Entries from March 2010

Dr. Johnson: Libraries and “the vanity of human hopes”

“No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library; for who can see the wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditations and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue…”

— Samuel Johnson, Rambler #106 (March 23, 1751) (source) (click that link at your peril — a fella could get lost in a place like that)

Categories: Books    Tags: · ·

The Writer-in-Chief

Obama draft

I love the image of President Obama and his speechwriter Jon Favreau that made the rounds of the web yesterday. Robert Draper had an interesting profile of Obama as writer in GQ. The piece includes this quote from Jerry Kellman, who hired the 24-year-old Obama as a community organizer in Chicago in 1985:

When he came to Chicago, he had two dreams. The one was working for social change. The other was that he would write fiction. His aspiration was to write a novel. We talked about it at great length.

In the same article Scott Turow adds,

This is my gloss, but it does make me wonder what would’ve happened had [then incumbent state senator] Alice Palmer decided not to give up that seat. For even after he was elected and I would talk to him when he was in Springfield, he still had some doubts about whether being an elected official was what he wanted to do. We would talk about books. He would ask me what I was writing. And my gut was that it was more than a sort of generalized yearning — that he’d been thinking for some time since [publishing Dreams from My Father] about what he would like to write, and even if it was no more than making a few notes, he was actively pursuing something. … A writer’s life still beckoned to him.

An enormous, clearly legible version of the photo above is here. (Via James Fallows.)

Categories: Writing    Tags:

Dickens’ Outlines

Robert Olen Butler has said,

The one thing that other aspiring artists have over writers is that many of them can view their mentors at work. A painter can sit at the back of a studio and watch her mentor paint, a ballet dancer can watch his mentor rehearse and perform. But you can’t really observe the creative process of a fiction writer. It’s never been seen.

Atlantic Monthly, 6.14.04

It is a cherished fantasy of writers: if only a wise mentor could be with me at the moment of creation, looking over my shoulder, teaching me how to apply the chisel to the stone. The essence of a writer’s work is mysterious even to himself. Ask any writer how he creates his stories, what is happening inside his head as he types away madly, and watch him stammer. The only honest answer is “I have no idea.”

Olen Butler tried to capture the process on tape once. He recorded a series of videos for creative-writing students in which he sat at his computer and composed a short story. He would stop every sentence or so, describing the word choice or plot decision he was mulling, the options available, the reasons he might go one way or the other. The experiment did not really work. The videos are fine as a pedagogical tool and I admire Olen Butler for trying to capture the ineffable, but the constant interruptions seemed to short-circuit the creative process, and the story he wrote frankly was not very good.

If anything, Olen Butler’s experiment demonstrated that writing is intractably internal. It can only happen invisibly in the writer’s unconscious mind. The moment you look at it, it disappears. The moment you say to yourself, “I am writing,” you stop.

That is one reason why creative writing is so hard to teach. A writer can only show the product of his work for an after-the-fact review. He submits his pages to be judged, thumbs up or down, often in a “workshop” (the very name bespeaks writers’ desperation to recreate the studio experience available to other artists). His inadequacies cannot be corrected, only pointed out, because there is no “correct” way to achieve a given literary effect. Technique must be learned by trial and error. No one knows how it is done, even fellow writers; they only know it when they see it. It is as if a tennis coach could only tell a talented young player “you won” or “you lost.”

Still, we try. I have a voyeuristic interest in how other writers work. So when I run across a passage like the one below, from Michael Salter’s Charles Dickens, I stop to study it. This is the closest we can get to Olen Butler’s fantasy for young writers: a chance to look over the great man’s shoulder as he works. If you are not a writer, you may as well stop reading. The subject of how Dickens outlined his novels will not interest you. But if you are a writer, this sort of detail is gold.

The year is 1846. Dickens is 34 and already firmly established as England’s best and most celebrated writer. He has left London for the peace and quiet of Lausanne, Switzerland, to begin his novel Dombey and Son.

