The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

May 17 22 2017

Hair And School

Twin sisters, both sophomores at the local charter high school, decided they’d like to braid their hair this year. Hair extensions are against the rules, but so is hair “more than 2" high”. That makes it hard or impossible for black students to have braids, or indeed to have long hair, unless they use hair straighteners -- something many decline to do on political and historical grounds.

So there I was on a Sunday in 2017, standing outside a school building and protesting rules against long hair alongside the ACLU, NAACP, ADL, and plenty more. It’s almost 50 years since Hair opened. The attorney general warned the school that its rules were discriminatory; Sunday, they held a closed meeting to suspend the rule for the rest of the school year.

Here’s a paragraph from the (unsigned) announcement the school sent to parents this morning:

Of course, despite the vast importance of the Uniform Policy on the performance of our students, the policy must comport with our long-held commitment, as stated in our Parent Student Handbook and on our website, to offer the same advantages, privileges and courses of study to all students, regardless of race, color, sex, gender identity, religion, national origin or sexual orientation.

First, the sentence is ungrammatical. You can’t have importance on something; it’s important to something.

Second, “comport with” is an old and unsatisfactory construction. “Comport” is a synonym for “behave” and it is normally transitive: “The girls comported themselves with dignity.” While the construction used here is old, it’s not being used for clarity or concision: it’s being used because it sounds pretentious. That’s likely why the school (which has existed only since 1998) boasts of its “long-held commitment.” (The nearby Malden High School goes back 160 years, and I expect Malden schools in general date to Michael Wigglesworth’s tenure as minister in Malden in the late 17th century.)

Third, the composition is flawed. There’s no help for the laundry list at the end of the sentence: it’s legal boilerplate. Nevertheless, the writer knows it’s coming, and should have planned for it. Instead, the first half is larded with unnecessary parentheticals and lists.

Fourth, the statement asserts that the Uniform Policy has “vast importance.” Simple importance would have been plenty to assert; “vast” importance simply calls attention to the weakness of the claim, for which no evidence is offered and which seems wildly improbable. Does long hair prevent people from learning history or calculus? Does short hair help one’s grammar?

Fifth, the statement is un-American. We hold some truths to be self-evident, and one of those truths is that a student’s appearance and beliefs do not conflict with superb intellectual performance. The sentence grudgingly compromises something of “vast importance” in service of other goals, but in fact we have no reason to think that any compromise is necessary, that changing the uniform would have any important effect, or indeed that reversing the policy might not better serve the school’s goals.

Later, the school writes:

You should know that we categorically rejected an order from the DESE [ Massachusetts Elementary and Secondary Education], which was influenced by media reports, to cease all disciplinary actions associated with our entire Uniform Policy. We believe that following this directive would have disastrous consequences on our ability to create the structure and equity central to the success of our students, and that it would fundamentally alter the nature of the environment you chose for your children.i

Again, our prepositions stray: you might expect consequences for something, but not consequences on something. In accord with “vast importance”, we here face “disastrous consequences;” what catastrophe, precisely, might follow upon a high school student’s poor fashion choices? Schools with no uniform policy whatsoever somehow manage to get through entire weeks without massive loss of life.

by Drew Davidson and Greg Costikyan, eds

A nicely varied assortment of intelligent essays about the design and distribution of contemporary tabletop games. Greg Costikyan has a superb discussion of the ways that production, marketing and distribution shape games today; for example, it’s very important that game components by light in weight because the publisher, not the retailer, pays the freight. Chris Klug has a memorable not on the dramatics of rolling dice, and Richard Garfield contributes a number of sharply-observed design lesson from poker.

Malden Sketch Group

Our little city has a charming little sketch group that meets weekly for figure drawing. There’s an annual show in a local office lobby where (unfortunately) they’d rather not have any figure drawing because people these days are prudes. Oh well.

It’s fun to hang out with real artists.

Bottom-center is a sketch I did on a curb in Wellfleet, MA.

by Lev Grossman

Rereading the conclusion to Grossman’s The Magicians because I reread The Magician King for craft, and to figure out why Grossman’s crack-house magic scene seems so compelling and fresh. I still think my original impression was sound.

When seven years of epic struggle and the release of untold magic energies (at terrific personal risk) restore lost Alice to life, all she can manage is the request for a glass of Scotch with a single large ice cube. The Magician pours his neat. Neither really wants the whiskey.

