Killer App

by John Holbo on February 10, 2010

Various folks – our own Henryhave been weighing the advantages and disadvantages of long and short literary forms. Here’s a different angle. What I would really like – truly – would be a simple app that let me time-lock myself out of the internet (and email) for a substantial block of time. Say, 3 hours. Or whatever. (Obviously I get to choose.) The internet is sort of like a stationary exercise bike that comes equipped, standard, with an ever-full bowl of potato chips on the handlebars. So is this bike good for losing weight and getting fit? Yes. And no. I’m sure you see what I am getting at.

The short-form/long-form distinction isn’t, then, the crux of the issue, because it doesn’t touch on the reason why people are anxious about suffering ADD. I think I agree with Henry about how we should have more short-form stuff, for pretty much the reasons he articulates. But what people are worried about, when they vaguely wish away short-form stuff, is a “nudge”-type issue, in the Sunstein and Thaler sense. It’s not that they seriously think all short stuff is bad stuff. or even that short stuff tends to be bad. Rather, all the stuff we are most tempted to overindulge in, against our own better judgment, is short. (If this were Victorian England, maybe we would be wringing our hands about how everyone is disappearing into enormous triple-decker novels for days and days and neglecting to keep up with current events. They aren’t remembering to send everyone else letters twice a day.)

Saying that all the stuff we are tempted to overindulge in is short is perfectly consistent with saying that, on average, short stuff is much better than long stuff. I think that’s it in a nutshell.

The main reason we are tempted to overindulge in short stuff is that it is there. So obtrusively ready-to-hand, like chips on the handlebars. So I maintain that Western Civilization can be saved, and people can return to reading long Kierkegaard books again – possibly even Melville’s Clarel – if only someone will come up with a simple app for time-locking our computers and mobile devices. Indeed, it would be such a basic and powerful productivity tool that it should come standard on all devices.



Delicious Pundit 02.10.10 at 5:17 am

I use Freedom (, and I rent an office without Internet. I can still text, though, so it’s not quite the State of Nature.


Jake 02.10.10 at 5:25 am

Mac Freedom has already gotten some love: . Alternately, if you have the means and determination, you could use Paul Graham’s method: .


Luis 02.10.10 at 5:26 am

Less elegant than MacFreedom, but working on Windows and Linux, is leechblock:

But only good for firefox, not any email clients, alternative browsers, etc., you might have around. Still, a critical part of my productivity formula.


nnyhav 02.10.10 at 5:34 am

Shorter John Holbo … there is no shorter John Holbo.


Substance McGravitas 02.10.10 at 5:35 am


John Holbo 02.10.10 at 5:37 am

Hey, that’s great! I’m going to download macfreedom and become free. Also, this will help me explain the concept of positive liberty to my students.


Anon 02.10.10 at 6:24 am

Or here’s another idea. Get off of face book and stop using twitter, which itself is causing a considerable dumbing down of American society.

Twitter is like a bag of highly salted potato chips, but it detracts from things of value, and concentrates even more on oversimplification, which is the last thing our debates need right now.

Brevity and conciseness are good. Forced over simplification for immediate attention getting appeal, are not, when it comes to ideas and policies and issues. And it seems they might in some ways be a substitute for actual living when it comes to other types of twits. (Yeah, I know, they are called tweets. I don’t have to call them that.)


Commenterlein 02.10.10 at 6:28 am

I use “Temptation Blocker”. Old (from 2005) but works great. You give it the programs to block and the time, and you are done. Just google for it.


Griffin 02.10.10 at 7:41 am

If you want to get serious about work time, then I’d suggest the social networking suicide machine: I was skeptical. And then I used it. And then I finished so much work over the span of three days that I began to worry I was monomaniacal.


Bradley WRight 02.10.10 at 8:46 am

For Mac there’s Freedom (mentioned above), but also Concentrate, which is more configurable and has templates (but is also not free), and Self Control. Both have configurable white/black lists, and work quite effectively.


Ken Lovell 02.10.10 at 8:50 am

The simple app is already available. Get one teenage child per computer.


ah 02.10.10 at 9:16 am

there is a firefox extension called PageAddict which will block certain sites when you have spent too long on them (only 10 mins per day on CT, for example), and give you stats on how long you spend on different types of web surfing. The stats can be particularly useful in monitoring and controlling your web time-wasting.


derek 02.10.10 at 9:30 am

We have an application for keeping people off the Internet for hours and forcing them to get their heads down in a worthy book. It’s called “school”.


alex 02.10.10 at 10:57 am

Sounds to me like you want downloadable, externalised willpower. The problem might be right there in the question.


Russell Arben Fox 02.10.10 at 12:39 pm

I assume someone has already made the joke about the existence of a similar app, known as the “power off” button?


jholbo 02.10.10 at 12:43 pm

“I assume someone has already made the joke about the existence of a similar app, known as the “power off” button?”

It doesn’t work!

No, seriously. My problem is that I’m writing on the computer. That’s how I write. But I get a bit frustrated or blocked and it’s too easy to surf. I’m actually planning on using Freedom extensively, now I know it exists.


Cosma Shalizi 02.10.10 at 12:54 pm

Self-Control (Mac only, so far as I know) will blacklist sites for up to 8 hours, including (as it turns out) through a reboot or power off. I find this more useful than simply blocking networking, because when I’m working I often need to get things from or run remote jobs on the Beowulf cluster.


