace those who learn best when they have an outlet for their questions and thoughts.” (Stop trying to crush my spirit of inquiry!)

In response to all this I have a few questions. My chief one is this: why go sit in a room where someone is lecturing if you so conspicuously aren't interested? Or why not quietly edge out if a particular talk leaves you cold? That way you don't have to subject yourself to boring stuff — you can do your “learning and thinking and engaging” somewhere with coffee and pastries — and you don't distract, by your ceaseless typing and mousing, people who are trying to listen?

And one more: If you can learn via Twitter and Wikipedia, couldn't you also — just possibly — learn by listening to another human being for a while? Lord knows there are more than enough dreary lecturers in the world — “Earth to boring guy,” as Bart Simpson once said — but some people speak rather well. Think of the best TED talks: do you really want to be staring at your screen and typing while those are going on? All I am saying: Give listening a chance.

Monday, July 20, 2009

the Kindle saga, part . . . um, whatever

I have already related the lamentable tale of the loss of my Kindle. I now have an update.

I didn't buy that Kindle with my own money: there’s a very generous research budget associated with the chair I currently hold at Wheaton which I used for that purchase, and I recently learned that the college’s insurance covers the loss. Which allows me to get a replacement. So I did.

My Kindle 2 arrived a couple of weeks ago, in a much more compact package than the original had. I opened the box, pulled the clean new thing out, and . . . dropped it on my hardwood floor.

Yep. Before I had even turned it on.

The original Kindle had a rubberized back that made it easy to grip. I knew that the Kindle 2 was differently constructed — though I didn't know exactly how — but I think that at that first opening I was subconsciously handling it the way I handled its predecessor. Which, it turned out, wasn’t firmly enough.

I picked it up, plugged it in, turned it on . . . and yes, the screen was damaged. Just in the upper-right-hand corner. The wonky area is small enough that it doesn't prevent me from reading any text, though, as I quickly discovered, it keeps me from seeing my battery charge.

I looked into my options, and decided that the second-cheapest one would be to buy a two-year extended warranty for $65, which allows for one exchange of a Kindle you;ve damaged. I can do that if I’ve had the machine for less than thirty days — so it’s actually still a possibility.

But I’m not going to do it. Even though it wasn’t my money per se, I’ve now given Amazon nearly eight hundred bucks for Kindles, and that’s enough. I can use the one I have perfectly well — though, as I have noted in earlier posts, I’m not as enamored of the thing as I once was, and the DRM issues are making me increasingly itchy.

Incidentally, while the Kindle 2 is an improvement in some ways — better resolution, a more logical way of putting it to sleep and waking it, etc. — I find it more awkward to handle. I really miss the rubberized back, and would even if I hadn’t dropped the damned thing.

Friday, July 17, 2009

wait — where did it go?

David Pogue, from here:

This morning, hundreds of Amazon Kindle owners awoke to discover that books by a certain famous author had mysteriously disappeared from their e-book readers. These were books that they had bought and paid for—thought they owned.

But no, apparently the publisher changed its mind about offering an electronic edition, and apparently Amazon, whose business lives and dies by publisher happiness, caved. It electronically deleted all books by this author from people’s Kindles and credited their accounts for the price.

This is ugly for all kinds of reasons. Amazon says that this sort of thing is “rare,” but that it can happen at all is unsettling; we’ve been taught to believe that e-books are, you know, just like books, only better. Already, we’ve learned that they’re not really like books, in that once we’re finished reading them, we can’t resell or even donate them. But now we learn that all sales may not even be final.

As one of my readers noted, it’s like Barnes & Noble sneaking into our homes in the middle of the night, taking some books that we’ve been reading off our nightstands, and leaving us a check on the coffee table.

You want to know the best part? The juicy, plump, dripping irony?

