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kottke.org posts about Cory Doctorow

Why do we forget most of what we read and watch?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2018

Do you remember the plots of books you read and movies you watch, even months later? I rarely do, so Julie Beck’s piece Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read really hit me square in the forehead this morning (even though I will likely forget having read it next week). Why do we forget all of this stuff we’re constantly consuming? Part of the reason is that we don’t need to:

In the internet age, recall memory — the ability to spontaneously call information up in your mind — has become less necessary. It’s still good for bar trivia, or remembering your to-do list, but largely, Horvath says, what’s called recognition memory is more important. “So long as you know where that information is at and how to access it, then you don’t really need to recall it,” he says.

Research has shown that the internet functions as a sort of externalized memory. “When people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself,” as one study puts it.

One of the earliest articulations of the internet’s value in aiding memory was Cory Doctorow’s piece about how Boing Boing had become his “outboard brain”.

The upshot is that operating Boing Boing has not only given me a central repository of all of the fruits of my labors in the information fields, but it also has increased the volume and quality of the yield. I know more, find more, and understand better than I ever have, all because of Boing Boing.

The nuggets I’ve mined are at my instant disposal. I can use Blogger’s search interface to retrieve the stories I’ve posted with just a few keywords. While prepping a speech, writing a column, or working on a story, I will usually work with a browser window open to Blogger’s “Edit Your Blog” screen, cursor tabbed into the search field. I flip back and forth between my browser and my editor, entering a few keywords and instantly retrieving the details of some salient point — it’s my personal knowledge management system, annotated and augmented by my readers.

So hopefully by reading Beck’s piece critically and then writing about it here, I will be able to both remember it a little more on my own and also have placed it somewhere I can easily find again.

One of the relatively few kottke.org posts I remember without having to hunt around for it (which is ironic, considering) is this one about Dick Cavett and compartmentalized memory. Cavett had a really hard time remembering who his guests were on past shows.

A worried Johnny Carson once admitted to me that he frequently couldn’t remember what was said on a show he had just finished taping. And, sometimes, who the guests were. It’s a strange thing, and one I haven’t quite figured out.

Johnny all but wiped his brow when I told him it happened to me too, and that a few days earlier I got home and it took me a good 10 minutes to be able to report with whom I had just done 90 minutes. (It was only Lucille Ball!) It’s an oddity peculiar to the live performer’s divided brain that needs exploring. It has to do with the fact that you — and the “you” that performs — are not identical.

It’s the same with me, as I replied in that post:

If you were to ask me tonight what I’d posted to kottke.org today, I doubt I could tell you more than one or two items (out of the seven to nine items I post during a typical day). When I see friends outside of work, they sometimes remark on stuff I’ve posted recently and it usually takes me a few moments to remember what it is they’re referring to.

Rereading Cavett’s mention of “the live performer’s divided brain” got me thinking about how the way I produce kottke.org every day and lately how it feels more like a performance. I talked about this a little in that interview with NiemanLab:

The blog is half publication and half performance art, because when I wake up in the morning I usually have no idea what I’m going to write about. There’s no editorial calendar or anything. I go online and I see what’s there, I pick some stuff, and I do it, and at the end of the day, I’m done. I come up with a publication on the fly as a sort of performance.

So to sum up…The Aristocrats! (Wait, what were we talking about? I can’t remember…)

A list of 25 Principles of Adult Behavior by John Perry Barlow

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 08, 2018

Silicon Valley visionary John Perry Barlow died last night at the age of 70. When he was 30, the EFF founder (and sometime Grateful Dead lyricist) drew up a list of what he called Principles of Adult Behavior. They are:

1. Be patient. No matter what.
2. Don’t badmouth: Assign responsibility, never blame. Say nothing behind another’s back you’d be unwilling to say, in exactly the same tone and language, to his face.
3. Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.
4. Expand your sense of the possible.
5. Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.
6. Expect no more of anyone than you yourself can deliver.
7. Tolerate ambiguity.
8. Laugh at yourself frequently.
9. Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right.
10. Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.
11. Give up blood sports.
12. Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Do not endanger it frivolously. And never endanger the life of another.
13. Never lie to anyone for any reason. (Lies of omission are sometimes exempt.)
14. Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.
15. Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.
16. Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun.
17. Praise at least as often as you disparage.
18. Never let your errors pass without admission.
19. Become less suspicious of joy.
20. Understand humility.
21. Forgive.
22. Foster dignity.
23. Live memorably.
24. Love yourself.
25. Endure.

