Monthly Archives: May 2009

Priorities

“If you think the economy is more important than the environment, try holding your breath while counting your money.” – Guy McPherson, Latter-day Gadfly

The Afghan Women’s Writing Project

Stop reading this blog and go read the posts at the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.  The internet is filled with forgettable trivia.  This is the precise opposite.  These are the voices from Afghanistan that the barbarians in the Taliban and their buddies are trying to silence.

Afghan women's writing project

Are you still reading this?  Stop.  Go there.

Thanks to Donigan Merritt for the link.

The Afghan Women's Writing Project

Stop reading this blog and go read the posts at the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.  The internet is filled with forgettable trivia.  This is the precise opposite.  These are the voices from Afghanistan that the barbarians in the Taliban and their buddies are trying to silence.

Afghan women's writing project

Are you still reading this?  Stop.  Go there.

Thanks to Donigan Merritt for the link.

E-book chapter mashups?

The good folks at Feedbooks are improving their publishing application programming interface (API).

Writers can now “switch to the Table of Contents (ToC) of your book while editing, to drag & drop parts/chapters/sections and re-order them the way that you want.”

Sounds very user-friendly—another online publishing option for potential authors.

But quickly reading the post the first time, I mistakenly thought Feedbooks was going to let the reader perform these in-book mashups. It got me to thinking: why not?

When a mashup will work

For novels that rely on straightforward linear progression, a mashup probably wouldn’t work. But not all novels do. The Sound and the Fury, for instance, or David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (available as DRMed Kindlebook). Or imagine a novel written around a cluster of characters. You, the reader, follow the characters along as they intrigue you, reading the book in an order of your own choosing. (Note: I’m working on a manuscript along these lines.)

Entertainment.

Entertainment.

Hard to fathom the amount of technical work that would be required to create such a beast, both in terms of actual writing and e-book API. It would have to be done very, very well. The “hypernovels” of the 90s that I’ve seen are dismal failures, no improvement on the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood, which at least had the virtue of being entertaining.

In Pale Fire, a protype for e-book mash-ups?

The only really good book I can think of written in this way is Nabokov’s masterwork Pale Fire, conceived as a commentary on a 999-line poem. The poet himself has been killed by a man who may or may not have been sent to assassinate the commentator, who may or may not be the mad exiled king of a conquered principality, which may or may not exist.

Mashup prototype?

Mashup prototype?

You can’t just read this book chapter by chapter. You have to page back and forth between poem and commentary and index. The prototype for e-book mash-ups?

Undoubtedly there are more. Italo Calvino? Maybe the original “postmodern” novel, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy?

Possibly this would be a more effective technique for nonfiction. For instance, allowing a reader to order the chapters in a how-to book as they find them relevant. Or history books. For instance, allowing me to get to the good stuff connecting 12th-century Heian-era Kyoto to modern-day Tokyo while skipping over the hackneyed samurai derring-do in between. Bringing the sort of hop-scotching link-jumping we associate on the internet to e-books, while maintaining a semblance of chapter order.

Certainly this would be a break from reading tradition, but that’s already happening on the Internet. (How many hyperlinks have you clicked on so far?) I’m not convinced it’s necessarily a bad thing to follow your clicks down the rabbit-hole, as long as it doesn’t involve too much time watching skateboarding rabbits.

I think e-books can be a lot more than just a convenient offshoots of paper books. E-books with this sort of functionality built in would allow you to zero in on what fascinates you most. Sort of a hybrid between website and paper book. The sort of thing that could send e-books in a really radical new direction.

Note: This post originally appeared at TeleRead.

Update:  Reader Timothy suggests A Spoon River Anthology as one prospect for a mashup.  Excellent idea.  Seem to be an ideal candidate for me.

And I thought of one more: Winesburg, Ohio.  You could read this in all sorts of orders, if you were so inclined and had the e-book capability to do so.  (Of course, you could also just flip around as you pleased in a paper book.)

Working with your hands a-ok?

