Commonplace Book

A few tidbits gleaned from recent reading:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”–Antoine de Saint-Exupery

An inspirational preamble in a book on math pedagogy (subject of my current work project).

In the summer of 1943 I was eight, and my father and mother and small brother and I were at Peterson Field in Colorado Springs. A hot wind blew through that summer, blew until it seemed that before August broke, all the dust in Kansas would be in Colorado, would have drifted over the tar-paper barracks and the temporary strip and stopped only when it hit Pikes Peak. There was not much to do, a summer like that: there was the day they brought in the first B-29, an event to remember but scarcely a vacation program. There was an Officers’ Club, but no swimming pool; all the Officers Club’ had of interest was artificial blue rain behind the bar. The rain interested me a good deal, but I could not spend the summer watching it, so we went, my brother and I, to the movies.

We went three or four afternoons a week, sat on folding chairs in the darkened Quonset hut which served as a theater, and it was there, that summer of 1943 while the hot wind blew outside, that I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in a picture called War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, “at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.”

As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.

 An unforgettable narrative voice. The opening of Joan Didion’s essay, “John Wayne: A Love Story”

“The faint aroma of gum and calico that hangs about a library is as the fragrance of incense to me. I think the most beautiful sight is the gilt-edged backs of a row of books on a shelf. The alley between two well-stocked shelves in a hall fills me with the same delight as passing through a silent avenue of trees. The colour of a binding-cloth and its smooth texture gives me the same pleasure as touching a flower on its stalk. A good library hall has an atmosphere which elates. I have seen one or two University Libraries that have the same atmosphere as a chapel, with large windows, great trees outside, and glass doors sliding on noiseless hinges.”

— R.K. Narayan on a feeling I too have had in many libraries.

And to match elegance in prose, a page from William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones’ Kelmscott Chaucer. Saw a copy in person at the Fogg last week; wow.


Platforms, platforms all around us…

Journalism (and much else for that matter) is mostly a question of platform now, you just may not have noticed it. By platform–a word, that like ‘risk’ means so many things it almost has withered to a semantic husk of itself–I’m thinking about the technological variety, generally a software system that facilitates, automates and otherwise organizes some human activity. Once upon a time it was the human bit that constituted the ends, with the platform as the means, now ends and means are mixed up, perhaps nowhere more than in journalism.

At least that’s the conclusion I draw from three bits of today’s reading, of passing interest to anybody who is watching the intersection between media and technology with fascination or dread.

First (and most interesting), New York Magazine’s Max Read asks “Can Medium Be Both a Tech Company and a Media Company?”
This is pegged to a story I didn’t know about (and am going to catch up on) in which a tech publication covering its own domain trips up on just what enterprise they are engaged in.

The platform of yesteryear, a speaker holding forth at Chautauqua.

“Medium wants to straddle the divide between media and tech — to be both a platform (tech) and a publisher (media). This can place it in an awkward position: Institutionally, is it on the closed-ranks side of the “new class of industrialists” of the tech industry, to whom the question of Airbnb’s liability in the deaths of its guests is already settled? Or is it an editorially independent media company with a mandate to ask uncomfortable questions? So far, its defense against the differing interests of its two halves is transparency. This morning, Matter’s editor Mark Lotto weighed in on the entire set of comments: “I can’t think of another publication or platform where an editor and his boss would have this exchange in front of everybody.”


–As Read points out, it’s possible to find such transparency pretty easily (including going back to the pre-web days). Further, is ‘transparency’–another word of the moment, along with its sibling ‘disclosure’–enough? Is having a lively debate about the meta-ethics of a story the same as facing up to a potential conflict of interest? Platforms it seems to me are awfully conducive to this recursive hall of mirrors feel–they yield data about data about data (think the cascade of comments that never ends, even after it’s become very, very meta.) Not sure what it this is–and even if it’s bad per se–just doesn’t feel like journalism.

Exhibit 2 is a piece from BBC Social Media Editor Mark on the BBC Academy Blog, “#Paris: UGC expertise can no longer be a niche newsroom skill” that raises lots of interesting points. Underscores the reality that social media/user generated content sources are now not just part of the reporter’s job but often most of it, with challenges about verification, and just stomaching what you see in your feeds. (We’ve come a long way from checking the AP and UPI wires instead of writing your story.)

“But how much time and resource can we afford to spend on uncovering the truth? Are we as invested in the search and verification tools as we are in training our staff across newsrooms to appreciate and understand the risks of UGC fakery? And finally, perhaps most importantly, do we have enough safeguards in place to help those who work with UGC on a regular basis cope with the distressing and disturbing material they see?”

Finally, The NYTimes profiles its most prolific commenters.

“These frequent commenters have also become a community, one that has its own luminaries.

“But who are they? We decided to take a look at some of the most popular commenters on The Times site, which receives around 9,000 online comments a day.”

Short profiles, with photos, that predictably (see recursion above) garnered more than 700 comments.

Indie Readers Unite!

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An independent bookseller gives Amazon’s new brick and mortar effort a taste of their own medicine.  Paul Constant of The Elliott Bay Book Company (a wonderful Seattle bookstore, up there with Tattered Cover in my list of dream stores), offered a reward to anybody who “showroomed” Amazon’s new store and he had a taker.

Details from the Seattle Review of Books...

Jargon and Job Hunting

For a job hunter, which matters more: A great photo or the hottest key words?

Pictures on Linked In apparently get a lot of attention, but so does getting the right jargon in. This is because your application, your LinkedIn profile, whatever, is getting analyzed first and foremost by algorithms that match your jargon against the employer’s job listing.

downloadBut Bloomberg reports the interesting fact that, like fashion, keeping up with the hot career buzz words (tech jargon) is as hard for employers as it is for prospective candidates. Turns out, if you want to attract talent, you need the right words. A service that analyzes your postings recommends saying good bye to “Big Data” and “Drug-Free Workplace”  and hello to “Real-time data” and “Robust and scalable.”