The author who was the victim of this Big Brotherish plot was none other than George Orwell. And the books were “1984” and “Animal Farm.”

the media of literary fandom

Here’s a wonderful article on the seemingly archaic and yet evergreen medium of the electronic discussion list and the kind of writers whose fans thrive in that environment. Here’s a sample paragraph:

Pynchon, Wallace, Ballard. These aren’t the only writers with active mailing-list followings: Foucault-L is fairly popular, as are lists on Joyce and a number of late Modernist poets. Still, they do suggest a certain correlation, sorted roughly along the shared lines of the postmodern, the “cult” and the pre-Baby Boom. When John Updike died in January a few Facebook groups were founded in his memory, but there was no Updike-L to organise a communal run-through of the Rabbit series or to collate his obituaries into a handy list. Similarly, Wallace’s cult reputation seems to have added an imaginary decade to his bibliography — contemporaries such as Franzen and Chabon barely get a look-in. And, yet, the work of these mailing lists is never quite as stable as it seems. The prevalence of outdated technology means that discussion lists such as Pynchon-L straddle an uneasy line between permanence and ephemerality: the archives are there, but are as difficult to navigate as they are to maintain, especially when the software garbles all hypertext messages into indecipherable strings of formatting code. Projects such as the Pynchon Wiki are a partial solution, bringing members slightly closer to fluid interactivity of Web 2.0, but in truth represent only a tiny fraction of the list’s accumulated expertise.

Now, it does seem that the author is trying really hard not to say that geeky male writers draw geeky male fans who use geeky technologies to communicate with one another — but it’s an interesting article nonetheless. (I wonder if some skilled sociologist could discriminate between the kind of person who uses these lists and the kind of person who prefers Usenet and allied technologies.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

the DRM debate

Over at The Digitalist, there are two posts by Michael Bhaskar — here and here — on DRM: Digital Rights Management. Bhaskar is in publishing, so his primary concern is with Amazon’s DRM model on its Kindle books, but he refers also to Apple’s restrictions on the music it sells through iTunes. The real interest here is in the comments, some of which come from people who have been banging this drum for a long time — Cory Doctorow, Clay Shirky — but they are really interesting nonetheless. The whole conversation gives a great image of the state of the current debate. Anyone interested in these matters should read it with care.

the story of a discovery

In 1815, Cardinal Angelo Mai made an extraordinary discovery in the Ambrosian Library in Milan. He spotted that a book containing the records of the First Church Council of Chalcedon in ad 451 had been made out of reused parchment. The earlier writing on each sheet had been erased (washing with milk and oat-bran was the common method), and the minutes of the Church Council copied on top. As often in reused documents of this kind, the original text had begun to show through the later writing, and was in part legible.

It turned out that the recycled sheets had come from a very mixed bag of books. There was a single page of Juvenal’s Satires, part of Pliny’s speech in praise of Trajan (the Panegyric) and some commentary on the Gospel of St John. But the prize finds, making up the largest part of the book, were faintly legible copies of the correspondence of Marcus Cornelius Fronto, one of the leading scholars and orators of the second century ad, and tutor to the future emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned from 161 to 180. The majority of the letters in the palimpsest were between Fronto and Marcus Aurelius himself, both before and after he had ascended to the throne. Unlike the passages from Juvenal and Pliny, these were entirely new discoveries.

Fascinating. From a review by Mary Beard of a new book on Marcus Aurelius.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Then, Voyager

Voyager (which I mentioned in a previous post) was one of the coolest companies around in the Nineties; I was a devoted customer. I bought Voyager Expanded Books: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World (though it may not have had that title then). Books on floppy disk! Annotatable! Variable text sizing! — really, they were amazingly similar to Kindle books, except on my Mac. If I remember rightly, If Monks Had Macs was on floppy too, though at some point Voyager’s products shifted to CD-ROM. I believe the first CD-ROM I ever bought was Voyager’s edition of Art Spiegelman’s Maus: looking through its collection of period documents, commentary by Spiegelman, and taped interviews with his father, I felt that I had entered some brave new world. But trying to read the book on screen was annoying as hell (screens weren’t very large in those days). I bought a “tour of the Louvre,” some kind of “animals of the world” disc featuring a tiny movie with narration by James Earl Jones, and a collection of simply animated folk songs of the world. Only the last captured the attention of my son, then a toddler: he would sit on my lap for an hour watching and listening to the Kookaburra song and “Shalom Aleichem” and some haunting Swedish song that I can’t quite recall now.

