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

Who'd invent a job like that?

My first impulse was to post these things separately—so I decided to combine them instead. I’m pretty sure they are quite unrelated, but perhaps the illusion of connection will make some interesting things happen in your brain.

Here goes:


The writer David Markson died. Sarah Weinman has a terrific post about him, as well as pointers to other terrific posts. She says:

In a way, David Markson needed the Internet, or more accurately, vice versa, to find his rightful place in the literary world. Quotation approprations, short declarative sentences, quick bursts with acres of thought, meditation on artists and writers at work, and a tremendous study of consciousness marked Markson’s output since WITTGENSTEIN’S MISTRESS (1988) opened with the phrase “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.” And as our collective attention spans decreased and dovetailed from mass-market pursuits, there was Markson to clue us in to something greater, more amorphous perhaps, but something that pinged the outer reaches of what he termed “seminonfictional semi-fictions.”

I mean: exactly, right? I’d love to know if Markson used the web much, and/or what he thought of it. Because Sarah is right: his books read like refractions of everything we’re worried (and excited) about right now, right here, on these screens.

Now: if “artists and writers at work” is a subject that appeals to you, I want to specifically recommend The Last Novel. It’s short. It’s declarative and bursty, as Sarah says. It feels good in the hand. It’s one of the few books in the universe I’ve read more than twice. And I think it should be required reading for writers, designers, and makers of all stripes.

I have a secret agenda, of course: I want David Markson’s books to last a thousand years. In order for that to happen, Team Markson needs to grow. You need to fall in love with one of his books, too, and pass it on.


Maybe I’ve said this before in some other post, but let me say it now, on its own and clearly: my single favorite characteristic of the iPhone and the iPad alike is the full bleed.

I mean, finally: no more windows! Death to the desktop! Goodbye to all that—on the iPad and the iPhone (and, to be fair, on game consoles and some other things, too) every experience gets the entire screen, edge to edge. This is a big deal. The difference between this picture…


…and this picture…


…is not ten or twenty percent. It’s everything. It’s the difference between being on your computer, watching a video—and being in Mr. Fox’s den.

There’s an analogy to that argument from Chris Anderson: the difference between one cent and free is not one cent. It’s an order of magnitude, a step function. It’s everything.

Full bleed means you can dim the lights. Full bleed means you get to set the rules. Full bleed means you get my full attention (and not just for video, either). Full bleed short-circuits the cruel clicky calculus of the web. Thank goodness.


A little while ago, on a lark, I watched Three Days of the Condor on Netflix. (By the way, have you seen this deck on Netflix’s present and future? It’s basically all about people streaming Three Days of the Condor, and movies like it, on a lark.)

If you haven’t seen it: it’s a muted spy thriller from 1975. Robert Redford plays a CIA employee—well, here’s how he explains it:

Listen. I work for the CIA. I’m not a spy. I just read books. We read everything that’s published in the world, and we—we feed the plots—dirty tricks, codes into a computer, and the computer checks against actual CIA plans and operations. I look for leaks, new ideas. We read adventures and novels and journals. I—I can—who’d invent a job like that? I—listen! People are trying to kill me!

I mean: exactly, right?


There are no explosions, and only a few bullets. There’s some great whirring-clanking computer analysis, and some even better phone-system hacking.

The movie reminded me—no surprise—of All the President’s Men, which is one of my all-time favorites. So here’s what I want to know:

  • Is this genre of muted mid-70s suspense movie (optionally starring Robert Redford) a recognized thing? Does it have a name and/or a key director?
  • What haven’t I seen? (Hint: I’ve only seen the two I just mentioned.)
  • And here’s the really urgent question: why don’t they make these anymore? I like them so much, and it’d be so do-able. Talk about low-budget; they’re basically set in offices. You could shoot one on a Canon 5D Mark II. All the nerds would watch it.


Really. The Last Novel.


The Mongoliad

Noted: The Mongoliad, “a sort of serialized story” for the iPad, iPhone, Kindle and Android written by Neal Stephenson and others. Not yet available; you can bet I’ll keep an eye on it.

