Uniqueness

You’ve all, I’m sure, heard that old adage that if you put enough monkeys at a typewriter, one is bound to plunk out Shakespeare. Well, This week it came out that some smart programmer, virtually, did just that.  It is all done with strings of letters being randomly generated and cross checked against an entire text file of Shakespeare’s works, and there is an evolutionary culling process involved which speeds things up tremendously.

But this whole thing begins pushing some philosophical buttons.  What is the point of randomly generated classical literature, other than to prove that a thought experiment could theoretically be true?

It reminds me of the Borges story “The Library of Babel.”  The Library in this story is comprised of what appears to be every permutation of letters within a particular size and shape of volume in a hexagonal spire that goes infinitely in both directions.  The books themselves eventually contain every work that is ever written, but the endless madness in between renders them completely irrelevant.  The people in the library, desperately struggling for meaning, form factions, conduct pogroms, declare certain works definitive and then burn anything that is remotely similar, though the variations and the randomness of the entire collection makes this a nigh-on-impossible task.  I like to think this was some clever commentary on the literary predisposition for analysis of different editions of works, and whether or not there is meaning in a comma or an adverb.  However, I think it’s slightly more than that.

With the Library of Babel and the infinite monkey experiment we are confronted with this kind of predestination of the written word; all thought can be made, it is just a matter of culling it from the dross of the infinite.  However true this statement may be, the fact remains that infinite culling will take an infinite amount of time.  Only a madman would even begin to attempt something that foolhardy (sorry virtual monkey dude).

But what it shows us on the reverse is something miraculous.  Shakespeare was a unique individual (as is most commonly believed), and his work has lasted over four hundred years.  The artistry of that one person is unique, and it is this uniqueness and genius that we cling to.  It would take an infinite number of ignorant monkeys to accidentally reproduce masterpieces, but it only took one Shakespeare.  How rare and wonderful!

Shakespeare is only the beginning of this though.  All of literature is a unique bloom.  It may be built on the shoulders of others, it may be as common as a formula romance novel, but it is still the product of the human mind.  Of all the works that could have been pulled from that chaos of the infinite, this one, beautiful work was created.

And that is miraculous.

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We Are All Weird

Over the last couple of days I read Seth Godin’s new manifesto We Are All Weird.  While I don’t believe it contains a tremendous amount of insight, or even answers really, it makes up for it in passion.

Godin’s premise is that the internet has led to an explosion of niche communities, that up until fairly recently would have probably lingered in obscurity.  Now the fringe of the fringe can find each other and become superfringey together by resonating and amplifying their weirdness.  This leads to a flattening of the “normal distribution” that statistics loves and that marketers have used over the years to develop middle-of-the-road products.  Consumers no longer are looking for the normal thing, they’re looking for the thing that speaks to their individual needs.

He uses the example of Wonder Bread, which perfectly illustrates this.  Wonder Bread is the most mainstream American product that you can probably think of.  But if you walk down a bread aisle in a grocery store, chances are you’ll see that there are dozens and dozens of more options than Wonder Bread, and beyond that the grocery probably also has a bakery of its own that does unique loaves of its own kind of bread to fill the niche of people who want fresh-baked, non-sandwich types of bread.  I know that in my house I have to buy bread that is not only vegan, but does not contain corn or corn-syrup either because my husband is a vegan who is allergic to corn.  That drastically reduces the number of choices, but the fact that I have the option to buy that exacting specification of bread is why I can still keep shopping at that particular store.

People want what is unique to their lives and their experiences, and the common ground is being ceded to the artisan every day.

Godin is coming at this from a marketer’s perspective. How does one advertise to plug the right product into the right place so that these small clusters of people find it?  There are no hard and fast answers, but rather a rallying cry to understand that people are unique, not numbers.  In order to envision the advertising of the future you have to understand that people don’t want to be “the average American,” nor do they want to be seen as such.  They want to be recognized for all the wonderfully weird things that they are.

And this is the way of the future.  The internet is not going anywhere, subcultures are growing exponentially, and services that cater to a middling demographic will go the way of the dodo bird.  What we will see is the ever growing cacophony of choices, allowing us to go anywhere and buy or build any kind of unique product that we wish.

