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

Jun 15 28 2015

Rainbow Dinner

Hooray for the Supreme Court, which (surprisingly) decided not to make things worse this week.

  • Pickled rhubarb with ginger and star anise ❧ pickled carrots with dill ❧ onion dip
  • Focaccia with ricotta, goat cheese, mozzarella, and lots of caramelized onion
  • Sandwiches of grilled salmon, crusted in aioli and parmesan
    • home-made potato break rolls with election-day seeds
    • burnt onion and cilantro salsa
    • grilled peach, red pepper, and chipotle salsa
  • salad
  • clafoutis

Dominique Renauld looks at note-taking practice from Barthes to Arno Schmidt in a presentation about Tinderbox.

Jun 15 24 2015

SummerFest

There’s still time to head over to SummerFest: the 2015 Festival of Artisanal Software For Writers.

Save 25% on some of the best artisanal tools for writers for a few days more. Tinderbox, DEVONthink, Scrivener, Nisus, Aeon Timeline, Bookends, Take Control Books.

Also: MicahJoel writes about using Tinderbox and Scrivener.

SummerFest

by Stephen H. Lekson

Newly revised and expanded edition of Lekson’s daring and irreverent manifesto which proposes a historical framework for the American Southwest. The traditional view of the Southwest before Spain has been scrupulous to avoid history: as Lekson says, “no states north of Mexico” has long been dogma. Lekson argues that Chaco (900-1100) was a state (or, more properly, an altepetl) with princes and palaces, that it first moved north to Aztec for a generation, and then jumped South all the way to Paquime/Casas Grandes. In the second edition, he extends the trip further, proposing that after Paquime fell, its elites relocated due South once more to establish Culiacán.

Strikingly, Aztec is almost exactly due north of Chaco, and Paquime and Culiacán are due south. They're the biggest and strangest sites of their time. The alignment is embarrassing, but it’s real, and it turns out that ancient travelers could in fact have surveyed the route this accurately.

There’s lots of interesting news in the fifteen years since the first edition. We now know what those weird, distinctive Chaco cylinder pots were for: they were for drinking cacao! We know because Crown and Hurst grabbed some fragments fresh out of the trash heap, ground up a thin layer of the interior, and ran the extract through a mass spec: theobromine — the stuff in chocolate! So those dudes at Bonito drank hot chocolate that was harvested somewhere in south-central Mexico and hand-carried, across mountains and deserts, for their ritual enjoyment. (This stuff must have cost far more than the most costly wine.)

Whether or not Paquime is Aztec relocated (or, perhaps, the faction of Chaco that couldn’t live with the guys going to Aztec one day more), it's now clear that the Southwest knew about, and participated in, Mesoamerica. Lekson is surely right, too, in thinking that they knew about Cahokia. Even if you have to carry every scrap of your food, and even without horses or carts, you can walk hundred of miles. Sacagawea wasn’t the first native American to take a long walk.

Lekson is an irreverent and radically informal writer, and among the great stylists of contemporary historical writing.

Jun 15 21 2015

In The Woods

by Tana French

A well-paced and intriguing police procedural, winner of an Edgar Award and formally interesting because the narrator is an investigator but not the focus or, really, the protagonist. Rob Ryan of the Dublin Murder Squad investigates the body of a child murdered near his own childhood home; twenty years before when he was 12, Ryan had gone out to play in these very woods with two friends. Only Ryan came home from that adventure, he could not (and still cannot) remember what happened, and the police investigation went nowhere. The new investigation seems likely to follow the old case into the capacious storage racks beneath Dublin Castle.

by Eric H. Cline

By the 12th century BC, late Bronze-Age civilization had climbed many technological summits. People had cities, trading fleets, and caravans. People had built tall towers, elaborate palaces, complex bureaucracies and smoke-filled taverns. People had pickles, onions – our word “shallot” comes from the Canaanite city Ashkelon – and sesame-seed buns: “sesame” in English is a loan-word from Akkadian.

