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
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32

War all the time
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is reading and blogging about Robert Conot’s American Odyssey, a 1974 history of Detroit that bears the subtitle “A Unique History of America Told Through the Life of a Great City.” Today he offers Conot’s account of Henry Ford’s efforts to quite literally beat back unionization in the 1930s, led by Ford executive Harry Bennett. Walter Reuther and a handful of others led the UAW. Things came to a head in “the Battle of the Overpass”:

Seventy-four years old, [Ford] was descending into senility, and was soon to suffer a stroke. Yet the grip he and Bennett held on the company was as iron as ever. In the plant nothing the men did escaped the eyes of the ubiquitous service men, who made up one fifth of the workforce. Outside the plant, Bennett, liberally sprinkling money about, extended tentacles into every facet of the area’s life. Many of the Negro ministers were beholden to him. The mayor of Dearborn of a concessionaire. The Wayne County Republican organization was under his influence. So thoroughly had he infiltrated the UAW that servicemen were spending much of their time reporting on each other. The Knights of Dearborn were injected with new life, and the assigned the task of fighting of labor organizers and communists.

With the sit-down at GM, Bennett increased the size of his force even further. No pirate ship ever had a more motley crew. They consisted of gangsters, discharged police officers, and athletes who had gone astray. There was Eddie Cicotte, banned from baseball in the Black Sox scandal; Norman Selby, alias Kid Mcoy, a battered ex-fighter who would have married eleven times but reduced his total by one when he murdered one of his sweethearts…Angelo Caruso, the former head of the Down River Gang; Sam Cuva, who had shot his mother-in-law; “Legs” Laman a kidnapper and rum-runner…

Flushed with their victories over GM and Chrysler, the UAW obtained permission from the Dearborn city council to pass out handbills. It was a brisk spring day as the quartet of UAW leaders, Walter Reuther, Richard Frankensteen, Richard Merriweather, and Ralph Dunham climbed the flights of stairs leading to the overpass across Miller road to the plant. Behind them, mostly on streetcars, came other proselytizers, many of them women…

Reuther, natty, a gold chain across the front of his vest, a fountain-pen and pencil sticking out of his pocket, was in the lead….From the direction of the plant came a group of men there hats pulled low over their eyes. Among them were a professional wrestler, a boxer, an ex-convict with twenty-one arrests, Caruso and Sam Tyler, a Ford foreman and the president of the Knights of Dearborn. One had a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Another coatless, exhibited a colorful vest. And the lead was a sparrow of a man, not more than five feet four inches tall. As Reuther expecting a verbal barrage, watched their approach, they so resembled the stereotype of the hood in gangster movies that he smiled.

In the next instant, he was cracked across the back of the head, and went down. Picked up, he was pummeled and then thrown to the concrete again and again. Frakensteen’s coat was whipped over his head so that it formed a stratjacket. As he stood helpless, he was slugged repeatedly. Dunham and Merriweather were beaten and kicked. All four were pushed, rolled, and knocked down the several flights of stairs of the overpast. When other UAW member tried to get off the streetcars, the leaflets were ripped from their hands. The women were manhandled back on to the cars….

After extensive hearings, the National Labor relations Board accused the company of violating the Wagner Act. Ford retorted: “The things the Board charged never happened and could not happen here.” Asked if he knew the facts, he snapped: “I don’t want to know the facts.”

TNC thrills at Conot’s language and storytelling, but he’s pretty good himself: “Harry Bennett is Wee-Bay to Ford’s Barksdale.” And: “When you read something like this, it puts the Tea Parties in perspective. There’s never been one America. There’s always been civil war.”

Comments

Press control-C to cajole
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Matt mentioned that he’s playing Dragon Age: Origins, and now I am, too. And I just played through a scene in the game that I thought was worth reporting:

So you come to this village that’s being attacked every night by waves of shambling undead; they emanate from the dark castle set on high cliffs above the town. Many villagers have been killed, and those who remain are huddled in the church. Everybody is freaked out and fatalistic. They think tonight’s attack is going to be the one that finally wipes them out. It’s grim.

