The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13
Snarkmarket commenter-in-chief since 2003, editor since 2008. Technology journalist and media theorist; reporter, writer, and recovering academic. Born in Detroit, living in Brooklyn, Tim loves hip-hop and poetry, and books have been and remain his drug of choice. Everything changes; don't be afraid. Follow him at

Paradise Regained

There are (at least) two different electronic editions of Paradise Lost on Project Gutenberg. The first, produced by Judy Boss and released in October 1991, was Project Gutenberg EBook #20. If you do an internet search for “project gutenberg paradise lost,” this is probably the edition you’ll find.

The second, Project Gutenberg EBook #26, was released in February 1992. This is a curiously short interval, particularly considering that there’d only been 25 ebooks encoded and released by Project Gutenberg in the 20+ years it had existed, and there are (when you stop to count them) many more books in the English language that were available. Even Milton fanatics would probably agree that this was a little early in a mass digitization project to start doubling up.

It turns out, though, that EBook #26 is special. In fact, it merits a special unsigned introduction by Project Gutenberg. By contrast, Boss’s 1991 edition doesn’t have an introduction. Instead, it has a totally charming disclaimer:


All persons concerned disclaim any and all reponsbility
that this etext is perfectly accurate. No pretenses in
any manner are made that this text should be thought of
as an authoritative edition in any respect.

This book was TYPED in by Judy Boss on Internet
eng003@unoma1 on Bitnet
(Judy now has a scanner)

Perfect, right? No authority, just a little signature of the scribe. “Judy made this.” Now she has a scanner.

Ebook #26 needs more context. Here’s the introduction:

This is the February 1992 Project Gutenberg release of:

Paradise Lost by John Milton

The oldest etext known to Project Gutenberg (ca. 1964-1965)
(If you know of any older ones, please let us know.)

Introduction (one page)

This etext was originally created in 1964-1965 according to Dr.
Joseph Raben of Queens College, NY, to whom it is attributed by
Project Gutenberg. We had heard of this etext for years but it
was not until 1991 that we actually managed to track it down to
a specific location, and then it took months to convince people
to let us have a copy, then more months for them actually to do
the copying and get it to us. Then another month to convert to
something we could massage with our favorite 486 in DOS. After
that is was only a matter of days to get it into this shape you
will see below. The original was, of course, in CAPS only, and
so were all the other etexts of the 60’s and early 70’s. Don’t
let anyone fool you into thinking any etext with both upper and
lower case is an original; all those original Project Gutenberg
etexts were also in upper case and were translated or rewritten
many times to get them into their current condition. They have
been worked on by many people throughout the world.

In the course of our searches for Professor Raben and his etext
we were never able to determine where copies were or which of a
variety of editions he may have used as a source. We did get a
little information here and there, but even after we received a
copy of the etext we were unwilling to release it without first
determining that it was in fact Public Domain and finding Raben
to verify this and get his permission. Interested enough, in a
totally unrelated action to our searches for him, the professor
subscribed to the Project Gutenberg listserver and we happened,
by accident, to notice his name. (We don’t really look at every
subscription request as the computers usually handle them.) The
etext was then properly identified, copyright analyzed, and the
current edition prepared.

To give you an estimation of the difference in the original and
what we have today: the original was probably entered on cards
commonly known at the time as “IBM cards” (Do Not Fold, Spindle
or Mutilate) and probably took in excess of 100,000 of them. A
single card could hold 80 characters (hence 80 characters is an
accepted standard for so many computer margins), and the entire
original edition we received in all caps was over 800,000 chars
in length, including line enumeration, symbols for caps and the
punctuation marks, etc., since they were not available keyboard
characters at the time (probably the keyboards operated at baud
rates of around 113, meaning the typists had to type slowly for
the keyboard to keep up).

This is the second version of Paradise Lost released by Project
Gutenberg. The first was released as our October, 1991 etext.

This is honest-to-goodness digital humanism, from start to finish. 113 baud keyboards. IBM punch cards. All caps and no punctuation — like a real Latin text! (In 1964, at least you had spaces between words and periods for the ends of sentences, I guess.) Tapping it out, in many hands, knowing that the number of people likely to even know what they’ve done is probably going to be limited to a handful.

Then in the early nineties, a new generation of digital humanists hears whispered rumors about this file and its editor. Then, after months of persuasion and conversion, “another month to convert to something we could massage with our favorite 486 in DOS.”

