Independent Bookstores and Patronage Possibilities

Memberships, subscriptions, and experiments in unbundling the value of bookstores.

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I came across a Twitter thread recently about the brutal economics of independent bookstores, and it prompted me to consider some possibilities for making the bookstore business more sustainable.

I ended up with some thoughts about how bookstores might experiment with memberships, subscriptions, and patronage; I’ve edited and expanded those thoughts here.

A huge issue that all bookstores have to contend with is that a book’s cover price actually has to account for much more than just the cost of the book itself. And this disproportionately affects smaller, independent stores. Amazon, for example, can mostly ignore these extra costs; books are basically loss leaders plus they have obscene efficiency from scale, strong-arm negotiation, and treating workers like trash. But for indie bookstores, various forms of overhead like rent, salaries, hosting events — these have substantial costs!

On the flip side, when you buy a book on Amazon, all you get is a book. When you spend money with your local bookstore, a large part of each sale goes back to benefit the community. This additional value comes directly and indirectly in many ways. But it can be hard for the consumer to tease apart these benefits from the book they could have easily gotten, a bit cheaper, elsewhere.

One idea for booksellers: identify these specific para-book benefits, and sell them separately.

There are likely many ways this could work, but the main one I have in mind is to offer monthly / annual membership for patrons in the local community.

Booksellers already often employ a number of additional ways to generate revenue, e.g. frequent buyers clubs, events, cafes and bars. I love all those things, but the thing I’d also like to see is for bookstores to go a step further and — a la indie podcasts or arts nonprofits — solicit direct patronage.

I can think of a half dozen local bookstores where I’d gladly pay something like $100 / year to support their existence and ongoing contributions to the community. Maybe more, if my membership included other benefits like events and discounts.

Not all a given store’s regular customers would take this next step to become financial patrons. But would enough do so to make a meaningful difference in revenue? I like to think so!

Right now we’re experiencing kind of a moment for memberships / subscriptions, from entertainment unbundling, to niche membership sites (e.g. with Memberful), to paid newsletters (e.g. with Substack). While I’ve seen some talk of “subscription fatigue”, to be honest I think we’re nowhere near peak subscription.

This sort of model — subscription-based memberships — can often be an ideal model for both creators and consumers. It gives businesses / creators sustainable, predictable revenue. And consumers get to more directly support the things they care about. Stability, and stronger ongoing relationships, are of course a plus for both sides of the equation.

I like how Buster Benson put it: “unbundling a bookstore’s community presence” and related services from the actual book sales. This doesn’t mean a bookstores would opt out of the business of selling books entirely — though the question of whether this might be feasible is an interesting thought experiment — but it does mean making more clear what the separate activities of a bookstore are and how we as consumers or patrons might value them.

Some specific membership possibilities include:

  • Monthly / annual subscription options
  • Various pricing tiers; possibly using a “pay what you want” model
  • Combining the above with an annual membership drive (see: indie podcast fundraisers e.g. Maximum Fun, along the public radio model)

And some possibilities for various rewards / member benefits:

  • Regular discounts on books, events, cafe items, etc.
  • Special exclusive events or book clubs
  • Exclusive swag (prints, books, apparel, mugs, bookmarks)

For bookstores that do a lot of events, Withfriends is an awesome platform that combines event ticketing with membership support. Many arts and music spaces are adopting this; it seems to offer a great hybrid of one-off ticket sales with patronage-based recurring revenue.

For powering a subscription-driven membership model, there are numerous options, ranging in complexity from Patreon (popular all-in-one platform) to ways of integrating on your own site via tools like Memberful, WooCommerce, and many others.

Thanks to Joe Ahern for pointing me to one great example of an Oakland bookstore, E. M. Wolfman, already adopting a membership model:

If Wolfman is important to your life and you believe in what we are doing and you want to host or attend more free events and more pop-ups and see more publications and weird music shows once in a while and film screenings and classes and literally a zillion other things, we now have an easy way for you to help make all that happen!

Wolfman Books was funded in the beginning through bookstore sales. Yet, as we have grown from a one-person DIY space, selling mostly used books, into a non-profit publisher and community arts hub, we need our funding to grow, too, and could use as much dependable, community support as we can get—even if it’s just a small monthly amount.

For $3, $5, $10, or $15 a month, you can help us host all of our free events, publish and pay our contributors, and sustain vital community art space for all of us to continue gathering and creating! It’s really simple to sign up and works as an automatic monthly charge you can cancel at any time.

I just signed up; I hope you consider supporting as well.

I would love to see more bookstores — and other community / learning / creativity oriented businesses and orgs — experimenting with this kind of thing. I’m sure there are others using this model I’m not yet aware of; if you know of any please let me know!

Personally, one thing I’d love to try is a sort of pop-up book showroom for Antilibraries, where I’d curate an extremely good selection of books, and visitors would pay (perhaps by donation) for the experience of browsing and discovery.

I imagine this as a kind of biblio-speakeasy, niche gallery space — or a bookstore where every single book in the store is a “staff pick” with description card. Actual purchases would be optional, or maybe not even possible from me directly.

This would definitely be a small scale experiment, and not necessarily a viable business, but still something I’d like to try. I think there are many other possible bookstore experiments it would be cool to see, for example an online/offline hybrid model combining local book space with niche online book club community.

