Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, August 15, 2011


This will be, I think, my last Text Patterns post. It's been a great run, for me anyway, and I am immensely grateful to Adam Keiper and the rest of the staff at The New Atlantis for hosting my random reflections. But over the past few months I have become increasingly uncomfortable with what I'm doing here, largely because I'm repeating myself too often — and I'm repeating myself, I think, because of my felt need to post regularly.

That is, the natural impetus of the blog format towards novelty — something I've been complaining about for five years now — makes it easier to link to one more story, with a few words of commentary, than to stop and think matters through at greater length and with greater rigor. I don't think that's been good for me.

This format served me well, I believe, when I was working on my book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. It was deeply helpful to me to try out ideas here and get comments on them — some of which made their way into the book — but now that that project is done I am feeling the need to move on. And you know, blogs have natural lifespans, or so I think; few of them can continue indefinitely without diminishment. Especially when they are issue-based blogs. Who wants to watch someone ride the same old hobby-horses year after year?

So I am stepping away. I will continue to write about the issues I wrote about here, but in longer formats and elsewhere. I am hoping to write a good deal more for The New Atlantis itself, if Adam and Ari and Caitrin and the crew will have me. But much of my energy in the rest of 2011 and all of 2012 will go to my two book-length projects: a critical edition of Auden's long poem For the Time Being and a "biography" of the Book of Common Prayer (both for Princeton University Press).

I am by no means abandoning the online world. I have resumed posting to my good old online commonplace book here, where the full range of my interests is represented; and I will continue to be active on Twitter, for which I harbor a strange and ongoing affection. I will also still use the #textpatterns hashtag, and I hope you will also. But for now, and from here: So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Jonah Lehrer produces and links to lots of interesting stuff, and here's a recent example:

Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt of UC San Diego gave several dozen undergraduates 12 different short stories. The stories came in three different flavors: ironic twist stories (such as Chekhov’s “The Bet”), straight up mysteries (“A Chess Problem” by Agatha Christie) and so-called “literary stories” by writers like Updike and Carver. Some subjects read the story as is, without a spoiler. Some read the story with a spoiler carefully embedded in the actual text, as if Chekhov himself had given away the end. And some read the story with a spoiler disclaimer in the preface.

Here are the results: . . . almost every single story, regardless of genre, was more pleasurable when prefaced with a spoiler.

Lehrer accepts the results without question, but that may be because, as he says in the post, it's his habit as a reader to spoil endings for himself. But he also knows that that's not common, that most of us try to avoid learning the endings of stories (though of course sometimes we succumb to temptation). So I'm wondering how much these results are dependent on the novelty of the experience: that is, it's at least possible that the greater pleasure taken in "spoiled" stories is a temporary phenomenon, resulting at least in part from the pleasure of deviating from habitual practice. Would the pleasure of knowing the ending in advance hold up over time for the majority of readers? I wonder.

It might, though. I have noticed that sometimes, when reading stories of suspense, I think too much about "how it comes out" and therefore have trouble focusing on the story as it develops: my mind is overly focused on the conclusion that I don't know and am constantly anticipating. This might not be the best frame of mind in which to enjoy a story, and it's certainly possible that knowing the ending could liberate me to enjoy all of the story, not just its ending. But I have my doubts.

I also wonder whether people's feelings about spoilers might be relative to the length of the narrative, or, if we're going to include other forms of art, the time we invest in it. The stakes are lower when you're taking half an hour to read a story than when you need two hours of more to devote to a movie — Would The Sixth Sense be better if you knew the ending in advance? That's hard for me to imagine — or when you need a dozen hours or more to read a big novel. Maybe there'll be future studies that will explore these variables.

Friday, August 12, 2011

fetishizing books?

Sarah Werner offers a thoughtful, informed take on some issues I've raised here in, well, thoughtless and uninformed ways: "The digitization folks talk about access and the book folks talk about being in the presence of the object. Neither side tends to present a more nuanced sense of how they might each have something to offer the other, or to recognize that there might be other considerations and uses at stake."

Read the whole thing, as they say, and then read the follow-up post. Great stuff.

Against Relevance

And then just as I'm complaining about the invocation of the great god Relevance, here comes Mark Bauerlein to preach Against Relevance:

As any trainer in sports, in the military, or in martial arts will report, however, to make the experience successful, training for it has to go well beyond it.  In martial arts, for instance, one goal is to prepare someone to handle a confrontation wisely, with proportional force and self-awareness.  Some confrontations may require physical defense, blocks and punches and kicks, and so the student has to be trained for them.  The training program, however, asks of students much more than the confrontation will demand.  Training involves high kicks, but rarely is it effective to throw one in a confrontation.  A low kick will suffice.  But in order to make that low kick effective, the student has to master high kicks.

The pattern applies to the cultural materials on the syllabus.  If teachers want students to discern the implicit meanings in commercial images, they should have students study images of more complexity and subtlety.  A few days with images taken from great photography and film will equip them to “read” music videos much more effectively than will a few days with those videos themselves.  Poetry by Alexander Pope and Edna St. Vincent Millay will do more for students’ verbal cognizance than will political advertisements and Twitter tweets.

This is the immediate virtue of anti-relevance.  If teachers want to raise critical thinking about contemporary mass culture, they should expose students to past high culture.  The language of Romantic poetry exercises critical thinking about language better than does the language of billboard jingles.  It’s a paradox, but it’s true.  If teachers want students to know the present and all its coarse enticements, they should immerse them in the best expressions of the past.

Mark is often too curmudgeonly to suit me, but there's a lot of wisdom in this. I similarly argue, in my recent New Atlantis essay on McLuhan, that his success in limning new media stemmed largely from his thorough training in the old.

in Utopia they loot the bookstores

This kind of thing just makes me sad. Sad, sad, sad. It seems that whenever any event causes people to think about how "young people today don't read" — in this case, bizarrely, it's the failure of English looters to break into Waterstone's — the worn old words get dragged out and dusted off, as Nikesh Shukla drags them here:

We need to . . . create a culture that lasts the entirety of young adult life. The people who will want to read will read. Those who might stand to, as Waterstone's put it, "learn something", need to be engaged more.

How does that start? It starts in-house, in the publishing industry. We need to produce more books that relate to these kids and their lives, offering something relevant or aspirational. We need to market these books directly to these audiences, make young people feel included and empowered to read. We need to deliver these books in relevant and contemporary ways. Maybe the rioters would have BBM'd less if they had other stuff to read on their phones.

Engaged, relate, relevant, aspirational, included, empowered, relevant (again), contemporary. It's hard for me to believe that anyone really, truly believes that if the publishing industry just published more books featuring dark-skinned characters a whole new culture of readers would miraculously spring up.

The young people Shukla is rightly concerned about have, for the most part, grown up in homes with few or no books, and at school their overworked and often underprepared teachers struggle to inculcate basic literacy. Nothing about this situation "starts in-house, in the publishing industry"; such a claim simultaneously elevates publishers' importance far beyond what's warranted and creates pointless guilt (since the imposed expectations can never be fulfilled). Whether you want to blame the political Left or Right, or secularism, or media culture, or capitalism, or whatever for the recent riots, the problems go far, far deeper than a lack of appropriate reading material.

And while I'm complaining, one more point: this whole post assumes that reading is an intrinsically pacifying experience. But it isn't. Maybe — maybe — fiction can work that way, but what if these young people gained the necessary literacy to read and really absorb The Autobiography of Malcolm X or The Wretched of the Earth? Reading gives birth to revolutionaries, too.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

crowdsourcing the Panopticon

When Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of the Panopticon, and much later when Michel Foucault described the gradual, accretive creation of a "panoptic society," many of us thought that this would necessarily happen through the expansion of governmental infrastructure. How else could it happen? Well, it turns out that the business world has provided the infrastructure, perhaps for its own purposes, but in ways that government can use.

There's something satisfying about this development — in this case anyway — as people discover that they have ways to participate in the clean-up of their community, in more ways than one.  But there's also something obviously scary about it.

And that's the way it goes: wherever our burgeoning information technologies touch our lives, they magnify, dramatically, already existing tendencies. It would be a mistake to think only about what's cool in that or what's disturbing. It's cool and disturbing alternately, or all at once. If you're feeling disoriented by these magnifications, get used to it. There's a lot more where that came from.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

the ethics of self-naming

Rachel, the Velveteen Rabbi, says people should be free to choose the names they are known by, online and offline.

Well, we've been around this block a few times here at Text Patterns, but as I read that post a little thought experiment occurred to me. Imagine a person who comments regularly on certain blogs under a pseudonym, and writes her own blog under a different pseudonym, and then of course "IRL" or "offline" has an official legal name. Not an especially unusual situation, I imagine, and one that few of us would find upsetting or even noteworthy.