Meanwhile, the text itself has actually been recreated by a new editor/typist, working alone. But Project Gutenberg — probably Michael Hart himself — still recreates the text. To maintain that chain unbroken with the past.

When Michael Hart passed away in September, he was hailed as the “inventor of the ebook.” But Hart himself doubtlessly knew better.

He wasn’t the first to type a text into a computer. He didn’t even know who had been, if it was Joseph Raben and his typist(s) or someone else.

Hart didn’t invent the ebook. He invented something more: the place where these digital books and their editors’ names and stories could be preserved and shared. He invented a library; he invented an ark.


From Readership to Thinkership

Kenny Goldsmith (teacher, poet, conceptual writer, radio producer, UbuWeb digital archivist) deserves to have a book written about him (a book that, unlike his, people will read):

My books are better thought about than read. They’re insanely dull and unreadable; I mean, do you really want to sit down and read a year’s worth of weather reports or a transcription of the 1010 WINS traffic reports “on the ones” (every ten minutes) over the course of a twenty-four-hour period? I don’t. But they’re wonderful to talk about and think about, to dip in and out of, to hold, to have on your shelf. In fact, I say that I don’t have a readership, I have a thinkership. I guess this is why what I do is called “conceptual writing.” The idea is much more important than the product…

My favorite books on my shelf are the ones that I can’t read, like Finnegans Wake, The Making of Americans, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, or The Arcades Project. I love the idea that these books exist. I love their size and scope; I adore their ambition; I love to pick them up, open them at random, and always be surprised; I love the fact that I will never know them. They’ll never go out of style; they’re timeless; they’re always new to me. I wanted to write books just like these. I think you hit it just right when you spoke of reference books. I never wanted my books to be mistaken for poetry or fiction books; I wanted to write reference books. But instead of referring to something, they refer to nothing. I think of them as ’pataphysical reference books.

For more on pataphysics (which I don’t think really needs that apostrophe), aka “the science of imaginary solutions,” read this.

I also found this fascinating, especially coming from the man who wrote “If It Doesn’t Exist on the Internet, It Doesn’t Exist” (back in 2005):

I’ve made a move in the Luddite direction recently by trying to remove UbuWeb from Google. I want the site to be more underground, more word-of-mouth. The only way you’ll be able to find it is if someone links to it or tells you about it, just like music used to be before MTV. But you’ll still find UbuWeb on all the bad search engines that no one uses: AltaVista, Dogpile, and Yahoo! Again, everyone wants to rush toward the center: they even write books about how to get your Google ranking higher. We’re headed in the opposite direction. We want to get off Google.

But actually, even if you go back to that 2005 essay, it has this gorgeous coda, under the subhed “The New Radicalism”:

In concluding, I’m going to drop a real secret on you. Used to be that if you wanted to be subversive and radical, you’d publish on the web, bypassing all those arcane publishing structures at no cost. Everyone would know about your work at lightening speed; you’d be established and garner credibility in a flash, with an adoring worldwide readership.

Shhhh… the new radicalism is paper. Right. Publish it on a printed page and no one will ever know about it. It’s the perfect vehicle for terrorists, plagiarists, and for subversive thoughts in general. In closing, if you don’t want it to exist — and there are many reasons to want to keep things private — keep it off the web.

Something to think about, when you’re too busy not reading.


What diversity means

Amy Harmon, “Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World“:

Justin, who barely spoke until he was 10, falls roughly in the middle of the spectrum of social impairments that characterize autism, which affects nearly one in 100 American children. He talks to himself in public, has had occasional angry outbursts, avoids eye contact and rarely deviates from his favorite subject, animation. His unabashed expression of emotion and quirky sense of humor endear him to teachers, therapists and relatives. Yet at 20, he had never made a true friend.

There’s a tremendous gap between stories of children on the autism spectrum and stories of adults. (There’s a great joke that goes something like: Something magical happens to the autistic when we turn 21; we disappear.)

Stories of problems affecting children always draw a bigger response than those affecting adults. Remember AIDS and Ryan White? Thinking about someone as a victim and thinking about them as a problem are equally, well, problematic. But it is usually better to be a victim, and to be as pure and sympathetic a victim as possible.