Good times, good times. Voyager was state of the art then — plus, most of their stuff was written in my beloved HyperCard — and I probably thought that they had identified the future of multimedia communications. What I didn't know, and probably what Voyager didn't know either, was that this nascent entity called the World Wide Web was about to change everything. It’s interesting, in light of subsequent history, to note that the one Voyager product line that has survived and thrived is the one that might have seemed least innovative at the time: the Criterion Collection of classic films.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

antisocial bookmarking

Via Daring Fireball I just learned about Pinboard, which describes itself as “antisocial bookmarking.” I am tempted to use it rather than Delicious for just that reason.

I think all that line really means is that it’s easy to make the default setting for your bookmarks “Private.” In other respects Pinboard is just a simpler, cleaner version of Delicious — I like its look very much — with one nice addition: instead of bookmarking pages you can choose “To Read,” which saves the page for later perusal. That makes Pinboard a kind of combination of Delicious and Instapaper, which makes a lot of sense.

Here’s the other interesting thing about Pinboard: its developer, Maciej Ceglowski, has implemented a signup fee: “The signup fee helps discourage spammers and defrays some of the costs of running the site,” he writes. “The fee is based on the formula (number of users * $0.001), so the earlier you join, the less you pay.” When Gruber (the immensely popular Daring Fireball) signed up a few days ago, he paid $2.33. When I signed up yesterday, I paid $2.91. But I imagine a few thousand other Fireball readers did just the same, so this morning the price is $4.08. Quite a jump. If you’re interested in Pinboard you should get it while it’s not so hot.

In general — and this takes us back to a recent post — I’d prefer to pay money for an online service, rather than use a monetarily free service for which I pay in other ways: for example, in privacy. So I’ll be playing with Pinboard for a few days and trying to decide whether my social or antisocial side has priority.

Monday, July 13, 2009

his tiny life

I often think that all stories about the relations between online gaming and real life are just footnotes to Julian Dibbell’s My Tiny Life (free PDF here) — one of the great masterpieces of contemporary journalism. I was looking it over again recently and noting how, though the technologies have developed significantly in the fifteen years since Dibbell was doing his research, the ethical challenges of online life remain pretty much the same.

Take this story, for instance. David Myers is a media professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who, as part of his research, started playing City of Heroes and became so incredibly good at it — simply by following the rules of the game more strictly than others did — that his fellow players came to despise him.

Well, that’s how Myers tells the story, anyway — and the reporter he talked to bought it. But others tell a different tale. The comments on this post are pretty interesting, as is Myers’s response to the controversy. (See his other posts also.)

But really, the proper template for understanding all such controversies is in My Tiny Life. If you haven't read it you really should.

marginal technology

Via Adam Keiper, my editor here at The New Atlantis, I see this fascinating story about . . . well, several things, but primarily about the efforts of Bob Stein — founder of the Voyager Company and then, more recently, the Institute for the Future of the Book — to create more deeper and more meaningful communities of reading. Virtual communities, that is: Stein says, “This is the billion-dollar question, How do you model [an online] conversation, a real conversation, among a large number of people?” He’s trying to achieve this primarily through CommentPress, which is basically a celebration of marginalia. (Here’s a long, scholarly article on CommentPress by Kathleen Fitzpatrick.)

How you feel about this project may largely depend on how you feel about actual marginalia. When you check out a library book, or peruse a used book, that has commentary in the margins, are you disgusted or intrigued? My default position is disgust, but I think that’s largely because most marginal commentary is not especially intelligent. It also tends to be sloppy — Can't you people underline more neatly? Please! — and intermittent. More often than not it starts out boldly but peters out altogether after a few pages.