Dombey is the first Dickens novel for which there exists a complete set of preparatory notes for each monthly number (an isolated set, quoted above, exists for Chuzzlewit IV), a working practice Dickens followed for all his subsequent novels in this format, as well as for Hard Times which was published as a weekly serial but planned in five monthly numbers.

For each number he prepared a sheet of paper approximately 7 x 9 inches by turning it sideways, with the long side horizontal, dividing it in two, and then using the left-hand side for what he called “Mems.” These were memoranda to himself about events and scenes that might feature in the number, directions as to the pace of the narrative, particular phrases he wanted to work in, questions to himself about whether such-and-such a character should appear in this number or be kept waiting in the wings (usually with some such answer as “Yes,” “No,” or “Not yet” added later) — in short, what has been succinctly described as “brief aids in decision making, planning and remembering.” Among the “General mems for No 3,” for example, we find that wonderful image for little Paul’s desolation at Mrs. Pipchin’s, “— as if he had taken life: [sic] unfurnished, and the upholster were never coming” … and “Be patient with Carker — Get him on very slowly, without incident” (DS XII).

On the right hand side of the sheet Dickens would generally write the numbers and titles of the three chapters that make up each monthly part and jot down, either before or after writing them, the names of the main characters and events featuring in each chapter. with occasionally a crucial fragment of the dialogue like little Paul’s “Papa what’s money?” in chapter 8 [of Dombey and Son], or a note of significant events like “Death’s warning to Mrs Skewton” in chapter 36.

— Michael Slater, Charles Dickens, pp. 258-59

Here are Dickens’ “mems” for the first chapter of Little Dorrit, which opens with two men in a dank prison cell on a broiling summer day in Marseilles.

Waiting Room? No
Office? No
French Town? Yes
Man from China? Yes
Prison? Yes
Quarantine? Yes

— Source: Modern Philology, August 1966 (oh, the wonders of the web!)

I look at these scant notes and I see a writer accustomed to improvising in the moment. Only the bare essentials are drawn in beforehand. He may simply have known where he was going well enough that he did not feel the need to create a detailed outline (as I do). But Dickens must have known, too, that no matter how much planning has been done, when you finally sit down to write, it is time to put away your outlines and research, and keep only a few simple notes on the desk before you. The real work of creating will only be distracted by all this external stuff.

Also, I look at that joyous little double-underline when he hit on the idea of setting the scene in a prison cell and I feel his happiness. How many hours went into that breakthrough? How much of the writer’s private triumph is expressed in that little emphasis? Go, Charles!

Image: Detail from Dickens’ portrait by photographer George Herbert Watkins, ca. 1861. (The original, full portrait is here. Look here for more information.)

An Interview

An interview I did today with a blog called D.A. Confidential, which also had nice things to say about this very blog. The interview is mostly about writing and my own path to publication. The blogger, Mark Pryor, is an assistant D.A. in Texas. He is currently shopping his first novel. Good luck, Mark!

Categories: Writing    Tags:

“Wolf Hall”

The reigning Booker Prize winner hardly needs my seal of approval, but I’ll give it anyway: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is wonderful.

The bravest — and most exciting and troubling — aspect of the book is the decision to heroize Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s Cromwell, steeled by a brutal childhood and an apprenticeship on the continent as a mercenary and then a merchant, is a true man for all seasons. Early in the book, he steps onstage a sort of sixteenth-century James Bond:

Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement. … It is said that he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin … His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and spends it. He will take a bet on anything.

He is never at a loss for words, out-bantering the cleverest courtiers even as he out-maneuvers them. He is sophisticated and well traveled, in an England that is still a small, grim island. Most of all, he has a modern sensibility. He alone understands that the true source of power is trade and finance — money — of which he is a master.

The world is run … not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.

As if all that were not enough to send readers swooning, Mantel’s Cromwell is warm and sympathetic. He takes in orphans and stray cats, and treats women with respect. He is “unfailing in his amiable courtesy.”

