Rules for a Book Club

Maybe you associate book clubs with middle-aged moms in suburbia, but I’ve been in a few with a much more diverse crowd. Some friends are starting a new one and they sent me their rules, which I think are worth sharing:

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A few that I want to highlight:

1. Only read books that are new to everyone

Otherwise, everyone will suggest their favorite books, which makes for an awkward discussion if others don’t like them. Yes, I know your favorite book isn’t like this, and of course everyone will love it, and oh my god it’s so brilliant, but … just trust me on this one, OK?

2. Have a firm length limit

This eliminates a lot of potential choices, but it still leaves plenty of good ones. And it dramatically increases the number of people who will actually, you know, read the book. 300 pages sounds about right to me, and I would never go higher than 400. That’s not to say there aren’t good books longer than that, but they’re not good book club choices.

This is the most important rule and the hardest one to maintain. You’ll constantly be tempted to say “well, this one is only 310 pages…” or “we can still read this 600 page book if we allow another couple weeks …” No, you can’t. This is how book clubs drift into general drinking meetups in which no one’s finished the damn thing, and you briefly compete to fake having read it before just moving on to other subjects. (Not that there’s anything wrong with just getting drunk and chatting, of course, but if that’s all you want then why add the stress of unrealistic reading assignments?)

3. Have one person pick all the books

It isn’t perfect, but a benevolent dictatorship is better than voting or taking turns, which tend to breed resentment and stress about attendance (“I read his crappy suggestion, but he didn’t show up for mine!”). It’s also easier for one person to maintain a mix of genres, male/female writers, old/new books, or whatever other measures of variety you agree on.

Actually, an even better solution would be to agree on the first ten or fifteen titles before even starting the club — for example, everything on some all-time list (like this one) that’s under your page limit — or delegate the choices to some trusted third party. (Doesn’t have to be Oprah.)

4. Anyone can come, but only if they’ve finished the book

If you make finishing the book (recently!) a condition of attendance, then you probably won’t have to worry about overflow. You can ask people to RSVP if you have limited space in your venue, but honestly, don’t worry too much about this problem until you actually have it. Your mailing list will grow over time, but you’ll find that there’s only a small core of lasting regulars; a significant number of people either never make it at all, show up once and never again, or drop in every third or fourth month.

And that’s fine! We’re not talking about Skull & Bones here, just discussing books. Why try to make it exclusive or require a certain level of attendance?

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Notice how these rules overlap and reinforce each other. For example, a lot of the cult favorites that you might want to inflict on your book club are quite long; if they’re disallowed because of the second rule, it takes a bit of the sting out of the first.

Anyway, if you have an existing book club that’s working well, then congratulations, don’t change a thing. But if you want to start a new one, these rules seem like a good basic foundation.

What’s Driving the Quantified Self Movement?

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I’m an organizer of the current Quantified Self meetup group in Berlin. I attended the global QS conference in Amsterdam earlier this month. And when people ask me what it’s all about, I still have trouble giving them a clear answer.

Judging from the group’s website, I’m not alone. Our slogan is “self knowledge through numbers,” and the About page calls us “an international collaboration of users and makers of self-tracking tools.” That’s already a bit confusing, because quantification and tracking are two different things. They often overlap, but they often don’t.

For example, stepping onto a scale, taking a written test, running a timed race, getting your DNA sequenced — all these things will give you “self knowledge through numbers,” even if you never repeat or track them. And on the other side, much of the discussion within QS centers around self-tracking practices that are not particularly quantitative, like photo lifelogging, mood tracking or even an online dream journal. One recent survey of QS practices even included Foursquare.

In a sense, I suppose every human activity is “quantifiable” with timestamps and map coordinates and subjective rating scales, and similarly you could argue that anything you quantify even once is being “tracked,” but in both cases that seems like a stretch. If we define QS practices so broadly as to include everything that ever produces structured data about human beings, we haven’t really defined them at all.

Maybe it’s the “self” part, as subject rather than object? It’s not just that your “self” is being quantified, it’s that you’re the one doing it, or the one controlling it, or the primary audience for the data. That’s a little better, but it’s still a pretty broad definition.

Even our critics seem confused about what we’re up to. In this article, Mike Elgan mocks QSers as frivolous gadget nerds, but in this recent post he gushes about “lifelogging” devices, which are a big part of QS.

So maybe there’s no good top-down description that separates “QSers” from the rest of the population. But our attendees are hardly a random sample of the cities where we meet — nor even a random sample of the tech scene, with which we overlap heavily. So we should be able to say something more about who they are.

What I want to do here is list some of the main trends that are driving interest in QS, without endorsing or criticizing any of them. They each have positive and negative aspects that are worth exploring further. But I haven’t seen anyone just lay them all out in one place, and I think that’s a good way to start.

1. Smartphones and Social Media

This is the most obvious category, right? Throw in digital photography too. Now that we’re capturing and saving huge amounts of data about our daily lives — data that advertisers and governments are keenly interested in — it’s natural that some of us would be paying more attention to that data ourselves.

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2. Better (and sexier) technology

When competitive swimmers were tracking their practice lap times with a stopwatch, taking their pulse manually, and writing it all down on a clipboard, not many amateurs wanted to imitate that routine. Now that they’re building digital goggles with a heads-up display that shows their heart rate in real time, the gadget appeal for the average fitness swimmer is obviously a lot higher.

It doesn’t exactly take Don Draper to see that it’s easier to sell cyborg goggles than clipboards, but it’s also easy to see why serious athletes want to see their heart rate while training instead of afterwards. So this seems like a good example of a tool that works across the professional-amateur spectrum: it offers an edge in training for the most serious swimmers, and a motivational aid for the least serious, with many more falling somewhere in between.

