18 June 2011

Triple the Fun

I've rebooted Wrist Watcher and have also just thrown up a third sort-of arts blog, hypnogaze. My stab at purposive blogging. And I'll keep TLP ticking along with miscellanea.

But I really don't post all that much. I just started in a challenging new position at work, which is slowing me down on all fronts, and anyway, blogging is no serious hobby for me. All three blogs will only amount to a trickle. I hate to crosspost, but I'm wondering: syndicate them to Tumblr?

07 June 2011

Boredom Defended

NY Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott recently published an apology for slow and thoughtful film: "In Defense of the Slow and the Boring." The disappointing thing is that they are not having to defend thoughtful cinema from viewers, who of course express their opinions with their dollars, but from other cultural and film critics. But this is less a catty fight than a discussion of whether film should even be permitted serious aspirations beyond popular entertainment. Unsurprisingly, they think it should.

On the other hand, says Scott, "I certainly don’t think fun should be banished from the screen, or that popular entertainment is essentially antithetical to art. And while I derive great pleasure from some movies that might be described as slow or tedious, I also find food for thought in fast, slick, whimsical entertainments." But the makers of films themselves seems to promote a kind of anti-art bias which at heart is, he suggests, "a defense of the corporate status quo." That is, even film makers are slow to argue that film is, or even should be, an art form rather than commercial entertainment.

I'm a little sad at the fact that I personally am loosing my capacity to experience films purely as entertainment. Art cinema may indeed be "cultural vegetables," but dang it, I like culture, and vegetables, too. I don't think thoughtful films are necessarily enculturating, but they are by definition thoughtful. And "thinking is boring, of course (all that silence), which is why so many industrially made movies work so hard to entertain you."

26 May 2011

Invisible Art

Cooper-Hewitt just awarded type designer Matthew Carter a National Design Award for lifetime achievement in the typographic arts. You know his work very well. You've seen it countless times. You're looking at it right now. He is the designer of the ubiquitous Microsoft system fonts Georgia, Tahoma and Verdana. I usually prefer Trebuchet for TLP, but in honor of Mr. Carter, today we're sporting Georgia.

Georgia and Verdana (Tahoma is very similar to the latter) are notable as being designed specifically for high-legibility on computer screens. Both are very extensively hand-hinted, meaning that the characters are carefully encoded with rasterization data for screen display. They are easy on the eyes and legible at very small point sizes. That's why countless Web pages have Georgia or Verdana set as their default fonts. You and I unknowingly drink in Carter's invisible art every day.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Carter's landmark fonts is that they have achieved a ubiquity and acceptance that very few fonts do, but are seen by designers as appropriate for screen-only use. Ikea caused a big dustup in 2009 when they adopted Verdana as their print catalog typeface, wanting to unify their Web and print look. Critics dubbed it Verdanagate, both miffed and bemused that so savvy a design company would willfully disregard good design, in some attempt to appeal to pedestrian comfort. It's like a worldclass print design firm decorating their offices in American Colonial because that's what most Americans have in their living rooms.

Ikea blew it off. Said a spokesflunky, "I think it’s mainly experts who have expressed their views, people who are interested in fonts. I don’t think the broad public is that interested. . . . [Verdana is] a simple, cost-effective font." Lame, Ikea. You did a Gap. Just own it. You know very well that good design isn't some when-convenient option. It's a way of life. You live the aesthetic life or you don't.

25 May 2011

Form and Content

I'm off next week to the national AAUP conference, at which Paper Age oldsters stagger around like Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt," trying to work through the life-negating death of print publishing that (inexplicably) they never saw coming. Last year everyone suffered through session after session of bad news, then went looking for a bar to get proper drunk in. Academic publishing is suffering more than trade, in some respects, because its main customers, academic libraries, are defecting from paper books at an even faster rate than retail consumers.

Five years ago academic libraries were willing to pay $120 each for your arcane little monographs. Sell even 1000 copies at that price and you are still making money. Now libraries only want your publications if they come in huge, discounted ebook packages from vendors like Elsevier, where you may earn as little as a few dollars a title. No wonder the publishers' long faces.

The iPad is not helping things. It provides such a great reading experience that, not only do libraries not want to buy paper, soon nobody will want to read it. Publishing is just starting to reinvent its content for tablets, and already the results are astonishing. Obviously graphic-rich publications (glossy mags) benefit hugely, but more surprising is that even longform, text-heavy publications can, too.

