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Below is  a short tribute I wrote for Coleen Grissom’s 80th birthday. Grissom is  a literature teacher I had at college. Besides being a great teacher, she was also just hilariousgrissom-thumb all the time. (Even the lecture on the youtube link shows her being very fast and sharp).  Her sense of humor was sometimes terrifying, but utterly disarming too.  Below is the first:

 True story — I secretly signed up for Grissom’s Continental Fiction class after persuading a half-dozen friends to sign up for Stoessinger/Sherry’s  political novel class being taught at the same time. Then, at the bookstore the day before class, I realized that Grissom’s reading list was far  more interesting: Silone? Tin Drum? Anna Karenina? My friends were mad at me for switching classes,  and honestly I still wonder what would have happened if I had stayed…. Heck, life’s a bunch  of choices, and I  certainly had a great time tackling  the Grissomesque path. I  owe a lot of things to those classes — including overcoming my snobbery about the “superiority” of “European fiction”. Grissom opened my eyes to the great things American writers have been doing — pop culture references notwithstanding.   As someone now immersed in literary publishing, I don’t have much time or opportunity to hang around readers in meatspace. I have fond memories about that year in an actual classroom with Grissom and her students, hearing a cross-section of young and thoughtful flesh-and-blood people approach great books without preconceptions. I always liked how Grissom stepped back and let students do the talking, gently nudging us ahead only when absolutely necessary. Often  I thought that I had appreciated and understood a story — only to discover during class that others had glommed onto  different things and found all kinds of insights I was completely oblivious  to. Every day after class, I felt so stupid! — But it was a good, satisfying kind of stupid….

Here’s another bloggy tribute I made to her classes a few years ago:

Often when asked to describe the courses that had the greatest impact upon me, I would have to say Death & Dying, 2 Asian Studies courses and –amazingly — a PC repair course (saved me hours and dollars). I also took an excellent 2 semester Western Civ course (called “Human Quest”) teamtaught by some rising academic stars at Trinity, as well as 2 semesters of literature courses taught by the Dean of Students, Colleen Grissom. Anybody going to Trinity during the Grissom decades found her inspiring both as a teacher and as Dean of Students. She was smart-witted and taught with a passion for her subject. Classes would be broken up into two parts: an introductory biographical lecture followed by student-led discussions. I can’t say her classes went into depth of criticism or literary analysis; they were less about criticism than about students giving fresh (and often ill-informed) opinions about what they were reading. Still, it was great fun, and the fact that Grissom had taught the same class for decades meant that her remarks were polished and full of insights. I could rave about the books I discovered there (John Updike, Anne Tyler, Gunter Grass and Ignacio Silone come to mind), but truthfully, I would have probably come across them anyway. The main revelation from this class was that Chicks Really Dig Novels (which came as a bit of a shock to me, having attended an all boys high school). This may be an obvious point, but I also learned that the most interesting thoughts about a literary work can come from those you least expect; even people who only half-read a work and might not even appreciate its literary value can bring interesting ideas to the table.

Another obvious point from Dean Grissom’s class. The class approached literature in a naive way, eschewing secondary sources and criticism. Later, I recognized that reading secondary material often just messes with your mind; in high school and college I wrote a lot about Kafka, reading loads of criticisms, each with their unique theoretical perspective. Interesting, but irrelevant to the lover of literature. One Amazon.com commenter about an Iris Murdoch book complained about the introductory essay by Martha Nussbaum, saying his students tended to gulp down her analysis as truth without trying to formulate opinions on their own. Far be it from me to complain about having too much literary criticism in the world, but I know what this commenter meant. Does one really need to read brilliant highfalutin remarks about literary works to have interesting opinions? Do we really need to know what other brilliant people think about something you’ve just read? Sure, reading a book or watching a film without reading critical remarks by others results in misunderstandings or interpretations that are way offbase. But maybe there is value in reading Joyce’s Ulysses without knowing the exact parallels with Homer’s epic. In fact, not knowing can cause us to notice new aspects of a text others have so far ignored.

Grissom has started the task of transferring her lecture notes to books. I looked at her recent book A Novel Approach to Life.  It was a hodgepodge of stuff — all fun and witty with occasional insights into reading and education. From a similar talk she gave a few years ago (audio here) here’s another favorite passage:

One should make reading an integral part of one’s life. One should do this in spite of all joys, challenges, distractions and attractions of tempting television and  films, plays, cocktail parties,  athletic competitions, ipods and interactive computers. Reading offers much stimulation on many levels, an important one of which  is that it is a solitary process and can teach you the pleasures and rewards of aloneness in a world in which noise (even Don DeLillo’s White Noise) and togetherness seem the norm. I recommend occasional solitude for your personal growth and rejuvenation



A Slight Detour about Annoyingly Soapy Hair

I often wonder if anything I say or think or write is original. Sometimes I will think of an allegedly great idea, but before I get too excited, I google a few keywords nervously — to see who beat me to it.  Google is  the ultimate humbler of humanity.

Today, though, I think I will blog about a subject, and I sincerely believe I am the first to do. (Feel free to prove me wrong!)   And yet what I am about to write about is so familiar and prosaic to each of us that no one would bother to.

This morning I was taking a quick shower — and not thinking about chocolate —  and when I stepped onto the bathroom floor, I dried myself thoroughly  and began to assemble the necessary tools for shaving. But I happened to brush my hand against my head — only for a millisecond, mind you — but long enough to surmise  that I hadn’t completely  rinsed the  shampoo suds from my hair. I immediately felt  the gooey mess and heard the wrinkly sound of lather. Yes, it was true, my hair was only half-rinsed; so now I would need to return to the shower to finish the job.

It was only somewhat annoying, a slight detour in my day. It meant that drying myself would no longer be as satisfying as the first time, and the cool sensation of leaving a shower refreshed would be tempered by the paranoia that maybe my head of hair is not completely rinsed. (It has happened a few times; I return to the shower a second time and think that I rinsed everything out, and then to my horror discover that I had omitted one of the sides from this second cautionary rinse).

As I started to shave, I began calculating. I probably commit this kind of washing miscalculation once every 10 or 15 days (that’s 25 times a year!) I would say I have a good 70 years of 1750 washing miscalculations for my lifetime (assuming 1 shower a day).  Out of the 7.1 billion people on this earth, let’s guess conservatively that they commit this same washing miscalculation 20 times a year. Let me see: that equals:

140 billion times in a year that people are stepping out of the shower without realizing that they have forgotten to rinse their hair.

That’s a really big number.  Think about it: despite the fact that everyone is doing it, there doesn’t appear to be any web pages by or about people who have made this mistake. Don’t believe me? Try here or here. (Actually here or here does produce something relevant though not particularly meaningful or lasting). The event is so mundane that it has never occurred to anyone to write a separate article about this phenomenon.

One way to look at the thing is to say that this experience is something so vague that a search engine couldn’t possibly help you to find people’s descriptions of it. A friend and I were remarking at how useful search engines are for looking up and verifying facts. Sure. But that doesn’t imply that Google is actually useful. It’s like the paradox of not being able to verify the spelling of a word because you need to spell it correctly to look it up. Many of life’s questions are so  vague and imprecise that search algorithms are practically useless. Even our proper names are no longer unique enough  to find what we need. I’m sure AI and natural language processing will improve, but so will the amount of  random garbage on the Internet, and so will the challenge of sifting through things. Many are alarmed by the NSA and the Echelon System that it might not occur to ask whether the NSA is actually equipped to sort through all the noise.

Decline of the Search Paradigm

In 2009 I attended  an education panel hosted by 4 undergraduates  attending elite institutions.  It was ironic, because the audience was packed with probably about 100 teachers or geeks. Most of the audience members  felt that we had a good grasp of reality and Internet reality, but we still were curious about how college students were learning in this Internet-addled age. The students on the panel  talked about collaboration, how they used social networking tools and how Internet changed the way they learned. It was fascinating; several talked about how it was changing the study of literature;  another talked about the awesomeness of getting help from someone thousands of miles away.

During the talk one student mentioned how useful the Internet was in giving them suggestions about books to read and references to consult, I called out rather indecorously, “How do each of you find new authors to read?”

The students, slightly annoyed at my interruption, but willing to answer, said, “I just google it.” The other three students chimed in with the same answer,  “Just google it” —  and then they continued their prepared remarks.

10 minutes later was question time, and I jumped up to the front of the line to ask a follow up.  “You said that google helps you to find out about new authors or musicians or artists. Can you explain?”

All four of them looked at me as though I were a crank. “Well, it’s not too hard really. Just go to the search box and type something. Then follow the links.”

“Excuse me, but what exactly do you type in the search box?”

“The name of the author.”

“And how do you know what name to type?”

The panellists shrugged. “Just follow any web page.””

I understand that the Internet can help you locate more information about a topic, but only when you know what you want. But how do you know what you want?

Being adept at devising a search term   (such as “best American author” or “recommend a 20th century novel” + American) will  get you only so far.  But lately I’ve noticed that even google’s sturdy algorithm is being weakened by dictionary sites, spam sites and commercial interests. When every company is trying to optimize for search results, then it is possible to programmatically manipulate the results. Some kinds of inquiries don’t yield anything meaningful; it’s not always easy to think of a unique combination of words and phrases to get the results you need. With facebook, stackexchange, quora  and other social media, you can receive lots of tips; but then again, people are responding to your questions; you are not finding these things out on your own, but relying on a certain number of people hanging out at these places who would be willing to provide some scaffolding for the edifice of your education.

Perhaps it’s an obvious point, but the type of topics which occupy most people’s attention are not necessarily the most helpful. Several of my conservative friends link to superficially optimistic articles about climate change, but who would seriously think that the URL most likely to appear on top of search results  (presumably from search-optimized CNN or NYT) would  also be the most authoritative  or accurate?  Even if we discount outright propaganda, the things displayed  by search engines may be neither relevant or important. Remember: there are probably more websites about the Gilligan’s Island TV  series  than the movies of  Ingmar Bergman.

It’s ironic that the things pressing for our attention at any given moment can also be the most transitory.  Let’s see, current events today  talk about the LAX shooting, the final day of the Virginia governor’s race, the abortion lawsuits, the new Hyundai, refinancing with lending tree, What does the fox say?, the Obamacare website, the new Netflix titles. All screaming for your attention today, and then 10 years from now will disappear.  Perhaps this is a loss for  us all, but  the lesson to be learned here is that the things which appear to us so urgent today can easily disappear without a trace.

