Re: Future-Proofing

Photo: backup of an ebook

Ebook backup by Jesse England (via Roberto Greco):

E-book backup is a physical, tangible, human readable copy of an electronically stored novel. The purchased contents of an e-book reader were easily photocopied and clip-bound to create a shelf-stable backup for the benefit of me, the book consumer. I can keep it on my bookshelf without worry of remote recall. A second hardcover backup has been made with the help of an online self-publishing house.

The above is a note added to an earlier post…

Re: Independent Bookshop Finds

*The Existential Pleasures of Engineering* by Samuel Florman

The book is The Existential Pleasures of Engineering by Samuel Forman, found at Magers and Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis. From the front flap:

“Acknowledging that our society’s faith in material progress has been shattered, [Florman] nevertheless refutes the notion that technology is inherently evil and destructive. He makes a powerful argument against the stereotype of the engineer as an insensitive materialist whose activities are hostile to humanistic values.”

I found it interesting especially because the book was published in 1976 — before computers, before the internet, before drone strikes, etc. I’m curious to see what possible rewards or dangers the author envisioned, and how well his arguments hold up after forty years of rapid, technologically-driven social change.

How does Florman’s defense compare with Prof. Alan Jacobs’s much more up-to-date 79 Theses on Technology?


The above is a note added to an earlier post…

Independent Bookshop Finds

· · 3 Notes

Books of interest found at independent book stores — found, not on “featured” displays or “staff picks”, but spine-out on the shelves. Of interest, meaning, the book was actually or very nearly purchased. Ideally: not on any recent bestseller lists.

Other pages of The Local Yarn may make use of Amazon or other referral links; but here, the only links will be to the authors’ online platforms, and to the bookstore where the book was found.

Continue reading…

Re: Judicious Change


3. Build direct micropayments into the web. Make direct patronage as easy and expected on the open web as it is on walled content gardens like the App Store or Kindle store, and to remove advertising from its high throne as the web’s default revenue route.

‘Micropayments’ refers to small payments — payments as small as, say, $0.001. You might be thinking that’s too small to be useful, but today people will sign up for AdSense in hopes of getting perhaps that amount per page view (e.g, a small site getting 10,000 pageviews a month, with an ad click-through rate of 0.20% at $0.70 per click would see maybe $0.0014 per page view). Probably most content on the web would remain free, but people could also set a small price on some resources. Say, $0.01 to access an RSS feed, or to read a particular article.

You should read the link (and its links) for all the reasoning behind this. But essentially the web needs a universal, baked-in way to give creators the same revenue per-pageview they’re getting from advertisers, without making them get it from advertisers. The other ideas about penalizing targeted ads hardly make sense without implementing micropayments as well. If the market for the written word is going to be healthy, it’s not enough to discourage its actors from using ad sales as arbitrage; they need an obvious and reliable way to do direct trades.

The web has al­ways been great for mak­ing in­for­ma­tion free, and ter­ri­ble at charg­ing for it. And that’s a tech­no­log­i­cal flaw that’s ex­ist­ed since the be­gin­ning of the web. So from ear­ly on, folks took this lemon and tried to make web lemon­ade by latch­ing onto the be­lief that ex­po­sure mat­tered more than mon­ey.

Does this sound fa­mil­iar, de­sign­ers? “This project’s go­ing to be great ex­po­sure.” It’s nev­er true. It’s nev­er been true. It’s nev­er been true on the web. But it be­came one of the web’s core re­li­gious be­liefs.

The other proposals would require votes in Congress, but this is something we can begin designing and implementing now. It’s almost totally a technology problem. It will be very hard to do properly [Update, I'm working on one possible feasible approach.]. But it is a goal that is worthy of the web’s promise, in the same way that the years-long campaign for web standards in the early 2000s was worthy of the web’s promise.

The above is a note added to an earlier post…

Re: Future-Proofing

Ben Fino-Radin, of the MoMA Department of Conservation, wrote about the complex measures needed to preserve digital art across 100-year time scales:

The packager addresses the most fundamental challenge in digital preservation: all digital files are encoded. They require special tools in order to be understood as anything more than a pile of bits and bytes. Just as a VHS tape is useless without a VCR, a digital video file is useless without some kind of software that understands how to interpret and play it, or tell you something about its contents. At least with a VHS tape you can hold it in your hand and say, “Hey, this looks like a VHS tape and it probably has an analog video signal recorded on it.” But there is essentially nothing about a QuickTime .MOV file that says, “Hello, I am a video file! You should use this sort of software to view me.” We rely on specially designed software—be it an operating system or something more specialized—to tell us these things. The problem is that these tools may not always be around, or may not always understand all formats the way they do today. This means that even if we manage to keep a perfect copy of a video file for 100 years, no one may be able to understand that it’s a video file, let alone what to do with it. To avoid this scenario, the “packager”—free, open-source software called Archivematica—analyzes all digital collections materials as they arrive, and records the results in an obsolescence-proof text format that is packaged and stored with the materials themselves. We call this an “archival information package.”

