Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, February 27, 2010

technology update

So about a week ago I was reading a book on my Kindle when suddenly it disappeared. Not the Kindle, the book. The screen went blank, the Kindle restarted, and when restart was complete, the home page informed me that I had zero items on the machine and zero archived items. I set it aside and came back a few minutes later, and now, it seemed, I had many archived items but none on the Kindle. I tried downloading one of my archived books, but after five or six minutes the “your book is downloading” message (which usually stays on screen for about ten seconds) was still there. An hour or two later I looked again, and my books had returned.

This has since happened twice more, both times when I was seriously engaged in what I was reading. A disconcerting experience. Because I dropped this Kindle the first time I touched it and slightly damaged one corner — a sad tale I told on this blog — I doubt that Amazon will give me a replacement. But I will ask, and report what I learn.

On another front, my emancipation from the clutches of Google remains incomplete. Gmail is gone, replaced by Fastmail, and that’s working out well, with the minor quibble that Fastmail’s spam filter is not as good as Gmail’s — a few items of spam are getting through and there have been some false positives as well. When I used Gmail I just didn't think about spam.

Also, for a long time now my wife and son and I have been coordinating our calendars using Google Calendar, so I don't think I can change that anytime soon. I also miss Google Reader: Bloglines updates slowly and inconsistently, though the new beta site looks very nice, and that’s the only real option for syncing my RSS feeds on my iPhone. But since I don't read RSS feeds on my iPhone very often, I think I’ll stick with a desktop RSS reader, either the full-featured NetNewsWire — with which I have a long history — or the beautiful NewsFire.

These are slight annoyances, but, simply put, I don't trust Google to use my data appropriately, so I can put up with them.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chatroulette

From everything I’ve read about Chatroulette, it would appear that 95% of the time, or more, people click away within a second or two of seeing someone on screen. Surely Malcolm Gladwell is already working on an article about Chatroulette and snap judgments?

Not every Chatrouletter shows a face to the world. Some show other body parts; some use masks; one commenter on a blog post I saw enthusiastically recommended the use of puppets. But what can you learn about someone whose face you see for two seconds? In most cases, you’ll first notice gender; then age; then relative attractiveness. And that’s about all you’ll have time for if you’re clicking away as often as is the norm.

You know what this reminds me of? Church. Or rather, church gatherings other than the main Sunday morning worship service. Churches in America seem, by and large, across the theological spectrum, to think that it’s best whenever possible to segregate people by age and gender. Boys’ Sunday School, girls’ Sunday School, senior citizens, young married couples, twentysomething singles . . . it’s a curiously, one might even say obsessively, demographic way to organize people’s communal religious experience. Is it really impossible that a teenage boy and a great-grandmother could have something to say to each other, something to learn from each other?

Chatroulette seems to be self-organizing on similarly elementary terms. Similarly, not identically: to judge by the number of “show me your boobs” signs that, by all accounts, turn up on Chatroulette, many of the men using the site aren't interested in talking to other men — or talking at all, for that matter. But the general point stands: people seem to want to organize their social experience in extremely limited and unimaginative ways, and Chatroulette doesn't seem to give them any incentive to do anything else.

But some online venues do. In the comment thread to a danah boyd post on Chatroulette, Melanie McBride says:

right now, the most interesting “random” and intergenerational online experience I’ve had is doing pugs (random dungeons) in [World of Warcraft]. you are grouped by level and by class. So a 50yr old prof healer could be led around by a 15 year old tank. I could end up with just about any kind of person from the millions who have selected random play that day. And that’s what I love about it. and it’s truly “situated” learning – where the learner can self select their “teacher” or “collaborator” based on their own priorities and their perceptions of what other teammates have to offer. If you do poorly, you risk being “kicked” or smack talked. If you do well, you might be invited to do another random with the same group. And random gameplay in MMOs is very much a space of collaboration and curiosity. interestingly, the players most averse to random game play are also those who are least interested in leaving their comfort zones or echo chambers. I’ve talked to a lot of educators who, for example, cannot handle the smack talk in randoms (or pvp) so they refuse to even explore it.