There is also an imagination gap. Most readers of newspapers and consumers of serious media are typical, healthy, middle-class adults. They sympathize best with fates that are either totally fantastic or resemble their own. Most people find it easier to imagine being the parent of an autistic child. They find it harder to imagine being autistic and struggling with the problems of autistic adults themselves.

For my part, I am the former, and I find the latter extremely easy. Partly because of my son, and partly because of me.

The family had been living in Europe, where Briant had a promising career in international business and Maria Teresa, the daughter of a Brazilian diplomat, had embraced an expatriate lifestyle.

It’s hard to talk about autism without talking about class. It’s a developmental disorder that appears to disproportionately fall in successful families with histories of Aspy-like behavior. But it’s also almost impossible to tell how much this indicates a certain kind of hereditability and how much class affects diagnosis.

Autistic children with rich/educated parents will often get an Asperger’s diagnosis even if their children don’t fall under the traditional (and compared to the overwhelmingly broad Autism Spectrum Disorder, fairly specific) diagnostic rubric of Asperger’s.

The CW says that if you’re going to have a diagnosis, it’s great to have Asperger’s. Bill Gates and the anthropologist on Bones might have Asperger’s. Asperger’s still gets you access to services, but doesn’t mean you’re staring down a much more crippling disorder. “Autism,” on the other hand, is still a scary word.

Meanwhile, if you’re broke or have less education, your child’s more likely to go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, and to be treated as slow or mentally retarded. And even if you get the “right” diagnosis, the kinds of therapies offered and your ability to take advantage of them will vary wildly depending on your resources. Maybe especially time.

This is all to say that just as autism stories overwhelmingly focus on children, not adults, they also overwhelmingly focus on the wealthy, not the poor or near-poor. And the link between autism and poverty is extraordinary once a child becomes an adult — what “independence” means in that context is very different.

This is also to say that while all these additional considerations are important, fuck that shit. Because autism does cut across class and race and gender and sexual identity and physical ability, etc. And because of that, it changes what we mean by diversity, what kinds of diversity count, what diversity we ought to care about, and how we think about all of these issues of identity and privilege taken all together.

Justin’s aide braced herself when he raised his hand one day in a class that had focused for several months on Africa. The students had just finished reading a book on apartheid.

“Mr. Moore,” Justin complained, “I’m tired of learning about sad black people.”

The teacher, who was black, turned around.

“You know what, Justin?” he said. “Me too.”

Via Steve Silberman, who wrote a ten-years-old-and-still-amazing article and is now writing a book about all of this.


What (Some) People Like On Twitter

The other day on Twitter, I had a particularly silly/dorky Steve Jobs tweet become crazy popular, like a thousand retweets popular. So — being again, particularly silly and dorky myself — decided to pull some of my most popular tweets into a Storify to try to discern a pattern (if any).

BIG PATTERN: People love pop culture references. But my Twitter feed (and probably yours) regularly ABOUNDS in pop culture references. So that actually turns out not to have a ton of explanatory value on its own.

SMART PATTERN: What people really seem to love are oblique, unexpected pop culture references that hit a particular niche. They’re tweets that say: “this message was only for you; now share it with everyone you know.”

BIG PATTERN #2: People definitely respond in a big way to big news events. If something is going on that’s happening in real-time, the retweet button gets a workout.

SMART PATTERN #2: The problem with big events is that everybody’s tweeting and retweeting everything. Which is fine! It’s good! But at the same time, some sort of conceptual scoop that shines a light on something different about what’s happening adds more value.

BIG PATTERN #3: People love anything that reminds them of their childhood.
SMART PATTERN #3: I love anything that reminds me of my childhood. And that Proustian love is a propulsive force that drives me to write better sentences.


Feliz Cumpleaños, El Hacedor

He had never dwelled on memory’s delights. Impressions slid over him, vivid but ephemeral. A potter’s vermilion; the heavens laden with stars that were also gods; the moon, from which a lion had fallen; the slick feel of marble beneath slow sensitive fingertips; the taste of wild boar meat, eagerly torn by his white teeth; a Phoenician word; the black shadow a lance casts on yellow sand; the nearness of the sea or of a woman; a heavy wine, its roughness cut by honey–these could fill his soul completely…

Gradually now the beautiful universe was slipping away from him. A stubborn mist erased the outline of his hand, the night was no longer peopled by stars, the earth beneath his feet was unsure. Everything was growing distant and blurred. When he knew he was going blind he cried out; stoic modesty had not yet been invented and Hector could flee with impunity. I will not see again, he felt, either the sky filled with mythical dread, or this face that the years will transform. Over this desperation of his flesh passed days and nights. But one morning he awoke; he looked, no longer alarmed, at the dim things that surrounded him; and inexplicably he sensed, as one recognizes a tune or a voice, that now it was over and he had faced it, with fear but also with joy, hope, and curiosity. Then he descended into his memory, which seemed to him endless, and up from that vertigo he succeeded in bringing forth a forgotten recollection that shone like a coin under the rain, perhaps because he had never looked at it, unless in a dream.

