"Callous Complacence"

Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time newsletter reproduced this fascinating document from WWI war hero and poet Siegfried Sassoon, denouncing the conduct of the war at great personal risk. It was originally printed in The Times in 1917.

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

The Bandwidth of Books

This Design Observer post about who is reading all those books went over some familiar ground ("explosion of information" = "ignorance about more things") and elicited some good comments. The crux of the post was to answer this question:

Why keep on with the work of traditional publishing when the Internet would seem to provide a much more efficient means for reaching people? What is it about the book, pamphlet and magazine formats that continue to lure publishers onto the rocks of insolvency?

It's a good question. Control of the design and sheer love of the physical object are two compelling reasons. (I really can't imagine Bryan Talbot's eye-popping Alice in Sunderland as multimedia object--it just works and feels so complete as a book.)

One of the more interesting answers was that the authors use their small print runs to trade books back and forth with other authors.

Such books function primarily as a currency within the network of other artists, other publishers, and other designers who share their particular sensibility.

Does this sound like zine fandom or what? Or maybe link exchanges in the blog world? The intent being to create a community and start a conversation among members of a self-chosen tribe.

Perhaps it's also those members of our modern digital media culture looking in the rear view mirror at what's receding into the past. Hence the burst over the last 10 years of books about books and reading (though such objects have always been a part of literate culture, just as the theater and movies abound in stories about backstage dramas).

It all reminds me of an Isaac Asimov essay about the perfect entertainment cassette that would be physically comfortable to hold and use, in any lighting, allowing one to start or stop it at any point, rewind or fast-forward and then return to one's present location immediately, and so on. Of course, this perfect cassette is a book.

It also puts me in mind of the astonishing success of Lulu.com and the craftspeople I see selling handmade paper and blank books. There's still a need for the physically beautiful and tactile in us, which the vaporous digital ether can't compete against. (When the next hurricane comes and takes out my electricity for 5 days, will I pass the time reading an e-book or a real book?)

Hello world!

Instead of deleting the default post when starting a new WordPress blog, why not accept the cheery default title and pronounce this new blog well and truly open for business.

Web Hosting Research

For a variety of reasons, I’ve decided it’s time to find a web host and create my own site. I’ve been bookmarking pages on web hosting providers for a few years and decided it was time go forward.

So, if anyone else is interested, here are some annotated links.

Invoke the Lazy Web

Absolutely nothing wrong with asking the hive mind first. The following links from LifeHacker and Ask Metafilter contain plenty of links, advice, and pointers to plenty of sites you can investigate.

Good webhost? | Ask MetaFilter

Ask Lifehacker Readers: Web hosting provider?

For & Against

A piece of advice I picked up from one site was to Google a hosting provider using the phrase “[provider] sucks” and see what you get back. Using this phrase, DreamHost returns a ton of results, as does GoDaddy, but maybe because they have tons of users? You decide. DreamHost also has its partisans and other review sites.

My del.icio.us links include a few other praises and pans. You can go to review sites, but I found them of little value.

What I Did

I collected up a bunch of names, set the kitchen timer for 1 hour, and surfed around really quick, just trying to catch the vibe of these places. My feeling is that web hosting is now a pretty commodity service, and until you’ve actually gone through the process, you won’t know how the support or uptime actually is. It’s also pretty clear that the provider holds all the cards–they can cancel your service at any time, they tend to be unresponsive when it’s their mistake, and the customer is usually left to clean up the mess. So, go in with your eyes open.

I want to use a WordPress blog, which seems to be included in a script package called Fantastico, so that knocked out a few local contenders.

I looked for a while at DreamHost, since it was recommended to me by a classmate. But I was uneasy with reports of downtime, so rejected them. They certainly offer an attractive package, though.

I narrowed it to three: AN Hosting, A2 Hosting, and InMotion Hosting. These names popped up because I noticed that some of the sites I admire and visit frequently trumpet their wares.