One comment

iPad Typography

Hey, you know what I wish the iPad had? More fonts! And a more flexible, powerful typography system in general. Like, a typography system to make the calligraphy-loving Steve Jobs of 1984 proud.

(Also, simulated 3D page-flips are lame. But this has been well-established with more skillful arguments than this one.)

Still pretty excited to a) get an iPad, and b) make something for the iPad. But it’s gonna be a little while yet.


Why books on the iPad just might work

Philips Wants Us To Know That They’re Ready fo...
Image by John Federico via Flickr

In the past month or so, since Apple’s iPad was announced, there’s been an increasing pushback against the idea that the tablet will be a meaningful stand-in for a dedicated e-reader. In particular, it seems to have really disappointed folks in the e-reading/publishing/new media community, many of whom expected a lot from the Jesus tablet — in some cases expected diametrically opposed things. It’s more ambient complaints than a specific detailed argument, but the general beef goes something like this:

  1. iBooks is an afterthought, it’s US only and doesn’t even come pre-installed;
  2. Nobody’s going to want to read a book when they’re constantly tempted to check their mail, play games, and browse the internet instead;
  3. A lot of the “enhanced ebook” demos so far look pretty crummy (this unites folks who prefer plain-text and people who wanted enhanced books to be more interactive);
  4. It’s a closed system, which means Apple controls it, Apple could censor what you read, and keep you from taking your books anywhere else;
  5. Nobody reads anymore anyway / Big-time e-readers have already invested in their Kindles / Real readers like print.

Now if you’re playing along at home, with the exception of the first, none of these criticisms are really iPad-specific. #2 is the supposed reason people don’t and won’t read on their laptops or smartphones, #3 is the criticism of early efforts at interactive books on the web or CD-ROM, #4 is the iPod, and #5 is just a repurposed version of the anti-Kindle argument, except here it’s strangely (but only occasionally) mounted in defense of the Kindle.

So here’s my argument as to why books on this thing will work. It doesn’t have much to do with the future of Flash or HTML 5 video (or any of the other stuff brainy futurist web people think about), the agency vs retail model of selling books (or any of the other stuff brainy futurist publishing folks spend a lot of time thinking about) or with the future of multimedia unbooks (or any of the other stuff brainy futurist new media folks spend a lot of time thinking about). It’s all based on my imagined psycho-anthropology of an average iPad user.

I’ll start with an axiom. The iPad is not intended to be an ebook reader, or even a music or movie player, or even really a cloudbook. In fact, it’s better if you stop thinking about it in terms of the kind of media you’d like to play or create on it at all. It’s not really about that. Or rather, media is only incidental to it.

It’s better if you start thinking about it in terms of the geography of the human body. This is how the iPhone worked. It had great software, handled all sorts of different kinds of media. But its real success in incorporating all of those different media, and different applications, is that it conquered what had been a highly competitive place on the human body. It conquered your pocket.

It’s not all that different from the kitchen gadgets we see advertised on late-night TV. “You can get rid of all of these gadgets, replace them with the ______, and finally get your counter space back!” It’s weird because we don’t think about our computing devices this way. But that’s really how they work.

The iPad obviously can’t fit into your pocket. And Apple wants you to keep your iPhone there. No. The iPad wants to conquer your backpack.

It wants you to leave your laptop, your books, your magazines, your notebooks, your portable DVD player, your netbook, your Kindle all at home. Or it wants you to never buy them. It wants to monopolize your mobile bag. If not at the airport, then definitely for short trips.

Now, let’s say I buy the first-gen, cheapest available iPad, the model that comes with 8GB 16GB of memory and Wi-Fi only. What is the geography of this device? I could use it at home, as a second computer, especially if I don’t have a laptop. But if I do have a laptop, either the laptop or the iPad may begin to feel redundant. The iPad’s superior portability suggests that it’s best used as a portable device.