Here’s what these principles meant to Barlow:

I don’t expect the perfect attainment of these principles. However, I post them as a standard for my conduct as an adult. Should any of my friends or colleagues catch me violating one of them, bust me.

You can read remembrances of Barlow from the EFF and from his friends Cory Doctorow and Steven Levy. The EFF’s Executive Director Cindy Cohn wrote:

Barlow was sometimes held up as a straw man for a kind of naive techno-utopianism that believed that the Internet could solve all of humanity’s problems without causing any more. As someone who spent the past 27 years working with him at EFF, I can say that nothing could be further from the truth. Barlow knew that new technology could create and empower evil as much as it could create and empower good. He made a conscious decision to focus on the latter: “I knew it’s also true that a good way to invent the future is to predict it. So I predicted Utopia, hoping to give Liberty a running start before the laws of Moore and Metcalfe delivered up what Ed Snowden now correctly calls ‘turn-key totalitarianism.’”

Barlow’s lasting legacy is that he devoted his life to making the Internet into “a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth … a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”

Update: I’ve amended the list slightly from when I first posted it to match more closely an email sent by Barlow to friends on his 60th birthday.

The tension between creativity and productivity

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 09, 2017

Cory Doctorow was an early adopter of the lifehacking lifestyle and toolkit, including David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done.

Allen’s book is a fantastic and inspiring read. The core of his philosophy is to recognize that there are more things in the world that you want to do than you could do, and that, in the absence of a deliberate approach to this conundrum, you are likely to default to doing things that are easy to scratch off your to-do list, which are also the most trivial. After a lifetime of this, you’ll have accomplished a lot of very little.

Allen counsels deliberate, mindful prioritization of this list, jettisoning things on the basis that they are less satisfying or important than the other things you’d like to do - even if those other things are harder, more time consuming and less likely to result in a satisfying chance to scratch an item off the list.

After living and working this way for more than a decade, Doctorow reports that there’s a conflict between the optimization of your time via getting things done and the sort of experimental playtime you often need to do creative work.

The corollary of this is that it gets much, much harder to winnow out activities over time. Anything I remove from the Jenga stack of my day disturbs the whole tower.

And that means that undertaking new things, speculative things that have no proven value to any of the domains where I work (let alone all of them) has gotten progressively harder, even as I’ve grown more productive. Optimization is a form of calcification.

Quinn Norton wrote an essay called Against Productivity in which she moves to Puerto Rico to focus on working productively but ends up goofing off and discovering a new career & life path in the process.

I visited with new friends, and tooled around on the net (albeit always at 2G speeds). I watched rain fall. I cooked. I considered the shape of the buildings a lot, and looked after cats periodically. I walked to old forts and lookouts. At one point I took pictures of doors for no reason I could discern. I berated myself for being unproductive, for wasting this precious time I’d set aside to put my professional life together. I spent hours anxious to craft my time to be quantitatively better for writing. Then it all collapsed, and the only habit I fell into was depressive empty afternoons when I was alone with the cats and the rain. But I also, and wholly by accident, thought the thoughts that would take my career and life in a new and unimagined direction.

I was chatting with a friend on the phone today about a talk we’re doing together in a couple weeks and she brought up the same issue, unprompted. She’s a naturally productive person who finds herself with some free time, yet she’s finding it difficult to not stay busy, even though she knows she needs the mind-wandering time to replenish her creative reserves. I struggle with the same thing. I get more done in less time than I ever have, but sometimes I feel like there’s nothing creative about my work anymore. Sure, I make the doughnuts every day but am not inventing the cronut. How do you accomplish your work but also leave ample time for letting your creative mind off the leash?

