Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

posts unwritten, end-of-year edition

Looking at my Pinboard and Instapaper pages — how I love those tools — I see so many stories I want to blog about but will probably not find time to. There’s no strict reason why there should be a statute of limitations on such things, and there remains a chance that I’ll come back to some of these stories later, but the end of the year just feels like a time for closing the books on some options and turning to others. So let me take note of a few worthwhile pursuits that I didn't manage to . . . pursue:

Robert Darnton offered “Three Jeremiads” about research libraries, concluding with a plea:

Would a Digital Public Library of America solve all the other problems—the inflation of journal prices, the economics of scholarly publishing, the unbalanced budgets of libraries, and the barriers to the careers of young scholars? No. Instead, it would open the way to a general transformation of the landscape in what we now call the information society. Rather than better business plans (not that they don’t matter), we need a new ecology, one based on the public good instead of private gain. This may not be a satisfactory conclusion. It’s not an answer to the problem of sustainability. It’s an appeal to change the system.

Natalie Binder has a really smart series of posts about the powers and limits of Google’s Ngrams. On the same subject, Geoffrey Nunberg is smart, sobering, and sardonic:

It's unlikely that "the whole field" of literary studies—or any other field—will take up these methods, though the data will probably figure in the literature the way observations about origins and etymology do now. But I think Trumpener is quite right to predict that second-rate scholars will use the Google Books corpus to churn out gigabytes of uninformative graphs and insignificant conclusions. But it isn't as if those scholars would be doing more valuable work if they were approaching literature from some other point of view.

This should reassure humanists about the immutably nonscientific status of their fields. Theories of what makes science science come and go, but one constant is that it proceeds by the aggregation of increments great and small, so that even the dullards have something to contribute. As William Whewell, who coined the word "scientist," put it, "Nothing which was done was useless or unessential." Humanists produce reams of work that is precisely that: useless because it's merely adequate. And the humanities resist the standardizations of method that make possible the structured collaborations of science, with the inevitable loss of individual voice. Whatever precedents yesterday's article in Science may establish for the humanities, the 12-author paper won't be one of them.

I can't decide how much of Jaron Lanier’s warning against “The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy” I agree with, if any, but as he always does, here Lanier provokes a great deal of thought.

I may list a few more of these stories-I-didn’t-write-about in the coming days.


  • Can you say a bit about how you use Instapaper and Pinboard together, or point me to where you've done that?

    The archiving option on Pinboard persuaded me to sign up, and Instapaper is free so I signed up there as well. But there seem to be functions that overlap, e.g. Read Later. Which do you use for what?

  • I could use the "read later" function of Pinboard, but I love Instapaper's conversion-to-text feature and the way it makes things equally readable on iPad, iPhone, anywhere. So I use Instapaper for anything I know I want to read but don't have time to read right now. I use Pinboard for anything I want to keep track of long-term: I select pretty large excerpts (sometimes two or three paragraphs) and tag everything I bookmark, so it's not only easy to find later but I can also easily see why I bookmarked it.

    Hope that helps.

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