Even his voice is seductive to a modern reader. The story is told in a close third-person: we see through Cromwell’s eyes, we hear his thoughts, but the narrative voice is not the campy faux-Tudor pastiche of costume dramas. Mantel finds a perfect tone — “robust modern English but with a slight twist,” she has called it. The language is salted with just enough anachronism and period detail to keep the reader convincingly in Henry’s England, while at the same time making Cromwell’s voice familiar and accessible. This Cromwell is a man we can understand. He does not sound so different from, say, Dick Cheney: amoral, yes, but also cool, supremely capable, a man of reason. If he tortures, it is only because he must, for king and country.

In fact, the only indications of Cromwell’s cruelty come from others. His stepson worries that Cromwell might drown him: “He thinks you would do anything.” The king says he is “as cunning as a bag of serpents.” But we, the readers, rarely see it firsthand and never quite believe it.

The sainted Thomas More, on the other hand, is the king’s zealous torturer-in-chief, in Mantel’s telling. Sir Thomas personally supervises the racking of heretics at the Tower. Even in his own home, according to rumor, he “keeps suspects in the stocks, while he preaches at them and harries them: the name of your printer, the name of the master of the ship that brought these books into England.” More wears a hair shirt next to his skin and flagellates himself daily. If not a villain, exactly, he is certainly not the hero Robert Bolt described, the modern, the man of conscience.

It is not hard for me to imagine More as Mantel has drawn him, but it is worth noting how bold her portrait of Cromwell is. The traditional view is that Cromwell was not James Bond but Darth Vader.

… one of the most ruthless and powerful operators ever to dominate the politics of [England].

His mastery of the black arts of spin and propaganda, of flattery, patronage and sudden betrayal, make the most ruthless modern politicians seem mild by comparison.

He ran a spy network that was the nearest thing a 16th-century regime could get to the Stasi, saw off his foes with trumped up charges of adultery and revelled in the torture of his enemies.

In a reign of unadulterated terror against the Church, he masterminded the dissolution of the monasteries and the biggest land grab since the Norman invasion of 1066 — seizing one-sixth of the nation’s wealth and turning it over to his master, the King.

One comes away from this brilliant, utterly convincing novel with the disturbing impression that Thomas Cromwell is our “man for all seasons,” he is the slippery sort of hero we deserve. Mantel has denied that Wolf Hall is an allegory of contemporary politics. In fact, she has been nursing the idea for this novel, apparently, since the 1970s. But her Cromwell obviously resonates today, as Robert Bolt’s idealized vision of Thomas More did fifty years ago. Then — after two world wars, the Holocaust, the Gulag, the Cold War — we dreaded government tyranny and we lionized the lone steadfast man who resisted it, who laid down his life for the idea of principle over expediency. Now the enemy is not a government. Our bogeyman is a hair-shirted religious fanatic willing to die for his faith. And we raise up the amoral strongman and tactician, the ultimate government insider who will use any weapon to protect us. In an era of “enhanced interrogation” and “my country right or wrong,” Thomas Cromwell is our man. One generation’s villain is another’s hero, I guess.

Image: Detail from Hans Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell, painted around 1532-33 (and Photoshopped here). Holbein himself appears in Wolf Hall as a friend of Cromwell, and this painting is mentioned several times. Toward the end of the novel, Holbein finally delivers the picture to his patron. Cromwell remarks that it makes him look like a murderer. His son responds, “Did you not know?” The painting now hangs at the Frick in New York, along with Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More.

Categories: Book Reviews    Tags: · ·

Baseball’s Yankee Problem

It feels like spring in Boston this week (sunny, temps in the sixties), and the weather makes me anxious for baseball. We are several weeks into spring training, a strange limbo period when baseball is being played somewhere far off, with palm trees in the background, but it is just a rumor around here.

This season feels different, though. I am not looking forward to Opening Day the way I used to. Maybe it is just that I am getting older. It is hard to take sports as seriously as I did when I was a kid. A bunch of guys run around with “Boston” or “New York” or “Cleveland” on their shirts — so what?

Also, to a lifelong Red Sox fan, 2004 changed everything. Winning is less urgent now. Losing does not seem to reflect on us personally anymore. Baseball, it turns out, is just a game after all. (If that sounds ridiculous to you, you did not grow up a Red Sox fan.)