But unless you sprung that extra dough for 3G, or you’ve got a local café with decent free wi-fi, you’re stuck with whatever you’ve got on packed away in local storage on the device already. This might be a movie, sure, or music, or a video game. But you don’t have very much room for a lot of any of these things. The only thing you really have a lot of room for is text.

(This is actually why I suspect plain-jane, text-only books are going to have a long life as the de facto default for a while. Dedicated reading machines like the Kindle or Nook can’t support anything else, and more versatile portables like the iPad don’t have the built-in memory or everywhere-internet to support a whole library of these things. Add our inertial devotion to document formats like PDF and it may be a very long time before multimedia books or magazines become mainstream items.)

Now, video games are a good example of another phenomenon that bodes well for books on the iPad. I’m going to call this “the principle of adjacent media.” Here’s the theory. When you buy a heavily multifunctional device, you usually have a fairly limited set of things you’d like to do with it. For instance, when I bought my iPhone, I wasn’t really in the market for a video game machine. I wanted something like could make calls, keep up with email and my calendar, browse the internet, maybe play music and show photos and maybe even read some books. I like video games, but I was pretty much web- and console-only; I never even had a Gameboy, or bought a game for my computer. In other words, video games had no claim on my pocket. But soon enough, I said, what the heck, and bought a few games for my iPhone.

That’s what’s going to happen to books on the iPad. For every user who does a bunch of reading on their iPad, you’re going to get a dozen who are going to buy books based on the “what-the-heck” factor. It’ll be better than buying a book in an airport, or at a shopping mall. The store will be right there. There will be several of them. (iBooks, Kindle, B&N and more will all have apps.)

And I bet that the relative weakness of the entry-level devices, the low memory and lack of 3G internet, will all actually drive iPad owners towards reading. First it will conquer their bags. And when they run out of internet, then they won’t have anything else to do.

(That, at least, is my wholly speculative theory about the whole thing.)


QWERTY, your day has come

This just occurred to me, and I’m curious to know if you think it’s even halfway plausible. Let me walk you through my thought process:

  • The iPhone and the iPad both have software keyboards. The underlying assumption is that it’s gross and wasteful to dedicate all those atoms to this thing that you only use 10% of the time or less.
  • As a bonus, a software keyboard makes internationalization easier. Manufacturing is 100% the same; you just change the code.
  • I’ve gotten good at typing on the iPhone, and I expect I’ll adapt to the iPad, too… but something about that wide flat expanse, and the angle at which it sits—you’ll have to rest it on your lap to type, right?—does seem inherently fungly.
  • Wait a minute. It’s a software keyboard. And if you can load up a different language, couldn’t you load up a different keyboard entirely? A different way to type?
  • I’m not talking Dvorak. I’m talking something wacky like chording. I’m talking some serious Minority Report business here.
  • The failure of alternative typing scheme is well-chronicled. But doesn’t the iPad change the equation entirely? You could seamlessly experiment and fall back to a standard keyboard if you got too frustrated, or if you were in a hurry. Other users could switch over to a standard keyboard instead of being stuck with your chorded monster. You could even—this is the cool part—design a chorded keyboard that coached you along the way! The keyboard could be on your team.

Put all those things together, and you’ve finally got an environment where other typing systems could make inroads. I don’t know about you, but the elegance of the iPad’s interface make QWERTY typing seem especially clunky to me. Imagine, instead, a system that actually took advantage of the multi-touch screen. And imagine a system that put tons of intelligence in the keyboard itself.

So all Apple has to do is make the iPad keyboard a modular, customizable element. What do you think? What are the odds?


'The music's not in the piano'

I like Howard’s take on the iPad a lot—he describes it not as a device but almost as an undevice. And I like this bit:

In the middle 1980s, [computer pioneer Alan] Kay visited Alaska for a lecture and was interviewed in the Anchorage Daily News, articulating intoxicating ideas that helped awaken me to the brewing information revolution. He was careful even then to caution against focusing too much on devices. “The music’s not in the piano,” he said. “If it was, we’d have to let it vote.”

The music’s not in the piano! That’s mantra-worthy.


A new class of content for a new class of device

Let’s do this.