It’s commonly assumed that search engines are good at looking up names and titles and dates. But suppose I wanted to find the name of a novel whose title and author escaped me.  One of my favorite novels was Nicholson Baker’s “The Mezzanine.” But what if I forgot the name of the author and title and tried to google it using some keywords? I remember the novel used a lot of footnotes, wasn’t particularly long, was clever, had a scene about drying one’s hands in the bathroom, had another scene about shoelaces and had a long series of digressions and ruminations about mundane things. If I typed “novella  literary hand dryer clever mundane  digress American  bathroom shoelace ruminate footnotes” into google and bing and wolfram alpha, one might feel confident that someone somewhere has used many of these words to describe  Nicholson Baker’s  novel.  My search query may be overlong, but it contains lots of distinctive words; even if a single web page is unlikely to contain ALL of these words, a good search engine should be able to compute the web page which is likely to be most relevant to these words.

So here’s the search results for that query.


Bing results are similar;

I don’t expect Google or Bing to get it exactly right, but we’re not even coming close. The search engines just provide awful and misleading results (and I’m not even including the ads).  Although shortening the list of keywords does  bring more interesting results, it is still nowhere close to the answer.

I will admit that my search term isn’t exactly the best. To vary my approach a bit, I chose a more generic search term  Best American novel in the 1980s, and received decent relevance in results (although not THAT good).


When I recited those  same keywords for the Nicholson Baker book over the phone  to a literary friend,  he  correctly guessed the author (though not the book itself). If you were in a classroom with 20 well-read people, I suspect you would get better answers. If you asked on a site like Goodreads to name the book where a lot of people would see it, I suspect you’d get  the right answer. This question seems esoteric, but for a moderately erudite  audience, it is not esoteric at all.

But search engines are not particularly good at these fuzzy  kinds of questions. Even in cases where a search engine can match a fuzzy question with an answer, the ordering and prominence is determined by how well the site was optimized for search engines — and also whether the company paid for ad placement.  If anything, Google can find pages where the wording of your question appears prominently — like a forum or a stack exchange site. But if the way you phrase the question doesn’t parrot the way other people do, you are out of luck. In other words, in 2014 the ability to get useful search results depends mainly on how good a Family Feud contestant you are. 409px-Richard_Dawson_Family_Feud_1976

We used to believe Google was so amazing because 1)back then there were significantly fewer web pages and  2)Google presented lots of results. Do you remember when you could set Google to display 100 results on a single page? Even if Google didn’t bring the answer to your query, it nonetheless provided up to 100 different paths you could explore to find it.  Perhaps at one time those Ivy league students on the panel could pick a random link in search results  and follow things. But whenever I start from a search result, I have this uneasy feeling that it’s all one huge conspiracy to trap you inside a gigantic and self-contained  network of advertising and promotion. On mobile devices it’s even worse — it becomes harder to tell the difference between ads and organic search results. Human laziness will make you choose whatever pops up in the first three results, no matter how commercial it seems.

Comparatively speaking, searching for proper nouns is  easier than searching for concepts or abstract phrases.  (That is why I end up going to wikipedia more times than not… I want to find some neutral site that doesn’t have a secret agenda to destroy someone’s reputation and laud him as a captain of the industry.  But wikipedia waters down everything.  It almost seems proud of the fact that nothing on the site is original or insightful).

I remember once  talking to a translator in Albania. We had a delightful conversation, but he playfully scolded me for simplifying my language when talking to him.  “Why is that bad?” I asked him. “Isn’t accurate communication the goal of teaching?”

“Not really,” he replied.  “The thing which most interests the translator are those  hard-to-translate or untranslatable expressions. These “untranslatables” are the most valuable part of the language and  often the key to the cultural peculiarities of the people who speak it.”

I’m not sure I agree. But surely whatever is  hard-to-express inside a language  has value .. and certainly those linguistic qualities which make a web page easy for a search engine to parse also make it less interesting.  It’s clear to me that search engines fail to provide relevant results fairly often — for various commercial and linguistic reasons. Perhaps human vanity fools us into thinking that our experiences are unique — rather than the more likely fact that Google isn’t providing  an accurate picture of the world’s experiences and thoughts. Instead of expressing wonder at the ability of Google to turn up interesting results, we should be lamenting the fact that Google continues to lead us down well-known paths of stupidity.


I am less excited by the fact that search engines have given special prominence to Wikipedia because of its commitment to the  “neutral point of view.” (NPOV) Enshrining the NPOV means that wikipedia page will exclude a lot of  analyses and points of view; it shudders towards the obvious and noncontroversial. Even if that is better than commercial search engines, I can’t help but wonder if Wikipedia just helps to flee from one watered down path to another.


I am keenly aware of how over the past few years my blog posts have decreased while at the same time my posts on Facebook and Google Plus have soared.  It’s an odd situation — about 90% of my posts now  are AWAY FROM THIS BLOG.

The reason is simple: there are significantly more readers on these general social media networks than on my blog. Also, sharing on both platforms brings significant payoffs and Google Plus posts tend to be ranked high on search results.

Now  — mainly for lack of time — my blog is housing  infrequent long form content, while my social media posts houses my short content (which admittedly has a tendency to become long form). This is not an ideal situation.

A few months ago I made the transition from Facebook to Google Plus (for reasons I discuss in detail here).  That is mainly a lateral move and doesn’t completely solve the problem.

It is technically possible — through IFTTT recipes and WordPress plugins — to repost wordpress posts into social media platforms (though not entirely to my satisfaction — for example — how do you make sure that certain WordPress posts aren’t broadcast onto social media?) However, beneath that is another looming problem.  How do you create a blog  landing page which displays long form content with short form content without seeming to  drown a  blog in triviality?  How do you make sure that WordPress posts are formatted in a way optimized for the social media networks? How do you deal with perishable Youtube content which displays great on social media but takes up way too much real estate on a blog?

I’m sure there are WordPress themes which have implemented solutions to the problem, but I haven’t tried them out yet. (I will point out that as a matter of principle I try not to rely on plugins to solve my web design problems, but using themes to solve these problems  seems doable).   A separate issue which I have not yet addressed is choosing a theme suitable for both mobile and desktop browsers. I’m still happy with the WordPress platform, although I’m still experimenting with drupal for other projects.

As retro as it seems, I still love the style of making the blog home page a single long page.

For various reasons (mainly personal), I don’t normally link to my blog posts on Facebook or Google Plus. (Maybe I do 50% of the time).  This might seem strange to the typical blogger (who might view social media platforms as simply another opportunity for cross-promotion). But I pay attention to what kind of posts work for what audience; I often think that my WordPress posts are meant mainly for other bloggers (who are more comfortable with RSS readers) and people who are more interested in Robert the writer/geek than Robert the humorist/guy with an opinion about everything. Also, given that my type of work tends to be  contract/short term,  I don’t want my personal blog to feature anything which looks unpolished or controversial or off-color. A programmer/blogger friend of friend once used to make a lot of political posts on his blog until he became aware that an employer mentioned it in an interview — indicating some discomfort. My friend  quickly removed all the political posts and now posts exclusively about programming.

I probably wouldn’t go that far  (it is a writer’s job to be absolutely fearless and  let loose on occasion), but I’d like to do it knowingly and skillfully.  A public post which is opinionated does not worry me — as long  as it is well-thought out and contains good grammar. Accomplishing that is a lot harder than you might think — especially when your standards for what constitutes a “good post” rises over time.  Ten years ago, I would think aloud about any darn thing for a paragraph or two  and not think twice. But at this stage in my life I  worry less about how much I have covered  than whether  I have covered Topic X fully enough. Any verbose and prolific blogger  will inevitably find that spelling and grammar are everywhere — and each new post gives him more territory which he needs to police.  (I regularly correct grammar and style mistakes on old posts as a matter of habit).

To summarize: Now  it’s not a priority   to figure out a blog-to-social-media solution, but it’s definitely on my mind.  Perhaps I ought to make a blog post about it (Oops, I just did!)

Postscript: Someone needs to invent a WordPress plugin which auto-corrects your spelling of the word WordPress in posts. That’s one I would definitely install!


I’m surprised that I didn’t mention a point which now seems obvious.

When you  use Facebook or Google Plus, you are basically handing over your content to a third party which exerts a lot of indirect control and derives benefits from hosting it. Obviously neither Facebook or Google Plus make a copyright claim over your content, but the content you post there becomes a draw for other people to use their services as well (which leads to more ad dollars and premium services, etc). I don’t really believe that either company has nefarious motives (other than simply wanting to make money), but ultimately a free service has no real obligation to restore content which may have been lost through no fault of your own. Sure, these companies perform customer service actions as a courtesy because it makes business sense. But what if it no longer makes business sense to do so?

I won’t deny that hosting your posts offloads a lot of the burden of trying to do so on your own. That is certainly a valuable service. Also Google’s embrace of  “data liberation”  is reassuring. But it matters a lot where the content creator creates something originally. In the ideal world, wouldn’t it be better to create  posts in your own  garden and then syndicate it elsewhere   than to create them in a remote garden and then somehow devise some way to export it back to your own garden? First, there is the matter of time. Manually cross-posting things adds time, and so does having to customize an  export process.

I’m starting to believe that this question of growing things first in your personal garden is more important than I originally believed. Perhaps it’s asking way too much for  WordPress — as good as an all-purpose tool as you can get — to export cleanly  and beautifully to all platforms.

After doing my research, I see that more recent versions of WordPress have started using “post formats” to differentiate between different kinds of posts. They even have custom fields to help you even further customize content.  That’s not quite at content types, but it’s very close.

But then again, a WP theme doesn’t need to display all published content on the front page. It could accept all kinds of content types, but only publish bloggy content on the blog. There’s no reason you couldn’t create content in a centralized CMS, publishing some content on the blog, some on the social network, etc…. I think Pressbooks came up with the idea of using WordPress not only as a publishing platform but for a storage platform.

Perhaps a company like WordPress or Google could be capable of handling and syndicating any kind of content, letting you decide easily where and how it ought to be published. If that is so, a financial relationship between content creator and company needs to exist where the individual’s identity is verified and the company has provided some service level agreement for backing up and retrieving data. That’s a service I would certainly pay for.


Minor Sketches and Reveries in 2014

2014 probably is a good time for me  to publish a story collection. Consisting of various things  I’d written  over the years – which I never got around to collecting.  It’s funny; I have been  so busy with  life stuff and  Personville stuff that it’s easy to delay  finishing  major writing projects  and tossing  older stuff into various collections.   This ebook will be titled Minor Sketches and Reveries —  I’m still trying to decide upon a pseudonym.


This fun thing is something I published in 2000 on my old site — and has since become dead. A mixed review of a famous book on programming prompts a reply from the author and a friendly
discussion about book reviewing

My Original Review (August 2000) about the book Mastering Regular Expressions by Jeffrey Friedl

I haven’t read the book from cover to cover but have read parts of it. I don’t deny that it is informative and occasionally helpful (especially if you come from a perl background). But the book as it stands is not appropriate for someone starting out in regular expressions. Instead it provides a lot of depth as far as how regular expressions are used in specific tools and all the different standards for regular expressions.