But what if that same person applied the principle of contingent self-naming to her regular in-person social circles? What if she told one group of friends that her name is Carol Watson and another that it is Tamar Weinberg, while at work and to her family she's known as Jennifer Esposito? Do we have a problem with that? My sense is that most of us would find that kind of creepy — even those of us who find the use of various online names perfectly acceptable. But why? If it's okay online why wouldn't it be okay offline? Is there just a residual "yuck factor" there that we ought to dispense with? Or what?

P.S. After writing this and putting it in the queue, I discovered that the estimable Alexis Madrigal has a different take on our expectations for everyday self-identification: "in real life, we expect very few statements to be public, persistent, and attached to your real identity. Basically, only people talking on television or to the media can expect such treatment." I'm not sure precisely what Alexis has in mind here, but our public identities are attached to a lot of what we do everyday: not just our written and oral exchanges with friends and co-workers, but most of our purchases now that we increasingly use cards rather than cash. More than at any point in human history, the average person's everyday life is made up of statements and actions that are "public, persistent, and attached to [his or her] real identity." So in that sense our expectations for online conversation are outliers. The question is whether they should be.)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Oscar Wilde and the Passion

I greatly enjoyed and learned from Alex Ross's lovely essay on Oscar Wilde in the New Yorker, but I want to pause to register a quibble. Ross writes,

Last spring, I spent a few hours looking at the autograph manuscript of “Dorian Gray,” at the Morgan Library. When Dorian attempts to destroy his portrait, the manuscript has him “ripping the thing right up”; Wilde then adds the phrase “from top to bottom.” Nicholas Frankel, the editor of the new Harvard edition of “Dorian Gray,” notes that the eviscerating gesture evokes Jack the Ripper, whose crimes had filled the papers two years earlier.

I think Frankel is quite wrong: the line Wilde added has nothing to do with Jack the Ripper. The genuine and key reference here is to the Passion narrative in the Gospels:

Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

At times Wilde tried to downplay his Biblical knowledge. (One of my favorite anecdotes about him concerns his taking a viva voce examination at Oxford to demonstrate his competence in New Testament Greek, during which he fluently translated at sight a passage from the Passion narrative. After a few lines the examiners, thoroughly satisfied, told him he could stop, but Wilde replied, "Oh do let me continue. I want to see how it comes out." I testify not to the truth of this story.) But his writings, like those of most of his contemporaries, are saturated with Biblical allusion.

The tearing of the picture "from top to bottom" is an especially powerful and rich one. Wilde would have known that this event in the Passion story was widely thought to indicate that the sacrificial death of Jesus ends the separation between God and humanity (represented in the Temple by the veil separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the world, the veil that only the High Priest could cross) and effects a reconciliation that makes further sacrifices at the Temple unnecessary. Here, then, Dorian's slashing of his own portrait — which brings about his own death, as he surely knows it was likely to do — ends his own bifurcation. It makes him whole again, though at the cost of his own life.

A hundred years ago most readers of The Picture of Dorian Gray, who were educated much as Wilde was, would have caught the reference; now even the experts are likely to miss it. Jack the Ripper is the kind of thing we are interested in, thus we see Jack the Ripper — even though what Dorian does is a deeply guilty man's self-mutilation, not a monstrous killer's preying upon innocent victims; while the Bible is not the sort of thing we are interested in, thus even a direct quotation can be invisible to us. Given that this alteration has happened in little more than a century, it makes one wonder how much else we scholars have managed to lose sight of. Perhaps every English department should keep a Christian around just to catch Biblical allusions that his or her colleagues won't recognize.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Jonah Lehrer makes me vaguely uneasy

Jonah Lehrer writes in praise of vagueness:

The problem with precision, though, is that it can often be discouraging. Let’s say you want to lose 10 pounds. After following a strict diet for a few days, you then decide to weigh yourself. The good news is that you have lost weight. The bad news is that you’ve only lost 4 pounds. While that represents progress, it probably feels pretty disappointing, since you’ve already worked hard and you’re not even half way to the goal. As a result, you might become a little less motivated, which means that you start to cheat on your diet. Before long, those pounds are back – you’ve been undermined by the precise feedback. The larger point is that the exactitude of the scale made it impossible to ignore the lack of success, which makes us more likely to surrender. And this is where vagueness comes in: when information is ambiguous we typically settle on more generous interpretations – Perhaps we’ve lost eight pounds! Perhaps we’re just retaining water! – which means that we stay motivated. In this sense, vagueness is a useful delusion, a nifty means of remaining committed to long-term goals. Reality is a deterrence.

Hang on — is it true that "when information is ambiguous we typically settle on more generous interpretations"? And is it true that "generous interpretations" mean that we "stay motivated"? I'm not sure I buy either of those completely unsupported assertions.

Let's suppose that I do interpret generously: if all I know is that I've lost some weight but less than ten pounds of it, what's to keep me from saying, "Hey, maybe I've lost eight or nine pounds, in which case this milkshake won't set me back too far"? Why makes that assumption less likely that "I'm probably nearly at 10 pounds so I'll push harder to get there"?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

a theological interlude

Theology is very important to me: it's central to my life and to much of my work, though I don't say much about it on this blog. However, I do have a comment about this quasi-theological conversation between Kevin Kelly and Nick Carr: I think I would want to disagree with KK at an earlier stage in the debate than where Nick picks it up.

I take KK's core assertion to be this: Technology is a (the?) chief means by which God now intervenes in history to help people to realize their full potential. My problem with that assertion starts long before we get to the question of what technology does (or doesn't do) to make our lives better (or worse). KK's planted axiom, as the logicians used to say, is that common beliefs about what counts as "potential" and what counts as "fulfilling" that potential are perfectly adequate, and that God's job in the universe is ancillary, i. e., to help us along a path that we already see pretty clearly.

I don't believe any of that. I don't think that, left to our own devices, people have a very good idea of what human flourishing, eudaimonia, really is; and I don't think of God as a celestial helpmeet, an omnipotent enabler of our desires. My theology starts, more or less, with the message Dietrich Bonhoeffer articulated most succinctly: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." And that means dying to our pre-existing understanding of what our potential is and what realizing it would mean.

Now, I believe that whatever dies in Christ will be reborn in him — but, as T. S. Eliot put it, will "become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern." And from that vantage point everything will look different. As far as I can tell, in KK's theology the life of Francis of Assisi was deficient in potential, in choices, was impoverished in a deep sense — and yet Francis believed that by embracing Lady Poverty, by casting aside his wealth and intentionally limiting his choices, he found riches he could not have found in any other way. This is, I hope, not to romanticize material poverty, or to say that we would all be better off if we lived in the Middle Ages. I disagree strongly with such nostalgia. But I think the example of Francis suggests that we cannot simply equate choices and riches in the material realm with human flourishing. The divine economy is far more complicated than that, and any serious theology of technology has to begin, I think, by acknowledging that point.

Friday, July 22, 2011

on the plusses and minuses of a social backbone

I don't get this article by Edd Dumbill. He wants to argue that "The launch of Google+ is the beginning of a fundamental change on the web. A change that will tear down silos, empower users and create opportunities to take software and collaboration to new levels." He tries to support that bold claim by arguing that Google+ is a big step towards "interoperability":

Currently, we have all [our social] groups siloed. Because we have many different contexts and levels of intimacy with people in these groups, we're inclined to use different systems to interact with them. Facebook for gaming, friends and family. LinkedIn for customers, recruiters, sales prospects. Twitter for friends and celebrities. And so on into specialist communities: Instagram and Flickr, Yammer or Salesforce Chatter for co-workers.

The situation is reminiscent of electronic mail before it became standardized. Differing semi-interoperable systems, many as walled gardens. Business plans predicated on somehow "owning" the social graph. The social software scene is filled with systems that assume a closed world, making them more easily managed as businesses, but ultimately providing for an uncomfortable interface with the reality of user need.

An interoperable email system created widespread benefit, and permitted many ecosystems to emerge on top of it, both formal and ad-hoc. Email reduced distance and time between people, enabling rapid iteration of ideas, collaboration and community formation. For example, it's hard to imagine the open source revolution without email.

Dumbill seems not to have noticed that the various services he mentions, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram, are already built around an "interoperable system": it's called the World Wide Web. Those aren't incompatible platforms, they are merely services you have to sign up for — just like Google.

Ah, but, "Though Google+ is the work of one company, there are good reasons to herald it as the start of a commodity social layer for the Internet. Google decided to make Google+ be part of the web and not a walled garden." Well, yes and no. You can see Google+ posts online, if the poster chooses to make them public, but you can't participate in the conversation without signing up for the service. In other words: just like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and so on.