So you promise to help, of course (and you need to get into that castle for your own reasons). But here’s where it gets interesting: Instead of fade-to-black and then the big fight, you spend the next portion of the game exploring town, convincing and cajoling villagers to help you:

  • The blacksmith wants to drown his sorrows in booze and wait for the end to come; you convince him to repair the village militia’s battered weapons instead.
  • Three selfish mercenaries have boarded themselves up in a house to ride out the attack; you browbeat them into the joining the fight.
  • A skilled archer is skulking in the shadows of the inn; he feels he has no stake in the battle. You uncover his secret and blackmail him into joining.
  • The knights remaining in the village want blessings of protection from the church. But in a twist, the church elder is all like, “Are you kidding me? Blessings won’t help them fight.” You convince her that anything that helps morale, even if it’s just an illusion, is essential.

And so on. There are supplies you can discover and traps you can lay. But here’s the important thing: You can fail at any of it! You can say the wrong things or overlook people altogether. Or you can choose to skip it all—to face the undead horde friendless and alone.

Rio Bravo or High Noon. It’s your choice.

The nuance and humanity of this section really surprised me. So did the flexibility. There was not the usual feel-good fait accompli; not all roads led to a band of brave villagers fighting at your side. You could pretty easily screw things up and alienate people!

And this whole complicated little episode is, of course, like 0.5% of this entire game. It’s still too early to render judgment, but so far, Dragon Age is on track to be the best-written, the subtlest, video game I’ve ever played.

16 comments

Distant poles at last can touch
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Riding the wave of poetry-related posts, here comes Helen Vendler’s review of John Ashbery’s newest book, Planisphere:

Ashbery’s conjuring mind is full of huge amounts of information — philology, movies, Old French, camp slang, archaeology, cartoons, the poetry of the ages, bibliography, Victoriana, television ads and more…

Ashbery has always liked to play games on many planes. This volume is an “A to Z” of life (like the guidebook line, “London A to Z”): we know this because the titles are arranged in alphabetical order, from “Alcove” to “Zymurgy” (“the chemistry of fermentation in brewing” — not a bad description of the making of a poem). Overturning clichés is another familiar Ashberian game: we’re not startled when someone says “King Alfonso of Spain,” but we are when we hear “Alphonse I of Bemidji.” The bane of language, for Ashbery as for Flaubert, is the “received idea” — the idea everyone mouths and takes for granted…

In his rendering of American speech, slang, cliché, Ashbery has surpassed most of his contemporaries. But his persistent reach into the “rut” of tradition should not be forgotten. He could say (with the great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío) that he is very 18th century and very archaic and very modern, daring and cosmopolitan. When he becomes most serious, it is in the presence of either catastrophe or truth. His onslaughts of tragedy, emotional or physical, are of geological force while not relinquishing the vocabulary of irony: “and the land mass teeters once more, crashing / out of gloaming onto the floor near your heels.” As for truth, it always hovers out of reach: he speaks of “today’s version of the truth,” on which “The enamel is just not going to keep.” Or, in a more sinister vein, the desired truth “just kind of sails overhead / like a turkey vulture, on parenthetical wing, / empty as a cupboard.”

So you have some actual poetry to look at, here’s an excerpt from and a link to Ashbery’s “The Burden of the Park“, from 1998:

Each is truly a unique piece,
you said, or, perhaps, each
is a truly unique piece.
I sniff the difference.
It’s like dust in an old house,
or the water thereof. Then you come
to an exciting part.
The bandit affianced
to the blind man’s daughter. The mangel-wurzels
that come out of every door, salute the traveller
and are gone. Or the more melting pace of strolling players,
each with a collapsed sweetie on his arm, each
tidy as one’s idea of everything under the sun is tidy.
And the wolverines
return, with their coach, and night,
the black bat night, is blacker than any bat.

Just so you know, this is the falling-off place,
for the water, where damsels stroll and uncles
know a good thing when they see one.
The park is all over.
It isn’t a knee injury, or a postage stamp on Mars.
It is all of the above, and some other things too:
a nameless morning in May fielded by taut observers.
An inner tube on a couch.