But a lot of this information on regular expressions is not relevant or necessary for composing plain vanilla bash regular expressions. I suspect that the majority of readers will find a few chapters helpful, but will skip over at least a few chapters that have no bearing on their work. To spend so much time in a book talking about the different implementations of regular expressions is to beg the question about whether you should read a general book or instead read a book about the implementation of r.e. specific to your computer language.

I have two complaints. First, the book does not try to teach you the art of writing regular expressions (it assumes a certain level of familiarity already). As a learning book, it may not be satisfy your needs. The second complaint is that the book doesn’t include an adequate reference section or at least a section you can refer to when trying to write your own regular expressions. I found myself flipping back and forth from pages to try to find the aspect of regular expressions I need. A more methodical reference chapter or appendix is sorely needed.

Don’t get the impression I am not recommending this book. It is a fine book; only be sure that you thumb through it at a bookstore to make sure that the kind of material it presents is what you are looking for. For me it was not. The best teaching book I’ve found to explain regular expressions is Practical Guide to Linux by Mark Sobell. It’s old, but it explains regular expressions, sed, awk and grep better than any book, including this one. This book presented the clearest examples of any computer book I have encountered.


The Author Responds (December, 2001)

This evening I noticed your review of my book “Mastering Regular Expressions” on Amazon. I’m sorry that you didn’t get out of it what you desired of it. Perhaps if you had more of a need for advanced regex use, it would have been more valuable.

In your review, you make two specific complaints. The first, “does not try to teach you the art of writing regular expressions”, makes me wonder what book you’re revewing. Teaching that art is the heart of the book, and the 100 or so pages that make up chapters 4 and 5 do nothing but teach that art. Perhaps they were part of what you didn’t read (you don’t learn an art by flipping around and reading tidbits like it’s a Reader’s Digest 🙂

You also comment “(it assumes a certain level of familiarity already)”. Well, the later chapters assume you read chapter 1, which starts out from scratch.

I find your comments puzzling because as you said yourself, you haven’t read more than “parts of it”, so how can you make any claim about what it doesn’t do? Sure, I know it can’t be all things to all people, but you really knocked it right where I’m the most happy with it.

You’re right about your second complaint, though (needs a better reference section). My original thought was that I wanted to teach the thinking of regular expressions, and leave most tool-specific stuff to your tool’s manual. Why would someone want to pay for a copy of what they already have? But I find it’s a common desire, so in the 2nd edition I added 25 pages to Chapter 3 (which is really the lost child of the first edition), with a much expanded use of the “=> XX” page references that make the page flipping (which you can never eliminate) much more bearable. Anyway, I do hope that the book is able to prove its value to you sometime.

 I Respond to the Author (December 2001)

Thanks for your reaction. It is an honor to receive something from the author himself!

I write reviews of Oreilly books very often, and actually I request review copies from them every so often.

The first thing I should say is that I consider myself a nonprogrammer, and it’s quite common for me to write reviews of subjects about which I know absolutely nothing. I’m a technical writer and I focus more on the “readability” and organization of the book.

So I am writing as a nonexpert. And to be honest, I haven’t used regular expressions much, although I imagine that the time for that will come.

I remember reading the first few chapters (perhaps a little too breezily , I’ll admit), and enjoying them and finding the information useful. The examples were also very good. I just found the detail about the different engines overwhelming and not really relevant to my current needs. (For some people, this information may be the best part of the book,I”ll admit).

With programming books, one’s reaction to them changes over time. Some books I initially think are horrible, and then I find myself referring to over and over. With others, it’s just the reverse. Sometimes I feel I should write “updates” on amazon about what a numbskull I am.

So please don’t get the impression that I was panning the book.

Regex is such a broad subject, and every programming language seems to have their own quirks. The changes you mentioned sound interesting and could probably make an excellent book even better.

On another note about not reading,etc. An anecdote. My friend (a professional book reviewer) often would choose books to review on the basis of how little reading was required to actually write the review. On some books, he wrote the review while barely opening the book! While this seems dangerous, sometimes initial impressions can be helpful.

The Author Responds to my Response (Dec 2001)

I’m not so sure that one should consider an email from me to be an honor — most of my friends procmail me away 🙂

I appreciate your detailed reply, Robert, though I still feel that your review is unjust. It’s not that it says negative things (for certainly, any book can’t be all things to all people, nor even do what it intends to do perfectly). It’s that I feel that *had* you used the book as it was intended (and as the preface — the book’s instruction manual, so to speak — suggests), your concerns would have been answered and your review would have more accurately reflected the contents and usefulness of the book. (Such a review certainly may well have included negative comments that came with your deeper knowledge of what you were were reviewing — I know that the book is far from perfect.)

I’ve seen a few negative reviews of my book over the years that have basically said “I wanted to book to be X, and it wasn’t!”. In every case, “X” was something that the book was not intended to be, so while I wish the reviewer had had a better experience with the book, such a review does serve a purpose to clarify to the reader of the review what the books does and doesn’t do.

I guess what it comes down to is that if one feels the needs to begin a review with “well, I’ve not really read this book”, I feel one probably shouldn’t be offering a review at all. I realize that putting out more reviews gets you brownie points at Amazon, but it’s really not fair to me or to your readers. At least, that’s my feeling.

Regex is such a broad subject, and every programming language seems to have their own quirks.

Ha, if you still have a copy of the book, see the first sentence (and footnote) of the last paragraph of p62 🙂

If you thought my book was “excellent”, your review very much does not give that impression. It gives the impression that the book is very bad at doing exactly what I belive the book is best at doing (bringing a novice up to speed, and teaching the *art* of writing a regex). As it’s written, I belive your review does a disservice to me and to all the readers of your review.

I’m aware that there are people who do their job poorly. It’s sad, in any field, and all the worse when it hurts others. I try not to do mine here at Yahoo poorly, nor mine as an author. (My overriding principle when I’m writing was given to me by an author friend who said “you do the research, so your readers don’t have to”. People are paying *their* *money* for my book, so I’ll be dammed if I’m going to give them anything but my very best effort.)

The 2nd edition concentrates mostly on the popular scripting languages (VB and other .NET Framework languages, Java, Perl, Python, Ruby), and less on the old Unix tools (awk/sed/lex). If it happens to land on your desk, I hope you find it useful.

A Friend Makes a Very Valid Point (Dec 2001)

Bobby, this is very interesting/amusing to read. I don’t recommend responding to him again, but perhaps you might have clarified that the books I choose that “require the least reading” are either 1) books with very little text to read, 2) reissues of books I’ve read before, 3) anthologies of literary material that I’m often already familiar with, or that only require a sampling of stories to be read for a broad impression, or 4) reference encyclopedias that are not meant to be read cover to cover, but which have certain important entries. He might think I idly try reviewing technical things I have no knowledge of. Actually, it’s my prior knowledge of a subject that enables me to review certain books quickly without much effort.

(Now it can be revealed; this critic/friend is Michael Barrett, book and movie critic extraordinaire!)

I Become Philosophical (August 2002)

I am very sympathetic to this author’s defensiveness about his book. One has only to look over the hundreds of rave reviews on amazon to realize that the book is one of the most praised books on publishing today. As Andy Oram writes, “Yet Mastering Regular Expressions came out and became an instant hit. The Perl community (where regular expressions had taken hold most strongly at the time) treated Friedl as a hero. His talk at the first O’Reilly Perl Conference filled a large hall right up to the back doors. We sold out all copies of his book at the conference, even though it had released six months before, and brought in another batch of copies that were promptly sold out as well. Five years after publication and 22 years after the death of McLuhan, the first edition still sells several hundred copies per month and is continually recommended on mailing lists and in journal articles.”

During the year 2000 I reviewed lots of books that I only half-understood (or at least wouldn’t be able to really understand until I tried it out myself). Often one’s gut instincts about a book are right; sometimes they are not. Sometimes a book which didn’t seem user-friendly at first turns out to be exactly what you need. Conversely, some books which look useful may in fact be too simple or too esoteric to be useful.

So I went back to the book and read a few more chapters, afraid that I had seriously misjudged this book. Well, surprise, surprise! I not only stood by my previous opinion, I found myself justifying my original decision to review a book I hadn’t read all the way. To review a technical book requires, in all fairness, that you read the book from start to finish. That seems like an obvious point, but it is completely wrong. It overlooks the fact that reviewing is often about reporting what the book contains and doesn’t contain. With technical books, how do you criticize? You are reading a subject that you are probably a novice at, and the author is certainly an expert. Aside from pointing out technical errors (and from what I’ve heard, all technical books seem to have their fair share of them), the critic can talk about writing style, logical approach to the subject and whether the book covered the subject in a way that newbies could understand. My original review was not delivering harsh criticism to the book really; it was merely suggesting some reasons why this particular book might not be useful for some people.

As a matter of fact, Friedl has a nice breezy writing style that is a delight to read. And indeed, it looks like a novel—the book is full of prose. Chapters 4 –the real crux of the book–gives a step-by-step guide to solving problems using regular expressions, explaining the syntax and showing some great examples. Chapter 5 is about optimizing, and the rest of the book hovers on the topic of Perl. My main problem was and still is that I couldn’t find what I needed whenever I picked it up! In contrast, whenever I wanted help on deciphering or writing regular expressions, I found myself referring to the much simpler “ Practical guide to Linux” .The author admits as much in his initial response that the first edition lacked an adequate reference section, and it seems likely that the second edition will address that difficulty.

While Mr. Friedl has every right to respond to his critics, I have to wonder whether he is a shade too indignant. No book can win over everybody. Even if a book comes close to achieving that, it will no doubt attract a crowd of critics eager to deflate the hype, to burst the bubble, to rain on the parade. Of course, I intend to do no such thing. But amidst a chorus of lavish praise, the temptation of a critic to inject a modicum of dissent becomes irresistible.


Strangely, it is getting difficult to view RSS feed information  from a web browser . A few years ago, you used to see syndication icons everywhere, but it never really caught on. As a blogger and regular reader of RSS feeds on feedly/Mr. Reader, the crucial detail I want to know is whether a website is syndicating the partial feed or the full feed. From the standpoint of a person checking feeds on my Feedreader in a place without wifi access, it is crucial that I only add full feeds to feedly instead of partial feeds. Partial feeds may serve a purpose, but for the most part they are useless to me. The methods described below don’t always tell you directly whether the feed is full or partial, but once you know how to view the feed in “raw” mode, it’s pretty easy to figure out.

As far as I know, only Safari and  the Chrome extension lets you view the raw feed.


