the jsomers.net blog.

Uncertainty and Reperception

Do you know what happens to a draft in limbo? After you’ve put it to rest, but before it’s been read by anyone else? It goes protean. It goes fucking haywire.

One morning in November 2011 an editor at a big magazine gave me the go-ahead on an article I’d wanted to write. He said hand us something in March, and if it’s good enough, we’ll run it in the June issue.

That was one of the more exciting emails I’d gotten. This was career-launching stuff. I sprung instantly into high gear. I’d never taken a project so seriously; I’d never had cause to. But this one consumed me. I poured hundreds of hours and afterhours into the thing, the deepest preoccupation I’d ever had.

And then one day in early March it was time to hand it in. I sent an 84-kilobyte HTML file to my editor.

The week that followed, before I heard anything back: that’s the limbo I’m talking about. That’s when the draft took on a new weird unstable life, when it teetered wildly between great & awful and coherent & broken as if it wasn’t just one set of 14,000 words but two superposed—a success and, simultaneously, a failure.

It had become a kind of Necker cube. It flipped between two modes depending on when, or how, I looked at it. And whatever my editor said would instantly determine which of these two competing perceptions would stick. He could say the article was bad and I would instantly see it as such, I’d see every part of it as such, I’d see every microdecision I’d made, both within the writing and in my life around it—the coffees I’d decided to drink or not, the calls I’d decided to make or not—as contributing to its overall badness. And likewise if he said it was good.

I mean this literally: during the unstable period I’d get these flashes in my head of some sentence or section I’d written, and—for the very same sentence—either the flash would be golden and nostalgic and I’d be patting myself on the back about how great the thing was or I’d get a pang of shame about it, like the feeling you get when you remember some overearnest voice message you’ve left.

The only other time I’d felt so polarly ambivalent was when I was waiting to hear back from colleges. There was so much calcified me in that admissions file that whatever happened threatened to have this enormous reperceptual leverage, it’d reach back and color so many of my decisions, it’d either validate or expose them all.

There’s something fucked up about that—if nothing else it reveals a potent insecurity, doesn’t it?—but I think it’s also sort of grand and priceless to see the multivalence of your choices, to be almost quantumly uncertain about them. Because once certain things are called good and certain things bad, they have a way of instantly and irrevocably snapping into their appointed place. It’s harder, is what I mean, to see what’s good in a sentence declared to be a problem, or what’s bad about a sentence that’s been praised. When a certain way of seeing gets in your head it can impossible to shake, it can take over like a virus.

Isn’t that part of the reason people love the Necker cube, the fact that it so vividly illustrates its own double-barreledness? I mean the thing literally changes as you look at it, the same damn cube changes. What better reminder than that of the contribution your own mind makes to the way things are, the strength of your own perception?

It’s terrifying to not know whether the work you’ve just turned in is a triumph or an embarrassment. It’s nauseating for a mind to flip back and forth between the two. But there is wisdom and power and a certain kind of humility in being able to see something redemptive about an embarrassingly bad sentence, or something fatal in one that’ll later be called a triumph. To let the simultaneous goodness and badness of a thing fester and bubble awhile.

More people should write

More people should do what I’m doing right now. They should sit at their computers and bat the cursor around — write full sentences about themselves and the things they care about.

I have a selfish reason for my demand: I have a lot of friends who are thoughtful, but keep their thoughts to themselves. I imagine finding notebooks under their bed, tens of composition books packed with little print. I think about what sort of a treasure that would be.

But that’s not why you should write.

You should write because when you know that you’re going to write, it changes the way you live. I’m thinking about a book I read called Field Notes on Science & Nature, a collection of essays by scientists about their notes. It’s hard to imagine a more tedious concept — a book of essays about notes? — but in execution it was wonderful. What it teaches you, over and over again, is that the difference between you and a zoologist or you and a botanist is that the botanist, when she looks at a flower, has a question in mind. She’s trying to generate questions. For her the flower is the locus of many mental threads, some nascent, some spanning her career. Her field notebook is not some convenient way to store lifeless data to be presented in lifeless papers so that other scientists can replicate some dull experiment; it’s the site of a collision between a mind and a world.