The business of dumpster diving

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 03, 2009

Cory Doctorow profiles dumpster diver Darren Atkinson for Forbes magazine. Atkinson is as diligent, methodical, and dedicated as any successful businessman.

This is Canada, right? So there’s plenty of nights when it’s snowing so hard that you can barely see, nights that you might want to stay home instead of going out to work,” he says. “But those are exactly the kind of nights where someone might just set something out beside the loading dock, instead of putting it into the compactor. Those are the nights where you make the big score. I’ve tried to apprentice people, but they never want to do it like I do, methodically, avoiding left turns and red lights, logging what you found in each dumpster and not wasting time on the ones that are never any good, going out when the weather stinks.

Cory Doctorow interview

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 11, 2008

Long but entertaining and informative interview with Cory Doctorow.

One of the things I’ve noticed about writing every day is that there are days when writing that page feels like flying. Like the hand of God reached down and touched my keyboard, and every word is just pure gold. And then there are days that I feel I’m writing absolute, totally forgettable junk that shouldn’t have been committed to phosphors, let alone saved to disc. The thing is, a month later, you can’t tell the difference. The difference between a day when it feels like you’re writing brilliantly and a day when it feels like you’re writing terribly is entirely in your head, it’s not in the prose.

Blogger book battle

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 29, 2008

Two new books by bloggers out today: Heather Armstrong’s first book, a compilation called Things I Learned About My Dad, and Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a book on “techno-geek rebellion” for teens. At the moment, Dooce is winning the battle at Amazon; Little Brother’s sales rank is #501 while Things I Learned is a startling #38.

Cory Doctorow

posted by Joel Turnipseed   Nov 04, 2007

I can’t think of anyone better suited to answering questions about the state of culture in the Age of the Blog than Cory Doctorow. Whether it’s running Boing Boing, writing (and giving away—while still profiting from—his novels and short-story collections), or speaking out for our electronic rights, Cory is a ubiquitous presence on every vector of this discussion. I caught up with him by phone at his London flat.

JT: Let’s talk about the ‘Pixel-Stained Technopeasantry’ discussion in the sci-fi community this summer. I thought it was sort of ironic that someone like Hendrix—a sci-fi writer— would resign over the use of technology—

CD: He didn’t resign: He just didn’t run again.

JT: —Or just didn’t run again. OK, so that was just his parting shot? There was another line he used, too—what was it? Webscabs. What’s the deal with giving away your stuff for free?

CD: There are three reasons why it makes sense to give away books online. The first is that publishing has always been in this kind of churn and flux—who gets published, how they get paid, what the economic structure is of the publishers, where the publishers are, all of that stuff has changed all of the time. And it’s just hubris that makes us think that this particular change—the computer change—is the one that’s going to destroy publishing and that it must be prevented at all costs. We’ll adapt. If we need to adapt, we’ll adapt. And today, the way that we adapt is by giving away e-books and selling p-books.

So that’s the economic reason. But then there is the artistic reason: we live in a century in which copying is only going to get easier. It’s the 21st century, there’s not going to be a year in which it’s harder to copy than this year; there’s not going to be a day in which it’s harder to copy than this day; from now on. Right? If copying gets harder, it’s because of a nuclear holocaust. There’s nothing else that’s going to make copying harder from now on. And so, if your business model and your aesthetic effect in your literature and your work is intended not to be copied, you’re fundamentally not making art for the 21st century. It might be quaint, it might be interesting, but it’s not particularly contemporary to produce art that demands these constraints from a bygone era. You might as well be writing 15-hour Ring Cycle knock-offs and hoping that they’ll be performed at the local opera. I mean, yes, there’s a tiny market for that, but it’s hardly what you’d call contemporary art.