Firefox has 2 methods for detecting RSS methods. Either one works. The second method puts a shortcut on your toolbar for easy permanent access.

  • Right click anywhere on the web page and choose Page Info and then the Feeds tab. It will show all available RSS feeds (and sometimes more than one!)
  • View –> Toolbars –> Customize and then choose the icon for Subscribe/Feeds and drag it to your Firefox toolbar. (This assumes that the menu toolbar is already visible. If not, right- click on the top of the browser and make sure that Menu Bar is checked.)

Internet Explorer (IE)

Tools –> Feed Discovery –>(see if a feed exists). If it does, IE will display it and give you some queries and options for subscribing and filtering. (If you don’t see the Tools toolbar, right-click on the top toolbar and make sure Menu Bar is checked).


At the time of this writing, the best way to discover RSS feeds in Chrome is to install an extension called RSS Subscription Extension. After installing it, you will see an orange feed icon on the URL bar. Pressing it will reveal more information about the RSS feeds on that particular URL.  In Chrome  after you go to the “pretty” view of the RSS feed, you will see a link on the right side of the browser labeled simply “Feed.” If you press this, Chrome will show you the complete feed as XML source code. (i.e., the raw view).


The URL toolbar at the top will display a small blue rectangle with the letters RSS whenever a RSS is detected at a URL. When you click on this button, the full feed will display within the browser, along with some tools for filtering.


Here’s a literary obituary and appreciation of Ohio author Jack Matthews who died on November 28 at the age of 88.  I’ll probably write a more personal tribute later. Also, I finally posted the audio of the erudite 45 minute interview I did with Jack in 2010.

A lot is going on at the moment in my life (and plus there’s a lot of half-finished pieces lying around).  I need to find a job pretty quickly, so that’s on my front burner now. I post fairly frequently on my Google Plus account –— which I’m not particularly enthusiastic about, but certainly like better than Facebook (here’s why).

More:  I’ve had a pretty good correspondence with Jack Matthews over the four years I knew him. We definitely were on the same wavelength about lots of things.  I am not sure, but there’s a good chance that I might have received the last email ever written by Jack Matthews (I had asked him to write me a brief reference for me — which he did). (Update: After talking with his daughter, I have learned that it was certainly not the LAST but one of his last).  His mind was still sharp, but he fatigued quickly, and emails are such effort (for me as well as him).

Here’s  a late-night email I sent him last April. The first paragraph is an excerpt from his book Collecting Rare Books for Pleasure and Profit. It’s a quirky and interesting book with lots of fun parts, although his essay collections which he published in the 1980s are much more important.


Sunday, April 07, 2013 1:05 AM

Dear Jack,

It is a similar silliness to pretend that buying books “as an investment” is incompatible with scholarship or the true love of literature; Quite the contrary; it is the man who divides his love of literature from the material life who is the true heretic, using only the public library or the niggardly functional paperback for the leavening of his sensibility, and investing his money in Ford Motor Company and AT&T stock. What a dreary divarication is this, and how schizoid and truly mercenary is the man who plays such a nasty game against himself! To invest in books does not imply that the collector intends to sell them; he merely buys them with the conviction that his taste in honoring them will be validated by posterity and that – with effort and know-how comparable to those of other investors – this validation will have a dimension of financial profit.  The investment aspect of collecting is utterly fascinating, for it carries with it the excitement of competition in skill, expertise and taste. Often, too, there is the added excitement of the chase, in the auction room, the book fair and in the “field,” tracking down literary manuscripts, letters or rare titles.  (CRBFPAP, p 6-77)

A really fun passage. Even though I quoted it before in one of my essays, I just now enjoyed the language and style of it  (“true heretic””AT&T stock”  “leavening of his sensibility”, “divarication” etc. ). It is one of the sad ironies of time that it takes so long while for even diehard fans to catch up with enjoying the subtle artistry’s  of another author’s language — to say nothing of scholars and general readers. I pick this passage for no particular reason, merely to remind myself that long after you have bitten the dust, I (and hopefully others)  will be admiring (and chuckling over)  oodles  of similar and yet-to-be-discovered passages, but be unable to send these trivial late-night notes of appreciation to the living- and-breathing composer of them.

That, I guess, comprises  the silly comedy of the writer’s profession……



A few decades ago, a high school student sent surveys to well known writers and asked them how conscious were they about symbolism and interpretation for what they were writing. The answers were varied and interesting.

Here’s my perspective as a fiction writer and editor. “Symbolism” is much too strong a word, but I would guess that most of my fiction writing friends would say that they are conscious of at least 95% of the resonances/imagery/parallels in their language and details. Sometimes you need to think this things out if only to keep things consistent. Suppose you were writing a story or novel with Christian overtones; you’d want to make sure that any imagery identified with Christianity (crosses, bread, wine, etc) be used consistently with the overall theme. Sometimes, writers go out of their way to make their imagery inconsistent or misleading or ironic if only to make things fun. Often storytellers like to write allegorically, so allegories definitely can be applied to many different situations. See for example all the crazy interpretations of Wizard of Oz. Poetry is a completely different matter because poets go out of their way to use words and phrases which have multiple meanings and resonances, leaving it to the reader to decide at what level the work ought to be grasped. Finally, the question itself seems to be an artefact of psychoanalysis, which heavily influenced that particular generation of writers. If you asked a bunch of writers the same questions today, I doubt that many of them would attribute such an important role to the “subconscious” for their writing.


Who is Not Going to be president in 2016

In September 2008 I was visiting distant relatives in Ireland. The topic of conversation was “Sarah Palin.” All the Irish people at the table were genuinely worried about her. “We can’t afford to have another Bush Administration — that affects many people not just in America. This Sarah Palin seems formidable. Why on earth didn’t Obama pick Hilary Clinton to be vice-president?”

I had to smile at this reaction. Obviously, as an American I saw things from a different perspective. I got to see how insiders viewed McCain/Palin and Obama. I knew that many Americans had considerable enthusiasm about Obama, and many people were sick of a Republican in the White House. I knew that McCain didn’t generate as much enthusiasm, didn’t accept federal election funds, had several out-of-touch scandals and had several mishaps. No matter how great Palin was, (and I knew that she was not by that time), these were insurmountable obstacles.

I had that same sort of feeling after Romney nominated Paul Ryan as his running mate. Romney was smart and capable, but he was very domineering in political debates; he also had the arrogance that came with wealth. During the primary to prove his conservative mettle Romney took on some pretty hardline positions, and I knew that would come back to bite him. Paul Ryan has always seemed to be a dishonest politician, but in TV appearances, he seemed sincere and focused (two very good qualities for a presidential ticket). Tactically it made sense to pick him, but it ended up making Romney and Ryan seem out of touch with mainstream America. Even after that first presidential debate fiasco, I knew that demographic trends favored Obama; it wasn’t that Obama won the election, but that Republicans lost it spectacularly.

I realize that it’s too soon to talk about 2016, and I find the premature talk of it to be amusing. I don’t know who will win or who will be nominated, but I know who will NOT be nominated.

  • Ted Cruz. Sure, he’s a rising star, but he has irritated many people inside his party and out. That’s not how presidents get started. He may get campaign contributions (and often this kind of money goes to show support of a position rather than an individual), but he will burn out pretty quickly. I think his positions are too extreme for the country, but I don’t even think that will matter.
  • Rick Perry. He’s good at raising money and politicking (and I mean that in the most cynical way) But he has bungled so many things in Texas (I mean major scandals), really doesn’t understand national issues and really has not faced a major challenger in Texas. He’s also a lousy debater and he refused Medicaid funding. That might play well in Texas, but almost nowhere else.
  • Hilary Clinton. Too old, and Americans have tired of the Clinton brand by now.
  • Elizabeth Warren. I love Ms. Warren’s spunk and advocacy, but she is too old and doesn’t really have a track record as a politician. Also, although she has the gift of gab and good political instincts, you can’t get to know the American political landscape by teaching at Harvard.
  • Joe Biden, Howard Dean, Kathleen Sebelius. Too old.
  • Rick Santorum. Too ideological.
  • Kirsten Gillibrand. Probably a good candidate, but too young and if Cuomo were to run against her, he would probably win (Gillibrand worked for him  at  HUD).
  • Mike Huckabee/Sarah Palin/Pete King/Jan Brewer/John Bolton. Too strange, even for Republicans.
  • Chris Christie. Although his numbers look good now from the recent  jerryrigged election and he polls well with the Bubba vote, he is too abrasive, doesn’t really show a mastery of policy and the fact that Romney didn’t want him  in 2012 speaks a lot.
  •  Bobby Jindal. Probably a competent and articulate Republican, but Louisiana is a puny political base to start from, and Jindal is too young. On the fence though; Jindal has made it a point to get involved in national issues, so I wouldn’t count him out yet. But Louisiana is too small a pond to test your political mettle (at least with a state like Maryland, you are dealing with DC and more national media)
  •  Rand Paul.  He has brand name, youth and cachet with the Tea Party. He also has the tendency to say crazy things and get involved in all kinds of minor scandals. I think his positions are really too crazy even for Republicans.  Still, he’s the nicer version of “Ted Cruz” with more heart and passion for social issues. But as his policies become better known, he  (like Paul Ryan) may find his popularity declines.
  • Scott Walker. Occasionally a politician who stirs national attention for being intractable  is rewarded politically (especially if he survives intact),  but in this case he  will serve as a lightning rod for hostility (just like Rick Perry).  Although he survived a recall challenge, the visuals of having been so vigorously opposed  by students, teachers  and labor unions should help him in the primary, but not in the national election. I could be wrong on this, and certainly he is not the laughing stock like Perry. Reagan had enemies too, but he also had a Hollywood background  and lots of charisma, something Walker doesn’t have the benefit of. Ultimately the key litmus test for whether a Republican can win a general election is  whether you accepted Medicaid expansion.  Opposing the expansion  wins you points in the primary, but not in the general election (unless Obamacare has major setbacks, which I do not expect).

This still leaves a lot of people: Andrew Cuomo, John Kasich, Martin O’Malley, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan. Aha, I see no woman on my list. As I said, Warren would be my top choice if she ran, but she doesn’t really have a deep command on policy issues outside of banking and finance.

I am predicting that Obamacare will not be a train wreck and that governors who blocked it for their state will face inherent difficulties winning the general  election.  That leaves two Republican governors who accepted expansion (Bush and Kasich) and senators who can oppose it rhetorically but never had to block it in that person’s own state. That gives  Marco Rubio  a built in advantage.