Bookstore folks: if this sounds interesting but you’re unsure about some of the specifics, I am happy to chat about how this kind of thing might work. Or, if you’ve tried this or considered but seems like not a good model for you, I’d love to hear more about that, too. Let’s talk!

Join the discussion here:

Repos Beyond Code: A Collection of Creative Uses of GitHub

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One of my secret hobbies is following all manner of cool GitHub repositories. My chops as a developer are limited, but it’s always fun to learn about new technologies and poke around the READMEs to get a sense of how various apps, libraries, utilities, toolkits, and side projects are used.

GitHub is mostly used for projects based on code, so it’s these that make up the large majority of the projects I’ve starred.

But I’m particularly interested in how GitHub, and its underlying protocol Git (about which more below) can be used for things that are not based in code. So for a while I’ve been maintaining a separate list of fascinating projects on GitHub — to date over 60 repos across a wide variety of topics and forms.

I’m calling this collection Repos Beyond Code — right now it primarily lives on, and you can find the whole thing embedded below.

While GitHub is a proprietary platform, it’s built around the open-source software tool “Git”, which has become the de facto standard for version control. If you’re not a developer: version control software is what enables things like tracking line by line differences in text files, collaborating with a team and resolving conflicts when multiple people are editing a document at the same time, and restoring earlier versions of files when needed (if a recent change caused a bug, for example).

It’s one of the main mechanisms used for collaborative, tracked creation and sharing of text — specifically and most often code, but in practice (and potential)…almost anything! And I think the fact that Git is almost always used in the context of writing code makes it all the more exciting to see uses that break that mold and demonstrate its wider applicability.

Some of my favorite use cases, to name a few I see repeatedly:

  • Would-be-blog-posts
  • Resource lists
  • Guides and handbooks
  • Documentation (of code or otherwise)
  • Books and zines
  • Curricula and syllabi
  • Reading lists
  • Open data sets

Why do I find these projects so interesting? And why does the fact they’re found on GitHub contribute to that?

Part of it is a fascination with the diverse ways we can use technology to both create and share. First, it’s interesting to see how version control software and “working in public” can enhance the processes of writing, editing, and collaborating, helping to bring about all kinds of interesting work. And second, I love how the ethos of open source and the tools (like Git) that power it can extend the ways such work is shared, archived, branched, remixed, and made all the more valuable by being both publicly accessibly and malleable.

Here are a few of my favorites from the collection so far:

If you like opening lots of new browser tabs a little bit I’d start with the links above. If you like opening new browser tabs a lot, go ahead and click each item below!

























































































































































Learning Patterns, or Lenses

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Some initial ideas for “learning patterns” — building blocks that might be components of great learning experiences. After, of course, A Pattern Language.

As in APL, these patterns could operate on a few different levels, organized perhaps by scale or context. They encompass lenses for thinking about interactions with subject matter, communities of learning, the contexts or settings within which that learning happens, and more. (This concept drawn from The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses.) They aren’t yet organized in any particular way, but I have an inkling they could be.

Patterns, lenses — however you want to think of these ideas listed below, they’re fragments, food for thought, unassuming but, I hope, full of potential energy for unlocking different ways of thinking.

Patterns / Lenses for Learning:

  • Rich, provocative texts
  • Directed inquiry / reading
  • Group of learners with shared goal(s)
  • Self-contained learning group
  • Network of learning groups
  • Loose institutional affiliations
  • Bibliographic edges; expanding library
  • Mixture of reading and conversation
  • Vague prompts (productive ambiguity)
  • Knowledge and question sharing
  • Alternating cycles of intake and output
  • Application of learning to projects; experimentation
  • Fractal perspective(s) on a subject
  • Acute awareness of the adjacent possible
  • Available structures of accountability
  • Malleable superstructures
  • Respectful conflict / debate
  • Adjustable cadences
  • Flexible note-taking mechanisms
  • Storehouse for the distillation and maturation of ideas
  • Evolving terrain of learning paths
  • Optionality in attentional direction
  • Time and space for deep work
  • Information hyperliteracy
  • Emergent leadership
  • Multitiered commitment levels
  • Porous subject boundaries
  • Temporary and / or local constraints
  • Cooperative exchange
  • Diversity of opinion
  • Periodic crystallization
  • Infinite access (unbounded resource pool)
  • Clarifying limits
  • Focal points for learning efforts
  • Variegated textures (of people, topics, goals, questions, answers…)

Do I Have a Book Buying Habit?

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Do I have a book buying habit? I like to think not; I like to think that I have discerning taste, that I buy books carefully, I like to think I mainly only buy books that I really want, valuable books, with enduring wisdom or captivating narratives or ideas eminently relevant to my personal growth — books that shall, of course, prove to be formative to my personal and intellectual development.

Yet this can’t entirely be the case, because I’m near incapable of entering a bookstore and leaving it without at least one acquisition, or five, or a dozen, often of books that I hadn’t heard of previously, ones that I didn’t even know I wanted until I saw them, gave them a a cursory look, and decided they must be mine. Despite my best intentions this process doesn’t always leave room for measured, informed decisions.

Sure, when I find a book that looks interested I’ll look it over as closely as I possibly can in a minute or two. I’ll skim it, turn it inside out, even (LTE reception-god willing) look it up on Amazon to try to glean the gist of the appraisal of the crowd-mind. This gives me only vague reviews and partial summaries, of questionable trustworthiness, but anything helps, really. I look for excuses to disqualify a book, to let a 3.5 star average rating banish the book to my wish list rather than the stack I bring to the register.

