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

by Douglas Kennedy

An intriguing story of being down and out in the Paris of outsiders. Harry Ricks is a mess. His marriage has collapsed, the student he was sleeping with has killed herself, his dean (who was sleeping with his wife) has fired him after making sure that the press knows every sordid detail. His daughter doesn’t want to talk to him, and Harry can’t entirely blame her. He takes off for Paris with his last $4000 in order to write a novel. He gets sick. People are horrid. The novel goes nowhere.

Then Harry meets a woman who lives in the nearby 5e arrondissement, and things go seriously wrong.

Sep 16 20 2016

Wacky Wiki

I think we’ve got to start a discussion of whether Wikipedia is serving as a recruiting ground for anti-Semitic and racist extremists emboldened by the Trump campaign. We’re seeing ongoing efforts, for example, to pretend that Pepe The Frog is just a cute cartoon – just like those guys in white hoods are just having fun. We‘re also seeing a concerted effort to pretend that Gamergate harassers have nothing to do with Gamergate itself, that they’re just outside agitators.

I suspect all this is meant not to change the encyclopedia but to advertise the Reddit and *chan forums where the real anti-Semitic and racist bilge gets peddled. An earlier tactic was to deny that Gamergate’s rape threats were really rape threats, and to argue ad nauseam that the victims were simply over-reacting sissie girls. And blood was probably coming out of them.

Wikipedia itself thinks that this embrace of racism and sexual harassment is just fine, since it boosts the number of “highly engaged editors” and increases site traffic.

Katherine Clark (D-MA5) has some legislative proposals. They’re not nearly enough, but it’s a start.

by John Golding

During the chaos that followed hard upon the Brexit referendum, I realized that I know next to nothing about the modern Labour Party, how it works and how it is connected to he party of Victorian radicalism. I asked Twitter for a modern history of Labour and got this – a fascinating book, though not at all the book I was looking for. Golding was a combatant in the transition that led Labour out of the swamps that gave Britain a generation of Thatcher, a pro-union MP who was bitterly opposed to old Labour’s socialist programme.

One difficulty here is that Golding assumes the reader knows how everything works and who everyone was – not only the leading politicians but also the insiders who run the party. That’s a high standard for a first encounter with a foreign system. Golding loves acronyms too, and again assumes that the reader knows which committees do which things and wield which powers in fact as we as theory. I did enjoy learning about Annie’s Bar, a bar near an ancient inscription that read Anno Domini that for years served as a neutral ground where members of parliament and reporters could talk off the record.

by Richard Davenport-Hines and Adam Sisman, eds.

A strong collection of fascinating and very readable letters by a prominent postwar historian. Trevor-Roper played academic politics for keeps and liked a good bit of gossip as much as the next fellow. He explains, for example, that our understanding of Cretan civilization stems from the accident of Sir Arthur Evans having been discovered on an park bench in Oxford in a compromising position with an attractive boy. The letters that surround Trevor-Roper’s endorsement of the spurious Hitler Diaries, and his prompt recognition that he was wrong, are particularly evocative.

In a surprising development, I have been informed by Wikipedia’s oversight team that they no longer object to one of Gamergate’s favorite harassment tactics: suggesting (without evidence) that reports of sexual harassment has been faked, that police reports are fraudulent or non-existent, and that victims may therefore have committed fraud and perjury when reporting harassment. No source is required, for example, to insert “allegedly” against any complaint that victims have made or will make in the future. However widely reported the harassment may have been, Gamergate editors are free to suggest it’s just a silly or hysterically woman carrying on.

This new policy encourages “gas lighting” and discourages any attempt to report harassment; indeed, it magnifies the risk of objecting to Wikipedia harassment. As you would expect, the Gamergate boards are delighted, and even those Gamergaters who dislike harassment tactics now admit that they have been singularly effective.

Wikipedia’s oversight team did not respond to a request for comment.

by Adrian Goldsworthy

An entertaining but scholarly reconstruction of life in the British infantry in the final years of the Napoleonic wars, commencing with the soldiers who are quartered near the town of Meryton, which you will recalls is situated at the edge of Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, Wickham makes an appearance, which (as you would expect) causes no end of trouble to all in the vicinity. Colonel Fitzwilliam means well and works hard, but again is out of his depth. So, for that matter, is Arthur Wellesley, a moderately obscure general who, for a few precious days, has an army of his own. It’s an opportunity.

Saturday morning, I saw a clever Twitter posting cross my “politics” timeline. I tweeted it to my followers, so they’d see the image.

Actual Doonesbury cartoon from 1999.

Doonesbury Truthers

It seems to have been the right thing at the right time, as it’s been liked and retweeted thousands and thousands of times.

