Most recent

Recent Offsite Work: Code and Prose

As a hobby I write.

Code

SavePublishing.com, a bookmarklet that identifies just the tweetable sentences on web pages, making it very easy to find direct quotes for tweeting purposes. Try it!

It is entirely open-sourced in every way. Visit the Github repository for SavePublishing

Some of the folks at the local paper asked me to talk about it, so I made up some slides. Without me in the room I doubt they make much sense, which goes to show that you should always have one of me handy to talk things over.

Prose

In the New York Times Magazine, a few words on a personal hero, George Miller, creator of WordNet.


In New York Magazine (print and web): A piece on scaling websites, and scaling the Occupy movement, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and another piece on thoughts on mass logo outrage (crowdsmashing).


In The Morning News, Heaven can Wait, some advice to the godless who want to make out with the godful.


In Slate, Authentocracy in America, a book review that veers into a discussion of the American Authentocracy.


On Medium.com, A piece about summer rolls, as I learned about the new Medium CMS, and a piece about Christmas lights. Which we just took down (the lights, not the piece, it will be live forever).


In The Millions, some words on a book by the great radio entertainer Fred Allen.


In the latest Print Magazine, issue not yet online, a piece about seeking design inspiration from spreadsheets, in the "Interactions" slot.


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Rotary Dial

Image: Telephone Desk Stand, U.S. patent #180,081 (palindromic!). Image research: Anil Dash.

Necessary Introduction

So-called “people” on the Internet are writing about how no one blogs any more. I am one of these no-ones, by which they mean those of us who used to write things on the Internet and post them to our own servers, but have now instead gone over to centralized services like Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook, where we spend our time—the diaspora of the alienated transformed by convenience into an aggregation of the aggrieved, or something like that. And they think it's a shame, and it is a shame. So I took the Blogging Challenge and tweeted:

That's some context for you, because this is not some descent-from-Olympus nonsense like I usually pull. This is straight-up blogging, amateur prose written quickly and with neither guiding stricture nor sober editing. I am going to tell it like it is, right from the heart, and I am going to tell it about telephone dials, because a man has to live by a code, and my code is unary loop disconnect dialing.

Dials

Let's get to it. There aren't as many dials in this world as there used to be, but once there were tens of millions. The rotary dial (or “calling dial” if you look at the patents in the 1920s) represented a big change in how a person approached the Bell System network. Prior to dials you picked up the phone and the suddenly broken circuit animated some light in an unseen switching station; soon would come an operator, a real woman (they tried men but they talked back and wanted too much advancement) and the operator would say: “Number please?” Or something along those lines. Get me Baltimore! you might say. Or: “Murray Hill 5-9975.”

“Right away, Ma'am.” Or Sir. Then the operator, who had to signal to ask permission to wipe her brow, would move some plugs around to make the connection. Now you were emperor over leagues of copper string.

Decades pass and here, finally, comes the calling dial: pick up, a live circuit is offered up; start dialing. Ringring.

When you dialed somewhere on the other end of that wire was a relay—a large heavy ozone-smelling device that heard the clicks. Or rather it didn't hear as much as register modulating electric pulses. These are beautiful, abstract, incredibly dumb devices that clack. Anything that they could do a matchbox-sized computer can do today.

“Detail of back side of a Western Electric 6-wire 100-point crossbar switch (model 324-N) showing ‘banjo’ wiring.”—Wikipedia; photo by user Yeatesh copyright CC BY-SA 3.0.

Western Electric was the manufacturing arm of the telephone monopoly. They made everything: Phones, switches, equipment for the linemen. Sometimes you have to marvel at the audacious monopolistic excitement of it all. The Bell System employed a million people in thousands of different positions and traded on the stock exchange under the letter “T,” the ultimate in financial domain-name shortening. Sure, Wal-Mart employs 2.2 million people (two hundred thousand to stock the shelves and two million to keep them from unionizing). But Glen Campbell won't show up and sing “The Michigan Greeter” about Wal-Mart, will he?

