Library in the Cloud

Fenway 1934

The Digital Public Library of America is now open. An incredible resource.

Above: “Close Play at First, Fenway Park, 1934.” Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library Print Department. Via DPLA. (Click image to see full-size.)

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A Little Facelift

Screen Shot 2013-03-27

Over the last few weeks this site has been updated. Nothing major — improved typography, simplified layout. But a few changes might affect visitors:

  • RSS Feed. The RSS feed has been shifted from the dying FeedBurner to this site’s own native WordPress RSS feed. If you subscribe to the blog via RSS, you will need to update that address to the new RSS feed.
  • Blog posts via email. I have removed the option of receiving blog posts via email. The trouble with having a blog-by-email service — which auto-generated an email to subscribers every time I added a post to the blog — was that it inhibited me from using the blog as I often like to: for short, occasional, unimportant posts that are more like scrapbook entries than essays. Those quick posts do not justify bothering hundreds of people with an email, which made me shy about posting anything at all to my own blog. Former blog-by-email subscribers will continue to receive the once- or twice-yearly email newsletter, and can of course subscribe to the blog via any RSS reader.
  • Comments. The moribund comment sections of the blog also have been eliminated. There just weren’t enough people commenting to justify the cost in space and clutter. Eliminating comments allowed for a cleaner, lighter design. Most visitors who wanted to comment about something just emailed me anyway, which I encourage readers to do.
  • Tumblr. I have abandoned my Tumblr blog and merged the contents back into this blog. For the last couple of years I used Tumblr as a scrapbook for things I found around the web — images, video clips, links — while the main blog was reserved for longer, essay-style blog posts. Alas, those long posts have become rare, especially in the tumult of publicizing Defending Jacob. Also, maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I like having everything in one place, here on the main blog.

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Louis C.K. on Twitter

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Continuous Partial Attention

Linda Stone on attention in the age of web overload. This 2006 talk is remarkably prescient. The addled, distracted feeling she described five years ago as “continuous partial attention” feels like a permanent condition now.

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What information consumes

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.

Economist Herbert Simon, 1971

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Neil Gaiman: Web piracy is good publicity

I have always wondered why people become so agitated about pirated music or movies but have no problem with lending books. Why is it “stealing” to listen to a song or watch a movie without paying but perfectly okay to borrow my books and read them without paying? We even use tax dollars — my tax dollars! — to support this scandalous book-lending via public libraries.

I understand the technical argument. Borrowing a book does not involve making an unlicensed copy of that book, the thing that copyright specifically forbids. But in the case of books, that is a distinction without a difference. One does not need to own a copy of a book to enjoy the full benefit of it; one only has to borrow it. That is because books most often are read only once then never again, at least not for several years. So possessing the book for a few days or weeks is as good as owning your own copy, unlike a song, which you will likely want to listen to over and over if you like it. Of course, this excludes the value of books as display objects — “books as furniture.” But then, the current frenzy about internet piracy is about illicit digital copies only, and you can’t very well display an MP3 file either.

I am not advocating for piracy and certainly not for closing the public libraries, only for keeping things in perspective. There has never been — and should never be — an ironclad rule of copyright that demands a payment for every single use of an artwork. It violates society’s interest in the free flow of ideas, yes, but, as Neil Gaiman points out, it is also not in the artist’s interest to have his every creation locked up out of sight behind a pay wall.


Categories: Internet · Publishing    Tags: ·

Nosing around in nonsense

Am I the only one who generally finds the internet a lonely vacuum, a vortex, a votive candle in the men’s room of the noisiest shopping mall on the planet? Am I the only one who feels like I’m wasting way too much time nosing around in nonsense, having what’s left of my brains beaten in by jackhammers, and trying to “make friends” when I should be doing a better job of actually being friends? I don’t think so.