I like this. It seems like the opposite of Chatroulette.

P.S. You gotta love Charlie Park's contribution to this discussion.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

who's to blame here?

Google is anything but my best friend these days, as readers of this blog will know, but I don't think Google employees ought to be convicted of crimes because of videos other people upload.

obsessive conclusion disorder

Toby Lichtig has a problem: he can't stop reading books to the end — even when he doesn't like them.
Meanwhile, Alan Bissett has declared war against the forces attacking his attention span, and he's bringing in the heavy weaponry: Tolstoy.
Perhaps the tide is turning. . . .

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

fragility

Jason Epstein writes,

Digitization makes possible a world in which anyone can claim to be a publisher and anyone can call him- or herself an author. In this world the traditional filters will have melted into air and only the ultimate filter — the human inability to read what is unreadable — will remain to winnow what is worth keeping in a virtual marketplace where Keats's nightingale shares electronic space with Aunt Mary's haikus. That the contents of the world's libraries will eventually be accessed practically anywhere at the click of a mouse is not an unmixed blessing. Another click might obliterate these same contents and bring civilization to an end: an overwhelming argument, if one is needed, for physical books in the digital age.

This is of course not true, and one wonders what caused Epstein to make such a claim. Does he think that every book ever digitized is on a single un-backed-up computer? “Digital content is fragile,” he continues. “The secure retention, therefore, of physical books safe from electronic meddlers, predators, and the hazards of electronic storage is essential.” I agree with this, but maybe not for the reasons Epstein has in mind. Paper codices contain a great deal of information — data and metadata — that can't easily be transferred to digital form, and that information is worth preserving. But it’s not clear, to me anyway, that electronic texts are more fragile than books. It’s true that digital media deteriorate, and at rates and under conditions we still don't understand, but steps can be taken and are being taken to keep those media constantly updated. And books are damaged, lost, or destroyed as well. Few objects persist over time unless they are cared for, which is presumably what certain Chinese Buddhist scholars were thinking about when they built a library.

It’s interesting to think about what would happen if certain sources of information we rely on were somehow to disappear, wholly and instantaneously. Losing Wikipedia wouldn't be a big deal, since by design its information comes from other sources, most of which are online elsewhere. Losing the books that Google has scanned would be more problematic, but there are many other sources of digitized texts. We need to be good custodians of all the information we have gathered, but with proper care, I don't think that digital media are any more fragile than any other kind.

Monday, February 22, 2010

the fairness hearing

The legal wrangle over the fairness (or lack thereof) of the proposed Google Book Settlement is pretty darn fascinating. Check out this clear and detailed report, followed by this one. Well done, Professor Grimmelmann.

Friday, February 19, 2010

fixing email

My recent exodus from Gmail and consequent return to the world of the desktop email client has got me thinking about what an email application really fundamentally is.

It’s three things, it seems to me: it’s a text editor, it’s a database, and it’s a file manager. The problem is that there is no email client that fulfills all these functions really well. And probably no two users will weigh the relative importance of these functions in precisely the same way.

Take Gmail, for instance. It has always been an extremely responsive, extremely reliable database. And as its system of labels, filters, and “Labs” commands developed — Oh how I miss you, Send and Archive! — it became an increasingly sophisticated file manager. But its text editing capabilities were limited and awkward from day 1. As much fun as it was to set up an organizational system in Gmail, it was that much of a pain to write anything in the darn thing.

Contrast that to an ancient favorite of the geeky Mac crowd, Mailsmith — none of that newfangled IMAP crap for me, sonny! — which borrows its text-editing engine from BBEdit and therefore in this respect blows every other email client in the world out of the water. It has a pretty good filtering system too, with fine-grained controls, though in my experience the filters do not work consistently. But its database, while solid, is excruciatingly slow — I mean, go-out-and-have-lunch-and-it-still-hasn’t-finished-your-search slow — so that and its single-minded devotion to POP make it unusable.