The rotary dial was a building block of civilization, the key that unlocked the phone system for millions of people. It was an integral part of your parents' lives. Imagine your father stuffing his dirty fingers into the waiting greasy dialpits, over and over and over again, over and over and over and over again, ringing your mother's bell until finally she shudders and reaches—for the phone and says: “Hello? This is [YOUR MOTHER'S NAME].” “Hey,” says your father, “this is [YOUR FATHER'S NAME].” “Well, how do you like that?” asks your mother even though she likes it very much. He asks her out to dinner. “Let me check my busy calendar,” she says. She goes so far as to coyly ruffle pages of the nearby phone book. “As it turns out,” she says, “I've had a cancellation.” Not much later your father drives by and picks her up and off they go. And usually they would have just had dinner, but this night—this night initiated by dialing on a rotary phone—they have a couple of nice chops and too much red wine, and, maybe it was the pretty moon, they find themselves engaging in penetrative sexual intercourse, your mother and father. Both of them. You can hear the smushing-together of bodies, soft and moist like warm gingerbread, their skin traversed with thick bristles of interlocking hair, hair like the hair of wild boar. Never forget the both of them, eyes half-lidded, hairy-gingerbread bodies glistening on a bed with maroon sheets. The smell of stacks of damp pennies. Your mother and father. Pennies.

And now here you are! And you're amazing. All thanks to that beautiful rotary dial. Let's open one up and take a look inside:

Mechanism-wise you can intuit quite a bit about the whole system by watching that video. Note for example the way the rotary action causes a coil-uncoil with the middle whirrer, which uninvolves the pen gear, in turn causing the quirt to devilate, which itself leads to the essential pulsing grombus before the return hose coil inductor is repronged. Couldn't be simpler, and yet something so elegant brought millions of people (like your parents) together—just as, years later, the iPhone would bring people together to hate Android. After all, it wasn't the phone itself but the network that mattered. That's a trite statement in this age of Big Social, but the phone people invented the idea of the network as we understand it, the idea of connecting people together whenever they wanted. “Social” is just a riff on the metaphors and understanding around “phone.”

The phones connected folks, but the phone book described a town. In even a mid-sized town the phone book was heavy, printed on cheap paper. The paper was so cheap that ink would bleed and spread during printing, so much so that they used special fonts–Bell Centennial starting around the 1970s, and before that Bell Gothic)—that had various little divots, called ink traps, within the letters so that less ink was transmitted during printing, and thus the ink-bleed could be put to service—and the effect was sort of peculiar to the phonebook, the way the numbers and letters were slightly blurry, with the grain of the paper essential to the form of the type.

The phone book at its essence was a practical tool for translating names into numbers; it was a symptom of the Bell System, not a cause. But I have odd, fond memories of poring over it to learn a great variety of things irrelevant of whether I'd ever make a call or not; there was of course just looking through the names to see who was who; there was discovering the addresses of friends or enemies—and there was a map of the town itself, in the front section, and, oddly, there was often a perpetual calendar. You could engage in an enormous variety of fantasies and plots just by flipping through the flimsy paper, or learn about your crushes, and about the people your crushes were dating while you stayed home and read the phone book.

Those were the white pages, the fattest part, everyone named and listed. Then came a slender striation, the blue pages, the list of government and community services. You could find out in the blue pages what all of the offices were at a college or a hospital, all the different divisions of the mayor's office or the high school. Like a lot of people I like to know how things sort themselves out, and who is in charge of what. This information was urgent to me, and otherwise unavailable without asking an adult, which I hated to do. They were always so suspicious. Why do I want to know how the hospital works? Because I am momentarily interested in hospitals. I hate this town and I hate you. Leave me alone.

If ever there were something to make an information architect's heart sing it was the index of goods and services of the yellow pages, the great swath of color—smaller than the white pages in breadth but way more varied. A list of places that could clean out gutters? A collation of all the pizzerias within a five mile radius, with sketches of fat Italian chefs? Check, twice. And coupons, so many coupons. You could plan a life there, or a good couple of weeks. Once a year they'd do that, the people, just send you a big list of all the people and addresses and businesses and offices in your town, and trust you to do the right thing by it.

Progress was a phone book released every year, a cycle of civic rebirth. It grew thicker as more people moved to town, and people commented on that. “I can remember when it was half that size,” a parent would remark, nostalgic for their own lost and smaller world. Is there anything like that today, any single document with creators so naïve as to believe that they could deliver all that humans had to offer in black Bell Centennial on white, blue, and yellow paper, indexed, tagged, and sorted? And will there ever again be humans so naïve as to believe, as I did, that when they held a single book they held the whole white, blue, and yellow world?

Image: Trundle Toy, U.S. patent #196,737, 1963.