I have an “Antilibrary” list that I maintain (in some self-vexing redundancy) both on Amazon and in some corner of my personal computer. This list is my super wish list,  the cream of the crop,  a separate one made principally for triaging the endless other book lists I’ve collected over the years. My antilibrary is an important extension of my extant book collection: my reading list of infinite potentiality, my repository of still-to-be-absorbed ideas. It contains many hundreds of books.

If antilibrary-worthiness were the only thing that informed the trajectories of my purchases, I’d be more resolute in buying only those books I’d already researched and determined were most important to me at any given time. But it’s not quite that simple. Being in bookstores — I mean really physically getting in there and immersing yourself in the aisles, scanning the shelves and skimming the spines, pulling out the ones that catch the eye, reading blurbs and rifling through pages — changes the calculus on all that.

One of the most important things that the bookstore-browsing experience adds for me is, of course, the element of serendipity that comes from being surrounded by thousands of books that are as yet unheard of, and at once at my grasp. I can coast along the collections that others have curated, simmer in surprise amongst all the obscure and exciting books that Amazon’s algorithms would never dare shove in front of my face because, let’s face it, they just don’t know me that well.

I try to remain sanguine about the potential complications of amassing a huge library; I’d like to do my best to forecast the consequences and take steps to mitigate any problems. With a prudent investment strategy, by 35 I expect to have enough money to house my books lavishly. And with concerted efforts in self-improvement I expect to have the will to winnow my collection to only the absolute best. I’ll give the rest away, returning them to the eternal lifecycle of the absolute godhead book.

One tiny problem here of course is that the category of “absolute best” is not only amorphous and subjective, but unfathomable and ever-growing, too. I could muster all the willpower and curatorial prowess in the world and still find myself with an insurmountable mountain of reading material, upon which I could feast and gorge for a hundred lifetimes and still not eat my fill.

But hey, what can you do? My working solution is to approach each bookstore I enter with both reverence and appetite — house of worship and candy shop all at once. I enter with anticipation, and expect to find gold, but also try to temper my desires and be reasonable in what I allow myself to take home. I savor the experience of browsing and of discovery, and try not to let that magic be ruined by excess zeal. For any book left un-bought…there’s always the antilibrary!

Also, I try to keep in mind the fact that, just based on simple math, I’ll never read more than a few thousand more books over the remainder of my life, and so I must choose well. But still, 50+ books a year, for many decades to come — a few thousand is a large number, and one filled with potential. Those books contain multitudes. As a vessel slowly filling with words and ideas and time spent digesting them, I am, relatively speaking, still a good deal more than half empty. Thus the book-lover’s byword: may I filter well the word-water that pours in, absorb and treasure it, let it enliven my head and heart, repair my health, and if I’m lucky make me eternal.

An after-drizzle; an echo rain.

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An after-drizzle; an echo rain.

The droplets return for another pass, rebound off the front that preceded, slingshot back through space and time. We were fooled, by the gap the pause the sunshine smile, then snapped back through the gauntlet, double-wet, showered again, submitted for the second time that day to the pummel of the sky.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’m merely setting the scene, priming you with a sly sketch of the weather patterns circumscribing the main action of this story. But this is it; this is the story, the action.

These weather patterns — these deja vu drizzles, these persistent storms — these are our protagonists.

The above, an opening to (perhaps) a piece of speculative fiction about the climatology of conscious entities, patterns in which some sort of emergent intelligence has been noticed in the ways that winds and rains attack the world.

Perhaps they are malevolent, or perhaps they’re just playful, curious, provocateurs, testing how they can affect our reactions. They probe the hyperobjects of human activity; trace the micro-patterns our movements etch into the environment, our negotiations of landscape, shifting hour-by-minute, our habits of resource use, our adaptations to the environment.

Until now we’ve maintained the illusion that it’s been us, more than anything, shaping the environment. That and time and chance; nothing with a will of its own. Until now…

Species of Spaces for Work, Learning, and Collaboration

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There are so many different organizational models for how people form communities of work, learning, and creative collaboration. What are the most interesting and innovative? I’d like to take a partial stab at a tentative taxonomy, considering models ranging from hacker school, to guild, to science lab, and more.

This combines several of my interests: the future of work, creative networks, systems thinking, emergent behavior, community-building, innovation. I’m not really approaching this as a serious research project, but rather a way to think in a bit more depth about how work happens, in hopes I might glean some lessons I can use in pushing forward my own work and community activities.

I’m particularly interested in the less common ones; those that go beyond the traditional “product team” or “classroom”, for example, and perhaps haven’t been studied as much. The following are some of the first such community models that came to mind. I have a feeling there are many more we can learn from…

Hacker school: Tons of these have popped up over the past few years. They surely vary quite a bit in quality, but the best of them do seem to provide valuable education in practical skills, in a powerful collaborative setting. I’m interested in this sort of elective, focused learning within a specific discipline. Obviously tech skills are in demand; most such programs focus on training web developers…but I can imagine all sorts of areas where a similar structure could be interesting. I think this sort of learning space may be most effective when it combines both structure and freedom to explore; both individual work and opportunities for collaboration.

Dojo: I’m interested in looking further into learning environments centered around physical activity and education. This could involve places where students learn from direct physical participation (motor skills; embodied learning; for example a piano conservatory or a wood shop) and acquire tacit knowledge, learning in an experiential and highly contextual process. I think it could be fascinating to draw lessons from the social dynamics and modes of communal learning in areas where physical and mental learning merge; everything from dance to fine crafts to yoga to athletics.

Coworking space: This one’s of course closely related to tectonic shifts in how many kinds of work are organized, with many people transitioning from offices and steady employment to independent work taking place in a sort of liminal zone. Such work spaces offer the resources of an office, plus a community; access to like minds. These spaces can provide structure, and serve as a sort of regular, grounding space, which may balance the sometimes-terrifying freedom of totally self-directed work activity. Shared studios, usually with just a few people rather than dozens or hundreds, can offer something similar — greater community than a home office, but much more intimate than a giant bland shared office space. New environments for knowledge work are growing increasingly important; it will be interesting to see what else emerges…

Guild: This is related to some of what I mentioned above re: crafts, physical / embodied learning, but with the added dimension of some sort of more explicit form of training or mentorship. Traditionally guilds imply physical trades or crafts, but I think the meaning has expanded to include other professions e.g. authors. I’d like to examine the history of guilds and apprenticeships; explore the sort of relationship that can develop between teacher and student in an educational setting that blends work and school.

Science lab: Collaborative inquiry is awesome, and this is basically a lab’s primary purpose. In a lab, everyone is working towards some common goal, as opposed to something like a coworking space where people are co-located but mainly still work individually. This doesn’t have to be limited to science labs, though that’s perhaps the easiest to visualize — I’m sure similar forms of activity can be found in all sorts research organizations, whether in industry, academia, or government. In some ways this sort of work structure may closely resemble that of guilds, but I think with a guild there’s more collaboration in the training process, less so once one’s mastery is established. And I bet there are also a lot of interesting differences in how labs function in diverse fields or departments.

Professional kitchen: This is another example of a situation where you have a team working together at a high level. It’s collaborative work that’s both physical and mental; work that depends on order and teamwork and experience. I’ve only seen professional kitchens in action on TV, but it seems like it requires incredible focus and coordination. Other similar examples might include sports teams, dance troupes, orchestras… I’m thinking of any team of elite professionals working to create something for others (often ephemeral, physical, or both) as differentiated from e.g. an academic lab where goals have more to do with solving problems and producing knowledge. These are my own distinctions, but even if they’re tenuous or hazy I think it’s interesting to consider possible differences in things like motivation and output and types of collaboration across the sorts of work people do together.

Online community: This may be a bit different from the others but I imagine that e.g. the “Twittersphere” can be measured in some sense as a real space, and the shape of this space has important ramifications for how we not only exchange information, but actually collaborate in all sorts of ways, across various industries, interest groups, niche communities, and other cross-sections of the broader world of Internet users. Some of these networks are more private (Facebook friends; Slack colleagues) and some are more public (Twitter followers; fellow forum participants), which inevitably shapes how discourse happens and how groups are formed and evolve on these platforms. There are many other degrees or axes of variance which I’m sure also have great impact on the sorts of communities that emerge; this is a huge area, definitely worth exploring and taxonomizing further.

Libraries for Everything

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What interesting things could use a library? What needs some sort of dedicated repository — whether online, in a book or museum or other space, for an audience large or small? What needs to be collected and treasured and shared? Might these libraries be crowdsourced, Kickstarted, collectively created, intensely personal…perhaps something else entirely?

One thing I’ve thought about quite a bit is extending the idea of the “pattern language” to other domains — for example, patterns of everyday thought and action, or specific patterns for learning activity. This could be applied to other cool things too. To take a general example, it’s common to see pattern languages for design and technology, for example Google’s “Material Design” language.

Part of the fun here is in coming up with something just unique and specific enough that it hasn’t been done already, but not so obscure that it isn’t actually useful! I’m not sure if a “pattern language for storytelling” would fall into the category of too commonplace or overdone, but it could be a lot of fun to play with, trying to extend with innovative ideas for narrative creation, even new forms of writing.

Perhaps a library actually shouldn’t aim at being comprehensive. It can sometimes be overwhelming to try to create an encyclopedic record of any possible thing in a given category; instead, it can feel both more approachable and more personal to collect only those most important and powerful examples, models or archetypes for others in their orbit.

The very nature of creating a library is an inevitable and continuous process of curation that must reconcile infinite potential with finite constraints. That’s both the whole point, and part of the fun, because there are so many viewpoints and systems and particular modes of curation that can be applied — the very process of definition and rule-creation and the iterative act of curation according to those rules is what causes a library to take shape.

One project I have in the back of my mind concerns nonlinear narratives and the different ways these can be conceived of and constructed. I think it would be fun to describe — and / or propose — various patterns of narrative construction. I’m interested particularly in varieties of temporal form, in cataloging simple forms from which more complex things can be created — kind of an inventory of pieces, of the miraculous discrete automata that story structures have the potential to be, in the right hands.

Another interesting type of library: those of physical objects. This can seem mundane, if we think of simply a collection of objects e.g. “here’s my collection of cool rocks I found on the beach!” — to take a specific example from my own collection tendencies.

How does such a collection — that pile of rocks, or anything really — come to acquire the aura or status of “library”? What imbues it with any sort of greater structure or meaning? Why does it matter; why should anyone care?

Maybe it doesn’t matter; maybe you shouldn’t care. Most collections may simply reflect some human predilection for accumulating things, for seeking beauty and order. This often doesn’t take the form of some grand pursuit, but certain things can make this endeavor more interesting.