In the same journal issue as this poem, Marjorie Perloff (probably the only poetry critic as respected as Helen Vendler) writes:

Now that academic critics, who, not so long ago, dismissed Ashbery’s poems as so much obscurantist doubletalk, have been forced to concede that the Ashberyan mode doesn’t seem to be going away, that, on the contrary, its particular modulation of voices and performative registers speaks to poetry audiences from Austria to Australia, a new explanatory narrative is in the making. According to this account, there’s nothing so unusual about Ashbery, who, so it now seems, has all along written under the sign of Eliot or Stevens, leaving Modernism firmly intact as the movement or epoch of choice, the movement from which no later twentieth-century poet (not even Ashbery) can actually deviate.

Perloff rejects this reading — the “tame” Romantic/Modernist Ashbery in these accounts ignores or erases anything that might be difficult or postmodern:

Ashbery attained almost no recognition prior to the publication of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, published in 1976 when the poet was fifty. It was only after the relatively accessible title poem of this volume became well-known, that the Establishment started to come around.

And even then, it had to do so by erasing such troubling volumes as The Tennis Court Oath (1962), and, in Longenbach’s case (see ALH 114), As We Know (1979), Shadow Train (1981), and that loose baggy monster Flow Chart (1991). Indeed, the “acceptable” poems, both for [James] Longenbach and [Vernon] Shetley almost always come from The Double Dream of Spring (1970), which contains the lyrics like “Soonest Mended,” most readily assimilable to a Modernist poetic.

The most egregious example of this erasure belongs to Shetley, who writes that “”Ashbery did not appear in the leading antiformalist anthology, Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry.” Perloff counters:

This last sentence, I must admit, took my breath away when I read it because it is of course incorrect. Ashbery is very much included in Allen’s anthology (he gets ten pages), even though in 1959, when The New American Poetry was put together, he had published only one book, Some Trees (1956). Far from being a casual error, Shetley’s is highly revealing: it indicates that he has never so much as leafed through Allen’s groundbreaking anthology.

But what’s even more amazing is that Ashbery is able to pull this stuff off. He’s lived and written through more avant-garde and revanchist movements than one can count, and somehow hovered at the margins of all of them. Like progressives who thought Obama didn’t really mean his campaign promises to expand the war in Afghanistan, traditionalist critics can look at Ashbery’s postmodernism without really seeing it. Likewise, post-avant critics can look at Ashbery’s traditionalism and see ONLY postmodernism. He is all things to all people, the only poet equally embraced by the Vendlers and Perloffs, Blooms and Sillimans, for completely different reasons.

In 1909, when Swinburne died, Yeats ruefully joked, “Now I am king of the cats.” Right now, Ashbery is king of the cats among poets the English-speaking world — and I don’t know who could claim to replace him.

2 comments

The post-newspaper city
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Andrew points me to a Richard Rodriguez essay in Harper’s on the newspaper and the city. Andrew’s pull is a great line: “When a newspaper dies in America, it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed.”

For me, this is the truest line in the essay: “We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper.” And this is the most false or misleading: “If the San Francisco Chronicle is near death… it is because San Francisco’s sense of itself as a city is perishing.”

The gap between these two statements is huge. It can be true – and I believe it is true – that the relationship between newspapers and their host cities has shifted, and that in very many cases the daily newspaper no longer reflects citizens’ sense of their place. Rodriguez lovingly describes the 19th-century newspaper and the San Francisco Chronicle of his youth; what he describes seems vastly different from the functions served by the daily newspaper today. We’ve experienced a profound change in the relationship between a newspaper and its readers’ geographic identities.

However, one cannot and ought not to conclude that the absence of this reflection implies that our sense of place has simply vanished. Yet that’s what Rodriguez does:

The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with “I.” Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin’s wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from presence, from city…

We will end up with one and a half cities in America—Washington, D.C., and American Idol. We will all live in Washington, D.C., where the conversation is a droning, never advancing, debate between “conservatives” and “liberals.” We will not read about newlyweds. We will not read about the death of salesmen… We already live in the America of USA Today, which appears, unsolicited, in a plastic chrysalis suspended from your doorknob at a Nebraska Holiday Inn or a Maine Marriott. We check the airport weather. We fly from one CNN Headline News monitor to another. We end up where we started.