John Biggs just discussed this with respect to the New Yorker. Talk about graphically spare. It's the anti-Wired. But even so, the iPad version is a substantial improvement over the paper.

    There are no graphical tricks, not too many multimedia events, and when there are, they’re great (one poetry reading by Sherman Alexie in the latest issue was amazing). And even the ads are unobtrusive and, dare I say it, beautiful in full living color. Everything about the iPad version is the same, yet strikingly different. This isn’t some rush-job given to a bunch of magazine designers who slap a little video in the corner of a horribly laid-out page. This is a full rethinking of the title and changes entirely how we consume long-form writing.

This leap to tablets is not just a design issue for publishers. It demands new forms of writing from authors. We'll start seeing more and more books like Al Gore's Our Choice, that simply "does things that no paper book ever could" (gushes Gizmodo). Designers like Craig Mod are completely rethinking what books without pages, designed for the "infinite content plane" of the iPad, should look like. On a multimedia device without any fixed content plane, or even the necessity of static content, do the monomedia codices of the Paper Age even make sense?

Reading habits change over time, always have, but the shift we are experiencing right now may be without parallel in its abruptness and rapidity. While the evidence is not unambiguous, I think longform has been in decline for some time, in part because the internet makes longform reading less necessary, or in many cases unnecessary, for informational purposes. (Thanks for that, Google.)  Certainly monographs are dying a slow death in academic publishing.

But writers have a bigger problem to worry about. They will increasingly, by themselves or collaboratively, be forced to become more than monomedia writers of words. The supplantation of books by multimedia tablets is already creating a new demand for rich content, even beyond the current demands of the internet. If hoary old standards like the New Yorker get that fact, this reality will very soon impose itself on even the most fusty Paper Age relics.

As print publishing dies, print writing will die with it. Words will still be words, and sentences sentences, but content will necessarily follow form. And the form of tablet publication is already so fantastic that even the internet looks dull and quaint beside it. Tablets must be recognized as new medium, and they are utterly irresistible.

23 May 2011

Why I Hate the Silver Screen

I don't know why it's taken me so long to come to this conclusion, but I don't like going to movies. Not at all. Now, I love movies, really, really love 'em. Or maybe, better said, I love "film." I love compelling visual narratives that make more sense of life than really exists in live. Great film has shaped my worldview much more than books have. That's how I'm wired. I'm a sensualist.

But movie theaters are a terrible place to see films, or movies. First, I don't know how to have a thoughtful and meditative encounter with a film when I'm sharing it with a couple hundred strangers. It's like reading a book with someone looking over my shoulder. But more basically, I just find theater speakers too loud and the screens too big. I have terrible, fussy eyes. I visually cannot take the whole movie screen in, and I find frenetic action on-screen, especially, to be visually and physically fatiguing. I've never wanted a 50" TV with 200w of surround sound at home. My little computer monitor and headphones are optimal, for me.

Worst of all are 3D movies. They are dim, the colors cold, the contrast low, the glasses uncomfortable, and they give me a headache. And 3D adds nothing to a movie's immersiveness. It's a gimmick to which you, in any case, quickly become habituated. I could go on, but Ebert has already given 3D a good and proper thrashing.

Now, as if I needed another reason to give up on movie theaters, I read today that many theaters are not bothering to change from their 3D to 2D lenses when showing the latter. The result is all the downsides of 3D (up to 85% darker, flat colors, plain ugly) even with 2D. The problem, apparently, is that the Sony 4k digital projectors that many theaters use are extremely tamper-resistant, making the lenses a pain to change. A small misstep and the projector can lock you out, causing logistical nightmares. Since the 3D lenses are of course absolutely necessary for 3D movies, some managers are saying, just leave 'em on.

So if you go to a 2D movie and it seems maddeningly dim, complain and ask for your money back. Hopefully a lot of other people will do the same. Customer contempt really should not be tolerated.

19 May 2011

Radically Purposive Blogging

I have not been blogging much lately, and it really has not been for lack of time. After a dissertation-imposed hiatus, I'm ready to get back to it. But the only blogging that really holds my sustained attention is blogging my hobbies and interests, and I find a general personal blog like Lithium Press to be a very poor vehicle for that. Fweem's project blogs have inspired me to rethink all this.

