Hugh McGuire

publishing, technology, media, philosophy, a bit of politics.

World Breathes Sigh of Relief

I’ve been imagining this headline for a few years now.

Tolstoy and the iPhone

[Also published at Huffpo]

I just came into possession of an iPod Touch, which is more or less the iPhone without the phone part (my friend Matt got an iPhone, so I inherited his Touch). I got the little gadget the night before a trip to San Francisco, and I loaded it up with audiobooks from LibriVox, podcasts from earideas, TEDTalks videos, and a host of public domain texts from Gutenberg to keep me busy during the plane ride.

It’s a beautiful little machine, which we expect from Apple. As an iPod it’s as good as you’d like — with the nice addition, for me, of video. But the biggest shock for me was how pleasing it was to read novels on the thing. I was surprised by how much I liked the elegant ereader application, Stanza. I read Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and I started reading – and continue to read – Tolstoy’s War & Peace. I even chose a number of times to read on my iPod in bed, instead of the paperback non-fiction & hardback fiction books I had brought along. War & Peace is, actually, a dream to read on the iPod. (Who would have thought?).

Reading digital text on a small handheld device is nothing like reading text on a computer (desktop or laptop). A mobile device is much more comfortable, for plenty of reasons. You can lounge and arrange yourself as you like; you can whip the device out while standing in line of passport control, and in the most cramped of subways (always annoying trying to hold a paperback open in a sardine-crowd). There’s an almost unlimited number of books you can pack into it. And the chunk of text displayed seems about exactly right for my own internet-frayed attention span, with the pleasant effect that I am propelled forward from page to page.

I tried an experiment too, listening to the LibriVox version of War and Peace while reading along, which was a relaxing immersive experience on the plane (though after a while, the slow speed of the audio compared with my reading became too distracting). But this could be a wonderful tool for those learning to read, language students, those with learning disabilities, and auditory learners reading dense, difficult texts, Kant for instance.

The iPhone and nifty apps like Stanza have convinced me that there is a real future in ebooks, one that I’ve always thought was more theoretical than actual. I’m a book person, paper and print. I love the smell, feel, texture and experience of reading a book. I always will, and I don’t think that ereaders will ever replace books for me. Ebooks have too many drawbacks.

The also have plenty of advantages, and now that I know I actually enjoy reading on an iPod, I’m pretty sure that ebooks on handheld mobile devices will continue to be one part of my reading habits.

Teleread reports that Apple is cutting iPhone production, and that will have negative impacts on the uptake of ebooks. They’re probably right, but for me — a former skeptic — the compelling case for ebooks has been made. I like ’em.

Whether it’s the iPhone in the next year or so, or something else in five years, I’m sold.

Conservatives Mad at Bush (Finally)

I’m no conservative, but I’ve long said that the people who should be most angry with Bush & Co. (or, better, who are most responsible for Bush & Co.) are the real conservatives in America. They have allowed this president, his administration, and the people behind him to undermine true conservatism in the name of power. It might have been a decent deal while Bush ruled the White House, but the long-term implications for the movement could well be devastating. We’ll see. Anyway:

Last Monday, former Bush White House aide Peter Wehner made a startling statement in an op-ed in The Washington Post. He said that while “the GOP is in bad shape, conservatism is not.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Conservatism has been badly damaged by Wehner’s former bosses, President Bush and Karl Rove, and others who never understood our movement, who only saw it as a tool to serve the political needs of this administration, never as a framework for governance.

From steel tariffs to prescription drug benefits, to the massive expansion of the police powers of the national government, to bloated transportation and energy bills, to federal mandates to the states on education, to nation-building, Reaganism was not only thrown under a bus by this administration, it also repeatedly ran back and forth over it.

The work of millions of conservatives going back to the 1940s has been sullied and misshapen into something unrecognizable, and Wehner writes as if he was simply an innocent bystander, rather than an active participant in its demise.. [more…]

Google Books Settlement

I was at the annual meeting of the Open Content Alliance (hosted by the Internet Archive) when news of the big settlement between Google and Authors over use of out-of-print and orphan works in Google’s Book Search.

The Open Content Alliance is an open, public domain version of Google’s book scanning endeavour, which is dedicated rather to making a commercial tool in the service of Google.

So the OCA was pretty worked up about the agreement and what it would mean. I’ve not yet processed the agreement and it’s implications (generally I am skeptical that it is the best outcome for the public in general, unless alternate sources of scanned books remain viable). So I was happy to see that Harvard announced it would not join Google’s efforts, for the right reasons. According to Harvard University Library Director Robert Darnton:

“As we understand it, the settlement contains too many potential limitations on access to and use of the books by members of the higher education community and by patrons of public libraries.” [more…]

[via Teleread]

The Cognitive Life of Bacteria

The most fascinating bit of audio I’ve heard in a long while, The secret life of bacteria – small, smart and thoughtful, from Australian Radio National:

We can´t survive without them — and we´ve long underestimated their prowess. Controversially, bacteria could even have cognitive talents that rival our own. Predatory behaviour, cooperation, memory — Jules Verne eat your heart out — Natasha Mitchell takes you on a strange adventure into the secret world of microbial mentality.

>Listen here.