So that’s the artistic reason. Finally, there’s the ethical reason. And the ethical reason is that the alternative is that we chide, criminalize, sue, damn our readers for doing what readers have always done, which is sharing books they love—only now they’re doing it electronically. You know, there’s no solution that arises from telling people to stop using computers in the way that computers were intended to be used. They’re copying machines. So telling the audience for art, telling 70 million American file-sharers that they’re all crooks, and none of them have the right to due process, none of them have the right to privacy, we need to wire-tap all of them, we need to shut down their network connections without notice in order to preserve the anti-copying business model: that’s a deeply unethical position. It puts us in a world in which we are criminalizing average people for participating in their culture.

JT: What was it that the philosopher J. L. Austin said? “Things are getting meta and meta all the time.” Almost of necessity, because if you don’t have meta-level discussions and filters (and we have MetaFilter), bloggers like kottke and boing boing—in academia I’m going to Arts & Letters Daily and Crooked Timber—you’d never be able to fire through all the cool things to which we now have access. By making use of a small number of editorial nodes, we can cover lot more of the network. But it’s more interesting than simple efficiencies, isn’t it? I interviewed Douglas Wolk earlier this week and he said something pretty profound: “Each blogger is a gravitational center, great or small, but there’s no sun they’re all orbiting around.” Yochai Benkler, too, with his idea of the bow-tie model, talks about how, because of shallow paths and the small world effects of the Internet, this idea that there are these multiple centers of gravity mean it’s not like there’s one giant “culture” that’s omnipresent, along which there’s this Power Law distribution that drowns everything out. Instead, there are tons of these smaller gravitational centers, each with their own orbits; each with their own authors, interests, inclinations to reach outward and bring other things in… it pretty well vanquishes certain notions of centrality, the cry that says, “Holy shit: I’m not in
The New York Times! Nobody in our culture will ever find me!” That’s nonsense. You can have an audience of millions, maybe none of whom have ever read The New York Times.

CD: You just recapitulated in reverse the panic of Andrew Keen. What Andrew Keen has got his pants in such a ferocious knot about is that we are losing our “culture.” Basically, if you unpack his arguments they come down to this: He thinks The New York Times did a pretty good job of figuring out what was good and he doesn’t like the idea that they’re not the only way of doing it and that it’s getting harder to figure out who to listen to and media literacy is getting harder and that means bad stuff is going to become important and that wouldn’t have happened if only the wise, bearded, white-robed figures at The New York Times had been allowed to continue to dominate our culture. That’s really where he’s coming from at the end of the day.

JT: In fairness to the Times, they not only pay well, but they do a good job of reaching out—to their guest-bloggers, for instance. The Guardian does, too.

CD: Yes, they do and they do. But as a writer, actually having all these different venues in which my work can appear has actually turned out to be better and not worse. So for one thing, the free online distribution of my work has created new opportunities—it’s like dandelion seeds blowing around that find all the cracks in the sidewalk that I never would have been able to find just by walking around and planting them. One of my favorite reprints was one I sold to a magazine who’d found the text in the word-salad at the bottom of a spam e-mail. So even the spammers are helping me.

JT: That’s really funny. In another interview I did, the one with Ted Genoways, he said something that I hope a lot of people pick up on, because I think it’s incredibly important to this discussion. What Ted said was that, after doing their big South America in the 21st Century issue—for which they got a lot of good press: authors on NPR, segments on PBS—they got a small amount of traffic from mainstream media. But then Jason posted a small link and they got 25,000 visits that week from kottke.org.

CD: I think the most important thing about that anecdote isn’t the amount of influence that kottke.org wields, although that’s an interesting component of it, but how cheap it is to become kottke.org—to maintain Kottke Enterprises, Ltd. It’s so cheap it’s the rounding error in the coffee budget of the smallest department of one of the main publishing conglomerates. That’s all it costs Jason to run his website.