The most visible example of this trend is the latest generation of pedometers, like the FitBit or Nike Fuelband, which are always on and upload your data to websites where you can view it in slick graphs and share it with other users.

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3. The rise of behavioral psychology

Over the last fifty years, old-fashioned psychoanalysis — Freud, Jung, Adler, Lacan — has increasingly been replaced by behavioral techniques, particularly the “cognitive behavioral” methods developed by Aaron Beck (above) and Albert Ellis in the 1950s and ‘60s. These involve a more scientific approach than the old “lie down and tell me about your childhood” stereotype, and a lot more recurring measurement of “negative self-talk” and other symptoms. And most of this tracking and journaling is essentially assigned as homework for the patient to do on their own.

Whether and when these methods are more effective than psychoanalysis or psychopharmacology is a whole other debate. But whatever you think of them, behavioral methods have been taking over, and like so many concepts from psychoanalysis, they’re seeping into popular culture and awareness. Behaviorism is also deeply imbedded in the more recent positive psychology movement, whose influence is all over emotion-tracking tools and other QS products — and it’s been a major contributor to…

4. The systemization of self-help

We’re a long way from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) or even Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People (1989). If you want to make it as a motivational, fitness, diet or productivity guru today — at least the kind that’s taken seriously by the young and tech-savvy — then you need to provide more than just collected advice. You need a system. Specifically, you need to define your audience’s problems in the context of a system that they can then optimize. And most of the time, this involves quite a bit of self-tracking.

I’m not sure what the tipping point was — maybe Getting Things Done (2002), or Crossfit (~2000)? — but at this point, systematized self-help is everywhere you look, from Tim Ferriss to Lifehacker. And it overlaps very heavily with QS. At our meetings in Berlin, I’d say Ferriss’s books are responsible for more new attendees than any other single cause.

5. Health care reform

The last few years of policy debate in the US have prompted a widespread recognition of the diminishing returns to medical research and treatment throughout the developed world. We’re spending more and more to achieve smaller and smaller gains. So a lot of attention (and money) has turned to “lifestyle” factors. If we can get people to drink less, smoke less, eat less, exercise more, take their maintenance medications, and so on — thereby keeping them out of the doctor’s office in the first place — we can obviously make much bigger gains in population health at a lower cost than by treating them once they’re already sick.

Easier said than done, of course. Some approaches involve top-down policies, like New York’s already-infamous beverage size regulations. But others involve getting people to track their behavior on an individual level. And if you can develop a good tool for doing this, it’ll be increasingly possible to get private and public insurance companies to reimburse it for their members, like they already do sometimes for gym memberships. And that makes entrepreneurs’ and venture capitalists’ ears perk up, because insurance reimbursement is a tidal wave of revenue that can be very sticky for any provider that captures a little bit of it.

6. Techno-futurism

This includes  singularitarians, transhumanists, “radical life extension” advocates, Bitcoin enthusiasts, and many more. They trace their roots to computer science, cognitive science, genetics, science fiction, libertarian philosophy, artificial intelligence research, the human potential movement of the ‘60s, and countless other sources.

I don’t mean to imply that these movements agree with each other about everything, and I don’t mean “techno-futurism” as a skeptical term necessarily; it’s just the only umbrella term I can think of. In any case, these groups are definitely overrepresented within QS compared to the population at large, probably even more than they’re overrepresented in tech. For some, self-tracking technology is just a means to an end, but for others it seems to have real ideological significance in itself. And the natural enemy of the techno-futurist is…

7. Humanist skepticism

These are the social scientists, philosophers and other academics who worry about the ethical and societal implications of self-tracking technology, and technological values replacing human ones:

Like the previous group, this one is hard to generalize about. They’re not all academics, of course; some are writers like Evgeny Morozov and technologists like Jaron Lanier. And some walk a pretty fine line between supporting the new technology and worrying about it — as Peter Kramer did in the ‘90s with antidepressants, for example.

The techno-futurists point out that these kinds of critics have surfaced around every new technical or scientific advance in the past — which is true, of course, but that doesn’t mean they’ve always been wrong. And this kind of critical evaluation of technology is an important part of QS. I don’t think we always do as good a job of integrating it as we could, but that’s a subject for another post.

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I think that covers most of the relevant trends, but I’m sure I’ve missed a few. And some of the most interesting people I’ve met in QS are the ones who don’t quite fit into any of these buckets, and are pursuing their own idiosyncratic visions.

Anyway, I’m sure that some readers have bristled at my simplistic, unfair description of whatever subgroup or trend they identify with themselves. And I have been a little simplistic. It’s a lot of ground to cover, and I’m hardly an expert in any of these individual subjects. But hopefully this is a good starting point to give outsiders a better idea of what QS is all about.

A Separate Peace and the Young Adult Novel

A Separate Peace -- tree branch

Stephen Metcalf reports that A Separate Peace is “drifting, slowly but surely, into literary oblivion.” I’m sorry to hear it. Out of all the short, sad, moralistic novels that I was assigned in school — Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, The Pearl, Fahrenheit 451 — it’s one of the few that have really stuck in my head.

Once required reading–it has sold north of 8 million copies– A Separate Peace is now little more than a harmless keepsake from that part of 1959 that stayed 1959, a time when one could still be adolescent, white, privileged, and gay and not know it.

Hmm, was the narrator really meant to be gay? That’s part of the problem, according to Metcalf:

To be clear, it is not that the book is too gay but that it is not gay enough. Unable to draw the sexuality of its characters anywhere near the surface of its narrative, a novel that might have been an elegy to forbidden romance instead becomes an exercise in near-camp. The book is impossible to read as intended: straight.

But he defends the book for its writing style and sincerity:

“I went back to the Devon School the other day,” the novel opens, “and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before.” That “I” is Gene, of course, but it’s also something more. It is the voice, to borrow Trilling’s famous praise of Orwell, of simple, direct, undeceived intelligence; and for a period of roughly 50 years, it was the voice of midcentury fiction.

