Monthly Archives: January 2011

Interview with Bob Stein Now Published in Kairos

I’m happy to report that my interview with Bob Stein (computer pioneer, as Wikipedia disambiguates him), titled “Becoming Book-Like: Bob Stein and the Future of the Book,” is now available in the new issue of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy.

The title of the interview comes from the following snippet of our conversation (Bob is speaking about a realization he had in 1981 about the future of the book):

The “aha” moment I had was that adding a microprocessor to the mix meant that producer-driven media, like movies and television, were going to be transformed into user-driven media. For me, the crucial thing — and this happened in the process of writing the paper for Britannica — was when I wrestled with the question of “what’s a book?” and “what happens when we make it electronic?” I realized that everything was going to become book-like in the sense of being user-driven and that the ways in which a user interacts with content becomes an important part of her experience.

I love the way that Bob upends conventional wisdom by defining the book as an active, user-driven medium and the way he foresees digital media becoming more, and not less, “book-like” in the future. “Becoming book-like” also points to the many ways in which new media remediate old media.

The interview is presented in CommentPress, a wonderful theme for WordPress developed by Bob’s Institute for the Future of the Book that allows readers to attach comments to specific paragraphs of text. I encourage you to visit the journal and leave your responses in the comments.

On Reading Like a Hawk

ralph waldo emerson Robert D. Richardson, Jr.’s Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995) is one of my favorite biographies, and not just because I had the good fortune as an undergraduate to study with the author while he was writing the book. In his careful, moving study of Emerson’s life, Richardson charts the intellectual growth of one of America’s finest thinkers with a novelist’s eye for detail and a scholar’s knowledge of historical context, and he does it all in short, elliptical chapters that echo Emerson’s own aphoristic sentences.

One of my favorite subtexts of the biography is Richardson’s interest in Emerson’s reading and writing practices. Both of the following passages from the biography speak to Emerson’s omnivorous consumption of books and his methods for working through them:

Passage 1 (from Chapter 11: Pray Without Ceasing):

Coleridge notes that there are four kinds of readers: the hourglass, the sponge, the jelly bag, and the Golconda. In the first everything that runs in runs right out again. The sponge gives out all it took in, only a little dirtier. The jelly bag keeps only the refuse. The Golconda runs everything through a sieve and keeps only the diamonds. Emerson was not a systematic reader, but he had a genius for skimming and a comprehensive system for taking notes. Most of the time he was the pure Golconda, what miners call a high-grader, working his way rapidly through vast mines of material and pocketing the richest bits. (67)

Emerson, it appears, was digging into data before his time.

Passage 2 (from Chapter 28: A Theory of Animated Nature):

Goethe’s greatest gifts to Emerson were two. First was the master idea that education, development, self-consciousness, and self-expression are the purposes of life; second was the open, outward-facing working method of sympathetic appropriation and creative recombination of the world’s materials.

There is an important corollary to the axiom of appropriate appropriation. Along with Emerson’s freedom to take whatever struck him went the equally important obligation to ignore what did not. Emerson read widely and advised others to do so, but he was insistent about the dangers of being overwhelmed and overinfluenced by one’s reading. “Do not attempt to be a great reader,” he told a young Williams College student named Charles Woodbury. “Read for facts and not by the bookful.” He thought one should “learn to divine books, to feel those that you want without wasting much time on them.” It is only worthwhile concentrating on what is excellent and for that “often a chapter is enough.” He encouraged browsing and skipping. “The glance reveals what the gaze obscures. Somewhere the author has hidden his message. Find it, and skip the paragraphs that do not talk to you.”

What Emerson was really recommending was a form of speed-reading and the heightened attention that goes with speed-reading. When pressed by the young Woodbury, Emerson gave details:

“Learn how to tell from the beginnings of the chapters and from the glimpses of sentences whether you need to read them entirely through. So turn page after page, keeping the writer’s thoughts before you, but not tarrying with him, until he has brought you the thing you are in search of. But recollect, you only read to start your own team.”

The last point is crucial. Reading was not an end in itself for Emerson. He read like a hawk sliding on the wind over a marsh, alert for what he could use. He read to nourish and to stimulate his own thought, and he carried this so far as to recommend that one stop reading if one finds oneself becoming engrossed. “Reading long at one time anything, no matter how it fascinates, destroys thought,” he told Woodbury. “Do not permit this. Stop if you find yourself becoming absorbed, at even the first paragraph.” (173-174)

These passages speak, in surprising ways, to current debates about digital media. As is often the case, practices popularly understood to be effects of digital media have histories that predate the digital (David Crystal makes this point in Txting: The Gr8 Db8, as does Cathy Davidson in her blog post The Digital Nation Writes Back). Perhaps we might reclaim Emerson as the high priest of continuous partial attention, the ultimate historical rejoinder to the claims of Nicholas Carr and Sherry Turkle.

As Richardson points out, browsing and skimming were, for Emerson, not so much ways of avoiding the hard work of reading deeply as they were methodologies for jump-starting his own writing processes. It’s good practice to remember that there are many possible paths towards wisdom, and that some of them are more direct than others.

Update: Here is a related post by Chris Kelty: How to read a (good) book in one hour.

Clearing Space on the SD Card of a Nexus One Android Phone

CC-licensed photo from Wikimedia

So what if Google has discontinued the Nexus One, closed its N1 web store, and released newer Nexus phones to market? None of that fazes me. I love my Nexus One for the pleasant heft of its metal body and the smooth contours of its rounded corners, its glowing white button and its removable back cover. It’s not for nothing that Wired deemed it “sexy.”

Still, the N1 can frustrate even its adoring owners at times. I ran into just that situation the other day when I tried to use the camera on the phone. An alert notification informed me that I had only 3MB of space left on my 4GB SD card; I would have to lower the quality of the photos I was taking or stop taking them altogether.

This came as a surprise, since I had recently transfered all of my existing photos and videos from my phone to my computer. With that material off of the phone, what could possibly be taking up so much room?

A little bit of googling produced only marginally helpful advice, so I’d like to explain how I found my way back to a nearly empty SD card. In the end, it turned out that an extra step was needed to truly remove those old files from the phone. In the hope that it might be helpful for other N1/Android owners, here is how I cleared additional space on my SD Card:

— Check Settings > SD card & phone storage to see how much free space you have
— Connect N1 to a computer and transfer all photos and videos from the DCIM/camera folder
— Delete all photos and videos from the DCIM/camera folder
— Disconnect N1 from computer
— Download the ASTRO file manager or another file management app from the Android Market. This will allow you to browse the folders on your Android phone from the phone interface itself.
— Open Astro and go to .Trashes
— Delete all files in .Trashes
— Go to Settings > SD card & phone storage to confirm that your SD card now has empty space.

And that’s it — upon completing the above steps, I had 3.69 GB of free space on the card. No need to delete applications or clear caches, as others suggest. Just clear your .trashes folder, and you should be good to go.