Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Stuff for Twitterers

When people stop following you on Twitter, it's probably time to have a word with them.  Amit Agarwal's site suggests some options for finding out who they are, and has lots of other interesting stuff for Twitterers as well, including the "Twitter Guide"  and the indispensable Twitter Sheep, which creates a Wordle like tag cloud that describes your flock.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Best of the millenium, so far

For lovers of "best of" lists, TheMillions offers a juicy "Best of the millenium: Pros vs. Readers" list. The pros go for "The Corrections", while readers choose "The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."

In-page anchors on Google search results pages and (once again) CiteBite

Google has introduced some features on its search-result preview pages that take you directly  to the section of a page that contains the information you're (presumably) looking for. See examples at the Google blog.  The feature doesn't seem to be very well-developed yet, but it's a useful function...and one that has been available for several years (first reviewed here in 2/2007) to users of  CiteBite, a terrific tool that let's you add in-page precision to your own web referrals. For example, if you wanted to direct someone directly to Mark Twain's words regarding the opening of telegraph communications between Maine and San Francisco, which is at the very end of 1991 Vartan Gregorian speech, you could simply give them this link and take them directly to that part of the page. CiteBite also offers a bookmarklet or, if you're a Firefox user, an extension that enables you to generate a CiteBite link by highlighting and selecting CiteBite from the right-click menu. Very useful!

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Applications for annotating websites and adding interactivity to the web have been around for a while (e.g. Fleck, and Dispute Finder) without really catching on, but that may change now that Google has introduced Sidewiki. The feature is an addon for the "enhanced" Google toolbar; as Google will tell you, "For enhanced Toolbar features to work, Toolbar has to tell us what site you're visiting by sending Google the URL." That might be a privacy issue for some people. Sidewiki, PageRank, and future page-related services are all part of the enhanced Toolbar. Also, Sidewiki reportedly does not work in Google's own Chrome browser (!) Jeff Jarvis makes the interesting point that "Google is trying to take interactivity away from the source and centralize it", and - for a clear explanation of what Sidewiki is all about - I find Philip Lenssen at Blogoscoped is more informative than Google's own learn more page. It will be interesting to see how this develops; will it be a useful feature, or will it merely generate even more worthless noise? Two years ago, Google introduced commenting on its news site, but only for a special subset of readers: those people or organizations who were actual participants in the story in question.(that feature never made much of a splash, and I can find no longer find any trace of it at the news.google.com.) Now, in the Web2.0 spirit, everyone is being invited to add their 2 cents.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Laughter and forgetting

There's an amusing - if somewhat catty- review by Michael Wood of Viktor Mayer-Schönberger's "Delete: the Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age" in the September 24 LRB.

Mayer-Schönberger explains:

All through the analog age, for humans it has been easy to forget, and hard to remember. In the digital age, the situation has reversed: today the default is to store and remember; forgetting has become the exception. This has profound consequences for individuals and society, from how (informational) power is allocated to whether and how we retain our capacity to act in time. In this talk I analyze these consequences as well as possible solutions - legal and technical - to address the challenge posed by comprehensive digital memory. 

(One technical  solution to such a problem might be the self-destructing-digital-data system Vanish, proposed by University of Washington computer scientists earlier this year.)

Wood points out that "almost every fault [Mayer-Schönberger] attributes to 'the digital age' could have happened, did happen, in other ages by other means", and thereby sets himself up for this memorable line about the human predicament: "Like remembering  things we would rather forget and being remembered for them."