He also touches on the problem of verifying that no file corruption has taken place, and the giant robotic tape deck that will ultimately house and index 1.2 million gigabytes of digital art and associated metadata.

‘Ambitious’ and ‘technically impressive’ are the most favourable ways I can describe this arrangement. ‘Unsustainably complicated’ may also be applicable.

(via kottke)

The above is a note added to an earlier post…

Re: Judicious Change

Where are these proposals coming from? First of all, we need to recognize that the “open web” is not the only thing at stake here. Eleanor Saita famously said that all technical problems of sufficient scope or impact are actually political problems first. The change we’re all sensing on the open web is just a leading indicator of much broader changes to our whole lifestyle (ask yourself if this entirely plausible scenario is how you want to live) and the emergence of new forms of political power. Focusing on the nuts and bolts of the web itself, looking for technical solutions, is not going to be enough to counteract these broader trends. And as I’ve said before, simply appealing to people to change their personal habits of internet usage is insufficient and ineffective. What is needed is a principled re-adjustment of the entire playing field — a political solution to a political problem.

Now as to the principles that inform the particular adjustments I’m kicking around here: my thought is that we can vastly improve the internet’s role in our culture by legally recognizing the inherent worth of individuals’ identitities (information about who they are and what they do) as well as the worth of everything they create and contribute — every photo, every forum post or status update — to the creator, even if to no one else. These two kinds of things should be treated as the inalienable property of each individual no matter whose servers they are sitting on.

Pass spying revenues along to the targets

The first two proposals are pretty similar. They strongly disincentivize sales of targeted ads and personal information. To be honest I don’t know if, in practice, these proposals would kill those practices outright, or if businesses would still find a way to make them work. But the outcome in either case would, I think, be better for everyone than the status quo.

1. Require some high percentage (I’d say 90%) of revenue from targeted online ad sales to be passed through to all end users who are seeing the ads. (Revenue from ads displayed to everyone without any personalization at all — like in a print publication — would not be subject to this.)

Targeted ad sales involve a website spying on people to decide which ads to show them. This is creepy and, in the long term, bad for society and for business — and also much more lucrative than the old way of displaying the same ad to anyone who happens to walk by. But supposing people freely choose to let themselves be spied upon, as is their right, we should require that they be paid, in money, a cut of the proceeds, no matter what.

Old fashioned non-targeted ads don’t involve spying, so we’ll leave them be.

Note that I’ve specified revenue here and not profit. The users’ cut for being spied on is a cost of goods sold, thus priced directly into what the advertisers are paying for the ads and not subject to a large subset of possible egregious accounting gimmicks.

How would this work administratively and technically? Whenever a person sees a targeted ad, they already have some sort of explicit relationship with the company that served the ad. For example, AdWords serves me ads based on information it knows about me: my search history, my browsing history, my emails, etc. Google knows it was me that saw the ad, otherwise it wouldn’t be able to target the ad. Under this arrangement, then, Google will have to give me 90% of the proceeds. They would have to collect a minimum amount of info from everyone who opts into seeing targeted ads — an address, or optionally bank account info — and send out checks or direct deposits every so often.

No more targeted ads

One very probable outcome is that the market for targeted ads would completely dry up under these conditions. Pay-per-click would no longer be feasible for targeted ads (people could earn themselves money by just clicking on ads all day long), and even paying by impressions would be too expensive for the probable return. The market would, in any case, find some new equilibrium; and even if that equilibrium means targeted ads are still being sold, the new arrangement will force everyone to recognize that it is the people who are doing the businesses a service and a favour by allowing themselves to be followed around and spied upon.

The market for online ads would likely shift back toward non-targeted ads. For example, we can suppose a simplified version of Adwords that would not be affected, by serving ads based solely on information freely available at the point of display — search keywords or approximate geographic location — and not on the viewers’ search history or other personal information.

The end of ‘investor storytime’ and corporate silos

The end of the targeted ads, along with a new universally-available revenue stream that doesn’t involve ads at all (micropayments, more on that to follow below), would probably in turn be the death of most centralized, siloed platforms who would no longer be able to subsidize the high costs of hosting petabytes of people’s data, or to justify it to investors.

2. Make it outright illegal under any conditions (even with consent) to sell users’ data (personal info, tracking, etc) without passing along 90% of the sale to those users. The sale of non-anonymized data should be illegal under any circumstances.

This is pretty similar to the rule above. Information about who people are and what they’re doing should be ridiculously expensive to rent, and if at that price people are still selling it then most of the proceeds should go to the people who supplied it in the first place.

The above is a note added to an earlier post…

Judicious Change

· · 2 Notes

There’s been some more noise among web writers and bloggers about the threats faced by the open web. One of these writers says “I’m intrigued to hear what, more specifically, would push things in the other direction.” I’m glad someone is finally asking that question! Because ‘judicious hope’ needs to be validated with specific courses of action. I have some ideas.