There are several ironies in this. First, the daily omnibus paper that Rodriguez praises in his hymn to the local itself already obliterated locality. The citywide daily asks readers to identify beyond their own neighborhoods, thinking of themselves as part of an imagined community called San Francisco. The death of neighborhood and foreign-language and political newspapers likewise pushed towards a cosmopolitanism within the polis.

Second, it’s more likely that a range of other media have taken over this identity-mirroring function from the newspaper — local identity has simply been displaced, not imploded. Here’s a candidate: the alt-weekly. As high-circulation dailies increasingly target suburban readers — those Silicon Valley upstarts Rodriguez is so anxious about — they become, again, less rooted in the daily life of a city than the smaller, more targeted local papers. Our identities didn’t simply drift away from the big dailies; they were pried away by hungry upstarts who offered a different, more useful, perhaps more compelling vision of the city.

The internet, too, offers us a sense of the local as well as the cosmopolitan. Rodriguez hints at this with an anecdote about Craigslist (a San Francisco institution if ever there was one):

The colleague I am meeting for coffee tells me (occasioned by my puzzlement at the wi-fi séance) that more and more often he is finding sex on Craigslist. As you know better than I do, one goes to Craigslist to sell or to buy an old couch or a concert ticket or to look for a job. But also to arrange for sexual Lego with a body as free of narrative as possible. (Im bored 26-Oakland-east.)

This might not be a sense of locality Rodriguez wishes to endorse, but you can’t tell me, after long paragraphs about Rolling Stone and the 60s sexual revolution, that you blame Craigslist for turning San Francisco into a place where people seek anonymous sex. That, too, is part of the texture of a place.

The final irony is that the mobile internet, which for Rodriguez suggests only the possibility of transcending the long ride on the Geary St bus, offers the greatest promise of restoring the local. I’m thinking of sites like Yelp, that augment the yellow pages with reviews and commentary from our actual neighbors. What’s more, with GPS, we can access this information as a function of our physical proximity to these places. We become more than just obituaries and directory listings; we become living people, navigating through live, dynamic space.

So on the one hand, Rodriguez is right. Most of us probably don’t think of the newspaper as a city anymore, or vice versa. What we’ve replaced it with, though, is no less rooted in the physical or the local as what came before; if anything, it’s simply easier for us to balance our cosmopolitanism (which was always an outstanding possibility in the world of print) with our locality — like the body, like pain, that most persistent of actualities. Wherever you go, there you are.

3 comments

Building communities: Introducing Bookfuturism.com
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In the fall of 2006, I was in a bad rut. An experiment in home ownership had gone disastrously awry and my dissertation advisor had split Penn for Princeton. I spent most of my time watching Star Wars and playing Sudoku, trying to ignore the horrible stomach pains I had, which took months of tests and medicines to finally diagnose. I was cut off from everyone, adrift in my goals, and in danger of lapsing into what could have been serious depression.

One of the things that pulled me out of that funk was a local web site called Young Philly Politics. The site had been a group blog of some friends, just out of college, most of them, who had been involved in the Howard Dean campaign in 2004 and an effort to upend the local DA in a primary challenge. Before the mayoral primary, they relaunched the site to allow anyone to create a profile and start posting to the blog. Many of the posters were this core group of young progressives, some were hacks and astroturf plants working for the various campaigns, many were cranks — and still others were like me, people who were highly interested in the outcome of the primary but who hadn’t had much direct experience in Philadelphia electoral politics.

Before long, state reps and city councilmen, most of the political reporters for local papers and radio, and even some of the mayoral candidates were posting and commenting on the site. We all had candidates we liked (and some we didn’t) and issues we pushed — even within a community as seemingly heterogeneous as progressive bloggers, we had huge areas of disagreement, and the debate got fierce. Sometimes you would find allies, whether over issues or over a general approach, a way of writing about the world. That winter and spring, my best friends in the world were people I had never met.

And — it didn’t matter who you were or what your credentials were. If you wrote a thoughtful, well-argued post, it got on the front page, which meant that everyone saw it. That was the motivation to say more, to do better. I was briefly famous among politicians and journalists because I wrote some really good posts about local tax issues, and one about nativist attitudes in Philadelphia politics. I didn’t work for a campaign, or a newspaper. I just wrote my ass off. Where else is that even possible?