This makes me think of two things in my life.

When I went to Japan I was bombarded with choice.  At the 7-11 they had about 30 different kinds of Onigiri in the refrigerator.  It was always kind of a random selection for me because I could barely read Japanese.  At the hot bar they had make your own Oden soup with a variety of different mix-in things.  When we went to Akihabara there were so many things that you could never even begin to imagine.  The vending machines alone were the most bizarre and wonderful things you have ever seen.  A friend got a hot soup can out of the vending machine that had a quail egg in it, and this from a machine that had hot, cold and room temperature things all in one place.  When we went to Don Quijote it was like the craziest multi-floor storage unit full of tchotchkes you’ve ever seen in your life.  It makes Archie McPhee’s look like a Spencer’s Gifts.  There were racks of underwear, next to badass Hello Kitty key chains, next to sex toys, next to giant foam cowboy hats.  It was insane and wonderful. And just while we’re mentioning Hello Kitty, there are untold thousands of HK products in Japan.  Every neighborhood has a special HK product, designers line up by the droves to have their own specially designed Hello Kitty.  Sanrio is the epitome of this.  You can have any kind of Hello Kitty you can imagine, and we’ll make it for you.

And the second thing that immediately came to mind was Warren Ellis’s comic series Transmetropolitan.  Transmet takes place in the future where choice has become the most surreal chaotic dystopia you can imagine.  Why buy KFC when you can buy a bucket of moose eyes and eat them like popcorn?  Or a human leg for that matter from genetically altered, brain-dead, sci-farm raised stem-cells.  Why bother being human at all when you can alter your genome and become half-alien or half-animal, or just screw being human altogether and become a cloud of nanites with your human memories?  The media is saturated with the bizarre, and the only way to ride the wave and make your voice heard over the din is the be the most bizarre son-of-a-bitch in the world. So Gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem straddles the line between loathing contempt and embracing the madness.  Does it change society?  Does it have an impact?  Does it mean anything at all?  Sort of, but not really.  The world just doesn’t stop getting stranger, and it doesn’t necessarily get any better.

What does this mean for the future?

I have absolutely no idea.

And I love it.

Snow Crash

I’ve been on a novel reading tear lately.  It’s been really good for me to just zone out on the couch and read for evening after evening.  The latest in a string of finished reads was Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Now, I may have mentioned that I have attempted twice before to conquer a Neal Stephenson novel only to give up somewhere along the way; once for Cryptonomicon (which I thought was the coolest title, but man, I could not read that thing) and then for Quicksilver (which also was cool, and had Isaac Newton and Pirates and still I put it aside). I can’t explain what leads me to put a novel aside.  In the case of Quicksilver I think it was in fact the pirates that did it.  Perhaps it was a push too far into the realm of the ridiculous that I couldn’t be bothered to care about.  I don’t even remember.  Snow Crash on the other hand I did get through, and I was legitimately hooked, but it took something almost half-way through the novel to get me.  Maybe that’s been the problem all along.

Anyhow, let’s talk about Snow Crash. Hiro is a hacker who was there at the beginning of a major shift in computer entertainment known as the Metaverse (think a grittier version of Second Life), but who had made some pretty poor decisions on how to deal with the money he made.  Cashing out too early he’s broke, and now is delivering pizzas for the Mafia.  Oh, and yeah, it’s a dystopian corporate hellhole of a world where corporate personhood has taken on entirely new levels of scary and become kind of Polis / Nation-State entities of their own.  A franchise is now also some kind of consulate with its own militia and their own rules of behavior and enemy engagement.  I can’t tell if this is some kind of critique of pure Objectivism or just a fun romp, but it straddles a very uncomfortable line.

Anyhow, early on in the novel Hiro is asked by some random shitty-looking avatar in the Metaverse if he wants to try “Snow Crash.”  Is it a virus? Is it a drug?  What’s the difference?  And this becomes the central mystery to the entire novel.  What is this virus/drug and why is it turning people into babbling idiots and crashing computers?