Yes, exactly. It reminds me of “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” Maybe that direct, reportorial, lived quality is what made it stand out from the heavy-handed parable structure of those other classics.

But in any case, the version of A Separate Peace that Metcalf wants had already been written by William Maxwell in 1945. The Folded Leaf tells a similar story: a shy, intellectual boy and his popular athletic friend, whose relationship is slowly poisoned by jealousy, with tragic results. It answers Metcalf’s main complaint, in that the sexual tension between the boys is much more evident (to the degree that that many readers assume incorrectly that Maxwell was gay himself), while preserving that same direct narrative voice that he appreciates in A Separate Peace. Maxwell epitomized that voice more than almost any other writer (or editor) I can think of.

A Folded Leaf, William Maxwell -- cover

I’m not sure why A Separate Peace made it into the high school canon when The Folded Leaf didn’t. But I have a slightly different theory than Metcalf on why they both feel anachronistic today. He thinks it’s because that style of narrative didn’t fit the “social problem” stories of S.E. Hinton and Judy Blume that would soon take over (or create, really) the Young Adult category.

There’s something to that. ASP and TFL would stand out among these books for their lack of a clear social “message.” But I think there’s something else going on too.

The old protagonists were more tragic: shy, lonely intellectuals, unsure of themselves, always a little apart from their peers. Mostly the writers were just describing their own younger selves. Maxwell said of The Folded Leaf “my whole youth was in it,” and John Knowles modeled A Separate Peace even more closely on his own time at Exeter. You get the feeling that these boys would never quite fit in as adults either, and would never quite come to terms with that. When the story extends to their adulthood — as with Maugham’s Philip Carey, for example — it’s usually not a happy one.

Leslie Howard as Philip Carey in Of Human Bondage

Along with the parables mentioned above (throw in The Old Man and the SeaThe Good EarthOf Mice and Men…) we might call this the first generation, the proto-YA novel: not written for adolescents exactly, but it’s easy to see why they’d go for them. Then came the second generation, 25 years of “problem novels” that still define the YA category today, from The Outsiders (1967) and The Pigman (’68) through Tiger Eyes (’81) to Maniac Magee (’90).

No longer being a young adult, I haven’t really kept up since the early ’90s. But I get the impression there’s a distinct third generation now, with its own rules and patterns. Two that I’ve read and liked are King Dork (2006) by Frank Portman and The Cardturner (2010) by Louis Sachar. Another that I’m reading now is Ready Player One (2011), by Ernest Cline. I haven’t read John Green’s Looking for Alaska, but it sounds like it fits the pattern too.

King Dork, by Frank Portman -- cover

In this new narrative, the kid isn’t completely alone and adrift, just into different stuff than their peers, really great stuff that the other kids just don’t get. There’s always a love interest, generally a Manic Pixie love interest who appreciates these interests (was Leslie in Bridge to Terabithia the forerunner of these?) and often an elaborate plot arc that gives them a climactic opportunity to shine for whatever weird-but-cool thing they’re into. There’s also a bigger supporting cast of sidekicks, friends and rivals, and a subplot with some mystery to be investigated.

So there’s a lot more going on, is what I’m saying. But there’s also a narrowing of focus from society to the individual, and an increasingly optimistic outlook. The message of the first generation was something like “human society really sucks, better get used to it.” The second generation said “some things about society really suck, especially when you’re a teenager, but hang in there and you’ll figure it out.” The third generation says “some of the people around you really suck, but you are awesome.” Accordingly it gives the protagonists more agency: just as many terrible things happen as in the second generation books, but the main characters don’t just “come to terms” with them, they fight back and usually achieve at least some measure of victory.

That doesn’t leave as much room for grand, pessimistic statements about society, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. But it’s still a very notable shift. It’s hard to imagine ASP being published by a young adult imprint today, not just because it doesn’t have a strong enough message but because it doesn’t have enough action. One broken leg? Hints of sexuality? Yawn. Come back when you’ve got a real story to tell, Knowles. And a more upbeat ending than this:

All of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way — if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.

The Legacy of Dashiell Hammett

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Day was still a little way off. The street was the color of smoke. My feet made a lot of noise on the pavement.

I stopped in front of the door and knocked the glass with a knuckle, not heavily. The green blind down inside the door made a mirror of the glass. In it I saw two men moving up the other side of the street.

No sound came from inside. I knocked harder, then slid my hand down to rattle the knob.

Did any 20th Century writer have more influence in fewer words than Dashiell Hammett?

In a used book store, I recently found his five novels collected in a single volume. Three of them I’d read before, but now that I’ve read them all I realize just how enormous an impact he had. All five together are only 727 pages, about the length of a single Game of Thrones book or the footnotes of Infinite Jest. They were written and serialized over a period of just five years, from 1929 to 1934. And while they’re all great books in their own right, they’re also the source of at least three distinct archetypes that have recurred in literature, movies and television ever since.

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The first comes from Red Harvest: the mercenary in a corrupt, mob-ruled city who manipulates rival factions of criminals, playing them off against each other in a bloody gang war. It’s been filmed directly at least three times — Yojimbo (1961), A Fistful of Dollars (1964, above), and Last Man Standing (1996) — but there are elements of the plot, and the same detached, stylized treatment of violence, in dozens more, including numerous Westerns and gangster movies, and much of the work of the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino.

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The second, of course, is the private eye, who was more or less created by Hammett in his third novel, The Maltese Falcon, and has been reinterpreted in hundreds upon hundreds of books, movies and TV shows. There were a few private eyes before Sam Spade, but he was the clearly the version of the character that stuck, especially after Humphrey Bogart’s iconic portrayal of him in the 1941 film version (above).