In the end, it seems to me that Dumbill is merely saying that if all of us decide to share all our information with just one service, we'll have a fantastic "social backbone" for our online lives. And that may be true. Now, can we stop to ask whether there may be any costs to that decision?

fetish object or the real thing?

James Gleick argues that widespread digitization of old books means that the books themselves are being reduced to the status of "fetish objects" — in other words, that, given sufficiently high-resolution digital imaging, the codexes themselves have no substantial value for scholars and readers. To this claim Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, responds:

Mr. Gleick is right to say that the digitization of precious materials gives them another life on the Web, and that research libraries can and should make these materials available to the broadest possible audience. But if we are interested in what an early document like Magna Carta or a Shakespeare First Folio really means, it is vital to place it among other like objects to know how it was created, used and valued.

If the Folger Shakespeare Library were to digitize all 82 copies of the First Folio that we possess — each of them unique — we would not have made the book fully accessible. Access is a matter of understanding, and that means, in this case, knowing how such a treasured volume was physically distinguished from its peers.

It is one thing to look at a digital photograph taken at the top of Mount Everest and feel the thrill of “being there.” It is quite another to pore over the broad pages of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) and ask what such a luxurious book meant to those who bought and read it.

While I want to be on Witmore's side in this dispute, I'm not sure that this response offers much of substance. For instance:

But if we are interested in what an early document like Magna Carta or a Shakespeare First Folio really means, it is vital to place it among other like objects to know how it was created, used and valued. Right — but can't that be done digitally? If we look at, and carefully compare, high-resolution images of "other like objects," aren't we getting the same information? (Especially if those images are accompanied by information about dimensions, or if two similar books are photographed together.) I need Witmore to tell me in more detail what, precisely, makes the encounter with the physical text superior.

Access is a matter of understanding, and that means, in this case, knowing how such a treasured volume was physically distinguished from its peers. Again, this can be done digitally, can it not?

It is quite another to pore over the broad pages of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) and ask what such a luxurious book meant to those who bought and read it. Why can't I look at the digitized pages of the Folio and ask the same question? In fact, I know I can — so once more, where is the difference?

These are genuine, not rhetorical questions. If the digital images are poor, we all know what the problems are; I've done a good deal of archival research that would have been impossible had I had images significantly less precise than my own eyesight. (Pray that you never have to do archival work on a writer whose handwriting is as bad as W. H. Auden's.)

But as digital images increase in quality, I can see all sorts of ways in which being able to spend as much time as I want "poring over" pages on my computer — zooming in on troublesome areas, say, or juxtaposing two pages on one large monitor for purposes of careful comparison — could be not just equal but superior to seeing the "real thing." Help me out here, proponents of on-site research!

Monday, July 18, 2011

a lesson learned

One interesting thing I’ve learned during this visit to England is that my pleasure in using Twitter is directly proportional to the number of people who are on it when I am. My unscientific read of my Twitter feed is that more tweets arrive in the morning (U. S. Eastern and Central time) than any other, followed by evening and then late afternoon. But since I’m in England, I’m asleep when those morning evening tweets come in; and then when the afternoon morning ones arrive I’m teaching or studying or leading a tour somewhere.

Now, it’s true that I’m now in the same time-frame as my European tweeps; but there aren't as many of them, and some of them are late-to-rise and late-to-bed and therefore keep schedules that aren't that different than East Cost Americans.

One more factor: this whole summer I’ve been on the computer less often than usual and more irregularly.

The result of all this temporal dislocation is that when I’m online, not much is happening in my little corner of the Twitterverse — and, it turns out, browsing through tweets that are ten or twelve hours old isn't all that interesting. I look with envy at conversations that sprang up while I was away: while I could join in belatedly, that usually feels pointless. (Imagine remembering a funny joke the day after a dinner party with friends and emailing it to them.)

So it turns out that, for me anyway, much of the value of Twitter comes from actually being in the flow of it. This is perhaps why I like separating my Twitter feed from my RSS feeds: a few months ago I experimented with trying to get everything into Twitter and setting RSS aside, but I didn't like it. Whatever turns up in my RSS feed I can read later, can read whenever; but with Twitter, well, you just had to be there.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

one dead horse, well beaten

Yes, I know that I’ve had my say on this topic, but I still have some questions. I start with the ones that drove me out of Google+, and then move gradually into the realm of metaphysical contemplation. . . .

What circle should I put this person in?

Oh wait, I can put people in more than one circle — so how many circles should I put this person in?

Do I even want this person to be in any of my circles?

How many circles should I have, anyway? This subdividing thing can go too far, can’t it? and what should be the core principles I use to design my circles? Degrees of intimacy? Spheres of interest? An elementary division between Work and Play?

I can't even use this service unless I create a public profile, so what do I want to reveal on my public profile? How detailed should it be?

I’m ready to post something . . . but should this be a public post? Who would be interested in it? Maybe it should just go to this one circle? Though there are people in other circles who might be interested also . . . but others in that circle who wouldn’t be interested . . . so maybe before I post it I need to rearrange my circles a bit.

Wait . . . if I move that guy out of one circle will be still see the posts and photos he saw when he was in that circle? If not, then do I want to do that to him? What will he think when he figures out that I’ve removed him from a circle (especially if he doesn't know what my circles are)? Will he be able to see that?

When I signed up I discovered that my two choices were “Link Google+ with Picasa Web” or “Don’t Join Google”? Why can't I join without linking my Picasa photos to the service?

Google asks me if I want to be notified when someone “shares a post with me directly” — but what if I don't want people to share posts with me directly at all? Can I keep anyone from doing that? Or by using the service do I make myself vulnerable to anyone and everyone who wants to “share” with me? Is there no refuge from oversharers?

Google also asks me if I want to be notified when someone comments on one of my posts — but what if I don't want anyone to comment on my posts at all? There appears to be no option for turning off comments — why not?

I believe that if I turn off every single one of these (email or text) notifications I still see a badge numbering everything people have tried to do with me or to me on Google+ at the top of every single Google page when I am logged in. What if I don't want to see that badge?

Can I prevent someone from starting a Huddle conversation with me? I can, I suppose, just decline to reply, but what if I just don't want to Huddle at all? What if Huddling kinda grosses me out?

In short, what if I want to start by having minimal social interactions on Google+, interactions over which I have a great deal of control, and I want to have very few and very simple decisions to make about whom I interact with? In that case, I can't see that Google+ is the service for me.

the science of grading

A while back Jonathan Zittrain tweeted a suggestion about academic grading that I like, so I’m adapting it for my classes in England this summer. Formal papers are difficult to do in these circumstances, so I’m having my students write journal-like responses to what we read, responses in which they need to quote the texts and quote critics but are not obliged to formulate a thesis. Their writing must remain text-centered but they are free to be more speculative and personally responsive than is usual in my classes. But how do you grade such writing? Here’s the explanatory email I recently sent out:

So, friends, here's how you can interpret the grading of your journals — which is not easy, I grant you, since I'm encouraging you to write conversationally and I'm tending to respond conversationally:

1) If I use words like "excellent," "outstanding," "first-rate," and the like to describe your entry, your grade is W00T.

2) If I say the entry is "solid," or "good," or if I don't make a qualitative comment but just respond to the content in some way — by adding information, or offering a correction, or the like — your grade is WIN.

3) If my comment is of the "yes, but" variety — which happens primarily if you either don't offer enough of your own responses or if you stray too far from the text you're supposed to be writing about — your grade is MEH.

4) If I tell you that you're just off-track — which happens primarily if you offer no responses of your own (instead summarizing either one of our writers or a critic) or if you don't really talk about the literary text at all — your grade is FAIL.

5) And if you fail to turn in a journal, your grade is EPIC FAIL.

Everybody got that?


Friday, July 8, 2011

minus Google plus

When Google asked me why I chose to delete my Google+ service, here’s what I wrote:

First of all, I am not especially attracted to social media. I deactivated my Facebook account years ago, and find that Twitter is all the social I need. 

Second, Google+ gives me too many decisions to make. With Twitter, I say "Let me know if someone replies to me or DMs me, but otherwise leave me alone." (I don't even know how many followers I have or who those followers are.) Google+ defaults to sending me an email about everything, but even if I uncheck all those options, I still find new people showing up in my Stream that I didn't ask to see and that I have to make decisions about. That's exactly what I hated about Facebook: the constant need to make decisions about how I am going to manage my online relations, especially with people I don't know well.