For instance, we can layer another dimension of meaning atop the objects themselves. Take, for example, the process of object-based storytelling — inventing narratives or fictional contexts, imagined histories and creative detours spawned from observing certain physical realities of interesting objects. It’s a process of using those objects as sources or seeds for something greater, for some kind of more potent creative act.

So, my pile of rocks may not be a library — but when I use these rocks as fuel for a creative writing project, I can consider the rock themselves as a shorthand, obfuscated card catalog or reference key to the invisible, imagined library of vignettes which they inspire. This writing project I’m alluding to is simple on its surface, but I think actually pretty powerful — it provides an interface between the physical and imaginative worlds I co-inhabit every day.

Some other interesting nontraditional library projects that come to mind:

The Long Now project and its various associated collections, from its Manual for Civilization, assembling a foundational reading list, knowledge necessary for rebuilding the modern world; to its Rosetta Project, working to build a comprehensive digital library of human languages…

Libraries of seeds and species and DNA sequences, literally cataloging the stuff of life, collecting and preserving such materials for study and safekeeping…

Software libraries — ways to collect and reuse code, increase the modularity and efficiency of programs, save people from having to reinvent the wheel…

There are of course all sorts of fascinating libraries, collecting all manner of important cultural artifacts, so many it would be impossible to list them all! In some sense, perhaps, all museums are libraries. Maybe any collection with an open, public orientation, whose contents are meant to be shared, deserves that designation. I’m no expert, but I like to think I know a great library when I see one. Even trying to assemble a list of favorites…well, that’s a project for another day.

Writing as Meditation and Pressure-Release Valve

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One from the archives! It’s always fun to revisit old drafts and surprise myself with the weird stuff I wrote way back when. Some is just weird; some I still enjoy quite a bit! I like the blend of free-associative rhyme and musings on writing-as-meditative act here…

Should I disentangle the angle or embrace the entangled bangles, clang and mangle the fangs that rankle and rage and shake the shackles that crackle and enact a bashful pact to pack a basket of rapid or rash irrational apertures that capture apps and apples through camera slats and hapless jackals?

Sometimes I think of writing as a pressure valve or gauge or energy release, a sort of button I can press, a pillow I can punch or scream into or run circles around like a manic child, when I feel myself coursing with directionless energy or filled with a vague and mild yet festering sense of panic.

I pace and push pushups and spin around and dispense a kiss or shoulder rub, sit and stand and sit again, refill my water bottle, break off a square of chocolate, read an article or six; finally then I open a browser tab, head where I need to go, start placing words down in, as Annie Dillard says, a line.

Sometimes I feel like I’m thinking too slow; sometimes I feel like I’m thinking too quickly, or that my thoughts are just adrift, a jumble, strewn about one too far from the others, from the rest, reaching tentacles toward me and toward its siblings, hoping to bring the family back together, back home, make sense of it all. It works, and then it doesn’t.

I can’t always determine or describe or detail or derail or depict or disburse or dispense denouement or detente or direct or divide or derive or devise, but I can try. It’s always within my power to try.

I see that my above paragraphs sum to three hundred words, and I think of the movie of the same name, I think of the Beyoncé album-closer coursing through my closed-ear phones, I look at my water bottle and I ponder the direction of this sentence, hesitating and correcting typos, and wonder how my mind can be in so many places at once.

Or, no, that’s not entirely accurate — how it can be in so many places in such rapid succession, how it can make leaps through space and elide time and jump through wormholes at warp speed, performing perform impossible feats, entangling particles, when human teleportation is still a distant dream.

Do you like doodles of poodles? How about oodles of doodles of poodles? With the whole kit and caboodle, the mood’ll improve a little, ooze and elude the Rubik’s cube denuding rubes and prudes, the feudal feud’ll do the deed and move the luminous ludicrous carousing dudes, scoot the soot and foot by foot let loose the flue and deduce the prudent move, remove from view a few jejune jujubes.

Can the act of writing be also the process of meditation?

I think that it can be, that it clearly, obviously can be, so perhaps that is not the question.

The question is, how can it be, and why should that be attempted, what can we do to make it a successful attempt at restoring order and harmony of the mental kind?

I think that writing can be used in many ways; it greatly depends on the intent of the writer going into the writing session. Coming to it with a very concrete prompt or idea in mind, it can feel like work, albeit an easier and more productive variety than if one enters the fray empty and grasping; but going into the writing act with a conscious emptiness, a desire to fill it but in a natural and instinctual way, now that I think is where this may start to arrive at the border of the therapeutic.

This is mostly a private act, or rather a private process because it is not one act at all but a state of mind or being or consciousness; as with meditation, this sort of writing that I’m thinking of is a space you inhabit, an orientation of mind, a disengagement and also at the same time a reengagement, but an engagement not with any fixed or concrete specific thing — there is no “must” in this process, no “goal” to achieve — but rather with the right sort of frame; your goal is to turn yourself around, stop your body from spinning, face again that direction which makes you most comfortable, points you toward home. It’s about allowing distraction to recede, about calming down, letting your fingers dance a bit, an abstract modern dance punctuated by subtle gesture, a dance in a small corner of your writing space, your room, your home, your block, your world, one which goes unobserved.

The observation, that’s your job, to sit back and turn inward, mirror-ward, repose and align your eyes and typing and even your breath to the movement of your thoughts, to consider what you’re doing and what you’re writing about, but not too much, to filter but only a little, only enough to keep out the garbage, the noise, and leave room for the grace notes to filter through.