But in 1177, give or take a few years, everything fell apart. Egypt, Mycenae, Knossos, Babylon, Hattusa, Ugarit, Troy: – just about everywhere you look, there are fires and wars and devastation and disaster. Centuries would pass with people telling stories about the age of heroes, the age before the end of Western civilization.

The cause of the disaster has been extensively discussed in recent decades, and Cline nicely summarizes what we know. A rash of earthquakes didn’t help at all. A shadowy group of warrior-migrants called the Sea Peoples caused plenty of havoc; it’s odd that we know so little about them, but then, we know shockingly little about the Huns and the Huns are 1,600 years closer to us. Ideology may well have played a role: people everywhere may have been getting tired of the whole business of palace culture, or merchant-adventurers (or pirates) may have cut into the profit margins that kept those palaces running. Climate change may have been a factor. Commodity shocks may have wrecked the economy; the entire word depended on one mine for weapons grade tin. There are signs of fiscal turmoil in Greece, where Mycenae played a pivotal role in international trade. The Sea Peoples might have been Greek or Italian. Perhaps the first Grexit brought down a multinational economy already weakened by climate change, ecological mistakes, financial shenanigans and social upheaval.

Just received a copy of Alexandra Glavanakova’s Posthuman Transformations: bodies and texts in cyberspace. It’s a study of three works: Pat Cadigan’s Synners, Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, and Talan Memmot’s From Lexia To Perplex. Fascinating.

Jun 15 2 2015

Tinderbox 6.3

Tinderbox 6.3

Tinderbox 6.3 is now available. Highlights include ❧ gorgeous and informative treemaps ❧ a fresh walkthrough about agents, actions, and dashboards – some of Tinderbox’s most asked-about features ❧ big speed bump in large and complex maps ❧ dozens of small fixes and extensions. See the upgrade page for all the details.

The built-in walkthrough for agents and dashboards covers should be especially helpful for new Tinderbox users. Here’s one tab from the example:

Tinderbox 6.3

That’s keeping track of expenses during an impromptu business trip. We’ve got running totals, expense distribution, category totals – even a dashboard to remind us to write up the boring daily summaries for which Accounting always pesters us.

As usual, updates are free if you’ve purchased Tinderbox or a Tinderbox upgrade in the past year. You can upgrade from any version of Tinderbox for $98, or subscribe to automatic renewals for just $83.

Tinderbox 6.3

Another tab of the example: an agent plucks out each major city in our heroine’s epic business trip.

How Not To Crash #7 sounds like a nifty cocktail -- perhaps something you’d enjoy after finishing your Corpse Reviver #2. But it’s the latest installment of Brent Simmons important series of notes on avoiding crashes in contemporary software.

This one concerns “Dealing With Nothing” or, more precisely, coping with situations where the object you’re processing is nothing at all. For example, you might have methods that display selected objects; what happens when nothing is selected? Or you might be displaying a shopping cart at checkout: what happens when the shopping cart is empty?

One technique Brent doesn’t mention is the null object pattern. In his example, we might call

[self doStuff:thing];

If doStuff: expects thing to be an object and you give it nil, you might well crash and that’s a very bad thing to do and deplored by all right-thinking folk. Brent suggests that doStuff: should both assert that thing isn’t nil and guard against nil things, e.g.

NSParameterAssert(thing);

if (thing) {menuItem.title=thing;}

This is often a good idea. The first time I saw it, in John Daub’s PowerPlant, it seemed exorbitant: who could remember to include all those guards in every method? Soon, though, it becomes a reflex and you write (and read) the guards without needing to think about them.

If you do find yourself writing lots of if(thing)... tests, though, you might be better off passing a Null Object -- a subclass of the expected class that does nothing, and does it quickly.

For example, Tinderbox has a class for LayoutPolicy -- objects that know how to lay out maps, or outlines, or treemaps. In the old days, before using the LayoutPolicy, we’d carefully check that the layout policy actually existed. This solves problems when you're building a new window, or closing an old one, or changing the view right in the middle of a screen update, but it does lead to an awful lot of code that simply makes sure the layout policy is where it ought to be.

