The 300-year history of using ‘literally’ figuratively

Kory Stamper:

The emphatic “literally” is not a millennial invention; it goes back to the 1700s at least, though Smith gets it right that it’s English. John Dryden, a man who is best known as the founder of literary criticism and the prohibition against the terminal preposition, was an early user of the emphatic “literally.” Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Vladimir Nabokov, and David Foster Wallace all used the emphatic “literally” in their works. Even Lindley Murray, 19th-century grammarian, uses the hyperbolic “literally” in his own grammar — and he was such a peever that he thought children, along with animals, shouldn’t be referred to with the pronoun “who,” as “who” conveys personhood, and only creatures with the ability to be rational are actually people.

Routes to the map room

My friend Patrick:

This is a nice idea for a book: a collection of ghost stories specially commissioned by English Heritage, each inspired by one of their properties. One could wonder why they approached these writers specifically rather than those who specialise in horror or weird fiction. But it makes for an eye-catching package, I think, though it never quite shakes that sense of being a slightly rushed exercise, as if it were the product of a jolly weekend seminar in a draughty manor, somewhere at the far end of a long driveway.

A mixed bag, it seems, but enough good stuff in there that I’m looking forward to reading this.

3 ways to get at your Kindle highlights

I’m reading more on my Kindle these days. This is for many reasons, not least of which is that it is difficult to manoeuvre both a hefty hardback and a ballooning baby at the same time. I can just about handle the Kindle instead.

I wasn’t always an inveterate note-taker—notably during my school days when it would have helped enormously—but I’m trying to get into the habit. Previously, when reading my Kindle, for too long I was passively highlighting passages of books I read, unlikely to come back to them, or if I did, unlikely to understand why I highlighted it or what that ? meant—disagreement? lack of understanding? a once-pertinent question for the author?

As it happens, Alan Jacobs wrote about this in the excellent The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction:

The more heavily you annotate a text—the more questions you ask and comments you venture—the more often you disrupt the continuity of reading.

Writing out the whole of your question is better than just flinging a question mark onto the page, because doing the former takes more time—it gets you out of the flow of mere passive reception—and because it forces you to articulate the precise nature of your vexation. A mere question mark could indicate confusion, disagreement, a feeling of lacking information—any one of a dozen things. When you write out your question you render the discomfort exactly.

So by reading actively—that is, highlighting and marking up and taking extra notes and asking questions—you disrupt the continuity of reading more often, the more thought goes into it, and the more likely you are to digest and remember what you have read. So I’m doing it more often.

Still, we can’t all remember everything, no matter how actively we read.

Here are 3 tools you can use to export and resurface your Kindle notes and highlights. They all work by accessing your page. In increasing order of power and complexity:

1. Bookcision

The bookmarklet yields a single page of cleanly styled highlights, which can then be copied to one’s clipboard and pasted into a local text repository (OneNote, Evernote, DevonThink, etc.)

Chrome users will additionally be offered the ability to dowload the highlights in plain text, JSON, or XML formats.

2. Readwise

A browser extension that syncs your highlights and sends you a regular email resurfacing them. I use and like this a lot! (They’ve launched a web app version which they are currently pushing.)


A Chrome extension that powers a more feature-rich version of something like Bookcision. Notes and highlights are synced to the ‘app’, where you can perform some additional organisation such as tagging. You can export individual or multiple highlights, adhering to different referencing styles.

There’s a tiny monthly charge, but I’m pleased about this—I’d always rather pay for things I find useful, as there’s then less chance they’ll disappear overnight.

I use to transfer my highlights and notes to my archiving/information storage app of choice and get an every-other-day email from Readwise. Using both services I have an easily searchable database of highlights, the ability to see contextual links between my highlights and other documents (a feature of DEVONthink), and get serendipitous reminders of them in my email inbox.

In fact, simply publishing some these highlights with some extra context, questions, elaboration etc would form the basis of an intriguing blog, if you don’t have one already…

Whenever I go into the kitchen to do something quick—let the dog out into the garden, make a cup of tea, empty the dishwasher—I open this book onto a random page and read for a few minutes. While not a recipe book per se, it’s by far my favourite book about food. 📚

Teaching grownups how to eat

The key to lasting dietary change, according to Wilson, is “a hedonic shift” in attitudes toward food—a reorienting of our palates that would render broccoli at least as delicious as cookies. “When our preferences are in order,” she argues, “nutrition should take care of itself.” Better yet, the trick to learning to love cruciferous greens turns out to be relatively simple: repeated, positive exposure to broccoli and its cousins. To prove how malleable our palates can be, Wilson marshals an array of case studies and experiments that have examined the human ability to shape and reshape food preferences.

Source: Teaching Grownups How to Eat | The New Yorker

Bee Wilson’s last book was terrific. ‘First Bite’ sounds just as intriguing; not just because my son will start to eat proper food in the next few months, and I can’t wait to see how he reacts to the food we eat, but also because we have a huge societal problem on our hands and (re-)learning about food, its origins and impact should be high up any forward-thinking government’s todo list.

The Daily Stormer’s style guide

Ashley Feinberg for The Huffington Post:

Back in September, Vox Day, a Gamergate holdover who has assumed the position of racist alt-right figurehead, published a handful of brief excerpts from what he described as the “Andrew Anglin” style guide. For the blissfully unaware, Anglin is a neo-Nazi troll and propagandist who runs The Daily Stormer, one of the more prominent sites of the white supremacist web. The passages selected by Vox Day in his blog post suggested that Anglin is persnickety about detail and presentation ― except on the subject of the Jews, who are to be blamed “for everything.”

HuffPost has acquired the 17-page document in its entirety, as well as transcripts from an IRC channel where the document was shared in an effort to recruit new writers. It’s more than a style guide for writing internet-friendly neo-Nazi prose; it’s a playbook for the alt-right.

This is, as you’d expect, appalling. It’s also fascinating; the lengths to which they will go to (a) blame ‘everything on the Jews’ and (b) create a state of confusion, all wrapped up in the sort of guide you see elsewhere:

The guide is particularly interested in ways to lend the site’s hyperbolic racial invective a facade of credibility and good faith. Or at the very least, in how to confuse its readers to the point where they can’t tell the difference. The Daily Stormer, for instance, uses block quotes for much the same reason Richard Spencer stuffs himself into vests. In explaining why a writer should heavily block-quote mainstream news articles, the guide notes that it allows writers to borrow some of mainstream media’s air of scrupulousness and good hygiene.

See also The Master Race’s Graphic Masterpiece:

Published in 1936, The Organizationsbuch der NSDAP (with subsequent annual editions), detailed all aspects of party bureaucracy, typeset tightly in German Blackletter. What interested me, however, were the over 70 full-page, full-color plates (on heavy paper) that provide examples of virtually every Nazi flag, insignia, patterns for official Nazi Party office signs, special armbands for the Reichsparteitag (Reichs Party Day), and Honor Badges. The book “over-explains the obvious” and leaves no Nazi Party organization question, regardless of how minute, unanswered.

The Problem with Muzak

Here’s another article about Spotify, a company that fascinates me. The Problem with Muzak starts by examining the mood playlists that feature prominently on the platform:

Spotify loves “chill” playlists: they’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper. They’re also tied to what its algorithm manipulates best: mood and affect. Note how the generically designed, nearly stock photo images attached to these playlists rely on the selfsame clickbait-y tactics of content farms, which are famous for attacking a reader’s basest human moods and instincts. Only here the goal is to fit music snugly into an emotional regulation capsule optimized for maximum clicks: “chill.out.brain,” “Ambient Chill,” “Chill Covers.” “Piano in the Background” is one of the most aptly titled; “in the background” could be added to the majority of Spotify playlists.


One independent label owner I spoke with has watched his records’ physical and digital sales decline week by week. He’s trying to play ball with the platform by pitching playlists, to varying effect. “The more vanilla the release, the better it works for Spotify. If it’s challenging music? Nah,” he says, telling me about all of the experimental, noise, and comparatively aggressive music on his label that goes unheard on the platform. “It leaves artists behind. If Spotify is just feeding easy music to everybody, where does the art form go? Is anybody going to be able to push boundaries and break through to a wide audience anymore?”

It goes on to excoriate the branded playlists and the idea that companies should need to “show the world what kind of music your brand likes to listen to while partying, driving, or enjoying a cup of coffee.”

It is absurd to suggest that a playlist created by Bacardi, Gatorade, BMW, or Victoria’s Secret could exist for any purpose other than the sale of its liquor, sports drinks, cars, or fancy lingerie. And this encouragement of a false sense of objectivity found on its Terms of Service is seen nowhere on its “Spotify for Brands” website, where it has published a series of articles luring corporations to the platform: “In the biggest game of the year, many of the ads feature music front and center, whether it’s a big hit like Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ [Chrysler’s memorable 2011 spot] or an indie jam like Hundred Waters’ ‘Show Me Love’ [Coca-Cola’s 2015 spot],” the article explains, directly equating branded playlists to an expression of commercialism. “Using music effectively can also mean curating the perfect playlist that reflects the sound of your brand.”

Brand playlists are advertisements, even if Spotify strives to imbue them with so-called editorial integrity. Such uncompensated advertorial playlists are harmful in that they offer artists no option to opt-out, but also because they undercut what can sometimes be a valuable source of revenue for artists.

Underscores, optimization & arms races

Eventually, people wanted to have the whole title of their article show up in the web address. Part of this was just because it looked cool, but some folks had started to suspect that having those words in the address might help a blog post rank higher on Google. (Google was still a smaller player in the overall web search market at the time, but it was already by far the most popular search engine amongst internet geeks.)

But here’s the thing: web addresses can’t have spaces in them. To include a full title with spaces in a web address for a blog, the spaces would either have to be removed (ugly!) or converted into something equivalent. Since we were one of the first to encounter this issue, our team designed to have our content management system use underscores, based on the rationale that underscores were the character that most closely resembled a blank space.

The end result? Anybody who used our tools could write a a blog post entitled “My Great Cookie Recipe” and it would live at an address that looked like By contrast, the WordPress team thought that hyphens looked better, so blog posts published on their tool would look more like Sure, these different tools made slightly different choices about which character to use, but such a subtle distinction couldn’t be meaningful, right?

As it would turn out, we’d stumbled across a harbinger of how the entire web was about to change.

Source: Underscores, Optimization & Arms Races – Humane Tech – Medium

How hyphens vs. underscores kickstarted the race to optimise for, and game the systems of, the web’s biggest players. was the only music social network that made sense

At present, has a lot of difficulty generating a profit. Possibly because it no longer serves a purpose aside from logging what its users are listening to. It’s no longer a catalyst for discussions and events, given that there’s already Facebook and Songkick; nor is there need for a personalized radio thanks to algorithm-driven recommendations from various streaming services. In the end, the music industry to which was a counterpoint no longer had to the power to create renowned musicians from meager local artists, nor direct public tastes: Today, labels only try to acquire, through an artist’s name, a preexisting community of fans that the artist garnered themselves. didn’t pay a central role in the changing of this paradigm, maybe because it never understood how to make itself flourish economically. Investing in the concept of a personalized web radio and deciding to charge a fee for it turned out to be an unwise choice in an environment where music was practically becoming free and accessible, through tenuously legal YouTube uploads and the rise to prominence of streaming services.

Source: Was the Only Music Social Network That Made Sense – Noisey

One way or another, a reasonable chunk of what I listen to ends up scribbling to But I can’t remember the last time it was any use to me—recommending a new artist, matching me with another user, suggesting events—all things it once did fairly frequently.

The article mentions its ill-timed sale to CBS and that is certainly a factor; hindsight tells us there were many more suitable partnerships it could have developed, although it would have required some fairly far-sighted execs to bring about any large success. Spotify was apparently in talks to buy before it acquired The Echo Nest, which led directly to the development of their personal recommendation services, such as Disover Weekly and Release Radar, which feature regularly on this site.

T.S. Eliot on knowledge

When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not.

The Perfect Critic (1920). Via Alan Jacobs’ How To Think

Why Slate is moving its URLs to https

As a web developer and product dabbler, I love URLs. URLs say a tremendous amount about an application’s structure, and their predictability is a testament to the elegance of the systems behind them. A good URL should let you play with it and find delightful new things as you do.

Each little piece of our new URL took a significant amount of planning and effort by the Slate tech team. Let’s break it down:

Source: Why Slate is moving its URLs to https.

It might seem trivial, but I’m a big believer in having readable and useful URLs. Useful insomuch as they are a secondary navigation, hackable by users to move up one or more levels in a site. The decisions made here are all sensible and will benefit Slate readers, or at least the portion of users who are as odd as me.