Sunday Selection 2013-12-01

Around the Web

Happy post-Thanksgiving greetings, dear readers. If you celebrate, I hope you had a wonderful time with friends and family. If you engaged in the consumerist spectacle of Black Friday and lived to tell the tale, congratulations to you. Others were not quite so lucky. Anyways, on to this weeks’ picks.

The Democratic Necessity of Power Tools

By now we all know that paper publishing (especially for books and newspapers) is in trouble and so are libraries. This article makes an interesting point: in an age where knowledge and information is easy to get, maybe we need to provide education in terms of skills and craftsmanship and not just information. Personally, I love libraries and hope they survive into the far future, but I would love to see the growth of publicly available makerspaces and workshops too. Maybe the two could go hand in hand?

The Period, Our Simplest Punctuation Mark, Has Become a Sign of Anger

It seems like the older I get, the more fastidious I get about my use of the English language. I’ve always hated SMS-speak and I see absolutely no need for it today with the advent of QWERTY, predictive keyboards on phones. More recently, I’ve been trying to use full sentences even in my IMs and making my slideshow bullet-points and proper clauses and end in proper punctuation. This is an interesting article on the changing role of the period in informal electronic communication. It’s not something I’ve personally noticed, but it was a interesting read nonetheless.

C.S. Lewis Reviews The Hobbit

If you’ve ever wondered what one literary great reviewing the work of another looks like, this is your chance. Enough said.

From the Web

What I Wish I’d Known When I Was 18 (from Stephen Fry)

I’m personally not very familiar with Stephen Fry’s work. However, this video is chock-full of wisdom, both practical and deep. It’s worth watching no matter what age you are. And yes, some parts are rather heart-wrenching.

Multiplicity

Over the last weekend I played around with an interesting service called Editorially. It’s essentially a stripped down, online text editor, with support for Markdown formatting. However, it’s most attractive feature is its support for multiple versions, collaboration and editing. It’s an interesting project and it just added WordPress and Dropbox export (I wrote the first draft of this post in it and then exported to WordPress). Like many such services, I’d rather use a text editor and git to get the same effect. However, more than the service itself what interests me is something I read on their blog post announcing their export features:

On the web today, a single article may be published on the writer’s personal blog, collected in an ebook, syndicated on several magazine or news sites, and reblogged across different platforms and communities.

This notion of having the same piece of work shared in multiple places is not new, but is becoming increasingly popular, especially with the rise of of group blogs (often with guest authors), online curation, and services like Medium. Craig Mod, whom I find to be one of the most insightful writers on the intersection of technology and publishing, started one of his recent pieces with this not-quite-disclaimer:

This was originally published in Hiut Denim’s yearbook. I’ve republished it here, over on Hi and over at Medium because, well, the beauty of the web is multiplicity. More on that later.

Multiplicity. I like that word. And yes, there is something to admire in just how easy it is to copy and share on this, the modern Web. But is it a thing of beauty? I’m much less certain than Mr. Mod, especially since this form of multiplicity is heavily dependent on third-party, often proprietary services with motives that are unclear at best and
questionable at worst.

What Mr. Mod dubs “multiplicity” and call beautiful can be explained in older, cruder terms: copy-and-paste. In many ways, the current web does us a disservice — we have been taught to accept and we settled for multiplicity when what we really wanted was transclusion, first described by an early pioneer of applied computation — Ted Nelson.

Whereas multiplicity on the web takes the form of copy-and-paste, transclusion would take the form of reference. Instead of taking the literal text (and perhaps the styling and images) of a document and replicating it for each copy, we have a single canonical copy of a document (and by document I mean any information object) that can be referenced and transcluded from other places. For example, Mr. Mod could have published the original piece on his website and Hi and Medium would simply transclude it in their own versions. When someone visited the Hi or Medium pages, they would reach out and embed the original post’s content within their contexts.

Transclusion offers many advantage over copy-and-paste. For one, any changes to the original are automatically reflected wherever it is transcluded. Second, attribution becomes much easier. Instead of carefully maintaining references to where you found a particular piece of information or text, the transclusion machinery can manage it for you. In fact, such a system needs to keep proper source information to work properly. Transclusion also makes the job easier for automated systems like search engines. Instead of coming across multiple versions of the same text in different places, a crawler would simply follow back the transclusion links and be able to index the original authoritative copy.