Third, I don't fully trust Google to treat my information responsibly, so I would prefer not to implicate myself further in the company. If Gmail weren't so far superior to every other implementation of email, I would have already deleted my Google account.

I really do appreciate how easy Google makes it to escape Google+ — they wouldn't have done it so well a year ago, which shows that they’re learning, as Facebook is not. I completely understand what people like about Google+, but it didn't take me long to realize that it's just not my cup of tea at all.

One last word: trying out Google+ has reminded me once again of how much I like, and admire, the radical simplicity of Twitter. So if my Twitter friends start abandoning Twitter for Google+ I'm going to be really sad.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

what and who

Returning to an earlier theme, and having read the comments on this follow-up post by Joe Carter, I’d like to note a couple of points many people fail to understand about online anonymity:

1) There’s an enormous difference between anonymity and pseudonymity: the person who posts or comments under a consistent pseudonym is assuming a level of responsibility for his or her words that the anonymous poster does not. Consider Yoni Appelbaum, who commented widely, but especially at The Atlantic, for a long time under the moniker “Cynic” — and thereby got himself a job blogging for The Atlantic. Everybody who read that site knew who Cynic was, could respond to him directly either in agreement or disagreement, could point out what what he said in one comment contradicted what he said in another, and so on. Any conversation with a completely anonymous poster is comparatively impoverished. Indeed, if you have ten anonymous comments you can't know whether you’re dealing with one person or ten different people. Thus sock puppetry and the like are born.

2) People like to say that what matters is the quality of the ideas, not the person who utters them. But suppose the topic is something you don't know much about — a subject requiring certain technical expertise — and you’re not sure how to assess the varying positions. In such a case it helps to know who is making the arguments. Consider the debate on James Fallows’s blog a few months back about the likely effects on human health of the radiation emitted by the TSA’s backscatter-radiation machines. Fallows can affirm that the writer he's quoting is “a physics professor from a college in the East,” and while I’d like to know who he is and what college he’s employed by, even that much gives me reason to take the argument seriously. If the same argument had been presented anonymously in a comment thread, why should anyone take it seriously? why should anyone even read it? If I made the argument why should anyone pay attention?

Now, the fact that an unnamed physics professor made a set of claims did not settle the question — but knowing even a little bit about the physicist, and the qualifications of the person disagreeing with him, helps us to think more clearly about the issues raised. One of the really interesting questions raised is: What sort of scientist would be a reliable source about backscatter-radiation machines? Unless you think that on every conceivable subject one person’s opinion is as good as any other’s, or that eloquence alone counts, you need to think not just about what’s being said but also who’s saying it.

It’s not the only factor — in many cases it won't be the most important factor — but it helps, because knowledge is good, and the more of it we have the better off we are. Even when we’re arguing online. Remember that it doesn't count for much when Woody Allen himself (or his stand-in Alvy Singer) tells the obnoxious blowhard in the movie line that he doesn't understand Marshall McLuhan; but when McLuhan himself shows up and weighs in. . . .

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Much Ado about Nothing

I’m no Noah Millman, but I have something to say about a Shakespeare performance.

Last Friday I saw Much Ado about Nothing at the Globe — or Shakespeare’s Globe, as they insist on calling it — and while I had a wonderful time indeed, I was reminded of an elementary and vital truth about Shakespearean performance: Everything costs.

The keynote of performances at the Globe since its origin, fifteen years ago, is engagement with the audience. On the theory — a pretty good theory, all in all — that the theater in Shakespeare’s time was a boisterous place, with rowdy groundlings hooting and hissing and drinking and pissing while their social betters assumed seats above, the Globe’s actors play to the crowd. They begin with musical entertainment and end with all the actors dancing together. (We hear that this was universal in Shakespeare’s time, but I am quite unable to imagine Lear and Cordelia popping up off the stage floor and jigging about the stage. Doesn't mean it didn’t happen, though.)

In this performance Eve Best, as a delightfully manic and warm-hearted Beatrice, was almost constantly engaged with the audience, sticking with her lines but regularly conversing in dumb-show gestures with someone who shouted from the upper deck and with various groundlings — including one whose hand she begged so that she might kiss it, as though it were Benedick’s hand. Charles Edwards was more restrained as Benedick, with a slightly pompous air: especially memorable was the scene in which he imagines what kind of woman might gain his favor (“Rich she must be; that’s certain”). He assumed a jaunty pose at the edge of the stage and meditatively sipped a summery drink through a tiny straw. There was also a lot of funny stage business — too much for my taste: Paul Hunter as Dogberry reminded me of nothing so much as a refugee from the Benny Hill Show.

There's therefore something to Michael Billington’s complaint that the show “contains more mugging than you'll find in Central Park on a Saturday night” — and yet as soon as I quote that I think it’s unfair, because it was an absolutely delightful evening.

And yet again — you see I’m going back and forth here — and yet again: this delight was costly, something that was clearly evident at one of the crucial moments of the play. When Claudio has denounced Hero, and Benedick has stayed behind to console Beatrice, and they have (somehow, inexplicably, and yet fittingly) confessed their love for each other, Benedick cries, “Come, bid me do anything for thee.” And Beatrice replies: “Kill Claudio.” It is an absolutely bone-chilling sentence — and yet in this performance the audience laughed. I do not blame them: they had to laugh, in a sense, because everything that had gone before had primed them to see this play as the merest frolic.

In contrast, consider the version of the play that most people will know, the Branagh and Thompson vehicle from 1993: there Emma Thompson’s “Kill Claudio” is utterly believable — but believable in part because her whole portrayal of Beatrice has been slightly subdued, even a touch melancholy. You believe her when she says “Kill Claudio,” but that’s because you don't completely believe Leonato when he says, earlier, “There's little of the melancholy element in her, my lord: she is never sad but when she sleeps, and not ever sad then; for I have heard my daughter say, she hath often dreamed of unhappiness and waked herself with laughing.” That sentence perfectly suits Eve Best’s Beatrice; but for that very reason, and also because the whole Globe performance is built around her festival merriness, it is hard for the audience to descend to the depths of bitterness that she reaches in that scene with Benedick: “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.”

Shakespeare’s plays are meant for the stage, they live fully there and there only; but no one performance captures the whole of any one play — or even one character, if he or she is one of the major ones, like Beatrice. This is why each play deserves to be performed over and over and over again.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Tallis in Bloomsbury

Yesterday afternoon I was at the British Museum, wandering through the Enlightenment Gallery. I had been there a while and was drifting out of the room when I heard human voices, singing. At first I thought the Museum was piping in a soundtrack, but then I realized that that couldn't be. I paused and noted that the music was coming from somewhere behind me. I turned and walked back toward the center of the room. It was five in the afternoon.

There a crowd of people had gathered around the great Piranesi vase and were singing one of the greatest jewels of the choral music repertoire, Thomas Tallis’s forty-part motet Spem in Alium. I am not especially knowledgable about choral music, but this piece I recognized immediately — as anyone would who had heard it before, because it doesn't really sound like anything else. But I had only heard recorded versions, and frankly, that did little to prepare me for the sheer glory to be had when you’re standing ten feet from the singers in a resonant and beautiful room.

The motet’s forty parts are produced by eight choirs of five voices each, passing melodies and counter-melodies back and forth. The forty singers stood about in their street clothes, some with backpacks or purses at their feet. They held a variety of scores: some had only photocopied pages, others large, elaborate, and probably quite valuable folios. Some of their faces revealed intense concentration, some manifested sheer joy. Next to the Piranesi vase the conductor stood, bent at the waist to see the music laid on the floor at her feet, and swung her left arm in big arcs as though she were holding a bell. A toddler wandered back and forth in the midst of them all, looking up in pleasure and puzzlement at the singers’ faces.

At the moments when Tallis masses all forty voices the effect, for the nearby listener, is essentially indescribable. I felt that I was being showered by light — some golden, overpowering light. (You want to compare the sound to an organ with all the stops pulled out, but the organ was developed to imitate this sound, the vox humana at its fullest and richest and sweetest.) The sopranos arced high over the foundation laid by the basses; each voice threw out another layer of beauty.

Spem in Alium might be said to cry out for a cathedral setting, but this music is a cathedral, if a portable and ephemeral one. And there’s something richly ironic about this music being performed in the Enlightenment gallery of the museum — as though Tallis were looking forward to the self-congratulatory eighteenth century (and to our even more complacent age) and asking, “What light do you have to match this?”

In ten minutes it was over. I stood there for a few minutes more, waiting for the shivers to subside. The singers laughed and embraced one another and talked excitedly; they gradually dispersed. The toddler found his mother, who turned out to be the conductor.

A few minutes later I saw her near the main entrance and approached to thank her. “Oh, that’s kind of you,” she said.