On the Democrat side, I would love to see candidates make one or two issues their own (rather than just pointing to executive skills as governor). We may say that Ron Paul or Bill Bradley or Dennis Kucinich had very small chances of winning, but they had major platform differences with the leading candidate. I would love to see a candidate seize on climate change as an issue. Maybe a top tier candidate won’t do  this (Cuomo?) but a second tier candidate probably would, and frankly, none of the potential Democrat candidates have treated climate change as anything more than just another issue.  I would love to see an outsider like  Sheldon Whitehouse, Alan Grayson or Bob Inglis run for president, but that’s what the Green Party is for.

Postscript: I should add that I don’t think I’m demonstrating “ageism” by saying that candidates are too old. It’s just that it has to do with energy level, “passion” and the ability to campaign tirelessly for 2 presidential campaigns. I suppose  a 70 year old with a well-managed schedule could do these things (the Senators seem to have no problems, and a lot of them are 70 and older). What really gets you though is all the travelling.  I think Hilary and  Elizabeth Warren could manage it, but barely. Both woman (and especially Hilary) are supremely qualified and competent. But asking them to campaign in 50 states and then to jaunt to Europe and Asia every two or three months seems to be torture for anyone (much less a person over 65).

Postscript 2. If pressed to predict, I would  say Martin O’Malley for Democrats and  Marco Rubio for Republicans.

Postscript 3 (one year later in November 2014). Looks like Rubio totally misread climate politics, giving me the impression that he’s not really ready for the national scene. Cuomo and O’Malley haven’t seen to have risen in prominence, and Rand Paul seems to be winning the “Likable Tea Party candidate” race.  I think Kasich, Bush, Walker and Paul would be 4 strong Republican contenders with moderate policies, crossover appeal and no real skeletons (well, except Scott Walker). I would love to see Clinton win as president (and the liberal agenda needs her to succeed), but a Republican with a fresh face and a  moderate climate change policy could pose a strong opposition. Despite the fact that the 2016 Senate races are tilting Democrat, it seems that the Republican presidential candidates have executive experience.

Postscript 4 (July 2015). There are really only 6 Republican Candidates in this race. Walker, Bush, Kasich, Cruz, Perry and Rubio. Out of those, I would knock out Cruz (too extreme to be electable), Rubio (lacking in political leadership though a great VP pick) and Perry (lots of baggage and unexpectedly poor in fund-raising). That leaves three candidates: Walker, Bush, Kasich, each with their own minuses: Scott Walker (might be too extreme), Bush (too lightweight and reminds people of his brother) and Kasich (people don’t know or remember him). Of course, Bush has already won the “money primary” (His campaign is raising $760,000 PER DAY). With a fundraising record like that, is it any wonder that Republican candidates oppose entitlements for the mooching class?

Looking back at how things turned out (and keep in mind that the race doesn’t really begin until the first debate), I didn’t expect that Bush would lead would have so much money. Also I didn’t expect that climate change was actually going to be a front-burner issue (horray!) or that the nepotism issue of Bush would be offset by Hilary, so now we’re even steven.  I still think Kasich has a chance, but how on earth will he overcome the disadvantage in fund-raising?

Postscript 5 (October 2015). Well, Hilary Clinton seems to be the most viable candidate on the Dem side. The GOP side has been too weird for words. Walker is out, Trump and Carson are near the top, the superficially impressive (but ultimately unelectable) Carly Fiorina is still in the race, and a lot of Republicans who have no chance of winning are still in the race for vanity reasons.  I still think we’re going to end up with Bush, Rubio and Kasich and one of the 3  extremist populist candidate (i.e., Trump, Cruz, Carson). I think the question boils down to whether the GOP voter wants a candidate who is “authentic” (but not politically correct) or “politically savvy.” (By the way, I would put Clinton into the “politically savvy” camp).  So far the “authentic” voices have been dominating the debate and few of them have paid any political price for their untoward words. I find it interesting that the GOP really hasn’t tried to co-opt the climate change issue — one might expect politicians from Florida to be attuned to polls on the subject. Ultimately the GOP message depends on the voter’s susceptibility to the “lower taxes” meme. Right now, that does not seem to be a big issue (especially when Democrats are counterprogramming by raising the issue of “tax fairness.”)

Postscript 6 (February 2016). I’ll admit it. These past few months have been fascinating for presidential politics. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the popularity of Bernie Sanders. I suspect many Americans are receptive to his overall message and just want to hang their hopes on a non-Hilary Democrat. (He is also helped by the GOP concern trolling).  It’s ironic that someone who rails against money in politics seems to have have attracted so many (grassroots) donations.  I hate to say it, but the Republicans really don’t seem to be playing any issues except foreign policy. While it’s perfectly ok to criticize Obama/Clinton on foreign policy, it overlooks the fact that 1)Obama’s foreign policy overall has been run very deftly, 2)Clinton has an in-depth knowledge of the subject (not to mention personal relationships). Really, all the Democrats need to do is point out how shrill the GOP positions seem to be about any foreign policy issue. Strangely, Trump is the only person who spends any time talking about the “business” aspects of globalism. (Cruz does it very eloquently, but he seems more worried about UN encroachment on US sovereignty than anything else).

I still think that this race is Hilary’s to lose, but perhaps a winnowing of GOP candidates might allow a credible GOP candidate to inject values without sounding like he’s grandstanding.  Interestingly, in the last week the attention seems to have drifted to the ex-governor candidates, which I would argue is a good thing. Kasich/Bush/Christie all seem to have “leadership qualities” missing in the junior senators.  While Bush and Kasich fight over the remaining slot for moderate, I’m convinced that there simply can’t be two candidates from Florida; both pose existential threats to the other. So right now, it looks like a Trump vs. Bush vs. Cruz matchup.

The more I follow this race, the more convinced I am that Mitt Romney would have been the ideal candidate for this cycle. (I am feeling a lot of Romney nostalgia right now). Against Obama (who I regard as the type of leader who appears once in a lifetime), no Republican could have beaten him. But Clinton is beatable. Reflecting on the presidential race, I just realized that the most likely matchup will be HILARY CLINTON/JULIAN CASTRO vs. JEB BUSH/NIKKI HALEY. That would be a remarkable matchup because 1)both sides would consist of a man and a woman, 2)both sides would consist of 1 Caucasian and 1 person with a mixed ethnic background. Even though the MCCAIN/PALIN team was seriously defective, I think it’s a good template to have for a leadership team. Obviously there’s a fine line between inclusiveness and tokenism, but I expect that from now on, having a coed presidential team will be the norm rather than the exception.


The flaw of libertarian economics

The flaw of libertarian economics is that it overlooks or discounts the predatory aspects of power. You can say that we should get government off our backs or that taxation is an unjust burden or that the free market provides an optimal creation of wealth. But without oversight or interference, more powerful businesses can easily  avoid compliance with contracts and avoid compensating  people who have been harmed by their behaviour. Libertarians refer to the court system as correcting major injustices and disparities between parties, but it ignores the fact that justice is often very slow and  many  victims  are  rewarded  only after considerable waiting (and suffering). A few months ago I complained  that it took the multi-billion dollar company  Comcast more than four months to refund me $20 which it already admitted that it owed me. Comcast, like many Fortune 500 companies,  has the legal infrastructure to fend off legal claims about such malfeasance, allowing it to nickel and dime the American consumer to death with impunity.  A  well-crafted regulation, if applied uniformly with adequate phase-in time, can be easy and  inexpensive for companies to implement; it can also correct injustices promptly  and minimize drawn out court battles  between parties with  unequal power.  I understand that unchecked public agencies can sometimes handicap legitimate business activity without good reason, but at least they are accountable to public pressure.

The laissez faire policies advocated by libertarians   enable the private exploitation of public resources with the potential to cause pernicious  effects. Libertarians often paint the struggle as government agents encroaching on the house and property rights of an individual, but the more common scenario is a giant company whose injuries to others avoid  public scrutiny by virtue of its economic might, with government  agents (woefully outmatched and underfunded) unable to figure out if the company has done anything wrong.

Mexican poet Octavio Paz once wrote that capitalism is efficient at creating wealth but wretched at  assigning it a purpose.  Wealth creation for its own sake is not really a public good  if citizens fear for their safety and economic well-being and  if investment in “social capital” and public resources is minimal. It is not enough for Chevron to pay to build a public park or Walmart to  support food kitchens. There needs to be an entity committed to managing this “social capital” at all times regardless of whether it helps a company’s bottom line at a particular moment.  This entity needs to be accountable to all Americans and needs to have an organizational framework dedicated to treating all people equally and fairly. This entity is called a government.

Related: see my piece on libertarianism and the health care system (which touches upon a lot of general issues about how to measure libertarianism as a philosophy) and an excellent book  which argues for “soft paternalism”: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (See the Nudges blog).

Postscript: Here’s an interesting question to pose to libertarians: “do private  contracts always take precedence over liberties?”    Can a prostitute sell her obedience for a price?  Can an intern enter a contractual arrangement where he or she receives no compensation but has to follow the contract’s obligations?  If I bought a piece of property with the intent to exploit its mineral rights, are those mineral rights unrestricted and perpetual regardless of what any later government decides and regardless of  any later safety findings?  Libertarians believe that the ability to make contracts is a sign of liberty, but at some point, this contract can threaten the liberty of  one of the parties (or even a third party, as with the case of environmental harms). By their philosophy, the  liberty claims can be pursued only  after the damage or taking has taken place, making redress impossible for the aggrieved party.  You can’t on the one hand grant one party the right to damage another’s life or liberty and at the same time admit that it is impossible for the damaged party to seek redress. That is tantamount to admitting that one party has the absolute right to deprive the party of liberty. The success of the free libertarian state depends on the ability for weaker parties to receive protection from stronger parties. But if you admit that no such protection exists, you are admitting that liberty no longer is an absolute right in your system.



(The problem behind this rant has been mostly solved. See bottom).

(This is Rant 1 of 2. In a few days, I will post my rant about  Smashwords)

Dear Amazon.

I’m really mad — no furious — at how crappy your ipad app is for reading Kindle files. Crazy/unpredictable output.

  1. Your $#$#$# Kindle Previewer on Windows 7 doesn’t render a preview for ipad after it converts it to  azw. (more)  It registers nothing but a blank page on Kindle Previewer. How on earth do you expect me to test that?
  2. If your rendering of azw is so pathetic, don’t you owe it to publishers and authors to document its quirkiness in the Kindle formatting guide?
  3. Why doesn’t the Kindle Formatting Guide give an example of a  CSS media query that can hide/display things  on ipad/iphone?  (more)Why don’t you at least update the ios app so that it is even capable of supporting a media query for ipad/iphone?
  4. Why on earth doesn’t the Kindle app for ipad support KF8 (or heaven forbid epub)? Don’t you realize how much extra work you are creating for publishers? And how much crappier design you are dictating?