.  .  .  .  .  

Edits

A tweet from Rick Prelinger pointed out that the typeface Bell Gothic preceded Bell Centennial. I edited the piece to clarify.

A a tweet from Alan Gutierrez explained that exchange codes were not pronounced in any special way. I removed a sentence accordingly.

A tweet from Alan Gutierrez explained that exchange codes were not pronounced in any special way. I removed a sentence accordingly.

In the Facebook Group, Dan Brickley pointed out that where I'd written “decentralized” I meant “centralized.”

A tweet from Dan Phiffer pointed out that I had doubled an “A” in the above correction.

I appreciate people who help.


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10 Timeframes

Forgot to put this here...

I recently gave the closing keynote at the 2012 MFA Interaction Design Festival, a full-day event held on Saturday, May 12, 2012, to celebrate the work of the 2012 graduating class of the Interaction Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I teach a course in Content Strategy there, and working with the immensely talented students has forced me, as a content-oriented individual, to think hard about a specific task that interaction designers frequently take on—namely that they themselves must make things that allow other people to make things. They define the experiences that permit other people to do their work, or play, or tweet, or post things. They make the forms that the rest of us fill out. And so I walked around New York City and thought: What could I ask of these students, how could I advocate on behalf of the creators who are their users? This is, I hope, a partial answer to that question.

Read the keynote...


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Facebook and Instagram: When Your Favorite App Sells Out

“Facebook and Instagram: When Your Favorite App Sells Out” is the title of something I wrote for New York Magazine's website.


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Why I Am Leaving the People of the Red Valley

When I first joined the People of the Red Valley all those years ago I was glad to share water. I had been in Fathers of the Blue Sky and Sons of the Lion but I did not feel welcome in either family and I could tell that the People of the Red Valley were serious about creating a tribe that would provide me with a high quality of food, shelter, and opportunities for mating. And for a long time I was happy in the Red Valley. I ate of the food and would partake of the shelter, and married well more than once.

Yes, for a long time it was good. During the hunt for the Great Fox, five chiefs and twenty warriors—including myself—traveled for six days towards the night sun. There we found the sleeping Great Fox and encircled him in silence and woke him all at once with our roar, and pierced his side with our spears, and where the blood touched the ground there will grow a mountain. I felt that we had truly built an effective community that could accomplish anything, a community where my contributions were valued.

I remember a time when we respected each other. Recall when Rain-on-Winter-Grass wrestled a ghost bear by the Five Trees River and had to be pulled away by all of us before the Woman in the River could turn him to tears and take him as a husband. That night I wiped his tears with my war shirt, until the Woman in the River gave him back to us.

But then things began to change.

First, when I proposed that we go to war against the Fathers of the Blue Sky I expected there to be a discussion, but I didn't expect the Five Chiefs to insist that I retract my proposal. Yes, I understand that the laws of the People of the Red Valley say that we will raise arms against no other people, but who gets to decide those laws? If no one questions the Five Chiefs are we any better than slaves?

Then, few seasons later I saw that some of the chiefs had taken too many wives. Some of the mother-chiefs even took more than two husbands! And yet when I wanted a third wife and a larger cave, the Five Chiefs took pains to point out that I was not born a Red Valley Person and made so bold as to say that I had not earned the “large” cave in which I lived—not only that but I had not shared a deer in three moons. Now, that would have been fine and fair if I had known the policy on deer-sharing, but nowhere was it clear how many deer I would have needed to share in order to move to a larger cave.

Finally (and this was the last straw) in the fall, when there was the smell of snow, we allowed six men and a girl-child of the Waterfall People to enter our home, all seven hungry and weak, and I was asked if I could shelter two of the men in my already very-crowded cave, as if it was suddenly my job to teach strangers the ways of the Red Valley People, and asked to share my smoked deer meat—even though it was never made clear to me exactly how much smoked deer I should be giving to the People. That's when I began to wonder exactly why I had come to the Red Valley.

And now the famine has come and the crone who tends the heart-hearth has been eaten by lions in the night. And don't get me started on the council's attempts to find the next crone, which was proof of the fact that our chiefs don't care about anything but themselves. Yes, there was a time when I was very proud to say that I was a Red Valley Person. But that time is over. There was a time when I would have shared my smoked deer meat with all of you, but that time is gone. I hope one day the People can regain their communion with the Sun, but I doubt it.