That’s the promise: you will live more curiously if you write. You will become a scientist, if not of the natural world than of whatever world you care about. More of that world will pop alive. You will see more when you look at it.

It’s like what happens to a room during a game of “I Spy”: if your friend spies something red, the red stuff glows.

When I have a piece of writing in mind, what I have, in fact, is a mental bucket: an attractor for and generator of thought. It’s like a thematic gravity well, a magnet for what would otherwise be a mess of iron filings. I’ll read books differently and listen differently in conversations. In particular I’ll remember everything better; everything will mean more to me. That’s because everything I perceive will unconsciously engage on its way in with the substance of my preoccupation. A preoccupation, in that sense, is a hell of a useful thing for a mind.

Writing needn’t be a formal enterprise to have this effect. You don’t have to write well. You don’t even have to “write,” exactly — you can just talk onto the page.

I suggest writing emails to your friends. Writing with an audience in mind makes the writing better, and writing to a friend means you won’t get hung up on how you sound. You’ll become closer, too, to whoever you share your thoughts with, and odds are you’ll draw the same thoughtfulness out of them. Your inbox will become less of a place for coupons and bullshit than for the thoughts of humans you like.

Walk around with a pen and a scrap of paper. Write some meaty emails. Engage more intensely with this place.

The best general advice on earth

These are excerpts (emphasis mine) from William James’s 1890 classic, Principles of Psychology, Chapter IV, “Habit”:

  1. The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund.
  2. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.
  3. Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ‘set’ to the brain.
  4. No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better.
  5. As a final practical maxim, relative to these habits of the will, we may, then, offer something like this: Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved.

The Art of Underlining: Amazon Kindle’s “Popular Highlights”

When Seymour was twenty-one, a nearly full professor of English, and had already been teaching for two years, I asked him what, if anything, got him down about teaching. He said he didn't think that anything about it got him exactly down, but there was one thing, he thought, that frightened him: reading the pencilled notations in the margins of books in the college library. –J.D. Salinger, Seymour: An Introduction, 1959.

In college I borrowed a lot of library books and I wrote in every single one of them. My brother taught me young to "always read with a pen." I didn't quite understand what that meant until I found one of his old books from college on a shelf in our basement. It was filled with intense marginalia. He'd ask these combative questions ("On what grounds?" … "Yes, but why?." … "Isn't that the def'n of begging the question?"); he'd make up concrete examples where the author hadn't; on the inside covers he'd build a little personal index of short, full-sentence summaries, each labeled by a page number.

With that in my hands I realized how lazy I was and always had been. It was like old Paul Halmos yelling at me: "Don't just read it; fight it!"

Schopenhauer had this to say about the perils of reading: "It comes about that if anyone spends almost the whole day in reading, and by way of relaxation devotes the intervals to some thoughtless pastime, he gradually loses the capacity for thinking, just as the man who always rides forgets how to walk. This is the case with many learned persons; they have read themselves stupid." Schopenhauer reminds us of a simple fact: when we read, or at least when we read badly, read lazily, "another person thinks our thoughts for us."–Mark Edmundson, "Enough Already," The American Scholar.

By the time I got to college I thought I had sort of figured that out. I thought that I was pretty good at reading. And the surest display of my quiet, insecure egotism on the subject was the notes—in pencil, always, and ostentatiously neat—that I would leave in the margins of my library books.

Yes, I would think as I underlined some passage, this is the essence of the thing.

As satisfied as I was with my own nose for what was important, I was equally hard on my peers. I thought I saw in them a pattern. As I put it in a note to myself,

I have a hunch that young readers in school might be encouraged to underline the most abstract stuff, the most general stuff, the "upshot" sentences, instead of the examples those sentences are based on. Is it possible that they're taught to go after the wordsy stuff? And that they get so good at it that they affine for it and away from the concrete things, the things Feynman would care for?

That is, most students seemed to underline things that begged to be underlined. In nonfiction their pencils would anchor to the edges of paragraphs—to "topic sentences" or conclusory sentences—instead of middle-stuff (examples, anecdotes). In short stories they would inevitably underline the first and last sentences, the short one-sentence "money shot" paragraphs, and so on—the most epiphanic, purple prose.

At least that was my impression.