Thank you for taking a dump on my ebook design.   Up until now, you have done a lot of things right; for example I really appreciate your rollout of KF8 onto K4 and K3 devices.  You have some great resources for authors and publishers.

But your ipad app is so terrible that it is almost embarrassing to even open it. Up until now, I have relied on the ipad app to read some Kindle books I have bought. I always knew that the ios app wasn’t up to par. It is only now  — at 4 AM while trying to produce an ebook on a deadline – that I realize how abominable it truly is – for everybody involved.

Up until now, I have assured friends with ipads that you can just read Kindle files on your ipad. I truly was suckered in by your usual propaganda about Kindle-on-all-platforms. Clearly now it is obvious that you are abandoning any pretense of supporting Kindle on ipad. Your ipad app makes the publisher look bad, the author look bad and most of all it makes you look bad.

Get with the program, guys! Either improve the ipad app or just remove it from consumers altogether.

Postscript: Your KDP Community forum is now offline. Wow, that’s icing on the cake!

Postscript 2: Let me be clear. I know how to create designs for Kindle Fires and K3s.  That’s because you have provided adequate documentation about how to do that. I am even vaguely aware of  how to design for K1 and K2.  (it remains a distant nightmare in memory).  I know how to degrade gracefully. What I can’t do is design for an undocumented platform without a good testing tool.

Postscript 3. Ok, I may have exaggerated the extent of the problem. The formatting guide hints that using a media query for the older mobi7 format might do the trick. I can definitely deal with that, so I will try that now. The problem is that nowhere does it say that the ipad app actually renders things in a mobi7 way.

Postscript 4. Well, it’s not a problem I can solve by making a mobi7 media query. I need to confirm that I haven’t done anything stupid, but if this is the case, then it looks like I’m going to have to toss out the design and use a bare bones one. (Sigh!)

Postscript 5:  Here’s the publisher’s note I included on the title page:

Viewing Tips: For a Kindle, this ebook is best when viewed by any Kindle device produced in 2010 or later (or any Android device which has the Kindle software app). For Nook, this ebook is best viewed on any Nook device (or on any Android device which has the Nook software app). Please turn the PUBLISHER DEFAULT setting (on the font size menu) ON. For iPad or iPhone, the book is best viewed if the ebook file itself is imported into iBooks (which can be done if you open it as an attachment from within the iPad).

Postscript 6: Wow, Amazon.com claims that you can email the .azw file to your ipad device, but when I tried, I got this error message:

The following document, sent at 12:10 PM on Mon, Nov 04, 2013 GMT could not be delivered to the Kindle you specified:
* mybook-kindle_2013-11-02_12-12-57_2013-11-04_06-08-20.azk

The Kindle Personal Document Service can convert and deliver the following types of documents:
Microsoft Word (.doc, .docx)
Rich Text Format (.rtf)
HTML (.htm, .html)
Text (.txt) documents
Archived documents (zip , x-zip) and compressed archived documents
Mobi book

Postscript 7.  I am happy to report that the problem is not as bad as I originally thought. The ipad kindle app actually has decent rendering of the KF8 format. However, my method of sending a kindle file to the iPad was producing a kind of Frankenstein ebook which was neither Mobi 7 or KF8. I used the method of emailing a .mobi file via Personal Docs to the ipad app. Apparently the only acceptable way to test the file on the iPad was to sync it through iTunes. You could email a .mobi file to the Kindle app on the iPad, but Amazon would not do the proper conversion to make this file readable.  I was vaguely aware that testing via Personal Docs had its issues,  but never in my wildest dreams could I imagine that they would be this bad. Of course, this would never have been a problem with better documentation, automatic conversions to AZW on the cloud or native support of epub to begin with. But there is no point in bitching about it any longer — the problem has been solved!


A few months ago, Facebook  did something so shocking and stupid that it left me no choice but to leave Facebook. For good.

Up until that time I have enjoyed Facebook for what it is. It’s a great way to keep up with friends from school and work and overseas. Frankly, I have avoided these kinds of social media web apps, but the first tipoff that FB  was actually useful came when Texas uberblogger Gary Denton announced that he was abandoning his Easter Lemming blogs in order to focus on Facebook. Amazing! Soon, too, I found a lot of the same link-sharing which I normally did on my blog could  be done just as easily on Facebook — and more people would read it too. I also found that I was learning about lots of new URLs and essays through Facebook which I’d normally learn about through bloggers. Suddenly FB was a better source for content than bloggers were.

If you think of it, Facebook is nothing more than a microblogging platform with a little bit of messaging and relationship management  thrown in. It’s not rocket science,  and for news junkies and readers, you could follow lots of people and content sources by RSS feeds. But most Americans never paid attention to RSS feeds, plus you had lots of news sources not allowing full feeds (a real pain for readers). Even when things started moving into mobile platforms, few people used naked RSS readers, instead obtaining their content by “Liking” things on Facebook or using an intermediary like Flipboard to browse through cool stuff.

I could talk about some things which annoyed me about Facebook. (such as everchanging privacy controls, unsafe third party apps and difficulty suppressing trolls and promiscuous posters). But for the most part FB was doing many things right. More importantly, 2 or 3 years ago Facebook introduced a personal archive of your data which you can download for safekeeping.

Swell. Every two or three months I would request another personal archive to be made, and shortly thereafter I would receive via email a link to a zip file containing my data in html form. This is a case where everything worked exactly as expected. All my data was there and easy to find offline. I could easily refer to it and look things up on it. I found that I did that often. I posted some of my things onto Facebook  just in case.

But around June 2013, I began to notice that the latest zip of the FB archives was missing stuff. At first, I attributed it to a bug. Facebook is a gigantic system always in flux, and I had read reports that the archiving feature was causing problems for many users. Give it time, I thought.

Then, I noticed that my latest personal archive no longer included the URLs to the links I was making to my facebook posts. Let me explain. One “trick” about Facebook is that when you paste a link into the posting space, FB will automatically discover the Title, Summary and preview image of the link in question. In fact, you can even delete the URL you posted and Facebook will still keep the link in your wall post. It’s a really cool thing, and if you think about it, why does the tiny wallpost form need to include URLs when you already have the preview as a hyperlink?

I had been embedding links into Facebook wall posts that way for over a year now. But now I discover that not only were my personal archives missing comments from others, Facebook had also stripped out every single link I had added.  It had also removed all my friends’  comments by friends to my posts as well as my own comments. Bastards!

The Old Facebook Archives

Here is what the old Personal Archives used to look like for my wall. In this particular screenshot you don’t see comments by others, but in fact, specific posts in my archives do include comments by others (depending on their privacy settings).


The “New and Improved” Personal Facebook Archive

Stripped of all my links, none of the posts make sense, and my own comments are removed.


My original descriptions are there, only the links are nowhere to be seen!

There is a way to keep the URls so that they can (for now) be included in personal archives. That is to leave the URL’s in the status bar. But even when you do this, the links themselves will no longer be “clickable.”

Furthermore, comments are removed totally from the archives. I can understand not showing comments by OTHERS (if it conflicts with a user’s privacy settings). But I do not understand why it has removed MY OWN COMMENTS to MY OWN POSTS!

Again, the personal archive from last year did EVERYTHING perfectly. Now let’s look at the monstrosity that motivated FB to ruin its own archiving capability.

Facebook Activity Log: Disaster in search of a problem

Facebook introduced something called the Activity Log. I don’t know why they did it; I’m sure there is some crass commercial motivation behind it; never mind about that.

The fig leaf behind this function is that it’s supposed to make it easier for users to look up past posts. This is a worthy goal; Facebook has always been horrible about having to look up anything older than a week old. I have probably spent hours continuously clicking the More button just to find some link I posted a few months ago.

But here’s the thing. When FB introduced the Activity log, it seems that that they also crippled the personal archive.

Now let’s look at that some post I made about the presidential debate in the Activity Log.


Everything is posted in unthreaded reverse chronological order without including user comments, making it practically impossible to understand the context of the original remarks.

That means: if you posted on a controversial topic on Friday and on Tuesday someone makes a comment on that same thread (or maybe you do too), any of your other activity in the intervening time will be mixed in with it.

Facebook has a helpful table describing exactly how they are screwing you. Here is the relevant listing of what from your wall posts they will be saving:



What’s the Alternative?

Facebook is where everyone is at, so we can’t just leave Facebook willy-nilly, can we?

Or can we?

Google Plus is a newer and cleaner alternative to Facebook. It is not as full featured as Facebook (and doesn’t have 1/10 of the users), but it has some other cool features. Plus, you can’t beat it as an integrated solution.

More relevant to today’s post, Google has made a full commitment to data liberation. Here’s what they say:

For this reason, we always encourage people to ask these three questions before starting to use a product that will store their data:

  1. Can I get my data out in an open, interoperable, portable format?
  2. How much is it going to cost to get my data out?
  3. How much of my time is it going to take to get my data out?

The ideal answers to these questions are:

  1. Yes.
  2. Nothing more than I’m already paying.
  3. As little as possible.

Google Plus has a free service called Google Takeout which lets you export ALL of your data out of the web application. That includes not only Google Plus, but also Google Docs, Blogger, etc.  I haven’t played that much with Google Takeout, except that it does exactly what it says it does. I noticed that Google Plus archives are exported as individual html files. So your archive will accumulate dozens (if not hundreds)  So each individual post is a separate html file. That is inconvenient, yes, but at least I’m not losing any data here. Sure, it’s not as easy to search through in offline mode, but a single grep command in linux  or a good text editor could probably help you find what you want easily.

For me as a writer, I want to keep a record of as much as possible. I never gave free web apps the right to hide my own data from me. It no longer makes sense to use Facebook if I can no longer know for sure if I can export my data outside of Facebook.

The Post-Facebook and Post-Google-Plus Era

I jumped pretty quickly  onto blogging and  other web services. Probably in about 2006-8, things changed. Smart phones came and with that came producing and receiving content from your phone. Then Facebook came  — which managed to straddle both desktop  and mobile devices.

Now we are entering a phase where we want to repurpose content into other platforms. You may have noticed that many people automatically  re-publish their twitter posts or blog posts  to facebook  or to twitter. (To say nothing of instagram, etc).  I used to find that very annoying — especially because things reposted in Facebook seemed ill-formatted or inappropriate for it. For example, I wouldn’t want to repost all my blogposts onto Facebook (although I feel differently about doing so on Google Plus).

I don’t heavily use Evernote, but the concept is alluring: it can keep archived versions of certain web pages as well as your own content. Couldn’t I just store all my content streams there?

I have discovered two services which deal with cross-posting things onto multiple platforms.