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And the third is the wisecracking detective couple of The Thin Man, Nick and Nora Charles, whose influence can be seen in approximately every cop show ever, right up through Mulder and Scully. As with Bogart and Spade, this trope owes a lot to William Powell and Myrna Loy, the stars of the many Thin Man movies, who brought the couple onto more equal footing. Powell was a natural comedian who made Nick less of a tough guy, and Loy’s Nora was a more prominent character than the one in the book. As this article on the first movie puts it:

Almost every single modern crime-solving-duo owes something to this film — everything from Castle to Warehouse 13, from Hart To Hart and Remington Steele to Moonlighting is, in part, a riff on a theme established in The Thin Man.

The other two novels are less seminal, but you can still see their impact. The Dain Curse is a transitional work between Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon, with the nameless narrator of Red Harvest returning in a more standard private investigator type story. The rich, corrupt Californians involved in a sham religious cult, and their beautiful-but-troubled young daughter caught between her creepy parents and various criminal elements — I don’t think these tropes are original with Hammett, but I can see Hammett’s particular take on them in Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target (which became Harper with Paul Newman), Anthony Boucher’s Nine Times Nine and numerous other crime novels.

Then there’s The Glass Key, Hammett’s favorite and my least favorite, a sort of lower-key version of Red Harvest where the go-between is a mobster himself rather than an outsider, and the body count is turned way down in favor of brooding conversations about loyalty and family that reminded me at times of the Godfather movies. The most prominent film interpretations of this one were the Alan Ladd / Veronica Lake vehicle in 1942 and the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing in 1990.

So that’s it. Five short novels in five years that changed the way crime stories have been told ever since. It’s almost as impossible to imagine a crime writer who wasn’t influenced by these books and movies as it would be to imagine a fantasy writer who hasn’t read Tolkien.

I realize that comparing Hammett to Tolkien is apples-to-oranges in many ways — but in terms of the sheer scope of his influence across different media, who else is there to compare him to?

Related articles

Photo Lifelogging: Why I’m Skeptical

Autographer

Would you wear a miniature camera on a necklace or clip that goes off automatically at certain intervals, producing a stream of oddly-angled pictures of whatever (or whoever) is in front of you? Would you wear it all day, every day, to create a visual record of how you’re spending your time?

There are at least two new cameras hitting the market later this year that are customized for this purpose: one from a Swedish company called Memoto (pictured below), and another in the UK called Autographer (above). And of course, the new Google Glass could be used the same way, with the added advantage of taking photos from eye level.

I saw several presentations on this subject at the recent Quantified Self conference in Amsterdam, and met some of the early adopters who have already been doing it with existing technology like the Microsoft Sensecam. Some are very persuasive, but I’m still a bit skeptical about the benefits of this practice and its potential to really spread.

Why? Because when they explain what they’re doing, “lifeloggers” tend to speak in terms of individual insight, reflection and recall — the kind of benefits you’d get from looking at your own photo stream. But few of them are keeping their photos for their own private viewing — they’re posting them on the internet, sharing them with friends, and talking about them in conference presentations.

Of course, the early adopters who evangelize a technology are naturally going to be more performative about it than the average user. But in this case, I suspect that this performative aspect is where most of the real appeal comes from.

And these new devices include features that facilitate that, by allowing users to censor — sorry, “curate” — their own photo streams. There’s a snooze button for when you’re using the bathroom, for example. They also have a GPS receiver that adds location-based functions, so that all the users at a particular event can pool their photos.

Many of the performative proto-lifelogging experiments I’ve seen are quite interesting (check out Buster Benson’s 8:36 project), but I suspect that the experience of early adopters is not at all representative of what it’ll be like for their followers.

Memoto

First off, when more than a handful of people have these things, each person’s public photo stream (or whatever curated and/or annotated subset they choose to make public) is going to get a lot less attention. It doesn’t really matter whether the appeal to the “lifelogger” comes from pure attention-seeking or genuine social connection, because both of those rewards will drop off a cliff.

This is a problem for a number of self-tracking apps and gadgets that have social elements. For example, Runkeeper posts on Facebook when you’ve completed a run, with the idea that your friends will offer a word of encouragement, or at least notice and silently approve. And maybe it worked that way at the beginning. Today, I know I have a few Facebook friends who use Runkeeper, because I occasionally see “___ has completed a __km run in __ minutes” …but not only do I not register the distance or time, I don’t even know which friends they are.

It’s the same with anyone who “reviewed ___ on Amazon” or “hung out with ___” or “checked in at ___.” It doesn’t even register. And before you judge me for this, test yourself on it! You may find that just like me, you’re being unwittingly trained to ignore auto-posted content from apps.

There’s definitely a lag between the point where everyone stops noticing our shares and the point where we realize that and stop sharing, and in a sense this period is a win-win: you’re still getting the motivation that comes from public exposure, but no one else is expending any actual time or attention. But eventually it has to catch up.

Second, other people are more likely to put up with these cameras when they’re an interesting new gadget to learn about. Once the average person is familiar with the concept, their charmed curiosity about this clever toy will turn to annoyance at being photographed without prior consent for such a vague and dilettantish reason.

(Note the contrast to being captured by a surveillance camera, TV news camera or street photographer: you may not like it, but at least there’s a clear and relatable purpose.)

Part of this conference was a panel on the privacy implications of these devices and the changing social norms they represent, but I suspect these questions will turn out to be moot. I think what’ll happen, and it’s already happening with Google Glass, is that over time there’ll be fewer and fewer places where you’re comfortable wearing your auto-camera, because more people will find it aggressive, rude or (worse) just trite.