May 17 12 2017


The web editor Espresso from MacRabbit is back in a new edition. If you do much CSS, you need it.

Interestingly, they’ve adopted the Tinderbox model for upgrades: free updates for a year, then you buy an upgrade with another year of free updates. Sustainable software matters.

by Sarah Koenig et al.


This fascinating original audio novel describes an unpleasant small town in Bibb County, Alabama, home of John B. McLemore. John repairs antique clocks, worries constantly about global warming, police corruption, racism, tattoos – and everything. He has 120 acres. He has a maze on his land that you can see in Google Earth. One day, he calls This American Life and pitches a story – this story – which is lovingly crafted by the creators of This American Life.

It looks like I may be curating a micro-festival at Hypertext ’17 in Prague, July 4-7 2017, on Critical Theory for Fun.

Recent years have seen a remarkable efflorescence of daring yet accessible experiments in nonsequential interactive narrative. In contrast to the famously opaque literature of Critical Theory, much of this work is a lot of fun while demonstrating remarkable theoretical depth. In contrast to the cheery heroic romances that long dominated computer games, this work is notably dark, emotionally complex, and introspective. Our Balkanized technical literature on new media storytelling has grown provincial, and a number of the observations on which it depends are likely mistaken.

In other words, just from worrying whether the wedding is on or off, a person can develop a cough. there’s a ton of good, accessible research into how narrative works, thoughtful work that’s not encrusted with striated and problematized terminological fablulae – and that research is published in, of all places, the tabletop game world. (Computer games will figure in this as well, and of course hyperdrama, print fiction, literary hypertext and interactive fictions.)

More anon. In the mean time, do you have something I should see? Don’t be bashful. Doesn’t matter if its old, or incomplete. Email me..

by Edgar Lee Masters

Gettysburg, Manila, Acoma

Just received this nifty 1930 book by Edgar Lee Masters, author of Spoon River Anthology. Three verse plays.

It caught my eye because I’ve been to Acoma. A memorable bit of dialogue from that day:

YOUNG WOMAN: Good morning!

OLD WOMAN: It looks like rain.

YOUNG WOMAN: Oh! I hope so!


Yes: that’s why they call it a desert.

This slipcover volume was printed in an edition of 375 copies (350 for sale), signed by the author. It’s astonishing to think that this could once have been a paying proposition, especially in the teeth of the Great Depression.

It’s also astonishing that you can easily pick up a copy for $30 or $40 dollars.

by Dava Sobel

In the 1890s, the Harvard College Observatory began to employ a group of talented female assistants to help compute orbits and measure stellar positions on the glass plates in which that observatory specialized. Over the coming decades, this group gradually emerged as leaders in astronomy and astrophysics – especially in the spectral characteristics of variable stars, a subject that held the key to measuring the size of the galaxy and the universe. At the same time, these women gradually broke barriers that kept women out of the sciences. Sobel does a nice job of focusing on the lives of these women and their discoveries; there’s not really enough of the science here – these women must all have loved the science, because they certainly weren’t paid enough to do the work otherwise – but I already knew the outlines of the Main Sequence and the Cepheid stories, anyway.

When at 70 years of age Dr. Annie Jump Cannon won the Ellen Richards Research Prize, she used the prize money to endow a new prize, and for years augmented the modest cash value of her prize by commissioning an astronomically-themed brooch from a female Boston goldsmith.

(When I was took Introductory Astronomy at Harvard Summer School in 1973, I spent many, many nights with what I believe was Miss Draper’s 8" Bache Refractor and one long, delightful night making a plate of the Andromeda Galaxy with the big reflector at Oak Ridge.)

by William Manchester

I adored the final volume of Manchester’s life of Winston Churchill, and I’ve long revered his underrated memoir and history, Goodbye Darkness. It was time to take on his massive biography of Douglas MacArthur.

In lots of ways, MacArthur and Churchill seem similar but aren’t. Both alarmed their subordinates in the Second World War by taking unnecessary risks,but it seems clear that MacArthur was suicidal while Churchill just wanted to be part of the fun. MacArthur would have rather liked to have gone out like Mickey Marcus, leading his men under fire and into immortality; had that happened to Churchill, he’d have been astonished, and rather put out.