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


At the Kapittel festival in Stavanger last week I heard the crime writer Denise Mina talking about, among other things, psychopaths and criminal minds. She noted (with some glee - she is Scottish and her audience was Norwegian)  that psychological benchmarks for detecting psychopathic tendencies have to be adjusted upwards when testing American subjects,  because the degree of "grandioseness" considered normal in the U.S. far exceeds that which is normal (or even acceptable) elsewhere. Case in point: 


Artwiculate generates a word a day (much like Merriam Webster, OED, Wordsmith, and other such services), but then challenges you to use the word in a Tweet.  To take part in the game, "just use today’s word in context in one of your tweets. That’s it. Your tweet will appear here where people can tell you if they like it. You’ll get points if they like it or retweet it."  Today's (September 22) word is mellifluous. I tweeted "Ah, Belli White, such mellifluous singo, said Mitsuko." At the end of the day (11 hours to go), I expect that line should be at the top of the list.

Update: my entry got 19 points. The winning entry "Latin derivations are inherently mellifluous to the ear of the linguist, but to the tone deaf, it's all Greek." got 440 points. If at first you don't succeed etc.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Clandestine twittering

A while back I described Spreadtweet, a handy tool for people who wish to diguise twittering as spread sheet activity.Spreadsheets are not for everyone though, and systems people might feel more comfortable using Quitter, which dresses Twitter in retro DOS-shell clothing:

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Baron on dumbing down debate

Dennis Baron's new book "A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers and the Digital Revolution" brings a historical perspective to the "internet is making us stupid" debate. An excerpt from a Salon interview:

How is the criticism directed at computers, instant messaging and Facebook similar to the negative reaction directed at previous communication advances, from pencils to typewriters?

Historically, when the new communication device comes out, the reaction tends to be divided. Some people think it's the best thing since sliced bread; other people fear it as the end of civilization as we know it. And most people take a wait and see attitude. And if it does something that they're interested in, they pick up on it, if it doesn't, they don't buy into it.

I start with Plato's critique of writing where he says that if we depend on writing, we will lose the ability to remember things. Our memory will become weak. And he also criticizes writing because the written text is not interactive in the way spoken communication is. He also says that written words are essentially shadows of the things they represent. They're not the thing itself. Of course we remember all this because Plato wrote it down -- the ultimate irony.

We hear a thousand objections of this sort throughout history: Thoreau objecting to the telegraph, because even though it speeds things up, people won't have anything to say to one another. Then we have Samuel Morse, who invents the telegraph, objecting to the telephone because nothing important is ever going to be done over the telephone because there's no way to preserve or record a phone conversation. There were complaints about typewriters making writing too mechanical, too distant -- it disconnects the author from the words. That a pen and pencil connects you more directly with the page. And then with the computer, you have the whole range of "this is going to revolutionize everything" versus "this is going to destroy everything."

(lesson from history: books and bicycles turned out to be compatible after all!)

More on hard and not so hard novels

In response to my post about novels and plot - and Ian McEwen - J. Seliger was kind enough to alert me to Daniel Zalewski's beautifully turned and very interesting  article about Ian McEwan in the New Yorker.

Neat graphic of ebook universe

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hornby interview

Nice Nick Hornby style interview of Nick Hornby by Lucy Kellaway in FT. I wonder, is it - copyrightwise - OK to link to images, the way I've done here? One at a time, now.

A more masculine way of reading

Steven Johnson discusses some of the the pros and cons of our increasingly "skim and plunge" manner of reading in the introduction to "Best technology writing of 2009", (edited by Johnson), which looks like an interesting compilation. Those who follow this issue will have read many of the essays before, but nice to have them gathered in one place. It includes (of course) Nicholas Carr on Google and stupidity, and Sullivan on blogging (which he memorably describes as "writing out loud"), among others. Johnson sees a parallel between the erosion of deep, immersive, contemplation to "the mass migration from the country to the city that started several centuries ago in Europe: the bustle and stimulation and diversity of urban life made it harder to enjoy the slower, organic pleasures of rural living. Still, those pleasures didn't disappear. People continue to cherish them in mass numbers to this day." That thought - but without the optimistic bit at the end - was also developed by William Deresiewicz' in his essay The End of Solitude) Whenever the issue of distraction comes up, Seinfeld's "Men don't care what's on TV. They only care what else is on TV" comes to mind. Speaking of which, check out Google Fast Flip - a great new masculine way to read...or skim and plunge, rather. It let's you see the other pages right up front, without having to turn them first.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