If swift and sophisticated file management is your sine qua non, then you can't do better than — well, mutt or alpine, assuming you don't mind working from the command line. Watching a true mutt master compose, send, reply to, and file emails is like watching the knife tricks at Benihana. But mutt and alpine obviously aren't serious options for many users.

So we’re still waiting, I think, for an email app that puts it all together. Maybe Letters, the early-in-development email client for alpha Mac geeks, will do it. But I doubt it. My guess is that email will be replaced by a wholly different communications technology before anyone figures out how to make an email client that isn't seriously compromised in one or more of its functions.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

all aboard the Axiom!

It’s been interesting — and somewhat disconcerting — to see the techno-ideology John Gruber has been selling since Apple announced the iPad. See this post, or this one, or the beginning of this one. Basically, Gruber is endorsing the Eloi-Morlock theory of computing experience according to which . . . well, why try to improve on, or even compete with, perfection? Let’s go to the source here, Neal Stephenson’s still-amazingly-brilliant essay from a decade ago, In the Beginning Was the Command Line. Take it away, Neal:

Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, except that it's been turned upside down. In The Time Machine the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world it's the other way round. The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how everything works. The much more numerous Eloi learn everything they know from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed and controlled by book-reading Morlocks. So many ignorant people could be dangerous if they got pointed in the wrong direction, and so we've evolved a popular culture that is (a) almost unbelievably infectious and (b) neuters every person who gets infected by it, by rendering them unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands.

Morlocks, who have the energy and intelligence to comprehend details, go out and master complex subjects and produce Disney-like Sensorial Interfaces so that Eloi can get the gist without having to strain their minds or endure boredom. Those Morlocks will go to India and tediously explore a hundred ruins, then come home and built sanitary bug-free versions: highlight films, as it were. This costs a lot, because Morlocks insist on good coffee and first-class airline tickets, but that's no problem because Eloi like to be dazzled and will gladly pay for it all.

Now I realize that most of this probably sounds snide and bitter to the point of absurdity: your basic snotty intellectual throwing a tantrum about those unlettered philistines. As if I were a self-styled Moses, coming down from the mountain all alone, carrying the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments carved in immutable stone--the original command-line interface--and blowing his stack at the weak, unenlightened Hebrews worshipping images. Not only that, but it sounds like I'm pumping some sort of conspiracy theory.

But that is not where I'm going with this. The situation I describe, here, could be bad, but doesn't have to be bad and isn't necessarily bad now:

It simply is the case that we are way too busy, nowadays, to comprehend everything in detail. And it's better to comprehend it dimly, through an interface, than not at all. . . . My own family--the people I know best--is divided about evenly between people who will probably read this essay and people who almost certainly won't, and I can't say for sure that one group is necessarily warmer, happier, or better-adjusted than the other.

I don't know when to stop quoting this, so go read the whole thing. It’s great. My point is simply that those who complain about the increasingly closed architecture of the iPad, and the decline of the personal computer and its replacement by digital “appliances,” are resisting the dividing of the world into Eloi and Morlocks. Gruber is embracing it.

My own view is that I was an Eloi for most of my life but have spent the last few years trying to learn how to be a Morlock, at least a minor-league Morlock — and that has been, I think, time well spent. I am concerned that too many people will simply accept their Eloi status, and will give up on trying to understand the technologies that are shaping their minds and experiences, and will end up in a condition more or less like that of the people on the Axiom in Wall•E. It’s rather ironic, to say the least, that the company that’s doing the most to push us in this direction is the other one driven to its highest standards of excellence by Steve Jobs.

Monday, February 15, 2010

I'm not calling anyone "evil," but . . .

Since Google has apologized and reconfigured Buzz, should I perhaps accept their apology and return to my use of their products? I don't think so, for reasons explained by Kontra:

Unsure of its ability to successfully roll it out as an independent product, Google must have then decided to force feed Buzz through its Gmail user base of 175 million. Google executives likely reckoned that in a single day Buzz would garner more users than Twitter has been able to in two years after all that celebrity publicity. That really is why Gmail users woke up one day to find their private account details exposed to the public, unannounced and unprepared, because without such default exposure Google executives likely didn’t believe they could deliver a critical user base for Buzz. That’s not “improper testing,” it’s a platform strategy. And the fact that Google reacted quickly to public pressure doesn’t negate the fact that its arrogance was thoroughly exposed. The correction isn’t significant, the exposed intentions are.