Goodbye, People of the Red Valley. I guess I'm once again a Father of the Blue Sky.


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Welcome to the Company

Recapitulation theory ("ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny") puts forth that incubating humans act out evolution as they grow from zygote to baby. This was a popular idea a century ago, but it's turned out the science isn't that simple. Yet the principle holds that the dividing fetal cells are engaged in a kind of performance of all of evolution—from simple to complex, from general form to specific form. The developing human loses its tail early, gains a cerebrum later.

Thus newborns are time boiled down, and every ounce gained is another 20 or 30 million years of life; they compress the three billion years since abiogenesis into a nine- or ten-month performance that runs from conception to birth. By the time they arrive they have gone for rides on comets, teased dinosaurs with sticks, come down from the trees, and run across the savannah.

The day before we were scheduled for our Caesarean I told the Internet that I was packing for a very long trip and wasn't sure what to bring. People—friends and strangers—wrote with suggestions: Spare pants. A suitcase filled with books. Your wife. Extra underwear and camping detergent; a hoodie and a flask. The head and <3. Can organic mixed nuts, first aid kit, cash hidden in wallet belt, an extra pair ultra comfortable shoes. Carseats. Toothbrush. Multiple chargers. Take less. Pillows and a blanket for you, easy snacks, every kind of memory-recording device. Bring a sandwich. Music. And patience. Half the clothes and twice the money, and lots and lots of gin.

So a few days ago we packed everything and went to the hospital. And a few hours after we arrived the clock—our clock—reset from 3.5 billion to zero.

Hello little girl. And two minutes later: Hello little boy.


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“Facebook and the Epiphanator: An End to Endings?”

Forgot to tell you about this.

Continuing my theme of writing things every now and then I wrote a piece about how social media sees the publishing industry, which is now published to the New York website.

It was much helped along by its editor.

It was a sort of companion piece to this list of people in new media, which, well, when you read the list you realize, it's basically "media" now. We're probably only a year or two away from dropping the "new" forever.


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“The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

An essay for TheMorningNews.org.

This morning TheMorningNews.org unveiled a gorgeous new design—the happy result of months of hard work by many people.

I feel privileged that a new essay, “The Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” is the first feature to be published in the relaunch.

It's about some things that happened.


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Woods+

People call me a lot and say: What is this new thing? You're a nerd. Explain it immediately.

I know it's confusing. But this is their competitor to Facebook basically. Except you can list your friends. That's the circles. But it's easier to remember if you call them holes. Like I could have a friend hole and an acquaintance hole and a K-hole. And they give you a list of friends and you stuff them in the hole, like Silence of the Lambs, except you are sending them images and text messages and hanging out with them on video chats. One of the things that can happen, according to the press, is that you can, if you are very lucky, talk with one of the founders of Google, because he's hanging out using the service too. And you can ask him about user experience, and show him your cat. Which sounds horrifying, like having to pee next to Steve Jobs or playing touch football with Arnold Schwarzenegger. People rich enough to place phone calls to order body organs, people who can afford to hide families, make me nervous. The only thing they could want me for is harvesting.

Anyway, the new thing from the Gootch makes it really easy to sort people into the holes, which is good, because this lets you divide people into clusters and lie to each group in different ways, which makes it easier to preserve the fictions that make up our polite racist society. And it looks pretty sweet and works well so far, which probably means that there will be a huge battle-in-earnest between the Gootch and the Books, between Circles and Friends. For example, I don't know if you saw this but according to the New York Times Mark Zuckerberg is taking walks in the woods with people he'd like to hire. If he really wants you to work for him he takes you for a walk in the woods. It's gotten that serious. And this is a responsibility of a well-educated American, to think about Mark Zuckerberg taking walks in the woods with multiple unnamed sources.

First, this means that there is a class of employees who were taken for walks in the woods and class that wasn't. That's how that stuff shakes out. “Haha,” someone texts or comments, “sure we went for a walk in the woods, it's amazing that someone is thinking to talk about that in a national newspaper,” but in their secret heart they are thinking, “I am woodsworthy.”

No one has yet come forth and said that they have not taken a walk with Mark Zuckerberg, perhaps because they are ashamed--but there is also the distinct possibility that it is Zuckerberg's goal in life to take a walk with absolutely everyone on earth, and that's all that Facebook (which now has nearly 43 times as many users as there are unemployed people in the USA) is actually for.