Can this act — yes, this process, this meditation — be effective as a public one as well? I intuit that it can, in certain situations, though I’m not quite sure what those might entail. I think it must not be performative, but communal and generative and collective, propelled not from one individual to the next, but by the group as a whole; I think it would work best as a practice amongst a small group of people already close, unafraid of one another.

That seems a low threshold, to be unafraid of someone, but it isn’t really. I’m afraid of everybody, at least some of the time. But that fear can be lifted, for moments or even majorities of one’s personal experience of time.

Books that Have Influenced My Thinking

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A list of favorite books, particularly ones that have had a long-term impact on how I think about or interact with the world.

Sparked by this discussion on books that have influenced your mental models. Plenty more good suggestions there, but I’m partial to my own list! Really this is basically just a brief overview of my favorite books of all time, the ones that have left the most lasting impression.

Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert

Clock of the Long Now, by Stewart Brand

  • For the concepts of deep time and the long now; appreciating a sense of how we experience time and our place in history
  • See also: Time and the Art of Living

Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott

  • Creative parable that’s very helpful for conceptualizing abstract concepts of topology and higher dimensions

Thinking in Systems, A Primer, by Donella Meadows

  • Great introduction to systems thinking, which is a useful lens for appreciating the complexity of all sorts of complex phenomena

A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander

Oulipo – A Primer of Potential Literature

  • Nice introduction to the Oulipo and ideas of constraint as creative / poetic device
  • See also: Exercises in Style; Eunoia

Impro, by Keith Johnstone

  • Great primer on improvisation, really made me appreciate its impacts beyond just the theater, for example the importance of status in social relations

The Power Broker, by Robert Caro

  • Unbeatably rich and compelling look at how power and politics actually work, for better (power gets things done) and for worse (power blinds and corrupts)

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

  • Beautiful, meticulously observed study of the natural world close at hand; made me appreciate the power of looking deeply and persistently

Le Ton beau de Marot, by Douglas Hofstadter

  • Remarkable exploration of language and translation, in all its magic and complexity…both deeply personal and deeply researched, a must-read for lovers of language
  • See also: 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

The Library at Night, by Alberto Manguel

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

  • For really hammering home the grand, powerful potential of great literature and well-wrought language
  • See also: Don Quixote; Infinite Jest

The Pleasures of the Pangram

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Have you ever tried coming up with a really great pangram? It’s surprisingly difficult!

A pangram — aka a ‘holoalphabetic sentence” (thanks Wikipedia!) — is simple to define; fiendish to devise. It’s a sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet at least once.

You’ve probably heard one particularly infamous pangram: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

This is apocryphally used to test typewriters or something. There now doesn’t seem to be much practical use, but of course that’s not the point. The pangram presents a challenge: how concise a sentence can you craft? How clever a turn of phrase can you fold into such a slim sentence? It’s at once minimalist and maximalist, a perfect little puzzle for language lovers.

Wikipedia tells me that, of course, “pangrams exist in every alphabet-based language.” I’ve only looked up English ones, but I’d be interested to see how the flavor of the exercise changes across language context. For non-alphabet based languages…what might be an interesting equivalent?

There’s a great tool here to easily validate a pangram and check its character count:

The above-mentioned pangrammatic classic clocks in at just 33 letters.

The coolest pangram I’ve come across is more impressive both in letter count and language:

“Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow.” — packing a wallop of dark fury in just 29 letters.

Of course the shortest possible “perfect” pangram, at least in English, would be exactly 26 characters. As per the examples on the above page, most pangrams that short use obscure words and are semi- (or entirely) nonsensical, which definitely steals some of the appeal.

I spent some time a while ago coming up with pangrams, just for fun. I’m happy with a few, as far as phrasing goes, but I fell woefully short on the rubric of concision. My shortest was initially 48 characters, most were 50- or 60-something. Just now I came up with a slightly shorter one…next time will aim for sub-40!

Here are mine, in ascending length order:

  • Piquant flavors mix: garlic, a dab of jam, key—what zest! (43 characters)
  • Liquid zit juice spurts all over my big waxy face — thank God! (48 characters)
  • Mine champion of world, exquisite major key, zero go above you (50 characters)
  • Bejeweled ghoulish ax murderers victimize fake phantom query (53 characters)
  • Quiz my dear aunt Viv about foreign risk, she’ll wax philosophic joy (55 characters)
  • Hark! What excellent vim and zest — badge of perfection, quotient of my joy (59 characters)
  • The Pequod rocked; the jib swung the ship’s axis; a zephyr leveled foamy sea (60 characters)
  • Zany Ahab cried: “Fuck mate, that ginormous whale vexes me, jump in, kill it quick!” (63 characters)

Want to try your hand at making one? Let me know what you come up with!

Appendix — additional interesting pangram resources:

Secret Secrets of the Pomodoro: What They Don’t Want You to Know About Getting Things Done.

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Everyone knows that just by splitting your tasks into focused 25-minute increments, and like listing them out with proper prioritization, and fixing bum in chair daily — such is the simple key to knocking the wind out of your to-do list and achieving your dreams.

But what you may not know is that behind the veil of effortless productivity lie five hidden secrets…

I donned my investigative journalism hat and went undercover. I did it for your sake. This is what I found.

Secret #1

Here’s how Pomodoros actually work.