And those intentions are clearly to become dominant in the world of social networking. But I am interested in participating in social networking only in limited and targeted ways, and consciously avoid most soc-net sites. So Google’s intentions run counter to my intentions. Thus we shall (largely if not completely) part company.

It turns out that Fastmail is a fabulous email provider, by the way, and when I’m using my iPhone it’s a relief not to have to deal with Google’s bizarre implementation of IMAP. I think I like this new Google-free (or limited-Google) world.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

buzz off, Google

So the other day I read about Google Buzz; it sounded interesting, so I clicked the link and went to the site. On that page was a brief description of Buzz and two choices: one, larger and in bright colors, said something to the effect of “Sure, I’ll try Buzz!” The other, in plain and smaller letters, said “Nah, just take me to my inbox.” I clicked on the large one, and in the next hour discovered that my Google Reader page was now filled with other people’s links and comments, and that Google was doing its very best to populate my Gmail inbox similarly — only being limited in its power to do so by the paucity of information I had entered on my Google Profile page. (Even so, Google on my behalf sent out Buzz invitations to people in my contacts list.) Any Google user who had given more information on their own profile pages now had exposed to any other Google users the list of people they most often emailed and chatted with. So if a man had been emailing with a manager of a company where he was thinking about taking a job, his current employer could find that out. Or if that man had been emailing with a lawyer because he was considering a lawsuit against his employer . . . or (we have discreditable secrets too) if he had been chatting with a woman other than his wife. . . . Google decided without directly informing its users that all those connections should be public knowledge.

As Evgeny Morozov wrote, “If I were working for the Iranian or the Chinese government, I would immediately dispatch my Internet geek squads to check on Google Buzz accounts for political activists and see if they have any connections that were previously unknown to the government. They can then spend months on end drawing complex social circles on the shiny blackboards inside secret police headquarters.”

This response to a shockingly tone-deaf post by Berin Szoka summarizes the issues nicely.

Google has since made minor changes to the system, but overall has been anything but apologetic: responding to an inquiry from the New York Times, “Todd Jackson, product manager for Gmail and Google Buzz . . . defended the setup of the Buzz service. He said that Buzz came with a built-in circle of contacts to provide a better experience to users and that many liked that feature."

I had already been frustrated by Google’s earlier decisions to make certain of their services more “social” — more than a year ago, for instance, my Reader started informing me of the number of people who liked certain links, and flashed in my face the number of “new sharing requests” that had come my way, despite my desperate attempts to turn off every possible venue for “sharing.” So Buzz is not a one-time misstep my Google, but rather a consolidation of a self-defining stance.

My response: after five years and 25,000 email messages, I have abandoned Gmail and Google Calendar. I have deleted all my Google Reader subscriptions, and deleted all my contacts. My principle is a simple one: Google will not determine and range and nature of my social connections, I will. The only thing keeping me from deleting my Google account altogether is, to be truthful, this blog, which is hosted by Blogger. So I’m stuck with Google for at least a while longer — but the first minute that I am able to delete that account, I will do so.

Now back to healing!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

hiatus

Gentle readers, I had emergency surgery to remove my gall bladder yesterday and will be incapacitated for a while. I will resume blogging as soon as I am able, but don't know when that will be. (And by the way, the past three days' posts were written over the weekend and scheduled for later publication — I wasn't heroically typing away on the operating table.)

signing and sighing

Ian Jack writes,

Anyone who has ever attended a literary festival will know the form. First the reading by one author or a discussion among several authors; then 15 minutes of questions from the audience; finally a few closing remarks from the moderator, ending with the important fact that Poet X or Historian Y, whom we've just had the great pleasure of hearing, will be signing books at the adjacent stall. For an author, this next stage can be either gladdening or humbling. There might be a queue of people with newly bought books in their hands or there might be nobody other than a woman who wants to raise "a few points" about your talk. Worse, much worse, is the sight of a long queue at the signing table – impossibly long, out of the door and round the block, you never knew you had so many readers! – which turns out to be for Michael Palin or Alan Titchmarsh, whose pens and smiles never rest.

