Friday Link List

1. Two Pittsburghians send mail to everyone on Earth

Or at least that’s the goal:

Michael Crowe and I are in the middle of writing a unique hand-written (or hand-typed) letter to every household in the world. […]

Each letter is different, and where possible personally addressed. We sign them “love Michael & Lenka”, and write in a chatty, friendly tone about topics of possible mutual interest; the weather, gentleness, Roseanne, etc.

In an attempt to discover these shared interests we often travel to the town, suburb, or small village that we plan to write to and live amongst the future recipients of our letters while we write them. We walk the same streets, eat the same bread brought from the same shops, observe the views from their hills, count the daffodils in their gardens, and so on.

Via {very short list}.

2. What Should We Be Worried About? {mother jones}

A new collection of essays entitled just that asks some of today’s biggest thinkers to divulge their fears and worries.

One of my favorites, Nicholas Carr, rants about the patience deficit (of course):

Given what we know about the variability of our time sense, it seems clear that information and communication technologies would have a particularly strong effect on personal time perception. After all, they often determine the pace of the events we experience, the speed with which we’re presented with new information and stimuli, and even the rhythm of our social interactions.

That’s long been true, but the influence must be particularly strong now that we carry powerful and extraordinarily fast computers around with us. Our gadgets train us to expect near instantaneous responses to our actions, and we quickly get frustrated and annoyed at even brief delays. I know that my own perception of time has been changed by technology. If I go from using a fast computer or Web connection to using even a slightly slower one, processes that take just a second or two longer—waking the machine from sleep, launching an application, opening a Web page—seem almost intolerably slow. Never before have I been so aware of, and annoyed by, the passage of mere seconds.

3. Amazon, a Friendly Giant as Long as It’s Fed {new york times}

Vincent Zandri hails from the future. He is a novelist from the day after tomorrow, when Amazon has remade the worlds of writing, printing, selling and reading books so thoroughly that there is hardly anything left besides Amazon. […]

A few years ago he was reduced to returning bottles and cans for grocery money. Now his Amazon earnings pay for lengthy stays in Italy and Paris, as well as expeditions to the real Amazon. “I go wherever I want, do whatever I want and live however I want,” he said recently at a bar in Mill Valley, Calif., a San Francisco suburb where he was relaxing after a jaunt to Nepal.

Reading Is Physical

A recent study in the journal Science compares the brain activity of rats as they navigate physical (real) spaces and virtual (simulated) spaces. The results suggest that there are real differences:

On a real track, [a particular place cell] would fire when [the rat] had taken two steps away from the start [of the track], and then again when the animal reached the same spot on its return trip. But in virtual reality, something odd happened. Rather than firing a second time when the rat reached the same place on its return trip, [the cell] fired when the rat was two steps away from the opposite end of the track … That’s like the same place cell in your brain firing when you’ve taken two steps away from your door and then when you’ve taken two steps away from your car. Instead of encoding a position in absolute space, the place cell seems to be keeping track of the rat’s relative distance along the (virtual) track. [Mehta] says, “This never happens in the real world.”

The takeaway (says Nicholas Carr):

…the difference may stem from the lack of “proximal cues”—environmental smells, sounds, and textures that provide clues to location—in the digital world.

So rats may not be able to navigate virtual worlds as well as their physical counterparts because even though it’s a three-dimensional environment they’re navigating, there’s still a lot of important information missing.

Which brings me to ebooks and reading on screens in general. My particular experience varies, but my gut tells me I don’t comprehend or retain information I read online/my phone as well as I do when I read it on paper. There’s something about holding a paper book that tells my brain to slow down and pay attention. (And an equally as powerful part that constantly wants to reach for my phone…)

I do everything on my phone—set alarms, send text messages, read the news, listen to music—I think my brain picks up on that and designates it as a medium that doesn’t require that much concentration.

It appears as though my hunch may be right. Quoting from Andrew Sullivan’s quoting:

[E]vidence from laboratory experiments, polls, and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way.

In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done. A parallel line of research focuses on people’s attitudes toward different kinds of media. Whether they realize it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper.

Suggested listening:

Wild Nothing — “Data World” {mp3}

See also: my ongoing coverage of ebooks.

Literature As Data

The Friday link list is on hiatus until next week. Instead I’d like to share this insightful article about literature’s inability to be converted to data, as Stephen Marche argues is the effect of the Google’s book-digitization project.

Marche’s piece, Literature is Not Data: Against Digital Humanities {los angeles review of books; via andrew sullivan}, begins by tracing the original idea & concept for the Google Books project (what Marche describes as a series of “intellectual failings.” Then he goes on to make the distinction between literature and data, concluding that “literature is the opposite of data”:

Take my favorite line of Shakespeare’s, from Macbeth: “Light thickens, and the crows make wing to the rooky wood.” What is the difference between a crow and a rook? Nothing. What does it mean that light thickens? Who knows? The lines, as data, are more or less nonsense. And yet they illuminate their moment radiantly.

He ends with the possible implications of this shift, some of which have already been realized:

The implications of literature as resistance to data extend well beyond the mostly irrelevant little preserve of literature and literary analysis. Algorithms are inherently fascistic, because they give the comforting illusion of an alterity to human affairs. “You don’t like this music? The algorithms have worked it out” is not so far from “You don’t like this law? It works objectively.” Algorithms have replaced laws of human nature, the vital distinction being that nobody can read them. They describe human meanings but are meaningless.

It’s a great thought-provoking article about the shift of reading to digital devices and our greater reliance of algorithms to tell us what we should pay attention to. Read the whole thing here.

that ain’t smart that’s creepy: vanishing ebooks

This is part of my ongoing coverage of disappearing ebooks. (See also: destroying ebooks is easy.)

This time, instead of an ebook being pulled by its publisher and vanishing from ebook stores, it’s a story about books being erased from a device without one unlucky user’s consent. And it doesn’t seem like she’s getting her books back any time soon:

Did she violate any terms? Amazon will not tell. Perhaps by accident? Amazon does not care. The conclusion so far is clear: Amazon closed her account, wiped her Kindle and refuses to tell her why. End of discussion.

Read Outlawed by Amazon DRM {bekkelund.net; via daring fireball}.

That ain’t smart that’s creepy: destroying e-books edition

A cautionary tale from Maria Konnikova over at The Atlantic about the ease with which e-books can be recalled and effectively un-published:

And what happens when there actually aren’t any physical books behind those electronic versions—and then a publisher or retailer not only removes all links to the book in question, but then proceeds to remove the already purchased book from your reading device? Imagine: When all of your books are in digital form, what is the backup system if they are of a sudden removed?

{via andrew sullivan}

This issue will become only more pronounced as more and more of us move our books, music, and other media into the cloud. It even weirds me out that the iPhone version of The New Yorker is occasionally updated, with no announcement as to what has changed. Call me old fashioned, but I’m sticking with paper.