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Category: Web/Tech

Every writer's nightmare: the wordless Web

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Just imagine if you could go on the World Wide Web and see no words. No words at all.

You can.

Designer Ji Lee and programmer Cory Forsyth have created a browser plug-in that erases all text from Web pages. It's called the Wordless Web.

To make it work, drag the icon into your bookmark bar. When on a Web page, click it and all the text disappears. It doesn't erase text that has been saved as an image, like some text-based logos, but all the html text goes away.

We tried it on Jacket Copy, and there was beloved children's book author Maurice Sendak without the news that he died Tuesday at the age of 83. Which, come to think of it, is sort of nice.

“Looking at sites without words makes the entire experience on the Web a little calmer, as if all the noise is gone,” Lee told Wired.

Using the Wordless Web is a reminder of how text-driven the entire Internet is. There are exceptions, I'm sure, brilliantly-designed image-oriented websites. But even things like Pinterest and Tumblr -- look at them with the words stripped out. They're pretty, but what do they mean?

If the Wordless Web is every writer's nightmare, we can't be angry at Ji Lee. The former creative director at Google Creative Labs has also tried to generate words in places where there were none, by pasting 50,000 blank word-bubble stickers on advertisements in New York.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Screenshot of Jacket Copy after getting the Wordless Web treatment

 

 

The mysterious hoax Nobel Literature Prize website

Fakenobel
In the minutes before the Nobel Prize for literature was announced this morning, British newspaper the Guardian asked, "Has the Nobel scooped itself or is it a hoax?" The paper pointed to a website that looked exactly like the Nobel Prize website and that had announced that Serbian author Dobrica Cosic had won the Nobel Prize in literature.

Official Serbian news outlets in Belgrade picked up the story, the Associated Press reports. 

But it was, indeed, a hoax. A few minutes later, it was announced that the Nobel Prize for literature was going to Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.

The fake website, www.nobelprizeliterature.org, was located on a different server but had copied the design of the real Nobel Prize website and linked to some of its content, making the site seem geniune at first glance. The actual Nobel Prize website is located at a different url, www.nobelprize.org.

The domain name for the fake site was bought on Oct. 5, the day before the actual Nobel Laureate in literature was announced. The site appeared to go live in the minutes before the announcement, and an email -- which appeared to be sent from the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences -- was sent to news outlets about Cosic's "win."

Cosic has supporters and detractors. The Serbian novelist briefly served as president of Yugoslavia before its breakup, after being "hand-picked" by Slobodan Milosevic, according to the Associated Press. The 90-year-old writer's name has not commonly been associated with discussions of the Nobel Prize.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: A screen shot of the fake Nobel Prize website, nobelprizeliterature.org

 

Facebook's Timeline is all about storytelling. But is that good?

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At the F8 conference in San Francisco on Thursday, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook's new Timeline profile pages, which will take users' status updates and turn them into a multimedia Facebook memoir. A beta version of Timeline has already been rolled out.

Timeline, Zuckerberg said, is "an important next step to help you tell the story of your life" that will allow Facebook users to "highlight and curate all your stories so you can express who you really are." At the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal writes that he can't decide if he finds this "insidious or thrilling."

Facebook's Timeline confirms what writers have long known: narratives are how we structure our relationships with the world. Stories are how we make meaning. And that's why Facebook wants you to tell stories in the structured format they're giving you. Facebook knows all your human relationships and the products and content you use, but without the stories that animate those connections, they don't know what the data means. Timeline -- and your curation of that Timeline -- is how Facebook is going to find out the stories that you tell about yourself. And that's probably the most valuable information out there.

You get an automatic autobiography; they get a saleable database of the people, places, and products you love. As you highlight the important photos of your life or add your favorite recipes, Facebook will see what people, products, and services have emotional valence for you. Facebook will know how to hit you with advertisements not just based on your behavior (which they already know) but on the way you make meaning of out of your experiences.

From the initial screen shots that have circulated, Timeline seem to be using some of the strategies (and possibly the technologies) of e-book publisher Push Pop Press to assemble photographs and text into its autobiographical page. Push Pop Press, which had previously published a single e-book for the iPad -- Al Gore's "Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis" -- was acquired by Facebook in August. At the time, the publisher wrote on its website,"Although Facebook isn't planning to start publishing digital books, the ideas and technology behind Push Pop Press will be integrated with Facebook, giving people even richer ways to share their stories." 