When you do the first one, you won’t achieve really anything worthwhile.

The next five or twenty, you’ll feel a vague sense of progress but still, you won’t, say, finish anything important.

After maybe a year or so, long after you’ve forgotten what the hell a Pomodoro is anyway, you’ll look back — and it will suddenly make sense. You’ll see that you have indeed actually Gotten Things Done.

Secret #2

Speaking of Getting Things Done, or GTD, not to be confused with GTL, there’s a secret to that as well.

That secret is: to do lists exist as a way to offload all the dumb crap that you’re just never ever fucking going to do.

Here’s how that works: add around one million items to your to do list.

Then, never do them at all.

Every day when you’re all like “hey I wonder what should I do?!” you should do the following: just think for a minute about what seems important and then do that thing.

Maybe every so often you’ll slip up and do a thing on your to do list. That’s okay. Just ignore or delete the rest, at least a 10:1 ratio of not-doing:doing. This will ensure that you stay mentally fresh and physically spry.

Secret #3

If anyone asks you to do something, first consider whether you give a shit really at all.

If you do, cool, take five and do the thing, unless it’s annoyingly complex or tedious, in which case, hmmm…can you get someone else to do it, or make the progenitor of the task just kind of forget about it completely after a week or two?

If you give no shits whatsoever, stay silent. If anyone hassles you, forward them your new “email policy” about how you have a doctor’s note precluding you from reading or writing more than five words at a time, or some such.

Secret #4

Really and truly, the only way to ever get anything done at all is to use the doing of one thing as the means of procrastination for the other thing.

Even then, results not guaranteed! But, if you have enough things to switch between, given enough time, you’ll start to accidentally make progress on all of them. This will feel like magic and let me tell you, it kind of is.

The more fun ones will progress fastest, which of course is as it should be.

Secret #5

Every so often, say every 20 minutes give or take, you’ll have to take a short break to run over to the mini basketball hoop attached to your bathroom door and shoot a few shots.

And by a few, I mean somewhere in the vicinity of 10 to 400 shots on that mini basketball hoop.

This is to clear your mind, and all that. Seriously, it’s one of the best meditation techniques around. Don’t take my word for it, go on and try it out!

(The mini basketball hoop you’re looking for is this one.)

And that’s really all there is to it.

Reading Notes: The Dynamic Library

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Here are my reading notes for an interesting book I just finished reading, all about libraries and the organization of knowledge:

The Dynamic Library: Organizing Knowledge at the Sitterwerk — Precendents and Possibilities

Quick overview from the book’s blurb:

THE DYNAMIC LIBRARY presents essays in translation from an interdisciplinary symposium on the classification and organization of knowledge held at Sitterwerk, St.Gallen, in 2011. Home to over 25,000 volumes on art, architecture, design, and photography, the Sitterwerk’s Kunstbibliothek (Art Library) began with the bequest of book collector and connoisseur Daniel Rohner (1948- 2007). The question of how to systematically organize this idiosyncratic collection into a publicly accessible library was a fundamental concern, and a solution was found in a dynamic system of organization powered by RFID technology, which relies on digital tracking. The essays gathered in THE DYNAMIC LIBRARY contextualize the Sitterwerk’s associative classification system amid artistic and historical systems of order, while pointing to future methods for incorporating subjectivity and serendipity into the organization of knowledge.

Below, find my notes, with varying degrees of detail and coherence (owing to: I read this book piecemeal over a few months). Lots of cool stuff here!

Section 1: Classification Systems

Introduction + The Backstory of the Art Library (p. 6)

  • Retaining an open, dynamic organizational system
  • Retaining collector’s vision
  • Allowing for serendipitous discoveries
  • New tech: RFID tags, custom database, device to record locations
  • Inventory updated daily = dynamic, flexible order, adaptive to users
  • Physical tables to display and save thematic groupings
  • Daniel Rohner: uncompromising vision, immense reservoir of associative knowledge, immersed himself in other worlds and universes
    • Part of an institution’s importance comes from its library
    • Results of table-based search can be stored digitally, as well as printed into a physical booklet (bibliozines!)
  • Knowledge systems depend on individual points of view
  • Classification systems are “knowledge directing”
  • Order is not always very fruitful
  • How can you find out what you don’t yet know? Can encyclopedias / libraries encourage users to ask more complex questions? 

Organizing Knowledge (p. 35)

  • [No notes / TK]

Appendix: A Selection of Organizing Principles Used in Early Encyclopedias (p. 41)

  • Each include a) target user + context, and b) cost-benefit analysis…
  • From general to specific (taxonomic order / tree)
  • According to “nobility”
  • As curriculum or syllabus
  • According to the six days of creation
  • According to the catechism
  • Alphabetical order
  • Slices of life (maintains context / interrelationships…)

Library Organization Systems (p. 48)

  • Form manageable open-access to catalogs / call numbers
  • Emergence of storage spaces designed specifically for books, organized by a combination of formal + subject criteria…
  • Open stacks vs. open shelves
  • Universal classification systems (simplicity; synergy)
  • “Our supposedly clear orders of knowledge…are untenable in practice.” (51)
  • Alternative possibilities for serendipity via tech, search, etc.