In grave amazement he understood. In this night too, in this night of his mortal eyes into this he was now descending, love and danger were again waiting. Ares and Aphrodite, for already he divined (already it encircled him) a murmur of glory and hexameters, a murmur of men defending a temple the gods will not save, and of black vessels searching the sea for a beloved isle, the murmur of the Odysseys and Iliads it was his destiny to sing and leave echoing concavely in the memory of man. These things we know, but not those that he felt when he descended into the last shade of all.

From “El Hacedor (The Maker),” a story about the blindness and insight of Homer — both of which Borges shared.

One comment

Today I Learned

David Weinberger has a thoughtful look at Reddit as journalism. He calls it “community journalism,” a distinct variant of “citizen journalism.”

Two gems to put in your shoe:

  1. What’s interesting to a community is not enough to make us well informed because our community’s interests tend to be parochial and self-reinforcing. This is not so much a limitation of community as a way that communities constitute themselves.
  2. One of the mistakes we’ve made in journalism and education is to insist that curiosity is a serious business. Perhaps not. Perhaps curiosity needs a sense of humor.

Via Jay Rosen.


Social networks, as told by Flight of the Conchords

Joanne McNeil, quoting Farrah Bostic on July 3: 

“so far google+ friending seems to be more about a shared present/future than a shared past” – @farrahbostic (so true)less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

So if Facebook quickly became like this:

Google+ right now is more like this:

While Twitter, with its tendency towards zaniness, its frequently misunderstood and embarrassing messages, and inevitable blurring of casual and intimate relationships, feels a bit like this (in all its glory):

Meanwhile, we also have MySpace (“people who hold signs go on to hold many things”):

The original, Friendster (“How did Dave get a hottie like that to a party like this? Good one, Dave”):

And this one, I can’t tell if it’s LinkedIn or Chatroulette (maybe a bit of both):

Soliciting suggestions for Quora, Instagram, Foursquare, et al. (My partner-in-pop-culture-crime Sarah Pavis already nominated “Stay Cool” and “I Told You I Was Freaky” for Tumblr.)

PS: You can find me on Google+ here.


Today’s Tweets, Lightly Annotated

I had an eclectic but perhaps extra-fulfilling day using Twitter today. First, I wrote a lot of tweets: I hand-counted 165, including @-replies but excluding DMs. But it didn’t strike me as all that atypical a day, which might be all the more striking. It was Twitter at its best. I was reading and writing all day, just having a great time carrying on half-overheard conversations in public.

I wanted to hang on to just a few of those conversation nodes here, inspired partly by two tweets in particular:

@robinsloan @amichel @jayrosen_nyu I love how the Stock & Flow post is perennially always both. Like a geyser waiting for a chance to burst.less than a minute ago via YoruFukurou Favorite Retweet Reply

Robin’s “Stock and Flow” post was flowing again today, helped along by Jay Rosen’s plug via — you guessed it — Twitter.

Today was almost entirely a flow day for me. Call it navel-gazing if you want, but I want to hang onto it, mostly for the following reason:

When I was 7-10 years old, if you’d told me there’d be a machine that would let me read new things all day, I’d have fainted from happiness.less than a minute ago via YoruFukurou Favorite Retweet Reply

So here’s a little of what was flowing in my Twitter stream today.
Read more…


The Cave, The Corps, The League


I’m going to jump in the middle of Robin and Gavin’s exchange on the DC Comics reboot, even though I explicitly told both of them that I didn’t want to read about it and had nothing to say about any of it, because some things Robin just wrote sparked some ideas that I want to follow here.

