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 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!

OLD WOMAN: Yes!

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.

agency

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.

romance

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.

Later:

"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

Fabrizio

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.

An astonishing four-part editorial is unfolding in the LA Times. The first two are out now.

  1. Our Dishonest President
  2. Why Trump Lies
  3. Trump’s Authoritarian Vision

Don’t miss this.

by Michael La Ronn

An earnest guide to writing interactive fiction, in the style of “choose your own adventure,” using Scrivener. La Ronn explains that the book relies heavily on examples drawn from the author’s own interactive fiction “because my style of interactive fiction is unique.” Exactly where La Ronn disagrees with other IF writers remains somewhat vague.

One key decision (though far from unique) is avoiding second-person narrative, based in part on a simplified version of my old My Friend Hamlet argument. Second person, he argues, “turns the reader into the hero.” Children like that, he says.

But grownups don’t want to imagine themselves in a novel. Most of the time, they work crappy day jobs and they read for pleasure.

Ouch.

Some trivial accidents are distracting.

Let’s say you have a hero who is an archaeologist. He gets a phone call in the middle of the night to come to Arizona immediately because a team of scientists just found some cool fossils.

OK: we’re a little hazy on the distinction between archaeology and paleontology, but that can happen to anyone. The real question is: what paleontological discovery can’t wait until morning? Those fossils have been waiting in the ground for millions of years, yet we have a Michael Crichton phone call and must head to the airport in the middle of the night. Clearly, the game is seriously afoot, and that’s a mystery to which I’d love the answer.

Mar 17 20 2017

Crashlands

Crashlands

A game, available for Mac/iOS/Android, in which you wander around a (very big) map, collect stuff, and turn that stuff into other stuff that helps you make more stuff. Around the map, you run into all sorts of monstrous automata that try to stomp you; hunting them gives you other kinds of stuff. At times, this aspires to be the Princess Bride of adventure games – just the good stuff, with highly polished mechanics abstracting all the inventory management details. Mindless but moderately compelling in the wee hours of the day.

The game has an interesting backstory:

This game was developed by a team of 3 brothers, Adam, Seth, and Sam Coster, after Sam was diagnosed with stage 4b Lymphoma (cancer of the lymph system) in late 2013. It's been the thing that kept Sam truly living during the cancer treatments, even when he relapsed in late early 2015 and had to go through two stem-cell transplants to kill the damn thing.

by Theda Skocpol

The old main streets of the old suburban city where I live is filled with big, ornate buildings that used to be owned by fraternal organizations. The Masons had a huge building. The Odd Fellows had one even bigger. The Knights of Pythias were a little smaller and built their outpost a few blocks away in Maplewood Square. All the neighboring towns have similar buildings; some are still used by Masons or Elks or Knights of Columbus.

In the 19th century and much of the twentieth, these societies were huge, and were central to American civil life. Crucially, these societies drew their broad membership across social classes, and often their officers were men of modest means. Most only admitted men, and black Americans usually had to create their own parallel organizations like the Prince Hall Masons and the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, not to mention the NAACP. When representatives of in local lodges convened at grand state and national conventions, the delegates might be comparatively poor.

These organizations shrank vastly and suddenly after WW2. Skocpol’s lively account argues that our civic life lost something with their passing.

Mar 17 13 2017

Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, 1792:

When a man unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits—despotic in his ordinary demeanour—known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty—when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join in the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”

Speaking of being “desperate in his fortune,” it’s interesting that Donald Trump has apparently postponed or reneged on his commitment to forego his salary, and to donate payments to his hotels from foreign government to charity.

A Wikipedia discussion of the cost of furniture purchased for the Wikimedia Foundation proceeded this morning to a question that’s increasingly common for Wikipedia:

Kaldari, are you a Jew? Staszek Lem (talk) 03:28, 8 March 2017 (UTC)

Wikipedia has systematically allowed the marginalization of Jews and women by encouraging editors to freely insinuate that any Jew (or suspected Jew) and any woman (or suspected woman) is an irrational agenda-pusher. The anti-Semites behind this, as usual, have suffered no consequences beyond the praise of their Gamergate pals.

Keep in mind the now-daily reports of desecrations of Jewish cemeteries and bomb threats directed at Jewish community centers and elementary schools.

See also: Wikipedia and the JewsJew-Tagging.

Lots of worry this morning about the WikiLeaks Russian Intelligence document dump about the CIA and its ability to exploit iPhone and Android. Gruber has a sensible explanation of why you don’t need to overreact.

It’s a good thing to have a secure phone, just as it’s a good thing to keep your secrets locked in your desk, your cash in the bank, and your front door locked. But remember: the real threat is seldom a super-high-tech team of high-powered analysts. The real threat is still what the real threat has always been: a sneak with a lock pick, a goon (in or out of uniform) with a gun.

If you’re coming back from vacation and Immigration wants to look at your iPhone, you may intend to say “no.” But if they’re serious, they’ll hold you in a back room for hours, for days. They’ll take you to an undisclosed location, or Guantanamo. Will you still say “no?”

Or they’ll say, “you’re free to go, sir” and you'll get your luggage and walk out to the taxi stand.

…and a car will slow beside you, and a door will open, and someone you know, maybe even trust, will get out of the car. And he will smile, a becoming smile. But he will leave open the door of the car and offer to give you a lift.

Or they’ll threaten your parents, or your kids, or your job. Your iPhone can do a lot, but it can’t do everything.