There is a feature on the Amazon Kindle called Popular Highlights. What it does is aggregate the digital underlinings of Kindle users. If enough of them underline the same thing, that passage is considered "popular" and gets highlighted. (What counts as popular depends on the book. In one book I have that was published just a few months ago, anything highlighted independently by three or more readers seems to qualify. In an older book the number is closer to forty.)

This e-pluribus-unum-ing of reading—this intelligent bubbling-up of disparate readerly attentions—lets us answer questions about the private discourse of literate minds that just ten years ago would have been discarded for being too dreamy.

What exactly do people find important in books? Are they good at gist-extraction in general? Do "dumb" books have "dumb" underlinings? Do readers underline what they disagree with? How often does something truly excellent not get picked up on by a quorum of readers? Does the rate of underlining degrade over the course of a book? Are short sentences more likely to be thought important than long ones? What about first versus middle sentences? A quotation versus bare prose? Simple versus fancy language? Do italics help a sentence's chances? How does the pattern of highlighting compare between nonfiction and nonfiction, or prose and poetry? How do writers highlight? Mathematicians?

These are examples of a new kind of question, one that we can now attack in earnest because people are doing things on line—on networked computers—that they used to do elsewhere.

Watching what people underline is a small example. What happens when you record someone write? Or when you record them talk?

If you think that searching a big index of web pages is cool, you haven't seen anything yet.

Introducing jimboPad

I was wildly excited when I saw Paul Graham demonstrate Etherpad’s “timeslider” feature. Etherpad was a text editor built for real-time collaboration, and to do its thing, it had to record every one of your keystrokes; the timeslider, a simple feature bolted on at pg’s request, let you play those keystrokes back. Which meant you could fast-forward, rewind, and slide freely through the unfolding history of your text.

I was so taken by the idea that I wrote a breathless essay for the Atlantic about it called “The Simple Software That Could—But Probably Won’t—Change the Face of Writing.” I imagined a future in which great writers would write in Etherpad and we, their admiring students, would pore over the breadcrumbs. What better way to teach the craft than to expose a writer’s every micro decision?

Since then I have written a lot of words, but not very many of them in Etherpad. The problem is that Etherpad’s chief task is real-time collaboration—seamlessly merging the changes of many simultaneous users. Its source code is therefore preoccupied with that task (and all its attendant complications). The features that I care about as a private writer are not only neglected, but—precisely because the code is burdened by bigger problems—hard to hack on. There is just too much other code in the way.

So I have found myself writing in a variety of different editors, each for a different reason: WriteRoom for its “distraction-free” UI; Textmate for swift Markdown compilation; Google Docs so that I can work from any computer; Etherpad for dynamic playback. And I have found myself dreaming up a happy union of all their best features.

Then recently, I built it: a web-based editor I’ve taken to calling jimboPad. What’s it got?

1. Playback a la Etherpad:

  • With compact storage. Where Etherpad would store the entire text at each moment in time, jimboPad only stores the differences between each revision. Etherpad’s “histories” quickly grow into the gigabytes; jimboPad, which leans heavily on Google’s diff-match-patch library, gives a thousand-fold compression.
  • With snappy, colorful playback. In jimboPad the changes introduced in each revision are highlighted, and the playback page “snaps” to those changes. Etherpad’s playback forces you to scroll all over the place to see what’s changing. In jimboPad that happens automatically. Hit “play,” sit back, and watch yourself write.
  • With intelligent search. In jimboPad you can “slice” the document’s history to only those revisions containing a given search term. That way, in a massive months-long project with maybe hundreds of thousands of changes, you can interrogate certain sections, in a highly focused way, that may have only flickered in and out of existence.

2. A beautiful, unobtrusive, full-screen UI, just like WriteRoom.

3. An ever-present word count. (And when I select a passage, it only counts those words.)

4. A print view great for pencil and paper editing, with a large right margin and space between each paragraph.

5. Automatic markdown rendering so that I can write in plain text and see it formatted—with bold, italics, blockquotes, hyperlinks, bullets, etc.—for printing and playback.

6. The ability to save “important” revisions—a first draft sent to an editor, for instance, or a shortened version for publication—as Github gists, themselves easily accessible, printable, and diff-able using git.