“Who are you people?” I asked.

She smiled — she was constantly smiling, in fact. “Oh, just odds and sods. Some of us knew each other at Oxford and Cambridge. Some are from the Westminster College of Music.”

“So this is guerrilla music.”

“Yeah,” she replied, with a diffident lilt and a bit of a shrug. “Our first guerrilla outing.” She paused a moment and then said, “It’s a lovely piece.”

Yes, I think you can say that. And what a gift Tallis and those singers gave me, and a handful of others, on a Sunday afternoon in the crowd and bustle of the British Museum.

Friday, June 24, 2011

historical knowledge

Yesterday our study group went to Canterbury, where I wanted us to see not just the famous, enormous, and tourist-strewn cathedral — thank God we’re not tourists, huh? — but also the ruins of St. Augustine’s Abbey — a site which from a certain historical point of view is as important as that big old church.

But the coach park had been moved since my previous visit to Canterbury. The lot right next to the Abbey is now cars-only, and we had to park north of the city center. From there I wasn’t sure how to get to the Abbey, since Canterbury fails to follow a clear compass-point grid system. (Seems like the town’s founders could have used Manhattan or the Chicago Loop as a model. Thoughtless of them not to.) We didn't have a lot of time, so I ducked into a shop featuring historical trinkets to ask for directions — but the woman at the desk had no idea where the Abbey was, and suggested I ask the book dealer next door. Unfortunately, though the shop door was open, no one was inside. I tried another shop, then a café, but it appeared that no one in Canterbury had ever heard of St. Augustine’s Abbey.

I submit this little anecdote merely for your reflection.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

anonymity revisited

One of the most common defenses of anonymity on the internet is the one offered by Daniel Solove here:

For all its vices, anonymity has many virtues. With anonymity, people can be free to express unpopular ideas and be critical of people in power without risking retaliation or opprobrium. The anonymity in everyday life enables people to be free to do many worthwhile things without feeling inhibited.

I have no idea what that second sentence means — what “worthwhile things” are people “inhibited” from doing when their names are known? — but the previous sentence I get. And it’s true. But only in certain narrow circumstances. The problem is that over the years I have heard from many people who insist on anonymity in order to protect themselves from “reprisals” when in fact all they’re going to suffer is disagreement. And grownups ought to be able to deal with being disagreed with.

Moreover, every protest against injustice is far more meaningful when the person making it is willing to sign his or her name to it. As the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin pointed out long ago, in his early work Art and Answerability, to undersign a statement with one’s own name is a powerful act — an act of commitment, responsibility: one becomes “answerable” for it. This is a strong witness to others. Anonymous dissent, by contrast, is often empty to others because no one is answerable to it. Anonymous dissent requires numbers to have an effect. When many protest anonymously their position gains weight additively; the single anonymous protester comes off as a crank or a troll.

Anonymity on the internet may be desirable often but it is necessary only rarely, and surely in 98% of the cases in which it is invoked the conversation would be better when conducted by answerable individuals. Therefore anonymity ought to be hard to achieve. If “undersigning” is the online norm, then people whose hatreds and resentments are just casual will be less likely to trash conversational spaces. The people who genuinely need anonymity can create subterfuges when they need to; even when the use of real names is mandated, that demand is relatively easy to circumvent. On the internet, nobody has to know you’re a dog.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

crisis averted! (maybe)

Herewith a cautionary — or an encouraging — tale. (Depends on how you read it.)

A few weeks ago I started having a problem with my Kindle: it wasn’t holding a charge nearly as well as it had been. It was running out of juice more quickly with every charge, and had reached the point that, with wi-fi off, it was usable for less than three days. Since I am about to spend a summer overseas, and had planned to rely on the Kindle pretty heavily: for every book I’m teaching, or need to consult regularly, this summer, I am using the Kindle version when there is one. I’ve had too many summers carrying massive backpacks of books around that country for this to be a resistible temptation.

But what if the Kindle malfunctions? What if it becomes completely unusable? Having the Kindle along means that I don't have to carry twenty books; but if the Kindle stops working then all twenty of those books disappear. Would I then have to purchase them all (again!) in England? Should I give up on this experiment before I begin and resign myself to carrying an additional backback and therefore experiencing six weeks of aching shoulders and back?

I got on the phone with Amazon and explained my situation. For several days they hemmed and hawed: the customer service people (who were uniformly polite) told me that the tech people wanted me to try A or B or C. Finally, on Monday, I talked to a woman named Kellie and explained that things were getting close to zero hour and I needed to get a new Kindle or else I was going to have to abandon my plan and blame all my aches and pains on Amazon. She replied that she was going to short-circuit the usual procedures and send me a new one immediately. It should arrive today.

This will make some people think that Amazon is serious enough about making the Kindle experiment work for everyone that the e-reading system can be trusted. It will make others think that the whole business of e-reading is fraught with complexities and anxieties and therefore to be avoided at all costs. I leave such judgments to the discernment of my readers.

Friday, June 10, 2011

previews of coming intermissions

My department runs an annual program called Wheaton in England. I haven't participated in the program since 2004, in part because, though it's incredibly fun, it's also incredibly exhausting. But this summer is my son's last chance to go on the program before he enters college — which is to say, this is probably the last time for the Jacobses to go as a family. Plus I get the chance to go with my great friend Brett Foster. So I'm excited.

In a few days we begin, and will be in England until early August, and I'm not sure what that's going to  mean for this blog — except that I'm not going to be posting as often, because (a) internet access will be a bit spotty and (b) I'll be really, really busy. And I don't know what I'll be posting about: there could be more off-topic look-at-this-awesome-old-castle posts. Or I'm-freaked-out-about-Wayne-Rooney's-hair-transplant posts. So be ready for anything, but not much of it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

YA Saves!

The response from young adult writers and their editors to Megan Cox Gurdon’s recent highly critical op-ed has been, to me anyway, extremely disappointing. Everyone seems concerned to throw up an instinctive, reactive, common front rather than give thoughtful replies.

Look, for example, at the comments gathered here. According to these writers, YA fiction has achieved something no other human invention has ever achieved: it is capable of doing extraordinary, glorious good, and cannot do any harm at all.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s comments are typical in this regard. “Books don’t turn kids into murderers, or rapists, or alcoholics. (Not even the Bible, which features all of these acts.) Books open hearts and minds, and help teenagers make sense of a dark and confusing world. YA literature saves lives. Every. Single. Day.” See? Salvific power, no danger. Even penicillin is dangerous for some people, but not YA fiction!

I was excited for a moment when Libba Bray acknowledged that “Books are dangerous.” Yes! But, oh, wait: “Yes, dangerous. Because they challenge us: our prejudices, our blind spots. They open us to new ideas, new ways of seeing. They make us hurt in all the right ways.” And, it seems, never in the wrong ones. So, not really dangerous at all. Not in any way.

(Another interesting theme in these comments is how much more trustworthy YA writers are than parents. Apparently, while books can only be good, parents are often bad.)

Let’s get serious, people. Everything that has power has power for good and ill. Can we just begin by stating what should be obvious to everyone, that some books — whether for children, young adults, adults, whatever — are good and some are bad? And they’re good and bad in different ways and for different reasons. Some are poorly written but morally sound; some are beautifully written but morally corrupt. Some are bad all round; some are perfectly wonderful.

Of course, there’s no universal accounting for reader response. As G. C, Lichtenberg said, “A book is like a mirror: if an ass looks in, there's no use expecting an apostle to look out.” Mark David Chapman even found in The Catcher in the Rye a reason to kill John Lennon. People are variable creatures, in their responses to books as in all other things. But there are general tendencies that we can try to understand.

What I’d like to see from these YA writers is less panicky defensiveness and more actual thinking. Admit — please — that some books are bad for some people. Admit that writers can make aesthetic misjudgments, so that certain scenes, or even whole books, can have effects on many readers that they don't intend. And admit that some writers — yes, even YA writers — are nasty people who write nasty books. And then try to think about what distinguishes a book that is likely to help most of its readers from a book that isn’t.

It is possible to think about these matters. Gurdon, in her attempt to distinguish between books that treat hard, painful, and ugly issues in helpful ways from those that treat them in callous and thoughtless ways, is at least trying to do some serious thinking. I haven't seen that yet from the writers who are responding to her. If you’ve seen more serious responses than I have, please let me know in the comments.