This, to me, is the beauty of writing for blogs, and for Twitter. With time, hard work, and a few pieces of great writing, it doesn’t matter who you work for, what you do, or where you went to school. You can rub elbows with famous writers, talk shop with people who work for your favorite magazines, and wind up getting written up in the newspaper. It’s not a meritocracy. But it offers great meritocratic possibilities. And maybe even more importantly, it offers a promise of community.

For the past few months, I’ve written here extensively on the past, present, and future of reading. By plugging away at it, I feel like I’ve learned a tremendous amount about it, through the act of writing itself. I’ve also met many brilliant and like-minded people who are trying to sort this out. I’ve tried to articulate both what’s wrong with how we usually talk about reading technologies (whether past or present), and stake out the basic principles of some alternatives. At every step, I’ve benefited from critical and complementary comments and cross-posts; in some cases, I feel like I’ve helped to spark discussions and ideas in others.

Today, I launched a project that I hope will take this further. It’s called Bookfuturism.com.

The basic premise of Bookfuturism.com is that it’s like The Daily Kos, TPM Café, or yes, Young Philly Politics for book and media nerds. Anyone can create an account and begin creating content, whether blog posts, book pages, links to important stories, or commentary on another user’s entries. It has no institutional or corporate sponsorship or structure. All it has are a bunch of men and women who care passionately about reading and writing and want to understand its future, so they can be a part of it.

It’s a commons, which means it’s a place to share news and ideas and to collaborate on projects. There’s already one project underway — a collection of essays on the future of reading edited by Clusterflock’s Andrew Simone — that’s being developed in partnership with the site. Some of the contributors — I’m one of them — are going to write our entries in public and incorporate feedback from the community before we ship it off to be printed, as a real, live physical book. (Bookfuturists love paper and print. As Robin Sloan has said, books are great techné.) And we have other collaborations already in the works, from meetups to conferences to reading groups. If you’re interested in reading and technology, this will be the place to be.

Books are a privileged object, even in the digital world, but I also want to try to include reading of all kinds. Journalism is likewise an important example, as are blogs and web sites. But so are text messages, street signs, video games, comic books, technical manuals, restaurant menus, and medical forms. In our hyperliterate culture, reading is everywhere — and everywhere it’s in flux.

I also want Bookfuturism.com to be a kind of social network for Bookfuturists like me. There are clear markets for writing by technological triumphalists (I call these guys and girls technofuturists) and doomsayers (when it comes to reading, this group can be called bookservatives). It’s easy to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to new technology; it’s a lot harder to try to engage with its strengths and weaknesses, to think of ways it could work better, to situate it in history, to study its effect on a culture.

Bookfuturists, though, being equally people of the screen and the page, who know that both screens and pages are as varied and self-differentiated as the act of reading itself, are well situated to offer those readings. However, our status as members of two worlds makes it hard for us. We’re the humanists who can’t put down our iPhones, the tech geeks who read Proust. We don’t fit in at the faculty club or at a technology trade show. We have a hard time explaining to our friends and families why we collect card catalogs and buy two copies of used books — one to read, another to feed to the two-sided scanner. We’re the nerds among nerds.

This is also why I wanted to start this site. Because — and this might sound hokey, but I mean every word of it — there’s no reason why any of us should ever feel alone.

I hope you’ll come by, create an account, and start writing. If you have a blog of your own already, feel free to cross-post or link to your site. (Some of you might be clever enough to automate this.) If you don’t, but have something to say about all this, this is a great time to start one.

You can also post links to stories, blog posts, product reviews, and new books that you think this community shouldn’t miss. (One of the great things about Young Philly Politics was that during the run-up to the primary, it was hands down the best news site in town – period.) This should be the place you go for news on reading technology. At least, I’m going to do my best to make it so.

It’s an exciting time for reading now, because everything is in flux. Soon, you might be able to read magazines on a Hulu-like site on your gorgeous Apple tablet. Giants of publishing will continue to fall. Others will vie to replace them. Amazon and Barnes & Noble will sort out the pricing and compensation market for e-books, and publishers will figure out when to release them. Book piracy might go mainstream.