Now, this whole plot line wasn’t interesting to me until they started getting into Sumerian mythology.

Yeah.

So something incredibly ancient is wreaking havoc on something cutting edge and incredibly modern.  What follows is globe-trotting, metaverse hacking and expository rambling that’s actually kind of cool.  It’s got car chases, nuclear weapons, sword fights, punk rock shows, skateboard thrashing and wheels-within-wheels plot.  Overall kind of fun.

It did have its down sides.  There were chapters early on where plotlines were irreconcilably overlapping each other, and things were happening in the physical world in two different places at once.  And some bizarre illogical jumps to other parts of the country (Alaska to California in a day?) for the sake of, well, I don’t really know for certain.  And of course a LOT of physically impossible things that were incredibly annoying.

The tone of the novel kind of jumped around somewhere between incredibly intellectual ponderings ala Umberto Eco and ridiculous buffoonery ala Tom Robbins.  It felt incredibly incongruous in that way.  This is not to say that a novel can’t be smart and silly at the same time.  I’m just saying it felt kind of clumsy, in a Dan Brown or Agatha Christie kind of way where experts have to explain to uninformed the fancy, obscure thing that only they have figured out.  While the buffoonery made me roll my eyes at times, and the explanatory prose did get kind of pedantic, I kept reading.  Which says something.

I think what I’m trying to say is that I liked the idea of this novel.  I think it’s got a brilliant premise.  But the trappings of it kind of make me go, meh.

EPUB 3 Standard Released

Quick on the heels of the Starship Library post comes news about the specs of EPUB 3.  And boy it does not disappoint.  Inclusion of HTML5 compliance, CSS, embeddable video and audio.

So all that stuff I was concerned about being stuck in a single operating system?  Pretty much going out the window.  People are realizing that multimedia books are going to be the thing now, and being able to standardize that is super important.

This has a ton of potential, and could really take things to new levels.  Let’s kind of brainstorm here for a moment.

Publishers are now going to be in the position of acquiring content to create enhanced eBooks.  Whether that be audio, video, or additional texts, the role of the publisher is going to be to bring more to the table than the author can do himself.  The author’s job is to write a text.  The publisher’s job is going to be to make that text sing with special features.

Let’s talk about Shakespeare for a minute.  Wouldn’t it be amazing, and incredibly informative to have a video of a staged performance of something, say Measure for Measure, which is loaded with period specific innuendo, with the text of the play going along beneath it, and highlighted links to articles about words and phrases that provide bonus exegesis on the text?  Sure you could read the play, and click around through the textual analysis, but being able to both watch and read the play as its happening would be a godsend to educators.

Imagine a Criterion Collection of eBooks.  Just think about it.

This is totally going to change the audio book landscape.  With audiobooks incorporated directly into the text we’ll probably see some acquisition of companies like Blackwell and Recorded Books.  Plus, it would make for a fascinating opportunity for the public domain things coming in through LibriVox.  To be able to bundle the audiobook and the ebook together will be a blessing for everyone.  Not only does it mean that you don’t have to choose, you can change between them as you like.  So while you’re on the train you can read the ebook edition, but in the bathtub or cooking dinner you can listen to the audio edition.

This is also going to justify price changes in the ebook marketplace.  Whereas before the user expected something akin to a text file, and wondered why he was paying full price.  Now he can get a whole suite of things in one eBook edition and would be more than happy to pay for the privilege of it.

This also means that eReaders are going to have to grow up and fast.  The technology to create color eInk with a high frame rate is out there.  And with this kind of technology we’re going to need it in next gen eReaders.  Maybe having hybrid eInk and LED/LCD screens is the solution for day and night transitions (and yes it’s possible, it’s how all the One Laptop Per Child devices work).  It also means we’re going to have to talk about space constraints on devices.  Services like Kindle where you can download content and archive it remotely are going to have to become the norm unless we move into seriously high capacity storage on tablets and eReaders.

Oh this makes me very happy indeed.

Starship Libraries

Since I wrote that post about enhanced eBooks last week, something has been seriously bothering me. To put it bluntly I’m concerned about the longevity of eBooks, and what that means for civilization.