I want to talk about the iPad, but I’m going to start by talking about vlogs.

You know: videoblogs!

Rewind to 2005. Maybe your 2005 was different from mine, but I was working at an internet-centric cable TV network, and the world seemed to be saying one thing really loud: The revolution is here. We’ve got cheap cameras and cheap distribution. The era of the indie “web show” has arrived. Let a thousand videoblogs bloom!

Then they didn’t. Not really. Today the gear is even cheaper—HD Flipcams for like twelve bucks, right?—but we’ve got basically three web shows: Rocketboom, Epic Fu, and The Guild. (That’s cruel shorthand; if you are currently producing and/or starring in some other web show, I’m sorry. My argument demands ruthlessness.)

What happened?

Well, the web happened. YouTube happened. It turns out we weren’t wrong about the tools; we were wrong about the forms. We didn’t get a crisp catalog of indie web shows; we got a sprawling database of disconnected video clips.

Today on the web, on YouTube, a show just sort of dissolves into that database. To avoid that fate, it needs to be buoyed by big media; it needs to surf on the scarcity of TV time. A show needs a marketing budget to insist on its coherence. (Also, Hulu.)

None of this is a bad thing! I love the web-as-database; I love the wacky YouTube ecosystem. It’s like we grew a rainforest overnight.

But the point is, the web kinda hates bounded, holistic work. The web likes bits and pieces, cross-references and recommendations, fragments and tabs. Oh, and the web loves the fact that you’re reading this post in Google Reader.

Hold that thought.

Back in the day, when I was first getting to know my iPhone, I was surprised at how truly un-web-like it was. On the iPhone, you do one thing at a time and that one thing takes up the whole screen. Like nothing on the web, the iPhone is full-bleed.

You know what my favorite iPhone apps are? No joke: it’s stuff like this. Nobody’s made the multimedia manga or living-text novel of my dreams, so I’ve settled for The Wheels on the Bus. But it turns out that some of the stuff they’re doing with these kids’ apps—the way they’re mashing media and interactions together—is really slick.

And now this new device takes the iPhone’s virtues and scales them up—plus, no text messages while you’re reading. So more than anything else, the iPad looks to me like a focus machine. And it looks, therefore, like such an opportunity for storytelling, and for innovation around storytelling. It looks like an opportunity to make the Myst of 2010. (I don’t mean that literally. I only mean: wow, remember Myst? Remember how it was an utterly new kind of thing?)

Apple is great at inventing new devices, but it bums me out that they seem so content to fill those devices with the same same old stuff: TV shows, movies, music, and books. Books… in ePub format?

Apple: you did not invent a magical and revolutionary device so we could read books in ePub format.

Think about what the iPad really is! It’s the greatest canvas for media ever invented. It’s colorful, tactile, powerful, and programmable. It can display literally anything you can imagine; it can add sound and music; and it can feel you touching it. It’s light and (we are led to believe) comfortable in the hands. The Platonic Form of the Perfect Canvas is out there somewhere—it’s probably flexible… and it probably has a camera—but the iPad is, like, a really amazingly good shadow of that form. And this is just the first one!

So, we’re gonna use the Perfect Canvas to… watch TV shows?

Seriously: ePub?

Now, connect the dots. For all its power and flexibility, the web is really bad at presenting bounded, holistic work in a focused, immersive way. This is why web shows never worked. The web is bad at containers. The web is bad at frames.

Jeez, if only we had a frame.


So, to finish up: I think the young Hayao Miyazakis and Mark Z. Danielewskis and Edward Goreys of this world ought to be learning Objective-C—or at least making some new friends. Because this new device gives us the power and flexibility to realize a whole new class of crazy vision—and it puts that vision in a frame.

In five years, the coolest stuff on the iPad shouldn’t be Spider-Man 5, Ke$ha’s third album, or the ePub version of Annabel Scheme. If that’s all we’ve got, it will mean that Apple succeeded at inventing a new class of device… but we failed at inventing a new class of content.

In five years, the coolest stuff on the iPad should be… jeez, you know, I think it should be art.