And in fact, I have started two other blogs in the past, but never did anything with them. One was on music, but I posted once and abandoned it entirely for TLP. The other was on wristwatches, which I seriously blogged for a month and then forsook. I went through a bit of a horological obsession in 2008, and like most of my obsessions, it cooled and I moved on. I remind myself too much of John Laroche, of Susan Orlean's "Orchid Fever"/Kaufman's Adaptation:

    Laroche grew up in Miami. He says he was a weird kid. This is not hard to believe. When he wanted a pet, he bought a little turtle, then bought ten little turtles, then tried to breed them, then started selling turtles to other kids, then decided his life wasn't worth living unless he acquired one of every species of rare turtle, including a three-hundred-pound exotic tortoise from the Galapagos Islands. Suddenly, another passion seized him. He became immersed in late-Ice Age fossils. Then he dropped turtles and Ice Age fossils and became obsessed with lapidary, and then after a while he dropped lapidary and got into collecting and resilvering old mirrors. His passions boil up quickly and end abruptly, like tornadoes. Usually, the end is accompanied by a dramatic pronouncement. When he was in his teens, he went through a tropical-fish phase, and he had sixty fishtanks in his house. He even went skin-diving for the fish himself. Then the end came. He didn't merely lose interest in collecting fish: he renounced it, as if he had kicked a habit. He declared that he would stop collecting fish forever. He also declared that he would never set foot in the ocean again. That was fifteen years ago. He lives a few miles from the Atlantic, but he has not gone near it since.

This may drive the people around me a bit crazy, and it's not easy for me either. I'd be more than happy to find that One True Thing that captivates me endlessly and forever. But that's not how I'm wired. At least my interests are somewhat cyclic. I'll take that.

So, wristwatches. I'll save how I got started into horology for a post on Wrist Watcher. Definitely one of my more hot-and-cold interests. But just eight posts on that blog, in November of 2008, has drawn 482 page views. Most of those (almost 300) have come since February of this year. I have no explanation. I have half a mind to start blogging horology again, for a change of pace, and because finding some consistent readers might be nice for a change.

The fact is, I follow a number of good topical blogs that are mostly dormant, but when updated, are of really great quality and always interesting. Like Muse-ings, Ed's Corner, and even a commercial blog, Small House Style. I actually like that the post count for all three is low, but the quality is high. And the posts are always on the blog's designated topic. No filtering required.

I think Lithium Press needs to be either shuttered or repurposed, and one or more topical blogs need to grow in its place. Ed Brandwein of Ed's Corner has even just turned a big chunk of his blog into an ebook that I'm going buy. (Need it in pdf, Ed!) I want a piece of that action—a blog or two (or why not dozen?) that would make sense as a book. Radically purposive blogging.

28 April 2011

First Thoughts on iPad + Ebooks

Work bought me a new 64gb iPad 2 (wi-fi only). Not really a bonus for finishing my dissertation, but it feels that way. Impressions? Like everyone says, it's just a big iPhone. If you are used to the iPhone/iTouch, it won't wow you. But it will still fill you with a slow, fizzy elation, if only from the undeniable fact that you are holding the future of reading in your hands.

This fact really hit me when I downloaded a copy of Wired magazine for the iPad. It incorporates innovative navigation and formatting, audio, video, and other rich content in a seamless and compelling way. You read a book review and then just hit a button to download a chapter from the book. A film review will have a stills gallery and trailer, etc. It sounds (duh) like the Web, but the tablet format and touch navigation make it much more compelling experience. It really is comparable to reading a book, but a super-book.

It's way beyond the Kindle. When Tani the Kindle User first saw my iPad, she had zero interest. Ten seconds into browsing Wired, she said, "Oh, I have to get one of these." The future of glossies, clearly, will be on color tablets.

The future of ebooks more generally will be on both color and e-ink tablets, it seems. E-ink readers will soon be cheap as chips, though already, even the Nook Color is just $250. And now that I am actually using a tablet, I confess that my love of analog books is a bit diminished. The ergonomics of tablet reading are great, I'm used to reading on screen (anymore, who isn't?), and the convenience is surprisingly compelling. It's increasing the amount of discretionary reading I do, which I would never have expected. (That may just be Shiny New Toy Syndrome. Time will tell.)

Yet another surprise: I'm seriously reconsidering the future of my physical book collection. I have a whole wall of my large study taken up with books I never read. Many I have never read once. I have hundreds more at work, in boxes, on other bookshelves, etc. A certain subset I own as a collector, and that segment I expect both to keep and to grow. But all those crumbling Baen and Del Rey paperbacks? As physical objects they give me little pleasure, and space is at a premium. Why keep them? Nostalgic commitment to print, even among print lovers, is evaporating before our eyes.