First, there is HootSuite, a tool online marketers use to republish content onto multiple platforms. Which only raises the question: if you are creating your content originally in Hootsuite, how do you archive your Hootsuite content?

Second, there is IFTTT (short for If This, Then That) which lets you create or use different recipes to convert and publish your content from one platform to another. It basically lets you set up notifications too. Everything seems to be RSS-based, and sometimes the various platforms have special rules and restrictions which make it hard to import/export stuff. Sometimes just browsing through the known recipes can help you figure out a solution; sometimes you need to use a search engine to find what you want. Here for example is a good way to create feeds out of your Google+ posts which then can be scooped up by Facebook.

Note: this solution isn’t recipe is hosted on a third party site, so it is not likely to last too long. But for now it is the only solution I know of.

The ultimate goal for a blogger like me is to post at one place where I have full control and high confidence (like my blog) and then use customized RSS recipes to re-post certain things where relevant.

Don’t count out blogging software. With blogging software you remain in control over data; you own it, and then you simply use intermediary tools to connect things to another. I’m not sure that there’s a clean solution for replicating or backing up comments (though Disqus makes a compelling argument for outsourcing it altogether).

Of course, you need to take into consideration the specific characteristics of each platform and the nature of the audience. But  I am finding that it is no longer necessary to depend on or live inside these social applications as much. Sure, I stop by Facebook.  It’s certainly nice visiting old friends, but I certainly wouldn’t want to park there and create content ONLY for Facebook.

The flaw with Facebook (and other community sites) is that they succeed only with good content and mindshare. But when the good content can be found elsewhere (or anywhere!), suddenly there no longer is a compelling reason to park there.  Suddenly that mindshare — which seemed to have so much self-sustaining momentum — seems to  disappear.  The time will soon come when more people will be  reposting onto Facebook than posting. And that will be a good thing.

Postscript: Making the Blog Cool Again

A few years ago Virginia Heffernan remarked that with Facebook and Twitter, suddenly it was no longer cool to be blogging anymore. At the time I thought she was mistaken, but over time I  had to admit that my blogging output was significantly less after Facebook came along. I was spending more time on longer articles, less time on casual blogging and linkdumps.

Intermediaries like IFTTT make it possible to have content originate in WordPress. But that does not solve the problem at all. Here are the issues that initially jump out:

  1. How can a personal blog or website feature both short content and long content without making the site itself unusable?  (The theme would have to do this,  you’d need better front page management and you’d need to have separate content types probably).
  2. What are the rules for displaying short content on  the various platforms? What images show up? How many characters? Does the link show up, etc?
  3. How do you make it easy for people on one platform to see comments people have made on other platforms?

About the first question, bloggers have typically made linkdump pages on a daily/weekly basis, but does that solve the problem? One thing fun about FB/G+ is that the posts are really short. There’s really no elegant way to repurpose a linkdump post onto facebook. I need time to think this through…..




BREAKING NEWS: Texas is NOT an Economic Paradise

You may have seen Tyler Cowen’s cover story about Texas (discussed on his Marginal Revolution blog).

I’m sure  I see these kinds of articles regularly (Economist had a cover story a few years ago about California vs. Texas).   They annoy me because they are one-dimensional. I think they compare it to California or NY  — which probably is burdened by more paperwork  and has a state income tax. But overall, California and NY and Mass provide a lot more startups than Texas, and Texas doesn’t innovate a whole lot (except for medical, which they do pretty well in). Probably the best known non-fossil fuel  business to come from Texas is Dell, but Dell has always taken pride in NOT innovating but simply running a more efficient suply chain.

  1. Texas acquired their wealth through ample land and  mineral depletion. Many local economies are  still dependent on defense and oil and gas. These are ephemeral signs of wealth.
  2. Texas is VERY vulnerable to climate change, and per capita CO2 emissions are very high. Its pollution is also very high; the whole state would be a smokestack were it not for the federal Clean Air Act.
  3. Texas has pitiful social services, and its safety net is abysmal.  Many people fall through the cracks. Also, we have a significant underground economy from undocumented workers. Who knows? That probably means that the GDP of Texas is bigger than estimated, but the important point is that they operate on the outskirts of  the law (minus worker protections, etc.)
  4. Lack of zoning (I assume he’s talking about Houston only) has some consequences. It becomes impossible to do any urban planning, and as a result mass transit is practically impossible. From that you become a car-dependent city with all sorts of social stratifications.
  5. A lot of companies choose Houston or Dallas as their headquarters, but I think it has to do with low taxes and low real estate than anything else.  Many companies assume that they can find workers from other cities or out-of-state to work for their jobs.
  6. One thing rarely mentioned in talk about Texas is commute times. I have never seen such a high percentage of workers (in Houston and  elsewhere)  be willing to spend an hour or more commuting each way to work every day.
  7. Texas does have cheap college tuition options, but secondary schools have a great deal of inequality which almost makes that point moot.
  8. Texas does have a lot of cultural dogmatism. Remember, 76% of Texas voters voted to ban gay marriage.  It is absolutely suffocating to any educated person (even in a “liberal bastion” like Houston).
  9. Texas has a very fickle judicial system. Election of judges, “tort reform” and political influences on judges.
  10. Housing prices are relatively cheap because land is plentiful; what else is new? Significantly, the biggest political contributors to the state GOP  have been housing developers; as a result, you have homeowners without  much legal recourse in the event of disputes.
  11. One reason innovation is fairly lacking in Texas is the mediocre education system for a state its size. We have a lot of big companies move to Texas (to take advantage of cheap labor and lack of regulation and cheap land), but our startups are not as bold as in California or Massachusetts  for example. If you need some PHDs in Math or Comp Sci, Texas is not the best place to go. (Well, except here and here) On the other hand, if you need minimally educated Americans to provide phone support, Texas can’t be beat!
  12. Creative types in Texas (and especially Houston)  tend to be snapped up by  the fossil fuel sector or the military. The tragedy here is first, much of this innovation  does not transfer easily to other fields. Second,  this innovation does not really better humanity in a way that a product manufacturer or enterpreneur might. As the years go by, the stigma of working in fossil fuels will only  increase.
  13. I have mentioned it already, but Texas consumes more fossil fuels than any other state in the US. If Texas were a nation, it would be the 7th largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Electric plants in Texas (population 25 million) emit as much CO2  as electric plants in the COMBINED states of   New York, California, Florida, Massachusetts and Oregon (population: 86 million). Texas has made the decision to couple its state economy  to the carbon  consumption and generation. But  other states have decoupled their economies from carbon and still have strong growing economies. From a standpoint of risk, sticking with fossil fuels for living and for growing an economy  doesn’t seem wise in the long term.

In Houston (where I live), a large percent of the economy is dependent on the fossil fuel industry — either directly (with drilling, pipelines etc) or indirectly (IT support, financial services related to energy futures). Many of these services relate specifically to oil and gas and don’t transfer that easily to renewable energy or any other industry. Anyway, the profitability of fossil fuels in Texas eclipses the opportunities presented by renewables.  Houston tried to diversify after the oil bust in the 80s, but from what I can tell,  it just shifted away from domestic drilling to global exploration & logistics.

Here is Forbes’ list of most innovative companies  and Fortune’s ‘ Best Companies to Work for in Texas and Forbes List of  Fastest Growing Companies . I realize that not every state can have a Google or Microsoft or Facebook or Amazon, but I think it’s notable that Texas doesn’t really has an industry leader (outside of fossil fuels) which it can call its own. Rackspace and Texas Instruments and Dell are distinguished companies, and Cowen’s article mentions TinyTexasHouses (which also seems great).  With these notable exceptions, Texas is where established or rising companies go to expand.


I’m in the process of writing an ebook about music collecting. I’ll probably add some book excerpts  on my blog.  This URL will regularly be updated with new information, so feel free to check later.

Two years ago I wrote about great ways to learn about free creative commons music. Since that time, a lot has changed. Jamendo continues to grow bigger, Free Music Archive has grown larger too.

But  most people are more interested in learning about pop music by emerging artists who have risen somewhat above amateur status.  These artists agree to share  a lot of music even though this music is still copyrighted and isn’t creative commons. Often these free downloads are available only for a limited time, so once it stops being free,  you may have no choice to purchase it.  You can amass a large and wonderful collection with samplers alone (though it would be shallow).

Before I start listing things, I want to mention that most of these free sites provide links to high quality downloads. In the past, the thinking went, “we should make available low quality music samples for downloads” in the hopes that later the consumer will buy a high quality version. That strategy no longer seems to be popular, and fortunately most of the free download sites listed here are now distributing high quality audio with the correct metadata.


South by Southwest (SXSW) Music  Bit Torrent contains music tracks by bands who participated in SXSW music fest in Austin. Starting in 2005,  a 5-9 gigabyte bit torrent was released each year (Total = 45 gigabytes!) These artists explicitly allowed these tracks to be downloaded from the sxsw.com, and the torrent simply assembled everything together for permanent archiving. Torrents are released in early March of each year, generally in two parts.  Available: permanently. As of 2013, a lot of the music distributor sites are also featuring SXSW samplers –and often they include additional tracks not in the torrents.

CMJ Mixtape is a monthly download of 20+ songs from College Music Journal. The link says you need to “subscribe,” but that’s not true; all you need to do is to click the link and you should be able to download all the music in single zip file. CMJ is “College Music Journal,” a wonderful mag primarily for college radio stations. I subscribed to it in the 90s, and one highlight was the sampler CD which each issue contained. Samplers in the 90s were wonderfully eclectic and international; Mixtape seems a little more selective and possibly with an Eastern/urban bias. Available: one month only.

Live Jazz Lounge  is a blog linking to 200+ zip files of various live jazz performances.  There looks to be an average of 2-3 free releases per week, so a lot is here! These zip files are hosted on their own website, so they are likely to be available indefinitely (I think).

American Songwriter has an irregular sampler which contains more acoustic/country/folk songs by singer-songwriters.  So far, once every 6 months. Available: until the next sampler is released.  Because it’s infrequent, you should sign up for their mailing list to be notified about new samplers. Available: until the next sampler comes.

NPR’s Heavy Rotation surveys a lot of DJs and asks them to recommend some tracks each month.  Their list of recommended downloads appears in batches of 5 or 10, at the rate of once or twice a month. Unfortunately the download link is somewhat easy to miss (it’s at the bottom of the song description), and you have to download each song individually. On the plus side, NPR is more likely to get tracks by well known artists. Available: several months, or until the artist decides to make the download private again.

Denovali is a German-based online seller of electronic/ambient/jazz music.  They publish a lot of free albums and tracks including samplers. I count at least 5 full samplers of really remarkable stuff. (You can listen/download them from Soundcloud as well).  Available: indefinitely I think.