Richer, that is, for millions of Facebook users turned memoirists -- and perhaps Facebook, too.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the F8 developers conference in San Francisco. Credit: David Paul Morris / Bloomberg

Get ready for Small Demons

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Recently I was given a chance to look at Small Demons, a buzzy startup. Techcrunch writes that it's "a stealth L.A.-based startup founded by former Yahoo Product VPs Valla Vakili and Tony Amidei" that "just raised $3 million in Series A funding, according to an SEC form.... the company is rounded out by former Myspace Data Architect Christa Stelzmuller and former Myspace VP of Data Hala Al-Adwan."

What might all that have to do with books? I was assured that it would, and made space in the schedule to see what exactly was up.

It was bookish. It will work on a computer and a tablet. It is also fascinating and fun, and tickled the obsessive-compulsive part of my brain.

And then I was sworn to secrecy.

For the moment, I can say that if you're bookish and curious and have an obsessive-compulsive part of your brain, and like the idea of signing up for the next neat thing when invites will be available, there's Small Demons. In case you hadn't heard.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Random House's page-and-screen website

Random House launched a website Tuesday celebrating the films and television shows that came from its books. Called Words and Film, the site has a lot of Hollywood-produced video (movie trailers), a few interviews with moviemakers and some lists (because the Internet likes lists).

The site brings together the film and TV properties derived from all of its imprints. Random House is the biggest of the Big 6 publishers, a parent to a wide array of publishing arms. Words and Film brings together books published by Knopf (Steig Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "Never Let Me Go" by Kasuo Ishiguro), Scholastic ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" by J.K. Rowling), Ballantine ("Morning Glory" by Diana Peterfreund), Vintage ("Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming" by Bjorn Lomborg) and more.

Or rather, it brings together the movies and TV shows based on those books.

There are two interesting aspects to the site: first, the collapsing of boundaries between imprints, which would generally act independently of one another, doing marketing and promotion book by book. Secondly, it's a new take on the publishing life cycle: In most cases, by the time a movie is released, the initial marketing push around a book is long over. Generally, by the time a book gets to the screen, it's history -- and the screen version brings it new life, and broader reach. So Random House is interrupting the traditional workflow of book promotion to better fit how people consume culture; that seems smart.

But can the editors and contributors to the site, all Random House staffers, bring a critical eye to the film adaptations they're writing about? How many times have you seen a movie version of a beloved novel only to be disappointed? Will the publishers' website ever say something like, "Skip the film, read the book"?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Video: A video promoting the "Wallander" mystery series on PBS is featured on the Random House website. Author Henning Mankel's "Wallander" series is published by Vintage. Credit: PBS

Twittersourcing with Susan Orlean

PhantomtollboothOn Thursday, Susan Orlean, a staff writer for the New Yorker who lives in a part of New York rural enough to own chickens, was inspired to give her young son a new book to read. That's one way of putting it. Another is that she was getting mighty sick of the book he asked her to read over and over, and she was hoping to find something that might replace it. The nice part here is that she wanted to find a meaningful replacement.

Orlean has more than 67,000 followers on Twitter; she posed the question to them. They used the hashtag #booksthatchangedkidsworlds, broadcasting many responses. Some were from parents, thinking about what books have deeply affected their children; others were from adult readers thinking about books they'd found important.

Before the weekend arrived, Orlean had posted the list of the books-that-changed-kids-worlds suggestions on her New Yorker blog; it stretched to almost 250 titles. Many, in bold, had been suggested more than once. And while her list is in order of arrival, not merit, it seems appropriate that "The Phantom Tollbooth" is in the No. 1 spot.

Some books on the list, though certainly meaningful, aren't really what Orlean had in mind. Her son is 5 1/2 and his current addiction is "Magic Treehouse." Is the U.S. Constitution really going to be an appropriate substitute?