I know whereof he speaks. A couple of years ago I spoke at Calvin College’s always-fabulous Festival of Faith & Writing, and was asked to come to the bookstore later that day to sign books. I was pleased to be asked — until I walked in and saw that I was to be seated right next to Kathleen Norris. I don't know if the line of people waiting to get their Norris books signed went around the block, but it went around the bookstore and out the door. The line of people waiting for me to sign books was, um, . . . shorter. After half an hour of sparse and intermittent activity I gathered my things and slunk out the door. Norris was too busy signing to notice either my arrival or my departure.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

defacements

Toby Lichtig confesses — no, boasts:
I am, of course, talking about defacing books – a much maligned practice of which I am a passionate disciple. My flirtation with textual mutilation started off at school with primly creased corners and pencilled underlinings, but I soon progressed to cocksure highlighting and full-blown ink-on-paper action – the effluence of engagement, the living, livid trace of dialogue. If, as the poststructuralists have suggested, the act of reading is an act of violence, then scrawling across the page in cheap biro must be its logical corollary.
I'm not just talking about highbrow jottings: notes and queries, references and witticisms, the literary art of "marginalia" (a term coined in 1832 by that keenest of annotators, Samuel Taylor Coleridge). No, in my library anything goes: doodles, numbers, addresses, lists, recipes and the ensuing food stains. Personalising my books is an intrinsic part of the interaction (which is why I tend to be neurotic about holding on to what I've read). Perhaps it's the fault of my somewhat sluggish memory: the marks and scrawls help me to recall the text – and, crucially, the person I was when reading it: how I was feeling, where I was sitting, whom I was with. The smears on my copy of The Scarlet and the Black (coffee certainly; jam I think) take me back to the cafe in Rovereto in northern Italy, where I read it over the course of a week in 2002. When I look at my edition of Dracula, with half of its cover torn away, I'm reminded of that night at university when we ran out of Rizla packets and were too lazy to look for more orthodox material.
I annotate books all the time — often heavily — but let's do it with respect, okay?

Monday, February 8, 2010

a case of increasing relevance

Jonathan Zittrain wrote these words in his book The Future of the Internet:

In the arc from the Apple II to the iPhone, we learn something important about where the Internet has been, and something more important about where it is going. The PC revolution was launched with PCs that invited innovation by others. So too with the Internet. Both were generative: they were designed to accept any contribution that followed a basic set of rules (either coded for a particular operating system, or respecting the protocols of the Internet). Both overwhelmed their respective proprietary, non-generative competitors, such as the makers of stand-alone word processors and proprietary online services like CompuServe and AOL. But the future unfolding right now is very different from this past. The future is not one of generative PCs attached to a generative network. It is instead one of sterile appliances tethered to a network of control.

These appliances take the innovations already created by Internet users and package them neatly and compellingly, which is good — but only if the Internet and PC can remain sufficiently central in the digital ecosystem to compete with locked-down appliances and facilitate the next round of innovations. The balance between the two spheres is precarious, and it is slipping toward the safer appliance.

Zittrain’s book was published in 2008, so these words may well have been written in 2007. They’re looking more and more prescient.

anatomy of a life

I thought I could post a copy of this chart by Ward Shelley, but it didn't work out so well, so I'm just going to link to it. I put this up three days ago and scheduled it to post this morning, and oddly enough, I got an email last night asking me if I had seen Ward Shelley's stuff. Synchronicity! — so thanks, Ben, even though I was there a couple of days ahead of you.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

to dream the impossible dream

Jaron Lanier’s recent book You Are Not a Gadget has gotten a good deal of play, because it’s being read as the lament of a guy who was once in the digerati vanguard now standing athwart history shouting “Stop!” Which is probably not quite right, but it makes a good story. Lanier is not skeptical about technology or even about the Internet but rather about vast promises being made by proponents of the Web 2.0 world. And he does sound quite a bit like the people I quoted the other day who see the iPad as marking the decline, or even the end, of a relatively long history of DIY computing.