But the real disenchantment, I think, came with last year’s Yankee blitzkrieg, culminating in a World Series that felt like a sham, the result seemed so inevitable. The entire playoff tournament was more kabuki theater than baseball: we had to go through the ritual of actually playing out the games before inevitably handing the trophy to the Yankees, but the outcome was never in doubt.

Of course none of this is new. The Yankee dynasties have always been powered by the economic engine of New York City. The team has always spent big and stockpiled star players (except for a hiatus in the 1960s). But for the last decade baseball fans — Yankee fans and Yankee haters alike — were lulled into believing that, whatever advantage the Yankees’ payroll gave them, the playoffs were chancy enough that we could still consider the whole thing … well, not fair, exactly, but fair enough.

The 2009 Yankees ended that little dream. The team was the apotheosis of checkbook baseball. Before the season the Yankees spent over $400 million on three star players — Mark Teixeira (8 years, $180 million), C.C. Sabathia (7/$161), and A.J. Burnett (5/$82.5). Their payroll exceeded $206 million in a year when no other team spent more than $140 million. And then, after a bumpy start to the season, they simply overwhelmed the rest of the league. It was all just so predictable and obvious. Money, winning; cause, effect.

I don’t mean to turn this into an anti-Yankee screed. There is enough of that out there. (Joe Posnanski’s recent rant is a triumph of the form.) My complaint is not with the Yankees, anyway. As their fans correctly point out, they are playing within the rules. They are supposed to do everything they can to win.

Also, let’s be clear: the lack of competitive balance in MLB is also a “Red Sox problem,” and a “Tigers problem” and a “Mets problem.” High payrolls correlate with wins, so all high-payroll teams have an advantage over lower-payroll ones. But no team benefits more than the Yankees for the simple reason that they have the highest payroll by a very wide margin.

No one seriously argues anymore that the system is not unfair. “You can’t buy a World Series, otherwise the Yankees would win every year, which they don’t.” “Look at the small-market teams who have succeeded, like the Rays in 2008.” “Look at how many different teams have won titles over the last ten years, doesn’t that prove the league is balanced?” After last season, you don’t hear these things much. No, you can’t guarantee the result of a baseball season. But to suggest that gathering so many of the best players on one team does not affect the odds is ridiculous.

So Yankee fans (and Red Sox fans, too) make a different argument: the system is unfair, but the inequality is justified. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, the system distributes players unequally but not unfairly. The Yankees actually deserve an advantage.

Arguments favoring the current unbalanced system generally come in three flavors:

  1. Render unto Caesar: “The reason the Yankees can spend so much money is because they bring in so much money, which comes directly from [the fans’] pockets. We support and finance our team better than anyone else, so we deserve the best players more than anyone else.”
  2. Blame the victim: The futility of small-market teams is their own fault. All of them could spend more to compete but they choose not to, opting to pocket their profits rather than reinvest in the team. Some small-market teams are badly managed, as well, unable to outfox the big-market clubs with clever moneyball strategies.
  3. Distributive justice, or “a rising tide lifts all boats”: The Yankee imperium is actually good for everyone because a glamorous team attracts TV ratings and big crowds when they visit small-market parks. Plus, some of the Yankees’ haul is redistributed to the needy via the luxury tax, so everybody wins. Except in the sense of actually, you know, winning.

There is a grain of truth to all these arguments, sometimes more than a grain. At the same time, they all feel lawyerly and dishonest. Once you concede that the system is unfair, the rest is details — excuse-making, special pleading.

All of this has been argued to death and, honestly, none of it reaches the real problem.

The real problem with the Yankees’ dominance is that it is utterly repetitive and predictable. It fails as drama. It is a dull story that we’ve heard a thousand times (well, 27). Pro sports, famously, is entertainment, and baseball has become the one thing that entertainment must never be: boring. I am not disgusted with baseball; I’m bored with it. It is a movie I’ve already seen.