Brad Zellar, Utne Reader (via)

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Tweeting to no one

Sysomos, a maker of social media analysis tools, looked at 1.2 billion tweets over a two-month period to analyze what happens after we publish our tweets to Twitter. A few highlights:

  • 71% of all tweets produce no reaction (no replies or retweets)
  • only 6% of all tweets produce a retweet (the other 23% solicit replies)
  • 96.9% of replies and 92.4% of retweets happen within the first hour
  • of all the tweets that produce a reply, 85% get only a single reply before the “conversation” ends


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Zadie Smith on Facebook

It feels important to remind ourselves, at this point, that Facebook, our new beloved interface with reality, was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations. What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a “life”? (Prove it. Post pictures.) Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas, or plants.) But here I fear I am becoming nostalgic. I am dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and—which is more important—to herself. Person as mystery: this idea of personhood is certainly changing, perhaps has already changed.


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What “free” means on the web

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.

“blue_beetle” on Metafilter

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Tumblr is having a moment. A big profile in the Times, a lot of buzz in the geekier precincts of the interwebs, phenomenal growth (the service adds 25,000 new accounts daily). For the uninitiated, Tumblr is a platform for “short-form blogging,” meaning that a “tumblelog” is a blog with very short posts, usually a single, found object — a quote, image, song, or video — offered with little or no comment. “If blogs are journals, tumblelogs are scrapbooks,” the Tumblr web site used to explain helpfully. Essentially it is a place to share the little interesting things you find as you wander around the internet. It is not a place for long, navel-gazing essays. Here are a few good tumblelogs to give you a sense of it: Fuck Yeah, Literary Quotes, ck/ck, and Laughing Squid.

Lately I’ve been fiddling around with Tumblr and I am smitten. While I was cranking through the final rewrite of my latest novel the last few weeks, Tumblr became my main diversion. (I have so many.)

I can see the enormous potential of Tumblr. It has a social-networking aspect: you can follow people as you do on Facebook or Twitter, and view their posts in a Twitter-like stream. But it is more interesting than either of these, since Facebook does not have interesting content (my feed is mostly filled with snapshots of friends’ kids) and Twitter is straitjacketed by its 140-character format. Tumblr is also beautifully designed and dead simple to use.

The primary drawback of Tumblr, it seems to me, is that there just aren’t enough users yet to make it really compelling. As a link farm, Tumblr’s format kicks Twitter’s ass. The links I find on Twitter are cloaked behind those opaque fortune-cookie messages, and of course they require a click-through to see what the content really is. Very inefficient. My Tumblr feed is a lot easier to read. But Twitter has so many more interesting users than Tumblr that it is still my first stop when I go snuffling around the web for interesting reading material. (My second stop: Google Reader, still.)

Inevitably, I have started my own tumblelog. I will still post my “real” blog entries here at my grown-up blog. But for the little things I find laying around the web — like, say, a video of a naked man putting himself through a hay baler — Tumblr is the scrapbook where I’ll paste them. Come check it out. We’ll see how the new tumblelog develops over the next few months.

(Note: Must … resist … reference … to Culture Club. D’oh!)

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Why the novel will survive the disappearance of the book

Media evolution, of course, does claim casualties. But most often, these are means of distribution or storage, especially physical ones that can be transformed into digital bits. Photographic film is supplanted, but people take more pictures than ever. CD’s no longer dominate, as music is more and more distributed online. “Books, magazines and newspapers are next,” predicts Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the M.I.T. Media Lab. “Text is not going away, nor is reading. Paper is going away.”

New York Times, 8.22.10

Categories: Books · Internet · Publishing    Tags: ·


A very neat tool: FontFonter allows you to see any web site with different fonts substituted for the defaults. Here is how this web site looks with different fonts (very handsome, if I do say so myself). And here is the New York Times refonted. Great tool for web designers, great toy for everyone else.

I recently began using Typekit for this site to allow more elegant fonts than standard browsers are capable of. (For a discussion of the technical limitations that have crippled web typography until now and how they are being overcome, look here.) The typefaces you see on this web site now are FF Tisa Web Pro for text and FF Dagny Web Pro for the smaller bits in sans serifs, with plain old Arial/Helvetica for headlines, still, because I have not been able to settle on a more interesting sans-serif that renders properly in all browsers (damn you, Internet Explorer!) and lower-resolution monitors. But I’ll keep fiddling. That’s what web sites are for, no?