The article elaborates, “Big data: This is the biggest loser in technology job ads, according to Textio, a big data company that will no longer call itself that. Two years ago, everything was about big data, but Snyder noticed that it had started to drop off five or six months ago. Today, engineering jobs that mention “big data” perform 30 percent worse, on average, than those that do not, she said. “Now it’s so saturated that you’d better talk about AI and not big data.”

From a writerly perspective, none of these terms mean anything, and “robust, scalable” are particular offenders. (Please come build some “brittle, petite software application for our boutique client, srsly!”)  But if jargon will always be with us, I guess it pays to use this season’s fashion, and perhaps to have a really hot picture of your corporate HQ too!



Interesting Reads: Rise of the Paywall Press

Fascinating and well done piece at the Washington Monthly about how the trade press has prospered while general interest newspapers have floundered in covering the workings of government. Has the jaw-dropping fact that a publisher of trade economics letters (like the kind I used to shelve when I was a tech at the Library of Congress) sold for multiples of what either the Post or the Boston Globe sold (much less Newsweek).

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A subscription to Platt’s Oilgram, must read for the energy industry. It will set you back a cool, $21K, and you thought the NYTimes digital subscription was dear.

“Even with all its eyebrow-raising revenue schemes, an ascendant trade press is preferable to the only probable alternative, which is no press coverage at all (an increasingly common situation in many state capitals). And from my own experience and interviews I did for this story, I can say with confidence that trade press reporters are not brainwashed by the industries they cover or blind to the public responsibilities they have to find the truth and report it. No one I spoke to thought that a trade reporter held a distinct disadvantage over any other mainstream reporter to run down a great story and to have it make its way into the public consciousness. But the fact remains that on a day-to-day basis more and more information is flowing to Washington’s elite while less trickles out to the American public. And while trades vie zealously for a larger slice of that Washington Insider market, publications that appeal to a wider audience are either struggling to keep their lights on or leaving traditional reporting about government behind altogether.”

Although casting light on this digital transformation of the DC press as a sideline, the key point here is that general coverage of the workings of government–in the sense of that corny phrase “Who Will Tell The People?” is getting short changed. The trades are written for an audience of elites, they are specialized beyond the point of interest or context to non-insiders, and they are behind paywalls that require subscriptions in the thousands. But what they report on is how our government works, and what that means for policy and society.

I remember years ago something said by some op-ed writer (Frank Rich I think, but I can’t be certain) predicting a baleful era of all opinion all the time. The reason I think it was Rich, is it was pegged to somebody leaving starry heights of the Op-Ed page of the Times to go write for NYMag, and whether that was a “loss” to the Gray Lady.  Baloney, was the response. Opinion is easy, and if we think we are bathed in it 24/7 now just wait a few years. On the whole it’s not even that expensive, easy to cover and often empty. Actual reporting on the other hand, be it local, national or international, costs serious money, requires expertise and context, and takes risks (sometimes at enormous personal cost). That’s the dimension of journalism that nobody has figured out how to pay for generally. Interesting to think–thanks to this story (which has some real reporting in it, by the way)–that the trades have found a way to cover the government corner of this world, and to make it pay. Only rub, it’s just for the few.

Well worth reading the whole piece.

Commonplace Book: Ian Patterson on Julia Blackburn on John Craske

Great lead to a piece about a new bio of an unknown (at least to me) British primativist painter and embroider, John Craske,

In the final pages of The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald imagined ‘the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread’. Sebald was talking about weavers, but the feeling must be common to all sorts of artists, and to researchers, too. Getting hold of the right thread when you’re trying to find out about a life or anything else is a matter of luck: you don’t know what will lead somewhere useful or join up with other threads until it does. Every time you look back over fruitless archive searches, unhelpful conversations, dead addresses, unanswered emails, the intricate design you’ve imagined becomes pointless or malign and you feel like abandoning the project altogether. I don’t know of many books that give a better sense of the frustrations and excitement of research than Julia Blackburn’s account of her attempt to find out about John Craske.

Not sure if artists feel this way, but as a researcher, it rings true. More about Craske here; the LRB review–lovely piece–is behind the firewall.

Halloween Edition: Ghosts Who Read Succeed!

ghosts_that_still_walkAmerican Libraries has a nice round up of haunted libraries, including this tidbit:

“The local-history room of the New Hanover County Public Library (NHCPL) in Wilmington, North Carolina, harbors the ghost of a patron who frequented the library conducting Civil War research.

Former local-history librarian Beverly Tetterton insisted that some mornings she had found files spread out on a reading-room table when she is certain she had put everything away the night before. Sometimes people report the sounds on pages turning—subtle rustling noises that a “librarian would recognize as the sounds of doing research.”

abbotsfordShe often would find one book, The Papers of Zebulon Baird Vance, left out on the table. Tetterton said that once a 10-year-old boy came into the room to investigate the ghost. “I gave him the book to look at. Later, he walked up and said, ‘Do you think this has anything to do with it?’ Inside this book was an envelope addressed to the person that I thought might be the ghost. I have been through that book hundreds of times and never saw that envelope. I could feel my hair standing straight up.”

There is also a library that takes such pride in its paranormal activity that it’s set up webcams so you can take photos for yourself.

And for some ghostly, and wonderful sounds, check out the first part of Gloria Coates, Symphony No. 1, “Music on Open Strings”: I. Theme and Transformation, a suitably ghostly dance for a Halloween night. Happy trick or treating! We’re curling up with John Carpenter’s Classic Fright Flick, Halloween.