Of course, if you know and are interested in the person writing in those margins the situation is wholly different. People used to lend books to the poet Coleridge so they could get them back with the great man’s annotations, which they typically found more interesting that the books themselves. When I was writing my biography of C. S. Lewis I took great delight in looking through volumes he had owned to see what he had written in the margins. In that case also it was what the other writers had prompted Lewis to think that intrigued me. The margins were what mattered to me; the text itself was, to my mind, . . . well, marginal. At least for that moment.

The question I have about CommentPress, then, is this: Where does it direct our attention? Is it about illuminating the books under discussion? Or are the books there instrumentally, to serve as prompts for community-building? I suppose this will vary from case to case, but Bob Stein’s remarks suggest that the real goal is to connect people, with books as means to that end. Which is not a problem, as far as I’m concerned; that’s a worthy use for books.

Friday, July 10, 2009

living in the clouds

The Newshour with Jim Lehrer last night did a story on cloud computing that was rather comical at times — “You mean other people can see that spreadsheet?” — but laid out the basic issues well enough. However, the show was extremely Google-centric: its primary example of “living in the cloud” was a woman who keeps track of her family’s life via Google apps — a woman who just happens to be a Google employee who (apparently) works on Google docs. And a lot of the segment was built around an interview with Eric Schmidt, who encourages us all to “trust the professionals” to back up our data and keep it safe.

But which professionals? See, there are many clouds out there, and it’s not clear that they’re all equally safe, equally reliable, equally honest. Now, you may not plan to out anything in the cloud if you can help it — but if you do, then who do you trust? Google has a ton of my information because I use Gmail; but, though I have fooled around with Google Calendar and other Google services, I do a good deal of my life-organizing with Backpack. So who is more trustworthy, Google — one of the most powerful corporations in the world, who gives me their services for free but mines my account for data — or 37signals, a small company who charges me a fee for their services but promises not to use or share my data?

Many factors need to be considered when answering this question. There’s the issue of diversification: Would I do well to prevent one company from controlling all my data? And I haven't even mentioned the difficulties that can arise when you’re trying to export your data or otherwise pry it from the cloud’s clutches. But though I’ve thought about these matters a lot, I don't think I understand them very well. This is all too new.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

the BLDGBLOG book

Lots of cool stuff in it. See?


As I was writing that last little tiny post, about Latin tags on the London Underground, it occurred to me that that's the kind of thing done much more efficiently via Twitter. Thus: the brand spanking new Text Patterns Twitter Feed.

perfer et obdura!

Mary Beard on appropriate Latin lines for the London Underground.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

why do I bother?

. . . writing a post about Google's plans to build their own OS, when I could have just waited for Fake Steve:

Point four: You also may not have noticed, but nobody uses Chrome. I mean think about it. Do you know anyone who uses Chrome? Really? And you know why nobody uses Chrome? Because Chrome is shit. Just utter, utter shit. I mean they've got all these big brains at Google and you'd think they could make a decent f***ing browser. Jesus, the morons at Mozilla can do it. But not Google. Nope. They gave it their big best effort and what did they come up with? Chrome. It's a joke. I mean, literally, we laugh about it, except when Eric is around. But as soon as he leaves the room we all go "Chrome!" and just burst out laughing. Our guys on the Safari team even had special toilet paper made up with a Chrome logo on every sheet. That's how bad it is. Trying to make an OS out of Chrome is like saying you're going to turn a Pontiac Aztek into a stretch limousine. I suppose it could be done, but why?

Bill Gates U

Over at The American Scene, I have some thoughts on a recent proposal: that Bill Gates should start his own university.