Another increasingly widespread belief Lanier doubts is this: that artists, musicians, writers, and intellectuals can make money even if their works are pirated and copied — even if they give everything away for free — if they are willing to go on the road to perform, or develop similar entrepreneurial strategies. (See Jonathan Coulton and Cory Doctorow.) He was recently interviewed by the librarian Jessamyn West and had this to say on that subject:

If you want to know how many people are making a living by giving away things on the internet then making it up in lectures, there's an easy way to gauge this, because the people who hire lecturers are lecture agencies: I've never met anyone who earned a substantial living from lecturing who didn't have a lecture agent. So all you have to do is go to the major lecture agency within town and look up the number of clients who are doing this. I've done this casually, and I think the answer is under 100, probably under 50. Maybe between 50 and 100. So there are people who are doing it, and of those, I'd have to say the vast majority have day jobs. So, Chris Anderson has done pretty well on the lecture circuit but he also has other gigs with Conde Nast and Wired, so he doesn't have to rely on it, which is a huge thing. Being able to make money is one thing. Being able to make reliable money is how you can have children. They're totally, totally different things. So, I don't think he would quit his Wired job.

Good point — alas. It’s hard even for me, a person who loves teaching, not to fantasize about being able to make a living writing for the Web and only for the Web: Have Laptop, Will Earn a Living. But it ain’t going to happen — not for me, and not for many people.
West’s whole interview with Lanier is worth reading.
(The rest of this week will be crazy, so I’ll see y'all next week. Ciao!)

my new companion

My dear friend John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture — which you should be subscribing to, by the way — called yesterday evening and asked if he could drop off something at my house. It turned out to be a copy of the brand new Oxford Companion to the Book, which I will be reviewing for B&C. Oh my goodness. I have so much else to do, but . . . this is really, really beautiful.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Anna and Levin

Stephen Emms thinks Tolstoy blew the ending of Anna Karenina. If you haven't read the book, you might want to stop reading here.

People sometimes say the same about the last narrative section of War and Peace: “Gee, that’s anticlimactic. Who wants to see Natasha having to change babies’ diapers and live a life of boring domesticity?” Or, as Emms says here about the end of Anna, “It's like ending a stupendous five-course meal with a bowl of thin soup.”

There are two possibilities here. The first, the one that Emms endorses, is that Tolstoy is a novelist of stupendous power and nearly godlike brilliance who, unaccountably, has no idea how to end a book. The other possibility is that Tolstoy does not simply lose his gifts when he gets near the end of a book, but rather has very good reasons for giving us endings that we certainly don't expect and probably don't want. Emms appears not to consider the second option.

Emms notes that while Anna falls into despair and ends her life, the book’s other protagonist, Levin, somehow survives — despite suffering his own profound depression and coming very close indeed to suicide. Here too Emms can think of only one possible explanation: “On the basis of this novel, it could be argued that Tolstoy rejects female experience as domestic, limited, even lacking in spiritual insight, because the one woman who attempts to transgress these boundaries ends up committing suicide. Superiority of male vision and male mastery of narrative is evident.” Emms asks, “How can [Tolstoy] allow the last word on Anna to tumble from the pinched mouth of Vronsky's mother” — that is, the bigoted, selfish mother of Anna’s vain and thoughtless lover — “who says witheringly: ‘Her death was the death of a bad woman, a woman without religion’?”