New Orders of Knowledge Around 1900 (p. 53)

  • From bound catalogs → card catalogs
  • Importance of uniformity / standardization
  • 1910-11 Bührer published 177 pg. manifesto!
  • “Monograph principle”, calling for maximal modularity…keep information combinable
  • Bookbinders as enemies of information mobility?
  • Precursor to Vannevar Bush’s famous 1945 essay “As We May Think”

Section 2: Art

Intro (p. 57)

  • “Archives…are not only places of storage, they are also places of classification production, where systems of organization are devised.” (61)
  •  Staub archive: linguistic focus, but beyond text, lots of images!
  • Leibniz as influential role model in terms of “creative combinations”…e.g. hypothesis of “Theater of Nature and Art” (62-3), prioritizing *intuition*…inspired Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer concepts…
  • Personal archives…cyclical; intentional growth
  • Reading, writing, thinking → discovering, recording, looking
  • Example: Aby Warburg…atlas + library…diffusion
  • Artists + archives…e.g. Hans Witschi…rules / principles…
  • Archive vs. museum…predetermined vs. co-created; added vaue…
  • “Syntax of the past”…variety of systems? (65)

Aby Warburg’s Library and Picture Atlas (p. 67)

  • A “Denkraum” (“space for thought”), private institution, open to the public
  • “Mnemosyne” = his picture atlas, including image “families”
  • “Asynchronous orientation tools” (!!)
  • Words + images “produce a kind of interstitial polarity…”
  • “Human memory works through montage…”
  • Book as “energy storage device” (p. 69)
  • Infinitely generative “semantic fields” and configurations, correspondences…
  • Felix Eberty + 1848 idea of “earth-sky” light ray archive…

Handbook History (Hans Witschi) (p. 72)

  • “Passive diary” based on collecting NYT articles…
  • Eventually leading to…focus on hands – thousands! lots of categories…
  • New online version:;

Notes on the Cataloging of Vienna’s Imperial Library (p. 87)

  • Massive 1780 recataloging effort…
  • LOL @ scholarly debate re: subject-based cataloging!

Section 3: New Orders of Knowledge

New Orders of Knowledge (p. 93)

  • “Traditional book structures and classification systems shape the way we think. We’re rarely aware of it, but to a great extent linearity and hierarchy determine how we see the world.”
  • “Even if alphabetized order seems like the most natural thing in the world, it really is just one tool among many.”
  • “The vast majority of our classification systems are strongly influenced by the physical world…But now, for the first time, the new infrastructure of digital technology almost poses a paradigm shift on us…we believe this will lead to fundamental changes in our ideas, how we organize things, and our sense of knowledge itself.”
  • “In a digital system, content can be displayed simultaneously in a variety of contexts. As a result, such content assumes multiple identities…each user finds their own subjective guides through the system…”
  • [Example] – “The visual language of images has a way of tolerating and preserving contradictions that are otherwise smashed to pieces by spoken or written language”
  • Four tools (or “rules”) exploring content relationships; screen vs. paper:
    • Trails – Firefox extension to “render visible the traces of their reading processes”…transfer image and text into printable booklets [NB – kind of like Print Arena!]
    • Maps – platform that allows users to collaboratively present information on a map
    • SchplitZing – “four fields in which volumes of content can be scrolled through”…contextual…
    • Lines – programming environment and writing interface based on the act of annotation…column-based…
    • These all = works not as finished tools, but basis for discussion!
  • Sitterwerk workshop in 2011…brainstorming various scenarios for the library and material archive…
    • How to bridge the gap between the two?
    • Idea of “The Daniel-Type of Librarian”…dissonance; space for new stories; shifts in perspective
  • Fruitfulness of ongoing exchange between opposing systems…conceptual dialogue

RFID: Applications and Implications: A Foundation for the Internet of Things (p. 103)

  • Huge impact on tracking, logistics…labor, behavior, convenience…and now libraries!
  • RFID applications at Sitterwerk:
    • All books and library materials are identified using RFID – taking inventory not just every few months, but all the time
  • Useful not only for inventory and search, but to compile and document *groups* of books and materials…proliferation of bibliographies!
    • And available more widely; via the Internet
  • RFID “merely a background technology” but with huge impact

Design Research and “Mode 2” Knowledge Production (p. 108)

  • Design research…examines whether and how design practices might act as independent modes of knowledge production…
  • Questions like: can the “genius of knowledge” be stimulated by creative techniques?
  • The requirement for knowledge in design and design research are inextricably linked to analysis of their materials, media, aesthetic and technological conditions, and socioeconomic contexts of use.
  • Knowledge always takes material forms… (see: Later + Actor-Network Theory…) > “immutable mobiles” = material carriers of knowledge that ultimately improve its distribution
  • Complex epistemic structure – no longer just form and function but creative practices, objects, tools, institutions, and designers themselves… > “knowledge constructing machinery”
  • No longer individual creative genius but “heterogeneous engineering”
  • Notion of a “design turn” – cultural research shifting from purely theoretical, analytical, historical approach > focus on *practice*
  • Design as playing a key role in interdisciplinary approaches shared by humanities, natural sciences, and engineering…
  • Research as a branch of design, not the other way around…
  • “Mode 2” knowledge production (vs. Mode 1 which = traditional academic knowledge production)…is carried out in the broader “context of application”, in trans- or interdisciplinary ways…
    • [NB – see: the “antidisciplinarathon” model by Katherine Ye and others!]
    • From the mid-’90s book “The New Production of Knowledge”
  • Knowledge as a “socially negotiated and distributed good”
  • Paradox: knowledge dealing more closely with social issues…but also increasing commercialization