Now that this article has appeared there will have to be even more thought given at Facebook HQ as to who gets a walk in the woods, because now everyone knows that a walk in the woods is a thing. I plugged the current scenario into the spreadsheet I use to determine things and came up with two likely outcomes: (1) People will go back in the woods and build a cave just out of phone reception range and install a hermit, and everyone will go back and look at the hermit, who is not connected to anything, from time to time, and say, “Makes you think, doesn't it?” Or (2) Most Dangerous Game. In this scenario one sunny day you're working on low-level NoSQL projects at the Gootch or wherever, and you get an email from Facebook and you go for the interview and Zuckerberg is talking about scaling PHP and suddenly pauses, gets this look in his eye, pulls his hoodie over his head and says “You have sixty seconds. You should be running.” Because engineers, as we are often reminded, are the ultimate prey.

In conclusion, Groupon.


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Ftrain.com

PEEK

Ftrain.com is the website of Paul Ford and his pseudonyms. It is showing its age. I'm rewriting the code but it's taking some time.

FACEBOOK

There is a Facebook group.

TWITTER

You will regret following me on Twitter here.

EMAIL

Enter your email address:

A TinyLetter Email Newsletter

About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.

POKE


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Contact

© 1974-2011 Paul Ford

Recent

Recent Offsite Work: Code and Prose. As a hobby I write. (January 14)

Rotary Dial. (August 21)

10 Timeframes. (June 20)

Facebook and Instagram: When Your Favorite App Sells Out. (April 10)

Why I Am Leaving the People of the Red Valley. (April 7)

Welcome to the Company. (September 21)

“Facebook and the Epiphanator: An End to Endings?”. Forgot to tell you about this. (July 20)

“The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. An essay for TheMorningNews.org. (July 11)

Woods+. People call me a lot and say: What is this new thing? You're a nerd. Explain it immediately. (July 10)

Reading Tonight. Reading! (May 25)

Recorded Entertainment #2, by Paul Ford. (May 18)

Recorded Entertainment #1, by Paul Ford. (May 17)

Nanolaw with Daughter. Why privacy mattered. (May 16)

0h30m w/Photoshop, by Paul Ford. It's immediately clear to me now that I'm writing again that I need to come up with some new forms in order to have fun here—so that I can get a rhythm and know what I'm doing. One thing that works for me are time limits; pencils up, pencils down. So: Fridays, write for 30 minutes; edit for 20 minutes max; and go whip up some images if necessary, like the big crappy hand below that's all meaningful and evocative because it's retro and zoomed-in. Post it, and leave it alone. Can I do that every Friday? Yes! Will I? Maybe! But I crave that simple continuity. For today, for absolutely no reason other than that it came unbidden into my brain, the subject will be Photoshop. (Do we have a process? We have a process. It is 11:39 and...) (May 13)

That Shaggy Feeling. Soon, orphans. (May 12)

Antilunchism, by Paul Ford. Snack trams. (May 11)

Tickler File Forever, by Paul Ford. I'll have no one to blame but future me. (May 10)

Time's Inverted Index, by Paul Ford. (1) When robots write history we can get in trouble with our past selves. (2) Search-generated, "false" chrestomathies and the historical fallacy. (May 9)

Bantha Tracks. (May 5)

The Moral Superiority of the Streetcar. (1) Long-form journalism fixes everything. (2) The moral superiority of the streetcar. (3) I like big bus and I cannot lie. (May 4)

More...
Tables of Contents

News

In the past

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Lost Habits, by Paul Ford. The seed of our futures.

Tuesday, April 27, 1999

Who's Reading? An Annotated Selection from Yesterday's Access.Log, by Paul Ford. Recipient of the highly coveted Journal Something Award!

Monday, April 27, 1998

27 Apr 98, by Paul Ford. Phone Call (1)

Popularity contest

August 2009: How Google beat Amazon and Ebay to the Semantic Web

Colgate Money Shot

Pissing my Pants at Work

Selections from My Name is Blanket, © 2046 Blanket Jackson

Story

About Ftrain.com

Ford, Paul Edmund

Theory

Robot Exclusion Protocol

Ftrain FAQ

Until the Water Boils

Shaving the Eyebrows

The Condiment War

The Passivator

Looking for Something Stable

A Response to Clay Shirky's “The Semantic Web, Syllogism, and Worldview”

Cleaning My Room