Lifeloggers worry about being asked to turn the camera off in bars or other social situations, but that’s the best-case scenario. What they should really be worried about is not being invited along to the bar in the first place because of their creepy camera. And however much they spent on the camera, however excited they were about it — I promise you that as soon as they feel like it’s having a negative impact on their social life, the average user will put it away.

And those situations where you can’t use your camera will be exactly the ones that you’d most want to capture, the ones that make you look (to yourself or others) like a fun and interesting person. Without them, your “stream” will be reduced to a depressing alternating sequence of your computer monitor at work and the steering wheel or train window from your commute. It won’t take much of that before the cameras go back on the shelf.

And that’s too bad, actually, because the idea of a private, non-performative, non-social photo stream is pretty interesting, and I think it could offer some real insight, just as a written journal does.

Maybe someone should make a special version of these cameras that deliberately makes it difficult to curate or share your content, one that you can’t easily turn off while you’re in the bathroom, that you can really only use for personal review. And then maybe the rest of us could learn to recognize this particular type of camera and be more tolerant of it. But without the appeal to vanity, how many of them would they really sell?

George Carlin and Steve Martin

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I recently read these two autobiographies by George Carlin and Steve Martin, who are parallel figures in some ways. Both were standup comedians who worked their way up the TV circuit in the ‘60s and became stars in the ‘70s, with bestselling albums and major tours. They both got a lot of mileage out of the tension between their material and their appearance, with Carlin changing his onstage presentation from a suit-and-tie square to a shaggy-haired hippie right before he made it big, and Martin doing the exact opposite. And each had an interest in the quirks of language, and an innovative style that was as cerebral as it was comic.

I realized in reading each book that I have a generally positive impression of both, but neither one has ever really made me laugh that hard. They were both very entertaining, but not in the side-splitting way of some other great comedians.

This is partly because their most famous material is just a little dated, and I’m too young to have seen it when it was really part of the zeitgeist. But partly it’s that neither was really going for standard punchlines. Carlin used long, verbose rants that drew slowly building laughter and applause as the audience joined in his outrage:

My responsibility was to engage the audience’s mind for ninety minutes. Get laughs, of course, dazzle them from time to time with form, craft, verbal fireworks, but above all engage their minds.

As long as I kept them interested and engaged and entertained—not bringing them to laughter all the time, but sometimes to wonder: when I could see from their faces they were thinking, “Whoa—what a nice thing he did there!” So long as I did that, the contract between us was fulfilled.

And Martin …well, it’s hard to describe what he did, even for him:

If I wasn’t offering punch lines, I’d never be standing there with egg on my face. It was essential that I never show doubt about what I was doing. I would move through my act without pausing for the laugh, as though everything were an aside. Eventually, I thought, the laughs would be playing catch-up to what I was doing. Everything would be either delivered in passing, or the opposite, an elaborate presentation that climaxed in pointlessness.

My goal was to make the audience laugh but leave them unable to describe what it was that had made them laugh. In other words, like the helpless state of giddiness experienced by close friends tuned in to each other’s sense of humor, you had to be there.

That absurdist sensibility was definitely a big part of it, but Hal Erickson gets a little closer, I think, when he says that Martin’s “entire act [was] a devastating parody of second-rate comedians who rely on preconditioning to get laughs.” Or Jason Ankeny: “superficially silly and daft, Martin’s act contemptuously mocked the inherent stupidity of the standup form, mining catch phrases, props, and schtick to create a unique brand of scathing anti-comedy.” It’s interesting that Martin himself never talks about this parody angle; maybe he doesn’t want to sound gratuitously mean. But I’m sure a lot of the people laughing at Martin’s fake awkwardness understood him, not in the high-concept way he understood himself, but simply as mocking other comedians — maybe not his hip contemporaries like Carlin, but a more conventional talk-show style of standup that they would have been much more familiar with than we are today.

They both saw comedy as a stepping-stone to movie stardom, but only Martin was able to make that leap. Carlin kept doing standup in the ‘80s and ‘90s, arguably producing some of his best material long after the Seven Dirty Words and other ‘70s routines that he’s best known for.

For me, Carlin’s book highlighted the fine line between strong individualism and outright misanthropy. The strength of the personal attacks is startling. At first it’s amusing, as when he describes the young producer Roger Ailes (now the CEO of Fox News) as “a fat, loud, brash twentysomething who laughed at anything you said, funny or not.” Or his memories of Ed Sullivan:

On one show he called me over after my set to where he stood, stage right. This was supposed to be a big honor. We had some inane exchange and then he said out of the blue, “You’re a Catholic!” and then gestured to the audience with that weird insect thing he did with his arms: “Give him a big hand! He’s a Catholic!” Ed was partial to this form of intro. He once introduced my friend the Hispanic singer José Feliciano as follows: “Want you to give the next act, José Feliciano, a big hand! He’s blind—and he’s Puerto Rican!”

But then it gets more and more petty, like this anecdote about Billy Crystal:

So I said to Billy: “So long, man. The sketch went nice, didn’t it?” And since I knew he was going to leave Saturday Night Live and go to movies the next year and I was beginning to seriously explore them again myself, I added: “Maybe we’ll get to do a movie together someday.” And he gave me this look as if I was some kind of a bug. Like, “Oh yeah? That certainly doesn’t work into my plans.”

So it was satisfying that I got a pretty fat role in a movie before he did. And I think I got my star on Hollywood Boulevard before he did. Of course, he starred in When Harry Met Sally a couple of years later and took off. Still, for that one moment, fuck him.

And by the end, when he’s calling Lorne Michaels a “hands-and-knees cocksucker,” you almost feel sorry for Carlin. I mean, this is not some frustrated mid-list comedian who was never properly recognized for his talent. This is a guy who made 14 HBO specials and is #2 on this list of the greatest standups of all time. And he still had these cheap scores to settle. It must have really hurt to carry around that kind of anger.