What really surprised me, though, we the brigade of right-wing Doonesbury Truthers who descended on my to prove that this was obviously a forgery, concocted by evil liberals. The wrong panel is signed! The colors are wrong! The web site’s been hacked! All the web sites have been hacked! Before I blocked them, I was having to explain to these folks (some of whom, to be fair, probably live outside Moscow in their mother’s basement and so don’t remember reading the comics in 1999) that millions and millions of people know these aren’t forgeries because they remember reading newspapers.

I pointed to the Amazon listing for the collected Doonesbury; they didn’t believe it. I argued that they could go down to their public library and read the newspaper themselves, forgetting that these people were likely living somewhere in Eastern Europe where American newspaper archives are a little bit less accessible than in, say, Peoria.

Still, my guess is that they weren’t all Russian, which means we have a lot of wingnuts who are so eager to find the next Dan Rather that they won’t even believe that stuff they can see in their bookstore actually exists.

by Megan Abbott

Megan Abbot’s Dare Me is a mystery about frightening young female athletes who have no fear of adults, and don’t even think much about them. You Will Know Me turns this around: it’s a mystery about the parents of acrobats – especially of one girl who, in a few years, may have a shot at the Olympics. All the parents love their kids fiercely, and all work hard not to neglect their other children despite the long hours and financial requirements that the sport demands. Though the parents become focused on and consumed by the demands of the sport, they cannot fathom the concentration, the dedication, the passion required to perform these acrobatics. The love the kids, but they cannot imagine who they have become.

Wikipedia has read me out of meeting because I restored the following passage that an anonymous troll had blanked in Wikipedia’s article about an Alt-Right chat board. These Internet sites became a focus of international attention last July, after Donald Trump tweeted an image of Hilary Clinton, a Star of David, and a sea of dollar bills that he had seen on a white-supremacist board. The passage I restored read as follows:

Anti-Semitism and White Nationalism

In July of 2016, US presidential candidate [[Donald Trump]] tweeted an image of Hillary Clinton with a background of money and a six pointed star, seen by some as resembling the Star of David containing the message "Most corrupt candidate ever". The image had originally been posted to 8chan's /pol/ board. The New York Times called 8chan a "website for the 'alt right,' an internet-based movement associated with white nationalism." [1] [2]

Scrubbing even this timid and tentative report from Wikipedia is Orwellian.

I no longer support the project to which I have given so much time, but I do occasionally glance at selected pages for two reasons. The first is safety. For example, one of my former Wikipedia opponents was recently detained and held without bail. (He’s out now, and on Twitter he’s talking about the “Jewish overlords” who run Broadway. Great.)

The second reason is to assist people seeking legislative and regulatory solutions to the menace that Wikipedia has become. A solution must be found for Wikipedia’s promotion of harassment – especially of women and Jews – and for its encouragement of extortion.

Still, as I pass through those dusty corridors, it seems churlish to simply ignore typos, vandalism, and other rubbish that can easily be fixed. They don’t want me to edit Gamergate; apparently, that extends to the entirety of the alt-right takeover of the Republican Party and, if they have their way, our country.

Last month, I asked for help finding a site that could answer the question, “What do normal people call this thing in my front yard that I call Tall Pricklyweed?”

A biologist writes to say that there’s a technical term that biologists use to refer to these plants I dismiss as weeds, and that term is ‘wildflower.’”

And, second, the best place to get help identifying them is iNaturalist.

by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger, eds.

A stack of modern Sherlock Holmes stories, ranging widely from tribute and emulation to some striking reinterpretations. Critic Michael Dirda dips his toe in fiction, for example, in a striking literary luncheon where we learn that Arthur Conan Doyle was actually The Strand’s house name, and all his works were farmed out to other hands. And that’s not all…

by Megan Abbott

This tensely-plotted mystery about high school cheerleaders is a study in the ferocity of young women. Where You Will Know Me, a mystery about serious acrobats who are opaque to their parents, is chiefly about grownups, Dare Me is about girls Here, parents are remote logistical worries whom we seldom see and who are scarcely worth a passing thought. As for boys, well, they might be fun to play with for a night or so, but these girls deeply don’t care.

The narrator, Addy, is a fascinating choice: she’s is and has always been the lieutenant of the top girl and squad captain, the enforcer. Addy is always thinking about (and fearing) Beth: Addy doesn’t really like hurting people, it just goes with the job and in any case Beth cannot be resisted. Or, Addy can’t resist her. On rare occasions, though, as when the new Coach is pondering who will be the star flyer in some new stunt, Addy lets a small, nine-year old voice in her head whine “Me! Me! Let it be me this once!”

This is a terrific television series. Norway discovers a great alternative to oil. The Green Party sweeps into office, and not only does Norway switch over to alternative energy, but Norway shuts down the North Sea oil industry. Lots of other countries are unhappy, and Russia steps in to restore oil production.