This is why we are using a very, very precious empty staff position
at my institute to hire a digital publishing specialist. We're rapidly
reaching the tipping point where if your publications are not pushed to
portable devices, you are severely limiting your readership. I've been asked to take a point position on the hire. This should be interesting.

27 April 2011

Out with a Whimper

Somehow I thought the completion of my PhD program would end with more fanfare. Meh. So it ends.

    Dear __________, Congratulations. Your submission, 10195 has cleared all of the necessary checks and will soon be delivered to ProQuest/UMI for publishing. Regards, Mary Elwood

26 April 2011

Penguin Group Starts New "Writing Community"

Just saw this in a NYTimes article.* Writers have been forming collectives themselves for ages, but now a major press is doing it for them. For Penguin, clearly it is intended to be a low-cost bush league. Why spend the money to work through slush piles and coach developing writers when you can get others to do it for you?

*Tip of the day: If you run of out monthly free views for the New York Times, just start up an anonymous session on your Web browser. An anonymous session clears your cookie cache and resets your view counter.

25 April 2011

To Reality Check or Not?

I know Fweem is looking at a PhD program. I also speak at least a few times a year with undergrads looking that direction. Employment prospects for humanities PhDs are dismal, and graduate professors brazenly spout lies about the academic vocation.

But do aspiring grad students really want to know the ugly truth?

Yes, just doing a little more post-PhD reflection . . .

04 April 2011


I passed the oral defense of my dissertation today. That means I'm all but done with my PhD. Afterward, they called me "doctor." They even gave me a little card that says so. Cake was cut, champagne served. It felt surreal. I was exhausted. I just wanted to leave, call my family, and then crash in my hotel. Which is what I did.

I'm forty-three. I've been in school almost my whole life. I've spent about nine years just working (or, ahem, not working) on my dissertation, in some form or another. I don't mind the time so much, but the stress? There are no words. There have been times where I literally felt like I was slipping into cardiac arrest. Today, waiting to go into my orals, was one of them. Really, there are no words.

It took too long, the cost was too high, the grief too great, to celebrate this as an accomplishment. At least right now. I don't want to walk at graduation, and won't. I don't care about the diploma. I'm not happy, or relieved. I'm numb. Numb. I just want to be with my family, and really, really relax, and start to discover what life looks like post-PhD.

28 March 2011

Publisher Pays $2 Million to Remain Relevent

After Amanda Hocking sold one million copies of her ebooks, on her own, she decided to open up her work to traditional publishers, who fought a bidding war. St. Martin's Press "won," with a $2 million contract. NYT reports, "Publishers, weary of hearing about their disposability in an age when writers can self-publish their work on the Internet and sell it on Amazon.com, said they were vindicated by the news."

Vindicated? Er, right. A writer who doesn't need you is willing to let you pay her to work for her. Sure, you're both making money on this, but who works for whom?

25 March 2011

The Trivial and the Ephemeral

While 2000 bands and uncounted hoards have descended on Austin for SXSW 2011, I've had a couple weeks of less exciting but entirely satisfying musical exploration and reflection myself. It started with Loretta Lynn and ended with death metal, so I've covered a bit of ground. There's a lot of great music I haven't heard, and a lot I've heard that I just don't appreciate yet. Seems self-evident, and goes for everyone, but sometimes I just get bored or jaded. Aggressive and open experimentation makes all things new again.

SXSW is about bands, beer, BBQ, and less appealingly, intense navelgazing about the future of music. In a curious keynote, well-spoken has-been Bob Geldof decried the flood of Web music and dished on contemporary American musicians, calling them "smug" and "exhausted," no longer revolutionary or relevant. Critic Greg Kot rightly says Geldof is just not plugged into socially-conscious music, which is of course being made. "Perhaps the deeper issue is not that no one is making that type of music, but that much of it is being lost amid what SXSW executive Roland Swenson called 'the trivial and the ephemeral' culture that is clogging media. The great life-affirming and potentially life-changing revolutionary music that Geldof seeks is being made. But without discerning voices to champion it, who will hear it? Certainly Geldof could use a little help in finding it."

Precisely. Democratization of means of production and broken filters. That's really what bedevils Geldof. He can almost see it, but not quite. He says of social and economic inequality, "What’s music got to say about it? I don’t hear it. Maybe I can’t hear it. Maybe this hyper democracy of the Web simply gives an illusion of talent. You can download a studio. Download any instrument. You can pick up any instrument for nothing. You can make, cut and paste to create fab artwork to make your CD. Everybody has got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say. We need to talk about it."