Chandos/Classical Shop sends out a monthly newsletter which offers information about a free downloadable classical music album.  Chandos is a UK label which publish a range of high quality recordings, including the always interesting  and excellent Brilliant Classics series of low-priced recordings.  Notably, these albums also include album notes. (You can buy these mp3s on amazon or emusic). Unfortunately, you need to know the newsletter URL to be able to find the download link, but they seem to stay online for about two months.  (Still working downloads can be found on an older newsletter and a newer newsletter, but I would be ready for either link to go dead at any time. )


Music Retailer Sites

Many of the online music retailers  sites provide a lot of free samplers for members. Most will be specific to one label and specific to that distributor.

Amazon has by far the greatest number of samplers, although the quality of them is not particularly high. It depends on the sampler and the label  obviously. The top free album list is here. Unfortunately there’s no way to sort by release date, so you just have to check it often. The best thing about these samplers is that it goes directly to your Cloud Player; you can opt not to download until you have figured out which songs are worth keeping. The Tunecore samplers have been good. Here’s a search for free samplers.  Look for samplers by established labels: Subpop, 4AD, Merge Records . Also, look for Tunecore samplers.and CDbaby samplers.  Tunecore (like CDBaby)  is for a lot of indie unsigned bands; quality varies, but these samplers are almost always interesting. Available: mostly permanent (with a few exceptions).  I’ve noticed that Amazon has retired some Tunecore samplers, which I hope is not  a trend.

Emusic doesn’t have as many samplers as Amazon, but the ones they have are more interesting. Often in fact, they coordinate a label’s sales with the release of a new sampler. Unfortunately it can be cumbersome and time-consuming to find these samplers. A blogpost from 2 months ago linked to their most significant samplers although it’s already out of date.  Go here first to see articles about samplers which will inevitably contain links to the downloadable samplers as well.  (Update: Here’s another search result for free albums but unfortunately about 40% of the albums actually cost money, so be careful!).  I almost always love emusic samplers. You may have to sign up for (non-free) membership to download the samplers, but it almost always is a good deal. Even if you sign up for only 1 month at $6, you can usually find deals, plus Emusic typically gives new members a $25 credit to buy new music. (Here’s a list of my latest musical finds – which are usually priced low).  Available: permanent. Note, there is also a free song of the day for members. I only started downloading these things recently, and so far it has been totally noncrappy.

Google Play has free downloads although not really free sampler albums. That of course will change as Google Play becomes a stronger distributor of music. When you first sign up for Google Play, you are allowed to download a certain number of free songs by very well known artists. When I signed up, I was able to download 800 individual preselected songs. I seem to remember that you had to download the songs individually. Google Play features freebie songs on a daily basis, but I found keeping up with this more trouble than it was worth.

Bandcamp has a number of respectable bands and lots of interesting music. Here’s a list of all their free albums by popularity  and by release date.  A fair number of these free albums are creative commons, so you might also be able to find them on jamendo and Free Music Archives. Some of the free albums require that you give them an email;  the link for the free albums also lists “pay-what-you-want”  albums, so you will inevitably have to give your credit card and make some sort of token payment.

Archiving Sites

Although I wanted this article not to be about creative commons music, (I’ve already written about that) I wanted to mention 2 special aspects of archive.org.

  • Live Music Archives list recordings of a lot of live shows by musicians. Many musicians have several concerts recorded here. A lot of these recordings are bootlegs; some are band-approved, but generally if it shows up here, that usually means that the band tolerates recording. Generally the landing page gives a list of the most recent uploads and staff picks. I confess, although I have listened to 2 or 3 concerts here, I have not even scratched the surface of what is here.
  • IUMA Archives. IUMA was one of the earliest music hosting services popular in the late 1990s and early 200s. A lot of this is hit and miss, but there are some hidden gems to be sure. Here is a list of its most downloaded and recently reviewed.

Mixing Sites

Although I’m not going to point to specific artists, Soundcloud and ReverbNation have  a tremendous amount of free downloads. Soundcloud in particular has a lot of extended  mixes — although now that I check my favorite artists, I see that items which I downloaded earlier are no longer available for free downloading.  Like Bandcamp, even if you cannot download a track for free, you usually can  stream them for free.

Freebie Tracks

I really don’t know if these music promotion sites which offer daily freebies are worth the effort. Clicking individual songs can be tedious — both on Google and Amazon. My guess is that many of these are from the bigger labels and for tracks which might be included in free albums eventually, so these freebies may not be particularly high quality. If you’re just clicking to add them to the cloud, then it’s not a problem, but how do you know whether to actually download them. Nonetheless, it’s time to start a list.

  • Songzini provides links to free 5-10 Amazon songs each day. It’s a good idea, but it’s tedious to do. Still, there’s a good mixture of well-known and unknown singers, so it might add up. But watch that hard drive space! Update: It’s still around, but it is really time-consuming to download individual songs — especially when a lot of them are in free albums you may be able to find on amazon’s search engine. Also,  Amazon emails you a receipt for EVERY SINGLE SONG so it will clog your email with receipts — yuck!) Update 2: I have finally gotten around to listening to all the random songs I downloaded using Songzini. It is terrific!  As long as you make sure that the song doesn’t come from a free album which you downloaded already, you’ll be fine. Update 3: Although the site is still up, it seems to be totally nonfunctional. Oh, well.

Quirky Music Download Blogs

By now there are quite a number of blogs which unearth lots of overlooked bands from previous years. Often the blogger will upload the digitalized content onto a file downloading site, and the site visitor can download the zip file of mp3s by clicking on a link to the third party file hosting site. These blogs are great for discovering old bands; on the other hand, 1)downloading from these places may not be exactly legal by US standards and 2)the hosting sites frequently remove content or go out of business, so the download links may stop being valid fairly quickly. The quirky download blogs generally try to share music which hasn’t yet been digitalized or that is so obscure that there’s no way people would have heard about it otherwise. A lot of these bands are simply defunct  and so it’s impossible to purchase these tracks anyway. Generally those blogs will take down the download URL if the band contacts them, and so to that extent, they follow copyright law, but I think these kinds of bloggers are more interested in rediscovering and in making compilations of overlooked tracks.  And the bands generally don’t seem to mind (if they still exist).  Hint: a lot of these blogs don’t include the download link in the blog post itself but in the comment section, so be sure to check the first comment at least.

  • Willfully Obscure is probably the best example of the quirky music blog  genre, with lots of commentary and background information about each new download. He emphasizes a lot of raw punk and garage bands from the 1980s, with occasional self-made compilations. I think this blogger probably rips his own CDs, and each week has about 2 or 3 downloads, plus a “mystery download” every Monday.  More importantly, this blog links to a lot of other quirky music download blogs on the right column.
  • I hate the 90s blog features a lot of 90s music. I confess I have not really followed it, but I wanted to mention that the left column includes links to 6 different compilation zips to download.
  • Bloggio Odio Overplay blog features a lot of unusual content. A large number are creative commons, and Katya, the woman who runs it also curates music at FMA and  runs a site collecting kid’s music. Recently she has taken an interest in classical, but she also digs up a lot of novelty music, lounge stuff and vintage European stuff.




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Houston Public Library Music RSS Feeds

Recently the Houston Public Library switched over to a new cataloguing system. One nice feature I discovered was the ability to create custom RSS feeds out of search results. So I decided to create a table of permanent RSS feeds for the music CDs for quick reference. This is a work in progress (and actually, I probably need to refine these things and add more categories). But this is good to start with. Everything is sorted by publication date from MOST RECENT to OLDEST. Publication date doesn’t refer to when it was originally published but when the purchased CD was actually produced. So the 1966 Beatles album, Revolver, might be listed as 2009 because the remastered edition was re-released in 2009.

By Language/CountryBy Time PeriodOther Criteria
Chinese Language MusicPop Music 2011-2020: N American Pop/rock, Country Music, Spanish/Latino Music, Jungman Branch Music CDs
Russian/E. European Music Excludes most classical)2001-2010: Country Music, American Pop/Rock, Soundtracks/TV/Musicals
Arabic Language Music 90s Rock MusicJazz
Music in Multiple Indian Languages (Includes soundtracks, classical)Electronic/Dance/House Music
Africa: 2011-2020, African Pop/Folk (generic)Rough Guide Music Series
New Releases

The Silliness of TV shows

I normally don’t watch TV dramas or procedurals. They are dull and predictable. I started making exceptions for supernatural sexy teen angst shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but really the entire series is silly.

I have done some binge watching of TV shows — I once watched 20 episodes of Lost in 26 hours. That show is well-executed and produced, and I really don’t mind the supernatural aspects of the show even though the flashbacks are mostly dull.  Recently I’ve started re-watching episodes of Lost — skipping through the flashbacks and taking notes on what worked well and how the show managed to be what it became.  There’s a lot to hate about the story, but for certain scenes, I just think the writers must think TV watchers are idiots.

Take this example:

Season 3 opener features a group of  scientists doing all kinds of  suspicious research (medical and otherwise)  on an island. They hear and see a jetliner heading for an inevitable crash on the island. Under these circumstances, how would the scientists react? Do they:

  • send out some of their people to the crash scene to offer assistance?
  • ignore the crash entirely and return to their  normal business?
  • Send out some of their own people to pretend to be crash victims so they can spy and report back?

If you chose option 3, congratulations! You have the limited imagination of a TV writer.

Even if you assume that these researchers from the Dharma Initiative are semi-evil or hostile or reluctant to socialize,  having them pretend to be crash victims is pretty much the dumbest thing you can do under the circumstances.  Yet it’s necessary for the plot. It makes me realize that the show I’m watching is essentially silly and manipulative and that hours of Bergman and Sembene Ousmane are still waiting to be watched.

I sometimes  enjoy escapism and shallow conflicts and characters. I just want it to make sense.

Can you imagine the same Lost show if 1)there were no guns, 2)all the main characters were uglier and older, 3)people weren’t always dying at someone else’s hand? and   4)people weren’t always trying to remove bullets with silverware or their hands? How strange that we watch such silly shows when our own lives are already packed with turmoil and frustrations. Don’t underestimate the dramatic or comic potential of our  mundane  lives.

It’s unfair to compare a book to a TV show, but being stranded on an island offers a lot of drama already. How do you find food and water? How do you handle health and hygiene? How do you not get depressed or bored? How do you use your creativity or ingenuity to fix things and come up with stopgap solutions? That is exciting stuff– and that’s why Robinson Crusoe was such a great read.

Contrast that with Lost where you have to throw in  evil scientists, psychotic killers, imaginary predators, time travel and the fact that everyone is boinking everyone else as indiscriminately as a porn film.

Later, I  will try to explain the things about Lost which actually work well. For now though, let’s marvel at how gullible most TV shows think we are.