No one ever mentions the Second World War, but it’s always in the background. Good writing, good acting.

I don’t do much gardening, or any if I can help it, but the neighbors dislike our weeds and so I’ve been pitching in. I’ve gotten to know the weeds and given them names – Tall Pricklyweed, Longroot Vine, Burr Plant. But I’d sort of like to know what everyone else calls them, too.

I remember, before I started to watch birds, sitting in Oliver and Kitty Selfridge’s back yard. Oliver remarked that the bird in the hedge was a wood thrush, or something of that ilk, and I said it seemed terribly hard to learn how to identify all the different kinds of birds. The subtext of course is “you’re a world-class expert in AI and machine learning, I grew up reading the FORTRAN textbook you tossed off for fun, and still you find time to memorize birds?”

“It’s not that hard,” Oliver explained. “There are only a few hundred birds here, and the covers everything from eagles to ducks.” You learn what to look for, and it’s easy enough. Still, it took a fair bit of studying to become even mildly competent, and I’m still rubbish at hawks.

But nowadays, if you're stuck, you can snap a digital photo and there are plenty of sites where people will tell you, “Sure, that’s a tufted titmouse in your tree. Obviously.”

I bet there’s a place like that for gardening. Anyone know?

Aug 16 24 2016

Midnight Riot

by Ben Aaronovitch

Peter Grant is a young police constable in London. He’d love a permanent assignment to the Murder Squad, but he’s been marked down for a permanent posting in bureaucracy. But young constable Grant has a talent his superiors haven’t yet discovered: at a crime scene, he sees clues that his colleagues miss. In Grant’s case, his clue is a witness to a brutal Covent Garden mugging, a witness who is helpful and informative but who is also, inconveniently, a ghost.

by Erskine Childers

A pioneering thriller, perhaps the first of its genre, and a moderately fine rollick. Young Carruthers is having a dull, dull summer, stuck in his tiresome minor post at the Foreign Office because some distant personage decreed that the office should be on alert. Out of the blue, a college acquaintance invites him for a spell of yachting in the Baltic. His superior sees no harm in it, so he goes. It’s nothing like what he had expected.

The opening repays close study, even though we’ve now seen dozens of echoes and imitations. There's an awful lot of sailing in the midsection, and rather too many tides and charts. Still, this was uncharted ocean in 1903, and it's remarkable how well the story holds up.

by Emily St. John Mandel

A fascinating study by the author of Station Eleven of a group of high school friends who have lost touch with each other while their lives have spun variously off course. Gavin Sasaki has wrecked his career in newspapers but, having discovered that he may possibly have fathered a girl who might now be ten years old, remembers that he once wanted to be a private investigator. He finds the former members of his high school jazz quartet – a policeman, a pusher, a compulsive gambler, and a drugged-out former musician whose college roommate became Django Reinhardt’s heir.

by Jill Lepore

A fascinating history of feminism in the early 20th century, wrapped around the complex life of William Moulton Marsden. A Harvard-educated psychologist, Marsden invented the lie detector and then succumbed to the temptation to over-promote his invention. He married his childhood sweetheart, the spiky and erudite Sadie Elizabeth Holloway. He fell in love with his research assistant Olive Byrne, and brought her home to begin a group marriage that lasted for decades and outlived him. Byrne’s mother had been the first feminist hunger striker in the US; her aunt was Margaret Sanger. Merciful Minerva!

Aug 16 11 2016

Hold Still

by Sally Mann

A fascinating autobiography of the influential photographer, accompanied by many photographs (to which the Kindle edition does nothing like justice). Oddly, she says very little about the genesis of At Twelve, the haunting book that made her famous, and there’s surprisingly little about the success of Immediate Family.

What I had missed about Mann is that she sees herself as explicitly a Southern artist – not a regionalist, and certainly not a fan of Southern racial nostalgia, but still chiefly interested in the people (especially poor people, black and white) and in the backwater.

Swamped

Sparse posting here. Busy!

  • I’m working on a third edition of The Tinderbox Way. In addition to updates on new Tinderbox facilities, the new edition will have a ton of new material on the design and implementation of Tinderbox and the history of the underlying ideas.
  • I’m finishing Decline and Fall, a big hypertext story about a prep school caught in the aftermath of war. It’s The Trojan Women in a school story.
  • I’m working on an interesting side project for the marvelous Victorian Web, involving a simple DOM transformation on perhaps 40,000 hand-coded Web pages.
  • My real work is on Tinderbox 7, chiefly a new approach to recognizing and using big structures that involve multiple notes working together. This has the potential to be transformative, but research is research: we’ll see.