So, instead of checking, Tinderbox initializes views with an instance of NoLayoutPolicy. If a view is being constructed and isn't quite ready to do real work, we can still call layoutPolicy->Prepare() in perfect safety. If we’re about to disassemble a window, we can replace its layout policy with a fresh NoLayoutPolicy, confident that if someone tries to refresh the window we’re demolishing, there will be a NoLayoutPolicy standing ready to do nothing. Because there’s always a layout policy -- even if it’s only a NoLayoutPolicy -- we can take all those null check and dump them all in the trash.

We’ve got NoLayoutPolicy, NoDrawingPolicy, NotAnAttribute, NotANode. We’ve got plenty of nothing.

by Mira Grant

Mira Grant continues her newshounds vs. zombie romp, picking up where Feed left off. Unfortunately, Feed left off with the death of its best character, teenage newsie Georgia Mason, and leaves us in first person with her haunted, daredevil brother Shaun. Not only is Shaun less attractive than his sister, but he is by design less involved, a slacker-daredevil who doesn’t care deeply about anything. Georgia was obsessed with getting the news out, and that gives us a lever for moving the world; Shaun is obsessed with the memory of his dead sister, and that’s a more slender reed.

But it’s enough: there’s something here, though we really have no idea at this point exactly what it is. Our gang of teenage newshounds is now running one of the world’s top news sites, an organization nearing open war with the CDC, that ruthless and powerful zombie-control agency. Our kids our rich and they’re restless and even if it might be the end of the world, they’ve got each other – in a sense, anyway.

by Marie Brennan

A young lady of the rural gentry develops a certain passion for natural history, both of her native Scirland and most especially of dragons and their kin, creatures of remote lands. In time, she marries a tolerant young man of considerable means who shares a certain amateur interest in natural philosophy, and they join an expedition to a remote Balkan-like land where dragons may be found amidst colorful (if superstitious) villagers.

I’m not entirely sure that this story is best told in fantasy or whether, if we do want a fantasy, whether the setting chosen here – the technology seems to be last 18th century while manners are mid-19th and fashions later still – is ideal. Despite the dragons (and some nice archeological interludes) the world is not very strange.

May 15 29 2015

The Whites

by Richard Price (as Harry Brandt)

Cited by Joyce Carol Oates as carrying much of its narrative on the back of interrogation, this is a book with a ton of energy and buckets of interrogation. Police officers interrogate each other, interrogate their subordinates, interrogate their wives, and also interrogate suspects. An impressive feature here is the rich array of transient incident that drifts through the lives of police officers; ever night brings three or four fresh runs, each with its own random miseries.

May 15 20 2015

Feed

by Mira Grant

This 2010 series-starter and Hugo nominee is not without shortcomings. It’s another zombie apocalypse and, knowing itself late to that party, doesn’t always take its zombies seriously. It’s a power fantasy about preternaturally smart and capable teenage bloggers who are so competent that we usually forget they’re teenagers. The early chapters have barrels of exposition once we get past the stock James Bond opening chase, and minor characters are frequently reduced to their function, which leaves the world thin. The core technical problem of the YA quest – how do we get agency in the presence of parents? – is settled here by establishing a pair of (very interesting) parents and then failing to even think of them for weeks on end. Much of the science fiction – the world of 2040 where bloggers dominate new media news – was already coming true by the time the book was published, and our hero’s amazement at her sysadmin’s ability of spin up virtual servers as needed is terribly 2008. Finally, this is a book about politics, but its politicians are not very well drawn and their politics is indistinct; I can believe we’ll have viral zombification in 2040 but I’m really skeptical that we’ll have liberal Republicans.

There’s a lot of wish fulfillment here. In the future, not only are weblogs a dominant and profitable medium, but every A-List blog employs a department of “fictionals” to fill the audience’s demand for stories – and poetry! When our heroes need to hire a head fictional, they find a simpatico young blonde who happens to be a terrific sysadmin and who wants them to call her “Buffy”.