What's interesting is that while lists are fun -- and it is a fun list -- they lack for analysis. Orlean is a smart and insightful writer, but her insights are absent from this post. That's not to say it was easy to do. Indeed,  compiling those book titles must have been a tedious and extended task. But it's a task an intern might have done.

Having someone like Susan Orlean on the Internet, blogging and tweeting about everything from her  chickens (an unlaid egg led to lamaze-style ablutions) to books is a treat. It's like getting seated next to her on a plane on a day when she happens to be feeling chatty, or finding that she's in the office right next to you and wants to know what you think about donkeys.

Though I enjoyed reading the list, I wish there were a little more of Orlean's engagement with it. I want to hear when she might introduce her son to "To Kill a Mockingbird," whether she has introduced books on the list to him that haven't really stuck, whether the generational differences between "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "The Golden Compass" might be meaningful.

With its tiny, addictive exchanges, Twitter is really good for crowdsourcing lists like this. But we need writers like Susan Orlean to weigh in on them, lest they be weightless.

-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus


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Publishing lessons from SXSW Interactive

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Peter Miller, a publishing professional and used-bookstore owner, wrote about the SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, for Jacket Copy.

In Cory Doctorow's recent novel "Makers," a couple of punk geek tinkerers help reinvent society through repurposement. With a little startup capital they salvage trashed Dancing Elmo dolls to perform cute tricks in a Smart car and modify garden gnomes with gait-recognition software. But their coup de grace is to give Disney a run for its money by turning abandoned big box retail space into a fun house of the imagination, a crowd-sourced museum and a memory mashup.

Flying back to New York from Texas, it dawned on me that devotees of SXSWi never hated publishing or wanted us to roll over and die: They just wanted us to repurpose. This past weekend several publishing experts suggested how that repurposing might look. While last year's future of publishing panel met with hostility, this year the response was generally civil -- a major improvement.

SXSWi can feel that way sometimes. Float a trial balloon and hope the natives don't shoot. If my colleagues on that panel are correct -- and I have no reason to believe they are not -- publishing will be put through the media grinder in the next several years. Authors will become hybrids a little like the Elmo dolls. Picture Flannery O'Connor's head on Jessica Rabbit's body. Deluxe editions of "A Remembrance of Things Past" packaged with madelaine-scented cork. Faulkner's Snope family will have separate Twitter accounts.

If, as was suggested, New York publishers become more like L.A. film companies, expanding into an author's intellectual property, then it will happen at the big houses: Bertelsmann, Macmillan, Pearson, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Harper. Random House already has a film division to develop their backlist. What's stopping someone else from crossbreeding "On the Road" with manga? Video games with "Best Friends Forever"?

Since I have worked my entire career at midsized to smallish publishers, I can't help but feel a little remorseful about this projected future. I'm not being nostalgic before the fact or protective of my job. But I have to ask, when does a publishing house stop being a publishing house and morph into an entertainment agency?

Publishers are not above the rules of the marketplace. Publishing will survive -- in some form. Beware.

On my first day in Austin, I took a detour to the Center for American Studies to look through the old clip files of the defunct newspaper, the New York Herald-Tribune. I had contacted the center a week before and asked to see their archives -- called "morgues" -- for a few categories: burlesque, lost Manhattan taverns and radio.

Most of the radio folders were from the 1960s and, oddly enough, focused entirely on TV. But change TV to the Internet and this Jan. 2, 1966, piece could have been presented at SXSWi 2010:

A technological revolution is in the making which will touch off an explosion of wired and over-the-air services of many kinds into virtually every home. In the United States, commercial television, a booming billion-dollar advertising medium, will be swept out of its seemingly intransigent programming ways in the next decade. Scores, maybe hundreds, of new TV stations will crop up. More TV networks will be born. Recorded TV "programs" will be packaged in cartridges to be inserted in home playback machines. Color TV sets will range from hand-held sizes, possibly powered by the heat of the human hand, to eight-foot living-room picture screens. The world will be linked electronically by Early Bird-type synchronous satellites beaming TV to every corner of the globe. And, in the ultimate, all media may become one.

I slipped the newspaper article into its folder and sent it back into oblivion.

