The Curse of Storage

The Curse of Storage

Our ever-growing collections of information and objects can lead to thoroughly modern crises that echo the past. Commentary by Momus.

I’ve been thinking about the parallel between object storage and information storage — apartments and computers — ever since visiting an interesting exhibition at London’s Barbican last month.

Future City looks at experiment and utopia in architecture over the last 50 years. I was particularly impressed by a quote from Japanese metabolist architect Kiyonori Kikutake. “A Japanese room is determined by information,” Kikutake was quoted as saying, “whereas a Western room relies on objects.”

I thought immediately of Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s photographs of Tokyo apartments. These tiny places (I lived in one myself for a year) tend to consist of an empty living space — typically a tatami-covered floor — surrounded by densely packed information-storage systems.

The information “saved” to these spaces might be clothes, records, knickknacks, magazines, toys — the obsessively collected, meticulously arranged, somewhat pointless “hard copy” of countless shopping trips. The tatami-and-futon floor space, meanwhile, is where processing happens.

There, the room’s occupant does his living, eating, loving, sleeping, thinking. This is the room’s RAM, its processor, where the present moment is all. Here the timeline of human attention scans through a book, a manga, a magazine or website, one page at a time.

Never one to pass up an opportunity to think of my lifestyle as Japanese rather than Western, I decided there and then to create a “Japanese” apartment in Berlin, a place devoted to information and the storage of information. My new apartment, after all, was on the small side. I’d have to resort to Japanese tricks and a Japanese sensibility to make it work. I had in mind not just Tsuzuki’s photographs of stashed Tokyo pads, but also a lovely book I have (it’s in a box somewhere) of photographs of Japanese writers’ rooms.
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Blockwriter +

Blockwriter +

Alternate title: How to turn your computer into a manual typewriter. 

As we all know, the surfeit of distractions available on a personal computer these days can make it exceedingly easy to get nothing done. There’s the constant haranguing of emails, the intrusions of instant messaging, and the endless nagging of countless other attention-hungry applications and utilities.

In looking for ways to defuse this, I noticed a few years ago that some serious writers, at least in the early drafting stages of their work, were turning to manual typewriters as a method of sidestepping all of those distractions. It’s a great solution: what better way to thwart a computer than to step away from it completely? There’s no email to check on a typewriter, no beeps and pop-up reminders from other applications, and no access whatsoever to the Internet and its tantalizing abundance of productivity-killing diversions.

What’s more, a manual typewriter is a powerful antidote to authorial dawdling, that propensity to continually re-edit a sentence or a paragraph — thereby imparting the feeling of working without really working — instead of continuing to write new sentences or paragraphs instead. Unlike word processors or even the simplest text editors, manual typewriters don’t allow you to easily re-edit, insert and revise a sentence once it’s been committed to paper. This makes for an entirely different writing experience: the ideas come first, and the act of finessing them, of word-smithing, comes after all the ideas have been set to paper.

Why Hardware When Software Will Do?

At some point, it occurred to me that it really shouldn’t be necessary to purchase another piece of hardware to accomplish the same things that writers look to manual typewriters for: the ability to focus without distractions, and the ability to work in a mode that disallows excessive editing and encourages continued writing.

Neither of those things are beyond the capability of software, so why not just write software that does those things? I almost don’t have to write any more in this blog post and most readers will get the entirety of my concept: build an application that functions almost exactly like a typewriter.

For lack of a more marketable name, I call it Blockwriter. And because I’m no programmer and I’ll never get around to learning enough Cocoa skills to build Blockwriter for myself, I figured I’d just do what I know: throw together some mock-ups of the user interface to get my ideas across.

Draft Only

Of course, Blockwriter is intended only as a drafting tool, as it’s clearly impractical for the vast majority of text editing and word processing. To quickly knock out a rough version of any piece of writing that requires concentration and complexity, from a lengthy blog post to an article or even to a full-blown book manuscript, it’s the perfect tool. It provides a very narrow feature set that keeps you on task, along with one-touch methods of shutting out the rest of the system. And it’s a lot less bulky than a typewriter.

Alas, Blockwriter itself is only a draft. As I said, I haven’t nearly enough programming talent to make it happen. But I had a good time putting together the interface — more and more Web sites are referred to as “software” these days, but designing a desktop application is an entirely different experience, even a faux one like this. So the hour or two I put into Blockwriter was an interesting foray into a different kind of design. What resulted isn’t perfect, clearly, but maybe someone will find some of these ideas interesting enough to build it for real. I can’t imagine it would be particularly hard for anyone who’s comfortable with Cocoa.

Blogging like it’s 1999

Blogging like it’s 1999

I get ideas that are paragraph length. #

I don’t want to try to save them in Facebook. #

They don’t fit in Twitter.#

But each of these systems has a certain gravity, they pull ideas into them. #

Can my ideas have an existence outside of Twitter and Facebook?#

My blog had more features, worked better for me, in 1999. #

In the last ten years I’ve had to pull features out of my blogging system, instead of making it better, it lost functionality.#

So in a way, my “better blogging system” would just be what I already had working 15 years ago.#

I keep remembering that, between Google Reader and its limits (items must have titles), and Twitter with its limits (only 140 chars, no titles, one link, no styling), same with Facebook (no links or styling) that my online writing has diminished dramatically, conforming to the contradictory limits of each of these systems. #

I keep working on this, still am. Every day. :) #

How to Promote Startups (Aaron Swartz’s Raw Thought)

How to Promote Startups (Aaron Swartz’s Raw Thought)

When people talk about how government can promote startups, there seems to be a fairly standard consensus: we need more economic inequality. Lower income and capital gains taxes provide more incentive to work, looser labor laws make it easier to fire non-performers, and large private wealth funds provide investment capital.

But having been through a startup myself, I think there’s much more you can do in the other direction: decreasing economic inequality. People love starting companies. You get to be your own boss, work on something you love, do something new and exciting, and get lots of attention. As Daniel Brook points out in The Trap, 28% of Americans have considered starting their own business. And yet only 7% actually do.

What holds them back? The lack of a social safety net.


Thanks to Daniel Brook’s book The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America for suggesting this line of argument and providing the statistics.

Mindful Tech | Tricycle

Mindful Tech | Tricycle

You’re used to watching your breath on the cushion, but what about when you’re cleaning out your inbox?

In his new book, Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives, David M. Levy offers lessons in single- and multi-tasking when engaging with technology and encourages readers to visually record themselves while checking email to gauge their physical reactions. Get your important emails delivered to a Slack channel Get your important emails delivered to a Slack channel

Useful for someone like me: sends your important emails to a private Slack channel.

Slogan: We send your important* emails to a private Slack™ channel. So you can stop constantly checking your inbox

This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics: Sean Hall

This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics: Sean Hall: 9781856697354: Books –

Semiotics is the theory of signs, and reading signs is a part of everyday life: from road signs that point to a destination, to smoke that warns of fire, to the symbols buried within art and literature. Semiotic theory can, however, appear mysterious and impenetrable. This introductory book decodes that mystery using visual examples instead of abstract theory.

This new edition features an expanded introduction that carefully and clearly presents the world of semiotics before leading into the book’s 76 sections of key semiotic concepts. Each short section begins with a single image or sign, accompanied by a question inviting us to interpret what we are seeing. Turning the page, we can compare our response with the theory behind the sign, and in this way, actively engage in creative thinking.

A fascinating read, this book provides practical examples of how meaning is made in contemporary culture.