And yes, human nature itself might change.

It’s all happening now. I’m just glad we get to see it.

4 comments

The secret levers of Condé Nast power
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Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch has the skinny on why magazine publishers are pushing for a “Hulu for magazines” to get magazines on the iPhone:

Why are these print publishers reinventing the digital wheel? A popular app store already exists. It’s called iTunes. And people don’t mind paying for apps there. By creating their own app store, the magazine publishers can avoid paying Apple its 30 percent cut of sales. But that’s not the real reason.

The real reason they want their own store is the customer data. Magazine companies may look like paper companies, with a little art direction thrown in. But at their core, magazine companies are database companies. The way they make money is by knowing who their readers are and marketing to them by where they live and who they are. For nearly every subscriber, they have a credit card number. And they have whole departments which do nothing but massage the data to figure out who to target for advertising purposes and where the profits are. I’ve seen this machine in action. The database people hold the secret levers of power inside magazine companies.

This shouldn’t be a revelation, but it feels like one: nobody working in print media makes money by selling print media. Newspapers sell advertising, bookstores sell coffee and calendars, popular novelists sell movie options, less-popular novelists sell creative writing classes, popular nonfiction writers sell lecture appearances, less-popular nonfiction writers sell humanities seminars, Ben Franklin sold bookplates, and magazines sell subscriber data. It all makes the movie industry’s reliance on box office and DVD sales seem downright purist, even after you consider product placement and crossover merchandizing.

Also worth noting: the fact that magazines’ core business lies in massaging and selling subscriber data makes them pretty good candidates to thrive on the web, once they get their s— together. That’s where the real money and potential for growth is on the internet, too.

5 comments

Embracing eclecticism
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Following Anjali’s suggestion, I steered over to this post, “Bookshops are not dead. Long may it remain so.” Like me, James Higgs reacted negatively to Basheera Khan’s “No more bookshops? Good riddance.” There are some really good points in Higgs’s criticism, and I particularly like this one:

The binding and physical form of the book is an intrinsic part of its content, rather like the frame in a Howard Hodgkin painting. (Another example: James Joyce once made a fuss over the size of a full-stop in Ulysses.) You very much should judge a book by its cover.

Saying that a book can be reduced to a screen is the same thing as saying that a JPEG of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is as good as the original. Thank heavens when we won’t be made to traipse around a physical space, but can have master works beamed into our houses, eh?

This, I think, is one of the major tensions the e-book will have to resolve, or at least develop alternative solutions to, in the years to come. Do we want a perfectly fungible object that the reader is free to resize and redesign according to their own tastes and needs, or do we want a through-designed, screen-independent object that preserves the aesthetic and visual choices of the author and designer? I don’t think that digital can’t do the latter — take a look at iTunes’s recent attempts to bring back album art with iTunes LP, which beats the restricted visuals of the CD, at least. But e-books to date have largely not provided for that possibility, have not sought to create those kinds of objects. Which gives printed books the aesthetic high ground.

My bigger worry, though, with criticisms like Higgs’s, is the following:

  1. “the experience of reading a book is fundamentally different from reading a text on a reading device. Many – and I’d contend that these are mainly people who are not compulsive readers – will not care about this distinction, but this is the market that successful booksellers are targeting.”
  2. “Borders and Books etc are in trouble because they are not good bookshops. There is little to distinguish one shop from the next and, on the whole, their staff are not knowledgeable about the books they sell. They clearly don’t read reviews, or subscribe to major literary periodicals.”
  3. Most people don’t read seriously, and for them, these arguments will make no sense. But for the millions of people who do read compulsively, eReaders are not going to be universally welcomed.”

Now, I don’t care about the elitism in Higgs’s arguments. I’m an elitist reader, too, and I probably like the same books that he likes and would like the same bookshops and be frustrated by the same things in other readers. I do, however, object to the assumptions that

  1. the kinds of texts you like are inherently connected to the kinds of technology you like;
  2. that people who prefer either texts or technologies different from those you prefer are not “real” readers, not committed or compulsive or serious readers;
  3. that the class of readers you belong to is uniquely positioned to determine what the future of reading will look like, or at least ought to.