Both men were brilliant, but Churchill read widely and wrote unforgettably; MacArthur didn’t. Churchill made money (eventually, and after lots of effort); MacArthur married it. MacArthur remained fit and energetic into old age; Churchill was fat and inclined to potter. MacArthur seldom accepted a drink and even more seldom finished one; Churchill expected his first drink to arrive when he awoke, and drank day and night.

Manchester fought under MacArthur – far, far under – but it’s clear that Manchester’s sympathy (and that of Paul Reid, the coauthor who did much of the work for the crucial final volume after Manchester’s stroke) lies with Churchill. Winston may have manipulated, but MacArthur lied. Winston saw a need to save his country and sought power to do it; MacArthur loved the power and, to get it, MacArthur would be a Liberal in Japan and then a Ultra-Conservative at home. Churchill in opposition was cantankerous and curmudgeonly; MacArthur was frequently paranoid and always insubordinate. He became an old soldier very young – arguably at West Point – and for a very long time he refused to fade away.

Apr 17 18 2017

La Goulue

Janet Flanner on the French dancer and model, Louise Weber, known as La Goulue:

She had charm, a dazzling complexion, and wit. It was the last great heyday for courtesans, and she made hay.

In comments on Em Short’s dismissive review of Those Trojan Girls, someone asks:

I enjoy snarky school stories, but I feel uncomfortable about taking references from Trojan Women, which is a heavy and sad piece about very serious issues, and turning it into yet another story about how annoyingly self-obsessed rich girls are. That may or may not be the actual point of this work, but it’s the feeling I’m getting. There are far, far better sources to draw on for that kind of story.

After a few months, perhaps I might indulge in a response.


Those Trojan Girls does engage with serious issues, and though perhaps it follows Seneca more closely than Euripides, Seneca is also sad.

A central problem in The Trojan Women (as in all new media) is agency: the conquered women have none (or think, at times, they have none), and yet this is their tragedy. Among many other changes, Seneca gives us Polyxena, who accepts her sacrificial fate, comforts her mother, and preserves her modesty in the face of the intolerable. Euripides gives us infant Astyanax, who is a pure victim. My Polly plays a longer game.

Polly Xena is a convict and perhaps a con, and of course she’s a con in another sense: the brutal sacrifice of a pretty teenager, someone we’ve gotten to know and like, is going to get your attention. That was Seneca’s game. But is that fair to Polly, to use her like that? Of course it’s unfair; that didn’t bother Seneca, perhaps, but it should bother us. It’s a game, but it’s not a game: this stuff matters to the people who are getting blown up.


We also have the problem of Helen. What are we to do about her? The Greeks could (possibly) believe that all of this was her fault — or at least that the Trojans might have thought so. We can’t do that: whatever people say, The Occupation is not actually the fault of a schoolgirl.

And yet – and yet. Helen knows that she is free to make her own choices, to assert her sexual autonomy as she pleases. That is her right. Her choices are not convenient, but they are not hers alone. Her lover knows both that this is wrong and that it will end in his ruin, but Love Conquers All. For them, love is everything; for the rest of a school caught up in The Occupation, it is just a surprise.

Love led Mary MacGregor to Franco’s Spain, which in due course led Sandy to put an end to Miss Brodie’s prime. Neither Mary nor Sandy were rich, and you’d likely consider most of my protagonists to be far from wealthy if you bumped into them (as you might) at Schipol. What romantic protagonist is not self-obsessed? “It is a far, far better thing I do:” me, me, me.

peace in our time

I’m interested in plotful hypertext, for which we have few polestars. (I know there are plotful games and that Interactive Fiction (IF) is plotful and sometimes literary. I honor and esteem it. I’ve gotten on the wrong side of the IF community and didn’t mean to.) There’s a lot we don’t know – or, if we know it, I don’t know where it’s written down.

You’re starting an interactive narrative. Will you write it using present tense, or past? Why? What are the consequences of either choice?

You want the consequences of the reader’s choices to be real and to be evident, but you want to avoid the problems of My Friend, Hamlet and you want the reader to be thinking about the characters, not about leveling up their ST or getting another 37 Dingus Stones so they can cast that Apple Spell. How do you manage this?

What about point-of-view shifts in new media: distracting or inviting? How do we choose the best point of view for a scene? For a story?

Recently, we’ve seen some intriguing hypertext with really large granularity: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, Iain Pears’ Arcadia, and I don’t know what else. Is this a promising development or a return to incunabula?