Copy-and-paste certainly has a place, even in a hypothetical transclusion-enabled Web. One major application is of course backup and archival, which would be impossible if there was only ever a single copy. That being said, personally I would rather have transclusion than not. For one thing it would make navigating the current morass of social media and publication startups easier.

Today, if I write something (say this blog post) and want to put it online, I have to decide where to put it. I could put it on my own website, hosted on my own server, accessible at my own domain name, where I retain full control. However, maybe I want the attention generated by publishing on a platform like Medium or Tumblr. Maybe I also want to post a link and excerpt to Facebook and Twitter and Google+. Once people read it, they might want to make posts about it on their blogs and reference it. It might get picked up discussed on random forums and message boards, discussion sites and Q&A sites.

To do that today requires a lot of manual intervention and thought. First I’d have to copy and paste the text into all the different services. Then I’d have to copy-and-paste a link into the various social media services. If I wanted to add an excerpt, I’d have to do more copy-pasting and editing. If there was discussion on other places, there’s no guarantee I’d find out about it. I’d have to keep a close eye on all the discussion sites, and hope that any individuals talking about it on their own sites send me an email (or some other kind of notification) about their posts.

In a world where transclusion is the default, things become much simpler. As we’ve already discussed, the various other publishing platforms would simply transclude the content of my post. Social media services would transclude particular paragraphs (or even particular sentences). Similarly, discussion sites and other people’s blogs would transclude the particular parts of the post they want to discuss. This has a secondary benefit: I can look up the transcluders and automatically be aware of who’s talking about my post (and what parts in particular). In summary, transclusion would make sharing and discussion on the web a whole lot easier, smoother and interactive.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that we’ll achieve transclusion any time soon. In particular, I would say most publishing and social media services have incentives to prevent transclusion — they want a unique piece of your work. Deferring to a canonical copy elsewhere that others can transclude as well is the last thing they want. That being said, we can still dream, can’t we? Perhaps, with the continuing popularity of ebooks and DIY publishing we might even start having some limited forms of transclusion. And maybe, just maybe, people like Mr. Mod and services like Editorially will start pushing for a transclusion-capable world.

Not so Svbtle

A few weeks ago I got an invitation to Dustin Curtis’ hip new(ish) blogging platform called Svbtle. The original announcement created a bit of a stir around the Intertubes. It was supposed to be both a clean, minimalist writing environment and a fresh new platform for vetted, competent writing. Here’s a relevant excerpt (emphasis mine):

I wrote this engine entirely for myself, without the intention of opening it up to other people. But since realizing that it has improved the way I think and write, I’ve decided to open it up to a small number of vetted bloggers. At least at first. The goal is simple: when you see the Svbtle design, you should know that the content is guaranteed to be great. Network bloggers are encouraged to keep quality high at the expense of everything else.

If it sounds provocative, that’s probably because it was meant to be. The emphasized line in particular, is fighting words, as they say. It’s been about a year and half since that post (at least that’s how long I think it’s been, Svbtle posts don’t seem to have visible timestamps). Now that I have an invite, I thought it would be interesting to see how things have held up. Is Svbtle really all that Mr. Curtis cracks it up to be?

At face value, the original claim seems to have fallen flat. The idea for a minimalist writing platform was copied and open-sourced almost immediately and there’s also a Svbtle-like WordPress theme. Given that Svbtle will let you use your own domain name, it’s hard to tell that you’re reading a Svbtle post unless you care to look. So much for seeing and recognizing the Svbtle design. But what about the rest of the claim? Are we really guaranteed that the content is great?

Svbtle currently positions itself as a “new kind of magazine”. The current About page reads as follows:

We’re a network of great people mixed with a platform that takes the best things from traditional publishing and combines them with the best parts of the web. We want to make it easier for people to share and discover new ideas.