It’s this argument from authenticity that bothers me most. What’s more, it’s the same trick Khan tries to pull in her post; Khan thinks that “serious readers” would rather carry a thousand books than a handful, that they prefer the library to the bookshop — in short, that they look and act like she does.

I will say it again: reading includes many, many, many things, in every context. If we’re serious about charting the future of reading, rather than advocating for our particular preferences, we have to try to understand and account for all of them, and to do so with as few assumptions and as much good faith and openness to possibility as we can.

After all, the fact that a JPEG of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is fundamentally different from and not as good as the original is only an argument for preserving paintings; it isn’t an argument for abolishing JPEGs of them, or caring about their quality.

13 comments

Saving more than just face
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If you’re at all interested in the health-care debate, especially if you’re coming from the progressive/liberal side of things, Ezra Klein’s reporting on his blog for the Washington Post is just essential. Klein just owns this beat, and every day he posts something from academia to think tanks to Congress that makes me think.

One recent post is especially outstanding. Most people know that the big debate right now is over the public option. Most liberal and progressive Democrats — and, um, more than half of all Americans — want some kind of public health care plan available. Some want a really robust plan, and want to fight for it; some just want something, anything, that could compete with private plans and maybe be built on for later. But most moderate Democrats and Republicans — and, um, the health care industry — don’t want the federal government in the health care business at all. So they are working to either strip the measure out of health care reform completely, reduce the scope and availability of the plan to make it as toothless as possible, or holding out for some other bribes concession to health care interests in their states.

But even if the public option has the highest profile of health-care reform measures (whether for or against), there’s lots of other less-sexy stuff that boosts access and reduces costs/prices. A little while ago, Klein asked an important question: if you give away the public option, what do you get? The thinking here is that a super-stripped-down state-run plan that can’t bargain like Medicare and is only available to a handful of people years from now isn’t automatically worth going to the mattresses for just to have something that bears the name “public option.” So instead of fighting for that idea (which the Republicans and many Democrats insist on fighting tooth-and-nail against), you use it as a bargaining chip, trading it away from something that can offer more bang for your political (and actual) buck.

For instance, instead of a state option for people on the exchange to buy into, which can’t negotiate like Medicare, Congress could allow everyone over the age of 55 to buy into Medicare itself. Klein:

The older you get, the tougher it is to find affordable insurance. Private insurers avoid you like the plague or jack your rates sky-high. Some of that will change with health-care reform. Insurers won’t be able to reject older Americans outright, for instance. But they’ll still be able to charge them quite a bit more than younger Americans pay.

One way to ease the situation for older Americans would be to let them buy into Medicare. Medicare negotiates far better rates than private insurers, making it a potentially cheaper option. Moreover, folks over 55 will be in Medicare fairly soon anyway, so this allows for not only better insurance, but more continuity in insurance, which means more continuity in doctors, preventive treatment, etc. This idea was present in Max Baucus’s original white paper, and even in Howard Dean’s 2004 health-care reform plan. It’s due for a comeback.

Another idea (none of these are either/or, by the way): you could likewise expand Medicaid, to cover everyone who lives below 150 percent of the poverty line. In those two strokes, you’ve extended Actually Existing Single-Payer Health Care to the two groups of Americans (the old and the poor) who have the hardest time finding and paying for decent private insurance.

But what about small businesses, and the self-employed? They have a hard time bargaining for good insurance too. Here’s another idea, that achieves all of the goals of the public option without being called or strictly structured as a public option:

Currently, insurance plans are regulated by the states, which means they’re different in every state. That makes it hard for them to achieve certain efficiencies of scale or maximize their leverage against providers. But back in September, I noticed a promising provision in Max Baucus’s draft that would allow for national insurance plans, so long as they met a minimum level of federal regulation. That seemed like a potentially huge change, but I never heard another word about it, so I let it go.

The compromise being discussed is built atop that provision. The idea is that the Office of Personnel Management would choose nonprofit plans that met national standards and offer them on every state exchange (unless states opted out). These plans would be private, but the OPM would act as an aggressive purchaser, ensuring that they met high standards and conducted themselves properly. It’s a private option with a public filter, essentially. But more importantly, it’s a menu of national, nonprofit plans, which would be much more interesting from a competitive standpoint than state-based, public plans.