Update (8.12.10): So much for the Typekit experiment. I found it was slowing down this site much too much. At times, page loads were taking over a minute, an eternity if you’re sitting in front of the computer waiting. The problem, I found — and this is true nine out of ten times that a WordPress blog slows to a crawl — is that plug-ins and calls to external RSS feeds were slowing things down, especially because WordPress requires that most of these processes be completed before the page will load at all. Typekit seemed to be one of the culprits because every page load required the download of all those pretty fonts from a remote server. So it’s back to the boring but reliable “web-safe” fonts for me. I’ll miss you, FF Tisa Web Pro. [sniff]

Categories: Internet    Tags: · ·

Writers Unplugged

Myself, I’ve set up a second computer, devoid of internet, for my fiction-writing. That’s to say, I took an expensive Mac and turned it back into a typewriter. (You should imagine my computer set-up guy’s consternation when I insisted he drag the internet function out of the thing entirely. “I can just hide it from you,” he said. “No,” I told him, “I don’t want to know it’s in there somewhere.”)

Jonathan Lethem (via)

And here I thought I was the only one going to such extremes.

The Way We Virtually Live Now

According to recent media surveys, the average American spends some 8.5 hours a day peering at a screen — TV, computer, or cell phone — and that number continues to rise as smartphone use explodes. We’ve reached a point, in other words, where it’s more likely than not that we’re looking into a screen at any given moment when we’re awake.… What happens to the human self as it comes to experience more and more of the world, and of life, through the mediation of the screen?

— Nicholas Carr, “Not addiction; dependency”

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Writing Like It’s 1999

John Dvorak had an interesting piece recently on the transformation of computers “from being a mathematical tool used for calculations, to a communications device.”

Initially, computers were used for calculations. The first intended purpose was for artillery trajectory calculations — hardly a noble purpose, but certainly a practical one. In the early days, computers were described as electronic bins. … As the desktop computer revolution developed, the devices’ uses were inevitably based on some aspect of calculation. Spreadsheets were the perfect example. At the time, the only communication aspect of computers was the fact that they could double as powerful aids to word processing software.

By 1979, however, modems and networks were making inroads. They made it possible for computers to talk to each other in some crude way. That was the beginning of the end. The computation aspect of computers continued to grow, but it was the networking aspect that was the disease vector, so far as social upheaval is concerned. You can figure out the rest of the networking timeline. It began 30 or more years ago — 40 years, if you want to count the invention of Arpanet in 1969.

The iPad and smart phones are just the logical conclusion to this trend: computers whose only real purpose is to communicate, not calculate.

Whatever the grand social implications of “the communications-oriented computer” — Dvorak considers it an asocial, porn-proliferating, newspaper-killing “disease” — it has been a disaster for writers, at least for this highly distractible writer.

I’m no Luddite. I love the web, maybe too much. Most evenings now, after my kids go to bed, I find myself opening up a laptop and reading online when once I would have opened a book or turned on the TV. To a natural reader, it is like heaven — an endless library. (Also an endless TV and jukebox, but personally these aspects interest me less.)

That is just the problem: the web is a massive distraction that is becoming increasingly difficult to tune out. Today you can’t buy a new laptop that is not wifi-enabled, and you can’t walk into a library or Starbucks that does not provide wifi. No doubt computers eventually will follow smart phones into a world where all computers are connected to the web all the time, with or without wifi.

The irony is that today’s computers are actually less useful for writers than were the slower, “dumber,” un-networked boxes of ten years ago. That is because writers need to do the one thing modern computers can’t — disconnect.

I hear the objection already. “Why don’t you just turn off the damn internet for a while? Close your browser. Show some willpower, some discipline!”

Well, that is what most writers do. What choice is there? But over and over I hear writers echo my own experience, which is that the web is very difficult to block out entirely, because the same machine we use for typing is also the one we use for web-surfing. Our work tool has become a play tool. Our typewriter has become a TV. What you scolds may not understand is that our work is different from yours. Writing of any quality requires deep focus; long, quiet, undisturbed stretches of time; and isolation — in Joyce’s famous phrase, “silence, exile, and cunning.” Any work that involves serious thought requires some of these things some of the time, I suppose, but good writing needs them all, every day. And modern computers, alas, are designed to create the opposite environment: distraction, connection, zoning out.