Now I know that sounds lofty, and I will right now admit that it totally is. But hear me out on this one.

We know for a fact that this planet isn’t going to last forever. And eventually we’ll have to move on to the stars. The good folks who dream up the methods of how this will work have some pretty awesome ideas including things like generational star ships and plans for colonization of other planets.

But these plans for colonization are incomplete unless the folks who leave come prepared with the vast body of knowledge created by human society. Otherwise all of the work of science, technology, literature, religion, sociology, psychology, medicine.  It will all be lost and humanity will have to start all over again, and relearn absolutely everything.

What a giant waste of time!

So, how could it be possible for our descendants to have access to the vast wealth of knowledge that we have created here on earth?  Well, they would have to store it all somehow, most likely in a digital format with redundancy systems built in so that if part of it fails you don’t lose everything in one fell swoop.  But they would also have to have the necessary software to unlock and read that data again as well.

And that’s what today’s competitive marketplace is not considering.

I know that was a leap, so let me fill in the gaps here.

When you purchase an app for the iPad, it is meant to run in the iOS environment.  Sometimes it runs in its own application environment on the iOS and sometimes it runs within an additional environment that has its own formatting issues, e.g. Kindle.  So, when you buy a Kindle book, you’re buying a version of the ebook in a .zpf format, which is Amazon’s proprietary book reader.  Other vendors operate in the world of ePub editions, which is a free and open ebook standard making it a more universally accepted format.

Similarly, those apps that are built to access multimedia works, such as the very awesome TouchPress applications, are currently only accessible via iOS.  Again, the problem is that these are operating in a closed system.  They cannot be accessed on other types of devices, and thus render themselves useless for future access. This could have been avoided had these been designed as offline web apps using HTML5, thus making them completely accessible via any type of digital device.   Of course any video or audio codecs used in the making of these would also have to be compliant and available in the hypothetical starship library.

The point is, that we can’t expect the future development of society to follow this current trajectory if we are to think about this with the long view.  Programming device specific content is irrelevant in the long run.  Devices last a few years.  However, building something that operates within accepted standards could give you a much better shot at long term stability.

The elephant in the room here is that none of this is relevant with our current copyright restrictions.  I’m sure that some kind of exception could be made for deep space adventuring, but the reality is that even digital duplication of the vast majority of the world’s knowledge is highly questionable under our patchwork global legal systems.  Google Books has been in legal limbo over things that are even in a hazy unknown area, because someone, might, maybe still hold a copyright, somewhere…  Useless.

I’m not even going to get started on how in the world you would be able to index everything that ever existed.  I haven’t wrapped my brain around it myself.

If we are thinking about the future of culture, knowledge, and wisdom, then we need to think about its longevity now.  We need to stop supporting things that are defective by design, promoting things that are available in open standards, and work toward the opening of unnecessary copyright restrictions. And we don’t need the excuse of a Starship to think about it either.  Just the simple fact that people will probably still be living on this planet for a few more thousand years at least should be a reason to plan for the future.

But I still want a Starship library.

Enhanced eBooks.

In the last day I think I’ve read a solid half dozen articles about the future of enhanced ebook technology, and what this means for publishing. I think there are some good things happening in this multimedia book future, and there are some other details that still need to be worked out if these are not going to be just blips on the radar screen but rather viable new media environments.

While not the first enhanced thing ever, perhaps the one that actually poked at my brain for a minute was the iPad “app” The Final Hours of Portal 2.  I put “app” in quotes because this isn’t really an “application.”  It’s a kickass piece of writing with some videos and gorgeous full screen pics, but it’s not really an application.  It looks like it could have come straight out of the pages of Wired.  Now, I have only had the iPad for about 3 weeks and I haven’t downloaded this yet.  Part of my reluctance has been, well the iPad isn’t mine.  It actually belongs to the Library, so paying for some kind of awesome content and then having to wipe it if I have to transfer to another location or something is not a great prospect. But I have to say that as a fan of Portal this kind of long form article with special features looks kind of nifty.