More on librarian roles

Some more thoughts on the CNN story about the future of libraries, on Michael Antman's ill-tempered dismissal of delusional librarians who are forsaking books for Facebook, Twitter and other hip technology,  and on the built-in obsolescence of the e-library. 
When I was a child, our good dentist Dr. Goldberg always rewarded a well-behaved session in the chair with a packet of sugarless gum. At that early age, I had no head for business (few would have imagined that I would go on to establish one of the internet's most widely read blogs!)  and it did not occur to me that Dr. Goldberg was undermining his own profession by promoting dental hygiene - as dentists generally do - and by giving sugarless gum to his patients. But Antman seems to be saying that librarians who favor new and in-demand technology/media at the expense of books,  are engaging in much the same kind of suicidal folly.  But isn't it commendable that conscientious practitioners of doomed professions make the most of technology to provide the very best service they can, even to the point of contributing to their own evolutionary demise? What wheelright worth his salt wouldn't be excited by pneumatic tires?  Wouldn't we be disappointed in a scribe who poopoo'd  moveable type?  No, if you ask me, Antman's call for librarians to ignore new technology is like asking a dentist to eschew sugarless gum! (forgive the long setup)

Silliness aside, I do think Antman's take on the rather innocuous CNN story about the changing role of the librarian is unnecessarily alarmist.  I just discovered a wonderful blog - the public-library-spirited "Radical Patron" (and  who better to remind us of the worth of libraries than a committed library patron?!) that has a perceptive analysis of the recent spate of articles about the new librarians (or "librarians," rather).  Those articles are more about what entertainment the media can wring out of a tired stereotype, than about what's happening in libraries.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bookorbit blog

Here's a message to this blog from the Bookorbit blog. Looks interesting, check it out!

Hi there, don't know if you're interested in this blog: www.bookorbit.blogspot.com. I'm writing about ebooks and the future of reading - but from a publisher's perspective! Should be of real interest to librarians. Come over and have a look. 

Friday, September 11, 2009

One who is slovenly and dirty, particularly in the undergarments.

According to Google's book search, Jamieson's dictionary of the Scottish language (Edinburgh, 1867) describes "blogger" thus:

I was concerned, and quietly closed the door to my office....did this apply to me? Thankfully, on closer inspection I noticed that Google had mistaken an S for a B, hence the word described is actually Slogger, not Blogger. Praise the lord.

As we well know, Google Books is raising all kinds of legal and ethical questions these days, but there other problems as well: in his presentation Google Books: the Metadata Mess Geoff Nunberg of UC Berkeley's School of Information demonstrates why he calls Google Book Search metadata "a mishmash wrapped in a muddle wrapped in a mess." See also Nunberg's very enjoyable article about same in the Chronicle. Here's a sample:

Then there are the classification errors, which taken together can make for a kind of absurdist poetry. H.L. Mencken's The American Language is classified as Family & Relationships. A French edition of Hamlet and a Japanese edition of Madame Bovary are both classified as Antiques and Collectibles (a 1930 English edition of Flaubert's novel is classified under Physicians, which I suppose makes a bit more sense.) An edition of Moby Dick is labeled Computers; The Cat Lover's Book of Fascinating Facts falls under Technology & Engineering. And a catalog of copyright entries from the Library of Congress is listed under Drama (for a moment I wondered if maybe that one was just Google's little joke).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Librarians: hip, delusional, doomed

Michael Antman writes that librarians who buy into this vision of libraries are hip, delusional and doomed. He has a point, though if they're doomed, why not be hip and delusional?

Sometimes he wished he could gather all the dogs....