7. The ability to work on the same document offline (on my own computer) and online (on any computer) without worrying about version conflicts, and without breaking the stream of micro-edits stored for playback.

The intangibles

Version control is an enormous boon for programmers. Git’s cheap branches and easy merges underwrite an ability to experiment with code, to feel out the shape of a problem with small sorties, unencumbered by the fear of losing code that works. At every moment you have “a sense of where you are.” Computer code is awfully complex (Dijkstra wrote that the programmer “has to be able to think in terms of conceptual hierarchies that are much deeper than a single mind ever needed to face before”) and yet with git your current working context can always be understood—is in fact treated as—a patch on top of a snapshot. The whole difficult business of programming is reduced to a diff. You’re never very far from the ground.

How to get the same feeling in prose? On the one hand it seems that natural language is too finely grained: the smallest sliver of a change, even the sort of change that looks to be just “style,” can drastically affect what a reader thinks while she reads. Reader’s brains are fragile that way—there is no fixed “point” that a sentence makes, no cognitive gestalt that can be held constant while you tinker, say, with cadence. Cadence is part of the point; everything in a sentence is part of the point.

This is why if you were to unfold a writer’s keystream, and play it back, every paragraph would look like a busy construction site, a chaos of small maneuvers. If you were to watch the composition of this very sentence, in fact, you’d see what must look like the visual equivalent of a stammer. My progress is halting—I write a small half-clause and then throw it away. I change key words constantly. I jump up a few sentences, maybe to the top of the paragraph, re-read it, and make changes there. There is a sense of forward motion but it’s always uncertain.

This is why if you were to do “version control” for writing, you would have to record everything. You would have to make it trivial for the writer to “branch” off from some articulation, fail, and fall back to what they had before. Their every half-overture would have to be saved—because every half-overture, like every “commit,” might have words they would want to get back to.

I saw this recently with a long article I wrote, much of it (gratefully) in Etherpad. I’d be working on a sentence, try something out, delete it, try something else out, shuffle things around, and see, suddenly, that the old way was just right in the new context. Such “firefly” sentences would be lost by most word processors; I’d have to recall them from memory. But in Etherpad I could just slide back a few minutes and find what I’d tried.

The same thing would also happen at a higher level. I would spend a brutally long time working out a whole section, and then I’d throw that section away. Later on—sometimes months later—I’d want some part of it back; it fit perfectly in a new context. Would I have to rewrite it? Would I have to have saved, alongside fourteen others, a version of my article called article-3-with-wright-brothers-section-2012-04-05-(good)? If I had been using jimboPad all I would have to do is search for a few key phrases—and instantly I’d be able to slide through the whole history of that section.

This is the chief benefit of jimboPad’s recording and playback. Aside from vividly making the point that flowful words don’t just spill out of a person—that they’re not supposed to—these tiny continuous snapshots do for me as a writer what git does for me as a programmer. They let me work with abandon.

Add to that the nifty side effect that I never have to worry about losing my work—because jimboPad saves it locally every two seconds, remotely every twenty, and somewhere else remotely at my discretion. And the fact that I can float seamlessly from my local computer to a friend’s, from work to home, without worrying about conflicts. And the fact that jimboPad in a full-screen browser window is remarkably difficult to escape, so that would-be distractions—impulsive alt-tabs—are cauterized before they hurt me. And, finally, the fact that in jimboPad I am encouraged to print and edit with a pen and paper—to change gears, as it were, and be jostled by a real full draft.

Show, don’t tell

Why should the micromechanics of writing be entirely private? Why do we expect students to learn how to write if we’ve never, not once, shown them a piece of writing grow out of a blank page?

What if it were a regular habit to write with a record, and to attach to your final draft a trace of how you got there?

jimboPad is a very simple piece of software. It is written almost entirely in Javascript, and the source lives in a folder that can be run immediately on even the wimpiest shared server. For storage it uses Google Chrome’s built-in file system, HTML5 localStorage, and, optionally, an arbitrary HTTP endpoint equipped with CORS for cross-site AJAX POST requests.

If you want to see it in action, you can click here to view the playback for this very blog post. If you want to use it yourself, let me know.