-- Peter Miller

Photo: SXSWi 2010 conventioneers on laptops. Credit: George Kelly via Flickr

At SXSWi: Jaron Lanier goes against the flow

Jaron LanierSXSWi

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Peter Miller, a publishing professional and used bookstore owner, wrote about the SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, for Jacket Copy.

There was no missing Jaron Lanier at SXSWi in Austin. He's one of the most revered legends in the tech and computer science community, a pioneer of the digital age who played a central role in developing virtual reality as a term, a concept and, well, a reality. And he's a physically imposing figure, a large man with long dreads playing on the Laotian instrument called a kaen.

But one on one, he's disarming. Lanier is all about shrinking the distance between people and challenging expectations. As an early adopter and booster of the Internet, it's easy to assume that SXSWi is his natural environment. Yet he looks and feels slightly out of place in its triumphant, depersonalized atmosphere. His new book, "You Are Not a Gadget," is a stern critique of the world he and his colleagues helped bring into existence. He offers up something not typically discussed at the Austin festival -- the darker side of Web 2.0.

He pulls few punches, going after Google, Facebook, Twitter, the noosphere, Wikipedia, Creative Commons, Silicon Valley. But these are mere symptoms of our true modern ailment: the hive mind. What pains Lanier more than anything else is that we squander the promise of the original World Wide Web. Instead we relinquish control and imagination to a few "monster sites" in the cloud.

It's that mindset that Lanier is trying to shake people out of with his book. To remind them that there is a choice between the Maoist freedom of open culture (give the music away so you can market the T-shirt) and Rupert Murdoch's imperial consumerism (pay you must, create you must not). Both options, Lanier argues, insult human potential and leave us all in the same position, impoverished "lumpen" -- marginal and disenfranchized.

The Internet was supposed to bring much more; Lanier says it's not too late to revive its creative potential, before social networks make us addicted to "followers" and Google gets rich off of our data. In his talk, he joked that today the National Security Agency could privatize and set up business as an ad agency. Lanier argues for a third way, inspired by the Internet's first visionary, Ted Nelson. Nelson created a proto-Web in 1960 called Xanadu that simplified the user's experience. One password and fee to enter the world, and one logical copy of each file, instead of the endless file sharing that clogs our bandwidth and cheapens the discourse.

I asked him if he was worried about the discourse at the festival and the reaction to his ideas. "Maybe two months ago before the book was officially out," he said, going on to say that he has been surprised by the "astonishingly warm reception" from the very community he criticizes.

I asked him about some of the publishing panel's predictions for the future, that authors will have to become better self-promoters and publishers Hollywood-style development offices. That unrelenting advertisement and pursuit of followers saddened Lanier a little bit. "Writing and thinking is not economically sustainable," he said. Authors may survive only through "long tail distribution," he mused. "But if it requires you to be a master politician, then your writing becomes political." He worries about the loss of individual voice with a crowd-sourced book, just another mash-up in a Wikipedia world where "everything loses meaning."

He found hope, though, in the panel's suggestion that publishers may finally make an end run around the traditional intermediaries of the business and reach out more directly to readers. For Lanier, everything comes down to human contact. His answer to my question about what role a publisher plays today shocked me enormously. "Even if no distribution function existed in publishing," he said, "there is value in their particulars as people."

When it was time for him to leave for his talk, a SXSWi escort gave him two placards for the podium, one with his name, the other with the Twitter hashtag. Lanier took the second one and put it to the side and ever so quietly (and politely) said: "I think I will ask the audience to shut down the tweeting during the discussion. I'd like them to try it as an experiment in alternate consciousness."

The escort said that was the first such request she was aware of at the festival. Then she smiled and looked relieved. "Good for you."

After three days and more than 24 hours of jargon, PowerPoint, and panel discussions, Jaron Lanier had suggested something no one else dared say in Austin: that this whole endeavor is nothing more than the people who create it. And then he asked all those people to quiet their offline conversations and engage with the people in the room.

-- Peter Miller

Photo: Jaron Lanier at SXSWi in Austin, Texas. Credit: Peter Miller

The iPad shows up the Kindle; will Apple's iBooks store challenge Amazon?

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Stevejobsipad

Apple debuted its long-rumored tablet device in San Francisco today. Head man Steve Jobs presented... the iPad. The name immediately met with Internet derision -- "iTampon" is a top 10 trending term on Twitter -- yet iPad fever doesn't seem to be abating.