Yankee fans have an answer to this complaint, too. The Yankee empire creates a ready-made storyline for every season: who will play David to the Yankees’ Goliath? That was the story that drove the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry for decades, and it is the default story sportswriters have told every year for the last decade when the Yankees lost.

The trouble is that the Yankees’ payroll has grown so enormous and their advantage so overwhelming that nobody really imagines the next decade will play out like the last one. In terms of resources, the Yankees have pulled away from the pack. The team is now so stacked and their spending power in the new stadium so outlandish that, looking forward, it is impossible to maintain even the pretense of competitiveness. Yes, the Yankees may lose some years — hey, you never know. But their advantage has never been greater, and over the course of a long season, even more so over a decade of seasons, that advantage figures to make baseball more and more predictable.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is all too gloomy, an overreaction to one lopsided World Series. Maybe, too, what I’m feeling is the usual Yankee Derangement Syndrome of a pre-’04 Red Sox fan. But I don’t see anything closing the payroll gap between the Yankees and everyone else in the near future. To me, the next few summers look like an endless loop of the 2009 season.

I don’t know much about baseball, but I do understand storytelling, and I can tell you that this plot has none of the elements of a good story. No character arc, no change, no movement, no personal metamorphosis from one thing to another. No redemption or triumph over adversity. Nothing really for the Yankees to overcome because the dice are loaded in their favor to begin with. (For the Yankees, the drama is all off the field: A-Rod and Madonna! A-Rod feuds with Jeter! A-Rod used steroids!) No adventure, no suspense, no dramatic tension. No situation, complication, climax, no afterglow of denouement. No Campbell mono-myth, no Shakespearian five acts, no Freytag triangle. A few surprises along the way, perhaps, but looking forward the surprises are likely to grow fewer and further between. Just a relentless, remorseless, repetitive playing-out of the inevitable.

Maybe that is a story Yankee fans will want to sit through again and again. For the rest of us, not so much. In the big picture, the real rival for the Yankees is not the Red Sox. It is the movies and cable TV and Wii and all the rest. The unique appeal of sports among all its rival forms of entertainment is that it is unscripted and therefore unpredictable. The NFL seems to understand that, and therefore has made a fetish of “parity.” Baseball has never bothered with competitive balance, which was fine as long as the rich and poor teams remained within shouting distance. Now, we are likely to see the same show over and over for the next few years. How long before people get bored and change the channel? Personally, I already have my finger on the clicker.

Photo: Life Magazine

Categories: Sports    Tags: · · ·

The issue is inequality, not total wealth

“On almost every index of quality of life, or wellness, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country’s level of economic inequality and its social outcomes. … This has nothing to do with total wealth or even the average per-capita income. America is one of the world’s richest nations, with among the highest figures for income per person, but has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence — murder, in particular — that is off the scale. Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality — within a country, within states and even within cities.”

— A review in the Guardian of The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

Categories: Crime    Tags: · · ·

Hilary Mantel: “locked in competition with myself”

“The idea of authors competing with each other is strange, not strange on a worldly level, but on a psychic level. I have always seen myself as locked in competition with myself, my own doubts and hesitations, my own limitations, and like any working writer I live with a daily process of selecting and judging and discarding which is fiercer than anything that can happen in the outside world.”

Hilary Mantel

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

A Facelift

This site has gotten a little makeover this week. Since I launched my blog last May, I have been fiddling with the design nonstop, trying to come up with something that suits me. I haven’t found the perfect fit yet, but this update moves me a little closer. Here is what I’m after.

To me, the best-looking blogs — Subtraction, AisleOne, Frank Chimero, Iain Claridge — are design blogs and they share a common philosophy: minimalist, modernist, grid-based. Those blogs were all created by respected graphic designers. You’ll see bits of all of them on this site.