"Nobody has anything to say"? Does he only listen to Top 40? So it seems, and top pop is indisputably formulaic and vapid. Jay Frank of futurehit.dna documents at morbid length how totally one-dimensional pop music is. Summed up in numbers, the top 100 songs "account for approximately 36% of all new music track sales. . . . The #1 subject matter in the Top 100 selling songs were variations of 'I want to take you back to my place so we can have sex' songs, accounting for 21% of the top titles. . . . The more traditional subject matter along the same line is the 'I love you' song, which was the 2nd most popular at 17%. These songs just edged out the 'Out Of Love' songs, which accounted for 16% of the titles."

Party songs do well, too, says Frank. Even really bad ones, if they follow the basic pop formula faithfully and can get lucky and go viral. You don't need talent or a label, though ambitious middle-class parents are a big plus. 14-year old Rebecca Black's parents paid $2000 to ARK Music Factory to make a video of her DIY single, "Friday." They posted it on YouTube February 10th, and to date it's attracted over 44 million hits. They quickly put the single out on iTunes, where it's selling 40,000 copies or so a week. The video is bad, it's being parodied, but the Blacks are printing money from it, and Rebecca's bigger than all of SXSW combined. Says Frank, "If you combined every view of 'Friday' and its parody videos, approximately 62 Million minutes were spent on this song [to date!]. . . . In the meantime, if the approximately 15,000 SxSW attendees watched 12 hours of music a day for all 5 days, that would only add up to 54 Million minutes spent watching music."

Rebecca Black - Friday (OFFICIAL VIDEO)

Feel free to cry, as the labels surely are. They've completely lost control of the system. Or if you're Bob Geldof, go ahead and feel validated, because this is future of pop music. Democratic production is here to stay, and it will mostly produce music like this, because this, and Gaga, and Britney, are at the top of the popular taste bell-curve. But at the same time, it permits an expansion of genres that has me buzzing with adrenaline and anticipation.

But if there will be no more Harper Lees, we may likewise see no more Pink Floyds, green and thoroughly non-commercial artists nurtured by generous and patient label A&R into astonishingly vernacular and catalytic talents. Even money-grubbing tastemakers occasionally have good taste, but the labels are losing all power to promote it. Great books only have great power if everybody reads them. Same with music. Revolutionary music proliferates, but out of the vernacular spotlight, buried under the ephemeral, starved of social power. Geldof's assessment is askew, but sadly, only by a quarter turn.

24 March 2011

18 March 2011

No More Harper Lees

I was going to comment on Fweem's post on the dismal economics of book publishing, but then it led me to Nathan Bransford's blog, and to this post on self-publishing ebooks, based on this post by author Amanda Hocking. Read at least the Bransford post and comments. This is the future happening before our eyes.

The music industry had no idea that the iPod and iTunes signaled an apocalypse for their business, even if at the same time it was making them money. Publishers probably are not as naive, and would surely kill ebook readers if they could. But they can't, and while publishers are already reeling, they are barely beginning to feel the mighty contraction and redistribution that ebooks will cause to their industry.

Ebook readers turn every work of literature into a blog post, the perceived value of which is zero. Anyone can publish a blog post, and anyone can publish an ebook. Publishers can still provide editing and marketing for the author, and more invaluably, filters for readers. Readers will be willing to pay a certain amount for the benefit of these services. But when publishers are puzzled as to why readers undervalue the very costly business of publishing (my own business), which they love to explain, they need to look at Hocking, shut up, and get to work reinventing themselves around new paradigms.

When one hardworking, mid-grade author like Hocking can sell 450,000 copies of her ebook in one month, without a publisher, the publishers' business paradigm and grasp on the market has just been smashed. It shows that an author can do it all herself and succeed in a big way. Are they scared? Terrified. Hocking says modestly, "[N]o publisher is afraid of me. That's just silly. I'm one girl who wrote a couple books that are selling well. That doesn't scare them - they just want to be a part of it, the same way they want to be a part of any best seller."

If I were a for-profit publisher, I would only be publishing work by authors with established online/ebook audiences. An audience is an audience, and it is the only thing a book needs to succeed. While some authors still believe self-publishing is debasing, that's old thinking, and irrational. I can foresee a day when publishers will be loath to publish anyone who does not already have a digital reader base. Building that base clearly requires quantity, at least moderate quality, and relentless self-promotion. Any shy author with just one great book in them will probably never be heard above the din. I hate the fact that there will be no more Harper Lees, but you read it here first: There will be no more Harper Lees.