In one of my earliest blog posts, I speculated that the best way to get by in life is to get a trade.  You know, something like carpentry or computers that allowed me to get by while leaving plenty of time and mental space to pursue my real interest, writing. I’m still looking.

Get thee to medical and / or law school, young man.

Screw the post office.

The great philosopher Spinoza, who inspired this blog in name and substance, set the template.  He was a lens grinder, a pretty high-end trade in the 1600s.

Later on I read that Faulkner advised much the same thing: since there is no space in American culture for writers, he said, you need a trade.  So be a doctor or a lawyer.   Faulkner himself had a brief stint as a postmaster.  He didn’t last long.  For some solid reasons:

I reckon I’ll be at the beck and call of folks with money all my life, but thank God I won’t ever again have to be at the beck and call of every son of a bitch who’s got two cents to buy a stamp.

Now the New York Times is getting in the act.  Matthew B. Crawford, holder of a Phd in Political Science from the U of Chicago, has taken up motorcycle repair as a vocation.

The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Va., which I started in 2002. I work on Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly older bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

He goes on to enumerate the various dignities to be associated with getting your hands dirty for a living (“I once accidentally dropped a feeler gauge down into the crankcase of a Kawasaki Ninja … When finally I laid my fingers on it, I felt as if I had cheated death.”) as contrasted with the indignities of the cubicle experience:

Managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. Nothing is set in concrete the way it is when you are, for example, pouring concrete.

Insert Zen and the Art of blah blah blah joke here

Insert Zen and the Art of blah blah blah joke here.

Crawford has thought about this a lot.  He’s  written a book about it. Upshot: we can’t all be motorcycle mechanics, but we can re-evaluate the value of real, hands-on work.  Given our current woes, the field for productive labor looks wide open.

He’s right, of course.  There is an inherent dignity in actual work, the kind that sees you projects progress on the power of your own hands, solving problems, getting cuts and bruises and the job done.  But.  I’ve dabbled in various trades, most recently farmwork since I’ve been back in the purple state.  And the main thing I’ve learned is that I don’t want to to keep on doing them for a living.

Maybe the article failed to resonate because I loathe all forms mechanics.  (The work, not the people.  Good mechanics are miracleworkers in my opinion, or at least wizards.)  I don’t like engines, and they can’t stand me.  For the most part we’ve agreed to stay away from each other.  It’s better that way.

I should have attended.

But I’ve also been about as far from the workshop as you can get in the trades, working as a surveyor.  Yes, surveying in property lines on a remote Wyoming ranch is pretty cool.  But standing at a tripod for hours in a frozen field in the middle of a Colorado January is not only a pretty good recipe for frostbite, but also leads to high likelihood of job dissatisfaction.

So I’m still looking for the ideal trade to get a living for my family and get some good writing done.  Narrowing it down somewhat, I think, but with all due respect to Mr. Crawford, I don’t intend to be shopping for mechanic’s jumpsuits any time soon.

gThe trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Va., which I started in 2002. I work on Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly older bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

The Decider and Dick: still hilarious

Best moment: “I spent eight years with my face out there saying things I barely understood while you were nowhere to be found,” Dubya says to Darth.  “I got the one guy who scares me more than my dad.”

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Space shuttle solar transit makes one hell of a photo

I don’t normally get geeked about space photos.  Maybe it has something to do with lingering Challenger trauma.  (The teachers in my elementary school, tears streaming down their faces, marched the whole school into the library to watch endless reruns of the explosion on the news.)  But this is one hell of a photo: the space shuttle passing in front of the sun.  If this didn’t come from NASA’s photostream, I’d almost think it was fake.

In this tightly cropped image, the NASA space shuttle Atlantis is seen in silhouette during solar transit, Tuesday, May 12, 2009, from Florida. This image was made before Atlantis and the crew of STS-125 had grappled the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo Credit: (NASA/Thierry Legault)

In this tightly cropped image, the NASA space shuttle Atlantis is seen in silhouette during solar transit, Tuesday, May 12, 2009, from Florida. This image was made before Atlantis and the crew of STS-125 had grappled the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo Credit: (NASA/Thierry Legault)