Artsy animation of a single sentence from Lydia Millet's short story, "Sir Henry." The sentence is "Sometimes he wished he could gather all the dogs he loved most and walk off the end of the world with them." (And who among us has not wished that?) This is from the YouTube Electric Literature channel. The Mission of Electric Literature "is to spark a revival of the short story by pairing captivating narratives from America's best contemporary writers with innovative new forms of distribution."

Monday, September 7, 2009


Tim O'Reilly says:  A lot of people equate the term with government use of social media, either to solicit public participation or to get out its message in new ways. Some people think it means making government more transparent. Some people think it means adding AJAX to government websites, or replacing those websites with government APIs, or building new cloud platforms for shared government services. And yes, it means all those things. But as with Web 2.0, the real secret of success in Government 2.0 is thinking about government as a platform.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The new literacy

Clive Thompson in Wired on the the "New Literacy." Thompson discusses the findings of Andrea Lunsford's Stanford Study of Writing  project, which suggests that "technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it - and pushing our literary in bold new directions." (another piece, in the Chronicle) The project found, among other things,  that young people in the web2.0 age are writing far more than any generation before them. The scholarly article "Performing Writing, Performing Literacy," assesses the findings of the first two years of the project, and argues that student writing is increasingly linked to the theories and practice of performance. That sounds plausible, even likely, given the nature of web2.0 as described by Lee Siegel and others: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

Education for education's sake

In "Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school" (Harpers, September 2009 - online for subscribers only), Mark Slouka asks "Why is every Crisis in American Education cast as an economic threat and never a civic one?" Slouka defends the value of the humanities, but not in the conventional way by arguing - as many liberal arts programs and professors (but not Stanley Fish) foolishly do - that a sound knowledge of Schoenberg and easy conversance with deconstructionsim  makes one more competitive in the global marketplace. Slouka objects to the instrumental "what's it good for?" conception of value altogether; we don't ask that question about a particularly fine view, or an orgasm (hah! let's see if that doesn't bring people to this blog!), so why is it always asked about literature or philosophy?  I'm completely sympathetic to his argument, though his overwrought and overly earnest prose is slightly off-putting. I find it be useful to strive for a posthumous perspective on such issues - what was it good for?  I'll bet you literature and philosophy score relatively higher from those quarters.  OK, that\s a trite observation, but a useful - instrumental - one.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Want to know what the bigshots are reading, and do you want to read the same stuff? Go to Powerreaders, and get with it! (click on image to enlarge)

News about news

Michael Massing writes about "A New Horizon for News" in the NYR of B. This is follow-up to his piece "The News about the Internet" in the previous issue.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Toogle is a text version of Google's image search - it creates ascii text images out of the images Google finds for you. How I got by without it I'll never know.

On good-novels-don't-have-to-be-hard-debate and eating grass

J. Seliger's blog,  The Story' Story,  points enthusiastically to a recent article by Lev Grossman in the WSJ, which suggests that the 21st-century novel will be shaped by "the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot."  And not only that, but "the balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader, and compromises with the public taste are being struck all over the place."  Predictably, Seliger also has high praise for A Reader's Manifesto, B.R. Myers disdainful critique of postmodern American fiction.  In a  rejoinder to Grossman at Conversational Reading, Andrew Seal  wonders whoever said good books had to be hard - and notes that this ground has already been thoroughly ploughed, not only by Myers, but also by Jonathan Franzen, Ben Marcus, Tom Wolfe , David Foster Wallace and others.

It strikes me that  "compromises with the public taste" don't necessarily enhance the entertainment value of a novel;  a writer like Ian McEwan, to take one example, is at his most mesmerizing in rambling, beautifully written contemplative passages, where nothing much is happening (e.g. the morning drive in Saturday before the action begins). But he can also pander to the public taste with a mean plot; thrilling, page-turner plots that suck you in, but which - if you can suspend your suspension of disbelief for a moment - are actually quite contrived and preposterous.  That's when you throw the book down in disgust (but not until you've seen what happens) and feel cheated, like Larson's cows....