Boing Boing, and I’m not just talking cash costs—but also organizational costs, the Coasian costs, of doing this are so low. Boing Boing, for the first five years, we never had a physical meeting. We had never all been in the same room until we had been in business for five years. We had 25 phone calls in the entire history of the business.

So, a lot of bloggers can wield tremendous influence, and become disruptive forces in the media marketplace, very cheaply. If you have someone who’s enthusiastic and compelling and that person is very close to the purchase decision—you know, it probably drops off with the square of the distance, right? So you can have a person like Oprah, who’s so compelling that the fact that she’s extremely distant from a book she’s pitching is not wildly important, because she sends such a strong signal that even though it attenuates quickly that signal is still very strong. Who was the President who popularized the James Bond novels? Kennedy? He mentioned it and he turned James Bond into a phenomenon. The corollary of this is that a weak signal heard close in is also an extremely powerful way to sell books. So, we’ve historically relied on strong signals at great distances, but the other way to do this is weak signals close in. And we have new ways to get close: with things like Amazon links, the signals don’t have to be very strong at all.

This is also an essential component of the value of the free electronic copy. The microcosm for that is “here’s a free electronic copy… talk about it in IRC with two other people.” And that gets you the same thing. You don’t even have to send out a physical review copy & those people, if they like your book, will start sending the book to their friends.

JT: It all sounds good—but let me go on record as, in the broadest range of things, a middling copyright defender. But I loved Tim Wu’s piece in Slate. Did you read that? On how selective enforcement of copyright shows just how broken copyright law is? But—let’s get to the complications of sending out free work. If somebody started passing off your work as their own, you would not be happy.

CD: I went to elementary school with Tim. It’s a small and funny world that the two of us would end up as Lessig’s proteges. But to your question: that’s not copyright, that’s fraud. That’s plagiarism.

JT: OK, if a publisher started selling a book written by “Frank Smith,” but that contained only your words—isn’t that a danger to giving your stuff away electronically, for free?

CD: So, let’s pick the issues right. Let’s first of all say that fraud or plagiarism is bad for a number of different reasons—not all of them having to do with the writer, some of them having to do with the reader. Readers deserve to know that the thing that they buy has been accurately labeled. I also wouldn’t approve if someone sold Coke in a Pepsi can. Not because I particularly like either beverage, but I think fraud is wrong. So that’s the first question. The second question is, “How would I feel if a corporation misappropriated the fruits of my labor and profited by it without my permission?” And that’s a meatier question, but when you conflate the two you just confuse the issue.

I guess it depends on the kind of profit and how they’re profiting by it. So, I don’t get upset if a carpenter sells a bookcase to someone and makes money because that person needs somewhere to put my book. Even though that carpenter is benefiting from my labor. So I think reasonable people can agree that there are categories of use that you have no right to recoup from. And I think that, for example, search results fall into that category. You know, the fact that Amazon or Google want to show quotes from your book alongside search results for people who are trying to find out which books contain which string, I think it’s just crazy to say that you deserve to be compensated for that—even if they could figure out a way to make money off of it. Indexing books is just not in the realm of things that we deserve to get compensated for, any more than library lending is.

And I know that in Europe they do have a library right, and you actually do get compensated for library use. I actually think that’s kind of gross. I don’t think that’s good public policy. If we want to subsidize writers with public money, don’t take it out of the budget of the library. What a disaster for public policy, for good stewardship, to take money out the hands of the public libraries. What a disaster that writers have actually endorsed this plan.

So that leaves us with a narrower category of uses, which are the uses that are neither cultural nor in the realm of accepted, normal, reasonable exceptions to one’s copyright: where it’s a direct infringement and there I do in fact object to a commercial publisher reproducing my work without giving me money for it, holus-bolus, in a way that is not consistent with fair use and historical exceptions to copyright.