Ben Hyde 02.10.10 at 1:12 pm

Alex writes “Sounds to me like you want downloadable, externalised willpower. The problem might be right there in the question.” Yup. I a fan of Ainslie’s “Breakdown of Will.”

And, Schelling’s essay “Ethics, Law and the Exercise of Self-Command” (in “Choice and Consequence”) is fun. It includes the amusing point about societal support for self binding, i.e. you can’t get the courts to enforce contracts you make with yourself. Though interestingly in Arizona you can sign up with the state to be excluded from gambling dens. It also has this example:

“Social controls play a role; the Times Literary Supplement for January 22, 1982, contained a splendid example, a review article by George Steiner on the life and work of the Hungarian radical Georg Lukacs. “When I first called on him, in the winter of 1957-8, in a house still pockmarked with shellbursts and grenade spliters, I stood speechless before the armada of his printed works, as it crowded the bookshelves. Lukacs seized on my puerile wonder and blazed out of his chair in a motion at once vulnerable and amused: ‘You want to know how one gets work done? It’s easy. House arrest, Steiner, house arrest!’”

I wish Mac Freedom was called House Arrest. Anyhow, many of the software targeted at parental control is useful for putting the temptations at a distance. Reading Ainslie makes it clear that you can get a lot of self binding out of merely encrypting the tempting software with a long and tedious password.


Danny 02.10.10 at 1:49 pm

If you’re interested in forced writing, Write or Die ( is the way to go. All sorts of nasty consequences if you stop writing for a certain period of time, including a “kamikaze” mode that (gasp!) starts deleting your text if you let it sit idle for too long.

Better, I’ve found, for short bursts of writing to get your thoughts down rather than editing and tweaking. But you’d be surprised how much you get down in 15 minutes if *all* you do for 15 minutes is write.


Ginger Yellow 02.10.10 at 2:10 pm

Take the router cable. Put it in a ziplock bag. Place the bag in a large vat of oil with a small hole at the bottom. Wait three hours until the vat is drained. Retrieve the cable.


rm 02.10.10 at 3:39 pm

What Danny recommends is what Composition & Rhetoric folks in the English Department (back in the day, there were academic departments devoted to books and writing . . . some of you may be old enough to remember . . .) call “freewriting” (Peter Elbow‘s term). I forget if it was Elbow or Don Murray who suggested turning off your computer monitor while you type to overcome writer’s block.

Write Or Die (I really think the “or” should be capitalized) looks like a great way to do freewriting. I think I will show this to my writing students.


Danny 02.10.10 at 4:16 pm

rm’s right – Keeping your eyes off the screen is crucial to letting the words flow. Keeping your eyes closed works just as well, though it’s disconcerting at first to keep your eyes closed for 15 minutes while fully awake. I’d also recommend some upbeat music to keep your fingers moving. My current song of choice is M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.”


token duke 02.10.10 at 5:36 pm

Need WinFreedom :(


broken grape 02.10.10 at 5:48 pm

No lies though: I am internet-addicted. Political-blogosphere-addicted, to be precise. When I get my own place I am not going to buy broadband too. The physical separation of distance (from a bikable internet café) would be ideal.


geo 02.10.10 at 6:25 pm

Interviewer: To what do you attribute your success as a writer?

Wilson: To the use of the periodic sentence.

Interviewer: Surely that is not the whole story.

Wilson: And to my use of the colon and the semi-colon. Writing so long for the New Yorker may have led me a little to overdo the comma.

Interviewer: What else?

Wilson: My invariable habit of writing in pencil on those “legal-size” yellow pads — the kind that are ruled with blue lines. I believe that composing on the typewriter has probably done more than anything else to deteriorate English prose.

“An Interview with Edmund Wilson” (1962)


praisegod barebones 02.10.10 at 6:59 pm

Whereas writing on legal pads leads to the inexorable delusion that ‘deteriorate’ is a transitive verb.


geo 02.10.10 at 9:16 pm

“deteriorate: (verb, transitive & intransitive) to make or become worse; lower in quality or value; depreciate.”

Webster’s New World Dictionary, College Edition.


blimpo 02.11.10 at 5:46 pm

I don’t even wanna go into how Occident-centric this is. Save Western Civilisation from the rise of technology? God forbid the masses decide to organically discard formerly valued cultural contributions by democratic means (i.e. the egalitarian internet). Basically we want an App that makes sure we stay tethered to traditionalist artefacts we have a “gut feeling” are more important than trawling Wikipedia for the latest bunch of saps to be sacked.


blimpo 02.11.10 at 5:48 pm

sorry – saps to be sacked from Pop Idol.


geo 02.12.10 at 5:34 pm

God forbid the masses decide to organically discard formerly valued cultural contributions by democratic means (i.e. the egalitarian internet)



John Holbo 02.13.10 at 12:54 am

“I don’t even wanna go into how Occident-centric this is. Save Western Civilisation from the rise of technology?”

I gotta say, Blimpo, until you grow a sense of irony a lot of stuff on this newfangled internet is going to be a ‘closed book’ to you (if you understand the traditional artifact metaphor.)

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