It’s easy to locate Carlin in the development of standup, from his influences (Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor) to his followers — and it’s a testament to his range that he inspired whole different camps of followers, from ranting political outsiders like Bill Hicks to carping observational comics like Jerry Seinfeld. But sadly, he also seems to fit right into the stereotype that the best comedians are fundamentally unhappy people:

Once, if I identified with individuals I felt pain; if I identified with groups I saw people who repelled me. So now I identify with no one. I have no passion anymore for any of them, victims or perpetrators, Right or Left, women or men. I’m still human. I haven’t abandoned my humanity, but I have put it in a place that allows my art to function free of entanglements.

From this perspective, it’s easy to see why Martin (#6 on that list) is harder to locate in the pantheon, and why he quit standup: he was just too nice, and maybe a little too willing to be liked, to really enjoy mocking anyone for too long. His book gives the impression of a happy, optimistic guy describing a charmed life. No question he worked hard and paid his dues, but it hasn’t left him with the same resentments as his peers, and he never had the drug habits and other health problems and bad luck that plagued Carlin and so many others. And that affable, pleasant, lucky quality is still his biggest asset as an actor; even when he isn’t all that funny, you can tell he’s enjoying himself, which has its own appeal.

They didn’t know each other, but it seems appropriate that Martin is one of the few performers who Carlin has nothing but kind words for:

Steve Martin came by. I hadn’t seen him since 1967 on the Smothers Brothers show …I pulled him aside and said, “Steve, you know I haven’t seen you in a long time. And I want you to know how happy I am for your career and the things that you’ve done.” He was touched, I could see, a little taken aback, but kind of touched. I’d made human contact.

Couchsurfing: The Meltdown Continues

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This is my third post about problems at Couchsurfing, a site where I’m not even an especially active member. Why do I find this story interesting? And why should you?

First, because the way this tiny social network is breaking down may hint at problems for larger social sites in the future. And second, because it’s a case study in terrible public relations that offers useful lessons for all consumer-facing startups.

In this post I’ll focus on the second reason, because it’s more entertaining. Our story so far: CS is a social network for travellers with about five million members. For the last two years, they’ve been in a bizarre and escalating conflict with their own core user base. (More details in my last two posts.) This conflict exploded onto the rest of the internet earlier this month after the company unexpectedly deleted the accounts of several dissenting members. I didn’t know the full extent of it when I wrote my last post, but it was part of a huge and continuing wave of criticism on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, travel blogs, and even Youtube.

How did it start? Well, the company had a support forum (run by Zendesk) where it encouraged users to post their feedback on site features and policies. The level of anger and negative comments on this forum was becoming embarrassing, and they decided to simply delete the whole thing at the end of February, with very little notice or explanation. Instead, they asked that members email them feedback directly, participate in a private “Beta group,” or use other channels that would be out of the public eye.

In this announcement (and I’ve also taken a screenshot for you, because embarrassing material on the CS site has a way of disappearing), the company said “If you do not wish to lose this content, please screenshot or backup the content that you wish to save.” Don Shine, one of the volunteer moderators here in Berlin, took this advice to heart and backed up the entire forum, reposting it elsewhere so it would still be available to members.

In reaction, the company not only deleted his profile and banned him from the site — along with several other moderators who had been loudly critical of the management — they sent his web host a DMCA takedown notice (!) claiming ownership of all the content in the forums and demanding its removal.

Now, Don was obviously being deliberately provocative, but the fact that the company took the bait is astonishing. I’m no expert, but I feel confident in giving you my First Law of PR: If you find yourself sending out a DMCA takedown notice on your own customer support forums, you’ve probably made a wrong turn somewhere.

And the only thing dumber than the decision to effectively publicize their action by attacking Don was the decision to take down the forums in the first place. Half the point of a ZenDesk-type forum is to corral angry users so they won’t complain about your site all over the rest of the internet. What on Earth did they expect to happen when they took it down?

Another basic principle of delivering bad news is to get it all over with quickly and try to put it behind you. But CS has dribbled this news out bit by bit, in a way that seems designed to maximize its impact. First, they wouldn’t comment on the member removals at all. Then, as the blowback grew, they posted a comically vague notice (screenshot) discussing all the reasons they might delete a profile, without even acknowledging the particular deletions that people were upset about. But they denied that they would remove a user just for criticizing the company — “that would be silly” (no, really) — and added helpfully “It’s important to remember that members sometimes remove their own profiles.”

This patronizing pat on the head only made people angrier, of course, so it was soon followed by a slightly stronger denial from the CEO (screenshot), referencing a “rumor” about member deletions and hinting even more strongly that it may have been about “safety” or “member privacy,” while still refusing to comment on any specifics.

Like most CS members in Berlin I’ve met Don multiple times, and he’s the last person you could imagine as a risk to member safety, so that post wasn’t very convincing either. But apparently there’s no real principle behind this “no comment” policy, because just a few days later they were willing to address Don’s case more directly for this travel writer:

Shine reposted pages from the CS support forum elsewhere online when CS staff shut down the forum. Couchsurfing management hints that was grounds for his removal…

How delightfully coy! The “hinting” gets stronger on this thread that the CEO has opened up with moderators:

We’ve had very few cases of Privacy violations (e.g., scraping our site and posting elsewhere on the Internet) and in those cases we will continue to remove members without appeal. I’ve emailed Don and he has not replied. I will now consider the case closed.

Gosh, what kind of content was being “scraped” exactly, and why? Imagine if the company’s first post had just said “We took down the forums because they were getting too negative and it didn’t seem like a constructive tool anymore. We removed Don for reposting them. We know a lot of members won’t like these decisions, but we stand by them.”

That would have generated some anger, but it would have blown over. As it is, they seem determined not to make a clear statement like that until the whole thing’s on the front page of the New York Times.