The Svbtle blog announced that they received an undisclosed amount of VC money (good for them). They currently have over 200 writers and hope to build “the future of journalism”. Svbtle is building us up to expect not only good writing, but great writing and journalism. The current state of Svbtle doesn’t give me much confidence. As of this writing, many of the posts on the Svbtle front page would probably only be of interest to a certain section of Silicon Valley resident.s Posts like “The 3 competitive Defenses of Enduring SaaS Companies” and “The Single Best Content Marketing Channel for your Startup” make me think that Svbtle is more a thinly veiled mirror of Hacker News than a magazine devoted to ground-breaking journalism.

To me at least, Svbtle is not so much subtle as confusing. Who are these 200 writers? Why did they get invitations? They claim to span “at least eight disciplines” and journalism doesn’t seem to one of them. If Svbtle is supposed to take the best things from traditional publishing, then where are the editors and expert photographers? If Svbtle is going to be “an important place for the sharing of ideas” then where are the comments and where do I send Letters to the Editor?

Furthermore, this confusion isn’t just on the outward, public face of the endeavor. As a writer, it’s not clear to me what I get from publishing on Svbtle. A group of 200 writers is not exactly exclusive, especially when I have no idea what the invitation criteria are. I don’t see any Terms of Service, or an Export button for that matter. The invitation email claims “One of our main goals is to help members become better writers”, but there’s no mention of how that’s supposed to happen. Is there a peer review or editorial process? If there is, what are the qualifications of the editors and reviewers? I just wrote and published a short post and there doesn’t seem to be any of those things. Can I be kicked out and my posts deleted at a moment’s notice?

I suppose that for people dissatisfied with their current blogging platform Svbtle might be an interesting alternative. But it’s not for me. I’m perfectly content with WordPress when it comes to actual writing and Tumblr when it comes to everything else. I’ve never been distracted from my writing by the various controls and buttons and Svbtle lacks too much of what I’d consider essentials for a modern blogging platform.

Of course, it’s certainly possible that I simply don’t get it and that Mr. Curtis has some grand scheme that I don’t grasp. For the time being, though, it seems like Svbtle is simply just yet another blogging platform. It’s a different flavor than WordPress, Tumblr, or Medium, and some will be drawn to it for that reason. At this point, someone will no doubt point out that I won’t get it unless I try it. While I’m skeptical of that line of reasoning, I would like to give Svbtle a fair chance. Maybe the writing experience really is that much better. If I can think of something that needs publishing and isn’t relevant to The ByteBaker, then my Svbtle blog is where it will go.

(As an aside, I’ve been thinking of starting a research blog, along the lines of Lindsey Kuper’s Composition.al,. I’d use Svbtle for that, but there seems to be no support for inserting syntax-highlighted code snippets.)

In the meantime, if you’re looking for modern, journalistic writing that covers a variety of topics, I recommend a publication like New Republic.

To thine own reading habits be true

It’s been about two weeks since the untimely demise of our dearly beloved Google Reader. Since then many replacements have been stepping up to the plate. I’ve been using Feedly, but I hear good things about Digg Reader too. A few days after that Anil Dash wrote a post entitled “The Golden Age of RSS” where, among other things, he provides a very long list of RSS readers across various platforms. He also makes four suggestions about improving the state of the RSS ecosystem and two of those four are about the actual reading experience. While I have immense respect for Mr. Dash (and Dave Winer), I’m not excited by either of his suggestions.

First off, Mr. Dash seems to not be a big fan of the mailbox style of displaying feeds (a la Google Reader) or the magazine style (a la Pinterest and Feedly). He seems to rather favor Winer’s river of news style. Secondly, he says that he wants a blog reader — essentially a single site RSS reader that kicks in when you visit the site and gives you a content-focused, style-independent view of the site. While both of these suggestions seem interesting (and I hope someone picks them up and does cool things with them) neither of them is particularly appealing to me.

Personally, I like the mailbox-style of reading feeds. I like to be able to look through a list of titles, read the ones that sound interesting, and get rid of the rest (currently by mass marking them as “read” — not the best interface, but it gets the job done). I don’t want a river of news — I want a digest of interesting things that I can read at my own leisure, irrespective of when the author posted them. My RSS reading list isn’t a source of news, it’s a selection of authors who write interesting pieces and whose posts I don’t want to miss. Now, an argument could be made that if some post is really good, it will filter through my Twitter or Facebook circles and I’ll hear about it. But I have neither the time nor the energy to sift through those streams to find interesting things my friends are posting. I’d rather just have the good stuff come directly to a single known location. And this brings me to Mr. Dash’s second recommendation (and why I disagree with it). I don’t see much personal value in the sort of site-specific reader he wants. The whole point of having RSS for me is that I don’t have to visit the website. See above arguments for a central location for posts from approved sources.