But you don't need to tell me that books can and do change lives for the better. I know they do. Books have had major transformative power in my own life. But some of what I've read hasn't been good for me, and more than a few times that happened because the people who wrote it meant me no good. Writers are as fallen and as broken as anyone else, and so, therefore, are their books.

advice for writers (2)

While I’m being negative about the advice that some writers give: I also think some of the writers consulted are giving universal advice based on the experience of writing one or two books. I’ve written not just several books but several kinds of book, and in my judgment they all called for different approaches. In some cases I have sought feedback early, in some cases only late in the game. I've used different tools for collecting and organizing research. A model of research, and the organizing of one’s research, that works perfectly for one project might not work at all for another. I would counsel flexibility in these matters.

What other advice would I give?

1) Don't shirk the planning. Make a detailed outline of how you think the book should go — then make another, different one. Then one more. Always be aware that there’s more than one way to tell the story you need to tell. Be ready to move things around; think in modular terms.

2) Thinking in modular terms also helps you to break down the task into manageable component parts. “Writing a book” sounds intimidating, but a book is just the collective product of many days of writing a few dozen, or a few hundred, words. Dividing the project up into chunks allows you to have achievable goals. And anyway, it’s only once you have made all the modules and thought about them for a while that you can see how they fit together.

3) Every writer says this, but that’s because it’s true: write every day, emphasizing quantity rather than quality. You have to be willing to write stuff that you know isn't any good, because you know that once you have crappy stuff out there you can turn it into better stuff. So just write. Consider: if you write roughly a page a day, even taking vacations and weekends off, you’ll have around 300 pages at the end of a year.

4) I think it’s generally agreed, by Those Who Know, that one of the best tools ever created for writers is Scrivener. And indeed, Scrivener is awesome. But no software or hardware tool is going to write your book for you, so don't get too emotionally invested in such things, and don't expect more than an application can deliver. The more important thing is to make sure that, whatever tool you use, you know its capabilities inside and out. Intimate knowledge of your software enables you to get the most out of it.

I haven't switched to Scrivener, though I admire it, largely because I am absolutely devoted to the text editor BBEdit, which allows me to create Projects from multiple files, do search-and-replace across multiple files, “fold” sections of text, view in split screens, and so on and so on. I know this app thoroughly, which makes my use of it pretty seamless — and that’s what you want from any writing tool: for it to be as invisible and impalpable as possible. So whatever tools you decide to use, stick with them until you know them very well; you’re better off with a flawed or limited instrument that you can make sing than with a super-fancy one that makes your fingers stumble.

Unless you’re using Microsoft Word, of course: nothing can salvage that.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

more on curation

I'm not the only one who thinks it's not all curation. And don't neglect this post.

advice for writers (1)

Say, here are “Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 22 Brilliant Authors”. Some good advice may be found there; also some ridiculous stuff. I have always been annoyed by the tendency some writers have to make writing a book sound like hard labor in Siberia. Thus an anonymous “author of notable books on science and psychology”:

[I didn’t know] how hard writing a book would be on my body — two major illnesses and two surgeries in two years, a health record unprecedented in my life, and unrepeated in the two years since. No idea what to do differently, other than maybe make sure I have good health insurance. (But you shoulda seen me revising my last draft as they wheeled me into the OR for an appendectomy.)

You think writing a book caused your appendicitis? Seriously? Or Joshua Wolf Shenk: “Writing a book is a crushingly lonely experience in ways that no one who hasn’t been through it can really imagine.” Give me a break. Many millions of people have jobs that require them to work alone, and at the end of the day they go home to family, or out for a beer with friends, without turning it into a serial melodrama. Writers can do the same.

Why do writers say stuff like this? Writing is hard work — it’s damned hard work if you want to do it well, and there is much truth in Thomas Mann's comment that a writer is someone who finds writing harder than other people do — but it’s not some uniquely gruesome or debilitating grind. If you find writing that horrifying you should probably do something else. But I think writers know that people envy them (there are countless would-be writers out there) so they project this blood-sweat-and-tears image as a way of deflecting the envy. And, probably, simultaneously sending the message, “I am one of the few with the sheer will and stamina to hold up under the oppressive weight of it all.”

Maybe I’m being too hard on people. At times over the years I’ve also had to insist on how difficult it is to write books: non-writers don't see the work that goes into it, and some of them assume that it’s just a matter of sitting down and typing until you’re done. (I can barely count the number of people who have told me, "Well, it comes easily to you.") But you can say it’s hard work without claiming that to write is to court personal destruction.

More on “advice for writers” in another post.

Monday, June 6, 2011


I like the suggestion here:

Two months into 2011, The New York Times tech reporter (and former Wired reporter Jenna Wortham) wrote excitedly that she had finally finished her first e-book — how is such technological tardiness possible for someone so plugged in? Wortham had an excellent explanation: She kept forgetting to pick up any e-book she had started reading. It took the solemn determination of a New Year’s resolution to break that spell.

E-books don’t exist in your peripheral vision. They do not taunt you to finish what you started. They do not serve as constant, embarrassing reminders to your poor reading habits. Even 1,001 digital books are out of sight, and thus out of mind. A possible solution? Notifications that pop up to remind you that you’ve been on page 47 of A Shore Thing for 17 days.

I’m not sure about this, but it feels like I start-and-fail-to-finish more e-books than paper books.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

my D.C. visit, storified

In an earlier post I used Storify to present a Twitter conversation. But I’m a piker at storification in comparison to my friend Tim Carmody, who transformed my recent visit to D.C. — and my first meeting with him — into a work of art. Check it out.

I am very grateful to my friends at The New Atlantis — Adam Keiper, Caitrin Nicol, Ari Schulman, and Barrett Bowdre — for making my visit an exceptionally enjoyable one. And also to Oxford University Press for putting me up in a really funky hotel with leopard- and zebra-print robes.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Interesting to see both Jonathan Franzen and David Brooks speaking to and about college graduates in ways that suggest an attempt to channel David Foster Wallace’s great Kenyon commencement speech — Brooks in substance only, Franzen in substance and tone alike.

Neither of them work very well. Brooks’s essay, while thoughtful and even wise, comes off as a bit hectoring; Franzen just seems self-absorbed. Ancient rhetorical theory — Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, for example — said that a speaker may persuade by the employment of logos (reasoning), pathos (emotional appeal), and ethos (his or her own personal character). Of the three, ethos is the most mysterious and the least teachable. Wallace had an extraordinary ability, in his written prose but also perhaps in his speech, to be passionately earnest in ways that make people sit up and pay attention — to feel almost cared for, as though words from this person addressed to them are honoring them somehow. It’s hard to explain. But Wallace had it (has it) and Brooks and Franzen don’t.

A commencement speech is an utterly false thing, in that no one is really there to hear a speech: I’m sure Wallace’s address at Kenyon had little or no impact on the vast majority of those who heard it when it was delivered. But here are a few thoughts from Kenyon graduates in the class to whom Wallace spoke. My suspicion is that some of these comments would have been quite different if they had been asked about the speech before it became famous, but I especially like this one: “The one emotion I remember is intensity: he was clear, driving, and inwardly focused. He also didn’t say anything dismissively. Whether it was his technique or his real feeling I have no idea, but he read the speech like he was passing on a message of importance. Sitting here, I picture a guy at a radio in a bunker intercepting a message, then reading it off to someone else, wasting no time and enunciating every syllable.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Google good and bad

People who have been using a Mac for a long time can find Google Chrome painful to look at. Some of the reasons for that are outlined in this post by Majd Taby, but there are others. There’s a general lack of fit and finish: for instance, if you have folders in your bookmark bar in Chrome, click on one of them; then do the same in Safari. The drop-down menu in Chrome is as bare-bones as it gets: there’s a general close-enough-for-government-work feel to Chrome’s whole UI.

But beneath the hood? Within a few minutes of reading Taby’s post I read this one by Farhad Manjoo, which explains how Google implemented automatic updating of Chrome in the background. No “Do you want to install this update?” dialogue boxes. It just works. Manjoo writes,

Chrome's painless update process is the product of a lot of sophisticated software engineering. Rather than reinstalling the whole program, Chrome's designers have figured out a way to update the ones and zeroes in the program on your computer just where it has changed. This approach dramatically reduces the size of the files they send to your computer during an update. "It is an anathema to us to push out a whole new 10MB update to give you a ten-line security fix," Stephen Adams, a Chrome software engineer, wrote in 2009. Instead, the update system compares the version of Chrome you have on your computer to the new one sitting on Google's server, and then it sends you only the key differences in code. A 10-megabyte update can be reduced to a tiny, 78K download. In a recent post praising Chrome's update system, Coding Horror's Jeff Atwood argued that Chrome had "transcended" the very notion of "software versioning." Chrome updates so quickly that its version number might as well be infinity.