There’s a great scene in The Fog of War where Robert McNamara talks about how he and the other folks in Kennedy’s war room realized that Khruschev didn’t want to go to nuclear war; he just wanted a scenario where he could say, “the United States was going to destroy Cuba, and I prevented it!” The US didn’t need to invade Havana or drop bombs on Stalingrad to get that result. They could get greater concessions more safely if they didn’t do those things.

Likewise, I wonder — if we give those punk-ass anti-reform moderates the ability to say, “the Obama administration was going to institute socialized medicine, and I prevented it!”, would that be worth it if we could actually get more people better health care more cheaply without it? I think I might take that deal. I bet the pragmatic tactician in Obama might, too — which is why even as he’s pushed for the public option, he’s always left himself some wiggle room.

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The tidal bore of meaning
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Stanislas Dehaene tries to explain how when we read a word, the brain gathers and relays information to multiple networks:

Take the verb “bite.” As you remember what it means, your mind briskly evokes the body parts involved: the mouth and teeth, their movements, and perhaps also the pain associated with being bitten. All of these fragments of gesture, motion, and sensation are bound together under the heading “bite.” This link works in both directions: we pronounce the word whenever we talk about this peculiar series of events, but to hear or read the word brings on a swarm of meanings…

Perhaps the easiest way to describe how activation spreads through the dozens of fragments of meaning dispersed in the brain is to compare it to a tidal bore. Some rivers are subject, twice a day, at high tide, to a peculiar phenomenon whereby the leading edge of a massive wave reaches deep into their estuaries. If conditions are right, the wave can travel dozens of miles upstream. No salt water ever reaches this far inland—the tidal bore simply relays a distant rise in water level that spreads in synchrony into the river’s entire system. Only an airplane or satellite can get the true measure of this beautiful natural phenomenon. For a few minutes, a whole network of streams is simultaneously swollen by a powerful surge of water, simply because they all flow into the same sea.

A written or spoken word probably activates fragments of meaning in the brain in much the same way that a tidal bore invades a whole riverbed. If you compare a word like “cheese” with a non-word like “croil,” the only difference lies in the size of the cortical tidal wave that they can bring on. A known word resonates in the temporal lobe networks and produces a massive wave of synchronized oscillations that rolls through millions of neurons. This tidal bore goes even as far as the more distant regions of the cortex as it successively contacts the many assemblies of neurons that each encode a fragment of the word’s meaning. An unknown word, however, even if it gets through the first stages of visual analysis, finds no echo in the cortex and the wave it triggers is quickly broken down into inarticulate cerebral foam.

What a metaphor! A wave, like a thought, consists of countless micro-events which appear to us as a single complex phenomenon. If a stray thought is a wave, then reading is the wave of waves, transversing a network of networks — or a tidal bore.

Which reminds me: So far in the book, Dehaene hasn’t talked about how the brain processes metaphor. It might not be directly tied to reading, but man, I’d love to hear what he has to say. Until then, I guess I’m sticking with that other great French neuroscientist, Marcel Proust.

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The gay decade
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In the struggle for gay equality (especially marriage equality), the aughts have been the equivalent of the anti-segregation ’50s. Matt Sigl starts with Lawrence v. Texas and rolls from there:

In 2001 The Netherlands (of course) were the first nation in the world to recognize same-sex marriage. In 2003 Ontario followed suit, with Canada granting universal marriage rights to all citizens in 2005. By the end of the decade seven different countries (including South Africa!) have full legal marriage for same-sex couples. Many others have newly enacted civil union laws. And in America, after the shackles of legal and institutionalized homophobia were loosened with Lawrence, same-sex marriage became, just as Scalia predicted, not a lofty dream but a logical necessity and social inevitability. Within six months of the Lawrence decision the ice had thawed enough to allow for the Supreme Court of Massachusetts to demand the that Bay State offer the same marriage license to all its inhabitants, gay or straight.

I’d much rather the aughts be remembered as the Gay Decade than the Hipster Decade.

Both links via Sullivan.

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