Does this mean that river-of-news or site specific RSS readers are a bad idea? No, of course not. Anil Dash and Dave Winer are both very intelligent people with proven track records and if they’re advocating something it’s worth looking into. All I’m saying is that they’re not the best idea for me. Reading habits are a very personal thing. We like to read different sorts of things and we like to read them in different ways. Dave Winer likes to be plugged into a river of news, I prefer to have a stack of articles waiting for me at the end of the day.

I truly believe that the web is a democratic medium — it allows us to define both how we publish and consume content (within limits). While we’ve explored the publishing aspect in lots of different ways (sites, blogs, tumblelogs, podcasts, microblogs, photoblogs, vlogs), the consumption side has perhaps seen a little less action. The death of Google Reader seems to have sparked a new burst of RSS-related innovation. Once we’re done picking our favorite clone, moving our lists and syncing our devices, maybe we can think about how to make the consumption experience as democratic as the publishing experience.

What do you do to break a creative block?

I’ve been wanting to get back to blogging for a while now. Unfortunately a combination of graduate student life and not wanting to spend even more time than I already do in front of a computer has made me put that off. At the same time, I’ve been having some bursts of activity on Quora. I think Quora is an interesting site and serves a a good purpose, but I’m not very happy about its Walled Garden policies and I would like the information I put in to be more generally available (at least the stuff that doesn’t involve the more obscure points of Tolkien’s legendarium). So for today at least I’m going to report an answer I wrote up while i was waiting for my experiments to finish.

The post asked about overcoming creative block, in particular writer’s block. The poster said that time was sometimes, but not always a factor and that s/he had been writing quite prolifically before. (The previous sentence made me realize that English desperately needs a gender-neutral third-person pronoun that isn’t ‘it’.) Given my blogging predicament, I avoid this uncannily relevant. Anyways, without further ado:


Personally I’ve found that what helps is a combination of three things: good routine, new experiences and boredom.

First, routine.  If you’re having trouble getting time to write, or trouble sitting down to write even when you have time, a strict routine can definitely help. As Somerset Maugham supposedly said : “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” Find a quiet space, free of people and distractions, grab some coffee (or tea, or just water), turn off the Internet and your phone and just write. Write anything. It doesn’t have to be in your preferred genre or what you’re trying to write. It can be an essay, a journal entry, a letter to friend (or an enemy). The point is just to get into the habit of writing. Once you’re comfortable with sitting down for some time each day and just writing something you can move on to what you actually want to write.

Second, experiences. If you’re going to be a serious writer then it helps to have things to write about. While it’s definitely possible to create interesting by isolating yourself in a cabin in the woods (see Walden by Henry David Thoreau), I think it’s a safer bet (and far more interesting) to gather lots of interesting experiences and ideas and weave them together in interesting ways. Travel new places and keep your eyes, do things you thought you’d never do, talk to people you normally don’t interact with, eat foods that look strange and unfamiliar, look up random topics on Wikipedia, explore a new subject each month. The more ideas you have in your head, the easier it will be to have things to recombine and use as a basis for interesting writing.

Third, boredom. As a complement to the above, as you’re gathering experiences you need to have the time and energy to put them together. Spend a Saturday on the couch (or the hammock if you have one) with the TV off and without any people around. Stand in the checkout line and just stand. Get bored sometimes, don’t rush the mindless things like doing the dishes and vacuuming. You need to put interesting things in your head but you also have to give yourself the chance to let them interact and recombine. This part is often hard to do because you feel like you should be doing something productive, but I believe this stage of just letting ideas percolate and react is crucial to any creative activity.

Finally, to make the most of the above: carry a notebook and pen always. It doesn’t have to be a fancy Moleskine or anything of the sort. It just needs to be something where you can record interesting experiences and ideas and look back on them later.

Good luck and good writing.