This is why I have increasingly been trying to leverage Google’s engineering without having to encounter Google’s butt-ugly user interfaces. And Google has done a lot of work over the past few years to make it possible for me to do this, especially by introducing a (wonky but usable) version of IMAP for Gmail and by employing Microsoft’s Exchange technology with its calendars. I can now use Google without ever having to look at Google. Best of both worlds. At least until I can escape Google's clutches altogether. . . .

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

curators and imitators

You know what annoys me? Well, actually, that would be a long list. You know one thing that annoys me? The way some people on the internet use the word “curator.” People find cool stuff online and put links to that cool stuff on their website, and they say that they’re “curating” the internet. When Jorn Barger invented that kind of thing he was content to call it a weblog — a record or “log” of interesting stuff he found online.

Now, one might argue that the weblog or blog has changed its character since Barger invented it: instead of logging cool things found online, it primarily logs a writer’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences (often about stuff found online). So maybe a new name is needed for the “logging” kind of site?

Maybe. But can we try for something a little less pretentious than “curator”? In the usual modern senses of the word, a curator (who often works for a museum) has a complex set of responsibilities that can only be carried out well by someone with a good deal of training, taste, experience, and intelligence. A curator plays a role in deciding what a museum will acquire, and once acquisitions have been made, will consider which objects are to be displayed, for how long they will be displayed, and in relation to what other objects they will be displayed. Curators organize objects in space and present them for public scrutiny. They also educate the public in the understanding of those objects, and of the principles of organization employed. Curators also help to care for those objects, to make sure they don’t get damaged or lost. (In ecclesiastical language, the priest who cares for the people of a parish while the rector is away is called a curate.)

Almost none of this is at work when people link to interesting things they have found on the internet. If a person whose website links to other websites is a curator, then a person who walks into the Louvre with a friend and points out the Mona Lisa is also a curator. It seems to me that if we go with that usage we’re losing a worthwhile distinction.

When I first made a comment about this on Twitter recently, I got pushback from my friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, and since he’s a very smart guy I have thought about this some more. His concern is that my point is unnecessarily elitist, and I don't mean for it to be that — and I don't think it is. It’s just a matter (I hope) of distinguishing among different sorts of online activity.

So I’d suggest this as the beginnings of a taxonomy:

1) The Linker: That’s what most of us are. We just link to things we’re interested in, without any particular agenda or system at work. That’s what my Pinboard page is, just a page of links.

2) The Coolhunter: People who strive to find the unusual, the striking, the amazing — the very, very cool, often within certain topical boundaries, but widely and loosely defined ones. I think Jason Kottke and Maria Popova are exemplary online coolhunters.

3) The Curator: There are some. Not many, but some. The true online curator tends to have a clear and strict focus: he or she doesn’t post just anything that seems cool, but instead is striving to illuminate some particular area of interest. The true curator also finds things that other people can’t find, or can’t easily find, which means either (a) having access to stuff that is not fully public or (b) actually putting stuff online for the first time or (c) having a unique take on public material so that images and ideas get put together that the rest of us would never think to put together. I think Bibliodyssey is a genuinely curated site; also, just because of its highly distinctive sensibility, Things magazine.

Again, I’m not saying that one of these categories is superior to the others. They’re just all different, and the difference is worth noting.

Friday, May 27, 2011

memory and forgetting

This essay by Margaret Morganroth Gullette on memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease has a provocative title: “Our Irrational Fear of Forgetting.” So, what’s irrational about a fear of forgetting? At one point Gullette says “People over 55 dread getting Alzheimer’s more than any other disease, according to a 2010 survey by the MetLife Foundation. The fact that only 1 in 8 Americans older than 65 has Alzheimer’s fails to register.” So it’s irrational to fear Alzheimer’s because you’re not likely to get it.

Yes, it’s not likely — but 1 in 8 is not a negligible number. That’s higher than I would have guessed.

Gullette goes on to point out that people commonly experience various kinds of forgetfulness that have nothing to do with Alzheimer’s and betoken no serious cognitive impairment — so there’s no need to get anxious about that kind of thing. This is a good point.

But some of Gullette’s other claims I’m not so sure about. She says that

People with cognitive impairments can live happily with their families for a long time. My mother was troubled by her loss of memories, but she discovered an upside to forgetting. She had forgotten old rancors as well as President George W. Bush’s name. We sang together. She recited her favorite poems and surprised me with new material. We had rich and loving times.

The mind is capacious. Much mental and emotional ability can survive mere memory loss, as do other qualities that make us human.

Well, yes . . . but: it’s not really a gain to lose rancor because you’ve forgotten the people who had aroused your rancor. As Montaigne said in one of his greatest essays, there’s a big difference between conquering lust and simply becoming impotent. If righteous indignation (for example) is a key element of a person’s character, the disappearance of that indignation due to forgetfulness should not be confused with the achievement of peaceableness.

I don't doubt that Gullette and her mother did indeed have “rich and loving times,” but for many families it doesn't work out that way. Many people who contract the disease are constantly agitated by the loss of their faculties, their inability to get a grip on their conditions — as is understandable: but it’s deeply painful for them to experience and for their loved ones to watch. And I have seen the grief of friends whose parents — parents who raised them, loved them, nurtured them, consoled them — no longer recognize their children. When you think about the distinctively painful nature of these changes, you can understand why many people are more afraid of Alzheimer’s than of cancer, even though they’re far more likely to get cancer.

It may not be especially likely that any of us go through the Alzheimer’s experience, but it’s not rare. After all, even if only one in eight contract the disease, that one will likely have family members and friends who will suffer along with him or her. Alzheimer’s touches far more than 12.5% of Americans, and because of the changes in personality it can bring, and the loss of a history of experiences that loved ones can share, it has distinctive and significant costs. Insofar as popular culture sees a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s as a reason for suicide, and insofar as every small forgetfulness gets dramatically magnified in people’s minds, then yes, there is too much “fear-mongering” going on. But there’s nothing “irrational” about fearing the losses that Alzheimer’s brings.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

dead and dying

Bill Pannapacker writes about the dying grandmother problem — and for college teachers it’s a big one. Every semester, just as the big end-of-term assignments come around, the grandparents start dropping like flies. I haven't known how to handle this any better than Pannapacker does, but a few weeks before his essay came out I was thinking of adding an item to my Frequently Asked Questions page along these lines: “If you tell me you can't complete an assignment because of the death of a grandparent, I will need to have confirmation of that sad loss from one of your parents.” But students have trouble remembering these policies anyway, and I can imagine the look on a genuinely grief-stricken person’s face when I tell her I need to hear from her mom so I know she’s not lying. . . .

Really, there should be a variation on the Schrödinger's Cat problem called the Student's Grandparent problem.

When I think of these matters I always remember a strange experience I had once at my local Starbucks. I arrived during the morning rush and had to stand in a long line. Gradually it crept forward, but when I was just one person away from the register a young woman in a business suit came walking up, peering at the pastry case — just checking it out, her body language seemed to say. But then when the register was free she glided right to it and quickly placed her order.

I leaned forward and said in a quiet voice, “You really shouldn't break in line like that” — at which she let out a loud cry, and wailed, “How dare you talk to me that way?” Then she threw her head down onto the counter and sobbed. After a moment she raised her head and said, “And my grandmother is dying!”

I don't quite remember what happened after that — did she get her drink and saunter out? — but when I got to the office I was still a little unnerved by the whole thing. Fortunately for me, the first person I saw was the kindest and gentlest of my colleagues, a man who is a paragon of Christian charity. I told him what had happened, and what the woman had said.

He just smiled. “Ah, I can beat that,” he said. “My grandmother’s dead.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Hey everyone, look at the awesome new banner my friend Brad Cathey of Highgate Cross made for the blog. Cool, is it not? Brad, by the way, is also responsible for the beautiful design of Gospel of the Trees. I am once again in his debt.

understanding the medium

Zeynep Tufekci has written a long, thoughtful, and worthy-of-contemplation post on Bill Keller’s recent rant against Twitter. An excerpt:

And Bill Keller should understand that, at its best, Twitter is not a broadcast medium but a medium of conversation. What he has done so far on Twitter is the equivalent of walking into a party and saying a provocative sentence, followed by sitting at the corner sipping his cocktail – as in “#twittermakesyoustupid. Discuss.” Social encounters are satisfying and worth mostly to the degree that one participates in conversations, rather than announces witticisms and withdraws. Yes, I am a professor but I do not walk into random rooms and expect people to quietly take notes on what I am saying while I launch into a speech, projecting my voice to the back of the room. Keller cannot understand this medium if he treats it as something different than what it is, and to understand requires participation in its indigenous form, conversation.