Google's OS future

There are already a great many blog posts on Google’s announcement of its operating-system-in-progress; probably the most interesting one I’ve seen so far is from John Timmer at Ars Technica. Sample:

From a technological perspective, there appear to be some interesting aspects to rethinking the operating system. For one, by having an extremely narrow focus—bringing up a networking stack and browser as quickly as possible—Chrome OS has the ability to cut down on the hassles related to restarting and hibernating computers. And, aside from the browser, all of the key applications will reside online, security and other software updates won't happen on the computer itself, which should also improve the user experience. . . .

More cryptically, Google also says that the users it views as its target market "don't want to spend hours configuring their computers to work with every new piece of hardware." That problem has plagued all OS makers, and none of them have solved it to the satisfaction of all users. It's possible that Google thinks it can do so, but given its general attitude (everyone should be happy with Web apps), it's equally possible that the company has decided that people simply don't need much in the way of peripherals.

And then near the end:

Will all of this work? Apple spent a couple of years trying to convince developers that they should be happy with Web apps, but it's clear that the arrival of native applications has been a significant driver of the iPhone's popularity. Palm appears to be trying something closer to Google's vision with the Pre, but Palm is also offering a native SDK, and it's too early to tell how well its reliance on online services will work out for users. At this stage, it's not even clear if the netbook market will have staying power once the economy picks back up.

We’ve seen already the convenience of web apps — access to the same data from anywhere you have am internet connection, and “pushed” upgrades that “just happen” — and we’ve seen some of the problems: catastrophic data loss (e.g. the ma.gnolia disaster), privacy concerns, lack of offline access, the limited feature sets of web apps in comparison to their desktop counterparts. Google’s approach to these problems seems to be to reassure us about the first, hope that we ignore the second, fix the third, and hope that convenience trumps the fourth. My guess is that ultimately they will succeed in all these endeavors, at least for a great many consumers.

Monday, July 6, 2009

free as in threatening

Very likely most of you who are interested have already seen this stuff, but Chris Anderson’s new book Free: the Future of a Radical Price, has been getting some thoughtful attention, most notably from Malcolm Gladwell — but this review from Drake Bennett at the Boston Globe is interesting too.

My short take on all this — I’m not sure whether I’ll find time to produce a longer one — is that Anderson’s critics seem to win on points, but then, I haven't read the book yet. I probably will, though, since it’s going to be, um, free. For a while anyway.

But just one comment for now: Anderson’s response to Gladwell is titled “Dear Malcolm: Why so threatened?” and, you know, I hate that line. It’s one of the more common and more annoying forms of what C. S. Lewis called Bulverism. “You don't like my book, but since my book is obviously excellent” — see Alain de Botton — “you must be lying or malicious or suffering from some psychological shortcoming. Let’s see — I’d rather not think you are lying or malicious, so let me assume . . . yes! — let me assume that you are threatened by my unassailable arguments. It is weakness on your part, not malice, that makes you say these obviously false things.”

Friday, July 3, 2009

retro calculations

If you've ever wished that you could have that old HP scientific calculator, but on your iPhone, your wish has come true.


decryption, 208 years later

Here's Robert Patterson's encrypted letter (1801) to President Thomas Jeferson:


 The cipher has recently been solved.

staying connected

When I headed for Alabama last week, I knew that my mom didn't have internet access at home. I also knew that there ain't a lot of internet cafés in the area. I figured I would just get a local access number from my ISP and deal with dialup for a few days . . . but then I remembered that my MacBook doesn't have an internal modem. What to do?

Of course, I could have done without internet access for a week. NOT. So I thought about it and decided to give Rovair a try. Rovair rents mobile wireless cards: you order on their website (it’s easiest to let them choose the card that’s best for your location and system), give them an address to ship the card to . . . and then on the day you designate a little FedEx package shows up at that address containing the card, a CD with the necessary software for your system, and a pre-addressed, prepaid FedEx envelope to send the stuff back. They chose a Sprint card for me, and it worked great. It wasn’t super-fast, but it deserved to be called broadband, and throughout the whole week it never dropped the connection. The only small glitches were in the software, which was a little unstable and caused one forced restart — the only time I’ve ever had to reboot this computer (or any of my Macs for the past five years). But the CD containd an uninstaller, so at the end of the week I uninstalled the software, packed up the card, and dropped the package off in a FedEx box. Based on my one experience, I’d say that Rovair is a very good service.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

and yet more hatred

My friend David Michael of Wunderkammer fame points out a post by Will Leitch that, well, makes my previous post completely unnecessary. I LOL'd out loud.

Leitch points to further commentary here and here.

"I will hate you till the day I die"

We interrupt this hiatus for this message from your host. The other day I had an email exchange that went something like this:

Anon. Why did you say those terrible things about me a few years ago?

Me. I didn't. I explained to you at the time that I didn't. [expressions of extreme irritation redacted here and elsewhere]

Anon. That doesn't change the fact that you said terrible things about me.

Me. Wait . . . Yes, it does. I wasn’t talking about you, I was talking about someone else.

Anon. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You need to take responsibility for your words.

Me. [pastes in quotations proving that I was talking about someone else]

Anon. [silence]

Sigh. Well, at least I’m not Caleb Crain, whose review of Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work got this response, on Caleb’s blog, from de Botton himself:

Caleb, you make it sound on your blog that your review is somehow a sane and fair assessment. In my eyes, and all those who have read it with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value. The accusations you level at me are simply extraordinary. I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon - so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer. You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that's two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review. You present yourself as 'nice' in this blog (so much talk about your boyfriend, the dog etc). It's only fair for your readers . . . to get a whiff that the truth may be more complex. I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.

Well now. That’s something. And then this follow-up:

The reason I was led to respond to this review - and I have never done something like this before - is the sheer vindictive lunacy of the accusations levelled against me. My response may seem deranged, but only if you hold in mind two things: the book I've written and what the reviewer said about it. The gap is so large that this goes way beyond a casual and quite understandable case of a reviewer not liking a book. Everyone is allowed their own taste and I'd be the last person to force a consensus. However, there's a point at which a review becomes so angry, cruel and mean-spirited that perspective just disappears and one is into new and uncharted terrain. I'm responding to this review as a way of proposing that forgiveness is perhaps not always the only option when the provocation has been enormous.

Goodness. I didn't even think it was that harsh a review. De Botton also made his displeasure known through Twitter — though apparently he removed those tweets — and he isn't the only one:

Novelist Alice Hoffman was so enraged last weekend by a lacklustre review in the Boston Globe - her new novel, The Story Sisters, apparently "lacks the spark of [her] earlier work" - that she tweeted furiously: "Roberta Silman in the Boston Globe is a moron. How do some people get to review books? Now any idiot can be a critic." She completed a comprehensive act of revenge by tweeting Silman's phone number and email address so her followers could "tell her what u think of snarky critics".

Instant communication means, among other things, the ability to instantly say things that you may well regret for the rest of your life. I don't think Hoffman and de Botton exactly shine in these exchanges. My own view, as someone who has written negative reviews and been on the receiving end of them, is that if you want to put your thoughts before the public and be paid for it, you simply have to accept, as part of the deal, that some people won't like your writing. When your response to a negative review is to shout for all the world to hear that the reviewer is an “idiot,” or, worse yet, you tell the reviewer directly that “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make” — well, you simply give the impression that you are full to overflowing with preening self-regard.

Of course it hurts to have a book you’ve slaved over slammed or dismissed. And in those cases there’s nothing wrong with letting off steam with your family or friends. I think “dismissed” is probably worse than “slammed”: among the responses to my books, the one that most bothered me was Adam Gopnik’s cursory kiss-off in The New Yorker of my biography of C. S. Lewis, and I may have made the odd unkind comment about Gopnik over pints with my buddies. However, I can honestly say that I do not hate Adam Gopnik and do not want to see his career destroyed. And more important, I didn't share my every uncharitable thought with the whole world. Some websites may be disappearing, but this much is for sure: if you’ve said anything online that really, really embarrasses you, it’ll be available forever.