But that’s not the same thing as objecting when a reader does it. I think that we’ve always had a different set of rules for what non-commercial actors do than for what commercial actors do. What commercial users of a work do is industrial—that’s copyright; what non-commercial users of a work do is just culture, and culture and copyright have never had the same rules, although according to the law books they do. But the costs of enforcing them culturally—against the person who sings in the shower—those enforcement costs are so high that historically we’ve treated that activity as though it weren’t an infringement, when in some meaningful sense it is. So, the fact that the Internet makes it possible to enforce against certain cultural users I don’t think means that we should enforce against cultural users, or start pretending that schoolchildren should be taught copyright so they can understand it better and not violate it. If things that schoolchildren do in the course of being schoolchildren violate copyright, the problem is with copyright—not with the schoolchildren.

Cory posted a nice review of Julian

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 17, 2006

Cory posted a nice review of Julian Dibbell’s Play Money. I loved the book as well and Cory’s review captures what’s so compelling about it. It’s a shame that it didn’t gain a wider readership (and a less unfortunate cover as well)…it’s not just some nerdy book about g@m3rz.

More on the Apple Ubuntu switch

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 05, 2006

Now that the Mac/Ubuntu switch story has made it around the horn and back again (thanks for the non-link, Slashdot!), I want to clarify slightly what I meant by my assertion that Apple should be worried about “two lifelong Mac fans switching away from Macs to PCs running Ubuntu Linux” and that “nerds are a small demographic, but they can also be the canary in the coal mine with stuff like this”.

Mark and Cory’s switching is not going to send large numbers of Mac users scurrying for Ubuntu, no matter how well respected they are in a small community. Two is not a trend. But it may cause people to briefly consider that 1) the Apple experience isn’t all that it could be, and 2) if you want a potentially similar experience, there’s a non-Microsoft option available to you. And once that seed is planted, well, you know where that metaphor is going. (I’m also aware of a few other people who are pondering the same shift independently of Mark and Cory.)

In the late 90s/early 00s, Apple got their act in gear with OS X and their iMacs, Powerbooks, G5s, and iBooks. People who cared deeply about their computing experience (you know, computer nerds) took notice of Apple’s rededication to producing great products, switched to Macs, and thereafter the Macintosh gradually became a genuinely credible option for programmers, web builders, graphic designers, journalists, students, and grandmothers. Not cause and effect, but the so-called alpha geeks noticed something happening and reacted before everyone else did. So when you have two people who care deeply about their computer experience and who were dedicated Apple users for non-superficial reasons switch entirely away from Apple for equally non-superficial reasons, it may be wise for Apple and the rest of us to take notice that they did so and, more importantly, why.

If I were Apple, I’d be worried

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 29, 2006

If I were Apple, I’d be worried about this. Two lifelong Mac fans are switching away from Macs to PCs running Ubuntu Linux: first it was Mark Pilgrim and now Cory Doctorow. Nerds are a small demographic, but they can also be the canary in the coal mine with stuff like this.

Update: Tim O’Reilly muses on the Ubuntu switchings.

Cory is leaving the EFF (at least

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 01, 2006

Cory is leaving the EFF (at least on a full-time basis; he’ll still be an EFF Fellow) to be a full-time writer (Boing Boing, novels, short stories, etc.). Good luck!

Cory Doctorow to Apple Computer: put Trusted

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2005

Cory Doctorow to Apple Computer: put Trusted Computing in your kernel and I’m done as your customer. This doesn’t look promising. You’ve got a good thing going here, Apple…don’t fuck it up.

Cory Doctorow’s new book, Someone Comes to

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 20, 2005

Cory Doctorow’s new book, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, is out today. As usual, the book is available for download under a Creative Commons license.

Cory Doctorow discovers bliss in Mexican drinking chocolate

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 09, 2005

Cory Doctorow discovers bliss in Mexican drinking chocolate. Having had food experiences like this, I can relate to the feeling.

The stupid and ridiculous Broadcast Flag was

posted by Jason Kottke   May 09, 2005

The stupid and ridiculous Broadcast Flag was struck down in US Appeals Court on Friday. Congratulations to the EFF and Cory on this victory.