When it came down to making the final decision, they were all pretty similar in their deals and prices. So I basically made a contrarian decision and went with the one that didn’t start with “A.” A silly decision-making heuristic, but there you go. I opted for a year’s contract, so that I can switch to another provider next year if I don’t like their service.

Google Reader

Mike Shea praises Google Reader and then realizes that maybe absorbing so much ephemera of the moment may not be a good thing.

I’ve long used Merlin Mann’s “Probations folder” idea for news feeds, as I find I also like to scarf up new feeds like candy as I surf, only to have a bellyache later in the week when I see 157 new items lying in wait. As a result, I keep my active daily feeds down to an arbitrary number, between 25 and 30. Some of them, like LifeHacker and Marginal Revolution, can drown me in posts in a single day. Others, like PostSecret, only post once a week, so I don’t consider them active. I like to keep the number of inputs to a controllable number; it’s rather like keeping only as many books as you can stuff into a bookcase. To make room for new books, I either toss out old ones or consider whether this new one is really worth keeping.

Like Mike, I also enjoy Google Reader’s “Share” feature, as a quick and dirty way for me to go back to things I want to remember. (Bloglines had the same feature, but it must have been well hidden, as few people used it or referred to it.)

And on a related note: I’ve often thought that, when I become the benevolent dictator of the world, I would remove time limits on news broadcasts. They would last as long as they need to last, be it 10 minutes or 4 hours, depending on how news-busy the day was. Likewise, newspapers would have a weekend edition and maybe 2 or 3 editions during the week, if there was enough news of worth to warrant it. I think the pressure of a daily product that MUST BE PRODUCED leads to poor news judgments being made on the part of editors and publishers and broadcasters. And it leads to the problem Mike Shea touches on: maybe there’s too much news to absorb? How can our 10,000-year-old brains and emotional systems process and cope with all the ideas and feelings this morass of news induces?

I think having a few days off from the news (a news fast, as some call it, or even a Google Reader fast) gives our brains time to sort and judge and evaluate. Otherwise, we’re stunned into a submissive state that only wants more more more input to keep our neural networks tingling and excited, when perhaps we need more more more time to mull, consider, and ponder.

The Sociology of Suicide Notes

From the newsletter that accompanies BBC4 Radio’s Thinking Allowed program, hosted by the ebullient Laurie Taylor:

Whenever the subject of suicide or attempted suicide comes up in conversation I can be relied upon to describe a piece of research on suicide notes that was published some years ago (even though I’ve tried, I can’t find the exact reference any more).

What the researcher had done was collect a large selection of suicide notes written by two classes of people: those who had successfully ended their own life and those who had failed for one reason or another to kill themselves (attempted suicides).

He then submitted these two sets of notes to a computer analysis in the hope that this might throw up some interesting differences in style or subject matter.

As I remember he found clear evidence that the notes written by the ‘attempted suicides’, by people who had not taken quite enough pills, or not sealed the door sufficiently well to prevent noxious gases or fumes escaping, were heavily philosophical in tone. The writers spoke at length of life no longer being worth living, of the meaningless of existence, of the impossibility of optimism.

These were in stark contrast to the suicide notes written by those who had succeeded in killing themselves. These notes tended to be much shorter and much more practical than those provided by attempted suicides. One for example simply said “You’ll find the car keys on top of the sideboard and the will in the top desk drawer.”

There are thousands of other research papers on the subject of suicide. Indeed, it could be argued that sociology first asserted itself as a distinctive subject back in 1897 when Emile Durkheim first tried to formulate a structural and cultural account of its incidence which did not rely upon any psychological understanding of individual desires and motives.

The Hands of an Artist

The Illustration Art blog has two wonderful posts on the great Mort Drucker. This one focuses on how Drucker drew hands, and this one focuses on how he drew and differentiated hair. Tiny tiny things that you don’t notice very much as a casual reader of Mad parodies, but take them away, and the experience lessens.