Don and others have continued to raise troubling concerns about real risks to member privacy and safety, but last I checked on that single open feedback thread, the CEO was busy “hinting” at another policy of deleting references to BeWelcome, an even tinier competing travel network, which is a bit like Facebook deleting references to Twitter in your status updates — or actually, given the relative size of the two networks, more like Facebook deleting references to Diaspora. Clearly they’re focused on the big issues.

In my last post I compared this company to a bumbling cartoon villain. In the first draft it was the Washington Generals, the exhibition basketball team with a 40-year losing streak against the Harlem Globetrotters.

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I decided that was too US-centric, but the point of both examples is that they’re not just screwing up, they’re doing so in a way that seems calculated to make their opponents look good. Their emerging defense against Don — “we didn’t ban him for dissent, we banned him because he kept us from censoring your dissent!” — also reminds me of this skit about the song I Shot the Sheriff: “I’m not sure why he’s defending himself on murder by confessing to a completely different murder.”

But I think the broader lesson here for other web companies is not to try to cover up negative user feedback in the first place — or that if you do try, you’d better be damn good at it. The internet at large is so hostile to any kind of censorship that you could easily wind up making it much worse.

[UPDATE: Thanks to TechCrunch for the link, see here for some thoughts on the latest announcement.]

The End of Google Reader

In my recent post on Google+, I wrote that:

Google’s evil plan for Google Reader seems to be working. Like most long-time Reader users, I was outraged when its social features were removed at the end of 2011, replaced with a “share on Google+” button. We all kicked and screamed and swore that it wouldn’t work, that we’d switch to another RSS reader or even build a new one… but now, more than a year later, I’m still using Reader all the time, and more and more often I find myself clicking on that share button. In this respect, Google has taken the most powerful lesson from Facebook: don’t worry about antagonizing your users with manipulative features, because once they get done complaining, 99% of them will just fall in line and do what you want. I wish it wasn’t true, but it often is. And I’m sure there are lots of other Reader users like me who are (however reluctantly) starting to fill up Google+ with shared content.

Apparently it wasn’t enough, because today Google announced that they’re shutting down Reader entirely.

Killing the social features was about Google+, but killing the rest of the product is more about the death of the RSS model in general. The conventional wisdom seems to be that it just wasn’t something users wanted:

The idea of RSS was one that never quite gripped with normal Internet users. Sure, for us geeks who absolutely love consuming as much information as possible, RSS is a wonderland. When Google launched Reader in 2005, I can remember surfing to all of my favorite sites and looking for that little RSS logo, clicking on it and subscribing to the feed. So easy, so awesome to “us,” and so not easy or awesome to anyone else on the planet.

I’ve heard many smart people try to explain RSS to normal folks, such as “turning content into television stations, allowing you to subscribe only to what you want to consume.” That one didn’t work. Neither did any other explanation, because RSS as a technology is too nerdy, too behind-the-scenes and lacked general consumer appeal. Nobody ever took RSS under its wing and “mentored” it.

I think this is the wrong narrative. The RSS model is dying because it didn’t work well with advertising. As Ryan Holiday wrote last year:

The reason subscription (and RSS) was abandoned was because in a subscription economy the users are in control. In the one-off model, the competition might be more vicious, but it is on the terms of the publisher. Having followers instead of subscribers — where readers have to check back on sites often and are barraged with a stream of refreshing content laden with ads — is much better for their bottom line.

RSS never became truly mainstream for this reason. It’s antithetical to the interests of the people who would need to push readers toward using it. It comes as no surprise that despite glowing reports from satisfied readers and major investments from Google and others that it would not be able to make it. So today, as RSS buttons disappear from browsers and blogs, just know that this happened on purpose, so that readers could be deceived more easily.

I don’t think I can say it much better than that. All I would add is that if you’re a Reader user looking for an alternative, today is the worst possible day to do so. All the other RSS readers are getting barraged with new users, driven by the hype around this announcement and the ‘listicles’ appearing on every tech site (“Our Top Five Reader Alternatives”) — which, ironically, are part of the same SEO-driven linkbait model that’s replacing RSS in the first place. If you try any other RSS apps or sites now, they’ll have major server and speed issues and you won’t see them at their best. Give them a couple weeks to scale up, and the smart ones will also build Google-specific migration tools that save you even more time. And you’ll give real tech writers time to write quality reviews and comparisons, rather than these dashed-off lists from Gawker-style sweatshops. Reader isn’t actually going away for three months, and using RSS is all about avoiding this kind of false urgency, right?

The Winner of World War III

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Had I been human, I would have said: “You’re joking!” I didn’t, because we never joke; we don’t need to. The laugh that a joke evokes is your momentary recollection of forgotten truth, and we never forget the truth.

The Winner of World War III is a deeply strange book, narrated by a cockroach who gives an insect’s perspective on the whole of human history. It was published in 1966 by Seven Seas Books, a small press in East Berlin that specialized in English books, many of them originals. As far as I can tell, this one never had another publisher. You can read a bit more about Seven Seas here, including a partial catalog of titles.

This book is essentially a fan’s extension of Don Marquis’s Archy & Mehitabel shtick, and even references it directly at a few points, including one supporting character with Mehitabel’s catch phrase, toujours gai (although “gaiety is apparently not toujours, for, soon after, she was killed.”) Myers doesn’t have Archy’s light touch as a writer, but he’s aiming for the same humorous tone laced with melancholy. In the end, the narrator’s message for humanity is that if we don’t get our act together and put an end to war and nuclear escalation, the insects have decided to wipe us out — more or less the plot of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Other than that, it’s less political than I might have expected from looking at some of the other titles in that Seven Seas catalog, but it does contain a few digs at capitalism and one in particular at the Hollywood blacklist — was Myers himself a victim of this?

So that’s a pretty good summary of this odd little book: it’s basically The Day the Earth Stood Still as narrated by Archy, written by an American screenwriter, and published by an obscure East German imprint alongside Johannes Becher, Christa Wolf and other socialist intellectuals.

I’m so used to googling old books and finding a wealth of information that it was a bit of a surprise to find nothing about this one, beyond what you could tell from the inside cover. It doesn’t have any reader ratings or even a blurb anywhere on the web. There’s no bio of Myers online either, although he was a successful screenwriter whose films included the hit Destry Rides Again (which I mentioned in my recent post on Django Unchained), and he had at least one successful novel in the ’50s called The Utmost Island. But even that book is long out of print, and other than a list of film credits, I couldn’t find anything about him.

Myers does include his own wry capsule biography in Winner, and in the interests of the next person who googles him — whenever that might be — I’ll reproduce part of it here:

His other activities have been: Teacher of Novel-Writing at New York University (four of his students have had books of their own published), Theatrical Press Agent for Messrs. Lee & J.J. Shubert, Teacher of Chess at Queen’s Pawn Chess Club in Greenwich Village, Accompanist for Concert Singers (he had a thorough musical education at his mother’s insistence; the story of his life is how he tricked her into letting him give up music and become a writer, but not before he had composed three Grand Operas and three Comic Operas, orchestration and all, none of them any good).

He was born in Chicago, left at the age of one, and now lives in New York City, under the delusion that it is a center of culture. I will not tell you how old he is, as he does not believe in Time, considering it a mistaken concept.

I wonder who those four students were. In any case, it’s a sobering thought that a writer with at least some level of mainstream success could leave so little trace just fifty years later.

Couchsurfing: A Sad End to a Great Idea

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Couchsurfing (CS) is a global network of people who host each other when travelling and organize various social events. Founded in 2003, it’s not the first or only such “reciprocal hosting” network, but it was the first one to tap into the younger backpacker demographic and reach a significant scale, with over 5 million current members.

That’s the beginning of a long post I wrote last year. Here’s the short version: in 2011, CS converted from a non-profit organization to a venture capital-backed startup company. Many members were worried that they would sell our personal data or otherwise exploit the current member base for profit. I focused on a different angle:

It quickly became obvious that the short-term goal of the new management was not finding a way to make money — which after all is the last thing you need to worry about in a tech bubble — but growing the user base at all costs. This started with a plan to make years of old discussion board posts accessible to search engines (which created such an outcry that they had to quickly reverse themselves) and has continued with “updates” to the privacy policy and terms of use, a muddled redesign of the website, and a massive spike in people signing up with no idea of what the organization is about.

In other words, I thought they were trying to create a “Facebook for travellers,” minimizing the hosting elements and emphasizing the other social features so as to reach the widest possible member base. But they seemed to be having trouble executing:

The one way in which CS seems unable to copy other social networks is to make a functional website. They’re obviously aware of this problem, but progress has been way too slow. It’s been a year now since they started taking VC money and that’s plenty of time to have gotten it right. But instead they’ve been fooling around with the design and brainstorming endless new features, when the existing features don’t even work half the time…

Anything that made it easier or more attractive for new members to sign up — Facebook logins, splash page, marketing videos — was dealt with right away. But features that make it easier to actually do anything once you’re signed up are clearly a much lower priority. And things like group organizer tools that are used by the most experienced and dedicated members — well, those are the lowest priority of all.

Since then it’s only gotten worse, generating more and more backlash from long-term members. I barely visit the site anymore — not out of protest, just because it’s impossible to use. Some of the largest city groups are already re-forming on Facebook or elsewhere. And just recently, the company has begun to simply delete the accounts of the loudest dissenters, refusing to give any explanation.

I’m not one of the loudest dissenters, nor am I one of the oldest members. A lot of those people are angry, and many have a right to be angry. For me, the whole story is just sad. Because a great organization has gone into an ugly downward spiral, and it will be a while before there’s anything else that can fully replace it.

But if it wasn’t so sad, it would be hilarious. Because this company is like the villain in a slapstick cartoon, threatening the hero while holding the gun backwards: they’re trying to be evil, but they’re just not up to the task.

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Think about how Facebook operates: they introduce some creepy new feature, wait out the backlash, and then most people wind up using it anyway, because they’ve made it so simple to use and so complex to avoid. But with CS, every change to the website generates a huge backlash, and then it’s so confusing and poorly designed that it barely works anyway. Instead of alienating a bunch of users and then winning most of them back, they’re alienating a bunch of users and then alienating even more users who just can’t figure the damn site out anymore.

To those existing members who believe there’s something at CS to salvage, and it’s still worthwhile trying to engage with them: I hope you’re right, but I disagree. After nearly two years of constant employee turnover, technical incompetence, and sleazy, misleading public statements, this business of deleting accounts and burying negative user reactions should be the last straw. And not because it’s the act of cruel corporate fascists who want to crush dissent, but rather because it’s one more panicky fumble by decent people who are simply in over their heads. You don’t have to demonize the company to decide that it’s just not worth any more of your time or attention.

I’m not saying you should quit CS if you’re still getting any use out of it (I’m not quitting, although we’ll see if they delete my account after this post), but there’s no reason to put any more time or energy into “feedback” or “dialogue.” The ball’s in their court. The most constructive thing we can do is start thinking about other options.

It’s hard to replace a site like this, where the large user base and history of member-to-member references create a massive network effect. But it’s not impossible, and there are already a lot of smart people trying to do it. (One example is BeWelcome, where many of us have already set up a secondary profile.) In my next post on this subject, I’ll stop complaining and try to make some constructive suggestions for how to speed up the growth of a new and usable CS alternative, whatever it turns out to be.