I don’t know who told me about Vooks.  Probably I heard about it on Gweek when they were talking about the Portal article mentioned above.  After poking around the Vook website I have come to the conclusion that they are fancy coffee table books.  I don’t buy coffee table books.  Personally I think they’re cheap and often useless.  If I’m buying something to read, I actually want to read it.  Not just look at it cause it’s pretty.

Substance is why I’m actually really turned on to TouchPress and their enhanced version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land*.  This is a notoriously difficult poem to understand, as its cobbled together from pop culture things from the dawn of the 20th century, ancient Greek and Latin epigrams, context shifts from scene to scene in mind-bending ways. It’s pretty damn cerebral.  Hence why having tons of enhanced notes and about four different performances of the piece from different actors and poets makes this an incredibly enticing concept.  Not to mention that this kind of textual enhancement would be really fantastic in an educational setting.  My only trip up is that it seems kind of cost prohibitive to hire all these people and sell this app for something like $14.00.  I don’t think of Eliot as a loss leader, but hey, whatever works for Touch Press.

In a very similar vein there is Melville House and their hybrid books with Illuminations.  Here they include supplementary information on the art of dueling to an entire series of novellas about duels embedded in the eBook.  The variation here is that even if you purchase the print editions of the books the publisher provide the link to the additional content available via QR code. It would be interesting to know if the additional enhanced content would be available if library’s purchased the text and people download the additional material in excess of the original purchase. Would the publisher balk at that?  Curious to find out.

Then there was this article in The Atlantic about books with soundtracks.  Now, I’ve seen novels that revolve around music in the text.  Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Love is a Mix Tape are probably the most obvious. But that’s not really what we’re talking about here.  This is like writing an entire score for a novel.  That, to me, sounds incredibly awesome.  I mean, could you imagine the Star Wars series of novels with a score by John Williams!  I would totally read the hell out of that.  This reminds me of an issue of McSweeney’s that I found once with an entire interplaying soundtrack by They Might Be Giants.  I can’t think of two more worthy mutants blending together in glorious weirdness.  I probably still have it laying around the house somewhere.  I remember how mind warping it was listening to that CD.  Brilliant.  My big concern is not being able to read fast enough for the music to flow at a pace that I actually read at.  I’m kind of a slow reader, moving at the pace of speaking.  It makes me wonder if the music would be too greatly distorted by slow or fast readers.  That seems like a minor concern for something so awesome, but it’s kind of legit.  With a movie there’s a timestamp that the conductor has to follow.  There’s no such thing for a book, but it seems these Booktrack people have somewhat remedied that.

Now all of this sounds incredibly awesome.  But I’ve got a few of questions.

OS Portability

Lack of portability of many of these enhanced products worries me in general.  What if I decide to go with an Android tablet, or invest in the dead WebOS HP TouchPad? I mean, iPads are the leader now, but they got there mostly from primacy of place.  There’s nothing saying that another more fabulous hardware could overtake it.  Will these be able to be ported over easily to another OS, or do you have to keep that iPad laying around for later?

Media Conversion

If we suddenly develop an amazing new audio and video format will this stuff still be readable?  Will we be able to upgrade our fancy hyperbook to new versions?

Library Editions & DLC

I’m always thinking about library editions, and I mentioned one of my main concerns above.  When the book and the downloadable content are separate, how will the publisher negotiate user access to the DLC?  Is it going to be resalable to a second hand market?

Tablet vs. eReader

Given that the majority of these are designed for the iPad, its clear that the publishers are leaning toward a future where tablet reading is the way to go.  But I think eBook reader technology is going to be on an upswing over the next year or so, and we’ll start to see color e-ink readers coming around with video capabilities to rival the iPad. Will these kinds of technologies be able to integrate themselves into these new environments.  I don’t think the eBook reader is dead, not by a longshot.  Some of these companies ought to keep that in mind.

Even with all these questions I think this stuff is pretty damn cool.  I’m going to try and test drive a few of them sometime soon and may report back about them.


* Incidentally I wrote my college entrance essay on Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” He’s been a favorite of mine for a LONG time now. I’m actually incredibly intrigued to look at this app.