How Fiction Works

What a wonderful, elegant little book, by James Wood:

[openbook booknumber=”0374173400″]

Books Versus Ebooks

I have a new article up at Huffpo, On Books & Ebooks:

Among book lovers, there continues to be an prevalent negative feeling about electronic books, or ebooks. The reaction, one I myself have experienced, goes something like this: I enjoy reading books, I enjoy the feel and the tactile feedback, touch, smell, look, books can be marked up and carried around, they never run out of batteries, I can keep them on my bookshelf, they look great, and they are permanent; they are easier on the eyes than screens, and dammit, I just love them. I do not want to read a book in an electronic format. And so I don’t think ebooks will succeed, no matter what Oprah says about the Amazon Kindle.

While I’m sympathetic with that reaction (indeed I feel the same way about paper & ink books), it entirely misses the point of ebooks. Ebooks are not in opposition to print & paper books; they are a parallel tool to get the content contained in a book [more…]

Testing the OpenBook Plugin

Testing John Miedema’s Open Book plugin, which helps blogs publish data from the great OpenLibrary site (sorta an open IMDB for books, a project of the Internet Archive).

Here is the test: One of my favourite books is:

[openbook booknumber=”0679767924″]

It works. Nice.’s Flipbook

I’m at the annual conference of the Open Content Alliance, hosted by the Internet Archive. They’re just launching their open source Flip Book. Very nice, and you can embed it in your site, to whit:

Pretty neat, eh?

Why Academics Should Blog

I’m taking a Media Theory course at Concordia in their Media Studies MA program, which involves a fair bit of reading. I’ve come to the conclusion that all academics should blog. Here’s why:

1. You need to improve your writing
I have never read such dismally bad writing as that which is prevalent in academia. Not all of it is terrible, but the stuff that is bad is just atrocious. It’s wordy, flabby, repetitive, and filled with jargony mumbo-jumbo. I realize that jargon is the very stuff that you work with and to the extent that you need your topic-specific jargon to make a point, then you should use it. But there is a whole other class of general academic mumbo-jumbo that you need to cut out of your writing right now. Go read Orwell’s rules, and then Strunk and White, and then we can talk about it again. Hint: utilize=use, militate=block, empower=mumbojumbo. You need lots of practice writing clear, good prose and saying what you mean. Blogging will help you get that practice.

2. Some of your ideas are dumb
The sooner you get called out on bad ideas, the better. Blogging has an almost-immediate feedback loop, and if you write a discipline-specific blog, then your colleagues around the world will read it (if they don’t then you are doing something wrong). That means that when you have a dumb idea, you should hear about it quickly, and you can then reconsider. When you have a good idea, you’ll hear about it; when you have an incomplete idea, and some others chip in with suggestions, you’ll get a better-formed idea. Etcetera.

3. The point of academia is to expand knowledge
If you believe that the reason academics publish is to expand knowledge, then expanding it beyond the few tens or hundreds of your colleagues that read the obscure journals you publish in should be a good thing. Your ideas should matter (if they don’t you should try to come up with some better ideas). If they matter then more people should know about them, and right now almost all your ideas are locked up inside the walls of journals, academic conferences, and university quadrangles. Set them free, and the good ideas will spread, be built on by others, and knowledge as a whole will benefit.

4. Blogging expands your readership
Cross-polination of ideas makes for a more healthy intellectual ecosystem, and blogging means that anyone, not just those in your discipline, will be likely to read your stuff. This includes other academics, as well as the rest of us (politicians, policy developers, artists, engineers, designers, writers, thinkers, kids, parents, and on and on). Anyone might have an interest in your work, or nuanced ideas about how it might be improved, or indeed thoughts on how your thoughts might improve their own thinking on a particular (perhaps nominally-unrelated) topic. More readers, from a more varied background, means your ideas will have a bigger impact.

5. Blogging protects and promotes your ideas
By blogging a new idea, you put your stakes in the (cyber)ground, with dates and readership to attest to your claim. When you blog, you’ve published, meaning people know you have published, and further meaning that a much wider audience – anyone with an Internet connection – can get access to your ideas. Which leads to the next point.

6. Blogging is Reputation
In blogging links are currency: your reputation is made by who links to you and how often. It’s a built in, and more-or-less democratic system of reputation as defined by interest. By having your ideas online, the value of your ideas (as reflected by who is interested in them) becomes immediately apparent. The academic/journal system works in similar ways, with Journal references as the currency. So you should be right at home.

7. Linking is better than footnotes
Linking is much better than a footnote. It allows your readers to visit your source material immediately (assuming it too is online), so again is likely to expand knowledge by giving readers direct access to the ideas that underpin your ideas.

8. Journals and blogs can (and should) coexist
Blogs and (online) newspapers exist in a symbiotic relationship: bloggers sift through and refer to newspapers, sending traffic to them. Newspapers now blog, and bloggers write newspaper articles. There is a general sense that blogging can be a bit more free-form, a bit less polished. While newspaper articles are more rigourous and final. Something similar should happen with blogs and journals. If academics blog, they can evolve and develop a series of ideas. When the ideas are clearer and polished, they can move on to be journal articles. But let’s get those journals online and free as well. Speaking of which:

9. What have journals done for you lately?

Journals define your reputation, and don’t pay anything. That’s like blogging. They are exorbitantly expensive, have abusive and restrictive copyright terms, and are not available online to the general public. You can’t link to them, and often you can’t find them. That’s unlike blogging. Journals should all be open access and free online (as newspapers have come to be), and you should tell them that, and choose to publish in open access journals whenever you can. It’s good for knowledge, and you are in the knowledge business. You should support whatever is good for knowledge.