A few common elements that I like:

  • The designs use mostly black text on a white background and a very few classic fonts, particularly Helvetica. Personally, I prefer a serif font for reading longer pieces, which is how I tend to write, so I’ve used Helvetica mostly for headers and sidebars. (Actually, what you are seeing here is mostly Arial, which will offend the Helvetica purists, but browsers render Arial better.)
  • My favorite designers use very little motion (Flash, Java, etc.). There are not a lot of menus dropping down, popping up, sliding out, or otherwise moving around. The designs are not all that different from a print piece. The material is organized with elegant layout and typography, not hidden behind buttons. That traditional philosophy suits a blog, which is essentially an online magazine. The screen here acts more like a printed page than a video monitor. It just … sits there. (I know: weird.)
  • The designs are flat and geometric. No glossy reflections or realistic shadows to create a trompe l’oeil three-dimensional effect. They are proudly 2D, again extending the traditional techniques of print design.

Khoi Vinh, the design director for NYTimes.com whose Subtraction is one of the most admired (and ripped off) blog designs out there, sums it up here. If you’re interested in design, click through. Otherwise, the name of his blog, “Subtraction,” says it all: if it is unnecessary frill, out it goes. Simplify, minimize, reduce.

Let me know what you think. Yes, I do all the design and coding, so changes are easy enough. And don’t be shy. My wife doesn’t like this design, so I’ve heard it all before.

Also, note that I have finally begun a mailing list. You can sign up here. I am late getting this started, of course. Like all writers, I am still learning how to be my own P.R. man. Please do join so that, when my next book comes out in spring 2011, I can reach you to let you know. Thanks.

Categories: Internet    Tags: ·

Done!

Last Friday at 11:00 PM I emailed the finished manuscript of my book to my agent and editor. At this point, it is hard to know how long it has taken to refine this book from the first gleam of an idea to completion. But it has been almost three years since I finished my last book and started to develop this idea. The story has been through several iterations in that time. At one point I got so frustrated with it I even set it aside to work on something else. So it is obviously an enormous relief to be done with it.

The story in its final version involves a 14-year-old boy accused of murdering a classmate in a comfortable Boston suburb. My film agent described it, in perfect filmspeak, as “Presumed Innocent” meets “Ordinary People,” which puts you in the right ballpark at least. But the story began life as something quite different. The germ of the idea was simply: father watches his son accused of murder and wonders, “Who is this stranger I have raised?”

What first caught my imagination was the sight of defendants’ parents sitting stoically in the back of a courtroom during a trial. What is it like for them? I have seen crime stories told from the point of view of criminals and victims, but here was a player whose misery goes unnoticed. In a way, they are blameless victims, too.

The parents’ situation also gets at a question that was on my mind, not about crime but crime novels: why do good people who would never dream of stealing a piece of gum read with pleasure about bloody murder? The question is not limited to crime novels. Stories about crime dominate the news, too, for the simple reason that people watch them. We have always been fascinated with crime dramas. Some of the oldest stories we have are crime stories.

I think that in crime stories we must see some reflection of ourselves. Just as the Oedipus story — the first detective story, reputedly — enacts a primal instinct, so do other crime stories resonate with us by touching fantasies and fears we only dimly understand. “Bad men do what good men dream,” as one observer puts it.

The audience’s fascination with crime is especially poignant in the case of the murderer’s parents. Here the identification with the criminal is more than an imaginative projection, because every parent identifies so closely with her child. Genetically and socially, the child is made of the same stuff as the parents in some mysterious combination of nature and nurture. So, when those parents sitting in the back of the courtroom ask, “What does this story say about me?”, they are asking the same question as the reader curled up in bed with a crime novel — they simply have more at stake in the answer.

These were some of the ideas I wanted to tease out in this novel. Now, finally, it is written. There will be more work to do, of course. What I have handed in is just a draft. There will be rewriting. Depending on what my editor thinks of the pages, there may be a lot of rewriting. But the hardest part is done, not just the writing itself, going from a blank page to a finished manuscript, but the conceptual work — going from that first dim inspiration to seeing the story before you. Some of the hardest work is done, invisibly, before you write that first sentence.