The iPad looks like an overgrown iPhone -- a little more than 9 inches of screen space, able to play video and music and games. App developers who'd been given advance notice showed some of the possibilities for the larger-screen iPad. It runs e-mail, a new calendar, maps, iPhoto and iWorks. For those of us with stubby fingers, the on-screen keyboard looks droolworthy.

Oh and yes: ebooks.

Saying that Apple was standing on the shoulders of Amazon's Kindle, Jobs showed off the iPad as ebook reader and a new ebook store, called iBooks. The Kindle mention may have been a backhanded compliment -- putting a slide of the beige-cased, black-and-white, button-laden Kindle on the screen before switching to the elegant full-color iPad showcased the superior design of the Apple device. The much better-looking iPad is priced at $499, a comparable price to the higher-end $489 Kindle DX.

As much of a challenge as the design presents, iBooks may signal a new era in book selling. Although ebooks are available from multiple online retail points, Apple's major centralized ebooks store is the first to present a genuine challenge to Amazon. Five of the six major publishing houses -- Penguin, Harper-Collins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and Hachette Book Group -- have signed on to iBooks. Random House is the lone holdout, so no, you won't be able to read "The Da Vinci Code" on an iPad (at least, not yet).

Additionally, Jobs said Apple is using the open EPub format, whereas Kindle's format is proprietary. Essentially, anyone with requisite coding smarts can make an Epub version of their own book. Smaller publishers, should they be welcomed by Apple, will be able to get in the game relatively easily; many already use EPub for their ebooks. Theoretically, an individual author could create an EPub ebook and publish from home -- could that kind of self-published book also make it into the Apple iBook store?

If so, let's hope that they take advantage of what wasn't demonstrated today. In this Gizmodo video of the demo of reading an ebook on the iPad, Jobs says it can read color photos and video. Video, in a book? That would be useful for instructional books -- say, cooking or gardening. But it would be revolutionary for fiction or works of nonfiction. How exciting to use video in fiction! How could it work, exactly?

And if you can embed video and pictures in text and use an ereader, what's to separate books from Web pages? Will what we think of as "a book" begin to change?

That's a question for another day. The real nail-biter of Jobs' presentation was the cost. The iPad comes with simple Wi-Fi or with higher-speed 3G; the entry-level Wi-Fi device, with 16GB of memory, is $499. There is a 32GB iPad and one with 64GB of memory, which, with 3G, will retail for $829. The iPad will hit stores in June or July, will, like the iPhone, use AT&T networks, and there will be no contract, just a monthly fee for data. No contract, perhaps, because the iPad, despite all its wonderful bells and whistles, is not a phone.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Steve Jobs demonstrates the iPad. Credit: Tony Avelar / Bloomberg

Jaron Lanier: technology humanist

Jaron LanierYou Are not A Gadget

Circuit board detail

Today in the L.A. Times' book pages, Ben Ehrenreich looks at a new manifesto from Jaron Lanier. Lanier, the technology visionary credited with coining the term "virtual reality," has published his first book, "You Are Not a Gadget." Ehrenreich writes:

At the bottom of Lanier's cyber-tinkering is a fundamentally humanist faith in technology, a belief that wisely designed machines can bring us closer together by expanding the possibilities of creative self-expression. ...

"The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring," Lanier wrote [in 2006]. "Why pay attention to it?"

"You Are Not a Gadget" extends that analysis, adding thoughts and observations -- many culled from his column in Discover magazine -- on everything from Stravinsky to giant Australian cuttlefish. The problems spawned by anti-humanist software design, Lanier argues, don't stay online: "It is impossible to work in information technology without also engaging in social engineering." Facebook, he writes, confines creativity to preestablished fields, reducing our oceanic complexities to "multiple-choice identities" that can be sold to marketing databases. Cyber-reductionism, Lanier has it, actually shrinks us.

Even if Lanier's take on Facebook and Wikipedia seems a bit curmudgeonly, Ehrenreich writes, "His mind is a fascinating place to hang out."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A circuit board detail. Credit: quapan via Flickr

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