Read the rest…



It’s day four of a week-long trip to Miami Beach and I stayed up till one in the morning reading a novel about the end of civilization, and then a thread on reddit that made me wonder (again) about my daughter; something about how to grow a durable inner confidence, teaching her that she can say no, can defend herself. Thinking about the one and then the other — book, reddit, book, reddit — I’m waffling between preparing for the end of the world and wondering what it will be like if civilization ever actually does happen in the future because, for real, has it even started yet?

It’s a vacation when you can mull over the problems of the distant future.

We also watched The Godfather for the first time last night.

Maybe I do need to get a gun after all, or at least learn how to win in a fight when it comes to that. How can I ask my daughter to learn how to win in a fight and have any kind of credibility? I’ve never had to stand up to anyone. How long can that last? I’m an anomaly in history; in my own time, even.

Somehow I managed to plan a badly needed/frivolous trip to Miami Beach over the same weekend as the largest writer’s conference in North America comes to my town. I’m not going to say it happened for a reason but there’s a poetic kind of bumbling to my literary aspirations. A couple years ago, I would have agonized about going until Jess pushed me out the door; I would have showed up hoping for something good to happen and left without talking to anyone about anything. As it was, from the beach I tuned in to a Periscope broadcast from a talk about overcoming “imposter’s syndrome” and it held my attention for about eight seconds because I felt like I was right there in the lecture hall with everyone listening to the guy read a motivational quote from Flaubert, and it made me uncomfortable in a woolen-pants-on-Easter kind of way. Easter service is one of those itchy, tedious things that gives us a good excuse to enjoy each other’s company, and writer’s conferences are no different, including the fact that if you only attend service on Easter it’s even less enjoyable. Easter totally slipped my mind this year, and here I am rubbing aloe into my sunburnt shoulders and daydreaming about becoming a bishop or a cardinal — when life will look exactly as it does right at this moment (beach, sunshine) except it will last as long as I want it to instead of just a week. And I really never will have to fight anyone or gut a deer, even though my daughter probably will still have to do both.

But the end, or maybe the beginning of civilization is coming, and the important thing, if you do have the rare distinction of genuinely wanting to produce art without the tedium of networking or schmoozing, is not to do it in a way that can be preserved through the apocalypse but to produce it as fast as it comes to you, leaving nothing out, infecting as many people as possible before something else comes along or the internet ends or really gets going.

Re: The Government, Our Family

Jesse Meyerson and Matt Breunig just published their own take on wresting coherency out of sloppy comparisons of government debt with individual debt. For example, Let’s talk about assets as well as liabilities:

The U.S. federal government is the largest asset holder in the world. It owns 900,000 buildings and structures as well as 41 million acres of land, much of it rich in minerals. Its asset portfolio includes 4 million miles of public roads, 12,000 miles of commercial inland water channels and 650 dams. Estimating the full value of these assets is difficult, but Thomas Piketty and Gabriel Zucman put the figure at $17 trillion in 2010. When comparing assets and debt liabilities, it’s necessary to count only real debts. About 30 percent of the official federal debt is held by the government, with about half of that held by the Federal Reserve, which remits interest paid on its holdings right to the treasury. These intragovernmental debts help facilitate monetary policy and create accounting placeholders for programs like Social Security, but they are otherwise meaningless. When you exclude this debt that the federal government owes itself, the value of public assets in the U.S. exceeded public debt by nearly $3 trillion in 2010. In fact, since the founding of the country, the U.S. government has never had a negative net worth.a

Meyerson adds, “it’s worth noting that the government doesn’t even include its greatest asset on its books — future tax revenue.”

  1. Co-author Breunig later amended to note that in 1870 the government had negative net worth equaling 9% of national income. 

The above is a note added to an earlier post…

Re: Radio Silence

Years later, Joel does actually carry his phone on him at all times, so you’d think maybe he’s changed his mind. But most “phones” are really computers now; the fact that we still call them “phones” is, by this point, a stock joke in the culture. And the actual phone part of Joel’s smart phone still annoys him as much as it did nine years ago. For example, the event of a ring on his phone still triggers a cascade of deductions aimed at determining whether the call can be avoided or postponed for any reason.

Though he is not a millennial, Joel identifies with much of what Mills Baker has written about millennials’ distaste for phone conversation:

Above all, I think millennials expect to be able to vary their mental engagement with any media or communications source to whatever extent they want, at all times. They don’t like that phone calls require their steady state attention and provide no visual distraction. They don’t like that sometimes inbound phone calls arrive like a sudden demand; they want to be able to choose when to communicate, respond, etc.

Accustomed to the information-density of —say— Twitter, they find vocal exchanges to be rather dull, even laborious; for them, the pace of a phone call is glacial and frustratingly non-negotiable.

The above is a note added to an earlier post…