Categories: My Books    Tags: ·

Life Magazine Photos of Boston’s Strangler Days

Rickerby - Boston Stranglings

A trove of remarkable photographs of Boston during the Strangler siege. The photos, which are eerie and beautiful, were taken by Arthur Rickerby for Life Magazine. View the whole collection here. Above: A woman wears a hatpin in her sleeve to defend herself against the Strangler, 1963. (Another here.)

Categories: Boston · Crime · Photography    Tags:

Explaining Insomnia

Jonah Lehrer on why we can’t sleep, an affliction that has me thrashing around every night:

Because insomnia is triggered, at least in part, by anxiety about insomnia, the worst thing we can do is think about not being able to sleep; the diagnosis exacerbates the disease. And that’s why this frustrating condition will never have a perfect medical cure.

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags: ·

Google’s Buzzbomb

I thought I would love Google Buzz. Really. I am a Google fan. I adore Gmail, and in all the other Google products I’ve used — Calendar, Maps, Documents, the iconic search page — the company has gotten things mostly right.

Also, I try to maintain as many portals as possible for readers to find me on the web: Facebook, Twitter, this blog. Buzz seemed like a natural extension of all that.

There’s only one problem: I hate it.

It isn’t just the product itself I dislike. Buzz is flawed, it’s true. It is not the train wreck it’s been made out to be, but it suffers in particular from two awful design flaws:

  • a random, noisy news feed which sacrifices the logic of listing items in straight reverse-chronological order for some mysterious algorithm that seems to nail the same few items at the top of the feed permanently; and
  • a poor layout in which each item is so damn big I can only see one or two at a time — the same one or two, usually.

The result: if Twitter is a rushing, white-water river, Buzz is a stagnant one.

But for me, the problem with Buzz is more than bad execution; it’s that I don’t want Google mixing social networking, which is a public, outward-facing activity, with the private things I use Google for (search, email, our family’s calendar).

Google has always been a strictly private space — at least it seemed to be. Yes, I know Google has always harvested information about me based on my searches and other activities, but they always shielded this fact from me in various subtle, considerate ways. Outwardly, at least, the bargain has been: I entrust Google with a lot of sensitive personal information; in exchange Google assures me it will keep my data absolutely private. Over time, as Google kept its promise, it earned more and more of my trust and I handed over increasingly more personal information: first search, then email, contact info, documents.

Buzz alters the relationship in a critical way. Rather than gathering information from the web and piping it to me, Buzz pulls information from me and broadcasts it to the web. I never agreed to let Google handle that category of activity. Buzz raises the fear that everyone has always had about Google: that it will abuse its trove of personal data or carelessly spill it out into the open.

Even worse, from a design perspective, Google emphasizes the switch from private to semi-public services by shoehorning Buzz directly into the Gmail page. Now my private email window shares the same space as my public messaging window. Some Buzz comments even leap over the wall like flying fish to become Gmail messages. I can turn off some of this in Buzz’s settings, but I can’t completely disentangle Buzz from Gmail. That makes me uneasy. I want to keep my public messages absolutely segregated from my private ones.

The irony is that there really is an opportunity for Buzz to be a better version of Twitter or Facebook. My advice:

  • Relaunch Buzz as a freestanding service with a web address of its own, unbundled from Gmail and the rest of Google’s private services.
  • Make the feed more compact and uncluttered, more Twitter-like, but at the same time more flexible and powerful than 140 plain-text characters, better able to handle different kinds of posts (media, links, direct messages, public news bulletins).
  • Leverage Google’s scale so that Buzz reaches an audience larger than just my friends on Facebook. (Twitter’s big advantage over Facebook is that some of the most interesting Twitterers just aren’t among my personal “friends” on Facebook.)

Do all that, and maybe over time it will become clear what makes Buzz something more than a me-too, redundant service.

For now, I am quitting Buzz. Don’t be offended when I un-follow you. I will maintain a bare-bones Buzz feed, a pass-through of my Twitter feed, in case some readers come looking for me there. Otherwise I’m out, at least until Google figures out why Buzz exists — not what Buzz can do for Google, which is obvious enough, but what it can do for me that Twitter and Facebook can’t.

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