Today, you don’t go work at Marvel and DC because of what they are; you go because of what they have. It’s almost like a natural resource. Superman and Batman are potent substances. They have this incredible innate energy, this incredible mythic density, built up over decades. They really are like petroleum—a bright eon of individual organic contributions all compressed into this powerful stuff that we can now burn for light, for entertainment, for money… How do you weigh the opportunity to work on an old titan like Superman against the opportunity to create something wholly new, and to potentially profit from that creation? Is it only sentimental or emotional value that draws an artist to the former—or is there more?… Maybe what we’re talking about here is the difference between being an entrepreneur and being a custodian. We tend to think of artists as entrepreneurs, right?—inventors, trailblazers, risk-takers. To make meaningful art is often simply to try something new.

Now before I start, I want to stipulate a few things. First, I want to take seriously Robin’s two primary arguments in his post:

  1. “I want to talk not about Superman’s universe, but our own—because I think this strategy says something interesting about creative economics today.” Let’s call this the explicit argument.
  2. Comic books themselves, as content, not just the strategies of their publishers and artists, have something to say about this. Let’s call this the implicit argument.

And I want to add a third point, that I’ll call the unconscious argument. It’s something I don’t think Robin necessarily intended, but which is entailed in the way he formulates the problem:

Everywhere in Robin’s post where he writes “artists,” you can substitute “journalists“—and probably many other nodes in creative economies, broadly construed.
Read more…

It’s not the echo, it’s the chamber

Eli Pariser’s op-ed in the New York Times, When the Internet Thinks It Knows You:

Democracy depends on the citizen’s ability to engage with multiple viewpoints; the Internet limits such engagement when it offers up only information that reflects your already established point of view. While it’s sometimes convenient to see only what you want to see, it’s critical at other times that you see things that you don’t.

The Times had run an earlier story on Pariser’s The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You. It takes the easiest possible reading of this idea, applying it to media choices and political disagreement:

If you want to test your own views on personalization, you could try a party trick Mr. Pariser demonstrated earlier this year during a talk at the TED conference: ask some friends to simultaneously search Google for a controversial term like gun control or abortion. Then compare results…

With television, people can limit their exposure to dissenting opinions simply by flipping the channel, to, say, Fox from MSNBC. And, of course, viewers are aware they’re actively choosing shows. The concern with personalization algorithms is that many consumers don’t understand, or may not even be aware of, the filtering methodology.

Reading Pariser’s op-ed, though, I got the sense that he’s not nearly as concerned about narrowing of opinions on the web as he is about the narrowing of interests.

“[I]f algorithms are taking over the editing function and determining what we see,” he writes, “we need to make sure they weigh variables beyond a narrow ‘relevance.’ They need to show us Afghanistan and Libya as well as Apple and Kanye.”

If you spend much time on the Internet, you know that there’s clearly no shortage of disagreement. But it’s more likely that you spend most of your time and energy disagreeing with people who care deeply about the same things about which you already care deeply.

You’ll argue about whether LeBron James or Derrick Rose should have won the MVP, whether or not Mitt Romney has a shot in the Iowa caucuses, or why Apple decided to pre-release information about the WWDC keynote.

We dive deeply into a range of pre-defined topics, tied to our professions, hobbies, needs, and histories, and sharpen our swords with opponents who do the same.

And on the margins, maybe that’s okay. Mass culture throws a whole lot of stuff at its audience that I, like you, have no intrinsic interest in. The time, energy, and cognitive surplus we once devoted to those things we used to consume only because “they were on” are all much better put to use tackling subjects we actually care about.

But it does mean that we’re often unaware of what’s happening in the next room, where there is frequently plenty of useful stuff that we could port into our own special areas of interest. We need to make sure we’re taking advantage of the web’s built-in ability to move laterally.

More to the point: those of us who produce and share content that other people read — and at this point, that’s almost all of us — need to trust that our readers are lateral movers too, and encourage them to do so.

I’m reminded of this blog post from last year, predicting the death of the niche blog and the rise of the lens blog. The lens blog can tackle any subject, but always from the point of view of a subset of enthusiasms or perspectives that find clever ways to find the same in the different, and vice versa.

Hyper-specialization, like information overload, is an old, old problem. But exactly for that reason, we shouldn’t be surprised to see it pop up as a potential problem with our new tools and new media, too.

In short, if you’re really worried about search engines or social media overfiltering what you see, worry less about your reading being one-sided and more about it being one-dimensional.

(For more smart takes on Pariser’s argument, see also Mat Ingram at GigaOm, Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing)