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A small change that would improve online reading

NY Times snippett

Recently, William Saletan published The Conversion, a wonderful story about the evolution of Mitt Romney’s views on abortion rights. It’s exhaustively researched and long: some 13,000 words, including a video summary and detailed infographic. It spells out revealing information about how Romney processes important political decisions, and sheds light on how complicated and large-looming the politics of abortion are in the US, equally obsessed with religion and personal liberty. It’s the sort of story that so many readers still seek out and cherish, as evidenced by sites like Longform.org, which aggregate relatively long pieces of journalism.

But had you come across the story on Slate’s home page, you would have no way from distinguishing it from, say, this article, a 200-word quick-hit entry about the cars the Romney family drives. The abortion article may have been longer featured on Slate’s home page, and it certainly received more attention on the internet, but a browser of the Slate website or RSS feed would have no way differentiating between the relative weights of these two articles without clicking through.

As we transition from print to online media, this is one of the huge challenges that has yet to be overcome. Reading a physical newspaper is a very particular experience, in part because experienced layout people hand-design every page to give prominence to the material that’s deemed most important, but mostly because you can usually see which articles are longest. The full text of the article is right there. And while attempts to bring a print-like layout to the web have mostly failed, the reader’s need to know what lies behind each link as they scan a web page remains. Many websites have done a good job of identifying links that lead to photo slideshows, infographics, and video content, but for ordinary stories there is no way to tell how long the article is, how much effort the reporter has put in, or how long it’ll take to read.

It’s fantastic that, contra some predictions, the internet has not reduced all online reporting to short blog posts. But making long articles impossible to dinstinguish from short ones places a burden on readers, who treat articles of different lengths in different ways. Many of us spend the morning gobbling short items in large volume in an effort to stay up to speed with the day’s events “water-cooler” topics. We often save longer articles to services like Instapaper and Read it Later for more relaxed reading, perhaps an after-dinner session on an iPad.

instapaper

Fundementally, this problem is not difficult to solve. When I designed The Heat Lightning, I incorporated into the traditional blog format a word count for each “read full article” link. The site Longreads provides not just a word count, but an aproximate reading time for each article it aggregates (based on approximately 265 words per minute). A minimal but elegant solution is on display in Instapaper’s iPhone app. A series of gray dots below the short summary of the article indicates aproximate length, three dots for short articles up to a dozen or so for epic pieces. It’s simple and easily scanable, but doesn’t convey the information in a precise way. Then again, you don’t get an exact wordcount by scanning the layout in a printed newspaper either — just a rough visual sense of its length.

As we transition from print to online media, features like these become essential. It’s possible to flip through an entire edition of a daily paper, scanning headlines, skimming some articles and reading others, over breakfast. The same is not true of digital newspapers, because every story is on its own page, and even on a fast internet connection pages take a couple of seconds to load. A typical newspaper home page has hundreds of links, so the inflection point is the click itself. We’ve got a headline and a few lines of summary text in which to make the decision to take the plunge or not.

What we need here is some way to see just a little more of the story before committing to clicking through. Why not show the first couple of paragraphs of a story when the reader’s mouse pointer is over the headline? (The same effect could be accomplished on a tablet by pinching open.)

Over the last five years, many publications have intelligently revamped their websites, creating useful information hierarchies, usable navigation systems, and easily readable content pages. But as we use Twitter and recommendation tools like Longform more and more to find articles to read, the home pages of many publications’ websites are falling into disuse. Adding tools like these, that take into account how readers consume content, would do a lot to make these pages more useful.

Posted: Tuesday March 27, 2012 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [2]

 

What to do when you've decided to be an artist

Recently, I came back across Walter Darby Bannard’s Aphorisms for Artists — 100 short “chapters” of observations, quips and warnings. They are meant to and indeed do inspire thinking about what is valuable in art, but they espouse a very particular conception of art. Bannard believes that art is a purely visual experience, and that the creation of art is almost solely about the materials. He’s an abstract expressionist painter, and post modernism is his enemy, where post-modernism is taken to include almost all of the art created by contemporary artists. I find this view peculiar and limiting, but I do enjoy living in it off and on. And I think that the contemporary approach to art making, which thrives on playing with meaning as much as materials, on mixing generes and media, and on voraciously devouring as much of the world for incorporation into art, will find much to use here.

Chapter 59. Making art is not risky.

Any true artist will immediately object to this. Why? because making art feels so risky. After all, you are putting heart and soul on the line.

When you are serious about your art, every perceived little success must be preserved, every perceived failure is a testament to your abject lack of talent, and every hesitant, anxious new stroke of paint betrays your meager ability and exposes you to ridicule.

Put a stop to this. When making art forget you are making art. Tell yourself you are working with a few dollars worth of disposable materials, trying to make something you and maybe some others will like to look at, something nice to pass the time.

It probably won’t work, but it’s worth a try.

I spent a couple of days reading through these, and during that time came across an interview of Ornette Coleman being interviewed by Jacques Derrida. As the pioneer of free jazz, Coleman is Bannard’s ally. As the de-facto inventor of post-modernist deconstructive analysis, Derrida is more or less his proclaimed nemesis. The interview was conducted in 1997, some 35 years after the release of Coleman’s first seminal works. It was conducted in English and published in French, but the original transcript was lost so this edition is the French translated back into English.

JD: Do you think that your music and the way people act can or must change things, for example, on the political level or in the sexual relation? Can or should your role as an artist and composer have an effect on the state of things?

OC: No, I don’t believe so, but I think that many people have already experienced that before me, and if I start complaining, they’ll say to me, “Why are you complaining? We haven’t changed for this person that we admire more than you, so why should we change for you?” So basically I really don’t think so. I was in the South when minorities were oppressed, and I identified with them through music. I was in Texas, I started to play the saxophone and make a living for my family by playing on the radio. One day, I walked into a place that was full of gambling and prostitution, people arguing, and I sara a woman get stabbed — then I though that I had to get out of there. I told my mother that I didn’t want to play this music anymore because I thought that I was only adding to all that suffering. She replied, “What’s got hold of you, you want somebody to pay you for your sould?” I hadn’t thought of that, and when she told me that, it was like I had been re-baptized.

There’s something funny going on there at the end. The idea was either fuzzy to begin with, or likely it’s gotten mangled in re-translation. I do not mean to say that these two pieces are in any way two ends of a spectrum, or that they offer two diverging points of view, but merely that they signify an interval, and that there is something to be taken about their relationship to each other, and their mode of creation, and their ability to evoke something useful in the mind of the reader. As the saying goes, there’s a lot of reality in there.

Update: Franklin Einspruch and Walter Darby Bannard respond and clarify their positions. Franklin and I (with many many others) had a lot of debates about this stuff in the old days of Artblog. Good times. Needless to say that Franklin and Darby are much smarter about art than me, and spend a lot more time than me thinking about this stuff, and you will find their positions persuasive.

Also note that comments are fixed and re-enabled.

Posted: Thursday March 22, 2012 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment

 

Should I buy an iPad to replace my computer?

the new iPad

There is very little that’s interesting to say about the new iPad. I’d sum it up this way: the iPad’s always been wonderful, and the new model improves the screen, one of the few things that was left to improve about previous models. (Still to go: the weight.)

Should you buy one? If you’re like most of us, and you use your computer mostly for browsing the web, absolutely. The iPad is a pleasure, and it goes places where we read (couch, bed, standing in the kitchen, bathtub) more gracefully than a laptop ever can.

Someone asked me today whether to buy an iPad to replace a dying laptop, and that’s a tougher question. There are still things that are infuriatingly difficult to do on an iPad. Try downloading a Microsoft Word document from the web, editing it, and emailing it to someone. It can be done, but if you’re the sort of person to consider having an iPad as your only computer, you’re probably not one to fiddle and work at figuring out things like this.

(For the record, here’s how: Download the file with a web browser that allows downloads, such as Atomic Web. Use Atomic Web’s file manager to transfer the file to Dropbox. Use a Dropbox and Office-compatible editor such as Documents to Go to edit your document. Finally, use an app such as GoodReader, which has the ability to attach files to outgoing messages, to send your email.)

But for 90% of what we use computers for, the iPad is just all-around better. And the cincher is the battery life, which aside from plugging it in at night you never have to think about. I ordered my iPad 1 the day it was announced, replaced it as soon as the iPad 2 was announced, and Ordered my new iPad Wednesday. (I’ve bought the $499 model each time, and managed to sell it on ebay for around $400 right before the new model’s announced. A few weeks without an iPad makes me appreciate the new one when it comes.)

Posted: Friday March 9, 2012 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [4]

 

From 'Facts for Republicans': the presidency and gas prices

Having little else to attack Barack Obama for, FOX News is beating him up for rising gas prices, going so far to use blatantly misleading charts.

The good news is that FOX themselves made the argument that the president has very little influence over gas prices — during the George W. Bush administration. Check it out:

Posted: Wednesday March 7, 2012 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [1]

 

Banksy on advertising

Banksy on advertising

(via)

Posted: Thursday March 1, 2012 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment