Warnings from the Past

Eric Lawler

May 01, 2019

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The more things change…

I was inspired to re-read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 after seeing some salient, eerily-prescient quotations applied to our current American culture. This pair of books is among the earliest dystopian fictions–books that depict the future of humanity leading “wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives,” to quote Merriam-Webster. Both are now hailed as classics and built into many a secondary-school’s English curriculum.

Modern re-printings of the books are jammed with helpful commentaries, letters penned by the authors, and histories of how each book took shape. Included with a ~2012 Brave New World edition, Huxley wrote a thoughtful letter to George Orwell, thanking him for his gift of an advance copy of 1984, but respectfully disagreeing with Mr. Orwell’s depictions of a near-future totalitarian regime.

Huxley doubled-down on his thoughts that our future dystopian society will be built on a voluntary basis, in the name of pleasure and comfort über alles. There will be no government boot stamping down on humanity that we don’t fashion for ourselves. Looking over the world events between his book’s debut in 1931 and Orwell’s in 1949, Huxley was confident that his vision of the future was even more likely to come about.

Fahrenheit 451

Aside: This blog post is illegal. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in three writing sessions between 1946 and 1951, on dime-powered, rental typewriters in UCLA’s basement. He last renewed the copyright of the finished work in 1995, meaning no one can legally share lengthy excerpts from it until it enters the public domain in 2082–70 years after his death. Bradbury, on the other hand, declared his writing is intended not to predict, but to deter a dystopian future. By following the societal trends of the 1940s and 50s, he saw a possible outcome–a world where books are illegal, because society has rejected their value–and wrote a novel to prevent that future from ever existing.

Fahrenheit 451 is hard to read. The dialogue is strange. The characters difficult to relate too and universally plagued with foibles. The plight of the sheepleFrom Urban Dictionary: Sheep + People. “A individual that forfeits their right to choose in favor of inclusion in groupthink and what is viewed as popular or elite group.”, as embodied by the protagonist’s own wife, is difficult to stomach.

And yet, it’s loaded with skin-crawling passages written 70 years ago, but somehow more relevant today. The following is a sampling of passages I don’t want to forget.

Here, the protagonist, Guy Montag, is listening to his boss explain how the world got to the state it’s in. It began with the invention of radio and television. People desired simpler, easier-to-digest content than books:

“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet … was a a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.”

“Speed up the film, Montag, quick. … Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!”

He continues, explaining how this dumbing-down of content leads to a shift in the education system. You don’t need discipline or philosophy when “life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work.” This is paired with the desire to never offend any of the world’s growing number of minorities:“Over population” was a fear when this book was written. The theory that, somehow, humans will have so many babies we’ll run out of food and shelter for everyone. They cited mind-blowing numbers such as the potential for one billion people to live on our planet.

“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, what do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.

“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he’s on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust. Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1951. From the Beatty-Montag dialogue.

Another passage is striking. Bradbury nails the modern (2019) American view on parenting and families. This is written 22 years before Roe v Wade legalizes abortion in the United States. Here, Montag is confronting his wife and her friends–all vapid consumers of their wall-sized TVs. (In the future, we’ll have not one TV in the living room, but 3–one for each wall.)

Montag moved his lips.

“Let’s talk.”

The women jerked and stared.

“How’re your children, Mrs. Phelps?” he asked.

“You know I haven’t any! No one in his right mind, the Good Lord knows, would have children!” said Mrs. Phelps, not quite sure why she was angry with this man.

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Mrs. Bowles. “I’ve had two children by Caesarean section. No use going through all that agony for a baby. The world must reproduce, you know, the race must go on. Besides, they sometimes look just like you, and that’s nice. Two Caesareans turned the trick, yes, sir. Oh, my doctor said, Caesareans aren’t necessary; you’ve got the hips for it, everything’s normal, but I insisted.”

“Caesareans or not, children are ruinous; you’re out of your mind,” said Mrs. Phelps.

“I plunk the children in school nine days out of ten. I put up with them when they come home three days a month; it’s not bad at all. You heave them into the ‘parlor’ and turn the switch. It’s like washing clothes; stuff the laundry in and slam the lid.” Mrs. Bowles tittered. “They’d just as soon kick as kiss me. Thank God, I can kick back!”

The women showed their tongues, laughing.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1951. From the Montag confrontation.

Montag grows increasingly agitated in his conversation with these women, culminating in these cold words to Mrs. Bowles:

“Go home.” Montag fixed his eyes upon her, quietly. “Go home and think of your first husband divorced and your second husband killed in a jet and your third husband blowing his brains out, go home and think of the dozen abortions you’ve had, go home and think of that and your damn Caesarean sections, too, and your children who hate your guts! Go home and think how it all happened and what did you ever do to stop it?”

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1951. From the Montag confrontation.

Finally, written some 40-years-later, Mr. Bradbury’s thoughts on modern censorship. Included with the first uncensored re-printing of Fahrenheit 451 after his publisher accidentally only printed a “school-friendly” variant for 10 years:

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse.

If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If teachers and grammar-school editors find my jaw-breaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture.

In sum, do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings, or the lung-deflations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whisper with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.

Coda, Ray Bradbury, 1979

There is no call to action to this post, other than to remain soberly mindful of one possible outcome for the continued trend towards inoffensiveness, “tolerance,” and creating maximally-palatable, easy-to-digest content that maximizes clicks, “likes,” and “shares.”

Long-Form Websites and Typography

Eric Lawler

April 08, 2019

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Or, how to build an anti-Medium.com

Two curiously-related pieces of content were shared on Hacker News today. The first was a short article by Joshua Li, explaining how a few basic CSS styles can make for a great-looking website—across varying devices. The second was a longer post by Marco Fioretti on how Google is “forgetting” the old web.

The latter post kicked up the usual fierce debates …and people arguing about whether a search engine should actually return results matching what you type in. around whether the internet is still an open place if one gatekeeper determines whether you can find and read certain content.

The former article was berated for having too much CSS …or not enough CSS. Or not including styles for printers. or for using the CSS “rem” unit, instead of ems or pixels or vws.

But what really drew my eye was a comment from Marcus Holmes:

Is it just me, then, that hates the “narrow strip of text down the middle of my large monitor” school of web design?

I don’t understand why I’m being forced to scroll when there’s all this blank space to the sides.

Marcus Holmes, comment on news.ycombinator.com

Great question, Marcus. Actually, it’s so I can use these sick side notes and margin notes! Thank you, Tufte CSS. Why doesn’t this website fill 100% of your 1080p or 4K monitor’s screen with text? There’s a very specific reason, and that is text measure.

A block of text or paragraph has a maximum line length that fits a determined design. If the lines are too short then the text becomes disjointed; if they are too long the content loses rhythm as the reader searches for the start of each line.

Wikipedia entry on “Measure (typography)”, 2019

The optimal width of a paragraph of text is anywhere from 50–80 charactersIn both typography- and computer-speak, a character is an individual letter or typographic mark. per line, depending on which of the many studies you cite. If a paragraph is too wide, your eye loses its place when tracking back to the beginning of the next line. This decreases reading comprehension—and increases my irritation when I realize I’m re-reading the same line. 🤦

So what’s the point?

For Firefox offers a “Reader” mode that will automatically constrain the page to the same ~68 character maximum width. Again, this is not a coincidence! this website, I chose a text measure that is approximately 70 characters wide, with average line widths of 65-68 characters. After your eye adjusts to the “constrained” width for reading long articles, Wikipedia begins to tire you out.

It took several iterations to strike the right balance in this design between too-wide and too-narrow. My final measurement was to drag a bunch of books off the shelf, type out a line from each of them, and arrive at my own ideal width based on what the professionals chose. To my surprise, regardless of the book’s physical page sizes and typeface size, all of them were exactly 66 characters wide.Given how many web typography dissertations I read in the course of refining this design, I shouldn’t have been surprised the professionals use consistent text measures—across publishers.

What’s this have to do with the other article?

The Fioretti article references a serious problem with the most-used search engine on the planet: It literally will not answer search results for sites that are “too old.” This could be a post written in 2007, or 2012. No one knows exactly how the Google algorithms rank and prune pages.

Lawler.io was inspired by Gwern, a self-proclaimed “freelance writer & researcher who lives in Virginia.” He wrote something concerning his own website that runs deeply counter to the current online culture: Gwern.net is home to “stable long-term essays which improve over time.”

Stable, long-term

A key ingredient to Gwern’s website is his decision to use incredibly robust computer-y bits behind the scenes, to ensure his website isn’t going anywhere for a long, long time.

While I am not going to the same extremes as Gwern to keep lawler.io online for decades, it is very appealing to create a simple, easy-to-maintain website that can persist for years to come.

Much has been written about link rot, the phenomena that most of what goes on the internet disappear after a few weeks or months. Frankly, a lot of the content deserves to rot and disappear. The world has no need for another listicle of 13 Must-Know Viral MemesYou won’t believe #7!.

The first challenge is putting content on that website that deserves to persist. The second, easierEasier for this hacker-generalist CTO, at least. challenge, is keeping it online and living at the same web address.

Kaizen: Continuous improvement over time

Journalists are paid to write articles. Buzzfeed-esque I’m going to use “Buzzfeed” as the Kleenex of “short web articles with outlandish titles and a splashy lead image to get people to click to open the article and share with all their friends but otherwise leave no impact on the ‘reader’ whatsoever.” I understand Buzzfeed News has “real” journalists now and does “serious” work. This does not change the impact they had on online content. listicles come from “content farms” that pay writers to… write. Your writing must hit certain key metrics or your paychecks will dry up. The most important metric? How many people open up your article, of course!

This incentivizes the creation of short articles that draw lots of clicks“Engagement” in social media marketing terms., but don’t leave much of an impact on the reader.

For this kind of content, it almost makes sense that Google would stop surfacing Buzzfeed articles from 2012. It wasn’t worth reading then and it certainly isn’t worth reading now.


Medium.com exploded in popularity because it, too, used to respect the typography rules we discussed above. Today, it’s a bit too wide for my personal taste: ~77 characters It used simple black-ish text on a white-ish background. A straight-forward design that got out of your way and let you read. And read we did.

But Medium needed to make money. As more authors poured onto the site, as more companies chose to host their blogs on white-labeled Medium.com domains, Medium’s design evolved. Nowadays, it’s cluttered with crap. Here’s a screenshot of a “Recommended” article from tonight:

Medium.com is a messScreenshot of an article linked to from Medium.com's homepage. (The thin typeface got squished when the image was resized)

It’s cluttered with a huge call to action to join the website, a bunch of nav on the top, and a social widget that follows you down the page during the entire read. Of course, when you hit the bottom, the clutter maximizes with more call-to-actions, obligatory comment boxesNever forget your engagement KPIs. and other content you might want to read.

I digress. The real thing that Medium.com has changed is expectations on what “long” content is. The pictured article has an impressive 5-minute reading estimateSquint and you can see it under the author’s name and link to follow her writing on Medium.. Most of the content I see on Medium are 2-3 minute reads. Any more than that and you seriously risk losing readers.

In fact, that’s the second point in the quote I led off with. “I don’t understand why I’m being forced to scroll.” Though we can be assured Mr. Holmes is willing to scroll on a computer to read long articles, most of the people on the internet can’t be bothered. Buzzfeed knows this. Medium.com knows this, too.

But is there another form of consumer? Is there a form of content on the internet that takes longer than 5 minutes to read? Is anyone writing longer articles that repulse the casual surfer, mindlessly flicking through links on their iPhone X? Apparently, such a fiend does exist! Quietly typing away, hundreds of individuals are crafting articles designed to be truly thought-provoking, to stand the test of time and Deserve To Be Read decades later.

Gwern’s I, too, quietly tidy up these humble scrivings, tightening them over time. Full edit histories, with explanatory commit messages, are in GitHub for interested parties. taken this approach to the next level—he continuously updates his posts as he learns new information on the topic. His experiments will have periodic updates for years. Years!


My aspiration is to create some substantive content that Deserves To Be Read. While this piece is certainly not one of them, it’s a start. A way of painfully filing off the rust from my long-neglected long-form writing skills. A way of unblocking writers block and getting the juices flowing.

The answer

What do these two articles have to do with one another? Simple: My website was designed to fit into both categories. An aesthetically-pleasing, easy-to-read website with no tracking codes. A home for long-form content that repulses article skimmers. A place for writing that Google will certainly ignore in 5 years.

Finalized at 10:48 PM. Tidied up on April 09, 2019 @ 10:42 AM.

Tagged with meta and long-form.