There’s usually a lot of time between fights. In fact, maybe we want the battles offstage entirely; Jack Aubrey can go through an entire volume without firing a shot. How do we keep the plot moving without overt conflict, while we play Bocherini in C or discuss the Rights Of Man? O’Brian does it. Victor Hugo does it. Trollope does it too, some of the time. Nothing actually happens in The Sun Also Rises, or not a hell of a lot, and it moves, and yet we all know new media work that stops dead when the writer starts to get on about trout fishing or bullfighting. So how do you do it?

Speaking of O’Brian, one of the chief character notes of his wonderful Dr. Maturin is an inclination to repeat adjectives so they are unmistakable, clear, lucid. But one of the classic examples of bad Elizabethan verse, from Thomas of Woodstock, does exactly this:

Why suffer their speech? To prison hie,

There let them perish, rot, consume, and die.

Is three a character note, and four a travesty?

by Patrick O'Brian

Back we go to Jack Aubrey and Dr. Maturin, for a study of sustaining dramatic focus while your characters are busy waiting for things to happen. These adventures sustain their energy and tension admirably while their protagonists play Boccherini in C and write letters to their absent wives. Fascinating as ever.

From Kyle Rowan’s hypertext opera, “Not Quite A Sunset” (via Em Short)

The dehydrated food of the first astronauts were a thing of the past, they were proudly told during training, but these meals were clearly developed to favor ease of storage and transport over flavor. It took quite a bit of creativity to alter them for personal taste, as the kitchen next door was not much more than a glorified microwave, but after a shift she was usually so hungry it didn’t matter. Ration Pack 5A/Chicken – good enough. She moved next door and placed the Pack in the food preparer.

We have interstellar travel, it seems, but our points of reference remain NASA space food and the kitchen appliances of the 1970s. We have artificial gravity: why do we not have a spice rack? Hell, we probably have a hydroponics bay to do CO2 exchange and stuff like that: we can grow some fresh thyme there, because if thyme grows in Provence it’ll grow anywhere. Take it from me, no future with interstellar travel will feature machines called “food preparers.” Autokitchen? Robochef? Escoffier-bot? Dave? Replicator? PFC Mies N. Place? I’ll buy any of them, but not “the food preparer.”

For that matter, why label the thing “Ration Pack”? It’s planned interstellar exploration, not the flight into Egypt. Also, the tenses of those verbs won’t really stand up to interrogation, enhanced or otherwise, and “food” is singular.

Part of the trouble in this passage is that we’re employing past tense throughout, so NASA has to be past perfect and it’s not. But that trouble is a sign: why are we in past tense in the first place? Music never happens in the past tense: it’s always now, and this is an opera. Also, you’re making choices for the narrator, and if this whole thing is past tense, then you've already chosen which link to follow and that messes with our head. Present tense narrative brings its own woes, and I have the scars to show for it, but I wish we were sure it was a thoughtful, argued choice we could learn from, rather than just what came to hand.


"Morning." The sun was beginning to emerge from behind the planet, which was still shrouded in a slowly receding shadow. As she moved to join Ada, a glint of color caught Sara's eye. On the table in the far corner of the room, there was a vase with a single yellow sunflower that Sara didn't remember ever seeing before. She stared at it for a moment, then walked behind the couch and slowly over to the table, never breaking her gaze. She placed her coffee down on the table, and cocked her head, considering the sunflower. It looked real enough.

Consider the sunflower that Sara didn’t remember ever seeing before. What is the meaning of “ever” here? The Haggadah is full of analysis like this:

And with an outstretched arm: this refers to the sword, as it is said: “His sword was drawn, in his hand, stretched out over Jerusalem.”

“Ever” can only mean that Sara had never seen this specific, individual flower before. Why is that surprising? What makes this sunflower different from all other sunflowers? From sunflowers we once knew? (Alternatively, I suppose this could turn into a time travel story and Sara didn’t remember seeing that particular flower either in her present or in her past, but on the whole I don’t think that’s very likely. )

But this too shall pass.

Nothing, not even an early morning wakeup, ever fazed Ada, she thought to herself, smiling softly. She finished her coffee, then slowly got up and followed Ada out the door, taking her empty mug to the kitchen before heading to the control room for her shift.

We’re on an interstellar space ship on a voyage of discovery, in orbit around a Strange New Planet which has a Mysterious Alloy, which might harbor tiny little life forms, and Ada is remarkable because nothing fazes her – not even an alarm clock?