I thus urge the Literati to come join the social media conversation with the understanding that some of their strengths will not be as valued, that they will need to relearn certain skills, and some parts of the experience will be annoying – but just like some good literature, it sometimes take some effort to grasp the value of a new form. I think the literate should accept that this is now an inseparable part of the public sphere and increasing numbers of people who were otherwise excluded can now be heard; yes, they don’t always think or say what I wish people thought or said but what else is new? Given the complexities of the issues facing humanity, engaging this expanded public sphere is of crucial importance to anyone concerned about how we, as humans, will continue to live our lives, socially, economically and politically.

Monday, May 23, 2011

sunk costs

There are some excellent and helpful thoughts in this post by Megan McArdle, for instance:

A lot of the reaction to any new technology is simply that many of us invested a lot of effort in learning how to use the old technology well. That's especially true of books. (It's no accident that so many of the complaints come from journalists, academics, and other writers). For years, in school and at work, we constructed increasingly elaborate personal reference systems from notes, flags, and dog-ears, and our brains are now very nimble at using them. Change is hard. Moreover, it involves recognizing that all of our previous effort was a sunk cost: we have a painfully acquired skill that is now useless. We'd much rather double down than move on.

An incisive point. I really do need to ask how much of my resistance and discomfort — when I feel those, which is not always — are just the inevitable result of old and deeply-ingrained habits.

But while I’m asking, I want to question the chief analogy of the post:

  • Books : E-readers :: Horses : Automobiles

But I don't think the analogy is quite right. What’s the task at which horses and automobiles can be said to compete? Presumably, it’s transporting people or things from one point to another as quickly and reliably as possible. (When speed is not required, but rather peace and quiet, a horse may well be superior to a car, and walking superior to either.) What’s the task at which codex books and e-readers can be said to compete? Ummmm . . . .

See, that’s the tricky question. It depends on what you’re reading and why you’re reading it. If I’m reading a novel just for fun, I’d say the e-reader does a better job; if I’m reading a seriously literary novel for study, or am discussing such a book with a class, then I think the codex is far superior. And — I’m trying to formulate an abstract point here that’s still not perfectly clear in my own mind — when I’m reading a book whose key ideas are organized around the recurrence of certain words, I like e-readers better because they’re easy to search; but some books (especially novels) organize their central themes not around repetitions of words but rather repetitions of images or thoughts or events, and e-books are not well suited to investigating that variety of coherence.

Perhaps the e-reading technologies will improve and lessen the gap; probably they will. But what I want to avoid is the temptation to stop thinking in certain ways, stop striving for certain forms of understanding, because the technology I’m employing doesn’t favor them.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


When I read this introductory paragraph to a story by John Noble Wilford

In the thousand years between the decline of Rome and the springtime of the Renaissance, science and other branches of learning took a holiday throughout Europe. It was a benighted time in the history most of us raced through in school, skipping lightly through Charlemagne and Richard the Lion-Hearted, the Norman Conquest and the Crusades, and arriving none too soon at the time of Leonardo and Michelangelo, Columbus and da Gama, Erasmus and Luther.

— I thought it was the set-up to a joke. No informed person really believes all those hoary old clichés about the “benighted” Middle Ages, right? I mean, he said “benighted” — surely that’s a dead giveaway of parody?

Apparently not. It’s really sad to see this kind of nonsense coming from Wilford, who has been writing about the history of science for a long time. If you want an absolutely clear-cut refutation of this simplistic Whiggishness, here’s a highly accessible account, and here’s a more scholarly one. (Oddly, the scholarly work is about half as long as the more popular book.) And if you want shorter accounts still, read Myths 2, 3 and 10 here.

It's always interesting to see the myths that are so deeply ingrained — so obviously true to writers and editors — that no one bothers to fact-check them.

Friday, May 20, 2011

what I love about Twitter (and Storify)

These things just surge and fade — they appear out of nowhere and then, after a flurry of exchanges, they subside. It's an insult to the intrinsically ephemerality of the thing to preserve an exchange in this way — but just for purposes of illustration I'll do it this once. I love it. I just love it.


Huckleberry Finn, illustrated, from a 1961 English edition.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Erin O’Connor on the great power of a simple idea:

Teaching high school for a year at a very interesting little Berkshire boarding school got me onto shared class reading projects–the kids I was teaching were very smart, but, like most kids these days, just didn’t have much experience reading. So we read and read out loud together, stopping from time to time to talk about the language and the ideas and so on. I have very fond memories of doing that with “Song of Myself” in winter time, the whole class clustered around the wood-burning stove in our otherwise unheated classroom. When spring rolled around, we lay on the grass and read Gatsby together. Part of me felt guilty about spending class time on such a pleasant and low key activity–but you really couldn’t argue with the results. Kids got turned on to the language, read closely, loved talking about what they were reading as they were reading it, and greatly improved their comprehension and their close reading skills along the way. When the most reading-averse kids in the class are spontaneously picking out “favorite” passages in Whitman, you know something cool is happening. 

So when I returned to college teaching the next year, I imported this teaching model and adapted it to Ivy League undergrads–which actually didn’t take much adapting at all. Once every couple of weeks, we’d read something together in class, going around the room, taking turns, everyone reading as much as they felt like reading and then leaving off for the next person. I worried that Penn students might think this was “beneath” them–might find it a silly or infantilizing activity. But they never did, and in fact, I think the class dynamic benefited a great deal from the relaxed, shared, contemplative quality of those sessions. Certainly they brought the literature we were reading “to life” in a way that silent, solitary reading can never do.

attention deficits and thick descriptions

A few days late, but this is an interesting article:

It’s an assertion I’ve heard many times when a child has attention problems. Sometimes parents make the same point about television: My child can sit and watch for hours — he can’t have A.D.H.D.

In fact, a child’s ability to stay focused on a screen, though not anywhere else, is actually characteristic of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There are complex behavioral and neurological connections linking screens and attention, and many experts believe that these children do spend more time playing video games and watching television than their peers.

But is a child’s fascination with the screen a cause or an effect of attention problems — or both? It’s a complicated question that researchers are still struggling to tease out.

The kind of concentration that children bring to video games and television is not the kind they need to thrive in school or elsewhere in real life, according to Dr. Christopher Lucas, associate professor of child psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. “It’s not sustained attention in the absence of rewards,” he said. “It’s sustained attention with frequent intermittent rewards.”

This is a reminder of a point that I’ve been trying to make for a long time: we can't make useful generalizations about “screens.” You have to ask, “Which screens? What’s on the screens? Who’s using the screens? What would they be doing if they weren’t using these screens?” In the same way, we can't draw sweeping generalizations about whether social media are good or bad, whether they enable revolutions or make revolutions impossible. Screens, social media, computers, digital technologies of all sorts — they just aren’t “good” or “bad.” We need thick descriptions of our online lives, and right now the available descriptions are pretty thin.

That’s not surprising; online life is new, so the serious study of online life is (necessarily) newer. But I am craving richer, more detailed, more stringently controlled, thicker studies of how we live now.

you heard it here . . . later

"Markdown is the new Word 5.1. Seriously." I could have written that.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

down memory lane

A conversation on Twitter the other day reminded me of my earliest experiences with online life. It was in 1992 that I learned that I could have my college computer connected to something called the “Internet” — though I don't know how I learned it, or what I thought the Internet was.
I had a Mac SE/30 at the time — the first computer my employer ever bought for me — and someone from Computing Services came by, plugged me in, and installed some basic software. I know I didn’t get any training, so what puzzles me now is how I learned how to use the programs. I must have checked out some books . . . but I don’t remember checking them out.

Here’s something else I don't remember: very few people I knew had email, so how did I find out my friends’ email addresses? I must have asked when I saw then and wrote the addresses down on paper. But in any case I soon developed a small group of people that I corresponded with, using the venerable Pine — and again, how I, a Mac user from the start of my computing career and therefore utterly mouse-dependent, adjusted to a mouseless console environment. . . . But I did, not only when using Pine, but when accessing Wheaton’s library catalogue via Telnet, and when finding some rudimentary news sources via Gopher, followed a couple of years later by my first exposure to the World Wide Web, via Lynx. Pine, Telnet, and Lynx were the internet for me for several years — and they were great programs, primarily because they gave the fastest possible response on slow connections.

It was only when I got a Performa — with a CD drive! — that I began to turn away from the text-only goodness of those days. I was seduced by all the pretty pictures, by Netscape and, above all, by what must remain even today the greatest time-waster of my life.

How odd for all this to be nostalgia material. After all, the whole point at the time was to be cutting-edge. But even when Wheaton eliminated Telnet access to the library catalogue and moved it to the Web, I knew that I was losing something. To this day I’d search catalogues on Telnet if I could.