What we writers need is a computer optimized for word processing and nothing else. A “dumb” computer that is little more than a “smart” typewriter. A workspace — a computer screen — with no distractions, that does not tempt us to pop online “just for a minute to check email.”

I have found something close in the AlphaSmart Neo, a simple plain-text word processor with virtually endless battery life, whose praises I have sung before. But once I have completed a draft of a novel and moved to the editing phase, I have to use a word processing program, in my case WordPerfect, to which I am passionately, stubbornly devoted. That means I have to switch to a laptop.

So how do I work on a laptop and completely shut out the web? By eliminating all the “advances” of the last decade.

I recently bought an old ThinkPad T23 on eBay. The laptop was made in 2001 or thereabouts. It was a high-end machine at the time, with a retail price well north of $3,000, but I picked mine up for about a hundred bucks. The build quality of these old ThinkPads is unsurpassed, and the T23 is engineered to be light and tough enough for corporate road-warrior types. It has a great keyboard but, honestly, not much else. Best of all, it has no wireless card.

A nine-year-old laptop is not a perfect solution, of course. Battery life is short (I get about 1:45). At 5.5 pounds the T23 weighs a little more than today’s ultraportables. And with such an old machine, who can say how much tread is left on the tires? But so far I am thrilled. To a writer, less is more. I bought this computer precisely for what it can’t do.

I wonder: isn’t there enough of a niche market to support a new laptop like this, which sacrifices processing power, memory, and networking ability for the simpler things that writers and other thinkers value — low price, long battery life, light weight, good keyboard, bright screen? The ideal writer’s computer would have many of the virtues of a netbook, minus the connectivity, plus a little size to accommodate a better keyboard and display. It would be good for students, too. Certainly it would be a machine John Dvorak would love.

Only Disconnect

Plug Face by Jake Mates

Two recent tweets by Alain de Botton capture the way I’ve been feeling lately:

Awkward mathematics of my profession: for every one hour of actual writing, I need four hours of daydreaming.

So cruel that the machine I use for concentrated, slow thinking is also, in another window, more exciting than any TV could ever be.

The frenzied, always-on, real-time “Web 2.0” creates an expectation that to be well informed is to hear every bit of news the moment it breaks, no matter how remote or trivial. It is exhausting. Worse, it obliterates the sort of slow, contemplative thought that writing requires. We move so quickly from one news bit to the next that we don’t take the time to really think about any of them. Like food, information today has become too cheap and too ubiquitous, and we overeat. What we need is an information diet. De Botton again: “We require periods of fast in the life of our minds no less than in that of our bodies.”

Lately I’ve been hearing more and more echoes of my own web fatigue. Cartoonist James Sturm flees the web, leading Nicholas Carr to suggest, “Disconnection is the new counterculture.” Even among the web priests, the buzz is about the need for more filters, more “curation.” (Curation, you may recall, is what we used to call editing, which is what newspapers used to do for us.)

All of which is my (typically) prolix way of saying I’m going offline for a week or two. You may see some posts pop up on the blog, but they will be ones that I have already written and scheduled for automatic publication, like those timers that turn the lights on and off while you are away on vacation. If you drop me an email or post a comment, you likely will not get a response for a while. I suspect the web will get along without me. I know I can get along quite happily without it. See you on the other side.

Image source: “Plug Face” by Jake Mates.

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Facebook introduced the verb to “friend.” Chatroulette has introduced “nexted.” When two strangers meet randomly face to face either one can “next” the other, immediately, or at any time in the conversation. The NEXT button terminates the meeting and brings on the next stranger. If you are not female, or over 30, you’ll most likely be nexted without remorse. In fact on old guy like me will treat any encounter that is not nexted as a victory.

Kevin Kelly

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Is an ebook still a book?

When a printed book is transferred to an electronic device connected to the Internet, it turns into something very like a Web site.

— Nicholas Carr, “The Post-Book Book,” quoting his own upcoming book The Shallows

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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 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.

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