And yet, there really is something here. There’s a competent thriller eventually, sure, but beyond that there are vistas of real strangeness. These are children born after the end of the world. They expect to die, because that happens a lot in their world. They expect to do amazing things because they were brought up that way and that’s who they are. They don’t spend much time mourning the lost, zombie-free world. They’re out to ride fast bikes, fight off zombie attacks, buy cool equipment, and manage their site’s chat boards and merchandising. They do that well, and, in the intervals, they get out the news, poetry on deadline.

May 15 18 2015

Scott Rosenberg

Scott Rosenberg on links: Will Deep Links Ever Be Truly Deep?

Every time a writer or speaker creates a project by laying out ideas in a program like Tinderbox, DevonThink, Scrivener, Workflowy, Evernote, or [your favorite here!], she is living out a little of Bush’s Memex dream.

A series from Brent Simmons on How Not To Crash. Part 2: don’t enumerate mutable collections, because no one’s that smart. Good advice.

Obviously, you’d make an exception for really huge collections, collections so big that the copy is expensive. But in that case, you probably don’t want to be enumerating the collection in the first place, not if you can help it!

You might also be wondering about small collections enumerated in tight loops. You’d be wrong. Either the outer loop is small, in which case the copies don’t cost much, or the outer loop is not small, in which case your operation is at least quadratic and you’re probably headed for trouble.

From Rupert Brooke, “Heaven.”

But somewhere, beyond Space and Time.

Is wetter water, slimier slime!

And there (they trust) there swimmeth One

Who swam ere rivers were begun,

Immense, of fishy form and mind,

Squamous, omnipotent, and kind;

And under that Almighty Fin,

The littlest fish may enter in.

The theme of this dinner was borrowed from Paradise Lost. This week, my car nearly gave out, my hearing aid nearly gave out, and now my iPhone won’t charge: it was time for a low pressure meal. The straightforward recipe for a low-pressure meal is to get a holiday joint and roast it, but that seemed to dishonor all the expenses just incurred in order to delay even great expenses. So let it be a challenge.

  • “Gin” juniper Grissini ❧ Gougeres ❧ Hard Cider on the porch
  • Braised fennel, absinthe butter, salmon roe ❧ more cider
  • Homemade agnolotti stuffed with sweet potato and bacon, in fennel broth ❧ White Bordeaux
  • Duck breast, smoked over alder and tea ❧ Vaqueyras
  • Chicken legs braised in hard cider ❧ Tempranillo
  • Salad
  • Cake

They work got off on an instructive foot as I carefully weighed my pasta eggs sans shells to get the flour to three significant figures, and then added 3:1 flour when everyone knows pasta requires 3:2. So I had precisely twice as much flour as I ought, and naturally this worked not well, or at all. Much mystery ensued, followed inevitably by a double batch of pasta and more fresh fettuccine and strozzapreti than we really need.

Thanks to the pasta production, I never did figure out great names for the courses. But we’ve got the apple thing going in the appetizers and the chicken legs, the lcorice-tinged fennel in the first course (“Black it stood as night, Fierce as ten furies, terrible as hell, And shook a dreadful dart.”), and of course it’s bathed in seas of fire. The agnolotti are allegedly papal miters, they’re also filled with something orange. The duck breast is smoked,

May 15 6 2015

Guidelines

Writers’ Guidelines for Fallen London, the stylish interactive Web Fiction from Failbetter.

Weather: It never more than drizzles in Fallen London. There’s no wind unless Storm is up to shenanigans. The temperature doesn’t change much.

Is it possible to read series bibles of completed series – Buffy, say, or Babylon 5? Where? It might be an interesting comparison.

Thanks, Stacey Mason

May 15 4 2015

The Virgins

by Pamela Erens

An accomplished and skillfully-written prep school story that takes its characters seriously. The students here are not so much young as simply inexperienced: they know a lot, they have strong opinions and determined characters and they are not fools, but they haven’t done any of this before. Bruce Bennet-Jones, the unreliable and unpleasant narrator, looks on as his classmate Seung Jung wins the love of the girl Bennet-Jones cannot possess, the new girl in school, Chicagoan Aviva Rossner. Fascinating, strange, and serious.