The music strikes me as impressive. There’s a lot of recitative – I think it’s all pretty much recitative – and it reminds me a bit of Adam Guettel’s Light In The Piazza. But Guettel’s book gives him some rhythm to work with:

But it's there

It is there

All I see is

All I want is tearing from inside

I see it

Now I see it everywhere

It's everywhere

It's everything and everywhere


The Light in the Piazza

Poor Kyle Rowan saddles himself with the task of setting lines like

Eventually my path narrows, and the river with it; I can no longer avoid getting my feet wet.

All that said, the idea of hypertext opera is fascinating. I think there are intriguing possibilities for hypertextuality at much finer scale, for choices that affect tonal modulation, for example. How about a melodic idea that can be turned on its head by adding a different inner part? Or a different bass line? Discuss.

There’s the famous passage in Don Giovanni where Mozart has three bands, simultaneously playing three different dances, and yet staying within the boundaries of classical form for measure after measure. That feels a lot like Sleep No More, Punchdrunk’s wonderful hyper drama. What could be done with it? Discuss.

Or, suppose we have a family of constraints on the sound track to our hypertext. We avoid singing the text – acting the text has been tried from the first Voyager Expanded Books and it’s seldom been convincing. (Exceptions: language instruction and acting lessons, in which I’d include the remarkable readings of The Sonnets in the Faber ebook). But suppose you have rules when different characters are on stage. When Emily is around, G# is a constantly iterated note. Steve brings 3/4 time. Where we find Madison, we also find sustained diminished fifths. It might be impossible, but it might be interesting to try. Discuss.

Janet Flanner on Isadora Duncan, who had just spent her last $2000 on lilies for a performance spectacle.

After the lilies faded, Isadora and her school sat amid their luggage on the pier where a ship was about to sail for France. They had neither tickets nor money. But they had a classic faith in fate and a determination to go back to Europe where art was understood. Just before the boat sailed, there appeared a school teacher. Isadora had never seen her before. The teacher gave Isadora the savings of years and Isadora sailed away. Herself grand, she could inspire grandeur in others, a tragic and tiring gift. There have always been school teachers and lilies in Isadora’s life.

I’m way late to this party, but David Razi’s animated memoir of art school, Technical Dave, is really good.

Inspired: a theatre director takes on King Lear. His cast, being sheep, are inclined to be silent and mutinous; it would drive anyone mad. New York Times. YouTube.

by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

Two young American ladies, fresh out of Bryn Mawr, set sail for a summer in London and Paris. They have a good time and quite a few adventures in this witty, effervescent volume that was once incredibly famous.

It’s hard to believe, but apparently actually true, that two sophisticated college girls could have had no idea at all about how sex worked before they travelled abroad together and puzzled it out, one afternoon, at the Musée de Cluny of all places. But this was, apparently, true.

It’s hard to believe that two flapper undergraduates in Paris, just three years before The Sun Also Rises and within a year (at most) of Ulysses would have drunk so little in Paris. Hemingway had three martinis and three bottles of wine with lunch; Skinner and Kimbrough think a single Alexander at the Ritz Bar the pinnacle of debauchery.

Tech whiz Brett Terpstra takes a deep dive into food with A Bolognese From The Lab. He’s got a nice, systematic approach to cooking. Interesting notes:

  • Brett toasts his fennel seeds, which is a good idea. He also toast his bay leaves. I’m skeptical of that. Anyone else toast their bay leaves?
  • He uses relatively little onion, but purees his mixture of onion, celery, and carrot before browning it. That’s intriguing!
  • He uses a 1.5C of whole milk, reducing it almost all the way. (The web recipes says “completely evaporated” but we’ve been chatting in the background and he really means “until it glazes the meat.” I’ve used cream in that role because I’m frightened that whole milk will curdle. What say you?)

Also memorable: Peter Merholz’s carbonara.

by M. R. Carey

A rollicking adventure that approaches the zombie apocalypse from the point of view of a zombie. Melanie, otherwise known as Test Subject 1, is a bright and clever young girl, one of a handful of zombie kids who – when they’re not actively pursuing and devouring people – remain clearly sentient. Scientists race to figure out whether Melanie’s partial resistance to zombification holds the key to saving humanity. There was one thing they had forgotten.