Emms does not come out and say that he thinks that Tolstoy shares the judgment of Vronsky’s mother — surely he knows better. But I take it that he wants Tolstoy to somehow refute that judgment. But that’s not necessary: it is self-refuting. And Emms would better understand what Tolstoy is up to here if he had noticed the book’s epigraph: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.” That is, “vengeance is mine — it is not yours.” Vronsky’s mother has raised her son to be utterly self-regarding, and cares nothing for the life — Anna’s life — that her son’s self-regard has destroyed. (Vronsky himself is actually not nearly as bad as his mother: he genuinely loves Anna, insofar as it is possible for someone like him to love.) The foulness of her easy contempt is palpably evident — for those with eyes to see.

By telling the story in this way Tolstoy is refusing to direct his readers: he lets us form our own judgments and in that way reveal our own characters. He knows that many of us will claim the right and privilege of judging Anna, of proclaiming vengeance on her — just as Job’s “friends” do in that most mysterious of the Bible’s books. He knows that many will say, again along the lines of those who surround Job, that Levin survives because he is good and Anna dies because she is bad.

But the careful reader of the book will see it very differently. What Levin has that Anna does not have is, depending on whether you are or are not religious, either luck or grace — but in either case it’s not merit. Tolstoy makes it very clear that, in his society, a man who chooses to pursue a married woman in the way that Vronsky pursues Anna will pay something of a social price, but a small one. Vronsky continues to be received in polite society. But Anna risks everything for this affair: she loses her husband, her son, her place in society. She becomes an outcast, so when her relationship with Vronsky dies, she has literally nothing left to sustain her. And this is why she takes her life.

Levin has it better. His sins, which are many, do not separate him from society or from his family. Tellingly, he does not meet Anna until late in the book, when sheer circumstances make it impossible for him to fall in love with her or for her to seduce or respond to him. But had the circumstances been different . . . ? Above all, Tolstoy makes clear, when Levin is in his darkest days he has work to do: just the mechanical routine of life keeps him alive until he has his spiritual awakening. Anna, again, had nothing of the kind. Anna had nothing at all.

These things happen, Tolstoy tells us. One life is torn apart, another is renewed and enriched, and we cannot — if we are wise, we dare not — judge that anyone gets what he or she deserves. Likewise, at the end of War and Peace, he forces us to see that those periods of our lives which are charged with drama, fevered by event, must be succeeded by much longer periods of ordinary everyday experience, and that the brilliant young girl will, necessarily, some day become the middle-aged matron.

What Stephen Emms fails to see is that Tolstoy, who mastered the conventions of realistic fiction more fully than anyone ever has, also understood the false consolations that we so often want from fiction — and refused to give them to us. This is a mark not of incompetence or narrowness or provincial bigotry or sexism, but of the highest possible artistic genius.

Monday, February 1, 2010

tinkerer's sunset

I think it’s really important to meditate on what Alex Payne says here:

The iPhone can, to some extent, be forgiven its closed nature. The mobile industry has not historically been comfortable with openness, and Apple didn’t rock that boat when it released the iPhone. The iPhone was no more or less open than devices that preceded it, devices like those from Danger that required jumping similar bureaucratic hurdles to develop for.

That the iPad is a closed system is harder to forgive. One of the foremost complaints about the iPhone has been Apple’s iron fist when it comes to applications and the development direction of the platform. The iPad demonstrates that if Apple is listening to these complaints, they simply don’t care. This is why I say that the iPad is a cynical thing: Apple can’t – or won’t – conceive of a future for personal computing that is both elegant and open, usable and free. . . .

The thing that bothers me most about the iPad is this: if I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today. I’d never have had the ability to run whatever stupid, potentially harmful, hugely educational programs I could download or write. I wouldn’t have been able to fire up ResEdit and edit out the Mac startup sound so I could tinker on the computer at all hours without waking my parents. The iPad may be a boon to traditional eduction, insofar as it allows for multimedia textbooks and such, but in its current form, it’s a detriment to the sort of hacker culture that has propelled the digital economy.

Wonderful as Apple’s recent products are, I am actively trying to figure out how to distance myself from a company I’ve been committed to for a quarter of a century. Whether I’ll discover something that doesn't involve simply leaping into the arms of Google remains to be seen.